Publication date: 20 March 2023
When I first came to Baghdad in 2016 as a PhD student, I stretched my limited research budget as far as I could, staying at a hotel in the neighbourhood of Bataween, Baghdad’s now-decaying historically Jewish neighbourhood. My hotel had no armed guards but, at $60 a night, cost less than one-fifth of the price of the supposedly safer five-star hotels in and around the International Zone.
To meet with United Nations officials, I had to navigate the bewildering layers of permissions and checkpoints that control access to the International Zone – referring to an approximately 10 square kilometre heavily fortified area where the UN compound, US embassy and other major embassies and Iraqi government buildings are located. Officials inside were horrified at my living arrangements.
Years later when I returned to Baghdad to work and live in the UN compound, I was grateful for the time I had previously spent in what internationals often call the ‘Red Zone’ – the area known to Iraqis simply as ‘Baghdad’. In my new role, I only occasionally caught glimpses of Baghdad through tinted windows of armoured vehicles.
The international community’s continuing perception of Iraq as either a war zone or perpetually on the brink of war is both outdated and counterproductive to the objective of building sustainable peace. This essay is informed by my first-hand observations of this gap between perceptions and reality over the past seven years, which I have spent studying the causes of conflict in Iraq as an academic and working on stabilization and development efforts as a consultant and adviser to UN agencies.
‘Green’ and ‘Red’ zones
Iraqis perceive the terms ‘Green Zone’ (officially the ‘International Zone’) and the ‘Red Zone’ as outdated holdovers from the 2003 US-led invasion that signal the international community’s continuing fear and distrust of Iraq’s population. Some have pointed out that Baghdad’s murder rate is lower than Chicago’s. Even though security incidents involving diplomatic or humanitarian personnel are now extremely rare, the UN was traumatized by a 2003 bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people and prompted the temporary withdrawal of nearly all international staff. Proponents of strict security procedures argue that such incidents are only rare because of the continuation of these measures. Most of the UN’s international staff rarely leave the compound, if ever, and many would like to get out of what they describe as a ‘bubble’ more often.
The persistence of the international perception of Iraq as a perpetually war-torn state since 2003 is problematic but understandable, given the regular outbreaks of violence over the last 20 years.
Statistically, most post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts fail – in what political scientists have described as ‘the conflict trap’, 57 per cent of countries that emerge from civil war will relapse into conflict again. The Iraq War, which continued until 2011, was immediately followed by a wave of Arab Spring protests that were violently repressed by the government. By 2013, Al-Qaeda in Iraq had resurged not only with violent attacks but also attempts at social control, taxation and governance in Mosul, foreshadowing the city’s capture by its successor, the Islamic State (ISIS), in June 2014. Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a series of conflicts that experts often describe as ‘cyclical’, ‘intractable’ and ‘self-perpetuating’. Despite being an upper middle-income democracy, Iraq is still regularly described as a ‘failed state’, a ‘fragmented state’ and even a ‘chaos state’.
Iraq’s conflicts are to some extent cyclical, and I am one of many who have argued that unresolved grievances from previous conflicts are among the root causes of new waves of violence and unrest. But I worry that the continuing characterization of Iraq as a country that has been trapped in an unbreakable cycle of violence for the past 20 years is empirically inaccurate, and runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, some of this rhetoric can appear reminiscent of old orientalist tropes portraying Arab and Muslim societies as inherently violent, uncivilized and incapable of democracy.
To be clear, Iraq has experienced extremely high levels of conflict and violence since 2003 – with an estimated death toll of more than 200,000 civilians – but overall, the country has been on an upward trajectory of stabilization.
The international assistance community, by always preparing for the worst-case scenario, has continued to invest heavily in security at the expense of what are actually much more urgent priorities, including education, public services, healthcare and infrastructure. For example, 55 per cent of the $454 million in foreign aid received by Iraq in 2020 was designated for military assistance.
Mistakes in the early years of post-2003 reconstruction are insufficient to explain why Iraq has remained so unstable for so long despite high levels of foreign assistance. Another important factor is the narrative of perpetual war, which has undermined the effectiveness of international assistance by justifying the continued prioritization of military and security assistance over support for anti-corruption reforms, strengthening rule of law without compromising human rights, and improving the quality of infrastructure and essential services such as public education and healthcare.
This link between fears of instability and the concentration of aid in military and security assistance, rather than in the necessary building blocks of sustainable peace and development, became particularly clear to me during the most recent US–Iran crisis in January 2020. At around 1:30 a.m. Erbil time, on 8 January, I heard the sound of a distant explosion followed by a flurry of WhatsApp messages from family, friends and colleagues in the US and Iraq. These messages confirmed the bad news that we had been waiting for since the assassination of Iranian major general Qassim Soleimani by an American drone strike five days earlier. Iran had followed through on its threat to retaliate with ‘proportionate measures’ by firing at least 16 ballistic missiles, in two waves, at US military bases in Anbar and Erbil. I was already wide awake after receiving a concerning message from a friend of a friend at the State Department in Washington a few hours earlier: ‘It might be a long night’. And it was.
I had been living in Erbil for the year prior to these events, working on a research partnership between my university and the International Organization for Migration to study a community policing programme that aimed to improve trust and cooperation between Iraqi civilian and state security actors. We had just completed data collection in December and I was scheduled to fly home to the US later that week, but my flight was soon cancelled. Erbil’s airport remained closed for much of the next few days over concerns about the possibility of another wave of missiles. Two of my similarly sleepless American friends came over to my apartment to wait for sunrise and news. We opened our laptops to look for updates on Twitter, but it was almost impossible to find any actual information in between hot takes by Washington-based analysts and bad jokes about #WorldWar3 – the hashtag had been trending for days. It almost felt like the world was watching Iraq’s downward spiral, yet again, like some kind of spectator sport in which Iraq is always expected to lose badly.
Although particularly prevalent in emergencies, the crisis mentality permeates the international aid community’s operations in Iraq on a day-to-day basis. After years of navigating Iraq alone on foot and in taxis as a roving PhD student able to work in Arabic, I took a leave of absence from academia and returned to Baghdad in 2021 to work full-time as an adviser to the UN on issues related to the reintegration of Iraqis with perceived or actual ties to ISIS. Early on, I made the mistake of scheduling a meeting at a popular coworking space and café in Baghdad that I incorrectly believed was solidly within the UN’s operational zone, sometimes referred to as the ‘Orange Zone’, only to find that I would need to be accompanied by two armoured vehicles. Too late to change plans, I was mortified by what felt like unnecessary security measures that were not only expensive, but also alienating to the café’s customers and pedestrians outside. I assured the drivers and armed security officers that I felt perfectly safe and asked if they could go back to the UN compound for a break or get lunch until my meeting was over, but they explained that they were required to stay with me the entire time.
The UN’s many rules made me appreciate how much easier it had been in my previous role as a student to learn about Iraq from Iraqis themselves. Knowledge of the local context is essential for the design and implementation of assistance programmes, but wartime-like security protocols make it very difficult for international staff of the UN and embassies of the US and other important donor countries to acquire the necessary expertise. Iraqi nationals play a crucial role in the informal education of international staff, but they are primarily hired for administrative and logistical roles where their skills are underutilized. Iraqi nationals are under-represented or altogether absent from the higher ranks of international organizations, and they are not sufficiently consulted in the design and implementation of programmes that are too often based on generic international templates. There are many Iraqis who meet all of the academic, professional and language requirements for positions within international organizations but are nonetheless ineligible to apply because positions are often designated for expatriate workers. Donors’ due diligence and vetting requirements, designed to prevent foreign aid from inadvertently benefiting terrorist organizations or other sanctioned entities by imposing strict background checks, are another barrier to hiring local staff and partnering with local non-governmental organizations.
There are positive indications that the UN and other international aid actors are trying to update their operating procedures to reflect the significant improvements in security that Iraq has seen in recent years. Erbil’s status as a ‘hardship’ duty station was recently downgraded, meaning cuts in hazard pay for international employees but also fewer restrictions on movement. Although Baghdad is unlikely to see a similar hardship downgrade in the near future, the International Zone was partially reopened to public traffic in 2019 for the first time in 16 years in a welcome step towards de-securitization.
Analysts have been repeating slightly different versions of the same dire predictions since 2003 including the collapse of the political system, relapse into civil war, and the resurgence of Al-Qaeda and then ISIS. Some of these predictions have materialized, but others turned out to be overly pessimistic. For example, the political deadlock following Iraq’s most recent elections in 2021 was widely expected to lead to major street violence, but ultimately the crisis was defused, and a new government was formed after more than a year of negotiations. It was a close call and might have ended in violence had Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani not intervened to urge protesters and security forces to remain peaceful. The fact that it did not end violently is an important reminder that not every political crisis is the beginning of Iraq’s next civil war.
When I was in Washington during a different political crisis – the 6 January attack on the US Capitol – Iraqi friends texted to ask if I was okay because it looked like the beginning of a coup. The US tends to view its own crises as exceptional while treating instability in Iraq as normal, inevitable and cyclical. But one could also describe the US’s history of conflict and political violence as cyclical. After the Civil War, the remnants of the Confederacy refused to accept defeat and evolved into the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups that have continued to wage a violent insurgency against black Americans and other minorities ever since.
What if, instead of assuming the inevitability of Iraq’s next crisis, the international aid community could begin to view Iraq more optimistically as a country that is capable of stability? This might enable a much-needed reprioritization of longer-term development assistance over short-term security concerns.