When the Islamic State is Gone, What Comes Next?


To be sure, progress has been slow and halting. But in the past weeks, U.S. commanders in both Iraq and Afghanistan have discussed gains in their respective theaters. In Iraq particularly, U.S. forces and their masters in Washington are focused on territory regained from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

As ISIL is rolled back, commanders are turning much of their attention to a key question: What next? What comes after ISIL has withdrawn and national and coalition forces have retaken cities and districts?

The discussion has turned to reconstruction. Drawn from classic counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, the theory is that rebuilding and restoring infrastructure, facilities, and institutions that support good governance and a reasonable amount of economic activity will secure the gains of the central governments’ fighting forces, bring stability, and win the support of local populations in reclaimed territories.

Yet we tried to move from this theory to practice before in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the results were far from impressive.  What are the lessons of the failed reconstruction efforts in Operations IRAQI Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF), and have we learned them? What can be done differently this time to achieve an environment of relative stability, reasonably effective governance, and an economy that creates jobs in Iraq to support the efforts of local security forces to resist the return of ISIL.

As he left his position in 2013, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart W. Bowen, Jr. released a report that drew from over five years of audits, inspections, and investigations of the $50 billion reconstruction effort in Iraq. Generalizing from that report and drawing from my personal experience with reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are three broad categories of “hard lessons” learned that will bear on any reconstruction effort in areas that have been reclaimed from ISIL.

First, there must be a clear understanding of the relationship between security and reconstruction. In various sections of the doctrinal manual U.S. Army FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, there is discussion of a “virtuous cycle” that takes effect when the counterinsurgent undertakes “kinetic” security operations and reconstruction activities as mutually reinforcing efforts. As the theory goes, a secure environment sets the conditions for reconstruction activities, such as establishing effective governance, rebuilding infrastructure, and putting idled workers back to work. This in turn leads to more security as the local populace is won over to the side of the counterinsurgent forces and the supported government. This dynamic was at the core of the strategies in both Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the time that U.S.-led coalitions fought those wars. Arguably, that dynamic is still part of the strategies in both theaters, though those missions have changed dramatically.

As SIGIR’s report points out, and as we experienced time and again in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem with the theory is that it doesn’t work in practice.

Trying to do reconstruction of virtually any type in an insecure area proved to be extraordinarily dangerous, extremely frustrating, and wasteful. In fact, reconstruction in areas that were not secure sometimes proved counterproductive. Reconstruction projects that were inadequately secured provided insurgents with inviting targets. Successful attacks on these facilities and activities sent a clear signal to the population that local government authorities and the counterinsurgent force that supported them were going to be ineffectual and, in the longer run, unreliable.

The lesson for forces in Iraq today is that adequate security must precede reconstruction. Achieving an appropriate level of security in areas formerly under the control of ISIL will no doubt prove very difficult. When under pressure, ISIL fighters will melt into the local population. Citizens of the towns and villages that ISIL controlled will prove to have been not entirely averse to the presence of ISIL in the first place, as well as not very supportive of their national government.

Second, there is a fault line that runs between military and civilian personnel involved in reconstruction operations, and it has nothing to do with “Mars” and “Venus.” Infantry captains can do many things well, but they are generally not reconstruction experts. During OIF and OEF, even when they were advised by experienced civil affairs officers and non-commissioned officers, they were hard pressed to do things like establish “good governance” in the towns and districts after combat operations there or start up “microbusinesses” that would get unemployed fighting-age males off the streets. Very often, these junior officers leading coalition units used significant amounts of Commander’s Emergency Response Program fundscash doled out to U.S. commanders to use at their discretion for relief and reconstruction — to support simple projects that could be started quickly and promised almost immediate impact.

The true experts on reconstruction were those civilian officials who had made reconstruction and development their life’s work, but who were present in theater in inadequate numbers. The courageous men and women of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) worked diligently on projects and activities, often in very dangerous areas, that were designed to have a lasting impact on the government, economy, and quality of life of the local population. But from the standpoint of tactical commanders, the problem with these efforts was that they took too long to have an effect. The lengthy “flash to bang” time was the result of several factors: the inherent nature of successful development activities, the relative difficulty that USAID officers had in getting project approval and appropriate levels of funding, and the difficulty of working with the contracting firms and local companies who were USAID’s implementing partners.  Also, in some of the more insecure areas, it was virtually impossible for USAID officials to travel to locations where their projects were being executed, limiting their ability to assess the level of progress or identify problems, thus limiting their effectiveness.

As a result, very often we found military leaders and civilian officials pursuing different tracks on development and reconstruction. In these cases, inefficiency and suboptimal outcomes were the general rule. In the worst cases, coalition civilian and military efforts worked at cross-purposes with each other.

It remains to be seen how reconstruction projects will be managed in territory vacated by ISIL. Since the majority of ground forces are indigenous, it is highly unlikely that there will be many military reconstruction experts in the fight. U.S. military advisors accompanying local national units may be the only recourse. Moreover, Iraq does not possess government agencies with the kind of experience or expertise in the arena of development resident in USAID. Thinking ahead to post-conflict activities in regions in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has already said in an interview that he envisions that “the State Department, USAID and their coalition counterparts will be working with Iraqis… to provide humanitarian aid, support near-term stabilization and promote longer-term recovery.” Again, U.S. development experts will be cooperating and coordinating with military forces as they do their work, making it imperative that the lessons of OIF and OEF be studied.

Finally, reconstruction operations offer a “target-rich environment” for graft and corruption. During presence patrols, key leader engagements, and other interactions in towns and villages throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, the number one complaint we heard (after lack of security) had to do with corruption. Local officials were outraged by the corruption in the central government; the man on the street voiced his complaints about the level of corruption in local governments. No doubt all voices heard on this issue had valid concerns. Of 168 countries listed in Transparency International’s latest index of the most corrupt nations in the world, Afghanistan ranks number 166, and Iraq comes in at 161.

Of course, corruption touches almost every aspect of life in these two countries, but reconstruction operations offer especially lucrative opportunities to receive kickbacks, skim, extort, or just plain steal. The regularly published reports of SIGIR and its counterpart in Afghanistan are rife with examples of reconstruction funding never reaching the project for which it was intended. There are many reasons for this. The most fundamental is the extreme poverty and desperation that is endemic in both of these war-torn failing states. Illegal activity becomes the only option to obtain life-sustaining necessities. But there are also explanations that speak to the systemic and programmatic intricacies associated with reconstruction. Funds pass through so many echelons and organizations that it is easy to lose track of whose hands the cash is getting into. Program management is a particular challenge in a combat zone. The funding agencies supporting reconstruction projects often find it difficult to carry out the traveling and the visits required to supervise and overwatch the work supposedly underway. And the complexity of the contracts drawn up for these projects, the urgency associated with getting them completed, and the short timelines that result usually mean huge loopholes that corrupt officials and companies can walk right through for their own purposes.

Corruption associated with reconstruction funds has a doubly damning impact. First, it means that funds don’t get to the projects designed to address critical problems in war-torn areas, affecting rebuilding efforts and crushing the expectations of those who were counting on them. But perhaps more significant is the effect that it has on the population’s view of their government. Whereas a critical goal of reconstruction is to reinforce or restore confidence in local and national government, widespread corruption undermines the credibility of legitimate officials, which can lead to unrest and instability.

So What Happens After the Islamic State?

Today, Iraqi security forces, supported by U.S. forces, are conducting operations that in some ways look more like conventional war than COIN—attacking a hostile army that has invaded and occupied territory, throwing them back, and liberating the population that was held there against its will.  But what happens after a hard fought victory has been achieved? What happens next?

It is no secret that the Iraqi Army and organizations like the Popular Mobilization Forces will not be viewed by the populations that they are liberating in an entirely favorable light.  Though perhaps initially relieved to see ISIL leaving, liberators could quickly become new oppressors in the eyes of some locals.  Should Iraqi officials fail to act quickly or appropriately to win over populations  in areas that have been under the control of ISIL, there is a very good chance that they may soon find themselves facing discontent and local instability in those regions, or even a new insurgency.  Under those conditions, ISIL will see an opportunity to come back.

The United States can play a critical role in supporting the effort to prevent these recaptured territories from falling back under ISIL’s control.  Whatever decision is made on an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq, it must account for maintaining the capabilities aimed at empowering local authorities and forces to bring about security .  That may mean the presence of advisers to work with local security forces, intelligence experts to assist with police and ground force operations, and even the availability of quick reaction forces that can act in situations where local or national forces find themselves in extremis.

After security has been established in these areas a deliberate reconstruction effort must begin, focused especially on the infrastructure, buildings, and facilities destroyed by ISIL.  Here the United States can help too. The effort needs to be planned by development experts who can balance the many priorities that will no doubt surface in the aftermath of clearing operations.  The United States can provide these experts, as well as funding and equipment.  The United States can also bring diplomacy to bear to convince other nations from the region and elsewhere in the international community (e.g., coalition partner nations) to join the reconstruction effort.

Corruption in Iraq has had an extremely corrosive effect on reconstruction efforts at the national and local levels.  Since his election, Prime Minister Abadi, supported by some of Iraq’s leading clerics (perhaps most notably Ayatollah Ali alSistani) has made fighting corruption a top priority.  Support for these efforts from the United States and other donor nations is critical, with special emphasis on developing or strengthening agencies whose portfolio includes rooting out and punishing corruption as part of the larger effort to strengthen the institutions of the Iraqi government and military.

There has been an enormous level of attention and resources focused on enhancing the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.  While these institutions continue to wrestle with significant challenges, they are starting to win some gains in combat against ISIL and other anti-government forces.  Now a concomitant and reinforcing effort needs to be directed to reconstruction operations.  The assistance of the United States in this effort will be critical.  In providing that assistance, we have the benefit of being able to look back on lessons drawn from our previous experiences with reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether or not these lessons can become lessons learned that can make a difference remains to be seen.


As a major general in the U.S. Army, Eric T. Olson commanded all operational forces and provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005. After retirement from the Army, he served as the U.S. State Department’s deputy director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Baghdad from 2006 to 2007. 

Image: U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Bailey