On August 1, Kawa Hassan, Director of the Middle East & North Africa Program, was interviewed by the Dutch radio channel BNR NieuwsRadio on the political and security situation in Post-ISIS Mosul. This is the English transcription:
BNR: What is EastWest Institute and what does it do?
Kawa Hassan (KH): EastWest Institute (EWI) is an American organization—its headquarters is in New York with offices in Brussels, Moscow and San Francisco. It focuses on trust building and resolution of conflicts through Track 2 diplomacy. One of the main projects of the institute’s Middle East & North Africa Program is the Iran Saudi Dialogue. As you know both countries are engaged in proxy wars in the region. Our initiative aims at improving relations between both countries through discreet meetings between experts, ex-officials and opinion makers. These meetings focuse on issues of common interest such us ISIS, the refugee crisis, the impacts of climate change on regional dynamics and prospects for regional cooperation. The participants have their own networks back home so that they can inform and influence policy makers back home on the perception of their country in the eyes of their rival and share the knowledge.
BNR: In addition to your work at EWI, you were also a member of an American Task Force that has advised the U.S. administration on Iraq. You were not only an adviser but you also have a personal connection to Iraq. What is your own background?
KH: I am Dutch of Iraqi Kurdish origin. I was born and raised in Sulaimanyah, a big city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and studied at the university in Baghdad. I fled Iraq at the age of 22 and sought asylum in Holland in 1992. I studied political science at the University of Amsterdam. After graduation I worked for the United Nations and NGOs in Sri Lanka as well as in the Netherlands. Since August 2015, I have been working for EWI in Brussels. Therefore, my engagement with Iraq is both professional and personal given my background.
BNR: Mosul has fallen, ISIS is more or less defeated. Iraq may have won the battle but it paid a heavy price for it. What is the situation right now in Iraq?
KH: ISIS is partly defeated from a military aspect in significant areas of Mosul (province). ISIS still controls parts of Mosul province, it also has sleeper cells inside the city. In addition, it still controls areas in the West and North of Iraq. As it has been weakened in Mosul, ISIS has moved fighters to other parts of Iraq. ISIS is not only a brutal enemy, but is also a formidable, smart and violent group—its ideological appeal is still very strong. You are right that Iraqis paid a very heavy price for the liberation of Mosul but this was an inevitable sacrifice. The destruction in Mosul is perplexing, particularly in the right side of the city where most of the heavy fighting occurred. Therefore the reconstitution and humanitarian needs are enormous. Tens of billions of dollars will be needed for reconstruction and safe return of internally displaced people. The Iraqi government cannot fundthe required reconstruction, it simply doesn't have that money.
BNR: Do you mean money is needed only for the reconstruction of Mosul province or also for other areas?
KH: Indeed. I have focused only on Mosul province but we shouldn't forget that there is also a need for reconstruction in parts of western Iraq that was liberated from ISIS in 2016. The issue of recovery and reconstruction is a complicated one. On the one hand the Iraqi government with the support of the U.S. and other countries is engaged in an inevitable tough battle against ISIS. In addition to a lack of money, the Iraqi government still doesn't have a detailed and clear vision or policy with regard to the return of refugees and how to provide hope to the innocent people that they will be reintegrated into society as equal citizens (and hence will not be marginalized again).
BNR: You say Iraq needs billions to reconstruct liberated areas. Some say Iraq perhaps needs 90 billion USD for reconstruction. Furthermore Iraq is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Also the Kurds want to hold an independence referendum on Sept 25. Taken together this is a very complicated cocktail, isn't it?
KH: Not only a complicated cocktail, but also an explosive cocktail for now and the future. Indeed Iraq will need tens of billions of dollars for reconstruction. At the moment the Iraqi government doesn't have the money due to corruption within the post-Saddam political order and low oil prices. Furthermore, we can argue that there is an Iraqi government but not an Iraqi state—many Shiite militias that played a crucial role in the battle against ISIS are not under the control of the government. Yet there is also a single reason for hope and optimism: the government, international partners and the general population are very well aware that probably this is the last opportunity to save Iraq.
BNR: You were one of top 25 experts that advised U.S. administration on Iraq. In your view how the international community can help Iraq now?
KH: The international community can do a lot to help Iraq. But I have to stress that reconstruction and reconciliation is first and foremost is the responsibility of Iraqi leaders; and the international community can definitely help the Iraqis. First, Iraq should be and remain a top priority for the international community, not only at present owing to the war against ISIS, but also in the coming years and decades. This is a dilemma—there are many problems in the world that need attention and the support of the international community. My fear is that after the military defeat of ISIS, the attention of the world will turn to other problems. That is why it remains crucial that both the international community and media continue to focus on Iraq, so that it remains a priority for policy makers and global public opinion.
BNR: You mean there is a need to develop now a long term plan to support Iraq, But what would be your advise for the international community?
KH: My advice is as follows. First, organize an international donor conference to be led by the UN, the European Union or the US for the reconstruction and reconciliation of post-ISIS Iraq. Major Iraqi groups, and both international and regional powers should take part at such a conference. Donors can pledge financial and capacity building support in return for assurances of good governance, combating corruption and respect of human rights and democracy—in other words conditional support. Special focus and support should be given to the nascent civil society. Second, the intentional community should utilize public diplomacy and communicate directly to Iraqi society to inform them about its support and make sure that the wider population will hold Iraqi leaders accountable with respect to the transparent utilization of all provided funds.
BNR: Talking about conditional support, I have to bring in Afghanistan to our discussion. After the partial withdrawal of the international community in Afghanistan, "thieves" are again ruling the country. How can international community impose its conditions on Iraqi leaders?
KH: This is possible—it worked also in other parts of the world. Iraq badly needs support and only Iraqis will shape the future of their country. But they cannot achieve this on their own. I would like to refer to the decision of President Obama to withdraw U.S. troops in 2011. This premature withdrawal and lack of U.S. pressure on then Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki, strengthened Al-Maliki's sectarian and authoritarian policies which in turn strengthened ISIS. Hence the role of international community is essential in helping Iraqis to rebuild their countries and make sure funds are well spent.
BNR: Would you advise to hold elections as soon as possible?
KH: This is a very difficult question. How can you hold elections in areas which are devastated, and in refugee camps? There are plans to hold elections in April 2018. But perhaps it would be better first to mediate between Iraqis to agree on badly needed political and economic reforms and then hold elections.
BNR: So where does the legitimacy of the current government come from? Who is the Iraqi interlocutor of the international community?
KH: The international community deals with the Prime Minister Al-Abadi. But there are also other players such as the Shiite militias and Iran. To conclude, despite all these problems Iraq is not a lost cause as yet. Iraqis are sick and tired of terrorism, violence and the corruption of the ruling elites. Iraqi civil society is very active in its struggle for a better Iraq. There are many hopeful stories of Iraqi civil society that strive for human rights, women's rights and combating corruption but unfortunately they don't get the attention of the international media. Simply, Iraq is much more beyond reporting solely about ISIS and corruption of ruling elites.
BNR: Where do you pin your hope on?
KH: I pin my hope on the resilience of Iraqi society as evidenced against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, as well as against the authoritarianism and corruption of post-Saddam elites.
BNR: Thank you.
KH: My pleasure.