The U.S. military officially declared an end to its mission in Iraq today. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking in Baghdad, said that Iraq has shown remarkable progress in the past nine years. However, as with many countries transitioning to democracy, “Iraq will be tested in the days ahead — by terrorism, and by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself,” Secretary Panetta said. Beyond the sectarian violence and a potentially aggressive Iran on its border, the Iraqi government will continue to face many of the perennial challenges it has been grappling with for the last nine years: reliable access to electricity, water and other basic services that the government is working to provide.
Despite U.S. and other government investments in Iraq since 2003, basic services are still largely unreliable. According to Al Jazeera, “Power cuts are routine, and millions of Iraqis lack regular access to clean water, proper hospitals, or basic infrastructure.” These challenges could hamstring Iraq’s economy, especially as the country looks to draw in foreign businesses to promote economic development. “Unemployment officially stands at around 16 per cent,” Al Jazeera reported. “Many Iraqis say the real number is nearly twice that high, especially among young Iraqis. The only reliable employer is the government, which provides jobs for nearly 40 per cent of the workforce.” Bloomberg reports that the government is trying to attract foreign business, including from U.S. hotel operators and developers. However, “A possible lack of fresh water, electricity and communications systems also can be obstacles to doing business in the country.”
As Iraq continues to grabble with these challenges, one cannot help but wonder how much ill-access to water and adequate electricity (to name just a few social needs) will continue to exacerbate existing grievances and drive a greater wedge between the Iraqi people and the government. Indeed, the relationship between the government and the people remains fragile, and in the years ahead Iraq will likely need the support of others to help build the capacity to provide these basic services in order to assuage these grievances. As Secretary Panetta remarked in Baghdad, “Challenges remain, but the U.S. will be there to stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation.”
As the U.S. military leaves, our long-term commitment to Iraq will undoubtedly rely largely on our civilian assets. Tens of thousands of private contractors, a large civilian corps and embassy staff will continue to play an important role in helping the Iraqi government build capacity where it hasn’t otherwise been able to. Moreover, nongovernmental organizations and other groups will be ever more important, as well. And although natural resource issues are just a few of the challenges that remain, they deserve special attention and should not be relegated to a status of lesser importance. Building the capacity to provide reliable access to fresh water and electricity will help strengthen Baghdad’s legitimacy and help the government combat some of the more direct threats to the state, including sectarian violence and other imminent security challenges. In that light, Iraq’s resource troubles can serve as both a challenge and opportunity to promoting long-term security and stability.