Iraqi youth who came of age during the post-2003 turmoil share a sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. Across the political spectrum, they feel trapped: join a protest movement or militia, or emigrate. Even amid the severe challenges the government and its partners face, this generation must be prioritised, lest Iraq’s most important resource become a major security threat.
I. Executive Summary
Beset by political dysfunction, endemic corruption and a jihadist threat, Iraq is squandering its greatest asset: its youth. By failing to provide a vision and concrete prospects for the future, it is pressing young men into the straitjacket of jobs-through-patronage, pushing them into combat with either the Islamic State (IS) or Shiite militias or inducing them to emigrate. Arguably, the government faces more pressing challenges: pushing IS out, ensuring that subsequent governance does not further alienate the local population, instituting overdue reforms and tackling corruption. Yet, it will not succeed if it does not at the same time develop a strategy for creating a meaningful place in politics and society for the young. They are the country’s most important resource; abandoning them could turn them into the most important threat to national and regional security.
The leadership’s inability to forge a future for “Generation 2000”, which grew up after Saddam Hussein’s fall, has turned it into easy quarry for predators, be they IS, Shiite militias or populists preaching Iraqi nationalism. The potential for mobilising large numbers of young men at loose ends as pawns in violent conflicts has enabled both IS and Shiite militias to gain recruits. In the process, it has compounded sectarian polarisation and widened the divide between street and elites. Fed by fresh pools of fighting-age men, local tensions and conflicts proliferate and escalate, destabilising the country and the surrounding region. The most powerful Shiite militias receive training and advice from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have an ideological orientation consistent with Tehran’s and can be deployed as proxies outside Iraq as well.
The familiar expression “youth radicalisation” distorts the reality that an entire generation is adrift, in need of a dramatically new state-led approach. Young Iraqis whose formative years were in the post-2003 turmoil have much more in common than they suspect, whatever side of local conflicts they are on, but they have been increasingly socialised within communal confines and left to the mercy of radical groups that promote dehumanised, even demonised perceptions of one another.
Before violence engulfed Iraq again, with the rise of IS, youth had attempted to peacefully hold the political class accountable for years of dismal governance. Sunni Arabs staged sit-ins in several towns in 2013, questioning national leaders, including senior Sunnis. They met with repression, leaving scores dead, many more in prison. These events paved the way for IS, which seized Falluja, the Sunni town nearest Baghdad, Mosul and other majority-Sunni towns in June 2014.
The collapse of the Iraqi army triggered a Shiite call to arms. Militia commanders quickly tapped into youthful disappointment with the Shiite political establishment, turning it into sectarian mobilisation against IS. By summer 2015, IS’s battlefield fortunes had turned, even as it continued to control territory and population. The absence of services, especially electricity shortages in the searing summer, stimulated a popular movement in Baghdad and other majority-Shiite areas reflecting a general sense of frustration with the political establishment.
Youths flocking to either side of the sectarian divide faulted ruling elites on the same grounds but ended up fighting each other. The political class’ response has been to protect its interests by divide and rule, redirecting anger into fratricidal tensions. Iraq’s external supporters compound the problem by boxing a rudderless generation into distinct categories – fighters, protesters or emigrants – and taking a different approach with each: a military campaign to defeat IS, pressure on the government to institute reforms to undercut demands and an effort to strengthen border controls to keep out migrants. Putting the emphasis on fighting IS, in particular, translates into tolerance of the Shiite militias, whose rise has contributed to sectarian polarisation and empowered a militia culture that compels young professionals to emigrate while boosting commanders’ political ambitions.
The government’s reform capacity may be limited, yet it must address its youth crisis as its top priority if it is to hold Iraq together. It will need the help of its sponsors, Iran included, which appear more concerned with the fight against IS. It should start by devising a youth policy, presented as a multiyear plan premised on the notion that young people need avenues for participation and advancement outside the political parties’ discredited co-option via patronage.
A first step would be to acknowledge that, isolated within the Green Zone, it has limited tools to harness youths’ energies, but also to recognise that it has advantages over non-state actors, including ability to legislate. Rather than create new structures and methods, it should embrace those used by the militias and IS and absorb youths into the state’s legal framework, security forces or civilian agencies, including as volunteers in public works. It should convert the volunteer combat groups set up in 2014 (hashd al-shaabi) into a civilian mobilisation directed to rebuilding communities within the framework of local administrations. It should likewise recruit Sunni youths in areas IS vacates and engage them in local reconstruction projects. Paying a new cohort of state employees salaries and benefits is a challenge, when reduced oil income forces significant belt-tightening, but the government should build a fund for this purpose and at least give written guarantees of a steady income, a pension and other benefits. It should also organise any further military recruitment strictly under the army.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and UN agencies must ask if their policies actually help the government in such an approach. External aid that reaches youths solely through local intermediaries risks further isolating the government in the Green Zone and reinforcing young people’s isolation in their communities, while driving them toward more dependence on local patrons and militia commanders. Unless such support gives the government a central role, it will contribute to the state’s erosion and encourage local struggles over power and resources without an effective national arbiter. Just as a country’s progress can be measured by the extent to which it engages its youth, so its demise as a viable entity can be predicted by the absence of a forward-looking youth policy and the drift of a generation into self-destructive combat or desperate flight. Iraq’s youth and the country deserve better.