The battle against ISIS in Iraq is critical at both a regional and a global level. But ISIS is not the root cause of the ongoing chaos in the country, which dates back to before the emergence of the terrorist entity or the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Any form of viable governance is contingent upon the creation and strengthening of social ties within and across communities. The discriminatory and sectarian policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have certainly hindered efforts to forge ties among the populace in Iraq. Yet, under both US presidents Obama and Bush, most critiques of the military leadership in Iraq overestimated the nutritional value of the soil with which the US Army was expected to work after a decade of comprehensive economic sanctions.

UN assessments of human insecurity in Iraq under the sanctions regime were available as early as 1991, only a year into the sanctions. They were, however, dismissed as a larger leftist as well as pacifist critique of US and ally policies in Iraq and perceived as a general opposition to an American foreign policy approach to the Middle East. Coupled with a blind state-centric security approach and dismissive of the human aspect of security, these policies triggered the annihilation of the social fabric in Iraq.

Iraqi Human Condition 1990-2003

From 1990 to 2003, the UN Security Council subjected Iraq to economic sanctions. Under the unipolar influence of the United States, in August 1990 Iraq’s importation of food was made conditional. As a result, a country that according to the World Health Organization (WHO) imported two-thirds of its food and almost all of its medicine could no longer import food except under humanitarian circumstances. Concomitantly, financial sanctions also prevented the country from any transactions. Thus, dramatic declines in imports of medicine in addition to “a lack of minimum health care facilities, insecticides, pharmaceutical and other related equipment and appliances…literally put back [Iraq’s health care quality] by at least 50 years.” To this, the WHO report adds “epidemic levels” of malaria, typhoid, and cholera since 1991; a “doubled” infant mortality rate; and a six-time increase in the mortality rate of children less than 5 years old.

The daily diet of an average Iraqi citizen consisted mostly of imported items. Animal products in a country “almost self-sufficient” in their production were now “being sold on the open market at sky-rocketing prices.” Consequently, most children and infants were deprived of an urgent protein source. The majority of Iraqis lived “on a semi-starvation diet for years.” As noted in the “World Disasters Report,” by 1998 70% of Iraqi women were anemic. In 1991, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Iraq Martti Ahtisaari reported, “most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous.” Eight years into the sanctions, former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq Denis J. Halliday said, “we are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that.” Keep in mind that, owing to the communication and transportation disruptions caused first by the Gulf crisis and then by the sanctions, data collected since 1991 are certainly underestimates.

Over the course of the entire sanctions period, Iraq was prevented from importing tractors and irrigation pipes as well as fertilizers, pesticides, and the materials for their manufacture. The United States blocked the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) from repairing helicopters used for crop dusting, blocked the repair of equipment to make yogurt and to mill flour, and then blocked Iraq from contracting to have its wheat milled outside the country. Almost everything, it was claimed, has a dual use and thus contributes to weapons production. Thus, the sanctions regime prevented Iraq from repairing its damaged or destroyed infrastructure, which according to the WHO report included “electricity-generating and water-purification plants, sewage treatment facilities, and communication and transportation networks.” These practices continued in the face of UN reports of severe and widespread malnutrition and disease.

With scarcity of food, education becomes a luxury, if not a fantasy. According to a 1998 UNICEF report, the oil-for-food program was able to provide only approximately 10% of the basic requirements of Iraq’s educational system. The UN Sanctions Committee had decided that pencils and textbooks were “non-essential” items. In 1999, UNICEF further reported that, “in the heavily-populated southern and central parts of the country, children under five are dying at more than twice the rate they were ten years ago.”

By the end of 2001, the Sanctions Committee had blocked “231 contracts worth a total of 586 million dollars for the agricultural and veterinary sectors,” which according to the FAO representative in Baghdad were required to purchase “vaccines and spare parts for helicopters used to spray pesticides so that Iraq can fight livestock and agricultural epidemics with the help of FAO.” Without such “complimentary contracts,” Iraq could not use most of the products it received. By 2003, the exchange rate rose steeply from 6 to 800 dinars per dollar. Add to this a severe limit in humanitarian aid that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies describes “as part of a wider political policy of pressure” for the entire period of sanctions. The sanctions regime, as shaped by the United States and practiced by the UN Security Council, led to the breakdown of the social fabric in Iraq.

Social Capital and Social Cohesion

Elimination of Iraq’s infrastructure, and its economy as a whole, both prevented the state from rebuilding its military capacity and led to a sharp decline in the standard of living. As the WHO report had warned in 1996, “severe economic hardship, a semi-starvation diet, high levels of disease, scarcity of essential drugs and, above all, the psycho-social trauma and anguish of a bleak future have led to numerous families being broken up leading to distortions in social norms.” A year earlier, Human Rights Watch had reported that since June 1994 the government of Iraq had established “severe penalties, including amputation, branding and the death penalty” for crimes, including theft, to combat the dramatic increases in the crime rate. The organization had reported that people steal to provide food for their families. During an August 1999 congressional staff trip to Iraq, the former head of the UN World Food Program in Iraq Jutta Burghardt alerted the delegation “that 70% of household income goes for food: by UN and world standards, that is considered an indicator of imminent famine.” The psychological trauma of the comprehensive sanctions, not surprisingly, left permanent marks on the health as well as the behavioral patterns of children growing into adulthood in Iraq.

A prerequisite for economic prosperity and sustainable development is social capital, which binds and holds a society together. The term has been most commonly defined as a set of “horizontal” (Putnam 1993) or vertical (Coleman 1988) associations and relationships between “a variety of different entities” with associated norms of behavior, which facilitates cooperation and mutual benefits. Others, including North (1990) and Olson (1982), have included more formal and institutional relations and structure into the definition of social capital, encompassing governments and court systems as well as the rule of law, all of which shape social structures and enable the development of norms. Social scientists have detailed the contributions of different levels of social capital to democracy, health and well-being, economic prosperity, and crime rates. Putnam (1993, 1995), as well as others, also distinguishes between structural and cognitive features of social capital. Although social networks (family, friends, neighborhood, community, etc.) and, in turn, civic engagement have been the primary focus of most analyses, cognitive and subjective aspects are key to the formation of behavioral patterns through norms of reciprocity and trust.

What is left of mutual sympathy, fellowship, mores, social norms, and trust when the majority of a population is under a “semi-starvation diet,” isolated and faced with despair and a “bleak future,” seeking merely to survive? All that bound the social fabric together before the 2003 Iraq invasion and the (imposition of) sanctions was long gone. As Francis Fukuyama has elaborated in “Social Capital and the Global Economy” describing the delicate link between social capital and economic performance of countries, “the ability to form organizations…also depends on a prior sense of moral community, that is, an unwritten set of ethical rules and norms that serve as the basis of social trust…Moral communities, as they are lived and experienced by their members, tend to be the product not of rational choice in the economists’ sense of the term, but of non-rational habit.” A decade of crippling sanctions left a long-lasting set of habits: those of mere survival, understandably void of mores and trust.

The 2003 Iraq invasion cost the US $4.4 trillion, per reports by the Watson Institute. Efforts to create state institutions through a coalition government inclusive of major ethnic and sectarian entities still continue. However, any stable inter-ethnic relation is built on social capital, of which a decade of sanctions had left very little, if anything. Not surprisingly, the most common direct measures of social cohesion, namely civic-political participation and trust, dramatically drop among a semi-starved, isolated, and hopeless populace.

Much attention has been paid to the security vacuum created by the crushing-down of the Iraqi army in 2003. Although factors including the sectarian divide, structural discrimination against the Shi’ites and later Sunnis, and the 2003 US-led invasion paved the way for the current conflict and chaos in Iraq, the social breakdown of Iraq caused by long-term economic sanctions provided radical groups the opportunity to recruit new members and exert influence in the most afflicted communities and cities. The sociological and political science literature on the relationship between economics and radicalism has major implications for policy makers in terms of containing threats and securing interest. Within a regional context, Pakistan experts, for instance, have argued that years of economic hardship, along with weak state institutions, have paved the way for extremists to recruit and operate. No sound policy can address the rise of radicalization and terrorism in Iraq without taking into account the lack of political and economic opportunities, structural ethnic and political discriminations, and sectarian divides. Nevertheless, the impacts of such effects on the socioeconomic life standards of the population were not inevitable. Rather, they were the result of a conceptual fallacy in understanding security and security threats. An overview of the data across a political spectrum on the root causes of the current chaos in Iraq and the extent to which the 2003 invasion of Iraq was responsible for it reflects this fallacy.

This understanding, however, does not produce a causal relation between economic deprivation and terrorism. As President Obama pointed out in his closing remarks to the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, poverty alone does not make a terrorist. Correct, indeed. Nonetheless, more than a decade of comprehensive economic sanctions left its mark in the form of long-lasting marginalization, isolation, frustration, and anger, whose delayed costs the region, and the world for that matter, was yet to witness.

From Iraqi Human Insecurity to Global Security Threats

We do not need yet another humanitarian critique. What we need is to pay attention to the relationship among economic devastation, social norms, and social cohesion, on the one hand, and the growth of radicalization in Iraq’s highly divided sectarian and ethnic context, on the other. Security threats need to be addressed in relation to their root causes — in this case, human insecurities. Ignoring the long-lasting outcomes of economic deprivation on populations already caught up in undemocratic contexts with high degrees of ethnic and religious divides is a strategic mistake, one with delayed yet enduring costs. Policies neglectful of the durable social and psychological impact on populations produced by such outcomes generate future security threats, often harmful to policy makers’ own national interests. Unless we take serious note of the critical relationship between economic deprivation and radicalization in such contexts, today’s violations will continue to transform into tomorrow’s humanitarian crises and, in turn, regional and global security threats.


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