(I/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In this series of posts I present a conceptual outline of a Strategy for emergency peacebuilding assistance to Iraq. I will only briefly describe the approach suggested for the proposed Strategy’s design and management modalities and illustrate these through charts and examples.

The aim is at introducing a model and generating an interest among development professionals and a discussion on the concept and design approaches, and on how to bring this initiative forward so that it informs and contributes to the implementation of international interventions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s other conflict-torn countries. Ideally, a think tank or an international development consultancy would take lead in championing the idea and setting a network of practitioners who would then work together to share knowledge (through a dedicated website or even through social media platforms; LinkedIn is one option).

The Strategy outline will be presented in three posts. The first post sets forth the Strategy’s foundations (problem statement, initial theory of change, and anticipated challenges). In the next post I will briefly describe the Strategy’s key features, such as implementation design principles and modalities, analysis and decision making methods (focusing on innovative elements that make difference, are in line with the Strategy’s general approach and well suited to the task in hand). In the last part I will present the Strategy’s initial design—its pillars and components, with brief description of initial objectives under each element and suggested activities.


Part I: The Strategy’s Foundations

Problem statement

The Iraqi state is facing two existential threats. One is posed by militant Islamists (in first hand ISIL, but not limited to it)—this is the front where conventional war for territorial integrity, to regain the occupied territories, is currently fought. This threat is intense (qualifying as strategic surprise) and has devastating physical effects but is rather short-lived (meaning that eventually it will be eliminated militarily in a visible perspective).

Another threat is posed by internal political processes, where the polity is divided along ethno-sectarian lines, on the one hand, and between rent-seeking elites and ordinary citizens, on the other (which fuels mistrust and makes political agreements difficult and feeds into violence, not the least because of creating power vacuum exploited by extremists). As a result, the government struggles to reform and remains ineffective, falls short of addressing the mounting needs of citizens thus increasingly lacking legitimacy and credibility needed to unify the country’s diverse populations. This is a long-lasting problem deeply rooted in political tradition and also recent history.

The two threats are closely related, although have different but overlapping contexts and influencing factors and stakeholders. Central to both—and that is what makes them intertwined—is power struggle. [For detailed analysis see Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change Part I: Political institutions, Politics, Governance; Part II: Economic institutions, Financial stability; Part III: State security, Human security; Part IV: Choices, Alternatives, Scenarios.]

Theory of Change

At the heart of the Strategy’s Theory of Change is political power. Power shapes the institutions (rules of the game) and the political agents’ behaviours, but is itself continuously influenced and framed by their strategic and tactical actions and on-going settlements.

The initial working hypothesis (development scenario) is that the change in power balance in Iraq in favour of setting peace, stability and conditions for sustainable growth will occur through a number of structures of power (patterned social arrangements) rather than as a result of direct power struggle  (zero-sum political game) between individual agents or groups of agents (political players). Those include political, social, economic, geographical, and ideological structures. Institutional changes shall happen both at central (national) level but even more so at the local level—they must be localised, tailored to circumstances of each area/locality.

Iraq_3D_Strategy_Fig 1_Theory_of_Change

It is a highly unpredictable, complex process whereby change may occur as a result of concerted efforts in one or many structures, simultaneously or subsequently (may be reversed at some point or may occur in some structures but not in others)—which will largely depend on where the efforts are directed and how the process of change unfolds. And the dynamics of change may be different depending on the locality. One of success factors will be inclusive character, discourse and consensus based change agreed upon and implemented between and by Iraq’s diverse collective agents (as contrasted to coercive power change).

At the heart of the Strategy’s Theory of Change is political power. Power shapes the institutions and the political agents’ behaviours, but is itself continuously influenced and framed by their strategic and tactical actions and on-going settlements.


The present and future situations pose a number of challenges (risks) to the Strategy implementers (local individual and collective agents, partnerships, platforms, coalitions as well as international donors/agencies). They derive from complex nature of political crisis in Iraq. The multifaceted problem to be addressed by the Strategy belongs to the class of ‘wicked’ problems—those which are ill-formulated, poorly informed, have many stakeholders and decision makers with divergent and conflicting values and interests, and where the outcomes are thoroughly confusing.

One challenge to the Strategy is uncertainty—it concerns both the outcome sought and the path to be taken and methods to be employed for its attainment. In spite of across-the-globe experiences in peace and state-building in post-conflict environments over decades, we still don’t have enough advance knowledge on how to achieve the desired outcomes in any given context. One explanation is that every locality is somewhat distinct, has its own contexts and circumstances: in the framework of the Strategy this means also provincial level politics in Iraq. Existing ‘best/good practices’ can only inform of the lessons learned but hardly can guide the actual Strategy implementation.

Another challenge is that there is no agreement among the Iraqi political elites—on the nature of problems faced or about future vision and the strategy to achieve it. This comes from multiplicity of individual and collective agents (both local and foreign—actors, supporters and influencers) involved in power struggle at all levels and in every locality and reinforced by old and new grievances, mistrust and conspiracy. On the other hand, there is an alien but already localised group of players under the militant Islam banner (including al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and most prominently ISIL—which are influential in ideological structures and possess military capacity to conduct terrorist attacks on massive scale and intensity but also engage in conventional warfare, occupying and controlling territories) which has become already a part of political game.

And finally, there is a lack of institutional (legislation, rules, practices, formal and informal norms), organisational (processes and procedures in government bodies, political parties, NGOs, formal and informal groups, movements) and individual (skills, abilities, experience) capacity to undertake the task in hand effectively and efficiently. This particularly concerns the community level political actors (both individual and collective, such as provincial authorities) and civil society (both organisationally and in terms of member capabilities). Capacities necessary for the changes sought to happen are also unequally distributed—between the centres (Baghdad and Erbil) and peripheries (provincial centres, towns, communities), on the one hand, and between the peripheries, on the other hand. The Iraqi political agents do not have enough experience in democratic processes—something that is not possible to build quickly or through formal training alone, but requires painstakingly practising and learning by doing (albeit with external technical assistance, political brokerage and advice, information resources and knowledge transfer).

Responses to contextual challenges

Key innovative features of the Strategy devised to address the complexity of the problem addressed in Iraq can be summed as follows. The Strategy:

  • Focuses on political power and related political settlements and institutional changes. In so doing, it relies on and nurtures local change agents (reform champions, drivers of change) by empowering, helping create enabling environment for them to pursue reforms and generate local solutions, resources and broad-based public support, and building their capacity.
  • Is sensitive to local context (understood not only country-wise, national, but also as grassroots level, regional, provincial, community) and political dynamics. This implies partnership and on-going consultations with local actors at all levels, rather than supply-driven assistance.
  • Comprises three dimensions of intervention, to attain its goal—diplomatic, developmental, and military (thus utilising 3D—Diplomacy, Development, Defence approach). This makes sense from a number of positions, such as: to reflect and adequately respond to multifaceted nature of the problem dealt with; to ensure maximum effectiveness by bringing various dimensions of security under one umbrella; and to engage with stakeholders in concerted manner.
  • Has a flexible structure (built to extent possible on modularity of components and subject to continuous review and readjustments at all levels) and delivery methods (through the iterative process of experimentation and learning)—to enable timely adaptation and thus relevance to the rapidly evolving local contexts.
  • Employs a decentralised decision-making style (more authority and responsibility to task teams and middle level management) and flexible mix of methods (combining traditional quantitative and qualitative analysis with formalised heuristic, intuitive methods) to better respond to unpredictable and fast changing situations under constraints of time and knowledge.

More in detail these features will be discussed in Part II (forthcoming).

About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international organisation; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.


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