Dear Iraqi Government: Punishing Civilians Hurts Everyone but ISIS.

According to an analysis of province-level electricity usage by Andrew Shaver, the Iraqi government may have drastically reduced the provision of power to areas controlled by ISIS. He finds that within the “three provinces most affected by the Islamic State — Anbar, Ninewa, and Salah-al-Din — the organization’s arrival has been marked by massive reductions in power supply”. Interestingly, the level of power supplied to other provinces, most notably Basrah, has shot up.

While other factors may explain the drop, such as power lines downed in fighting, a deliberate decision by the Iraqi government appears to be the strongest explanation for this phenomenon, given that they have a perceived incentive to do so, and the drops in ISIS held regions were concomitant with increases elsewhere. Shaver hypothesizes that the Iraqi government may be “calculating that by restricting the supply of electricity, affected Iraqis will direct blame for the lost electricity on the occupying militants”, hoping the “government may benefit as local Iraqis report on the Islamic State’s activities” and “passively resist the organization”.

If true, this decision is remarkably foolhardy and incognizant. Why? Sanctions targeted against civilians are ineffective and often backfire.

When civilians in ISIS held areas face energy shortages, they are going to blame the Iraqi government, not ISIS. To understand why, think of denying these areas energy as a type of sanction levied against ISIS held areas. Putting aside the fact that a landmark study by The Peterson Institute of Economics found that sanctions intended to prompt the regime change of an antagonist fail 85% of the time, and sanctions intended to disrupt the military adventures of an adversary fail 100% of the time(you read that right, check out the chart on page 154), sanctions often backfire by galvanizing public support behind the target regime.

How? Regimes are able to redirect blame for the sanctions from themselves to (surprise) the parties leveling the sanctions; ironically, Iraq is the paradigm case for this argument. Daniel Drezner explains that after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 Saddam Hussein “adroitly shifted the blame for sanctions [which increased the price of a month’s worth of food for a family 250-fold over the first five years of the sanctions regime] from himself to Western governments”.

ISIS will likely be able to do the same, especially since many analysts credit Sunni resentment over their marginalization under Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite administration for the relative ease with which ISIS seized large swaths of Iraq. This is why the Obama Administration conditioned military support to Iraq on al-Maliki’s resignation, and the formation of a more “inclusive” government.

Taking electricity from those very Sunnis, and giving it to Shiites is not going to help the Iraqi government win over these alienated populations. It risks deepening the sectarian divide which cost 8000 Iraqi lives in 2013 alone, especially as, Shaver notes, considering that Shiites will likely be upset when the government stops providing them energy diverted from ISIS held areas.

For their part, ISIS is likely celebrating this opportunity to play savior and provide civilians with electricity; the organization already sets up diesel powered generators to provide electricity in to civilians under their control. ISIS can also duplicate their efforts in Syria, where they “run an electricity office that monitors electricity use levels, installs new power lines and hosts workshops on how to repair old ones”. Does an international community so keen on refusing to call ISIS “The Islamic State” in fear of legitimizing its’ quasi-caliphate want to allow the Iraqi government to provide ISIS an opportunity to prove their institution-building bona fides?

Even if denying these provinces electricity increases resentment against ISIS, not much will come of it. ISIS denies electricity and water to extort civilians under their control and punish enemies; despite this, no meaningful resistance to ISIS rule has occurred in these areas. If anything, restricting flows of electricity to ISIS held areas gives ISIS more coercive capability; if they become the sole providers of electricity, and (increasingly) water, civilians will become even less likely to antagonize ISIS than they already are.

Hopefully, the Iraqi government will reconsider this decision, and realize that establishing itself as a capable, and equitable provider of public goods would do more to undermine ISIS than punishing the very civilians whose hearts and minds they need to win.

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