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Developments in Iraq

June 23, 2014
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By Benjamin Runkle, JINSA Director of Programs

The recent developments in Iraq – in which a coalition of Sunni militants led by the Salafist terrorist organization the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized several key Iraqi cities, including its second largest metropolis, Mosul – have been difficult for Americans to watch. In particular, for veterans and families of those servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and to give Iraqis a chance at a better life, it is depressing to see their sacrifices squandered.

As a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and somebody who has worked on Iraq policy issues in DOD, the NSC, in Congress, and at the RAND Corporation, I understand this frustration. But despite the temptation to issue recriminations and seek partisan advantage, for now it is far more important to fix the problem than to fix the blame. For contrary to the Obama administration’s favorite dismissal of calls for intervention in Syria and elsewhere, the current crisis in Iraq is not merely “somebody else’s civil war.” ISIS’s gains in Iraq represent a significant threat to America’s national security.

Even before the fall of Mosul, Tikrit, and Bayji, ISIS posed a clear and present danger to the United States. More than 11,000 foreign fighters are believed to have flocked to Syria to make jihad, including some 3,000 westerners, approximately 100 of which are Americans. This dwarfs the 3,000-4,000 “Afghan Arabs” that joined the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later formed the backbone of al-Qa’ida. Additionally, from Aleppo in western Syria to Fallujah in central Iraq, ISIS controlled territory stretching more than 400 miles, the largest swath of land ever held by a terrorist organization. In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress that US intelligence had picked up indications of “training complexes” within Syria “to train people to go back to their countries and conduct terrorist acts.” Consequently, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and senior FBI officials have all stated that terrorism emanating from Syria is their greatest concern. ISIS itself evolved from the remnants of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) network, which conducted attacks in Jordan (including the 2002 assassination of an American diplomat). In early May, Saudi Arabia arrested 65 suspected ISIS operatives believed to be plotting an attack in the kingdom, and on the 24th, Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national who had fought with ISIS in Syria, shot and killed four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum.

This threat has only been compounded by ISIS’s recent gains in Iraq. As the Iraqi Security Forces abandoned Mosul, a city of 1.8 million, they left behind logistics depots filled with U.S.-made Humvees, tanks, helicopters, rockets, and countless small arms which are now all in the hands of an organization deemed too violent for al-Qa’ida. Worse, perhaps, ISI looted as much as half a billion dollars from the Mosul Central Bank, making it the wealthiest terrorist franchise ever. Combined with the increased luster of a successful military campaign, this cash in hand will enable ISIS will attract even more foreign fighters to its banner and training camps. The increase in territory controlled by ISIS also gives it greater strategic depth, and thus greater freedom of action.

Since the 2001 9/11 attacks, both the Bush and Obama administrations have recognized the prevention of terrorist sanctuaries as a vital U.S. national interest. If the policymakers who allowed al-Qa’ida to establish a safe haven in Afghanistan before that attack can be (partially) excused due to a lack of imagination regarding the potential consequences, no such excuse exists today. Yet despite the temptation to immediately launch air and/or drone strikes against ISIS now that it occupies a definite territory, this would be a rash and pointless exercise. First, because the U.S. withdrew almost all its intelligence collection assets from Iraq in 2011, we do not have a good sense of whom to target. Moreover, although we can likely kill a fair number of ISIS leaders in the near-term, the lesson of our drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen show that without being able to hold ground or address the underlying causes behind the local population’s support for the terrorists, we will likely be starting an endless cycle that may buy time but will never be strategically decisive.

Instead, the United States and our allies must commit to a sustained campaign to defeat ISIS. Although President Obama’s speech at West Point last month was generally weak tea with regards to grand strategy, his proposed counter-terror strategy centered on building partnership capacity and fighting al-Qa’ida through local proxies is a viable course of action. Yet simply throwing money at the problem is insufficient. Although seed money is important, whatever proxy forces we support must be continually maintained like a garden, with trainers, advisers, and intelligence and logistics support provided in lieu of watering and weeding. This is precisely what the Administration failed to do in Iraq post-2011, and goes a long way toward explaining why the ISF performed so abysmally in the Battle of Mosul despite outnumbering the ISIS and allied Sunni militants by roughly 15-to-1. Such a campaign will inevitably require the reintroduction of some ground forces, not in a combat role, but mainly Special Forces conducting their traditional foreign internal defense mission and support personnel necessary for targeting and intelligence support. We need to do this not to redeem the sunk costs we have paid in Iraq in terms of lives and treasure, but to prevent the next 9/11. Consequently, we also need to begin to seriously arm moderate Sunni forces in Syria to pressure the ISIS on two fronts, lest it simply recede like water wherever it is pressured.

Although such a sustained military effort is necessary to defeat ISIS, it will not be sufficient. ISIS did not roll through the Sunni Triangle alone, but rather in coordination with various Ba’athist organizations and Sunni tribal militias. The latter of these forces supported us during the Anbar Awakening against AQI in 2006-2007, but were driven back to partnership with the jihadists out of desperation created by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian and sectarian rule. Almost immediately once U.S. forces were withdrawn from Iraq in December 2011, Maliki began arresting Sunni political rivals, purging the ISF of professional Sunni and Kurdish officers in favor of less competent/more pliant Shi’a replacements, and using the ISF to violently suppress legitimate political protests in the Sunni Triangle. Consequently, in order for U.S. military support to have any lasting impact – as well as not be seen as merely defending Maliki’s sectarianism – it must be paired with significant, immediate political reforms by the Maliki government.

It is true that since 2011 the United States has possessed little leverage over Maliki as his governance descended into autocracy. But deploying an initial tranche of trainers/advisers would provide us with more leverage, and if paired with significant outreach to assure our formal tribal allies (presumably we still have their cell phone numbers) that this is strictly an anti-ISIS measure whose continuance will be predicated on last political reform, then this intervention can be done without appearing to take Maliki’s side against Iraq’s Sunnis. If Maliki remains intransigent, a bigger decision will have to made: whether to accept that our counter-ISIS campaign is only a stopgap measure necessary to buy time for more positive developments in Baghdad, Syria, or beyond; or to withdraw all support for the ISF and instead base our counter-terror efforts out of a region that would gladly host U.S. forces . . . Kurdistan. This latter outcome would open a separate Pandora’s Box of challenges in terms of regional diplomacy, but the reality is that if Maliki remains in power and refuses one last effort at national reconciliation, there will be no Iraq to save. In that case, Kurdish independence would be a de facto reality anyways. As steadfast as the Kurds have been in support of U.S. interests in the region, this option should only be considered as a last resort – and may be sufficient to either scare Maliki straight or to provoke his political coalition into dumping him.

One option the Obama administration must avoid despite its attraction to a certain set of foreign policy pundits, self-proclaimed realists, and professional contrarians, is to ally ourselves with Iran to resolve the issue, a possibility Secretary of State John Kerry raised and quickly backed away from. This partnership would be disastrously self-defeating for several reasons. First, given that a proximate cause of Sunni acquiescence to ISIS’s campaign stems from fear of Persian dominance of Baghdad, openly working with Iran to resolve the current crisis would merely pour gasoline on this sectarian fire. As General David Petraeus recently noted, “This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias,” which Sunnis understandably perceive as being tools of Tehran. Second, America’s regional allies are already disturbed by U.S. outreach and concessions to Iran on nuclear-related issues. This concern will only be exacerbated by any implicit partnership with Iran in Iraq. Legitimizing Iranian intervention in Iraq will only further drive both domestic Iraqi and regional Sunni actors away from the moderation upon which hopes for regional stability depend.

Finally, suggestions that we can come to a modus vivendi with Iran in Iraq ignore that Tehran has significantly different interests at stake there. Simply put, Iran can live with a Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad that only holds sway over a rump Iraq, which is essentially what it has accepted in Syria. The Quds Force battalions that were rushed into Iraq as ISIS swept through the Sunni Triangle were not deployed to Baghdad to blunt a Sunni offensive there, but rather to the Shi’a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Making these cities – and their holy sites and religious seminaries – dependent upon Iranian protection allows them to influence/intimidate the Najaf Marja, whose quietist theology of non-interference in politics challenges the ideology underpinning the ayatollahs’ theocratic rule in Iran. As always, the ayatollah’s greatest concern in Iraq is not maintaining its territorial integrity or defeating ISIS – which has been purposely left untouched by the Assad regime in Syria in order to justify their barbaric suppression of that country’s rebellion as a fight against extremism – but rather to keep Najaf’s religious institutions from threatening their threadbare legitimacy with the Iranian people.

Given that a favorite criticism by those who believe the Bush administration’s liberation of Iraq itself was the “original sin” that set in motion the forces that led to the present crisis has been that it handed Iraq to Iran, it is beyond ironic that many of these same voices now suggest working with Iranian forces in Iraq should be U.S. policy. But as they say, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds . . .

In the end, there may be no “good” or easy options for the United States in Iraq. But as the course of Syria’s civil war demonstrates, international crises seldom self-correct to our benefit in the face of U.S. inaction. American indecision is far more likely to produce an even greater deterioration in the quality of our policy options.

Historians will sort through the causes of Iraq’s collapse and ISIS’s rise to power and apportion blame for this fiasco in due time. The threat ISIS’ gains in Iraq to U.S. national security are sufficient that it is imperative the Obama administration chooses a path now, rather than to cede initiative to an enemy that seeks to put America and its allies in its crosshairs.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2014 1:35 am

    I agree fully that ISIS and the various other militant extremists are a threat to the world’s well-being. Having someone fight them would obviously be the thing to do.

    At the same time, I don’t see how the current situation can be described as anything BUT a complete disaster.

    As such, assigning blame is completely appropriate. Otherwise it will happen again. Who wants it to happen again? Not the US. Not Israel. Not normal, sane Sunni Arabs. Not normal, sane Shia Arabs, etc, etc.

    So again, I believe we owe it to ourselves to make a sober assessment of whether or not the US strategy in Iraq, from the year 2002 to the present, has reduced or increased the total amount of militant extremists in the middle east.

    If the answer is the latter (seems to me it is), then a change of strategy is not just a good idea, it is a matter of survival for everyone in the region, across borders and religions.

    Returning to the need to have someone step up and fight ISIS. If the answer to the question above happens to be: the previous episode of US fighting militant extremists had the undesirable side effect of creating more extremists than were destroyed, then how exactly is it going to work? I believe this question creates some arithmetic problems that need to be addressed, and a deep examination of past counter-insurgency operations, including assigning of blame where it is appropriate, is required.

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