What to Do About Iraq?

by Dave Schuler on June 14, 2014

The situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. From the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw:

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Mosul is in the hands of al-Qaeda groups and former members of Saddam Hussein’s defunct ruling party and military, confirmed the spokesman of the Civil Committees that are now in charge of Iraq’s second-largest city.

Ghanim al-Aabed named the head of the new caretaker government in Mosul as Hashem Jamas, a former top general in Saddam’s army.

He added that the aim of the ongoing fighting, as the Sunni insurgents advance toward Baghdad, is to topple Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.

Aabed refuted wide media reports that al-Qaeda breakaway. the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL), was behind the swift military advances that began in Mosul and continue toward Baghdad.

He named Ansar al-Sunnah and Ansar al-Islam, both known for ties to al-Qaeda, as two of the jihadi groups involved in the fighting. The unlikely coalition includes fighters of the Sunni Naqshbandi sect, which had many officers in Saddam’s army.

“But not with ISIS,” he added. “The reports in the media about that are not correct.”

Islamists are also in control of other major cities like Tikrit – Saddam’s birthplace — as well as Hawija, Fallujah and Ramadi, plus parts of Diyala province.

On a passing note unless you think it’s merely a coincidence that the heads of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two major political parties are the hereditary leaders of the Iraqi Kurds’ two major tribal factions IMO caution should be exercised in thinking of what’s going on there as democracy. The source for the report above is affiliated with the KDP’s boss and current president of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani. Barzani’s nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is vice president.

Meanwhile Young Shi’ite Iraqis are turning out to defend against the advance of the ISIS terrorist army:

Hundreds of young Iraqi men gripped by religious and nationalistic fervor streamed into volunteer centers Saturday across Baghdad, answering a call by the country’s top Shiite cleric to join the fight against Sunni militants advancing in the north.

Dozens climbed into the back of army trucks, chanting Shiite slogans and hoisting assault rifles, pledging to battle the Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has launched a lightning advance across the country.

“By God’s will, we will be victorious.” said one volunteer, Ali Saleh Aziz. “We will not be stopped by the ISIL or any other terrorists.”

The massive response to the call by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued via his representative Friday, comes as sectarian tensions are threatening to push the country back toward civil war in the worst crisis since U.S. forces withdrew at the end of 2011.

Could unseasoned untrained volunteers do better against the ISIS advance than the at least notionally trained Iraqi army? Could they do worse?

In Washington, if there may be need to airlift in hand surgeons to repair the repetitive stress injuries cause by marathon finger-pointing, there is equally no lack of prescriptions on how the U. S. should respond. President Obama is determined to keep the American profile low:

WASHINGTON — President Obama vowed again Friday to help Iraq’s government fight insurgents who are closing in on Baghdad, while a senior defense official told USA TODAY that American air power options are currently limited.

“The United States will do our part, but understand that ultimately, it’s up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems,” Obama told reporters at the White House.

Obama also said: “We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

A senior defense official said U.S. air power options in Iraq are limited because the closest aircraft that could wage a bombing campaign against Islamist militants who have captured several of the nation’s largest cities are at least 800 miles away.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post retired Gen. James Dubik recommends sterner measures:

So, what can we do now? Providing Iraq more “military stuff” isn’t a real answer, nor is the reintroduction of large numbers of U.S. or coalition troops. We have no easy options, but to start, the United States and its allies must commit to preventing an ISIS victory and assist the government of Iraq in halting and reversing ISIS’s progress. Although the long-term solutions for Iraqi stability are diplomatic and political, unless the Iraqi government can stop the ISIS offensive, such actions will be moot.

Halting the offensive is Iraq’s nearest-term objective. What is needed is a coordinated air and ground action consisting of both a heavy dose of precisely applied firepower and a sufficiently executed ground defensive. The Iraqis are incapable of such action alone. The firepower will have to be delivered by United States and allied aircraft augmented by Iraqi assets. The Iraqis will also need a small group of advisers to target air support correctly and to help identify or create capable, well-led units that are properly employed and backed by sufficient sustainment capacity. The advisory and support effort must be substantial enough to help the Iraqis conduct an initial defense and then plan and prepare a series of counter-offensive campaigns to regain lost areas. This will be a multi-year effort, but it cannot become a second surge.

carried on in the context of a vigorous diplomatic and political campaign to, in essence, get the Iraqi prime minister to relinquish much of his authority.

Michael Gerson points out the risks of risk aversion:

But risk aversion, it turns out, can multiply complication. Because the United States refused to coordinate an effort to arm the responsible opposition in Syria, there has been no pressure for the regime to engage in serious peace negotiations. Bashar al-Assad has found barrel bombs more effective. In Geneva talks last November, American officials were left with no plan except to (pathetically) hope for Russian and Iranian diplomatic favors, which never came. Countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states, left leaderless in the region, have often funneled support to radicals. The United States has supplied weapons to the Iraqi government to fight militants in western Iraq while (incoherently) refusing to arm people fighting the same enemy 100 miles to the west in Syria. Now a few thousand militants, with roots in the Syrian conflict, threaten to destroy the Iraqi government, along with the remnants of U.S. credibility in the region.

This should be the end of illusions. Sometimes risk aversion can be a very risky option. The mere containment of Syrian chaos would have required a more activist U.S. policy — coordinating Middle Eastern and European powers to create a balance of forces on the ground that might have encouraged a power-sharing agreement among less horrible regime elements and less horrible opposition groups. Some variant is still Syria’s best (but fading) hope.

The editors of the Washington Post are concerned about the position the president is staking out:

The temptation to let Iraq fend for itself is strong and, given the history, understandable. Some may even see a chance for stability in reconfiguring the country along its sectarian Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish lines. But there are no neat dividing lines. A breakup of Iraq is likely to bring endless violence to its people and many others around the world. Not to do everything possible to avert that outcome would be a dereliction, and one that Americans might greatly regret for years to come.

The editors of the Christian Science Monitor urge caution.

Jessica Lewis, who has been studying ISIS and has warned about the likelihood of events not unlike those unfolding in Iraq now urges action much along the lines of that proposed by Gen. Dubik:

There are no political solutions available to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki —ISIS doesn’t engage in peace talks. What is needed is a coherent military strategy to halt the present ISIS offensive, and a concerted effort to rebuild Iraqi security forces so that they are armed and trained well enough to oust ISIS from territory it now controls.

In other words, Iraq needs the United States. U.S. Special Operations forces would provide invaluable early-targeting support to Iraqi army units preparing for battle. Airstrikes on ISIS strongholds between Mosul and Bayji would help Iraqi ground forces maneuvering to retake Mosul and Tikrit. The U.S. Army could also provide logistics and other support to the Iraqi military. The Iraqi forces will require additional training, maintenance assistance and battlefield planning support before launching a full counteroffensive. The U.S. can provide it. Drone strikes and other measures suited for combating a terrorist group won’t suffice against ISIS. This is a terrorist army, bent on having its own country.

I would like to see President Obama make a clear, unambiguous statement of the U. S. interests in the region and in Iraq in particular. I don’t find strategic ambiguity called for in this particular situation. Whatever our position we should “suit the action to the word”, as Shakespeare put it.

{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

steve June 14, 2014 at 8:22 pm

“You’re kidding, right? There were millions of them,”

Yes. Was responding to the tens of millions part. They are already segregated. That makes it less likely we see refugees on the same scale and certainly not larger.

PD- So an American soldier steals something. A member of the Iraqi PArliament from the opposition decides to grandstand. (Assume they have their own minority party issues). He orders the police from his district to arrest our soldier since there is no agreement agreed to by Parliament. What then? The Bush official you cited may want to gamble since he wants to preserve his legacy. I dont think it is worth the risk. You are welcome to disagree on how much risk we should take, but I think it is hard to deny the risk. Just the fact that no one thought this could get through Parliament should give you pause. If most of Iraq did not want us there, we were sitting on a powder keg.

Steve

PD Shaw June 15, 2014 at 8:25 am

@steve, there is no requirement that a Status of Forces Agreement by ratified by a popularly elected body. The Bush Administration did not require one in 2008, Maliki sent it to the Parliament anyway. Congress generally does not ratify SOFAs. Obama is the sole source of this expectation, and he didn’t give enough time when he unveiled it.

In your hypothetical there is no difference btw/ what happens if the SOFA was approved by the Iraqi Parliament or not. If a U.S. soldier is held in violation of the SOFA it is a violation of a treaty, which the U.S. enforces by declaring war on Iraq. There is no law here.

CStanley June 15, 2014 at 8:39 am

I don’t understand the calls for partition. It’s logical, of course to say that the solution to sectarian tensions is to give territory to each of the groups, but it quickly becomes obvious that someone has to draw the lines and the affected people have to all agree to those borders.

Add to this the complicating factors of specific resources that exist in some parts of the territory, which all groups will want to claim, and it is obvious that this is just another recipe for war. Sure, partition might be the outcome of that war, and might be the best course for a longer stability…but it’s not as though a partition plan can preempt war.

It seems like such an oversimplification, as though we are talking about kids sharing a bedroom, drawing lines and agreeing to inhabit their own half or quadrant. And if memory serves from my childhood, even that never worked very well.

Andy June 15, 2014 at 10:23 am

PD,

To me it’s not a red herring. Border disputes and conglomerations of different peoples inside borders that someone else made are very real sources of conflict.

Michael,
Whether or not Iraq is partitioned is not up to us. A real partition would be very difficult – it’s much more likely there will be a lot of regional autonomy…once the people in Iraq have had enough bloodshed of course.

Guarneri June 15, 2014 at 10:50 am

CStanley

We have a variant of it here. CA and NY don’t really think like AL or TX. Hell, western MI might as well be Mars from eastern MI.

I realize its more complicated than that, but given the viciousness and length of strife between at least three main sects I’m not sure its outlandish. Someone mentioned oil as a binding factor. Well, NYC doesn’t harvest corn or soybeans, nor drill for oil. They trade. Are we declaring the potential for Sunni / Shia / and Kurdish trade a dead stick, in an environment now with lesser majority/minority hegemony (both ways) ? If we are, then they are just damned crazy and hellbent on mutual destruction.

Just a question.

steve June 15, 2014 at 12:04 pm

PD- You sound like a US lawyer. You expect the rule of law to be followed. I am not especially worried about approval on our side. I am very worried about approval by the country we occupy. If that approval had come from Maliki alone, it is a pretty tenuous agreement. From a dictator? Maybe, but from a PM? A PM with shaky support? Suppose you were an officer responsible for the lives of your soldiers. You know that they are still going to face intermittent attacks and bombings. On top of that, you now know the people really dont want you there. And, your troops may or may not really have immunity if there is a question about their activities. It would all hinge upon the word of one Iraqi politician. If he has to choose between his political career and the welfare of your soldiers, you think he might conveniently neglect to enforce that agreement?

Steve

CStanley June 15, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Well there’s always the Mom’s trick. Let’s have Maliki draw borders for a partition, with the knowledge that a Sunni leader and a Kurd leader will then get dibs on which region they choose to occupy.

PD Shaw June 15, 2014 at 10:39 pm

@steve, “Which Iraqi politician would have let us keep troops there and still been able to get elected?”

I named him, and now your just being silly about me being a lawyer. I was just being polite.

PD Shaw June 15, 2014 at 10:44 pm

Real lawyers would refer to something called “last clear chance.”

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