Can the United States Avert Disaster in Iraq?

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The brutal bombings that rocked Baghdad this week are a stark reminder that ISIS remains a persistent threat to Iraqi security. Though the extremist group has lost as much as 40 percent of its territory in the country over the past year, it retains control over the major urban areas that it seized in 2014. It is uncertain at best that Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — will be liberated by the end of this year, despite President Obama’s desire to defeat ISIS before he leaves office. And as the Iraqi political situation continues to deteriorate, there is a significant risk that the security situation will also unravel. The Obama administration must recognize that the current chaos in Iraq could completely undermine its campaign against ISIS, and take forceful action immediately in order to avert disaster.

To be sure, the U.S.-led coalition is having an impact on ISIS. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in March that, “we are systemically eliminating [ISIS]’s cabinet.” Last week’s killing of the top ISIS military official in Anbar province is just the latest proof that that effort proceeds apace. And America’s broader campaign against ISIS has reportedly cost the group as much as $500 million in cash stockpiles, while halving its annual oil revenue to $250 million. Overall, independent reports estimate that ISIS’s monthly income has declined by as much as a third as oil production drops and more territory and people are liberated.

But in response to these gains, ISIS has escalated its use of large-scale terrorist attacks. The group’s campaign of bombings in Baghdad has two objectives: First, it is designed to undermine the Iraqi government’s already tenuous grasp on power by further angering the burgeoning protest movement and reigniting the full-blown sectarian conflict that occurred during the U.S. occupation. Second, it aims to force Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to deploy more troops to secure the capital, diverting manpower that could otherwise be used in offensive operations against ISIS, and thereby stalling the effort to liberate Mosul.

Unfortunately, the Mosul campaign wasn’t going well even before ISIS ramped up its attacks. As the Associated Press reports, the planned assault against the city is still several months in the future — at a minimum — because the ISF is simply not ready. So far, only 18,500 Iraqi troops have been trained by the United States. Experts not only believe the offensive may require up to twice that number of troops, but also question whether the seven-week U.S. training course will sufficiently prepare ISF troops for a major operation. America’s own readiness is also questionable. Although Secretary Carter announced last month that the United States would provide additional advisors, attack helicopters, and artillery to support the ISF, that backup reportedly has yet to arrive at the front, and America’s troop presence in Iraq has actually declined slightly. Though coalition forces are as close to the city as they have been since it fell to ISIS in 2014, they are still some 40 miles away. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has admitted to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that liberating Mosul “will take a long time and be very messy,” and that he doesn’t “see that happening in this administration.”

It is clear that the situation in Iraq is tenuous, at best, and the United States must be willing to devote considerably more resources in order to keep the country from falling apart. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey recommends that the Obama administration consider deploying even more forces to support the Iraqi advance than the Pentagon has announced. This would include more trainers and advisers to increase the size and capability of the ISF, as well as more attack helicopters and artillery in order to more frequently strike ISIS positions. But, Jeffrey also says, “a limited commitment of U.S. ground troops — two brigades of 5,000 troops each, reinforced by other NATO forces, along with local allies — could make even more rapid progress.”

The United States must split ISIS from its Sunni support base, which in the short term means creating an indigenous force of Iraqi Sunnis capable of fighting ISIS. The Center for a New American Security recommends building “essentially a Sunni equivalent to the Kurdish Peshmerga.” This should be achieved by providing weapons, training, and advisors to the Sunni tribes, and by “building out a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian Sunni National Guard force that can hold territory taken from [ISIS].” Militarily empowering the Sunni community is important because “if Iraq’s counter-[ISIS] forces consist largely of Shia militias, the end result is likely to be increased sectarian violence. This will only further marginalize Iraq’s Sunni communities and divorce them from the Iraqi central government.”

Militarily empowering Iraqi Sunnis can also pave the way for politically empowering Iraqi Sunnis, another vital requirement to defeating ISIS. Robert Ford, a former deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year that “Iraqi Sunni Arabs . . . no longer hope to dominate the central government. Instead, most said they want to govern themselves in a decentralized or even federal Iraq, enjoying basically the same local governance that the Iraqi Kurds enjoy.” This type of federal power-sharing agreement, Ford notes, “is in line with the political vision of Iraq that the Iraqi Shia and Kurdish leaders used to emphasize ten years ago, and it is consistent with the Iraqi constitution.” But, even if Mosul were to be liberated and ISIS were to be severely set back, Ford warns the terror group would likely return to being an underground insurgency feeding off of Sunni resentments. Denying ISIS its base of support will require political reforms, such as establishing effective local government that can provide “basic services, new jobs, and . . . fair treatment from local police and judges.”

None of what has been described here requires a commitment of U.S. forces to Iraq on a scale similar to the occupation a decade ago. But, without greater U.S. military and political support of the Iraqi government, ISIS will preserve its territorial safe-haven and retain the ability to mount more external attacks like those in Paris and Brussels. That should be unacceptable to this or any future administration, and the United States must devote all necessary resources to preventing it.

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