FPI Bulletin: Time for a Serious Commitment to Fighting ISIS in Iraq

April 15, 2015

Yesterday at the White House, President Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, after which Obama praised Abadi’s leadership and announced an additional $200 million of humanitarian assistance for victims of the war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Abadi’s visit follows the recent eviction of ISIS from Tikrit by Iraqi forces with support from American airpower. After the failure of an initial assault on the city by Iraqi forces and Iranian-aligned Shi’ite militias, the U.S. offered to help on the condition that the pro-Iranian militias remain on the sidelines.  This represents a step in the right direction, but the question now is whether the Obama administration will provide the Abadi government with sufficient support to defeat ISIS without relying on Iran.

Prime Minister Abadi has begun to take the difficult steps necessary to repair the damage done by his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who relied ever more on Iran to sustain his increasingly authoritarian government. Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution writes of Abadi:

“His decisions to disband the Office of the Commander in Chief, sack the worst of the political generals appointed by Maliki, accept American military advisers, oppose Hadi al-Ameri (Iran's most important Iraqi ally) as minister of the interior, strike two deals with the Kurds over oil, reach out to Iraq's Sunni leadership, arm Sunni fighters, and request American air support at Tikrit over the objections of the Shi'a militia leaders, all speak to his determination to do the right thing.”

Yet in the absence of firm support from Washington, no Iraqi prime minister can afford to antagonize Tehran. For his part, Maliki turned increasingly to Tehran in response to the precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq. Abadi is susceptible to similar pressures, as illustrated by his decision to exclude the U.S. from the initial assault on Tikrit, the largest offensive of the war. Instead, Abadi’s strike force of 30,000 troops consisted overwhelmingly of pro-Iranian militia fighters. Also on the battlefield was Qassim Suleimani, an Iranian general who has long directed Tehran’s subversion and terrorist campaigns in the region. Through his actions, Abadi made clear his dependence on Iran.

For that reason, the failure of the Iranian-backed offensive and the success of the U.S.-Iraqi effort have brought Iraq to a potential turning point. Iraqis have now seen evidence that American support can be much more effective than Iranian assistance, at least when the Americans make a serious commitment. Moreover, unlike the sectarian militias that Iran backs, American support can help to unify Iraq, rather than splintering the country.

The next phases of the Iraqi war against ISIS will test the depth of President Obama’s commitment. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. and Iraqi leaders are now at odds over whether Anbar or Mosul should be the next target of the campaign against ISIS. The Iraqis prefer Anbar, which is closer to Baghdad and would be a less difficult target for inexperienced forces. In contrast, Mosul is distant from Baghdad and is the second-largest city in Iraq. The Journal notes, “The primary political hurdle to retaking Mosul—about 250 miles northwest of Baghdad—is that the Iraqi military is still ill-prepared for what is expected to be a difficult and deadly street battle.” While the U.S. may be right that Mosul is more strategically significant, it is far from certain that the Obama administration will provide the support Iraqi forces would need to retake the city.

Since the first airstrikes launched last summer, the White House has adamantly opposed the deployment of American combat forces to Iraq. Although the definition of combat forces remains unclear, the administration has demonstrated no interest in allowing Special Operations Forces to advise Iraqi forces in combat or serve as spotters for U.S. airstrikes. Yet this may be what is required to retake Mosul, which remains the symbol of ISIS power in Iraq.

James Jeffrey, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, recommends that the U.S. strengthen Iraqi forces by embedding “U.S. military advisory teams, close air support coordinators, and possibly combat engineer experts” in every battalion. This augmentation would reduce the need to rely on Shi’ite militias. With regard to the impending assault on Mosul, Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute writes, “to have any hope of success, the tiny Iraqi assault force will need lots of U.S. firepower… That means American tactical air controllers will have to be embedded in Iraqi ground maneuver units, with enough U.S. foot soldiers to defend them.”

The surprising outcome of the battle for Tikrit has given President Obama the opportunity to show that he has learned the right lessons from the rise of ISIS and the implosion of the Iraqi Security Forces following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. American leadership can empower leaders like Prime Minister Abadi to defeat ISIS and rebuild Iraq.  The alternatives are either chaos, Iranian dominance, or both. Which will President Obama choose?

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