Is There Hope for Iraq?

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

[This article originally appeared at Reuters and is used with the author’s permission.]

Is there hope for Iraq? It depends on what you are hoping for.

It is becoming clearer that there is little hope of destroying the Islamic State in Iraq. Islamic State has no shortage of new recruits. Its fighters capture heavy weapons with such ease that the United States is forced to direct air strikes against equipment abandoned by the Iraqis — even as it ships in more. Islamic State holds territory that will allow it to trade land for time, morph into an insurgency and preserve its forces by pulling back into Syrian territory it controls even if Iraq’s government, with Iranian and American help, launches a major assault.

Islamic State maintains support among Iraq’s Sunnis. The more the Shi’ites align against it, the more Sunnis see no other choice but to support Islamic State, as they did al Qaeda after the American invasion in 2003. Stories from Tikrit, where Shi’ite militia-led forces defeated Islamic State, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” There are other reports of ethnic cleansing in the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar. Absent a unified Iraq, there will always be an al Qaeda, an Islamic State or another iteration of it to defend the Sunnis.

The only way for Iraq to remain unified was a stalemate of force, with no side having the might to win nor weak enough to lose, with negotiations to follow. As the United States passively watched the Iranians become its proxy boots on the ground against Islamic State, all the while knowing Tehran’s broader agenda was a Shi’ite Iraqi client, that possibility was lost.

It’s possible to pin down the failure to a single battle. The last hope that Iraq would not become an Iranian client was dashed after Islamic State’s defeat in Tikrit. The victory triggered the Iraqi central government to dismiss American and Kurdish support for a drive toward strategically important Mosul. The government all but abandoned the idea of a nonsectarian national army; it turned instead to a gang of Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias with a bundle of anti-Sunni agendas. Baghdad pointed those forces toward Ramadi.

Islamic State is also in Ramadi, but it had already poked into most of the city over the past year. It needed only 400 fighters for the final push last week. The threat was not new. The move by Baghdad on Ramadi is thus more long-term political than short-term tactical: think of Ramadi not as a gate through which Islamic State must pass moving east toward Baghdad (Islamic State cannot occupy the Shi’ite city of four million, defended by untold militia, any more than the German army could capture Stalingrad) but as a gate the Shi’ite militias must traverse headed west to control the Sunni homeland of Anbar.

The Kurds, America’s great loyalist hope, were energetic fighters against Islamic State in the north, at least as long as their peshmerga was reclaiming territory — such as the city of Arbil — from the central government in Baghdad. The Kurds are nowhere to be seen now that fighting has shifted to Anbar. Kurdistan cares little about the Sunnis other than to keep them away from its territory. Baghdad, with Islamic State on its plate, under political pressure from Washington to keep the peace with the Kurds and facing a powerful peshmerga, is unlikely to make any near- to mid-term moves against Kurdistan.

So, besides simply hoping for the best, what can the United States do? Not much. Most of the possible game changers have already failed.

Ever more air power and raids by Special Operations forces cannot hold ground or do more than dilute Iranian influence in spots, assuming they are not actually assisting the Iranians. President Barack Obama has ruled out large numbers of U.S. ground forces. (Not that troops matter; the 166,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq at the surge’s peak failed to win anything lasting, and Obama’s final pullout in 2011 was numerically meaningless.) The training the United States is doing with the Iraqi Army in 2015 will accomplish about the same as the training the United States did with the Iraqi Army from 2005 to 2011. Even the U.S. secretary of defense was reduced to near-mockery when describing Iraq’s army in Ramadi; it lacked the will to fight, he said.

America’s latest man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi, has no more moved his country toward any kind of reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. Abadi’s reliance on Shi’ite militias only draws him closer to Iran.

Obama’s post-Ramadi hope  is once again to try to attract and train an anti-Islamic State Sunni force. There’s no support for that idea in Baghdad itself. The central government fears arming domestic Sunnis, besides a few token “federal police” units. It seems unlikely the Sunnis will be fooled by another U.S.-sponsored “awakening,” like the one in 2006 that helped root out insurgents in Anbar province. Baghdad left the fighters without paychecks from — or meaningful representation in — the government. As America watched, Maliki’s failure to capitalize on the original awakening is a large part of why Iraq is falling apart now.

The much-ballyhooed pan-Arab coalition against Islamic State proved to be a short-lived photo op. America flies roughly 85 percent of the missions against Islamic State, with Western allies filling in a good part of the remaining percentage. No Arab ground troops ever showed up, and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.

The United States appears to have run out of hope any of its cards will play in the long game.

Iraq’s Sunnis can, at best, hope to be pushed into an Islamic State-protected enclave on the fuzzy Syrian border, a development Washington would likely quietly support to avoid a politically embarrassing ethnic cleansing. Iraq would remain an Iranian client state, dependent on its patron to keep Islamic State in check. Iranian and Iraqi political needs would mostly be aligned at that point, though more Islamic State fighters nearer to Syria would pose its own problems. This would expose  what might be the key flaw in American policy in Iraq: The people America thinks are its allies don’t actually want what America wants.

The Iraq of 2003 is gone. The Iraq of 2014 is gone. America’s mistakes made in between have had consequences because, as everyone knows, hope alone is a poor strategy.

Peter Van Buren is a former State Department Officer who has an impish sense of humor.  He used that to devastating effect in his book, We Meant Well, on our misbegotten venture in Iraq. For telling the unvarnished truth about his service in Iraq, Van Buren was persecuted, then forced into retirement, by the State Department after more than two decades of service.

4 thoughts on “Is There Hope for Iraq?

  1. The war hawks like McCain and his Republican cohorts and those Democrats of the Obama- Clinton wing of the party should note that as fast as we ship weapons into Iraq the Saudis have have not only funded the jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria but that over 2500 Saudi nationals have joined ISIS as fighters. With “friends” like the Saudis who needs enemies?

    • Of course, if a sensible energy policy had been adopted in the US decades ago we could have achieved independence from “our friends” the Saudis. And I don’t mean via fracking, I mean through use of clean, renewable resources. But Big Oil had and has way too much influence on Members of Congress for that to have happened. So let’s deal with the reality we have: Orwell’s vision of Perpetual War and the destruction of resources that could have benefited the common people is very much on view. So let Islamic State seize the weapons US gave to the Iraqi regime, and let US Air Force try to blow those very same weapons to smithereens. General Dynamics, General Motors, etc. will be only too happy to keep their factories humming to replace them.

      The prevailing view in Washington D.C. appears to be: “We broke it [Iraq], so we’re obliged to fix it.” I suggest a new approach: “We broke it real good, so let’s just throw it away.” I believe it may have been Thomas Friedman who first publicly proposed, in the wake of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished,” that the US should resign itself to Iraq being tri-partitioned into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones. That notion was roundly rejected in government circles but may yet emerge as the “solution” forced on “us.” (Since I neither participate in nor approve of US military aggression, I always put “we” or “us” in quotation marks because I vehemently exclude myself from that collective identity.)

  2. contrary perspective

    In 1978 a nascent neo-conservative movement wormed its way into the shattered post-Watergate GOP, a party in vital need of the post-’60’s, 30 million strong, emergent neo-Evangelical Christian movement to support their puppet Presidential candidate, Reagan, to have even a remote chance of competing in the 1980 election. And by hook, crook, and Democratic Party sheer ineptitude they won.

    This decidedly unholy alliance persists today, not infrequently aided and abetted by New Democrat traitors of New Deal liberalism, appeasers of right-wing ideologues who morphed into odious neo-liberalism: a oligarchy-beholden entity only occasionally, timidly, and tepidly socially progressive. Sorta.

    If not for rampant, unrestrained craving for petroleum energy resources, and if not for insane insistence in an eschatological necessity for the existence of a solely Jewish state of Israel, then none of the three groups above would contain more than isolated small groups and individuals which have much interest of any sort in the region of the historical Levant, where these two motivations presently lay waste to so much.

    If neither of those “incentives” existed, it is more likely that any interest expended would be to keep a watchful eye so as to intervene only if the religious sects, ethnic groups, and clans quarreling pose a significant enough threat to Western, particularly American, interests to justify any sort of intervention cost/risks. Sans petroleum importance Balfour, of course, would have never been host to a post-WWl ruinous European state creation event resulting in a century-and- counting internecine regional war and Western involvement in the region.

    I doubt few of these people quarrel with the cynicism, the realpolitik, contained in this quote from the movie Syriana: ‘… a hundred years ago you were chopping each others head’s off in the desert and that’s exactly where you’ll be in another hundred.’ Nor would they be overly concerned about heads lopped off 1919 – 2015, or even particularly knowledgeable on the subject.

    Petroleum for energy, for all the positives it has contributed to modernity, has to be replaced before Iraq and the rest of the Middle East states — or whatever remains of them when the dust is settled — have at least an opportunity to sort themselves out. Given the history of Shi’a-Sunni antipathy, what emerges at that point may not be exactly calm and quiet, either. Heads may still roll for a long time to come.

  3. Pingback: Knowledge is Power, but Power is no Substitute for Knowledge | The Contrary Perspective

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