Obama’s New Plan to Save Iraq: Tear It Apart

The White House is moving to arm Iraq’s tribal and religious militias. But these forces hate the Baghdad government almost as much as they hate ISIS.

06.10.15 11:45 PM ET

President Obama’s decision to send an additional 450 troops to Iraq is the latest example of a strategy mired in double paradox. The U.S. wants to save a unified Iraq—by strengthening the ethnic and religious militias that could tear the country apart. And to pull it off, Washington is counting on the cooperation of groups divided by a chasm of suspicion.

In its announcement Wednesday, the Obama administration said the additional American troops are supposed to help more Sunnis come forward and eventually receive U.S. military training. The goal is for those Sunnis to align with the largely Shiite government in Baghdad to drive out the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Sunni-dominated terror army that controls the region where they live.

But there’s a major catch. Several, actually. For these Sunni fighters, fighting ISIS not only means going to war against their fellow Sunnis. It also means teaming up with the central government in Baghdad—a government dominated by their Shiite rivals with a long history of mistreating Sunnis.

In Iraq, Sunni leaders describe a central government that is deeply distrustful of its potential trainees, unwilling to give them arms provided by the United States, and quick to turn a blind eye when sectarian forces carry out attacks against them.

“This is a half-measure not designed to achieve effects on the ground but a response to critics,” an adviser who works with the U.S. military on its strategy against ISIS explained to The Daily Beast. “This is the least they could do with the least amount of risk.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that “these new advisers will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead, and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar under the command of the prime minister.”

Sunnis, recruited by U.S. troops, would join the Iraqi military—or, more likely, local militias—to fend off an expanding ISIS threat. Among the ways the U.S. troops will find potential recruits will be to seek recommendations of candidates from tribesmen, Army Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.

In other words, the U.S. military is reaching out to a sect of Iraqis that does not trust the U.S.-backed central Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and encouraging them to join the Iraqi military or fight ISIS through their own forces.

Until now, all trainees came by way of the Shiite-dominated central Iraq government—usually unsuccessfully—leading to a largely sectarian Shiite-dominated military and Sunni areas of Iraq susceptible to ISIS.

This would be the first time in the new Iraq war that the U.S. military has reached out at a local, tribal level for potential trainees.

“What we are trying to do is bring Sunnis into the fold,” Warren told reporters.

The U.S. forces will be stationed at Taqaddum base, in Iraq’s restive, Sunni-dominated Anbar province. The base is at Habbaniya, which sits between the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, both under ISIS control. Taqaddum became a headquarters for the Iraqi police and military after its troops lost Ramadi and fled to the base last month. It was a major tactical and psychological defeat for the Iraqi military.

The U.S. troops will advise members of the Iraqi army’s 8th Division about tactics to eventually reclaim Ramadi, Warren said. American forces will also help find Sunnis to join the army or to receive military training to create a local force. U.S.-backed Sunni candidates for training will also receive body armor, small arms, and communications equipment, Warren said.

Those U.S. troops at Taqaddum will not yet train the local forces but rather parcel out potential candidates to four bases around the country where roughly 3,000 U.S. troops are conducting training operations for the Iraqi military.

The announcement of the additional 450 troops came on the one-year anniversary of the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, to ISIS, the group’s largest gain in Iraqi until Ramadi.

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The U.S. has been somewhat reluctant, until recently, to embrace sectarian-dominated forces. The one exception to that rule has been the Kurds’ Peshmerga fighters. And even they have complained that the support they’ve received from Washington has been underwhelming.

Instead, U.S. officials have called for—and helped train—a national Iraqi military. That military, however, is disorganized and fragmented. And both the Peshmerga and Shiite-dominated militias have successfully fended off ISIS where the Iraqi military failed.

Shiite militias, backed by Iran, helped Iraqi military forces reclaim the central city of Tikrit this year. That prompted the U.S. to agree to provide air support to militiamen—even though Shiite forces staged something of an ethnic cleansing in Tikrit after the fight was done. The U.S. simply insisted that the militiamen should stay under Iraqi military control during operations to reclaim territory from ISIS.

The 450 American troops, at the longtime urging of the Sunni Iraqi leaders, will now help create a Sunni equivalent militia force that it has so far lacked.

That the U.S. is leaning more on paramilitary forces only confirms the failure of both the central government and its forces to protect Iraq, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“We are increasingly living in a world where threats come at a sub-state level. The reason why sub-state threats are able to reach strategic levels is because the state that is nominally supposed to control a territory does not,” he said.

“It may be locking the U.S. into engaging at the sub-state level,” he continued. The American war plan may center around strengthening Baghdad, but American actions may be contributing to forces that weaken the government there.

The U.S. military has tried training more Sunni forces but so far has largely failed. That’s left many in the U.S. military skeptical that additional forces could make a major difference.

Rather than a strategic shift, the addition of 450 troops is “tactical tweak,” according to one observer. It’s a required response to ISIS gains and another half measure in what has been marked as a piecemeal strategy, three military officials told The Daily Beast.

Since March, there have been no Iraqi troops to train at al Asad base, which sits in Anbar province, and where 440 U.S. troops have been sitting idle. Iraqi officials said they needed their soldiers and had to yank them out, mid-training. The Iraqis never sent any more, the two defense officials told The Daily Beast.

But Sunni tribesmen have risen up, with American help, against Sunni extremists before. That’s one of the reasons al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, was eventually beaten back in the last Iraq war.

Retired Army Col. Douglas A. Ollivant noted that all the paramilitary forces are under the command of the central government—as any Sunni-dominated force trained by the United States will be. Both the paramilitary forces and the Iraqi government accept that condition. Ollivant noted that during a visit to Washington last month, Saleem al-Jubouri, the Iraqi speaker of parliament and a Sunni, urged for a U.S.-trained Sunni force that would answer to the central government.

“Baghdad is conceding that during this time of crisis it has to use sub-state units. But all these sub-state units will report to operation centers,” Ollivant said.

Obama first hinted at the announcement Monday during the G7 summit. But then he suggested the focus was on more training, not just advising.

“One of the areas where we’re going to have to improve is the speed at which we’re training Iraqi forces…We want to get more Iraqi security forces trained, fresh, well-equipped, and focused,” the president said Monday. By Wednesday, officials stressed the U.S. troops’ advising and assisting role, saying training was down the road.

U.S. officials said American troops have so far trained 9,000 Iraqi soldiers and are training 3,100 others. U.S. officials could not say how many Sunnis they hope will emerge through the latest U.S. troop ramp-up, only that it will likely start in the next two months.