President Obama recently admitted that “We don’t have a complete strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State. It was an honest admission. And honesty has not been in abundance when it comes to Iraq policy. Politicians try to use the situation in Iraq for political advantage, without much consideration of Iraqis themselves. Democrats blame Republicans for invading Iraq in the first place and Republicans blame Democrats for not leaving troops there. The current extent of the debate in Washington appears limited to whether or not to send troops back to Iraq.
But numbers of boots on the ground is not a strategy. Strategy should be about how to achieve a political settlement. And increasing the commitment of U.S. military support to Iraq should only be as part of a strategy to achieving such an outcome—not as an ends in itself.
When I served as the senior civilian in Kirkuk in 2003-2004, I focused primarily on building relationships with the different groups, helping them understand each other’s fears and hopes, mediating between them, and nudging them closer together. I was able to play such a role because I worked closely with, and was fully supported by, the U.S. military. The brigade commander and myself both realized that it was politics that drove instability in the province, and that to keep the situation calm we needed to balance the different groups.
During the surge, when I served as the political adviser to General Ray Odierno, the then operational commander of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, I observed U.S. soldiers on the ground pacifying their areas of operation by protecting the population, reaching out to insurgents, brokering ceasefires, and carefully targeting those who were irreconcilable. It was the psychological impact of the surge that was the critical factor. We transformed our mindset and our approach—and this created the incentives for a change in the strategic calculus of different Iraqi groups which led to the dramatic decline in violence from 2007-2009. The U.S. played the role of “balancer,” moderator, and protector of the political process, holding the “center” ground and bringing everyone closer together. And our strategy—inherently political in nature—was underpinned by military force.
Regrettably, the U.S. gave up this role in the rush for the exit. We did not transition from a military-led to a civilian-led relationship with Iraq. Rather, all our messaging was about ending the war in Iraq, and we gave up our soft power as we withdrew our hard.
From my time in Iraq, I learned that violence stems from the competition for power among different groups in the absence of agreed rules of the game and effective institutions. After the invasion, we collapsed the state with our policies of broad de-Baathification and dissolving all the security forces leading to civil war. The new governance structure that we introduced institutionalized sectarianism and undermined the potential to strengthen Iraqi national identity.
I observed the unintended consequences both of President Bush’s efforts to impose democracy and of President Obama’s detachment, of action as well as non-action. I saw the limitations of U.S. power, but also where it was that we could have influence.
It is Iraq’s politics that are the problem. With the same political elites, who have been in power for over a decade, not capable of reaching agreement on what the “nation” is, it is very difficult to build up an effective “national” army. As we have seen, we can give the Iraqi army lots of equipment and training but we are not able to address the psychology and morale of the force—and its willingness to fight—in such a deeply contested and corrupt environment. It is about leadership. But some of the key officers we invested in were purged following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, replaced by others who used their positions to enrich themselves with the money that was supposed to supply the soldiers with food and ammunition.
The situation in Iraq today is increasingly complex as communities that have lived together mostly peacefully through the centuries have become polarized and pitted against each other.
Regional sectarian conflict is an unintended consequence of the Iraq war (and the way in which we departed Iraq), which left the state weak and altered the balance of power in the region in Iran’s favor. Geopolitical competition between Iran on the one hand, and Gulf state and Turkey on the other, led to their support for sectarian extremists turning local grievances over poor governance into regional proxy wars.
Military successes against ISIS by the Iraqi army, Shia militia and the U.S.-led coalition will not be sustainable, and will not prevent the son-of-ISIS arising in the future, if the very conditions that allowed for the rise of ISIS are not addressed. It was the sense of Sunni alienation and humiliation (further exacerbated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies), the corrupt elites who extract the resources of the state for their own interests, and the growing Iranian influence, that led many Sunnis, who had previously fought and contained al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, to decide ISIS was the lesser of two evils.
ISIS can only really be defeated by Iraq’s Sunnis. But Iraq’s domestic politics today make it very difficult to persuade and empower Sunnis to fight ISIS. Unfortunately, some Iraqis are taking advantage of the rise of ISIS to gain land, property, and wealth. While Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may have the will to bring Sunnis on board, he does not have the capacity. He is hampered by Shia militias who are fearful that weapons given to the Sunnis will be used against the Shia; and by the lack of credible Sunni leaders.
So what can and should the U.S. do?
In previous years, the U.S. was in the position to try to balance the competing factions inside Iraq. Today, the U.S. should consider a regional approach, working from the outside in. The best hope for putting Iraq on a more positive trajectory is for Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to agree on how to deal with ISIS, and what a post-ISIS Iraq should look like. They would then need to cajole Iraqi elites, over whom they have massive influence, into accepting confederation with Kurdistan, power decentralized in the rest of the country down to the provincial level, and Sunnis recruited on a provincial level to fight against ISIS. For it is only in imagining an Iraq different from the past that there is any hope in breaking the cycle of civil war and creating a brighter future for its citizens.
It is not beyond the capacity of the U.S. to push towards such an arrangement—the regional powers have a shared interest in defeating ISIS in Iraq. The question remains whether the U.S. has the will to play a stronger diplomatic role as balancer-in-chief in the region. Without such a vision, there is a real risk that the U.S. will be sucked back in to Iraq, incrementally increasing troop numbers on the ground, but with no way of getting out.
Emma Sky, senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, is author of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. She served in Iraq from 2003-2004 as the Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk and from 2007-2010 as the Political Adviser to General Ray Odierno.