Beyond the ‘easy part’: Next steps in Iraq

In the campaign against ISIL, there are two main theaters of combat — Iraq and Syria. Of course, the conflict is more than a military fight, and it extends beyond just those two countries, but they are the center of the action at present.

Currently, the Iraq strategy is seen as the more promising of the two main lines of effort. At least in Iraq we have a friendly government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and an improved cabinet, with an army that at least sometimes is willing to fight at its beck and call. At least we are still welcome, and 3,000 Americans are now training Iraqis while U.S. pilots also fire ordnance fairly often from the air. At least ISIL is confined to roughly just 1/4 of the country, and is increasingly cut off from reinforcement in those areas of northwestern Iraq. Moreover, the recent liberation of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown and an important city in the country’s main Sunni-dominated regions, would seem to augur well for the future.

But alas, it is not so simple. While we still do have an even more daunting task in thinking through future strategies within Syria, the Iraq challenge is far from straightforward, and any expectation that Mosul as well as other major cities now held by ISIL would be quickly liberated this year appear less and less accurate.

The dilemma is even worse than that — because it is not just a question of whether the cities and other populated parts of provinces such as Ninewa, Anbar, and Salahuddin will be liberated, but by whom, and how. It is also crucial to think through who will hold them afterwards. 

All these dilemmas were recently underscored in a visit to Washington, and an appearance at Brookings, by one of Iraq’s two or three best Sunni politicians, former Deputy Prime Minister Rafe al-Issawi. Issawi was also finance minister in former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government — until the latter contrived an arrest warrant for Issawi that drove him first into internal hiding and then a form of exile. Issawi and Abadi fare much better together — and Issawi had good things to say about Iraq’s new prime minister in his visit to the United States, including a speech at Brookings in conjunction with the Sunni governor of Ninewa province. But the substance of Issawi’s remarks, delivered with courage and balance and yet great passion, was troubling. 

Three points stuck out for me with Issawi’s broader message to Americans, and I will simply offer a word of comment about each. 

  1. Issawi equated the behavior of the Shia militias in Iraq with the behavior of ISIL. It is those militias, many working for warlords and ultimately commanded by Iran, that have helped protect Baghdad starting last summer when ISIL moved into the country in force, and then helped liberate Tikrit. But according to Issawi, they are just as brutal, just as corrupt, and just as threatening to Iraq’s long-term future as ISIL. Empowered and even armed by Maliki, they are now numerous and foreboding. 

    To my ear, Issawi slightly overstated his point. I do not believe the Shia militias are quite as bad as ISIL, and in fact, it is only fair to note that Baghdad might have been much more seriously threatened last year had they not intervened in its defense. But the overall argument is compelling, and suggests that the current path Iraq is following, which depends heavily on those militias for the defeat of ISIL and liberation of Sunni-majority regions in coming months, may sow as many problems as it solves. My colleague Ken Pollack, who moderated the event with Issawi, has warned of “catastrophic success” should the successful liberation of cities like Mosul be accomplished by unregulated militias who are more loyal to their immediate masters and to Teheran than to Baghdad, and as usual, Ken has a point. 

  2. Issawi emphasized the need to build up the Iraqi army, police, and the newly conceived national guard. In so doing, he suggested that the Shia militias not be able to simply “re-hat” their members, but that any such former militia irregulars be individually recruited, vetted, trained, and assigned. 

    In principle, this is a very good idea. In practice, there might need to be some accommodation to the fact that these militias are powerful and unlikely to accept demilitarization and demobilization in a happy way. There might need to be some allowance for smaller groups of former militia fighters joining the official security forces of the state. Provided that leadership is good and that the militia forces are broken down into reasonably small chunks, I think the situation might prove tolerable. I hope Issawi and his fellow Sunni will be prepared to accept some compromise, admittedly with some risk to the state and the interests of their fellow Sunni, to make the idea work. There probably is no other realistic path forward. 

  3. Finally, Issawi favored the serious development of the national guard, an idea that has languished in Baghdad and Washington, as a way of empowering Sunni tribal fighters and other local security forces. He called this a “modified Petraeus method” and I think he is basically right. But to decide which fighters could join these groups, and which of the groups would get arms, he favored creation of joint committees of central government leaders and local officials. Again, this seems sound — give Baghdad oversight of things, while enlisting locals in the fights to defend their own towns and cities. But it will require flexibility in implementation. For example, will these joint committees decide matters of personnel and weaponry by majority vote or consensus? And who will choose the individual members? 

So Issawi’s visions and ideas raise many practical questions of implementation. But make no mistake — he is right on the central point, that we are a long ways from being out of the woods in Iraq, either in the fight against ISIL or the enhancement of the country’s longer-term prospects for stability. We do need to think much harder about Syria, but we mustn’t take Iraq and its future for granted.