Next Steps in Iraq

Now is not the time to break out the old “Mission Accomplished” banners.

Nuri al-Maliki’s decision to withdraw his candidacy for a third-term as prime minister was an important step forward for Iraq.  But it was a necessary, not a sufficient condition for progress.  It means that Maliki is no longer an impediment to reforming Iraqi political system to bring the Sunnis, disaffected Shi’a and potentially the Kurds back into Iraq’s political process.  Still, those reforms will require a great deal of work. 

We just don’t know what specifically any of these groups would accept, but they have long lists of demands.  One example from two leading moderate Sunni political leaders can be found here. Taken together, these demands amount to three broad and critical issues: limiting the power of the central government (and of the office of the prime minister, in particular); shifting to a true federal system in which Iraq’s governorates and regions have power (including both military and financial) decentralized to them; and thoroughly reforming Iraq’s security services to ensure that they cannot be used as an instrument of repression against any group.

That may be easy to write, but exceptionally difficult to implement.  And we just don’t know if Haidar al-Abadi, the new prime minister-designate, is up to the challenge.  Abadi has worked largely behind the scenes.  He is considered intelligent and pragmatic, but he has never been chief executive nor a public political leader.  Moreover, many of the demands of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities seem entirely reasonable to them (and to many outsiders, given their treatment under Maliki), but are outrageous to many Shi’a. 

That suggests that Iraq could be in for a protracted period of negotiations—negotiations that will hopefully follow the swearing in of a new cabinet, but might not.  Even if they do come after, they could paralyze the government, preventing it from acting effectively against the urgent and profound challenges Iraq now faces.  And when the deals are finally struck, some of the reforms might require constitutional amendments, which could be equally contentious and time-consuming.

In other words, Iraq still has a long way to go.

The great challenge now is to keep the Iraqis moving on the political front while starting the fight against ISIS and the other Sunni militant groups.  The danger is that most of the former opposition—Sunni, Kurd and Shi’a—will want to work sequentially: first the political reforms, and only after these have been settled to their satisfaction will they begin to start working to roll back the conquests of ISIS and the other Sunni militants.  This makes sense for them because they will have the greatest leverage to secure those changes by withholding their participation in a combined military campaign. 

However, as I noted above, that process could drag on for a very long time, and might never reach a suitable end state.  That’s why someone is going to have to convince them to move simultaneously on political reform and military counteroffensive.  And that someone is going to have to be the United States.

The Obama Administration deserves high marks for adopting the right strategy and handling the tactics of the Iraq crisis quite well since June.  (Which is not to exonerate them for their catastrophic role in bringing about the current crisis as a result of their disastrous policy toward Iraq prior to June.)  But the truth is that it was the Iranians and the Marja’iya (the Shi’a religious establishment led by Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani based in Najaf) who really got us to this point.  It was the Iranians and the Marja’iya who called on the Shi’a militias to man the frontlines and stop the ISIS offensive against Baghdad.  Just as it was ultimately Tehran and Najaf who held the Shi’a leadership together and forced Maliki to step down.  Washington did play a role, but it was only a supporting role.

Now the ball is very much now in Washington’s court.  That’s because it is the Kurds and the Sunnis who now need to make the key compromises.  They have to agree to start fighting at the same time that they are negotiating in Baghdad, and the Iranians and the Marja’iya have little to no influence with them.  Only the United States and its allies, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey, can sway them.

So the next steps in Iraq will require a much greater, more active, and more determined (and probably higher level) American involvement for success. 

Here the United States has an important new source of leverage.  The airstrikes that the United States has been conducting in defense of Kurdistan are widely seen as highly effective and a major element in stopping the ISIS advance, enabling the Kurds to regain key ground (including possibly Mosul dam).  So too has, America’s provision of weapons and advisors to the Kurds impressed all of Iraq.  For the first time the Obama Administration has demonstrated a willingness to commit resources to save Iraq (and military resources to boot!) and Arab Iraqis—Shi’a and moderate Sunnis alike—would dearly like some of the same support in their fight against ISIS.  That has given Washington the first real influence it has had since 2011.

The key is going to be for the United States to lay out for the Iraqis what military support it would be willing to provide them once they are willing and able to fight as a unified whole against the Sunni extremists.  So far, American officials have been very specific about what they have wanted the Iraqis to do and very vague about what the U.S. would be willing to do for them in return.  That too has undermined America’s influence in the machinations in Baghdad so far.  Of greater importance, Iraqis are starting to see this vagueness as a sign that the U.S. won’t provide the same levels of support for an Iraqi counteroffensive as it has for the defense of Kurdistan. 

The other piece is that the U.S., the Turks and the Sunni Arab states are all going to have to convince Iraq’s moderate Sunni Arabs to accept gestures of good faith by the new Iraqi government rather than waiting for the entire political reform process to be fulfilled.  For instance, rather than wait for the complete reform of the Iraqi armed forces, the U.S. should try to convince the Sunnis to accept the token removal of 15-20 of the most corrupt or sectarian of Maliki’s generals, coupled with a larger commitment of American advisors and trainers to begin guiding and retraining Iraqi formations.  Similar compromises can be made in other areas—for instance by passing and implementing the provincial powers bill that has long been stalled in the Iraqi parliament, or disbanding the Office of the Commander-in-Chief, which Maliki used for many of his more nefarious acts against his political rivals. 

Once again, Maliki’s abdication was a good first step, but this is a journey of a thousand miles and the Iraqis need to get on down that road quickly.  The Iranians and the Marja’iya have given them the first push, now it is up to the U.S. and its allies to keep them going.