Tomorrow, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi will meet with President Obama for the first time as prime minister of Iraq. For the past 12 years, there has hardly been an occasion when such a meeting between the U.S. president and the Iraqi prime minister did not come at an important time, but this meeting comes at a watershed moment. Iraq could move in many possible directions, most bad, but some potentially quite good. It is absolutely critical that the Obama administration grasps this opportunity to put Iraq firmly on the right track.
The Tikrit victory
A lot has happened in Iraq recently, much of it well-covered by the international media, at least in its immediate dimensions.
First and foremost was the liberation of Tikrit. As I noted in a post soon after the battle was joined, the most important thing to understand about the battle for Tikrit is that it was planned and initially executed almost entirely by Iraq’s Shi’a militias and their Iranian advisors. The militia leaders did not even notify the Iraqi government of their intended attack on Tikrit until six days before it commenced, and offered to allow government forces to participate only on condition that the United States was excluded. Prime Minister Abadi did what he had to do, committing small numbers of troops to the fight and publicly taking ownership of the operation so as to not look irrelevant in his own country.
But then, the best thing of all happened: the militias were stymied by Da’ish fighters, prevented from clearing the city. The government turned to the United States for air support to break the deadlock and the United States, in the persons of CENTCOM Commander General Lloyd Austin and Ambassador Stuart Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, agreed to provide everything the Iraqis needed, on condition that the militias back off. This was exactly the right move and the Obama administration deserves credit for seizing the opportunity.
Best of all, within days of the start of U.S. airstrikes, Da’ish was driven from Tikrit. As General Austin and Ambassador Jones (among others) argued, this has begun to change the narrative in Iraq in important ways. For the militia leaders and their Iranian advisors, the whole point of the assault was to demonstrate that they had complete freedom of action and could liberate even large Sunni cities without American support. If they could do so, it would reinforce to Iraqis that they did not need the United States, and the United States could not do anything to stop the Iranian-backed militias. The fact that they failed to take Tikrit after a month, but the U.S. airstrikes resulted in its fall in less than a week has reversed the narrative. While it is just unclear what the average Iraqi believes right now, Iraqi elites—Sunni and Shi’a—increasingly recognize that the Iranians and their allies cannot do what the Americans supporting Iraqi Security Force (ISF) units could. That is huge.
The shift to Anbar
There is some more good news. It looks like Baghdad has chosen not to try to liberate Mosul next, but will instead shift its focus to Anbar to clear much or all of that western province before turning back north. That matters because, as I and any number of other commentators have noted, taking Mosul will be a major challenge, both militarily and politically. Mosul is a massive, multi-ethnic city and the crown jewel of the Da’ish empire, such as it is. Taking it could easily prove more difficult than Tikrit.
The cities and towns of Anbar, in contrast, tend to be smaller and far more homogeneous. It is also likely to be more difficult for the Shi’a militias to get involved there because they won’t have much (if any) support from the local populace. Instead, they will be wholly dependent on the government for sustainment, which will allow Baghdad to simply cut off their supplies, as it seems to have eventually done to the militias in the Tikrit fighting.
Going after the smaller cities of Anbar should allow Iraqi army formations to gain valuable combat experience, build their cohesion and leadership, and secure the trust of Iraq’s Sunni community. In each operation, with American support, Iraqi security forces can work out both the military and political kinks in their methodologies, and do so in smaller, more easily-managed operations. Hopefully, they can create a sense of momentum that will bolster Prime Minister Abadi and reassure the Sunni community that its liberation is inevitable, while simultaneously giving Sunni Iraqis the confidence that when the ISF comes to town, they can feel safe under its protection. That is critically important given the widespread fear among Sunni Iraqis of the Shi’a militias, which have conducted ethnic cleansing and inflicted punitive retribution in some, perhaps many, of the areas they have retaken from Da’ish.
Refocusing on the long term
As I have warned elsewhere the greatest ongoing problem with the current U.S. approach to Iraq is its continuing focus on short-term operations and neglect of the long-term question of Iraq’s political future. This is not an academic question that can be left to some future date. It is the single most important question facing Iraq today, and if it is not addressed properly, it will unravel all of the near-term political and military gains won by Iraqis and Americans.
Without rehearsing the entire issue, the question that every Iraqi wants to know is what kind of Iraq will exist after Da’ish is driven from Iraq—something all Iraqis now see as merely a matter of time. We need to remember that it was former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s subversion of Iraqi democracy and alienation of the Sunni community that caused the state to collapse again, allowed Da’ish to overrun the northwest, and plunged the country back into civil war. If there is not a new power-sharing arrangement among Sunnis and Shi’a that will make the Sunnis feel comfortable rejoining the government—one that assures them of political weight and economic benefits commensurate with their demographic strength, and that will make them feel safe from violent repression by the government—they will continue to fight, with or without Da’ish. As I have warned, in those circumstances, military victory over Da’ish will not end the fighting, it will enflame it.
Here the United States has some important things going for it. First, as I noted above, the United States actually has quite a good team working on Iraq. Ambassador Jones has proven to be smart, energetic and able, and he has some good support. Generals Austin, Terry and Bednarek have similarly handled the military situation with care and skill. And perhaps of greatest importance, we have Prime Minister Abadi himself, whom a wide swathe of Iraqis consider (probably correctly) to be Iraq’s last, best hope.
The importance of helping Prime Minister Abadi succeed
Time and again, Abadi has taken difficult, risky steps to pull Iraq in the right direction. His decisions to disband the Office of the Commander in Chief, sack the worst of the political generals appointed by Maliki, accept American military advisers, oppose Hadi al-Ameri (Iran’s most important Iraqi ally) as minister of the interior, strike two deals with the Kurds over oil, reach out to Iraq’s Sunni leadership, arm Sunni fighters, and request American air support at Tikrit over the objections of the Shi’a militia leaders, all speak to his determination to do the right thing. Every one of those decisions (and a range of others) were opposed by Iran and Iraq’s Shi’a chauvinists. They attest to his desire to defeat Da’ish, end the sectarian fighting, repair relations with the Sunnis and bring them back into the fold, limit Iranian influence in Iraq, and expand Iraq’s relationship with the United States—exactly our goals in Iraq as well. While Abadi may not be perfect, he was an inspired choice for prime minister and as many Iraqi leaders point out (some as praise, others as condemnation) if Abadi cannot make Iraq work, then probably no one can.
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But Abadi needs help. He is a good man in a weak position. He is opposed by a number of important Shi’a leaders aligned with Iran, while most Sunni, Shi’a and even Kurdish leaders fear that he is too weak to succeed and so have not been willing to exert themselves on his behalf—creating a vicious cycle. He is going to have to get strong support by an important external power to reverse that perverse situation. There is no question that the United States could play that role, but doing so is going to mean committing to Iraq in a way that the Obama administration has never been willing to do more than rhetorically.
The events at Tikrit have created an opportunity, a moment when various Iraqi political leaders are reassessing their calculation of the correlation of forces in Iraq. The Iranians do not look quite as strong as they once did, and the Americans suddenly look like they might regain their 2003-2009 form. But this moment will not last forever. What Iraqis are looking for is whether the United States will sustain its commitment to Iraq, and will do so both for the duration of the fight against Da’ish and after.
Iraqis are many things, but forgetful is not one of them. They all remember the disastrous American disengagement from Iraq that began in 2010 as the Obama administration did everything it could to wash its hands of Iraq. It was that disengagement that led in a straight line to the resumption of the current civil war. If the United States is going to abandon Iraq again as soon as Da’ish is defeated, the vast majority of Iraqis are likely to conclude that the country will break down all over again at that point, and so it would be foolish of them to do anything now other than prepare for when that day comes. It is precisely that bet-hedging that produced the return to civil war in Iraq in the first place (and historically always has in civil wars all across the world). It is why the “moral hazard” argument trotted out by the Obama administration to justify their political decision to disengage from Iraq was always belied by both the history of Iraq and the history of civil wars. It was proven disastrously false in June 2014.
But if the United States is going to learn that lesson rather than repeat it, we are going to have to make a long-term commitment to a real partnership with Iraq. The kind of partnership that the Obama administration has talked about endlessly but done almost nothing to realize. Now is the time to make good on that promise.
If Prime Minister Abadi is going to succeed, he is going to need to be able to convince other Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi’a, that he has strong American backing and an enduring American commitment to help Iraq rebuild its security forces, maintain the security of all Iraqis (and long after Da’ish is gone), reform its governmental structure, and begin to provide goods and services to the Iraqi people.
What Abadi needs from the visit
Prime Minister Abadi’s visit to the White House thus comes at a critical moment—one where Iran’s allies have been taken down several pegs and all Iraqis are looking to see what kind of a commitment the United States is willing to make to actually back Maliki. If all he gets is a warm smile and a photo-op, the moment will be lost. There is a lot that could help him; here is a quick way to think about it:
Additional military assistance
It is largely correct that, as former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel argued, the Iraqis are getting everything they need militarily. But that’s beside the point. Right now, Iraqi Shi’a widely believe that Iran has been providing them with everything they need militarily and the United States has been stingily doling out only tiny amounts only when Iraq is desperate. Abadi needs to be able to go to other Iraqi leaders and say, in effect, ‘The Americans are ready to be generous with their military assistance—so generous that we don’t necessarily need the Iranians.’ This actually isn’t hard given how much more the United States has to give than Iran, how much is already in the pipeline, and how much Iraq needs. If the president could simply announce a variety of new arms sales—preferably to be paid at a later date when Iraq’s finances are in better shape (see below)—from small arms to additional MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles), it would go a long way to making that case.
This is critical. There are two things that Abadi needs. Unfortunately he does not seem willing to acknowledge either. The first is help and “encouragement” to expand his staff. This may seem stunning, but right now, Abadi has a tiny little group of people he relies on to run the Iraqi government. It is perhaps a few dozen at most, to do what most countries have thousands for. This many people, no matter how capable they may be, are far, far too few to actually get things done—and these people are obscenely overworked and sleep-deprived. It is a major reason that Abadi is punching below his weight and failing to get things done. He needs American assistance identifying additional personnel and building out a staff that can actually move the rusty wheels of the Iraqi government.
The second, and even more important political task is for the United States to take a more active role in political reconciliation. Simply put, Iraq’s Sunni community is badly fragmented—at least as much as they were in 2007-2008, if not more so. They will not be able to come together and negotiate a new power-sharing arrangement that could produce a stable Iraq and end the civil war. Someone is going to have to help them, if not in effect do it for them. Right now, Prime Minister Abadi hopes to do this himself. It is a noble idea, but it is already failing and seems unlikely to work. It would be far, far better to allow Ambassador Jones to play this role instead—speaking to scores of Sunni leaders to determine the minimum necessary requirements of the Sunni community as a whole and acting as their surrogate in negotiations with Prime Minister Abadi or other moderate Shi’a leaders. This is how the United States ended the civil war in Iraq in 2008, with Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his team playing precisely that role. Again, it would be nice if Prime Minister Abadi could handle this himself, but the evidence suggests that it is just not possible because of Sunni distrust of the Shi’a, even Abadi. This is an absolutely critical area where the United States has to convince Prime Minister Abadi to let us help him.
One last point on political assistance deserves mention. Prime Minister Abadi is likely to ask President Obama for help with Iraq’s Sunni neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey. Iraqi prime ministers have been understandably asking the same for over a decade. While the United States should, of course, be willing to help Iraq here, what the president needs to tell the prime minister very directly is that there is no way that the United States is going to change the perspectives—let alone the policies—of any of these states until Iraq’s Sunni community feels comfortable with the political future of Iraq. THAT, not what the United States tells them, is their key consideration in Iraq. And consequently, until there is meaningful political reconciliation between Sunni and Shi’a in Iraq, all the American jawboning and pressure in the world are not going to do a jot of good. And that too should make him willing to accept an expanded American role in that process.
Here as well, there is a great deal that the United States can and should do. First, Iraq is suffering mightily from the twin blows of low oil prices and the cost of waging a war against Da’ish. Days after the Abadi-Obama meeting, Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari will appeal to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help in enabling Iraq to meet its immediate financial problems (including a $21 billion budget deficit). Full-throated American support coupled with creative financial assistance with the international financial institutions will be very important to Iraq—and very helpful in demonstrating both America’s commitment to Iraq, and the myriad ways that the United States can help Iraq and Iran simply cannot.
In that sense, now would be a great moment to announce a major new program of American economic assistance to Iraq. Some of this could and should be direct aid to alleviate some of the economic problems Iraqis are suffering right now as a result of the low oil prices and costs of the civil war. The Iraqis desperately need help with agriculture reform, educational expansion and reform, infrastructure repair, financial sector reform, and capacity building at every level of governance and regulation. Much of this assistance could come in the form of American know-how (and perhaps some short-term financing) coupled with long-term Iraqi financing once oil prices rebound. That said, it is important to note that several major recent polls have now shown American public support for doing more in both Iraq and Syria, including taking very costly steps like committing ground troops. Congress too seems quite willing to appropriate funds for Iraq and Syria as part of the campaign against Da’ish. Thus, there is no reason to believe that the public or the Congress would balk at a new aid package for Iraq.
The bottom line, of course, is that Iraq needs just about everything. Because of the fear of Da’ish, the American people and Congress appear ready to pay more to stabilize Iraq, and the events on the ground—from the accession of Haidar al-Abadi to the recent victory at Tikrit—have created a remarkable opportunity for the United States to secure both its short and long term goals in Iraq. But, as always, doing so is not going to be easy. It is going to require an effort on our part. We are going to have to commit additional aid and assistance to Iraq, both to enable Prime Minister Abadi to advance his agenda (which is our agenda too) and to give American diplomats and generals leverage of their own to complement Abadi’s efforts. As part of that, we are going to have to convince Abadi to let us help him put his own house in order, build a staff that can run the country, and allow Ambassador Jones to act as a surrogate for the fissiparous Sunni leadership. That won’t be easy, but it will be much easier if the prime minister comes away convinced that he can rely on the United States to be steadfast, committed and generous in a way that we simply have not been for the past five years.