As the forces of the Islamic State consolidate power in Syria and threaten to expand further in Iraq, President Obama is proposing a cautious but serious plan to push it back. In general terms the president’s approach – reforming the Iraqi government, building up national and local military forces like Sunni tribes and Kurdish militias, working with allies and using limited force in both Iraq and Syria – may be the most realistic option out there. With dedication and some luck, a Somalia and Yemen type approach may move things forward and at least degrade the Islamic State. Yet many of the necessary steps the United States must take to save Iraq from the Islamic State and disintegration work against the longstanding U.S. objective of a secure Iraq that is friendly to the West and has its territorial integrity intact.
One U.S. effort is to increase federalism. By devolving power to the regional level, both Sunnis and Kurds will have more rights and feel less threatened by the Shia-dominated central government. However, such a shift increases their power relative to the central government and strengthens the separate identities of these groups. This makes Iraq less cohesive and, should problems arise in the future, they will be better able to oppose the central government.
Helping the Kurds help themselves militarily poses similar dilemmas. The Kurdish “peshmerga” suffered some significant defeats at the Islamic State’s hands, but it still remains one of Iraq’s better fighting forces. With the help of U.S. airpower, the Kurds have reversed Islamic State gains in parts of Iraq, and by arming and training the Kurds, the United States can make them more effective. But the Kurds, who have long flirted with independence, will demand more support from Baghdad as the price of their cooperation, and their greater power will make them more able to declare independence in defiance of Baghdad. The Kurds also may take territory in mixed-populated areas, displacing Sunni Arabs whom the Kurds regard as interlopers.
A coup is another risk. The government of Haidar al-Abadi, with all its flaws, does at least have some shreds of popular legitimacy. But by building up military forces, the United States risks creating strongmen who have more credibility than elected politicians and can threaten force to increase their political influence or even seize power for themselves.
Finally, the United States will further empower Iran in Iraq. Although actual on-the-ground coordination is unlikely, Tehran and Washington share an enemy in the Islamic State. For now, Iraq needs all the help it can get and Iran, unlike the United States, is more willing to put its forces at risk on the ground. And because the United States favors working with Sunnis and Kurds, while Iran prefers that its Shia allies advance, Iran’s help will be especially welcome by the Abadi regime.
Such tradeoffs are inevitable: not acting would leave Iraq even worse off. Yet the Obama administration should realize that even if its plan succeeds in staving off the threat from the Islamic State, Iraq will face a host of troubles, some of them worsened by the anti-Islamic State effort. If U.S. policy is to succeed in the long-term, it must recognize these risks and adjust accordingly in the years to come. This is going to be a long slog.