Today’s testimony shows that there some indication of military progress, but the big question is whether it is sustainable. To me, the point is that you can’t sustain military progress without significant political progress and without brokering a political agreement among the Iraqis.
If anything comes through clearly from the testimony, it’s the fact that where you have a massive concentration of U.S. forces, and where you have cooperation with local militias, you can get progress on security. These findings are not surprising.
There are many reasons why this limited military progress is not sustainable:
U.S. forces can’t expand much further without breaking our military. Sunni militias are cooperating because they’re against al-Qaeda in Iraq, but they’re still against the government. Shiite militias are killing each other, and they stand ready to fight the Sunnis, but there’s no obvious deal to be cut with the Shiite militias as there has been with the Sunnis.
The Iraqi military has improved operationally, but civilian order is still dependent on a police force that has been dominated by militia forces.
At a national level, the core grievances among the sectarian groups on oil, federal regional relations and minority rights are still unresolved.
One issue which nobody addressed in the hearing is the fact that the numbers of refugees and displaced persons are growing and they are increasingly destitute. They’re starting to congregate in camps that can become their own security risks.
In this wider context, the picture that’s hard to square is how can one realistically create a case that military progress can be sustained without a much stronger and aggressive political and diplomatic strategy that matches Petraeus’s military strategy.
On the military side, we’ve made a choice to be proactive and in effect take the fight to them. On the diplomatic side, eventually Iraqis have to make choices, but we’ve done virtually nothing to try to increase the chances that they might actually come together and negotiate an agreement among themselves.
Missing from either testimony was any reference to a plea that U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad made in early August for the UN to play a role in brokering a political compact.
There appears to be no cognizance that some entity is needed to take a lead in bringing the parties together and, eventually, in bringing on board the regional actors. While there have been some regional meetings, there really is no focus or sustained agenda out of those meetings that would lead to a basic political compromise between the warring parties.
It’s clear that there are bad actors in the region. Both Crocker and Petraeus emphasized the role of Iran-and Petraeus also mentioned Syria. But the reality is that there is a split in the region among Sunnis and Shiia. Neither Sunnis nor Shiia in the surrounding states want to see “their side” lose. They have already been intervening and providing support to try to make sure that’s the case. The Iranian role gets particularly highlighted, but it would be misleading to say that’s the only external role.
It may not be possible to get actors in the region to refrain from funding those they see as their brethren. Perhaps one of the only ways to have a chance is to begin working out an internal agreement among Iraqi Sunnis and Shiia. At least then there might be an alternative to the zero sum perspective of the surrounding states of picking and supporting “their winners” in this conflict.
If you’re going to blow up the JCPOA, the prospects for conflict are higher, period...It’s a difficult adjustment and it does require some really hard discussions.