Iraq’s crisis of confidence, what can the U.S. do about it?

With the onslaught of ISIS, Iraq is facing a plague of threats

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With the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from areas now under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it seems the force is a mere shadow of what it was billed to be. As analysts weigh in on what can be done, the situation in Iraq is becoming more dire and government forces lose control of key areas.

Faced with the growing presence of ISIS, Iraq’s response has been to approach Washington, repeatedly, with outstretched hands, asking for help. It seems that the Obama administration has been hesitant to supply additional tangible support to Iraq in an effort to not get dragged into the very war they vowed to end.

Iraqi leaders argue that if the United States does not act significantly now, Iraq could quickly be lost to militant Islamists, reversing all the gains the U.S. made in its 10-year engagement in the country. Yet, despite Iraq’s seemingly alarmist mentality, and the stark reality on the ground, Iraqis may hold the answer to turning the tide on the violence that is plaguing the country.

“If Iraqis do not believe that meaningful U.S. assistance is forthcoming, then, they will not have enough incentives to adopt and stand by the political reforms that the U.S. is urging us” to adopt, Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily told an audience in Washington, DC this week. “The U.S. administration needs to refute these suspicions by making clear that the United States will in fact, give the democratically elected government of Iraq air support and other essential military assistance—what I might call ‘game changers’ that can turn the tide against ISIS.”

ISIS is embroiled in a war of attrition against the Iraqi government - a body the United States has long fought to bolster. Despite public U.S. support, the Iraqi governing structures seem to be coming apart at the seams in the face of a continued offensive by the militarily savvy ISIS, along with the domestic tensions between the marginalized Sunni populations and their Shiite governing forces. What Iraq is seeing, say analysts, is a capitalization, by the militant groups, upon the fragmented government and the government’s apparent desire to cling to power rather than run the country.

“ISIS has been able to exploit power vacuums, which did not exist in the AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) period. At that time, Iraq was occupied by the United States and Assad had a tighter grip on Syria. The geographic expansion of ISIS has less to do with its ability to out-fight government forces in these countries then its success consolidating tumultuous conflict zones,” said Max Abrahms, a professor of public policy at Northeastern University.

It seems that the U.S. can do something to help alleviate the tensions in the country by helping provide airstrikes and limited military support to the Iraqi government, according to analysts. At the very least, this initiative by the United States can prove to buoy the Maliki government enough to leverage some power against the ISIS fighters and skirt the violence. While the crisis in Iraq now is largely about tangibles, the intangible - a crisis in confidence in the Iraqi government - may just be the key to slowing the country’s rapid decline into complete destruction.

“The U.S. needs to begin launching targeted strikes on ISIS leaders and economic ventures, like oil smuggling. This will begin to break down their dominance and let other Sunni groups fight them,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Security and politics in Iraq are all about momentum: ISIS currently has momentum. But if they suffer a defeat - a very public defeat, say in eastern Mosul or Tuz Khurmatu or near Kirkuk - then confidence in Iraq's survival will grow,” he added.

Currently, ISIS is showing no real plans of slowing down, as they reportedly seized the ancient Mar Behnam monastery in Mosul just this week. However, experts say that the militant force is not as invincible as it may seem.

“ISIS was able to achieve considerable ‘shock and awe’ in its initial assaults on poorly officered Iraqi army units in predominantly Sunni Arab areas. Although it is far from a spent force now - it is still capable of small unit operations and acts of terrorism - it accomplished the limit of what was relatively easy,” said Ambassador Fred Hof, who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “ISIS is now up against more organized and competent defenses and it has to deal with tribal authorities and ordinary Iraqis who may not be attracted to its criminal, heavy-handed, and pre-Islamic governance practices. Momentum is no longer in its favor,” he added.

The onus, some U.S. experts say, must be on Iraq to regain power over its own country. Even granting Iraq the military weapons and airstrikes that it so adamantly demands will not serve to be the silver bullet that Baghdad hopes it to be. “Weapons supplies - other than ammunition and individual weapons - have long lead-times and require considerable training” Hof said.

“The U.S. can do very little to help Iraq right now. Sending more military equipment or carrying out air strikes will not change the strategic situation. The Iraqi security forces have largely collapsed and will take years to rebuild. Even putting advisers in Iraqi units will only do so much right now because the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) is such a mess,” said Joel Wing, Iraq analyst from the Musings On Iraq blog.

The issue at hand now is that in the midst of the mounting chaos in Iraq, the country and its leaders have to play a long game. Yes, military arms or airstrikes may boost the image of power or strength against ISIS in favor of the Iraqi government but that still does not get to the root of the fractionalization of the regime itself. It can be said that the Maliki government has done a good job of losing friends, making enemies and alienating allies.

Iraq’s response to the reality of their circumstance is awkward at best with its calls on the U.S. for help and lackluster response to the militants.

“Clarity is crucial. Now, more than ever, the United States needs to be careful not to send mixed signals about its intentions. These mixed signals will create a vacuum that will be filled by others,” Ambassador Faily said. “A vacuum is being created. And it will be filled by whoever’s available on the ground. That is the reality of it,” he added.

Both sides—the United States and Iraq—can seemingly agree that there is a void in the governance of Iraq that needs to be filled. President Obama has repeatedly exclaimed that Iraq must be governed by the Iraqis. Iraq seems to believe that their hands are tied in reclaiming their country without the help of the United States. The reality is that something must break this stalemate which is allowing Iraq, its endless resources and its human capital - which once earned it the name the “cradle of civilization” - to fall to the hands of Islamist militants.

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