If $2 trillion in war funding in Iraq has taught the U.S. one thing, it is that military might cannot bring stability to a country unless paired with a long-term political strategy. The collapse of this political strategy under the sectarian polarizing leadership of Nouri Maliki is the main driving force for the radical militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and it would be dangerously naive to think that F-16s or drones or airstrikes can alone reverse it.
As ISIS threat looms over the Levant with two bombings in Lebanon, a protest in Jordan and continued fighting in Syria, Iraq is today the most fertile ground for the group. The weak state institutions, deep sectarian divide, the chaos in bordering Syria, and mostly the bad governance on part of the Maliki coalition have allowed ISIS to fester in Iraq, and conquer more territory in North-Western of the country. Those gains and the stacks of millions of dollars in bank robberies, extortions and oil revenues have established ISIS rule in key areas with the help of local tribes, and after the collapse of the Iraqi army in those areas.
Maliki destroyed Petraeus plan
Following the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz war fiascos dragging Iraq into a sectarian bloodbath by 2006, it was the former commander of the coalition forces in Iraq General David Petraeus who saved the country from the specter of ethnic cleansing and partition. The genius of the Petraeus plan was not the military component but a political roadmap extending a hand to the Sunni tribes and the local councils in the Anbar region to roll back the advances and popular of ISIS which was an affiliate of al-Qaeda then. These exact same tribes Maliki lost today.
There is nothing that ISIS would love more than a government in Baghdad that breeds sectarianism and local militias, and Maliki has been the best man for such jobJoyce Karam
The “Sahwa strategy” saw its roots in fostering inclusive governance, bringing Sunnis into the fold, and offering security and economic incentives for the tribes in a post-Saddam Iraq. The Sahwa gave the U.S. confidence that it can withdraw in 2011, assuming that the leadership in Baghdad would build on and sustain this political roadmap. Alas, Nouri Maliki had a different plan in mind, halting payments to tribal forces who were combating Al-Qaeda, and ruling with an agenda of fear and division that only intensified the sectarian rift.
Maliki spread conspiracies about a Baathist take over to orchestrate an authoritarian crackdown and silence the opposition. He saw any national unity government as a threat, and instead used patronage and corruption to sustain a sectarian coalition and pay off friendly militias. The Iraqi Prime Minister made more enemies inside and outside Baghdad than any other regional figure. He pointed fingers at Turkey, Qatar, Saudi, Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, the former Baathists, Al-Qaeda, accusing of destabilizing Iraq. He gave many promises to the Americans but did not deliver. Today, it is Maliki’s policies of marginalizing minorities, isolating Baghdad regionally and taking over security apparatus that broke Iraq and aided ISIS.
In this sense, Petraeus is right, the U.S. cannot heed Maliki’s request for military strikes inside Iraq. Petraeus warned from London last week that “this cannot be the United States being the air force for Shiite militias, or a Shiite on Sunni Arab fight.”
Governance before ammunition
Almost like every other Arab autocrat, Maliki has been promising since coming to power in 2006 that he will be a “one-term” prime minister. Eight years later, he is fighting tooth and nail to stay for a third term, even if it comes over a crumbled Iraq and a shadow central government.
In essence, Maliki keeping the course and staying in power is the best case scenario for ISIS. There is nothing that ISIS would love more than a government in Baghdad that breeds sectarianism and local militias, and Maliki has been the best man for such job. Reversing Maliki’s agenda is the only route that can rescue Iraq from further fragmentation, while employing firepower and airstrikes could backfire in this political environment and rally more Sunnis around ISIS.
Rallying regional efforts around a diplomatic roadmap for Iraq with the help of Turkey, the Arab Gulf states and Iran will be crucial in the next few weeks to save Iraq from a likely partition or becoming a global hub for terrorists. Unless Maliki reverses his destructive style of governance, he is only a liability in such an effort and the best recruiting tool that ISIS can have in Baghdad.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam