Recalibrating Obama’s faltering Iraq strategy
Obama’s cautious response has ensured that he has avoided the pitfalls of his predecessor, but his response equally has its own flaws
The recent gains by ISIS in Syria and Iraq have resulted in a firestorm of criticism of President Obama’s strategy to push back ISIS. Some analysts have gone so far as to term it a “failed strategy” and have even advocated the return of U.S. ground forces to Iraq. Reacting to this criticism, White Press Secretary Josh Earnest has repeatedly stressed that the U.S. isn’t responsible for Iraq’s security, but has acknowledged that the President hasn’t completely taken this option off the table.
A substantial mistake would be to allow these recent gains by ISIS to push Washington into reluctantly taking military actions that could both further exacerbate the existing situation on the ground and at the same time, result in America becoming entrenched once again in Iraq with no clearly defined exit strategy. Such military action would have limited strategic value for American national interests, would be substantially costly, and lacks public support. The case for deepening U.S. military involvement is founded largely on the wishful thinking that pure military force alone can defeat ISIS. Flawed strategy cannot be a substitute for President Obama’s currently faltering strategy.
Obama’s faltering response
Obama’s cautious response has ensured that he has avoided the pitfalls of his predecessor, but his response equally has its own flaws. Reluctant to further entrench himself into Iraqi politics, the Obama administration throughout Maliki’s tenure looked away as the Prime Minister turned the central government in Baghdad into his own corrupt, sectarian ridden personal fiefdom which alienated the Sunni communities in Iraq. Maliki’s actions made Iraq’s western and northwestern provinces ripe for ISIS. The White House was too slow as well to react to the initial gains ISIS made in the summer of 2014 and underestimated ISIS’ capabilities. Equally, the administration misjudged the substantial impact of Syria’s civil war on Iraq’s stability.
Obama’s cautious response has ensured that he has avoided the pitfalls of his predecessor, but his response equally has its own flawsAndrew Bowen
When President Obama finally did decide to challenge ISIS’ surge in Iraq, the President was confronted by the reality that the state Maliki left behind was in sectarian shambles with an Iraqi army riddled by sectarianism, corruption, and incompetence and provinces in open rejection of the authority of Maliki’s government in Baghdad. While Prime Minister Abadi is regarded as an improvement from his predecessor, his own power as premier is greatly constrained by the absence of any effective governance institutions at his disposal. He has had to rely instead on Tehran’s Iranian Republican Guards Corps and Shi’a militias to regain control of territory, which has done little to rebuild trust with Iraq’s Sunni community.
Obama’s shaky four-pillar strategy
President Obama was left then with a weak partner in Baghdad and a rather unsavory partner in Tehran to confront ISIS in Iraq. Obama fashioned in these circumstances a policy to confront ISIS that has rested on four pillars: supporting the training and equipping of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Pashmerga, tacitly supporting Iran’s role in the state and its employment of Shi’a militias, and conducting air operations when called on.
This strategy initially looked successful with substantial advances by the Iraqi army, assisted by Shi’a militias, to push ISIS back from a number of their gains in western and northwestern Iraq. U.S. assistance helped rout efforts by ISIS to make inroads into Kurdish territory. Mosul has remained under ISIS’ control, but neither Baghdad nor Tehran nor Washington has launched a substantial counter-offensive to retake the city. ISIS was importantly driven out of Tikrit in April.
However, their recent capture of Ramadi and their further consolidation of control in Al-Anbar province underscores that while the group may loose territory, it can also gain new territory by taking advantage of local tribal support and discontent, a steady stream of foreign fighters, shock and awe tactics, and the ineffectiveness of the largely weak and strained Iraqi army. U.S. officials have acknowledged that the Iraqi army itself is still months away from having the capacity to lead from Shi’a militias. The over-reliance then on these militias, who have repeatedly committed human rights abuses, deepens the impression on the ground that one’s future is either with ISIS or with Iran.
A new strategy
This strategy alone is unlikely to defeat ISIS and relies too much on Iran, which essentially abetted Maliki’s corrupt sectarian governance. Despite the President’s support for governance reforms, the White House has neglected this critical element of his strategy, and as a result, has focused more on pushing back ISIS than on offering Iraq’s Sunni community a political future that isn’t dominated by Iran.
ISIS will certainly face further military setbacks as Iraq’s army becomes better trained and Shi’a militias make advances, but without offering the Sunni community any sustainable future, ISIS will find local support to continue to operate and subjugate parts of Iraq. Syria’s civil war is advantageous to this group’s ambitions for a state, because even if they were successfully routed from cities they can control, the non-existent border that separates these two states will allow ISIS to use territory in Syria to launch future operations.
While its tempting to believe that arming tribes in Al-Anbar province could serve as a counter-balance to ISIS, such actions are short-sighted without pushing for a new political compact for Iraq’s future. Washington should encourage an Iraqi constitutional dialogue with the aim of granting complete federal autonomy for Iraq’s predominantly Sunni provinces. While the central government in Baghdad should retain its role as Iraq’s federal government, the day-to-day affairs of Iraq’s western and northwestern provinces should be managed on the local level.
Washington should also consider holding a conference with its Arab partners to expand the economic, political, and military assistance to the central government and the provincial leadership in fighting ISIS. Such an initiative would critically shift the fight against ISIS from being predominantly an Iranian-led campaign to one that has broad support from the Arab world.
While these efforts alone will take time and concerted diplomatic effort by Washington and support from the GCC, the current strategy isn’t working and needs adjustment. Empowering Iraq’s Sunni community through political autonomy and encouraging greater support from the Arab League is a more prudent and sustainable strategy than relying exclusively on Iran and potentially American ground forces. Defeating ISIS can’t be won purely on the battlefield.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC.