It was sort of amazing back in August when President Barack Obama went before the White House press corps and publicly declared, “We don’t have a strategy yet” when it came to combating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He was pilloried in a collective freak-out that crossed partisan lines. The president probably should not have said what he said given what he must now know about the press, his opponents, and his previous, ill-considered comments about post-Bin Laden extremist groups being “JV.” That said, admitting that his administration had not yet determined how to meet the ISIS threat was also sort of prudent. “Strategy” and “strategic” are among the most misused and abused words in Washington, and given the complex and unprecedented problems that are consuming Iraq and Syria, it was a good idea for the administration to take a step back and ask a number of basic questions before settling on its goals and determining the resources necessary to meet those objectives. For example, what resources were available to the United States? What are ISIS’ goals? What can regional allies do? How might regional adversaries react to various courses of action? What are reasonable goals for the United States? How will the American people respond to different approaches? Instead, as I wrote last September, the president was bullied into bombing ISIS after James Foley was beheaded, leaving the Pentagon, White House, and State Department to figure out a strategy on the fly. It was no way to go to war.
Three months later, a strategy has come into view and it does not look pretty. The exigencies of fighting ISIS as well as keeping U.S. ground forces out of combat makes civil war more likely in the long run. This should not be misinterpreted as a plea to deploy large numbers of American soldiers to Iraq, but rather an analytic judgement based on the way—it seems—the administration has answered the questions I posed above. The strategy is fairly straightforward: Given the limited availability of U.S. forces due to the American people’s reluctance to go back to war in Iraq, American airpower combined with friendly and not-so-friendly ground forces will “degrade and destroy ISIS.” Yet in order for the friendly ground forces—the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga—to combat the so-called Islamic State effectively, they need to be well-equipped and well-trained. And in the case of Iraq’s armed forces, again.
In parallel, the Iranians have activated or set up Iraqi Shia militias to confront ISIS, a development to which Washington has not objected given the impossibility of sending American ground troops to Iraq. The present confluence of interests between the United States and Iran has produced endless references to the alleged rule of Middle Eastern politics, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” (Never mind the fact that this logic seems to work in other regions as well). Under present political circumstances, which limits the use of military force to airpower, the current strategy may be the best the administration can do to degrade, if not destroy, ISIS. Destroying the group requires something else entirely—an appealing narrative to counter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s worldview. To date, there is a disparate group of mostly young Muslims who are attacking ISIS on religious grounds, but nothing coherent has emerged.
Setting aside the fight against ISIS and what it might take to defeat them, something deeply worrisome about the Obama administration’s strategy comes into view: In order to meet the challenge of the so-called Islamic State, the United States is essentially encouraging the emergence of a variety of different armies in Iraq. Should Washington be successful, there will be a newly trained and equipped Iraqi security force alongside a Kurdish army with new equipment and additional training next to a variety of Shia militias—the Badr Brigades, the Mahdi army/Saraya al-Salam, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hizbullah—all of which are closely linked to Iran. What does anyone think is going to happen?
There is a lot of hope that Iraq will not disintegrate, but with a variety of armies operating on its territory, it seems more likely that there is going to be a fight hastening Iraq’s demise. We know two of the militaries—the Iraqi army and the peshmerga—are under the command of leaders who are cooperating only because of the overwhelming threat of ISIS to them both. Will this carry over after the emergency passes? The Kurds have certainly been more subdued about independence since the peshmerega underperformed in August, placing their capital, Erbil, at risk of being overrun, but they remain deeply suspicious of Baghdad—the recent oil deal nothwithstanding—and continue to draw a distinction between what Kurdish officials call “pre- and post-Mosul Iraq.” The Kurds insist that after ISIS took over Mosul, the rules of politics have to change in a way in which their rights are protected if they are to remain part of a united Iraq. Is that political freight the politicians in Baghdad can bear?
Then there are the Shia militias, which are instruments of Iranian power. Even though they are Shia, and Shiites dominate the government, one can imagine that Tehran would look dimly on any effort to bring these groups under central authority. Iran’s civilian allies in Iraq almost blew it once when a combination of their incompetence and cynicism put the country in jeopardy in the wake of ISIS’ advances last summer; why trust them again? It seems more likely that Iran will want some or all of its allied militias to remain outside government control, much like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
There is a compelling case to be made that the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis have much to gain from pulling together and building Iraq. It is a good argument, but politics often has a way of making a mess of things.