Is Iraq’s Partition Permanent?

MAX BOOT / NOV. 4, 2015

Is the campaign against ISIS going better than commonly imagined? That’s what Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggests in this article after having just returned from a tour of Iraq and meetings with Iraq and American commanders. He writes that after his visit “it was clear that more is going right at the tactical level of battles and airstrikes than many observers, myself included, might have suspected.”
The biggest problem, he suggests, is simply a lack of publicity for all the good stuff that is happening on the battlefield: “[T[he coalition’s positive impact on the war against ISIL somehow remains the best-kept secret of the war. When ISIL begins to critically weaken around Bayji we cannot expect Iraqis to somehow adduce the truth: Our airpower has been invisibly ripping apart a network of networks that feeds ISIL recruits and suicide bombs and car bombs into that battlefield, and that this is why a relatively small infusion of Iraqi government reinforcements were able to tip the balance against ISIL in that embattled city.”

All that is needed to continue making even greater progress, he suggests, is to do more to train and arm Iraqi forces, to coordinate more closely with them, and to loosen restrictive rules of engagement that limit American airpower from being used to its fullest.

I hope he is right, but I am skeptical. His analysis is focused almost entirely at the tactical level, which is where most U.S. military commanders are most comfortable. There is always a tendency in our military to think that if they could just bring in this or that unit, add this or that weapons system to the fight, the result would a complete transformation of the battlefield. This analysis ignores the larger political context which is actually more important than the tactical picture from the battlefield.

Remember that in 2006 the U.S. military had some 150,000 troops in Iraq and relaxed rules of engagement that allowed us to use the full firepower at our disposal, and yet much of the Sunni area was in the hands of al-Qaeda in Iraq while most of the Shiite area was controlled by Iranian-backed militias such as the Mahdist Army. The “surge” transformed the situation by changing tactics but also, crucially, by figuring out how to flip Sunnis from being supporters of AQI to its adversaries. The situation was quickly transformed because the Sunnis suddenly joined in fighting for the government of Iraq.

The reason that Iraq is in such dire straits now is that after the American troop pullout in 2011, the Shiite sectarians in charge of the Iraqi government alienated the Sunnis once again, driving them back into the arms of AQI’s successor organization: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Today, Iraq is divided with the Kurds virtually independent, ISIS in control of Sunni areas, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in control of Shiite areas. As long as that is the case, I remain skeptical that there will be any dramatic change in the balance of power on the ground. In fact, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces (as the Iranian-directed militias are known) are not all that interested in taking back the Sunni areas that they know they cannot hold. Sure, they’re happy to retake Bayji because it’s home to an oil refinery that can generate revenues for Baghdad. But the Iraqi forces are slow-rolling suggestions that they take back Mosul or Ramadi.

That’s not because they are physically incapable of taking back those cities from a small number of ISIS defenders, numbering only a few thousand fighters in each case. It’s because the Shiite militias see no advantage to taking those Sunni cities. In fact, as long as ISIS remains in control of those areas but is unable to advance into Baghdad or other Shiite-held areas, the status quo redounds to the advantage of Iran, which is the most important powerbroker in Iraq and which was largely absent from Knights’ analysis: The ISIS threat justifies Iran’s takeover of Shiite areas, just as the Israeli threat once justified Iran’s takeover of Lebanon and as the threat from ISIS today justifies Iran’s takeover of major portions of Syria.

We are not going to break the current stalemate by cooperating more closely with the Iraqi security forces or by sending them more equipment, as Knights suggests — that will only make the Iranians and their proxies stronger and alienate Sunnis more. The only way to change the situation is by offering the Sunnis a better deal than they currently get from ISIS. That would mean offering them a Sunni Regional Government, akin to the arrangement the Kurds have today, with their autonomy guaranteed by American security guarantees and by their own Peshmerga-style militia. Tinkering with tactics is not going to produce strategic results in Iraq or Syria.