WASHINGTON – On Sept. 10, U.S. President Barack Obama outlined an overall strategy for countering the al-Qaida’ist movement that grandiosely calls itself the Islamic State. The president vowed to defeat and ultimately destroy it.
How is that campaign going? What are its prospects for success over the next few months to several years? Is it promising in both Iraq and Syria? My answer is a guarded yes, especially for Iraq (the Syria strategy is incomplete and will take longer to develop).
The Iraqi Army chose not to fight this spring more than it was defeated by the Islamic State. With proper reconstitution, which will require assistance from the United States, it can get its verve and capability back and go on the offensive.
Before explaining how, it’s important to recognize two pieces of good news. First, U.S. airpower successfully helped defend Iraqi Kurdistan against the Islamic State’s attacks this summer. Second, the Obama administration strongly encouraged formation of a new government in Baghdad under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Divisive Shiite chauvinist Nouri al-Maliki was pushed out.
This is a major step since it was largely due to Maliki’s sectarian and corrupt rule that Sunnis lost faith in Baghdad. His polarizing actions helped trigger the dissolution of the Iraqi Army this spring — when roughly half its troops melted away as the Islamic State moved to take key Iraqi towns.
U.S. taxpayers were right to wonder how an Iraqi security force that Washington built at a cost of tens of billions of dollars could put up such little resistance as major Iraqi cities were overrun in recent months. They have a right to be angry. Yet there is little reason to think that the army we trained and equipped was professionally incompetent or unable to fight. It simply chose not to fight.
There are two elements that are principally to blame. One, military leadership was abysmal. Maliki treated army and police positions as rewards for loyalists and cronies. He replaced virtually all the commanders who the U.S. military had trained and cultivated from 2003 to 2011.
Two, other chunks of the Army and police were so angered by their leaders’ sectarianism that they decided not to fight. They did not believe in the commander-in-chief — or even the nation — for which they were being asked to risk their lives.
With that army largely dissolved, re-creating it becomes a monumental undertaking. Restoring Sunnis’ belief in the Iraqi state will also take considerable effort.
And more difficulties await. This summer’s accomplishments were the easy part. Defending Kurdistan was always going to be militarily simpler than retaking the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. And removing Maliki was only a necessary first step toward any possibility of future success, not an end in itself.
Iraq has now reached an impasse. Maliki, who is still in a powerful role, continues to impede needed reforms, like creation of an Iraqi National Guard that would allow Sunnis (and others) to be recruited and trained locally and fight to defend their hometowns. This National Guard is crucial, yet it remains only theoretical since legislation to authorize it is stuck in parliament. The Islamic State is also still making tactical gains in Anbar province in Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
So where to go from here? No U.S. troop surge is needed — or sensible. Washington needs to help the Iraqis rebuild their security forces, so they can ultimately launch their own “surge” strategy, liberating the northwest cities and towns that the Islamic State now controls. U.S. airpower, and perhaps even Special Forces as well as a small number of American mentoring teams that go out into the field with Iraqi units, can help to an extent. But the main ground effort will have to be carried out by Iraqi forces — including a reconstituted Army and new National Guard.
Because Iraq does have several hundred thousand military and police personnel who have been recently trained, the raw materials for creating this already exist. But much needs to happen for these assets to be forged into a combat capability. Specifically:
We need to help retrain the core Iraqi army, since many leaders have to be replaced and many troops reconstituted into meaningful units.
We will need to help Iraqis not only train but recruit and form new National Guard units, once they figure out the politics that would make the idea appealing to major political players.
We need to help Iraqis devise a campaign plan to then use these capabilities in a sequenced, realistic way to take back key areas from the Islamic State.
It is critical that the United States be willing to play a midwife role here. Iraqis are too burned by sectarianism — and now too distrustful of each other — to do this on a realistic time frame without American help.
Many U.S. military personnel and diplomats have forged relationships with Iraqis over the last decade, and can provide not just the expertise, but the personal ties needed. This can build on the promising formation of a new Iraqi government, making it really come together for the good of the country.
No huge U.S. forces will be required to make this work. But the kind of central training and in-the-field advising and mentoring that such an approach demands could necessitate deployment of some 10,000 U.S. troops, up from the roughly 2,000 now involved in Iraq. Those additional troops would supply not only advisory and mentoring teams in the field, and airpower, but logistical and medical and intelligence support.
The U.S. knows how to do what needs to be done in Iraq. And Iraqis know they need to do it. Despite all the disappointments and heartbreak over this decade, the potential for a successful U.S.-Iraqi allied effort to defeat this terrible Islamic State organization is promising — and quite real. But Washington needs to move beyond the plateau that Abadi and Obama have been on and take the strategy to the next level.
We can afford to be patient in achieving actual battlefield results — but there is also no time to lose in getting on with our assistance in Iraq’s preparations for the looming fight.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The opinions expressed here are his.
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