As you know, events in Iraq have unfolded quickly as the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) moved into northern and western Iraq from Syria. The cities of Mosul and Tikrit, significant in many ways to Iraq, fell without resistance from the Iraqi army, most of whom changed into civilian clothes and ran away. The ISIS fighters seemed well on their way to Baghdad when the Iraqi army, backed by Shiite militia, stiffened and are now providing resistance to the advance. How this will end is anybody’s guess at the moment — truly, no one really knows.
There are several things that we do know, however, and these are worth a look. Most importantly, the question before our national leadership is “should the United States get involved in what is fundamentally a religious civil war?” “If so, in what way?” Clouding the issue of course is the investment we already made of 4,487 dead and 32,223 wounded Americans. A high price to pay any time, but especially given the unraveling of all that was accomplished. Unfortunately, in my view, we should not invest any more lives or treasure in Iraq. Certainly, we should not do so under the current conditions.
Demands that the United States should supply immediate intelligence and material support to the Iraqi government are a bit overblown and not really reflective of the facts. This is true in particular because of two things: the Iraqis have been known in the past to use “intelligence” to even scores with political rivals, and the ISIS forces are now equipped with modern U.S. weapons left behind when the Iraqi army abandoned their posts. It will be a continued waste of time and money (and perhaps lives) to continue to equip and train the Iraqis (or any force) if they refuse to fight.
Most experts do not believe that ISIS has the will or ability to take Baghdad, especially now that the Iraqi army is beginning to mobilize. It will, however, get very dicey in Baghdad in the coming days as the terrorists will use assassinations and car bombs and other attacks to disrupt life in the city and to create more friction between the factions that live there. While Iraq as a whole is divided into roughly three sections (Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish), all three elements are present in the city which is also de facto divided. This is where the United States needs to beef up its efforts. Protecting the world’s largest American embassy and those that work there should be our current focus of main effort.
It is tempting to get into a “who is responsible for this mess?” argument. There is plenty of blame to go around. Some of you may recall that from my observations in a key Pentagon office that I felt that President Bush and his administration began planning to invade Iraq beginning in January of 2001 following his inauguration. The unfolding events after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks gave them a reason, however much of a stretch that might have been. It was especially discomfiting because our real effort should have been in Afghanistan where the threat was real. That is all now past history. Similarly, accusations that President Obama did not do all that could have been done to reach a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government to leave U.S. troops there serve to place the blame at his feet. I happen to think that the Iraqi people as a whole never really wanted the United States there at all, period, end of discussion and that it was unrealistic to think that they would allow our troops to stay. But again, whatever one’s opinion of that, it is past history. We are where we are and the challenge is figuring out what to do about it now.
The real problem is the current Shiite government that totally shut out the previously dominant Sunni power brokers. There is enough religious animosity, deep-seated anger and hatred between the two groups and that has only been exacerbated by the administration of Nouri al-Maliki refusing to deal with Sunni leaders and driving them not only from the government, but in some cases, from the country.
I suspect time will reveal that some percentage of the ISIS fighters are actually Iraqi Sunnis seizing an opportunity to topple the current government. I am not sure how long this uneasy coalition of terrorist fighters can stay together and I am especially doubtful of their ability to administer a large territory or population.
There is no doubt, however, of their ability to create havoc, destruction, and threaten the lives of thousands of people. They are also creating the conditions for another failed state that can easily become a training ground for terrorists that reach far beyond the current area of conflict. That is a different problem, one that needs to be addressed but different from what to do to support the current Iraqi government. In the end, wars end through political settlements. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not able to, or does not desire to, build a functioning coalition government. The ISIS leadership is not interested in a negotiated settlement. This leaves the United States with few options. In my opinion, putting more American lives at risk through direct military action will not help the situation and should not be one of the options on the table.
We should continue to protect our embassy and critical workers and to pressure Nouri al-Maliki to work out a political settlement. Whether an “artificial” country drawn by western powers without regard to the indigenous population can survive is a difficult question that only time will resolve.