The current U.S. strategy … offers no long-term, viable alternative to ISIL or its potential successors. The U.S.’s strategy for Iraq is therefore no more than a return to the political conditions that got us here in the first place.
In the spring of 2017, the Iraqi military pressed into the outskirts of Mosul to try to recapture the city and their country from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While the U.S. remains on track for another military success (e.g., the elimination of ISIL as a cohesive fighting force), its Iraq strategy is likely to fail. Why? Because the current strategy does not reconcile the political issues at the heart of the conflict; a failing of two consecutive U.S. presidential administrations.
On 6 December 2015, former U.S. President Barack Obama publicly divulged his updated strategy to counter ISIL. The goal was to degrade and ultimately to destroy ISIL “through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” The strategy relied on proxy and U.S. special operations forces, and fewer conventional U.S. boots on the ground, and (until recently) a heavily-restricted air campaign Additionally, President Obama advocated using a coalition to counter ISIL. The President slightly adjusted his strategy in 2016, emphasizing attacking oil facilities beyond ISIL’s “do-it-yourself” refineries located near eastern Syrian oil pools. Furthermore, he committed “to pursu[ing] ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian Civil War.” For all of President Obama’s nuance in managing U.S. risk in the Middle East, his strategy implicitly endorsed a return to the pre-ISIL status quo for the Iraqi political landscape, i.e., the conditions that supported the emergence of ISIL, and made Iraq vulnerable to conquest.
Ultimately, President Obama’s approach created a tension between rhetoric and reality — a gulf between his stated objectives and the strategic resources and methods the U.S. employed. The new administration has changed the tactics and speed of the campaign, but still uses the previous administration’s “by, with, through” approach to fighting ISIL. However, without changing the strategy and its objective, the “tactical shift” is no more likely to deliver lasting stability. President Donald Trump’s team, “highlighted only two significant changes: delegation of more authority to field commanders, and a tactical shift from shoving the Islamic State out of safe locations to surrounding it in its strongholds.”
America’s strategists must grasp the sources of ISIL’s commitment to war. To do this, it is useful to consider the consequences of defeat. For ISIL, this war is about survival — defeat means destruction. For the United States, it is about interests — defeat has economic and reputational costs, but it does not threaten the existence of the U.S. This fundamental “asymmetry of consequence” is key to understanding the U.S.’s ISIL strategy. Obama warned, “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria.” As the renowned Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz reasoned, “the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made… in magnitude and also in duration.” The existential nature of ISIL’s cause accounts for its fighters’ fanatical commitment to it.
Despite the U.S.’s “destroy” rhetoric, the reality of America’s actual counter-ISIL strategy is a patient “lead from behind” approach. Opting to fight through proxy forces is advantageous to the U.S. because it is cheap and limits direct U.S. involvement on the ground. Obama feared that committing significant U.S. ground forces to Iraq or Syria would further irritate the already disenfranchised Sunnis. From his viewpoint, American occupation in the Middle East was the primary driver of instability and terrorism. President Trump’s plan likewise does not appear to significantly alter U.S. troop levels or provide massive stability operations post-conflict.
With bitter memories of American involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the U.S. public and politicians have little interest in “nation-building” and the associated U.S. casualties. The U.S. strategy for ISIL therefore avoids costly stability or counterinsurgency operations. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance explicitly abdicates U.S. responsibility for such operations, declaring, “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations” because they are so costly. This is a mistake.
Stabilization operations are hard, but they are also imperative to an effective strategy. Relying on proxy forces presents several challenges. General H.R. McMaster warned against doing so, as proxies often have limited capabilities and unreliable interests. As soon as U.S. forces train the Iraqi military personnel, the Iraqi forces are thrown into the fire and suffer heavy losses. Desertions were rampant in the worst phases of ISIL’s conquest of much of Iraq. Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter described the Iraqi forces as “a combination of disunity, deserters and ‘ghost soldiers’—who are paid on the books but don’t exist.” He added, “[t]he collapse of the Iraqi security forces and the rise of the Shiite militias have weakened Baghdad’s already feeble grip on the country and empowered Tehran.” The Iraqi Security Forces’ endemic problems reduce their chances of securing their nation.
Without consolidating and sustaining political gains, the U.S. will find itself in a similar position in the not too distant future. Recall that ISIL descended from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was an Al-Qaeda affiliate that U.S. and Iraqi forces nearly decimated, including with a strike that killed its notorious leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Despite losing Zarqawi and his two successors, Al-Qaeda in Iraq survived and adapted. Emerging as its latest leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi transformed it into ISIL.
A major weakness in U.S. strategy is that simply destroying or degrading ISIL will not address the underlying causes of the conflict. ISIL arose from a volatile mix of sectarian rivalries and bad governance. ISIL’s defeat may do nothing to change those conditions. Indeed, as predominantly Shia Iraqi Security Forces recaptured territory, they bulldozed and burned Sunni villages, or allowed Iranian-backed People’s Mobilization Forces to do so. Moreover, the Iraqi government is legalizing the Iranian-backed militia in both their fight against ISIL forces and in securing recaptured territory. This persecution of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq further strengthens the appeal of ISIL (or whatever movement will follow it) to local and foreign fighters.
It is crucial that U.S. strategists plan for both winning the war and winning the peace. Once the black flags of ISIL have fallen in Mosul, winning the peace will entail increasing the value of the peace for marginalized minorities.
The current U.S. strategy lacks a coherent political approach to reduce violence and instability to acceptable levels. In failing to enfranchise Sunnis and protect other minorities, it offers no long-term, viable alternative to ISIL or its potential successors. The U.S.’s strategy for Iraq is therefore no more than a return to the political conditions that got us here in the first place.
So what should the U.S. pursue? Iraq faces the same challenges that confront all democratic systems: how to protect minorities while preserving the ability of the majority to govern. Iraq cannot survive as a nation if the only alternative to ISIL for alienated Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds, and other minorities is subjugation under an Iranian-backed, Shia-led, Iraqi government.
An oft-proposed solution for Iraq is the partitioning of the nation into semi-autonomous, confederated states, along ethnic and religious boundaries. In favor of such a plan is that it gives ISIL’s various enemies a more attractive objective to pursue: independence and self-determination. A better strategy gives Iraqi minorities a positive object to fight for – not ISIL. This strategy should increase the value of the object for our coalition partners and for disenfranchised or threatened minorities. Ali Khedery, who served as special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors in Iraq, argued that the U.S. “should accept the fractious reality on the ground, abandon its fixation with artificial borders, and start allowing the various parts of Iraq and Syria to embark on the journey to self[-]determination.”
Yet partition incurs its own risks. It may simply turn an intra-national conflict (and proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia), into an international war between the former components of Iraq, with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all taking an intense interest in the outcome. Realistically, any Iraqi peace will require a prolonged international commitment, with significant, capable peacekeeper forces from disinterested nations, preferably with the support of the United Nations. A good strategy for Iraq must recognize and respond to Iraq’s prevailing cultural and political challenges. This is far easier said than done. Still, such an approach is better than America’s previous, failed strategies for Iraq: a “too hot” attempt to turn Iraq into a Mesopotamian version of the U.S. through Wilsonian zeal and vigor; and a “too cold” negligence that left Iraq to fend for itself and allowed the region to devolve into chaos.
The passion behind the Shia-Sunni split is probably best mollified by buffering, which Khedery described as “encouraging confederal decentralization,” shifting power from the Iraqi and Syrian national seats of power to their provinces. Convincing the Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian governments will not be easy, but neither was passing the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War. As if these challenges were not difficult enough, the new administration must also grapple with issues such as ISIL falling back into Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime and tactics, Russia’s support of Assad, Iraqi refugees returning to their homes, and the extreme cost of rebuilding Iraq yet again.
It is crucial that U.S. strategists plan for both winning the war and winning the peace. Once the black flags of ISIL have fallen in Mosul, winning the peace will entail increasing the value of the peace for marginalized minorities. A new, sustainable political order is needed, possibly through new, Arab-developed political boundaries, or through loose federations that grant semi-autonomy to Sunnis and Kurds.
In the end, the current U.S. strategy for defeating ISIL fails to address the root causes of the conflict or to offer Iraqis alternatives and lasting political solutions. We must do better this time.
Kristofer Gifford is a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2016. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, or the U.S. Government.
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