The critical flaw in our Iraq War strategy and why we are making it worse
Last November Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress how we could defeat ISIS in Iraq without deploying U.S. combat troops. He was surprisingly blunt about the precarious scenario required to achieve this objective.
Dempsey said a number of assumptions underpin the current U.S. military strategy, which does not call for large-scale deployments of U.S. ground troops.
For example, it’s assumed the government of Iraq will be inclusive, encouraging participation from Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It is also assumed that the Iraqi security forces will be willing to take back Anbar province, which is largely controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State with help from local Sunni militias and Baath Party loyalists.
"If I’m wrong about those assumptions, I’ll have to adjust my recommendations," Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified with him.
It's been six months since we started bombing ISIS and it's time to adjust those recommendations, because those assumptions were wrong.
Let's start with the question of the Shia government of Baghdad being more inclusive with the Sunni minority. Iraq’s vice-president Iyad Allawi recently explained that not only is it not happening, the situation is getting worse.
“The Baghdad belt demonstrates the lack of strategy and reconciliation. There is widespread ethnic cleansing there, militias are roaming the areas. Scores and scores of people ... have been expelled from their areas and they can’t go back because of the dominance of the militias.”
A lot of people want to blame ex-PM Maliki for the lack of political dialogue between the Sunni and Shia communities, but in fact when Maliki actually did try to reach out to the Sunnis in early 2013, the Shia community opposed him.
To make matters worse, the collapse of the Iraqi army last summer has shifted the military power in the Shia government to the militia extremists.
“The once enormous Iraqi army, at one time seen as having the ability to change the balance of power on the eastern front against Israel, has ceased to exist,” Yaacov Aimidror, a former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Jerusalem Post recently. The Iraqi army remains a shell, unable to defend the country against domestic and foreign enemies. It relies on Western airstrikes, local Shia and Kurdish militias and foreign advisers from Tehran and Washington to prevent further loss of territory.
Those same Shia militias went into a recently "liberated" town in Diyala province and simply massacred 72 Sunni civilians.
A few members of the Baghdad government have called for investigation of the war crime, and have received death threats for their trouble.
Even before this massacre the Shia militias were infamous for using power-drills on people's skulls.
It's obvious to almost everyone just how dangerous the Shia militias are to the political stability of Iraq.
Back on the edge of Kurdistan, the peshmerga increasingly see little difference between the Shia militias and the Islamic State.
Kataib Hizbollah, which controls access to Amerli, is denying Kurds entry to the town and one peshmerga commander described the militia as the "Shi'ite IS".
"This land is ours: they are an occupying force," said Sirwan, a Kurdish fighter, when asked about the Shi'ite militia presence. "There will be bigger problems than Islamic State in this area."
Since then things have gotten more tense and the shaky alliance is starting to fray.
Recently a group of armed men gunned down a Kurdish cleric in a drive-by shooting in a small town in Diyala. The residents responded by setting fire to a truck belonging to Shia militiamen.
The Shia militias are so powerful, with no real checks against their abuses, that they threaten everything we hope to accomplish in Iraq.
"The government turned to militias to defend Baghdad, but now they've lost control of them," said Hashimi. "The use of ethnic cleansing by militias is destroying what belief Sunnis had in piecing the country back together."
A former senior American commander in Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the militias that are conducting sectarian displacement of Sunnis pose an even bigger long-term threat to Iraq that Islamic State militants.
With the Shia militias, Baghdad has got a tiger by the tail, and they are losing that grip. Recently the Baghdad government tried to declare a neighborhood of Baghdad weapons-free, and it wasn't because of ISIS militants.
Iraq’s capital has been torn by fighting among rival Shi’ite militias backed by neighboring Iran.
Officials acknowledged that the government was losing control of Baghdad to Shi’ite militias armed and financed by Iran, Middle East Newsline reported. They said the militias were in control over large areas of the capital city and often fought each other.
It's gotten so bad that the head of the Shi’ite Sadrist Movement, Moqtada Al-Sadr, has called the militias a danger to the “unity and prestige” of the Iraqi army.
You might think that an entity that threatens to bring down the Baghdad government and take over the Iraqi Army would be Enemy #1 in this war effort.
You would be wrong. Instead of opposing the rise of these Shia militias that obviously threaten the very existence of Iraq as a nation, we are helping them.
in an interview this week, Hadi al-Amiri, the founder and leader of Iraq’s oldest and most powerful Shiite militia, the Badr Organization, told me the U.S. ambassador recently offered air strikes to support the Iraqi army and militia ground forces under his command. This has placed the U.S. in the strange position of deepening an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran for its war against Islamic extremists.
The phrase there that should really stand out is "the Iraqi army...under his command".
On a tour of areas recently liberated from Islamic State control, General Ali Wazir Shamary told me that ultimately his orders came through a chain of command that originated with Amiri. In other words, the Iraqi army is integrating into Amiri’s Badr Organization in Diyala as opposed to integrating the militias into the army.
That is f*cking terrifying. Out-of-control Shia militias that are engaging in ethnic cleansing and war crimes are in control of the Iraqi army.
That means that when the American government says it is working with the Iraqi army, it is actually working with the military arm of the Shia militias. Even if you don't care about the fate of the Iraqi Sunnis, you should care about the fate of the thousands of American soldiers we are currently shipping over to Iraq.
“Members of the Badr Corps are responsible for killing many American Soldiers and they will likely do it again if given the chance,” Flynn told me. “We built an Iraqi military to defeat all the enemies of Iraq and groups like the Badr Corps represent enemies of a stable, secure, and inclusive Iraq. As soon as we get done helping them with ISIS, they will very likely turn on us.”
It seems incredible that we would be so short-sighted that we would be helping a group that killed hundreds of American soldiers just a few years ago, yet how else can you describe the fact so many U.S.-made military weapons are turning up in the hands of Iranian-backed Shia militias?
The risk of not aiding them was greater than the risk of aiding them, the official said, adding that this didn't mean the administration was unconcerned about the risks involved.
I think that conclusion is very debatable. Yet that seems to be the SOP of this Administration.
For instance, the government of Yemen was recently overthrown by the Houthis, a Shia group who favorite slogan is “Death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews.” So we would oppose them, right? Wrong.
And yet, last week, Obama administration officials were scrambling to contact Houthi leaders and assure them that the United States doesn't consider them an enemy. “We're talking with everybody,” an official told me — “everybody who will talk with us.” The Houthis' top leaders haven't been willing to meet so far, but the Americans are working on it.
If you think that Baghdad, which is keenly aware of the dangers of these Shia militias, isn't under the power of them, consider that they recently asked the UAE to remove Badr Organization and Sadr militia from its terror list.
Interestingly, on almost the same day that Jordan joined the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq, the UAE stopped bombing ISIS in Iraq (an event that didn't get the same media coverage as Jordan's decision). Their reason to withdraw from the coalition is that without an effort to bring the Sunnis of Iraq into the war effort, the entire campaign is doomed.
"The other important part behind the UAE's reservation ... was its discontent with the coalition which has not kept its promise in supporting the Sunnis in Anbar, not preparing them, equipping them and arming them to take part in the war against Daesh," the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Mohammed al-Hammadi, wrote in an editorial.
This fact cannot be understated. It is very unlikely that the Shia militias will be able to defeat ISIS in Iraq for two reasons:
1) The Shia-militia dominated Iraqi army cannot march into Sunni-majority Anbar province like a conquering army without setting off a sectarian war even bloodier than the one we already have. It will requires participation of the Sunnis. But the Shia-dominated Baghdad government is blocking the formation of a Sunni national guard to fight ISIS.
2) The collapse in oil prices is going to increasingly hamper the Baghdad war effort.
“These volunteers haven’t been paid for months and we’re starting to see evidence of demoralization in these organizations,” said Hassan Hassan, an authority on ISIS at the Delma Institute, an Abu Dhabi-based research centre.
What's more, the budget problems will constrain the efforts of Baghdad to create the Sunni national guard, even it they can pass the law.
Such an organization is important in the fight against ISIS, Mr. Hassan said, because Shi’a militias are unlikely to fight outside Shi’a-dominated areas.
As Robert Bissett, Canada’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, noted, “The reason why ISIS has attracted so many members is that it is paying good salaries, salaries that are unpaid by the federal government.”
Meanwhile, the Baghdad government is leaning more and more heavily on Iranian support in its fight against ISIS. Baghdad does not view the United States as its primary ally in this fight. It sees Tehran as its closest friend, and Tehran uses the very same militias that are destabilizing Iraq to exert its power.
Increasingly it appears that the limited, short-term goals of the anti-ISIS coalition are about to run into the roadblocks of the systemic political contradictions of the region. Our complete and abject failure to address these long-term political issues will undermine our short-term gains, probably within the year.