Dumping Maliki and Striking at ISIS

It is time that the United States stopped waiting for good options that could somehow quickly solve its problems in the Middle East and accept the reality that the United States faces an unstable mess in the entire Middle East/North Africa region that is likely to take at least a decade to play out before there is any real stability. There are no “good,” quick, or simple options that can avoid this reality, or avoid the fact the United States must choose between unpleasant alternatives in many cases.

The United States cannot continue to wait, hope that negotiations and half-hearted use of “soft power” can somehow substitute for more tangible action, and “lead from behind” to the point it does not really lead at all. It needs to become far more active in dealing with issues like Iraq and the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), and not let critical turning points pass while it waits for Godot.

Such a turning point has come in Iraq.  The United States and all of its allies face a serious threat from Islamic extremists, and particularly from the rise of ISIS to the point where it threatens to create a Jihadist protostate in Eastern Syrian and Western Iraq.

The Obama Administration has not announced the results of the options study for action in Iraq that it completed several weeks ago. It is all too clear, however, that any options that involve creating more effective Iraqi security forces and the focused use of U.S. air and missile power will take weeks or months to be effective. It is also clear that they can only be effective if the United States does not help worsen a civil war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites that has been triggered by the actions of Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Maliki as a Threat to Iraq, Its Neighbors, and U.S. Interests

To put it bluntly, Maliki is as much of a threat to Iraqi unity, stability in the Gulf, and U.S. strategic interests as is ISIS. Ever since the power struggles that began as a result of indecisive outcome of Iraq’s March 2010 election, Maliki has driven the country toward civil war. He has alienated Iraq’s Kurds and steadily become more authoritarian and ruthless in dealing with its Arab Sunnis.

He has become steadily more authoritarian and crippled the development of Iraq’s security forces in his effort to make them personally loyal and use them against Sunni and other peaceful opposition. He forced his Sunni vice president to flee Iraq and pushed Iraq’s courts to pass at least three death sentences on him. He drove out other senior Sunni figures and bribed others to support him – creating a structure of corruption, bribery, and fear that made something of joke out Iraq’s elections in May 2014 – when Maliki ran for a third term after having promised not to do so. Within the last few days, he may have used Iraq’s security forces to temporarily arrest Riyadh al-Adhadh, the leader of the Baghdad Provincial Council.

His actions drove Iraq steadily back towards civil war – a reality reflected all too clearly in UN reporting on the steady rise of casualties since mid-2011 and in annual U.S., British, UN, and NGO reporting on the human rights abuses by Iraq’s security forces.  This history – along with the key UN, U.S., World Bank, and NGO data on Maliki’s failures and crowing authoritarianism and alienation of Iraq Sunnis and other element of the its population is laid out in detail in Iraq in Crisis.

ISIS did not take Ramadi and Fallujah, and then seize Mosul and much of Western Iraq because of its own strength. A force of some 10,000 men with only some 3,000 core fighters did not shatter more than four Iraqi divisions and “win” because of its strength – particularly when most Iraqi Sunnis and the three other major armed Sunni factions in Iraq does not support its religious and cultural extremism.

ISIS won because Maliki destroyed and corrupted his own security forces in his search to build-up his power and create a government based almost exclusively on Shi’ite support, and because he failed to use the nation’s record oil revenues to serve the broad interest of the nation, and dealt with rising peaceful protests by sending in the Army and police.

ISIS won because Maliki turned more and more to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) force for advice and support, alienate other Arab states, and established closer and closer links to the Assad regime in Syria and Iran’s efforts to back it. More broadly Maliki failed in every meaningful aspect of governance and economic development, would not compromise with Iraq’s Kurds, and created a government that Transparency International ranked as the 171st worst of 177 countries in the world in terms of corruption in 2013 – a ranking of 97% as most corrupt.

Maliki’s broader failures are laid out all too clearly in another Burke Chair report -- Hitting Bottom: The Maliki Scorecard in Iraq. These data make it all too clear that Maliki has dragged Iraq down to man y of the same depths in governance and economics that it suffered from under Saddam Hussein.

A Critical and Urgent  Turning Point: Keeping Maliki from a Third Term

The practical problem for the United States is that Maliki may now be within days of grabbing a third term in spite of almost universal Sunni and Kurdish rejection and the opposition of Iraq’s most senior and moderate nationalist religious leader, the ayatollah Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani. Iraq has finally been able to select a new Sunni Speaker of the Council of Representatives, Salim al-Jabouri; and a new Kurdish President, Fuad Masum.

There is now a serious risk that Maliki can grab another four years of power – making any serious effort at reunifying the country either far more difficult or impossible, and making it extraordinarily difficult for the United States to use military power against ISIS and other violent Sunni and Shi’ite factions without effectively intervening in Iraq’s civil war on Maliki’s and Iran’s behalf.
U.S. Options if Maliki is Gone. The United States does have important options if Maliki is gone. While the Obama Administration has not publically disclosed any of the results of its recent contingency study for action in Iraq, it seems likely that they involve serious consideration of the following possible steps:

  • Creating a much stronger training and advisory effort with the option of deploying Special Forces quietly in the field.
  • Rushing the supply of weapons and material to the Iraqi security forces that will allow them to defeat ISIS and other Sunni factions – including attack helicopters and a range of systems that could also be used against Iraq’s population.
  • Using U.S. airpower from nearby bases and or carriers, and unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs), selectively against clearly defined critical ISIS and other extremist military targets.
  • Examining options for the United States to increase its advisory role in helping Iraqi to develop effective governance and development, with the possible option of encouraging a functional form of federalism – and supporting a strong Kurdish region or state if Iraq should actually divide.
  • Seeking support from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to limit the ability of ISIS to operate, cut off external sources of income and better seal key borders, and support and train Iraq forces.
  • Integrating U.S. efforts in Iraq with efforts to strengthen pressure on both ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria, and treating the operation in Iraq as part of a broader policy in dealing with Syria-ISIS-Iraq-Iran.
  • Tying targeting of ISIS and other Sunni extremist targets in Iraq to strikes that will impact on their strength and capability in Syria.

The problem with all of these steps, however, is that they require clear U.S. recognition of the fact that the enemy of our enemy is not our friend, and U.S. willingness to act firmly and decisively on that recognition.

The United States and its allies face four de facto sets of enemies in intervening in Iraq: ISIS and other violent Sunni extremist and separatist factions, Maliki and violent Shi’ite extremist groups, Assad and his supporters, and at least the IRGC faction in Iran – which currently plays the dominant role in shaping Iran’s action in Iraq. (The full range of these threats is addressed in more detail in Iraq: The Enemy of My Enemy is Not My Friend.

The United States has only limited options left for action in Syria, and must give priority to the P5+1 negotiations in dealing with Iran. It can, however, make a major difference in dealing with ISIS and the much broader threat of Sunni extremism, it can use military support of Iraq to encourage reform and the creation of a national government that can preserve some degree of functional unity – with or without federalism, and it can show that the US be a decisive and meaningful ally without the kinds of use of force that took place in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Time to Force the Issue on Maliki and Offer Aid on Conditional Terms

If the United States is to actually lead, however, it needs to act now to force the issue on Maliki. The United States should not try to force a leader on Iraq. It can, however, make it clear that the kind of aid that Iraq now desperately needs is conditional. It means Iraq must not give Maliki a third term or consider horrible alternatives like Ahmed Chalibi. 

Success means pushing for a truly national Iraqi government needs with strong and independent Arab Sunni and Kurdish voices. It means that U.S. efforts to strengthen and rebuild the Iraq security forces will also means rejecting any aid to  Shi’ite militias, and creating truly national and professional forces that offer real opportunities to Sunnis and Kurds as well as Shi’ites. It means the United States must work with a new Iraqi government to  limit Iranian and other outside roles to ones that do not compromise Iraq’s independence.

These are all policies that the United States has already quietly endorsed. However, quiet – and sometimes nearly inert – U.S. action  is not enough. The United States needs to openly play hardball and make it clear to Iraqis immediately that any new term for Maliki will severely limit or prevent U.S. aid. At the same time, the United States needs to make it clear that it will actually provide real military support, at the levels actually recommended by its own military leaders and not half measures.

The United States needs to use Iraq to show that security partnerships are not silent partnerships and can really be effective. The United States critically missed the time window for decisive action in Syria when Assad was weakest. It is avoiding a bang in Afghanistan by leaving with a whimper, and it seems unable to define what its “rebalancing” to Asia really means in a way the reassures many of its allies. This time the Administration needs to act.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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