Iraq: The Right, but a High-Risk, Strategy

President Obama seems to have adopted a strategy of making a long-term military commitment to Iraq. It is one based on air and missile power, advisers, and arms transfers, and conditional on Iraqis moving toward unity and helping themselves. He has also been right in giving the Kurds priority. They faced the most immediate risks, and their fate had the most immediate humanitarian impact on Iraq’s minorities.

As is all too common in today’s Middle East, however, the best option is ultimately the least bad option and filled with risks.

The first major risk is the evolving capabilities of the Islamic State (IS). It is clear that its order of battle is now steadily growing, has far more fighters, and is much better equipped as a result of its victories. It has evolved a mix of religious ideology, terrorism, and irregular warfare that is effective against the conventional Alewite- or Shiite-dominated forces of Syria and Iraq, capable of dominating or absorbing many other jihadist rebel factions, and stronger than a poorly equipped and somewhat impoverished Kurdish Pesh Merga.

Leaving Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to his own devices and fate, and as a burden on Iran, the Hezbollah, and Russia, makes perfect sense for the time being, but it also poses major risks. It works as long as the Assad forces do not lose major amounts of territory or key cities, and the Islamic State does not make major economic, military, political, and religious gains. It works as long as the United States and its Arab allies have significant moderate Sunni elements to support, and the Islamic State does not dominate all major Sunni resistance. And it works as long as the Islamic State “sanctuary” in eastern Syria has limited duration and does not steadily reinforce Islamic State capabilities in Iraq and steadily increase the threat to Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other neighboring states.

This is a long list of additional sub-risks, and much ultimately depends on the Islamic State being so extreme in dealing with fellow Sunnis that it becomes its own enemy—cannot really unify those it tries to govern and integrate into its forces and cannot operate as an effective government. So far, the Islamic State does seem sufficiently extreme and self-destructive to follow this path, but it is not forced to do so, does show some signs of adapting, and has not yet provoked significant internal Sunni fighting against it. Betting against its lasting success seems to be reasonable, but it is scarcely certain.

The second major risk is Iraqi sectarian and ethnic divisiveness and dealing with political vermin like Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki’s steadily growing thirst for power, authoritarianism, corruption, gutting of the effectiveness and national character of Iraq’s security forces, and shift to using Shiite sectarianism against Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds is what made the gains of the Islamic State possible. Maliki divided and undercut Iraq, alienated too many of its Sunnis, pushed the Kurds further toward independence, and left the Pesh Merga weak. His actions helped ensure that U.S. advisers and forces could not stay long enough to make Iraqi forces both national and effective. His links to Iran and its Revolutionary Guards present another threat of their own.

President Obama’s strategy of tying the level of U.S. military support to the creation of a new Iraqi government and dumping Maliki is the right one. Iraq cannot work as a state and create effective security forces without such changes. Most practical Iraqi political figures and Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, the Ayatollah Sistani, realize this. But Maliki has had the power and the money to keep winning votes and remain a major political threat, as well as make it hard to find alternatives. He has also undermined national unity to the point where major political changes and some form of federalism that protects and empowers Sunnis and Kurds now seems a necessary reform to bring them to support the central government and hold the country together. His impact in worsening ethnic and sectarian displacement and cleansing will be hard to heal and make it difficult to separate Iraq’s Sunnis from the Islamic State.

Worse, the United States cannot count on his departure or the quality of any new government. It is pursuing the right strategy, but it may have to live with Maliki as better than the Islamic State and will at best face a long uncertain period before a new government becomes effective. As is virtually the iron law in major irregular wars, the weaknesses of the state we seek to help are as much a threat as the enemy.

The United States cannot wait indefinitely to use airpower and provide a major increase in advisory support and weapons. It needs to be fully proactive in doing what it can to force Maliki and those around him out. But President Obama’s strategy involves a third unavoidable major risk: an Iraq that will not seriously try to heal and help itself. Obama will still have to try to act in spite of this, but the odds will scarcely be good.

Finally, the third major risk is that U.S. airpower and advisory assistance will not be enough to halt Iraq’s division into Arab Sunni, Arab Shiite, and Kurdish enclaves; to restore power to moderate Iraqi Sunnis; to keep its Shiites from becoming dependent on Shiite forces and militias, as well as more dependent on Iran; or to create a destabilizing Kurdish state the United States must protect. Limited force is by definition limited in its military effects and even more limited in its political and civil leverage.

These are realities Americans must face and accept in spite of their partisan divisions and future political hopes. We finally seem to be edging toward the right strategy, but it is a mix of least bad options. Worse, the uncertainties involved are so great that no one can be sure it will have the right outcome.

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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