Brendan Smialowski / Courtesy Reuters U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks out over Baghdad from a helicopter, September 10, 2014.

Beyond Air Strikes

The Obama Administration's Plans for an Iraqi National Guard

The most important part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent speech about Iraq and Syria wasn’t how many air strikes the United States will conduct and when -- the elements that have dominated much of the analysis of the event. Rather, it was his call to form, from scratch, an Iraqi National Guard.

That plan is a bold one, and it follows on what has been a good summer for Obama when it comes to Iraq policy. He has gotten two crucial things right. First, by working with local allies such as the Kurdish peshmerga forces, Obama was able to use limited U.S. airpower to prevent further conquests by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State). Second, by holding off fro providing any more extensive help, he was able to push Iraqis to replace Nouri al-Maliki, the divisive incumbent prime minister, with a new one, Haider al-Abadi, and create a national unity government.

Obama didn’t make the latter decision simply because Americans like inclusive, democratic governance. It was because Maliki’s sectarian rule had so divided the country that the Iraqi army nearly dissolved when ISIS forces emerged on the battlefield this past spring. If the army was to be reconstituted so that it could reclaim the Sunni Arab heartland, including cities from Ramadi and Fallujah to Tikrit and Mosul, it needed a leader and a government it could believe in, obey, and die for. 

A new government in Baghdad, in other words, was a prerequisite to success, not success in and of itself. And now comes the hard part: reestablishing meaningful Sunni Arab support for a security sector that lost a third or so of its units this spring (and a good many of its leaders before then, since Maliki had purged officers who were not part of his inner circle). In some sense, Sunni support started waning a few years ago, when Maliki failed to uphold promises he

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