In some sense, Iraq's present security crisis was unexpected. In early June, a relatively small group of terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seemed to suddenly launch an offensive against Iraqi government forces in Sunni-majority areas of northwestern Iraq. The Iraqi military and police then quickly abandoned their posts, essentially ceding control of the area to ISIS and setting the stage for a battle over Baghdad.
In another sense, however, we are simply witnessing the bursting of a dam whose cracks have been visible for some time. ISIS may seem like it appeared out of nowhere, but the group’s onslaught was no surprise. The groundwork was laid a long time ago, and was evident for anyone who cared enough to notice.
In fact, it is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who bears responsibility for the current debacle. His self-defeating security strategy in the Sunni-majority areas during his second term in office squandered the security gains enabled by the United States’ military surge between 2007 and 2009. Maliki’s counterinsurgency policies, particularly in Anbar province, were debilitating for the Iraqi military’s morale and alienating for the local population and the country’s Sunni population more generally. Maliki placed the Iraqi military stationed in Ninewa province under the control of officers who were personally loyal to him but were otherwise incompetent or implicated in vicious crimes. (By the time of the ISIS offensive in June, the Iraqi military in Ninewa was under the command of one general who was implicated in torture in secret government prisons; another general who had been sacked in 2009 for failing in a previous assignment to protect Baghdad from terror attacks, only to be reinstated the same year; and a third who oversaw deployments in the town of Hawija in April 2013 that resulted in dozens of deaths of Sunni civilians who were protesting peacefully.) As a result, the military was quickly depleted of morale and cohesion, and the local population lost confidence in the central government.
Because of Maliki’s autocratic policies and the Iraqi military’s incompetence, the Islamist insurgency in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq was never entirely stamped out, and it had plenty of opportunity to regroup and spread. Baghdad’s brutality primed Sunni tribes across the country for revolt. And, this year, tribal groups and military groups formerly associated with the Baath party regime of Saddam Hussein posted videos to the Internet pledging to fight to overthrow the central government. As Maliki’s government kept a close watch on Anbar, ISIS built up its presence in the neighboring Nineveh province -- home to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city -- with relative impunity. By March, Ninewa was so overrun that militants managed to put the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil export pipeline, which runs south of Mosul, completely out of service. (By May, the government had effectively given up on repairing the pipeline because it was impossible for repair crews to reach it even under the protection of large armed convoys.)
There were many such signals of Sunni discontent, but Maliki ignored them all. His political strategy was based on fragmenting Sunni groups, rather than encouraging them to unify into a constructive political force. Maliki exploited a controversial court ruling to deprive the cross-sectarian but predominantly Sunni Iraqiya coalition from attempting to form a government following the 2010 election, even though it had won a plurality of seats in parliament. In the months afterward, he repeatedly used dubious or contrived criminal and corruption charges to expel senior Sunni leaders (such as former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi) from the political process. It’s true that a unified Sunni political leadership would have posed a challenge to Maliki’s political ambitions. But it also would have given Sunnis throughout Iraq an opportunity to express their grievances about the central government in constructive fashion. In the absence of a credible political leadership in Baghdad, frustrated Sunnis became more susceptible to militant and revolutionary rhetoric.
Iraqi Sunnis also deserve blame for the crisis. Without the active cooperation or acquiescence of locals, ISIS would not have been able to so quickly capture Sunni towns. Consider the difference between Fallujah, where local tribes decided months ago to accept ISIS as an ally, and Ramadi, where the local hatred for ISIS trumps dissatisfaction with the central government. The first city has fallen completely out of government control, while the second is still largely ISIS-free.
The Sunni elites who have welcomed ISIS are repeating the mistakes of the 2004–05 insurgency. The Sunni provinces should realize that they stand to lose the most in a separatist bid against the central government. Even if a coherent Sunni entity emerges after a war (alongside a Kurdish entity and a Shia rump state), it will be an international pariah with little access to oil revenue and a vicious domestic political landscape, in which ISIS and other Sunni factions compete for control. Of Iraq’s three areas, it will be the most chaotic and worst financed, with the most contentious diplomatic relationships in the region and elsewhere.
For now, ISIS and its allies don’t seem to be on the verge of overrunning Baghdad, but there is no clear resolution to the conflict in sight. The central government seems to lack the military wherewithal to take back the territory it has lost; the military is unable, and new volunteer recruits could overtake Sunni forces only at a tremendous cost of blood. The greater likelihood, absent a political compromise at the thirteenth hour, is a protracted stalemate with continuous skirmishes, and a steady stream of gruesome atrocities and vengeful reactions.
Ideally, ISIS’ advances would spur Maliki to make his government more inclusive. But so far that seems unlikely. Maliki has mobilized volunteer militias that, absent close supervision from professional military officers, will be difficult for him to control. They may contribute to defeating ISIS, but at the cost of further alienating non-Shia Iraqis.
The optimal outcome may be for a central government victory in the short term, combined with a commitment by Maliki to enact political reform in the medium term. Maliki must agree to implement either full power-sharing with Sunnis, or allow the decentralization and federalism stipulated in the Iraqi constitution. In an acknowledgment of his divisiveness, Maliki should also declare that he won’t seek a third term in office.
The United States has an important role to play on all of these counts. Washington needs to help Maliki fill the security vacuum in Iraq, lest Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey -- decide to support their own Iraqi proxy forces and polarize the Iraqi population, and the rest of the region, even more than they already are. Then the United States needs to work together with other countries in the region to allow and encourage Iraqis to implement the constitutional provisions that ensure that no single community in Iraq dominates the others.
Hopefully, neighboring countries would be inspired to pass similar reforms of their own. After all, most Middle Eastern countries have repressive governments and large communities that feel marginalized. Those governments need to realize that it's only a matter of time until what happened in Mosul happens elsewhere.