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The U.S. government has set entirely understandable political goals for Iraq, but it has almost certainly chosen the wrong strategy for achieving them. Since the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June, U.S. President Barack Obama has insisted that Iraq needs an inclusive government capable of winning support among not only the country’s Shia majority but also its Sunni minority. Obama also declared that the formation of such a government must precede any attempt to defeat ISIS. Washington’s current military intervention reflects that analysis: until Baghdad agrees to Washington’s political vision, the United States has declared that it will commit only to conducting limited air strikes -- that is to say, air strikes that are sufficient to halt the extremists’ progress but not to defeat them.
Washington’s strategy is backward. Any diplomatic leverage in Iraq would come from demonstrating that it can defeat ISIS. In other words, if the United States wants to influence the political situation in Iraq, it must first make itself an indispensable military player there.
If there is a consistent pattern in U.S. policy toward Iraq over the past several decades, it is that Washington can achieve significant diplomatic gains only if it is prepared to make significant military investments. In 1991, during the Gulf War, U.S. President George H. W. Bush deployed a large amount of troops to the region but avoided making a long-term military commitment. Rather than organize the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, he backed down. The result was that Hussein remained in power; in the years ahead, he mercilessly vanquished all of his domestic opponents and remained hostile to U.S. interests in the region.
Over a decade later, in 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration implemented a “light footprint” approach to the invasion of Iraq. Although the small number of U.S. troops wasn’t the only reason for the resulting chaos, it was undoubtedly a contributing factor. As foreign insurgents spilled over poorly manned borders, and major Iraqi cities took up arms, Iran deployed its militias to help foment the chaos.
As civil war loomed and a growing Sunni insurgency threatened Iraq’s central government, George W. Bush responded by deepening Washington’s military commitment. Rather than withdraw U.S. troops, he sent more to Iraq as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy -- which proved effective in halting the Sunni extremists and helped create space for political reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia communities. Those political gains could not be properly consolidated because of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. After that, the country’s political unity quickly began to unravel, which allowed ISIS to make significant gains in western and northern Iraq.
If Obama’s diplomatic goals are as significant as he claims, his military ambitions ought to match them. The United States should actively assume responsibility for decisively defeating ISIS. Needless to say, limited air strikes outside the northern Iraqi city of Erbil will not be sufficient to the task. Instead, the U.S. military should be actively ordered to attack ISIS positions in strongholds such as Mosul. The Iraqi air force has launched such attacks, but the United States’ military precision is greatly needed -- ISIS can be overthrown only if the Sunni civilian population agrees to support the mission, and that will happen only if civilian casualties are kept low.
Given their vast experience and world-class capabilities, U.S. special forces should be deployed to Iraq so that they can conduct counterterrorism operations, gather intelligence, and advise Iraqi forces. Washington should also extend military assistance to the Kurds in northern Iraq, and offer to provide their militias with the heavy military equipment they need to properly defend themselves. (Given that the Kurdish government is not a sovereign state, the provision of these arms may need to be organized by the CIA or other covert agencies rather than by the Pentagon.)
This mission would require a long-term commitment; in the absence of sustained attention and military force, terrorist networks tend to regenerate. It’s true that the mission would put the lives of U.S. troops in danger. But it’s the only military strategy that could accomplish a significant military goal -- namely, the decisive defeat of ISIS, a group that over the last decade has presented a clear threat to the West. It has carried out attacks in four Middle Eastern countries, been linked to three attacks in Europe, and offered financial rewards for the assassination of Europeans. It was also connected to an alleged plan to smuggle chemical weapons into the West.
More important, this is the only military strategy that aligns with the United States’ stated diplomatic strategy. In addition to addressing a security threat, a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign against ISIS would send an important political message to all Iraqis. “We need to ensure that the perception or strategic message is that we are there to help all Iraqis,” Michael Pregent, a former U.S. Army officer and senior intelligence analyst and current adjunct lecturer at the National Defense University, told me. “We can't let Sunnis think that we are just there because Kurds and Christians were in danger.” The United States will have the credibility to reinsert itself into the Iraqi political process only if it first demonstrates that it is going to protect all of the country’s factions. (Washington will have to pay special attention to renewing its relationships with key Sunnis -- relationships that have mostly been dormant since the 2011 withdrawal.) In the absence of such an effort by the United States, Iraq’s dominant Shia majority is likely to continue turning to Iran for political and diplomatic assistance and advice.
Unfortunately, the White House has not given any signals that it is open to reconsidering its approach in Iraq. Obama has said there is no “specific end date” for U.S. military involvement. But a senior U.S. official has also clarified that Washington is not undertaking a “sustained campaign” against ISIS. Obama's plan seems to be to use the U.S. military to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces in fighting ISIS to a draw, while encouraging the formation of a new Iraqi government that can take the lead militarily. But he seems unaware that this plan sends a counterproductive message to Iraqis. Not only does it promise to leave ISIS in a position of relative strength and enable it to claim victory over the might of the U.S. military; it also signals that Washington is ultimately indifferent to helping shape Iraqi domestic politics in the future.
There is a window of opportunity to steer Iraq toward a better future and a closer relationship with the West, but doing so will require a significant military commitment from the United States. Obama is facing a go-big-or-go-home moment in Iraq. How he responds will help determine not only that country’s future but also his own foreign policy legacy.