What Will President Donald Trump Face in Iraq?

by ANDREW E. HARROD January 24, 2017

"What we are setting up are the conditions for ISIL 2.0, and 3.0, and 4.0."

During a recent Hudson Institute panel, former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations Feisal Istrabadi and fellow panelists discussed the concept of a long-term solution to the jihadist threat represented by the Islamic State, concluding that such a resolution must include the difficult task of establishing an elusive Mesopotamian political stability.

Hudson Institute Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent criticized the campaigns currently working to drive back the Islamic State for their emphasis on military force to the detriment of political reconciliation with Iraq's disaffected Sunnis who had enabled the militant group's rise. Iraq's Baghdad central government - dominated by Iraq's Shiite majority and supported by the United States - has retaken Iraqi Sunni towns of Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit. But in the process, these towns "aren't being liberated; they are being laid to ruins [and] the population is being expelled," Pregent said, adding that, accordingly, the Iraqi Sunnis have a lack of trust in both Baghdad and the United States now more than ever.

An army intelligence officer during the Iraq war, Pregent contrasted the successful 2007 "Surge" counterinsurgency against the Islamic State's Al-Qaeda predecessors with previous American overreliance on military force. According to him, America's 2004-2005 experience clearing Fallujah from Al-Qaeda demonstrated that

you cannot destroy a city and expect to kill Al-Qaeda. All we did was anger it - push it somewhere else - and it came back with a vengeance. It was only until we tried to build some temporary trust between the Sunni population and Baghdad, with the U.S. being a guarantor, that we were able to defeat Al-Qaeda through Sunni intelligence and Sunni manpower.

Current anti-ISIS "strategy to me feels like, as long as you can replace an ISIS flag with an Iraqi flag, you are finished," Pregent stated, while noting that political demands for a quick success are guiding the current retaking of Mosul. Atlantic Council Senior Resident Fellow Nussaibah Younis said that President Barack Obama wants to "wrap up the liberation of Mosul in a neat little bow to end his presidency with a bang, which is not really how counterinsurgency works. You cannot kill an insurgency; you have to transform an insurgency. You have to reduce the drivers that inspire people to join these groups."

By contrast, Istrabadi said, "the United States has been focused like a laser beam on the narrow issue of defeating ISIL militarily in Iraq, but not for the political future of the country. The Iraqis have some decisions to make. Do we in fact want to live in a united country? Do we want the Kurdistan regional model multiplied throughout the country?"

Concerning Iraqi Kurdistan especially, "most Iraqis would concede that the Kurds would have a right to independence if they want it," but undecided "Kurds have neither quite been in, nor quite out of, the country - and that is untenable." In all, Iraqis "need to rethink a working, functioning state in a very, very tough neighborhood."

Istrabadi's hobby of collecting historical maps of Iraq's region indicated that "Iraq is the battleground between great powers. It has been for centuries." This includes rules such as Iranian and Turkish empires like the Ottomans. "Strong fences make good neighbors," he paraphrased from Robert Frost's memorable poetry, but "at least since 2003, we have ripped down all of the fences" vis-à-vis Iraq's stronger neighbors of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In particular, "Iran's influence and physical presence in Iraq must be reduced. I know that is very easy to say - much harder to do."

Istrabadi specifically mentioned the need to ultimately disband the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units/Forces (PMU/Fs), which are the largely Shiite militias that were formed in 2014 as an emergency response to the Iraqi military's rout before the Islamic State's advance. Shiite PMUs directed by the Islamic Republic of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps included the Badr Corps and the Kata'ib Hezbollah, which is designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States. According to Pregent, Shiite militias were joining the advance on Mosul as an "unsanctioned force that has been told not to participate" in the offensive by Iraqi and American authorities, given the possibility of sectarian violence with Mosul's Sunni population. Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq members "have said that the Mosul operation is not about liberating the Sunni population from ISIS or Daesh; it is an operation to revenge what happened 1,400 years ago in Islam's initial Shiite-Sunni division," he added.

While Shiite PMU leaders - who command approximately 100,000 fighters - feel strongly enough to threaten American advisers in Iraq, Pregent pointed out that Shiite sectarianism has also infected Iraqi security forces like Iraq's 150,000-man army. Shiite militia members "will brag, ‘I can wear the uniform of any Iraqi military force on any given day,' and in many cases they have salaries from both the Iraqi military and the militias," he said. Contrary to ISIS propaganda appeals, news organizations like CNN ignore Shiite sectarian flags and militia flown by Iraqi Special Forces successfully fighting in Mosul.

Countering such sectarian forces and promoting stability in Iraq's region will require renewed American influence, Istrabadi noted. Younis likewise pointed out that Iraqi "balancing against Iran is very difficult when you don't see a partner" in America; she also noted the "incredible Iranian capture of the Iraqi media."

"Many positive things have occurred when the United States has engaged with the Iraqi political system, and too many negative things have occurred when it has not done so," Istrabadi said.

For an America grown tired of often-frustrating, costly Middle East commitments, Younis recognized the necessity of "explaining to the American people what the costs of disengagement are." Against ISIS dangers and an ominous growth in Russian Middle East influence, she added that a "relatively modest military, and diplomatic and political cost in the short run can actually save you an incredible military cost in the long run."

One of Istrabadi's friends, a retired American general, said that "with his kids, he never had an exit strategy. He had a long-term engagement strategy which moderated as they got older."

A version of this piece also appeared on  https://philosproject.org/

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.  He is admitted to the Virginia State Bar.  He has published over 400 articles concerning various political and religious topics at the American Thinker, the Blaze, Breitbart, Capital Research Center, Daily Caller, FrontPage Magazine, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Independent Journal Review, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Jihad Watch, Mercatornet, Philos Project, Religious Freedom Coalition, Washington Times, and World, among others. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies.  He can be followed on twitter @AEHarrod.

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