Iraqi quagmire calls the US back
By Ehsan M Ahrari
When George W Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, he purportedly had big plans to reshape the entire Middle East into a region that would kowtow to the strategic priorities of America and Israel. The highly touted "shock and awe" tactic of the superior US forces that initially crushed the rag-tag army of Saddam Hussein, later on met the Iraqi version of shock and awe - a quagmire created by Iraqi insurgents from which Washington almost did not escape with its dignity intact.
Thanks to the Sahwa movement of the Iraqi Sunnis and General David Petraeus' adroit implementation of the counterinsurgency doctrine in 2007, the United States was indeed spared from experiencing another Vietnam-like defeat, something that Saddam Hussein always wanted to inflict on the American military. In 2011, President Barack Obama presided over the redeployment of American troops from Iraq.
However, in the wake of the steadily victorious campaigns of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), which is currently heading
toward capturing Baghdad, calls are rising from the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for the United States to come to Iraq's rescue. To put it differently, another Iraqi quagmire is calling Obama.
The difference between Bush and Obama is that the former never met a Muslim country he did not want to conquer and then occupy, the latter has never encountered a Muslim country he has. Thus, Obama hesitates, debates and appears to dither.
As Obama is pondering intervention in Iraq, it is fairly certain that the horrible experience of his predecessor is very much on his mind. He knows that the American people will not stand for another war in Iraq, no matter how melodramatic the phraseology he eventually coins to rationalize US military involvement there.
ISIS very much wants the US to re-enter Iraq - so that it can meet its "real" enemy head-on. It also wishes to extract revenge for the death of one of its heroes, Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, who was assassinated by the US Special Forces in June 2006. As Obama is discussing his options with his top National Security Council staff, he must also be thinking about not just stopping ISIS in its tracks, but also about saving Iraq from breaking apart.
"Saving" Iraq would not only involve liberating Mosul, Tikrit, and other towns presently under ISIS control, but also helping the Iraqi politicians to develop a governing coalition. And this latter challenge is an even harder prospect than defeating ISIS.
In the person of Maliki, Iraq has a prime minister who may not be quite as brutal as Saddam Hussein was in establishing his tyrannical rule. But the New Yorker's Dexter Filkins describes him as a man of "Nixonian paranoia", that makes him obsessed about the thought that "everyone is plotting against us".
Maliki is extremely petty, vengeful, and, above all, Shi'ite-centric in his own right. As such, he is despised by the Sunni population at large. They know that both options of choosing to live under the reign of al-Maliki and surviving under the grip of the ISIS terrorists are doomed ones, akin to a crap shoot in which one chooses the option of living longer or a just a little longer. Obviously, they have decided to live under the Sunni-led ISIS, at least for now.
Thus, the overall (but unwitting) purpose of America's intervention also means that it will re-enter the sectarian fight in which Maliki appears to be facing certain defeat. Obama knows very well that there are no easy solutions to that country, unless the obdurate and age-old Shi'ite-Sunni conflict is resolved and some sort of a consensual agreement emerges among various groups over proportional representation.
Such representation, even if it were to be agreed upon by the warring sects, would take a long time to be implemented with all its highly intricate details. The sad reality is that the ideal time for such compromise would have been when Iraq was occupied by American forces. However, the Bush administration neither had the foresight nor the imagination to take on such a cumbersome task. Now, it cannot be imposed from outside.
So, what would be the purpose of America's next intervention in Iraq, if not to stabilize it for the continuation of Maliki's brutal sectarian rule? This is one of the main dilemmas for President Obama. The real reason for the ISIS' military success is that the Sunni provinces are exploding with anger over al-Maliki's ruthless suppression, targeting the Sunni leaders for assassination and arrests, and general exclusion of the Sunnis from the ruling circles.
Even if the unwinnable nature of the Iraqi conflict were not to keep President Obama from intervening in the Iraqi conflict, the purpose of intervention may only be to restore al-Maliki's shaky rule. Even then, the Sunni areas are likely to remain places where lawlessness and terrorist groups prevail. As such, they would not only remain a major source a of constant supply of self-styled jihadists to the ongoing Syrian conflict, but may also become areas from where attacks into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights would be planned and launched.
The US military intervention in Iraq, if it becomes a reality, is most likely to involve the use of US Air Force assets or even drone attacks. There is a remote possibility of the use of US Special Forces; however, given how foggy the battlefields of Iraq are at the present time, all of these options hold minimum promise for any success in liberating the now-ISIS-controlled Sunni provinces of Iraq.
The worst reality, which has emerged as a result of the emergence of the ISIS as a powerful fighting force, is that Iraq appears to be heading toward a breakup among the Shi'ite south, the Sunni middle, and the Kurdish north regions. The state that is least likely to accept this unthinkable potential is Iran.
This reality opens up the very interesting possibility of cooperation between the US and Iran, not only to fight and liberate the conquered territory of the ISIS, but also to persuade Iran to negotiate a compromise for power-sharing among the Shi'ites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds.
However, any potential participation of Iran for the defense of Iraq may happen only under extreme circumstances, due to Iran's complex role in supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where it is already fighting the ISIS.
Right now, even the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is reportedly opposed to it. That is why his office issued a call for all able-bodied Iraqis to come to the defense of their country. However, that opposition is likely to melt if the ISIS continues to make further territorial gains. There is nothing simple or straightforward about saving Iraq from the rage of its own people. Obama might decide that a potential breakup of that country may not adversely affect the US vital interests and not re-enter Iraq.
Dr Ehsan Ahrari ([email protected]) is CEO of Strategic Paradigms, Defense and Foreign Affairs Consultancy.