The New York Times has published a series of in-depth articles on the crisis in Iraq in recent days. One provides a look back at the U.S. decision to withdraw without leaving a residual force. Another examines the virtual disintegration of the Iraqi military. And a third explores the financial and material resources that fuel ISIS.
All of this makes for depressing reading. Polls show little enthusiasm among Americans for renewed US military engagement in Iraq, even if limited to air strikes. Yet the stakes are so high that the US cannot afford to stand on the sidelines.
ISIS is more than a terrorist group. It has evolved into a skilled and well funded armed force that has shown, in both Syria and Iraq, that it is capable of defeating conventional military forces and of taking and holding territory. ISIS has successfully targeted not only government forces in Syria but also the moderate rebel groups supported by the West. After recent gains, it now controls vast swathes of Northwestern Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city. By imposing taxes in areas it controls and emptying banks, it has amassed as much as $2 billion. Key oil installations are under its control in both Syria and Iraq. Since ISIS is largely self-financing, even successful efforts to cut off funds from sympathetic sources in the Persian Gulf would have little impact. By taking Mosul, ISIS also captured the second largest arms depot in Iraq.
ISIS commands a force of ten thousand fighters. While many are drawn from Jihadi networks across and beyond the Arab world, the group is reportedly picking up support and new recruits from among Sunni populations that have fallen under its control within Iraq. ISIS is also collaborating with former military officers from the Saddam era who were purged following the US invasion in 2003.
ISIS seeks to impose a brutal and extreme form of Shariah rule on the areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls. It welcomes a full-scale communal conflict that will force Iraqi Sunnis – who previously banded together to kick out al Qaeda – to flock to the side of ISIS in a war against Iraq’s Shiite majority.
We are witnessing the emergence of a region-wide sectarian war that pits Sunni against Shia. The immediate threat is the collapse of the Iraq military, which has performed abysmally against ISIS and whose morale has plummeted. Many units have been decimated by defections and the government has resorted to mobilizing Shia militias that are mostly themselves poorly trained. These militias have in the past engaged in communal violence against Sunni populations and once reactivated, they will defy the control of any government in Baghdad.
What can the US do? The reinsertion of US combat troops is unthinkable and would serve no good purpose. The key US objectives should be to halt the further advance of ISIS, prevent the wholesale disintegration of the Iraqi army and support new leadership in Baghdad that is at least minimally committed to building an inclusive governing coalition. These are daunting tasks and may be beyond US power to achieve.
The first step must be to shore up what is left of Iraq’s army and gain the leverage needed to influence the key political factions. This will require that the US provide air support in coordination with Iraqi forces. Given the nature of the threat, air power is unlikely to be decisive from a military standpoint, but it may serve to slow the ISIS advance and remedy one of the key weaknesses in Iraq’s military capabilities (the Iraqi air force consists of three small Cesnas, one of which has already been disabled). More importantly, however, US intervention with air power will help raise morale and stiffen the spine of those Iraqi army units that are still intact – especially if air power is coordinated with Iraqi forces rather than used in isolation. Most significantly, air power would serve as a concrete signal of US intent to prevent the collapse of the Iraqi state. Only such a commitment will give the US the leverage necessary to encourage key factions to make the compromises that are essential to crafting a post-Malicki coalition that can command support from Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The other effect of US intervention would be to balance the already significant Iranian influence within Iraq.
The use of air power will require US spotters on the ground, beefed up intelligence collection and the insertion of US military advisers to insure coordination with the Iraqi military (Obama has already committed 300 military advisers). The US will need to provide Iraq with arms to replace what has been lost and on-the-ground training for a restructured Iraqi army once the immediate crisis has eased.
These steps only address the immediate crisis and are designed to avoid the worst near-term outcomes. The longer term goals of preventing the fragmentation of Iraq and the further spread of a region-wide communal war will require extensive US engagement and deft diplomacy, including serious dialogue with Iran.
The instinct to oppose any renewed US military engagement in Iraq is understandable, especially among those like myself who opposed the Iraq invasion in the first place. There have been many occasions when US intervention has been based upon trumped up threats and has only exacerbated rather than resolved conflicts on the ground. But this time really is different. The conditions for region-wide war stretching from Beirut to Basra are already in place. The US has little choice but to attempt to avert such an outcomes.