Iraq has reached a pivotal moment in its fight against the Islamic State (IS). After millions in U.S. military aid spent and several months of hard fighting, the Iraqi military possesses the capability to secure Baghdad from IS advances, while simultaneously launching offensives on the group’s base of operations. Although poised to take the fight to IS, Iraqi forces require one final component to capitalize on this momentum: the support of their government, writes Security Analyst, Matthew Graham.
The U.S.-funded campaign to expel IS is stalled by a political crisis embroiling the country. Mishandling of oil resources and public services has led powerful Shia Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to demand Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s entire cabinet to step down. Seeking to appease al-Sadr without provoking political dissenters, al-Abadi unveiled a plan to replace cabinet members with al-Sadr’s technocratic recommendations. As a compromise, key ministers managing Iraq’s vital interests, such as Oil and Interior, remain. Parliament swiftly rejected the proposal last week, setting the stage for a political stand-off that inspired al-Sadr supporters to storm Baghdad’s Green Zone and occupy parliament.
While well intentioned, al-Sadr’s campaign to install a technocratic cabinet threatens to upset the patronage system that, although corrupt, feeds sectarian interests and bolsters minority perceptions that their rights are secured. Quotas ensure minorities proportionally officiate laws and oil resources, and sectarian authority over territory safeguards the distribution of power.
For example, Kurdish forces guard the Kirkuk and Taq Taq oil fields, as bargaining chips that guarantee their autonomy in the Northeast. In southern Iraq, Shia fears of minority rule are assuaged by administering the country’s largest oil fields, such as Rumalia.
In the North, however, things get complicated, as oil fields controlled by Sunni militias now belong to IS. Trust comes at a premium in Iraq, so any new funding or cooperation to uproot IS is unlikely to receive parliamentary approval, until cabinet quotas are restored and Sunni administration of northern refineries is clearly outlined.
Joe Biden Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq
Like the lead up to the 2006 sectarian violence that ushered in IS, the United States is absent from the political debate. A surprise visit last week by Vice President Joe Biden is all the political support for al-Abadi the Obama administration mustered.
Instead, President Barack Obama has decided to continue building upon the tactical approach, set in motion by President George W. Bush. The plan is simple. Train and equip Iraqi forces to target and defeat the largest terrorist threat at a given time, which is presently IS.
Tactically, the decision is astute. Roughly 200 U.S. military personnel—mostly Special Forces advisers—are being deployed to Iraq, as insufficient levels of advisers limit their input to larger troop divisions defending Baghdad. Providing additional U.S. advisers will extend real-time direction to Iraqi brigades fighting on the front lines, which will hasten offensives to recapture IS strongholds well outside Baghdad, such as Mosul and Raqqa. The tactic will likely save Iraq from the advances of IS, but ironically, it will open the door for catastrophic sectarian violence.
Obama hopes that degrading IS’ capability will take the pressure off parliament by providing more time to deliberate.
Presumably, the additional time will allow officials to hammer out differences and recommit collectively to defeating IS. However, the same naive assumptions presaged the long-term failure of the 2007 troop surge. At that time, public outcry for Bush to accelerate a U.S. withdrawal along with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki isolating Sunnis, politically and militarily, fed the growth of a nascent IS.
With sectarian violence preoccupying U.S. troops and parliament negotiating fecklessly, a power vacuum garnered IS enough local sympathy and operational space to smuggle in foreign recruits and metastasize from an indistinct, Al-Qaeda sponsored militia to a global jihadist network.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it will require more than symbolic visits from Joe Biden to achieve the political continuity Obama needs to debilitate IS and spare future U.S. administrations from intervening in Iraq. Unfortunately the timing could not be worse for the president.
With the presidential election approaching, Obama is reluctant to jump headlong into a foreign quagmire and dredge up memories of Libya, which could harm the campaign of former-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate, and tarnish the president’s legacy. Nevertheless, Obama can dodge political retribution and boost his foreign policy scorecard by merely laying the groundwork for political reform.
Controlling oil resources is the only method to leverage national politics
What IS’ seizure of northern refineries exposed is that the tradition of territorial authority makes sects, and not IS, the principal threat to survival, because controlling oil resources is the only method to leverage national politics in this system. Encouraging parliament to completely centralize authority over oil security strips sectarian militias of their political relevance, thereby forcing politicians to abandon the threat of violence and, instead, rely on inter-sectarian coalitions and grassroots support to protect their interests.
However, the Iraqi government has earned a track record for mismanaging oil profits, and reforms would place additional pressure on the parliament to combat corruption. As a result, sectarian leaders may demur, but in the end, the opportunity to obtain greater influence over oil fields, nationwide, through the quota system will compel all factions to cooperate. Of course, fostering support for the initiative will hinge on the Obama administration’s willingness to design and promote an appropriate mechanism, such as sectarian rotations for military units guarding oil refineries or proportional appointments to a newly established oil security council. Over time, the growing reliance on sectarian collaboration in politics and security will build the requisite trust to perhaps form the technocratic cabinet al-Sadr envisions.
Obama would be wise to avoid the mistakes of the past. A roadmap exists to achieve political reconciliation, and implementing new tactics within this paradigm provides the United States a platform to exit Iraq, once and for all. As the adage goes, “Fool me twice, shame on me.” If ignoring Iraq’s political impasse once again allows IS to flourish, the president need not reason further when apportioning blame.