The Debate

Washington’s Worst and Least-Bad Options in Iraq

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The Debate

Washington’s Worst and Least-Bad Options in Iraq

ISIS is making progress in Iraq, and the United States has no good options for stopping it.

Washington’s Worst and Least-Bad Options in Iraq
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Iraq’s sectarian woes have escalated sharply in recent days. The Salafist al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has taken over a large swathe of Iraqi territory in the country’s northwest following the withdrawal of Iraqi government forces. The group now controls a large, mostly Sunni, area of Iraq, south of Kurdish territory and north of Baghdad and Iraq’s Shia majority areas. Thanks to ISIS’s territorial gains, Washington, Baghdad, and Tehran have all begun to panic. U.S. President Barack Obama has hinted that the United States might end up militarily involved in Iraq once again, stating that “there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily.”

There are really no good options here, but before leaping back into the lion’s den, U.S. policymakers and military planners would do well to reflect on the work of counterinsurgency guru David Galula. Galula, a French military theorist, was largely the basis of U.S. Army strategy during the Iraq War itself. In referring to his thought, it becomes clear that the worst option in Iraq today might be for the United States to engage in air strikes without a coordinated ground assault. The least-bad option (seeing as how there is no good option) would be to pass the buck to Iran (as Zachary Keck explains in a piece over at The National Interest in greater detail). The United States has announced that it will send a small troop contingent to safeguard the U.S. embassy and other interests in Baghdad, but beyond that, it would do well to address Iraq’s political shortcomings as an external actor.

ISIS’s current campaign in Iraq is being waged according to Galula’s laws of revolutionary warfare. Galula alleges that the primary aim of revolutionary war is to win the support of the population — territory and terrain, in an affront to Clausewitz and conventional theorists, is secondary. ISIS has already succeeded in gaining territory (mostly by having Iraqi troops willingly vacate) and has won the support of the population largely through the support of Sunni tribal leaders. Those who initially refused to pledge their support to the group or sympathize with the government in Baghdad have either been violently dealt with or threatened into submission. As the New York Times details in a visual guide, ISIS forces have effectively seized control of Iraq’s Sunni-majority areas. The group controls Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi, and is currently contesting Fallujah. Soon it will head towards Baghdad.

Galula famously described “eight steps” that a counterinsurgency force should undertake in order to take back an area under full insurgent control. He refined these ideas during his experiences as a French captain during the Algerian War:

  • Concentrate enough armed forces to destroy or to expel the main body of armed insurgents.
  • Detach for the area sufficient troops to oppose an insurgent’s comeback in strength, install these troops in the hamlets, villages, and towns where the population lives.
  • Establish contact with the population and control its movements in order to cut off its links with the guerrillas
  • Destroy the local insurgent political organizations
  • Set up, by means of elections, new provisional local authorities.
  • Test these authorities by assigning them various concrete tasks. Replace the softs and the incompetents, give full support of the active leaders. Organize self-defense units.
  • Group and educate the leaders in a national political movement.
  • Win over or suppress the last insurgent remnants.

As ISIS fighters continue to press south from Mosul towards Baghdad, it appears the Iraqi military needs to keep these basic rules of counterinsurgency warfare in mind. Despite the somewhat misguided attempt to present ISIS as a well-organized Spartan fighting force that pushed two divisions of Iraqi troops out of Mosul with just 800 men, the fact remains that the group is primarily employing guerrilla tactics. Further, the group is conducting its operations in Iraq with clear political objectives in mind. It is, in effect, a revolutionary force. Its ultimate objective of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Levant will necessitate it controlling the population and ultimately providing services like a government would.

As the White House and the Pentagon mull the possibility of carrying out air strikes on Iraq’s north-south highway, which is currently being used by ISIS forces to funnel its forces down from Mosul towards Baghdad, it is worth noting that air strikes in isolation and without the accompanied use of ground forces are notoriously ineffective at gaining ground control. Even targeted killing with the use of drones can do little in Iraq today. As Zach notes in his National Interest piece, the United States is keen to avoid a repeat of what it experienced in Libya when its air strikes and cruise missiles weakened Libyan forces to the extent that Muammar Gadhafi met his end in a swift summary execution. Air strikes could conceivably stop ISIS’s advance, but the retaliation that Nouri al-Maliki’s forces would exact might end up further polarizing Iraq’s delicate sectarian situation.

Strategically and tactically, fixing Iraq’s ISIS problem will necessitate ground forces. Practically, the only actor capable of doing this is Iran. The stakes are certainly high enough politically for Tehran to waste little time in helping al-Maliki ward off ISIS’s threat to establish a Salafist caliphate on Iran’s doorstep. Furthermore, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has a proven record of effectively establishing ground control and turning the political tide in conflicts, including Syria and Lebanon. In essence, Iran’s forces will be more likely to accomplish in Iraq today what the United States’ 2007 Iraq surge failed to do. The strategic logic underlying the surge took inspiration from Galula’s recommendations but failed to implement them in a way that addressed Iraq’s longer term problem of fractious sectarian politics.

The one major uncertainty, and why the Iran option is only the least-bad option and not a particularly good one, is that Iraq’s core problem — political reconciliation between its Sunni, Shia and Kurds — will endure and may even exacerbate with Tehran extending its influence across the border. While Iran’s IRGC Quds forces are capable, their capacity to deal with a largely uncooperative Sunni population without resorting to heavy-handed measures will be limited. In particular, ISIS’s gains in northwestern Iraq suggest the complicity and cooperation of Sunni tribal leaders. This is where what remains of Iraq’s at least nominally multi-sectarian armed forces and government must come into play and ensure that these areas under ISIS control see value in returning to the status quo ex ante under the Iraqi government. Nouri al-Maliki’s track record in inclusive multi-sectarian governance is underwhelming here. Should joint Iraq-Iran forces be perceived as a Shia bulwark against a primarily Sunni insurgent force, then there will be no inclusive political cause to challenge ISIS’s vision of an Islamic caliphate for Iraq’s Sunnis. Galula’s strategic wisdom places an inclusive counterinsurgency political “cause” at the center of any effective strategy.

Washington is already discussing the extent to which it will cooperate with Iran in dealing with the ISIS threat in Iraq. At the same time, Iraq has received offers “from the highest levels of the Iranian government” for “everything” it needs in combating ISIS. There are truly no good options here, but Washington needs to recognize that there are certainly bad ones. Air strikes without the involvement of ground forces can’t stop ISIS’s revolutionary project in Iraq. Letting Iran spearhead Iraq’s salvation at this crucial juncture does have its risks, but it’s the least-bad option for Washington as it faces a problem from hell.