One of the most frustrating aspects of President Barack Obama’s “strategy” to degrade and destroy Islamic State in Iraq is that he seems to grasp why it isn’t working. Yet he refuses to take the obvious steps needed to fix it (and I don’t mean sending thousands of American ground troops).
Instead, he only tinkers with a strategy that has failed.
U.S. officials rightly want the Iraqis to do the fighting against Islamic State, helped by U.S. trainers and coalition air strikes.
Last week, the president decided to send 450 more U.S. military trainers and support troops to a new base in Anbar province, an Islamic State stronghold. There are already 3,100 U.S. troops in Iraq involved in retraining the Iraqi army, which collapsed a year ago when the jihadis overran Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
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Despite intense efforts by U.S. trainers, however, the Iraqi army is incapable of defeating Islamic State now or in the foreseeable future.
There are Iraqis, however — Kurdish peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighters — who are eager and able to fight Islamic State. U.S. officials are now working closely with the Kurds. But they are giving Iraqi Sunni leaders far too little help.
Instead, the White House has been focused on rebuilding the Iraqi army, which is a very dubious proposition at best. That’s because Iraq’s armed forces have been effectively destroyed three times in a little over a decade.
The first time was in 2003 by the Bush administration, which dismissed the entire army wholesale, driving many angered officers to join the jihadis; the second by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who packed the officer corps with corrupt and sectarian Shiites. And Iran is now destroying the remnants of Iraq’s security forces by arming and training Iraqi Shiite militias that are gobbling up the army from the inside.
The obvious problems with the army are a prime reason why the administration now stresses that driving Islamic State from Iraq will take a long time. “We have conceived a three-year plan and we’re nine months into it,” said Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in early June.
For Iraq, three years might as well be a lifetime. Sunni sheikhs in Anbar and around Mosul, under heavy assault from Islamic State, can’t wait three years for the weapons and air support they so desperately need.
“We don’t need the training. We have no time; we need to act now,” says one retired Iraqi army officer with close connections to tribal leaders. “When it takes so long, it will be really hard to take back the territory from ISIS, and we will pay much more.”
So the administration needs a Sunni strategy, and quickly. U.S. officials seem to get this but have yet to act on what they know.
Earlier this month, Obama stressed that “a big part of the answer is our outreach to Sunni tribes. … We’ve seen Sunni tribes who are not only willing … to fight (Islamic State) but have been successful. But it has not been happening as fast as it needs to.”
The president added that he hoped the Iraqi parliament would pass a much-awaited National Guard law that would permit the Sunnis to set up provincial fighting forces under the loose umbrella of the Iraqi army. He referred back to how Sunni tribes helped defeat al-Qaida in Iraq in Anbar (the precursor to Islamic State) during the last decade. “Without that kind of local participation,” the president added, “it’s very hard to hold those areas.”
On this, Obama is correct.
There is very little chance, however, that the National Guard law will be passed in Baghdad, because Iran opposes it and has pressed its allies in the Iraqi parliament to freeze it.
In the meantime, the administration insists on funneling all arms for Sunni tribes through Baghdad, where Iran’s Shiite proxies ensure that the Sunnis never receive them.
U.S. officials have encouraged Sunnis to join the army or even work with certain Shiite militias. But, says Richard Welch, a retired Special Forces colonel who spent more than six years working with Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq, the Sunnis will only “work with people they trust. They want to defend their own areas.”
Tribal leaders also want reassurance they won’t be mistreated by Shiite militias that have brutally cleansed Sunni civilians from areas where they have fought. This has driven many in Anbar to support the jihadis.
So how can Washington convince Sunnis to battle Islamic State? I asked Welch, and also the retired Iraqi officer. They made three points:
First, lean on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to rein in Shiite militias.
Second, if parliament blocks a National Guard law, work out a system by which Abadi can funnel needed arms to Sunni tribal fighters.
Third, if Washington is sending military advisers, don’t keep them behind the wire, as at present. They should “be closer to the action,” where they can call in air strikes, which are now only 25 percent effective. They can also check on intelligence and monitor use of U.S. weapons.
“If we want to build trust,” says Welch, “we need to have nodes of advisers in each group — Iraqi army, peshmerga, and with Sunni leaders so we can build relations” and help prevent conflicts among them.
The alternative is to get sucked in step by step to an Iraq fight where there are no Iraqis on the ground who can defeat Islamic State.
“We’re dribbling in there,” says Welch, “while atrocities are going on and Iran is sending a steady stream” of advisers and weapons to Shiite militias. “No one is taking us seriously. No one believes we really want to stop what’s going on there.”
Do we? If so, the strategy must change.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
©2015 Trudy Rubin