Time for a different approach in Iraq
WASHINGTON - When US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the regular Iraqi army lacked the “will to fight” in Ramadi, it touched off war-of-words between the United States and Iraq that required US Vice-President Joe Biden to call Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and smooth ruffled feathers.
Yet Carter was simply stating the obvious.
The US strategy of working through the Baghdad government to try to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) has clearly not worked. US officials should instead supply arms and direct training to militia forces, especially those of the Sunni tribes opposed to ISIS.
The Iraqi Army has exhibited poor morale, command and control. It has lacked the determination to hold ground and fight against a much less numerous enemy, resulting in embarrassing defeats in Mosul in the summer of 2014 and more recently in Ramadi.
Despite all the training and equipment provided to the Iraqi Army by Washington over the past decade — accelerated in the past several months — the army has proven to be a highly ineffective force.
The United States has been reluctant to give up on the Iraqi Army, however, for several reasons. The army is supposed to be a symbol of a unified Iraq and to abandon it would be seen by some officials as giving up on the idea that Iraq can be held together.
Second, the United States is still pinning its hopes on Abadi as a reconciliatory political leader and to abandon the army would be seen as pulling the rug from under him.
And third, after having spent so much blood and treasure on this army, it is difficult for US officials to admit that the effort has been in vain.
Nonetheless, as in life, sometimes it is best to admit that things are not working and to move on with a different strategy, which is to provide materiel directly to the Sunni tribes opposed to ISIS without going through the filter of Baghdad. Iraqi authorities have been reluctant to provide assistance to the militias. One Sunni tribal fighter complained to a reporter that he had to buy ammunition on the black market because none was forthcoming from Baghdad.
In addition, US military trainers should work closely with the tribes to help them prepare for battle. This would have the added benefit of convincing the Sunnis that Washington is not just concerned about the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.
US officials should also provide supplies and equipment directly to Kurdish peshmerga forces. Currently, such supplies must go through Baghdad because of the insistence of the Iraqi government but the Kurds complain that this process is long and cumbersome and that they do not always receive the equipment that has been promised them.
As for the Shia militias, which have about 80,000 fighters, it seems they are well-armed by Iran and so there is no need for the United States to work directly with them. Moreover, having a direct link to the Shia militia forces could cause the Obama administration political headaches with its Gulf Arab allies and its critics at home, something that it wants to avoid.
In the wake of the Ramadi defeat, there are conflicting reports coming out of the Pentagon. One quotes an unnamed US Defense Department official saying that he and his colleagues are engaged in “a hard look at how we do the train and equip mission” but that the option of equipping Sunni militias is not being considered because of Iraqi government sensitivities. A subsequent report quotes another Defense Department official saying “there are plans to provide equipment to [Sunni] tribal fighters in the future, with the approval and coordination” of the Iraqi government.
Although the latter report is encouraging, the problem is that Iraqi government approval may never come because the Shia-dominated government does not trust the Sunni tribal forces. Many of these forces, which took part in the so-called Awakening movement which fought al-Qaeda in 2006-07, were supposed to be integrated into the Iraqi military under the premiership of Nuri al-Maliki, but that never occurred. That his successor, Abadi, from the same Shia Dawa party, is going to be any more accommodating is wishful thinking on the part of Washington.