US policy dilemmas in Iraq
WASHINGTON - US policymakers are largely pursuing the same policies in Iraq that they have been undertaking for the past year and the results are mixed. Although the Islamic State (ISIS) advance has been stopped and the Iraqi government has retaken some territory, ISIS remains entrenched in most Sunni areas of the country.
The United States is hoping the regular Iraqi military, despite its problematic record, will be the chief force taking the fight to ISIS and continues to train it but realities on the ground show that the Kurdish and Shia militias are much more effective.
The mobilisation of Shia militia groups, along with US and coalition air strikes, was instrumental in checking the advance of ISIS (saving Baghdad) and were effective in retaking Tikrit.
This combination of forces and capabilities made up for the dismal performance of the regular Iraqi Army in 2014, when it abandoned its positions along with hundreds of millions of dollars of US military equipment in the wake of ISIS’s rapid advance.
However, the United States remains skittish about cooperating with some Shia militias because of their close ties to Iran’s al-Quds force, an arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ intelligence directorate.
In the north, the United States is working more openly with the Kurdish peshmerga forces, which, after initial setbacks, have retaken villages outside of Kirkuk, a mixed Kurdish-Arab city that the Kurds seized in 2014. But relying on the Kurds to be the spearhead of an offensive against ISIS is full of difficulties because the Kurds are reluctant to insert themselves into predominantly Arab areas, such as Mosul.
Hence, the United States is devoting attention and resources to retraining the regular Iraqi Army, which has an added benefit of showing Iraqi authorities that Washington is still supporting the concept of a unified Iraq. The problem is that the regular army is beset by nepotism, weak leadership and sectarian bias, according to sources in Washington. Whether the army can reconstitute itself into an effective fighting force remains an open question.
Even the Iraqi Ministry of Defence is not relying on the regular army exclusively and counts on Shia militias as a part of its overall force structure.
Given these realities, the United States is attempting to parse out the “good versus the bad” Shia militias — the former being those without strong Iranian ties whereas some of the latter take direct orders from Iranian al-Quds commanders.
The dilemma for the United States is that the so-called bad militias are the most effective fighting forces, according to Washington sources. Indeed, it was these militias who led the ground offensive against Tikrit.
Because the Republican-controlled US Congress is in no mood to help advance Iranian interests in Iraq — especially in the wake of its failure to block the Iran nuclear deal — President Barack Obama’s administration will have to tread carefully on helping Shia militias, even if it is just with air support.
On the other hand, many members of Congress want the administration to do more to assist Iraqi Kurds militarily. The US Senate version of the fiscal year 2016 foreign aid bill directs the administration to provide military aid directly to the Kurdish Regional Government’s security services, while the House of Representatives calls on the US secretary of State to work with the Iraqi government “to ensure that the Kurdish Regional Government receives sufficient revenues and security assistance to address the ongoing security challenges posed by ISIS and other terrorist groups”.
The reason for this different approach between the Shias and the Kurds is that the former are seen as pro-Iran whereas the latter are viewed as pro-United States, even though there are important nuances to such characterisations.
In the meantime, the campaign against ISIS has been sidetracked by internal problems facing the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Demonstrations against electricity shortages during the summer quickly morphed into a campaign against corruption and calls for constitutional changes. Abadi is trying to be responsive to the demands and announced a reform agenda.
Some US commentators, such as former ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, have called on Obama administration officials to help Abadi carry out the reforms. In an op-ed published September 10th, Khalilzad wrote such cooperation could lead to “more effective governance, reconciliation and a reduction in sectarian tension”.
But the US capacity to perform multiple tasks at the same time in Iraq is limited, especially since much of its attention is focused on Syria and the accompanying migrant crisis. As a result, the United States is likely to pursue “more of the same” in Iraq.