Re-Thinking Iraq: A Problem Can Become a Solution

Strategic View

Should we think of Iraq as a solution rather than a problem?

For most Americans, Iraq is immediately associated with words like:  disaster, problem, mess, intractable, resource drain, incubator for ISIS, and worse.  For the Obama Administration, it was a place to disengage from militarily and politically.  And, above all, the administration did not want to break the association of the word “Iraq” with the word “Bush.” 

The combination of the change of administrations in Washington, the growing success against ISIS in Iraq, and the pending 2018 elections in Iraq offer an opportunity.

Iraqis find it very difficult to understand how little Washington wants to be involved with Iraq.  They don’t understand how the United States can simply walk away from the massive investment made since 2003 in Iraq. From their perspective, it is difficult to understand that current U.S. activity is related to ISIS—not Iraq. 

As things now stand in Washington, any concern about the future of Iraq per se, is incidental to belated considerations about what happens after ISIS is expelled from key areas, like Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.  However, this ignores underlying problems in Iraq that progress against ISIS does not address, but left unattended, can explode.  Disintegration of Iraq, accompanied by further expansion of Iran’s insidious Quds force tentacles in the region, must be taken on.

Moreover, the government in Baghdad and Iraqi Sunnis, whose territory has largely been occupied by ISIS, must work out how they are going to govern the post-ISIS Iraq.  Integrating Sunni participation in the governance of Iraq is now vital.

Sunni groups are not uniform but can be lumped into three categories.  Some Sunnis are currently involved in the Baghdad government; some were involved, but gave up on that “process;” and some have never participated and actively oppose the central government (to include former Baathists). 

Sunnis, even those who have actively opposed the government in Baghdad, are reaching the conclusion that now is the time to participate.  As fractious as the government in Baghdad has been, at least the current Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has good intentions with respect to making the government inclusive and strengthening national institutions.  However, Sunnis want to see the United States involved.  They know that Washington cannot fix Iraq, but it is essential for the U.S. to be involved, at a minimum, as a witness.

Sunnis point to massive problems faced by Prime Minister Abadi:  corruption by all parties in Baghdad; the inability to control Shia-led militias; the influence of Iran politically and militarily; the inability to make decisions; the chaos in Iraq’s parliament; etc.   and they note Abadi is too weak to control these parties.  Certainly there is truth to this. 

However, there is no better person than Prime Minister Abadi. And if Sunnis want to increase their prospects, it is in their interest to create conditions that will afford Abadi more power to build national institutions. 

Moreover, Prime Minister Abadi can deploy a vision of Iraq that virtually all groups can support.  An Iraq that has strong national institutions to include justice, domestic security, reconstruction, economic development, and an army would command international standing and would benefit all Iraqi groups.  The kleptocracy that spread after 2005 has been feasting on a weak Iraq, where competition among various sub-national groups for a piece of the pie precluded national unity.

Building strong national institutions, rather than dissecting them and dividing them among the equivalent of warlords, is a theme that can provide an organizing principle and a path ahead for Prime Minister Abadi in the two years leading up to Iraqi elections in 2018.

For the United States, a strong, secular Iraq can address a bigger problem—Iran.  The Obama administration has not acknowledged the magnitude of the Iranian problem due to concern for the nuclear agreement that has been the centerpiece on the foreign policy table.  For Obama it may be his centerpiece, but for Tehran, it is their hostage.

This can now change.

Washington needs to view Iraq as a counter to Iran’s expansion.  And the nuclear deal should not drive American calculations. 

The new administration is unlikely to be so quiescent in the face of Iranian expansion in Iraq and elsewhere. Recalibration of the Iran threat is inevitable.  Historically, and for good reason, a secular Iraq has been an offset to the aggressive theocracy in Tehran.  Regional states have understood this and have been flummoxed by the accommodations made to Tehran during the past few years.

Without forgetting the horribly expensive lessons of the past decade, a new administration should think of the possibility that Iraq can be a positive, not a negative.  Obviously, this is not a simple re-branding exercise.  Much work in support of an inclusive, less corrupt government in Baghdad is necessary.  And, of course, the U.S. cannot do this by itself.  However, it must work with Sunnis.  It can and should sharply address the inroads Iran has made in dividing Iraq. 

Not only should the U.S. pursue expelling ISIS from Iraq, but it should work to build up Iraq’s national identity and institutions, and this means screwing down on the free reign given to Iran’s actors in Iraq.  It should bolster the role and power of Prime Minister Abadi where it can.  And, Iranian Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani should not have free reign in Iraq.  Iran is responsible for more deaths of Americans than ISIS is.  Why do we treat the Quds force in Iraq differently?

Given the current headaches facing the Abadi government in Baghdad, this vision may seem like a hallucination.  However, absent a revised vision by Washington and Abadi, the prospects for a unified Iraq will continue to disintegrate.  Between the American 2016 election and the 2018 elections in Iraq, there is an opportunity for all parties to follow a roadmap to a stronger more stable Iraq and a more secure region. 

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