What a mess the mapmakers at the League of Nations made in the 1920s when the former Ottoman Empire was replaced largely in Mesopotamia with the invented nation-states of Syria and Iraq. The European mapmakers created arbitrary borders without regard to ages-old tribal hatreds. The inhabitants of the new countries were haphazardly thrown together without regard to their Shia, Sunni, or Kurdish predilections. The Shiites disdain the Sunni and both disdain the Kurds. Flash forward to the present-day and the entire region is in chaos. The geopoliticians who appear on Faux News speak of Iraq as if that doomed place was our 51st state. Nothing could be further from the truth: neither Iraq nor Syria have been ours. This stupid conceit has cost us untold amounts of blood and fortune (with no end in sight). To quote the late Senator George Aiken (R-VT) while the U.S. was in the Vietnam quagmire was quoted apochryphally as saying, "...the U.S. should declare victory [in Vietnam] and bring the troops home." If this is a (fair & balanced) sensible foreign policy, so be it.
The Perplexing Future Of The United States In Iraq
By Justin Salhani
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The fall of Ramadi to the Islamic State over the weekend is leading many experts and politicians to reexamine the role the U.S. is playing in war-torn Iraq.
While experts believe a drastic overhaul of policy change might not be needed, certain adjustments can be made to help the Iraqis counter the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Much of what has been said so far focuses on what more the Obama administration can do to aid Iraq in its fight against the Islamic State. While experts views differed on what exactly needs to be done in Iraq to defeat the Islamic State, many felt the U.S. has an important to role to play in the conflict either militarily or as a power broker that encourages the involvement of other nations.
“First, we need to take a deep breath and avoid slipping into a reactive mode that focuses on tactics,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The events in Ramadi are troubling and should serve as a wake-up call and reminder that we need to be very judicious about how we respond. Some of the worst errors the United States made in its policies on Iraq through the years were unforced errors based on faulty analysis.”
Iraq is a country wrought with tribal, religious, and ethnic divisions. When talking U.S. policy in Iraq, many politicians simplify the divisions into three groups: the Sunni Arabs (who generally align with Sunni powers in the Persian Gulf), the Shia Arabs (generally align with Iran), and the Kurds. But as noted by Sajad Jiyad, an independent analyst and researcher currently in Baghdad, these distinctions are too simple.
“There are about 40 militias in Iraq and about 60 percent are sponsored by Iran,” Jiyad told ThinkProgress over Skype from Baghdad. “They are armed, funded, ad supported logistically by Iranian advisors. Iran doesn’t move them latterly there is a legal body and routine but it exerts a lot of influence.”
The other militias draw on local recruits or are nationalist, said Jiyad, and “some are under the religious authorities in Najaf or Karbala [Shia holy cities in Iraq], some are Assyrians [a Christian denomination], and then there are the Sunni Arabs. You definitely can’t say they are all under the command of Iran but more than half are.”
The involvement of Shia militias has drawn warnings from some in congress, including Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). To minimize their influence, McCain has called for the U.S. to arm Kurds and Sunni tribes to fight the Islamic State.
But Jiyad says such “blanket statements” show a “lack of education” on the subject. “Arming the Kurds or Sunnis would just add fuel to the fire,” he said. “The Kurds are not interested in moving into areas where they aren’t accepted and they are not interested in securing towns for the central government.”
Nor are Iraqi Sunni community’s political affiliations one colored. “The tribes re split in three ways,” said Jiyad. “It isn’t straight forward. Who do you arm? You can’t blanket arm so how do you treat that?”
But one point made by McCain does seem to hold true. The lack of a reliable ally may shift the Iraqi state to work closer with Iran. According to Jiyad, many in Baghdad feel the Iranian influence in the country is suffocating.
“Iran is like a drug,” Sajad said. “They’ve forced politicians to become addicts while they provide them with money and weapons, while the U.S. is unreliable. Saudi Arabia whittled down support and the U.S. administration changes. In 2016 it’ll still be a bad news story [to the Americans].”
While many Iraqis are “begrudgingly grateful” for their help, a lack of regional Arab support and the view that America is an “unreliable ally” leaves the country with little other choice than to turn to Iran.
“There’s no follow through with the American role and [there’s a view that] the Americans will let you down.”
That leaves the very difficult question of what should the Americans do in Iraq? Most experts agreed that a political solution is necessary.
“No amount of training, equipping and arming of security forces by the United States or others can force the Iraqi government to pay the salaries of police in places like Ramadi – and even the shock of the rise of ISIS has not seemed to motivate the Iraqi parliament to move quickly on the ideas of creating a national guard for Sunni communities,” said Katulis of CAP. “Security measures in the absence of a political strategy for the country fail to answer the question of what governing structures are we aiming to help Iraqis build for themselves that are viewed as legitimate and have popular support.”
Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon wrote in USA Today earlier this week:
At the political level, we need to prod Prime Minister Abadi and others on necessary next steps. It is past time to create an Iraqi National Guard to complement the nation’s army and police. It would let local recruits fight for their own hometowns, while also serving the broader national interest. It would also provide a way to help refocus and regulate some of the Sunni Arab tribes and Shia militias that are needed to win this fight but are presently being misused.
The Iraqis themselves also need to step up and find solutions according to the experts.
“The government needs to stop viewing every Sunni Arab through a colored lense as ISIS and decide how to make them equal citizens and integrating them back into the state,” said Jiyad. “It can’t wait until after the military campaign.” Ω
[Justin Salhani is the Washington DC Correspondent at The Arab Weekly & World Reporter at ThinkProgress. He received a BA (global affairs) from George Mason University.]
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