What the next president can learn from the recent approach to fighting the Islamic State.
EghtesadOnline: The battle to liberate Mosul is grinding into its third week, with Iraqi troops on the eastern outskirts of the city, and the stakes could not be higher on all sides.
This is now the largest offensive by Iraqi forces since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, an existential threat to the viability of the Islamic State's self-proclaimed country, and an urgent hostage-rescue mission for a million civilians. For the Obama administration's foreign policy team, which was on the clock when the Islamic State conquered a third of Iraq, it might just be a final chance for some measure of redemption, reports Bloomberg.
In the first five years of his presidency, Barack Obama oversaw a devastating cascade of setbacks in Iraq. A fateful moment came on Dec. 11, 2011, just before the final U.S. troops left, during a joint press conference at the White House with the Iraqi prime minister. At the time, Nouri al-Maliki was creating the conditions that would enable the rise of the Islamic State by purging the military and intimidating and jailing political opponents. Anti-government protests were escalating toward violence. But Obama chose to look on the bright side. "The prime minister leads Iraq's most inclusive government yet," Obama said at the time. "Iraqis are working to build institutions that are efficient and independent and transparent." To Maliki he said, "That's a tribute to your leadership."
An endorsement from the White House was probably intended to reassure American voters that Iraq would be left in good hands, but it proved an overly optimistic assessment. A week later, as the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, the prime minister levied murder charges against one of his vice presidents, the highest-ranking Sunni in the government, who promptly fled into exile. It was a ruthless move to consolidate power and a propaganda gift for would-be insurgents looking to convince the minority Sunni population to turn against politics.
The Obama administration, in the middle of a reelection campaign, was poorly positioned to respond. As Maliki became more authoritarian, the U.S. played the role of a drug abuser's fretful spouse—expressing concern privately, keeping up appearances publicly, and ultimately functioning as an enabler.
Then Iraq hit rock bottom, and the Obama team changed its approach. By June 2014, as the Islamic State conquered Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the White House began warming up to the use of U.S. military force while also putting stark conditions on military assistance. The loss of Mosul pushed the Obama to shed any lingering reservations about meddling in Iraqi politics.
The first intervention was to push for Maliki to go. Conveniently, Iraq had just held parliamentary elections and the political blocs had not yet negotiated a new government. U.S. diplomats in Baghdad now insisted that U.S. forces would join the fight only under the right conditions. While Iraqi leaders pleaded for backup against the Islamic State's invasion, American planes flew reconnaissance missions and identified all the targets they could bomb, if only they were given the green light.
Two months later, Iraq had a new prime minister.
The Obama administration has used the U.S. military for political leverage ever since. Its biggest source of diplomatic strength has come from air power, which has been so decisive in so many battles that nobody wants to fight Islamic State without it. By essentially threatening to withhold assistance, the U.S. can influence which forces will and won't participate in a given battle. In a clear example, the Mosul offensive has seenIran-backed militias stay on the western front, at the fringes of the fighting, while thetroops pushing into the city itself answer directly to Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
American diplomats have not bragged about their clout, but their influence has been vital. Because of U.S. backing, Abadi has been able to empower Sunni tribal fighters and local police to help secure areas liberated from the Islamic State, limiting the reach of Shia militias. In these areas, there is some modest hope for reconstruction because Sunni civilians can trust the security forces charged with protecting their homes. In this sense, the U.S. is trying to shape Iraq's fate not by brokering political agreements but by dictating the order of battle.
Viewed through this lens, the operation to liberate Mosul already marks an achievement for U.S. diplomacy. In territory that has long been a flashpoint of ethnic and sectarian violence, Iraq's factionalized armed forces are cooperating. Kurdish Peshmerga forces have retaken areas north and east of Mosul, where they've historically had a security presence, but have stopped short of encroaching farther into Arab-majority territory. Federal Iraqi security forces, fighting alongside Sunni tribal militias,are pushing toward Mosul from the south. And Iran-backed militias are constrained to the western front, cutting off transit routes between Mosul and Islamic State strongholds in Syria.
This level of cooperation was unthinkable earlier this year. In April, for example, Peshmerga forces and Shia militias turned their guns on each other in Tuz Khurmatu, an ethnically and religiously mixed town right on the border of Islamic State-held territory. For two days, they traded gunfire in the streets, launched mortars and rocket-propelled grenades into civilian areas, and killed one another with sniper rifles. Those battles were animated by rivalries and grievances that still exist.
But now, roughly 25,000 fighters from vastly different backgrounds are together waging a complex, three-front offensive to liberate Mosul. It's happening because U.S. diplomats were able to leverage everyone's common interests—a shared enemy and a need for U.S. air support—to forge an agreed battle plan.
Two weeks into the offensive, the disparate Iraqi forces have retaken hundreds of square miles of territory. Islamic State militants inside Mosul are burning administrative buildings and destroying records, a sign that even they expect to lose the city. But even if the battle ends quickly, the country will still be under enormous strain. The security forces will still have to fight the Islamic State as it morphs back into a guerrilla insurgency. The political system will have to contend with millions of displaced Sunnis wondering if they will ever have a place in an Iraqi state. These crises will command fewer headlines than a war does, but they will be no less dire. To recognize the urgency, the next American president needs only to look back on Obama's initial attempts to step back from Iraq and then shudder at the specter of collapse.