This week’s news from Iraq is nothing but tragic. As forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took Mosul and Tikrit before turning toward Baghdad, the bulk of Iraqi forces laid down their arms and fled, demonstrating the mess Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made of the U.S.-trained and equipped Army that was left in his care just over two years ago.
Many Americans justifiably believe that given Maliki’s divisive and sectarian government, Iraq should no longer be the United States’ problem to solve. After all, as Fred Kaplan argues, “The collapse of Mosul…has little to do with the withdrawal of American troops and everything to do with the political failure of [Maliki].”
Unfortunately, however this thing started and regardless of who is to blame, the crisis spiraling in Iraq may not remain contained there. Recall that ISIS began as al Qaeda in Iraq, seeped into Syria, and morphed and strengthened into a group so extreme today that al Qaeda has disavowed them.
Just as it has since spilled over from the chaos of the Syrian civil war, there are many possible contingencies in which ISIS’s brand of radical extremism engulfs even more of the Middle East. This includes a growing danger to Israel as well as our NATO ally, Turkey. It also means an escalating risk of attacks across the West as a growing number of Europeans and Americans, who have flocked to join Syrian jihadi militias, eventually bring their fight home.
One point should be clear: there are no quick or easy military options for the United States. Air strikes will not solve the root problems and cannot succeed without competent troops on the ground calling them in. With President Obama’s firm declaration that there will be no U.S. combat troops deployed to Iraq, uncoordinated air strikes could likely involve civilian casualties. As Obama made clear, “In absence of political action, military assistance…won’t succeed.”
What, then, can be done to right this sinking ship?
Any aid for the Iraqi government should be viewed as part of a regional strategy. In his May 28 foreign policy address at West Point, Obama announced a $5 billion dollar strategy to help partners and friends counter violent extremists and instability. Iraq would be a linchpin for this regional capacity-building approach.
This need not entail another massive, U.S.-led invasion, nor a “Surge 2.0.” It does mean, however, that we can help Iraq get its security forces back in order. The uncomfortable truth is that it will take time. Iraq is in for a long, hard fight; any assistance the United States provides cannot be a quick, one-off effort.
More importantly, a successful strategy will require pressure on Maliki, whose horrifying treatment of the Sunni minority is largely attributable to Iraq’s current woes. As Dr. Walter Ladwig observed in his review of the United States’ new counterinsurgency doctrine, outside intervention in such conflicts can only succeed if the host nation is willing to change its ways—this, in turn, requires a motivating event and outside pressure:
“At a minimum, [successful intervention] require[s] strict conditions on all economic and military aid from the outset of the intervention, a strong interagency commitment to the reform plan, and a realistic appreciation of how much change an external power [can] actually bring about. Moreover it [is] a process in which policymakers [cannot] shy away from a clash with the host nation government.”
President Obama seems to understand this critical principle of counterinsurgency intervention. As he concluded in today’s statement, “The US is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis.”