How to Avoid the Same Old Mistakes in Iraq

How to Avoid the Same Old Mistakes in Iraq

US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 06/18/14
By Michael Shank and Yemi Melka

Forget military strikes. The U.S. should address sectarian tension by promoting regional cooperation. The best solution to the Middle East conflict is a policy based in regional teamwork.

As fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS, and bands of insurgent groups seize new cities and head south toward Baghdad, Iraq’s escalating humanitarian and security crisis necessitates a radical rethink in how the West handles this threat. If America wants to help the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi families impacted by this violence, it must be willing and ready countenance a completely different foreign policy path forward.

Washington’s current proposal for a military strike will only increase the volatility of the situation and imperil the population on the ground even more. In the nearly 10 years of the most recent American warfare in Iraq, the strong military arm of the Defense Department failed to guarantee stability and security in the country. More of the same approach, then, will similarly fall short.

What must be considered, instead, is first an understanding of how the West failed Iraq and, secondly, how it can help remedy these failures. To be clear, this current uprising resulted, in part, from devastating sanctions followed by years of bombing and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Whether it was the overlooked importance of political reconciliation, the lack of sustainability and accountability in Iraq’s security force training or missteps in recruiting regional cooperation, Iraq will continue to witness instability unless these points are addressed promptly.

First, the U.S. government’s heavy focus on military operations since the Pentagon’s 2003 invasion has given little space for addressing the issue of political reconciliation. In fact, the U.S. fueled sectarian tensions by accentuating and aiding Sunni-Shiite differences post-invasion. In July 2003, charged with leading the occupation’s government in Iraq, the U.S. created an Iraqi governing council based on sectarian lines. This was the first time in Iraq’s contemporary history where leaders of the country were selected based on their identification with a particular sect. Contrary to popular belief, Shiites served at the highest levels in Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds lived in mixed communities throughout Iraq. In fact, the ethnic cleansing campaigns following the invasion displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from their previously mixed communities.

After Iraq’s demographics morphed into significantly concentrated sectarian lines in the late 2000s, Sunni leadership became concerned, and understandably so, that political representation of their views, whether in the security forces or the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, was being curtailed. And while Iraq’s current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has, without question, exacerbated these fears by pushing out Sunnis from positions of power, the U.S. hardly prioritized this point, keen to keep Sunnis in Anbar province fighting informally on the ground with little regard to their reintegration in Baghdad.

All of this helps explains why the ISIL, consisting of Sunni hardliners, is now capably and ably seizing control of cities with little pushback from Sunni moderates who are also frustrated with the political and economic marginalization. Given the years of increasing exclusion, with no remedy and little help from the West, many Sunnis feel like there’s little recourse now but to seek violent methods of regaining power and voice.

That is why it is so critical to ensure that Sunnis are given proper political, economic and security participation in the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. The U.S. must engage with the Iraqi government, leveraging its relationships with heavyweight neighboring countries Saudi Arabia and Iran, to ensure that the Sunni are provided with appropriate avenues going forward. Inclusionary policies for the Sunni population and its tribal leaders are paramount to the stability and security of the country.

Second, the U.S. government’s specific efforts over the past decade to support an Iraqi security force numbering in the hundreds of thousands (after mistakenly disbanding their existing force) were misguided and mismanaged. After spending $20 billion in training, these security forces have operated as yet another sectarian militia. Now, weapons are being trafficked freely throughout the country, with insurgents brandishing the very weapons the West funneled into Iraq formally and Syria informally. And the same Iraqi security forces who received U.S. training are now abandoning their posts and losing control of the cities. This has allowed ISIL to control major cities in the north, where there is a wealth of water and oil resources, leaving few government security forces to control the violence or protect the lives of innocent civilians.

If America really wants to help Iraq’s security situation, it would work with Saudi Arabia, Iran and others to issue an embargo on all weapons trafficking and arms exports into Iraq and Syria. That directly implicates the U.S. due to its weapons shipments to fractious Syrian rebels and unconditional military aid to Iraq. This must change. The West must also work with Iraq’s security forces to stop human rights abuses, which are rampant in the forces and are fueling Sunni resistance.

Finally, any further U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East requires a new set of parameters and principles. The modus operandi must change. There cannot be any more business as usual, no more go-it-alone attitude. Regional cooperation between Iraq and Gulf States in the region is imperative to bringing lasting stability. Otherwise the opportunity for violent spillover expands exponentially.

Whether the West is responding to the current humanitarian crisis in Iraq, made worse by years of sanctions and intervention, or figuring out how to respond to ISIL specifically, the U.S. should prioritize regional cooperation and development initiatives that will deliver an effective security strategy. By engaging all regional leaders, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and others, and even tribal leaders within Iraq, the U.S. can support Iraq in alleviating the current internal and external turmoil. Encouraging regional cooperation on this issue can also help reduce the barriers that impede political and security cooperation in other sectors, including the dispute over Iran’s nuclear technologies.

The U.S. can avoid repeating past mistakes by deemphasizing its military focus and address the structures exacerbating sectarian tension. Airstrikes and drone strikes won’t work. A robust strategy heavily focused on political reconciliation, regional cooperation, arms embargoes and humanitarian aid that meets the basic needs of a war-ravaged nation is the only way to bring lasting security and political stability to Iraq. This is how America can help Iraq. Anything else is merely a repeat of the past and will only make the country more violent and its population more vitriolic. The choice is clear.