By Michael Shank

The USA’s air strikes on ISIS positions could inadvertently exacerbate Iraq’s problems, given the recent history of the West’s interventions in the country

Iraq continues to pose a conundrum for the international community. Many in the West feel that Iraq is perpetually ungovernable and that its quagmire finds root cause in something inherent to Iraqi culture or sectarianism. What the West fails to understand is that military interventionism has done more to divide this country than anything innate. What must be realised, if Iraq is ever going to become stable, is that the West’s interventions in Iraq are the primary problem.

Whether it was President George W. Bush or Barack Obama, America’s security modus operandi spawned more insecurity than it eradicated. With overwhelming reliance on military tools, human security got short changed. Three months of US defence spending in Iraq, for example, at US$24 billion, dwarfed the reconstruction budget for a country with insufferably unreliable basic services (worsened by devastating Western sanctions). It is no wonder US development and diplomacy failed to deliver.

The development strategy in Iraq was hogtied by military involvement and its affiliation with US private contractors. Antagonism towards US troops spoiled reconstruction efforts, which quickly became targets for the insurgency. And America’s top-down development strategy, as former special inspector General Stuart Bowen discovered, resulted in substantial unaccounted-for contractor spending, and prevented local ownership and sustainable economic infrastructure in Iraq.

The diplomacy strategy was hampered by a significant lack of religious, linguistic and cultural expertise at Defense and State Departments. Washington was initially unable to distinguish between Sunni and Shi’a theology or identify the Islamic sect orientation of al Qaeda or the Taliban. Few US administration officials could master a level-five language proficiency in Arabic, and the religious expertise to understand Salafism, Qutbism or other variations simply did not exist.

The under-resourcing of development and diplomacy security strategies in Iraq neglected the real security needs of Iraqis. Regardless of the number of troops, as long as the population remained unemployed and uninsured, lacking education, electricity, clean water and sanitation, the chances of securing the region were unlikely. Moreover, the notion that successful US intervention was feasible via unilateral military mechanisms that were socially, culturally and religiously ill-equipped to navigate the ground post-invasion backfired.

Yet, this is exactly how America has responded this year to security threats in Iraq as fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized cities across Iraq. After nearly ten years of American warfare in Iraq, to no avail, more of the same won’t work. Whether it is the overlooked political reconciliation, lack of accountability in Iraq’s security forces or missteps in regional co-operation, Iraq will continue to witness instability unless these points are addressed.

The US government’s focus on the military has given little space to address political reconciliation. Post-invasion, the USA fuelled sectarian tensions by accentuating Sunni–Shiite differences when it created an Iraqi governing council based on sectarian lines. This was the first time in Iraq’s contemporary history where leaders were selected based on their identification with a particular sect – pre-invasion, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds lived in mixed communities throughout Iraq.

After Iraq’s demographics concentrated along sectarian lines in the late 2000s, Sunni leadership became concerned that political representation, whether in the security forces or the government in Baghdad, was being curtailed. And while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki exacerbated these fears by pushing Sunnis out of positions of power, the USA failed to prioritise this, keen to keep Sunnis fighting in Anbar province with little regard for their reintegration in Baghdad.

All of this helps explains why, in 2014, Sunni hardliners ably seized control of cities with little pushback from Sunni moderates who were also frustrated with political and economic marginalisation. Given years of exclusion, many Sunnis felt like there was little recourse but to seek violent methods of regaining power.

Now, ensuring that Sunnis are given proper political, economic and security-related participation in the government is critical. Inclusionary policies for the Sunni population and its tribal leaders are paramount to the stability of the country.

US efforts, secondly, to ‘stand up’ an Iraqi security force were mismanaged. After spending $20 billion in training, these security forces operated as another sectarian militia. Weapons trafficked freely, with insurgents brandishing the very weapons the West funnelled into Iraq and Syria. The same Iraqi security forces who received US training abandoned their posts, losing control of the cities. This allowed ISIS to control major cities in the north, with its wealth of water and oil resources, leaving few government security force personnel to control the violence or protect innocent civilians.

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

Any further US policy in the Middle East requires a new set of principles. No more business as usual, no more go-it-alone. Regional co-operation between Iraq and Gulf States is imperative to bringing lasting stability. Otherwise, the opportunity for violent spillover expands exponentially.

As the West responds to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, made worse by years of sanctions and intervention, or responds to an insurgent group, the USA should prioritise regional co-operation and development initiatives that will deliver shared security for all Iraqis. By engaging regional leaders, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and even tribal leaders within Iraq, the USA can support Iraq in alleviating the turmoil. Encouraging regional co-operation can also help reduce the barriers that impede co-operation in other sectors, such as Iran’s nuclear technologies.

The USA can avoid repeating past mistakes by de-emphasising its military focus. Airstrikes and drone strikes won’t work. A strategy focused on political reconciliation, regional co-operation, arms embargoes and humanitarian aid that meets the basic needs of a war-ravaged nation can bring lasting security and political stability. This is how America can help Iraq. Anything else is merely a repeat of the past.

About the author:

Michael Shank is a professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in the USA and a senior fellow at the French American Global Forum