Iraq was not desperate in 2009 and 2010. The security situation was relatively in hand and improving. The political situation was touchy, but also progressing, even if glacially. The Iraqi budget was flush from high oil prices, and the economy looked like it could begin to get healthy. These were the conditions in which Washington, D.C., and Baghdad miscalculated: Seeing the fighting had lulled, both concluded the war was over. This conclusion could not have been more wrong.
In 2011, thinking the war was over, domestic political considerations in the U.S. and Iraq resulted in an American withdrawal—not just a military withdrawal, but more importantly, a political and diplomatic withdrawal. Such a complete withdrawal set the conditions for a set of bad political decisions in Baghdad. From 2011 to 2013, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki created more enemies by reacting heavy-handedly to protests, alienating the Sunni population, antagonizing the Kurds and increasing corruption. He put himself in the positions of minister of defense and interior, then gutted his own security forces, reversing the slow but steady progress being made by the Iraqi Security Forces, the ministries of defense and interior, as well as the Iraqi Joint Force Headquarters.
During the same period, al-Qaida in Iraq reconstituted itself. It conducted a series of campaigns first to re-establish its networks in the Euphrates River Valley, then renewed the system of caches and bomb factories throughout the country and revitalized its leadership by conducting several prison breaks. The frequency, complexity and lethality of its attacks grew steadily in this period. By 2014, al-Qaida in Iraq had retaken all or major parts of Ramadi and Fallujah.
Al-Maliki came to the U. S. in late 2013 trying to convince American leaders of the serious security problem Iraq faced. He left relatively empty-handed. Two developments followed: First, Iraq turned to an eager Iran for more assistance. Second, a rebranded Islamic State group seized Mosul, announced a caliphate, and threatened Baghdad itself. In this same period, the U.S. watched in basically a “not our problem” mode. Of course, when we could not ignore it anymore, Iraq became—and still is—a problem requiring U.S. involvement.
A Two-Fight Matter
The mistake Washington and Baghdad made in 2010 and 2011 was forgetting, or ignoring, that insurgencies are a two-fight matter at the strategic level: a fight for control of the government, and a fight for legitimacy as seen through the eyes of citizens. By mid-2010, the shooting war lulled, but the strategic war was still raging. Al-Maliki won the fight for control of the government but lost the fight for legitimacy, thus fanning the embers of the insurgency. And American withdrawal became tinder for the reignited fire.
Will Washington and Baghdad make the same mistake again? The jury is still out. The shooting war is ongoing but winding down. Ramadi and Fallujah are under government control; after nine months of hard fighting Mosul is as well. Even as these successes are evident, the insurgency remains active, continuing to disrupt Iraqi daily life and seeking to reconstitute itself again.
Meanwhile, the two strategic fights are far from over. Fighting is an instrument, a supposed means toward helping achieve some strategic political aims. So far, the American strategic aim has been to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq. A wartime strategic aim, however, should answer the question, “What happens after the fighting?”—or, said another way, “What durable political solution will fighting help attain?”
Since America’s re-entry into Iraq, the focus has been to develop the proficiency of the Iraqi Security Forces necessary to defeat the Islamic State group. “Defeat,” however, has been defined as ejecting the group from Iraq’s key cities and attacking their terror-attack and support networks, but not ending the enemy’s ability to reconstitute.
This focus is too narrow. Even if the Islamic State group is ejected and its networks reduced, without ending its ability to reconstitute (and this applies to the Islamic State in Syria as well), it will not have been defeated in the full sense. And the current focus will not help Iraq win the twin strategic fights and create a durable political solution—the very things necessary to prevent insurgent reconstitution. For the kind of strategic help the Iraq problem really needs, America must first convince itself that a long-term relationship with Iraq is in the U.S. national interest. Then it must convince Iraqi leaders that a long-term relationship with the U.S. is in their interest and that America can be trusted to follow through on such a commitment.
Four Security Actions Necessary
Iraqi leaders, of course, have some tough decisions to make themselves. Nation-to-nation discussions like these are the stuff of serious diplomacy mixed with military actions. Unfortunately, the light too often shines on military actions. As the bulk of fighting ends, the U.S. should be seen as a key leader committed to help Iraq win its twin strategic fights and establish a durable political solution. At least four security actions are necessary:
- Professionalization of the Iraqi military. The Iraqi military will need help returning to the path they were on in 2009 and 2010: creating merit-based personnel selection and promotion systems, performance-based training and education systems, anticipatory maintenance and supply systems, and transparent budgeting and acquisition systems. The Ministry of Defense will need help developing a competent bureaucracy that is necessary to execute its basic functions. And the Iraqi military must subordinate to legitimate Iraqi political leadership and operate in ways that increase government control and legitimacy.
- Professionalization of law enforcement, confinement and judicial organizations. The Iraqi police forces—local, regional and national—will need help returning to their 2009–10 path: becoming “protect and serve” police forces, developing transparent and accountable confinement systems, transforming themselves into evidence-based (not confession-based) police and judicial systems, and preparing to assume internal security primacy from the military. The Ministry of Interior will also need help developing the competency of its bureaucracy so that it, with its operational forces and the Ministry of Justice’s legal and judicial forces, can also help increase governmental control and legitimacy.
- Professionalization of Iraqi intelligence and counterterrorist forces. The embers of an insurgency will burn for a while longer. Together with Iraqi police forces, the Iraqi intelligence and counterterrorist forces must improve their collective capacity to detect and prevent major insurgent terror and organizational activities. Further, these internal counterinsurgency organizations must be controlled by a legal and transparent process. In the 2008–09 period, the Iraqi Council of Ministers established such a process. Some similar process must be re-established if these forces will also help increase legitimacy and control of the government of Iraq.
- Creation of an adequate border security system. Iraq has not had adequate border security for some time. In many ways, the country must start from scratch. They do have a border security force, but the competency of that force is low and the technology it uses is out of date. Work had begun on improving the quality of the force and its equipment in 2008–10. That work was stopped.
While these four security-related actions are necessary, they are not sufficient. The main effort must be at the political and economic levels. Unfortunately, the focus will likely be on the number of U.S. troops left in Iraq, as it was in 2011. But the real indicator as to whether the fighting of the past three years will accomplish anything lasting is the numbers and types of diplomats and the instructions they have from Washington.
Thus the main effort must be focused on at least the following areas:
- Help the Iraqis create committed and proficient local, provincial and national political leaders who deliver goods and services to their citizens on an increasingly equitable basis to share actual power and resources in a fair and representative way.
- Help Iraqi leaders—within the Council of Representatives and the executive branch, as well as provincial governors—establish a noncorrupt business environment that allows U.S. businesses to partner with Iraqi businesses in the reconstruction of Iraq and the revitalization of the Iraqi economy.
- Help Iraq establish a transparent, law-based, corruption-resistant civil service that can stabilize the functioning of the institutions of Iraqi governance.
Each of these will require a long-term American commitment to Iraq. Each will progress in fitful, sometimes frustrating ways—but progress they must. Otherwise the fighting and sacrifice of the past few years will result merely in a temporary disruption of the enemy and short-term lull in levels of violence—just as happened in 2011. Our strategic aim should be to help Iraq win its twin strategic fights and establish a durable political solution—that is, helping Iraq regain its territorial integrity and political sovereignty. Fighting to eject the Islamic State group and to prevent it, al-Qaida or any other insurgent group from reconstituting is a necessary means toward that end.
But success in those tasks is not sufficient. This strategic aim does not include creating another America. Rather, it includes only helping Iraq structure and emplace solutions that increase long-term governmental control and legitimacy.
The Iranians are allied and actively positioning themselves to play the dominant role in determining how Iraq approaches its fights for control and legitimacy. They have a vision for what happens after the fighting, and of this the U.S. can be sure: Their vision will be counter to the national interests of the U.S. Some tough diplomatic negotiations and discussions will be required. On one hand, Iran has legitimate historical, cultural, religious and economic ties with Iraq. On the other, Iran has worked to create a politically unstable Iraq so the instability keeps Iraq weak and dependent on Iranian assistance. Russian alignment with Iran will make the diplomatic task even harder.
The U.S. can, of course, withdraw with Mosul being secured, saying our job is done. Doing so will merely set the conditions for Round 3 in Iraq, as our withdrawal in 2011 set the conditions for Round 2. Committing to the long term in Iraq is a tall order, but doable and important.
Although the U.S. has been at war since 9/11, we seem not to have learned a central lesson of war: Battles and campaigns are won by fighting; wars are won by what happens after the fighting. Maybe we’ll learn and get it right this time. Or maybe we won’t and face an America that won’t support a Round 3 and a resultant Iraq strategic environment even tougher than the one we’re in now.