Jun 16 2014

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How to Keep Baghdad From Becoming Saigon

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Never Again...

Never Again…

President Obama is most colossally pleased with himself when, in various speeches, he talks about his unique role in ending wars.

 He ended the war in Iraq.

He’s about to end the war in Afghanistan.

But of course this is hubris.

Obama doesn’t end wars; he ends US participation in conflicts.

The distinction is vital.

 POTUS’ strategy  and view are myopically self-contained. Get out quickly and completely, and ensure that there are no legacy legal entanglements that could force the US back in. Trumpet the result loudly as an accomplishment.

 The strategy all but ignores durable geopolitical realities in favor of a diplomatic minimalism that is in practice, little more than strategic abandonment.

If you are an Iraqi – or soon an Afghan – who had worked with the US to fight terrorists or radical militias, to bring order and stability to fragile democracies trying to balance tribal or sectarian interests for the first time in a political – not military – fight, you suddenly find that under Obama, you are on your own.

The US has not just left; it’s washed its hands of you.

Obama’s “puny-literalism,” so personally satisfying to him, is cynical, short-sighted and ultimately counterproductive – catalyzing the very events that the complete absence of US forces and involvement subsequently create, requiring US re-engagement under less favorable terms and defeating the purposes of the original, hasty retreat.

Iraq tragically proves the point.

President George W. Bush signed the Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqis in December 2008. The agreement called for the redeployment of US forces out of Iraq by December 31, 2011, ending American combat operations.

But even before that agreement was inked, there was an understanding on both sides that a residual force of US troops would be required to help Iraq in the transition. Defense Secretary Robert Gates estimated tens of thousands would be needed.

But that wasn’t the Obama view.

Upon taking office, Obama made the Bush-signed Status of Forces agreement his own – as if it was a new policy – and showed little if any interest in a follow-on American presence in Iraq.

Then, as today, the Administration claims that it was Iraqi intransigence that prevented an agreement to station at least some US forces in Iraq, but the evidence is unconvincing. Obama wanted out, as his announcement to the American people in October 2011 makes clear.

Iraq would be left to its own devices.

Washington’s message – good riddance.

Two and a half years later, Iraq is in turmoil, buffeted by sectarian violence internally, and now all but invaded by a radical al Qaeda off-shoot – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – whose creation Obama has tacitly contributed to through his inept handling of the Syrian civil war.

The fragile democracy that ordinary Iraqis overwhelming endorsed from 2006 on, is now at risk of collapsing through the actions of Islamic terrorists bent on creating a Sunni Muslim caliphate from eastern Syria through the middle and western Iraq, and the predictable reaction of Shiite Muslim militias, activated by religious leaders, to protect Shiite holy sites and drive back the Sunni menace. The government in Baghdad appears powerless to confront the Sunnis or control the Shiites. A bigger setback to US strategic goals in the Middle East and an unraveling of hard fought US gains in Iraq, would be hard to describe.

It did not have to end this way. A more prudent, if less politically satisfying course for Obama would have been to keep a residual US force in Iraq for these reasons:

– A US troop presence would have given the US influence with the score-settling Shiite Prime Minister, al Maliki, who has failed to live up to power-sharing agreements put in place before the US departure.

– A US troop presence would have provided an alternate channel for Sunni tribesmen to voice complaints over government power-sharing. These tribes were part of the Sunni, Anbar Awakening, which rebelled against the strict Sharia law imposed by al Qaeda and joined the US in fighting terrorists after the 2006 US Surge. Those tribes made victory possible, and set the stage for the relative peace Iraq enjoyed in the three years before the US exit.

– A US troop presence would have been a stabilizing force for the region, and would have been a deterrent to the ISIS incursion as well as the current mobilization of sectarian militias to fight ISIS, which only serves to destabilize the legitimacy of the Iraqi government further. If POTUS was determined to do nothing in Syria, a US residual force in Iraq would have at least contained the spread of Sunni extremism that has been catalyzed by the brutality of Shiite-associated government in Damascus.

– A US troop presence would have kept Washington’s eyes on Iraq as a priority.  Without troops, the US government moved on to other topics and agenda items.

Would have. Could have. Should have.

To combat the crisis, here is what the US needs to do:

1) Position Military Forces: the immediate battlefield situation is fluid, with conflicting reports on the actual gains made by ISIS.  As a “red line,” ISIS must not be allowed to take Baghdad, which could force the Iraqi government to flee in panic, and threaten the security of US personnel in Iraq, particularly in the US embassy. We don’t need more pictures of American diplomats being whisked off rooftops in rushed evacuations. If ISIS makes a move for Shiite holy cities, Najaf and Karbala, the US will have to intervene to prevent an open Shiite insurrection and the very real possibility of direct Iranian involvement.

To that end, the US needs to have a portfolio of flexible options immediately available to counter ISIS, and no, it does not require “boots on the ground.” As ISIS is a force on the move, it is vulnerable to one of the US military’s greatest strengths – precision air power. Drones coupled with cruise missiles, carrier-based aircraft and strategic bombers could alter the equation on the ground in a matter of hours. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of an attack by B-52s will tell you it is a life altering experience – if you survive it.

President Obama appears to have ordered this type of preparation.

2) Significantly Enhanced Military Cooperation: through drones and other surveillance platforms, the US has an unparalleled advantage in gathering actionable tactical intelligence. The US should immediately make this capability available to the Iraqis to establish a firm defensive line, allowing the Iraqis to use the Intel to conduct precision strikes to degrade ISIS forces, and begin to rollback ISIS advances.

ISIS should begin to learn that it can run, but cannot hide.

The US must also work to resupply the Iraqis with small arms lost in the initial battles, taking all precautions to ensure that the weapons get to the Iraqi security forces and not sectarian militias.

3) Outreach to the Sunni Tribal Leaders: al Qaeda’s mistake in 2005 is being repeated by ISIS today. By introducing strict Sharia law in the areas they conquer, ISIS alienates their fellow Sunnis.  The US military had relationships with these Iraqi tribal leaders, who are potential allies against ISIS – a 5th Column right in ISIS’ lines that could be a source of intelligence and covert military activity.

The US must pro-actively engage these tribal leaders directly and secure their support. They are the Sunni fissure that can disrupt ISIS’ lines of communication, logistics and supply. As important, this effort must distinguish between the Sunni tribes and the ISIS rebels, to ensure the Iraqi army doesn’t attack potential allies, and to distinguish targets if the US must become militarily engaged.

3) Bring the Hammer Down on the Iraqi Government: Nouri, al Maliki, the Iraqi PM, has been in office since 2006. Critically, his party lost the 2010 parliamentary elections to secular nationalist party, but al Maliki maneuvered to keep his office. The US, preparing to exit, did little to ensure that the winner actually won. Had the secular party actually taken power, the course of events in Iraq would have been significantly different.

Since the US withdrawal from Iraq, al Maliki – a Shiite – has been a pronounced score settling, charging a Sunni vice president with treason and failing to faithfully implement power-sharing agreements with the Sunnis and Kurds, breeding distrust and cynicism, and cozying up to Iran’s Shiite mullah-ocracy.

Maliki has to go.

Elections were just held in Iraq, and the results are due to be announced shortly. Al’s party will have won.  Having presided over a victory, it would be the right time for Maliki to turn power over to another, untainted member of his coalition. There is a sense among those in his own party that eight years has been enough.

A new government has three priority actions that must be executed simultaneously. 1) stabilize the Iraqi security forces and their role in combating ISIS, 2) reach out to Sunni tribal leaders and Kurds to renew good-faith power sharing agreements and make Iraqi security forces available to protect the tribes, 3) pressure Shiite militants to call their militias home.

It is not an easy agenda, particularly in Iraq where dithering has been raised to an art form, and where sectarian interests trump national priorities.  Iran plays a strong role here. There are reports that Iranian Revolutionary Guards are already in Iraq – though unconfirmed and not officially sanctioned by the Iraqi government. It is a deeply troubling development that, far from bringing stability, will only destabilize the strategic equation.  Iran must not be allowed to become the guarantor of Iraqi independence/sovereignty.

4) Sequencing:  US military force should only be used immediately if Baghdad is threatened, and then, only to stop ISIS’ advance. Any additional US force must be built on a political predicate, where the Sunni tribes are on-board and the Iraqi government has demonstrated tangible commitments to reform. The worst of all worlds would be the use of American military force that would appear to align the US with Shiite majority (and Iran) against the Sunnis.

To get to these goals, the US cannot be passive. John Kerry needs to do more than exchange pleasantries with the Iraqi foreign minister.  American diplomats with experience in Iraq and military forces that engaged Sunni tribes must be brought back to the field in a coordinated effort.

We have the trump card – only the US has the military force to swiftly guarantee the government in Baghdad.  If the government wants our help, it comes at a cost in tangible actions.  Difficult but achievable. But the US position has to be about more than posturing. Al Maliki will go shopping with Iran if he feels that he has been abandoned by the US and has no recourse to keep his government intact.

Hopefully this will be a “teachable moment” for President Obama.  “Cut and run” can bring American forces home safely, but it creates a power vacuum that those who are sworn enemies of America are only too happy to fill.

Over eight and half years, 4,486 Americans were killed in the Iraq War. 32,223 were wounded. The direct costs from 2003 to 2011 were $758 billion. The Iraq War remains deeply controversial in America, from its origins to its execution. But after all the debate, one fact remains.

 That sacrifice of precious blood and treasure must not be in vain.

In 2002-03, the Bush administration argued that a state sponsor of terror, located at the geographic crossroads of the Middle East, and sitting on the 5th largest oil reserves in the world, was an unacceptable risk to US security.

That is as true today as it was in 2003.  ISIS must not be allowed to win.

Now it is time for the Obama administration to step up and lead. A stable and prosperous Iraq is possible if we have the gumption and courage to make it happen.


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