Making Sense of the Meltdown in Iraq
STRATEGIC POLITICAL: The US has a vital interest in helping Iraqis create a stable, democratic state. Would-be isolationists will quickly rediscover that economic links bind the 21st century world, once they see the oil price hikes spurred by the battlefield successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also translated as the media-friendly acronym ISIS, for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).
However, US interest in Iraq is not simply energy or economics -- it is political example. Iran’s dictatorship and various violent Islamic militant groups know that a successful Iraqi democracy would be fatal to them and to their goals.(1) The US and Iraq must negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement. To stabilize, Iraqis need confidence; a long-term US security presence inspires confidence. American kept a security “nightlight” in Germany and Japan for half a century.(2)
OPERATIONAL MILITARY: Iraqi forces need US airpower, now. They need US special operations forces (SOF) teams to coordinate air strikes and tap US intelligence assets. First, target ISIL’s truck-borne flying columns. Air attacks devastate light vehicles in the open, and northwestern Iraq is open. The US has US Navy carrier aircraft within range; so is NATO’s huge Incirlik air base.
The Iraqi Army claims that it stalled an ISIL column near Tikrit. With only 4,000 fighters, ISIL cannot fight an attrition battle. With US airpower providing an immense firepower advantage, Iraqi forces can kill the stalled ISIL column, and kill it quickly.
(1) In early 2004 US intelligence intercepted a letter from Iraq-based terrorist commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to his al-Qaida superiors. Zaraqwi wrote: When "the sons of this land (Iraq) will be the authority ... this is the democracy. We will have no pretexts (i.e., for waging a terror war)." Anticipating strategic defeat, Zarqawi concluded his only option igniting a “sectarian war” in Iraq by waging a relentless terror war on Iraqi Shias. He believed this would "rally the Sunni Arabs" to his cause.
YouTube videos of summary executions in Mosul and reports that ISIL is imposing harsh Sharia law in areas it controls suggest ISIL intends to pursue the same desperate stratagem: igniting a Shia-Sunni civil war to shred Iraq. Out of the chaos, ISIL will then create a radical Sunni Islamic state in northern Iraq. However, the Kurds, Turks and Jordanians won’t let it endure, nor will the Israelis. Though the Iranians will use the chaos to their advantage, they have no interest in a radical militant Sunni state on the border of the Syrian client. However, the best outcome is to kill the ISIL “caliphate” and kill it in a spectacular fashion.
(2) The Iraqi Army of 2008 was an increasingly capable force; the Operation Knights Charge in Basra was a highly successful Iraqi-planned and led attack. However, since US forces withdrew in 2011, cronyism and corruption have undermined Iraq’s military forces. Yes, Nouri al-Maliki bears the blame. Crooked armies are brittle armies; Mosul demonstrates that. Stabilizing Iraq means penalizing rule by whim (or cronies) while nurturing and strengthening the institutional Rule of Law. An extended US security presence not only gives democratic political elements protection, it provides them with an on-the-ground Rule of Law institution to emulate.