The recent news that the US will be sending another 200 personnel to Iraq to support the fight against ISIL is another indication of a strategy that is not working. The Daily Beast has an in-depth article with regards to the fight against ISIL, “On the Front Line Against ISIS: Who Fights, Who Doesn’t, and Why.” The article does a good job of summarizing the problems with the current US strategy in Iraq.
The main narrative of the fight against ISIL can be summarized in four points. First, Sunni Arabs initially welcomed ISIL advance and still provide support to the organization. Second, non-Sunni Arab forces such as Kurds and Yazidis do not want to lead the fight against ISIL, especially in the Sunni heartland. Third, the coalition of anti-ISIL forces expects the US not only to equip them, but also provide continuous air support. Lastly, an estimated 50,000 troops will be required to remove the 10,000 ISIL troops from Mosul, the city ISIL occupied without much of a fight in 2014. All of these points taken together form a logical conclusion which provides a window into why the current US anti-ISIL strategy does not appear to be working.
The first and most important point is that Sunni Arabs support ISIL. They provide the personnel and fighters for the ISIL military and civil institutions. There is definitely a foreign fighter component in ISIL, especially in the suicide units, but the vast majority of ISIL fighters are Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria. There is also a major presence of former Baath officials in the top ranks of ISIL as documented by multiple news articles over the past few years. In both countries, Sunnis support ISIL because it gives them a vehicle to redress the perceived wrongs perpetuated against them by the Iraqi and the Syrian governments. In addition, the Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam supported worldwide by Saudi Arabia supplies a steady stream of recruits to ISIL. Until these issues are solved, ISIL or its successor organization will have the capability and resources to survive and rebuild.
To reduce the Sunni anger at their governments, the only realistic course US can take is to support the division of both Iraq and Syria into parts that would allow for Sunni self-determination. Given the ethnic and religious conflicts that have wrecked both countries, it is impossible to see how either the Shia government of Iraq or Allawite-led government of Syria will allow full and equal rights to Sunni Arabs. Until both countries are broken up to accommodate the ethnic and religious divisions already present there, Sunni Arabs will continue to support ISIL. They might even do so after such division, but there is no question whether or not they will if Iraq and Syria remain as they are today. The issue of Wahhabi Islam and Saudi Arabian support will also have to be addressed to prevent future ISIL-like groups from emerging. As long as Saudi Arabia continues to propagate this intolerant version of Islam across the world, the Wahhabi led groups such as ISIL will continue to survive. Only when that support is removed will it be possible to eliminate such Sunni organizations at their core.
The second point of Yazidi and Kurds not willing to lead the fight against ISIL in Sunni Arab areas only reinforces the necessity of breaking up Iraq. They do not consider the lands they are fighting for to be their lands, so what is the point of keeping the country together? Shia Arab militias can lead the fight against ISIL, but they will just unite the Sunnis in opposition once they begin to operate in the Sunni dominated provinces and cities. Shiite militias and Shiite dominated military will not be welcomed with open arms in the Sunni heartland. None of the ethnic and religious groups appear to be willing to live in the country of Iraq and Syria with their current state of organization. Dividing both countries appears the most viable way forward to stop the fighting.
The third point of expected US material and air support is also an indicator of a failed strategy. The lack of equipment and air support is the direct result of incompetent and corrupt Iraqi government. It is rated as the eighth most corrupt state in the world. Is it any wonder then, that there is no equipment for the fighting units and there is no will to fight? Who would want to fight and die for a corrupt government? Until that problem of corruption and governance is resolved, no amount of US training and material support will provide a long term fix. After all, why should the politicians in Baghdad try to figure out how to support their armed forces if the US will come in and do so for them? They can just continue to treat each ministry as a base for patronage, power, and corruption. Not an institution of state. At the same time, ISIL does not appear to have any problems procuring military supplies. Are they geniuses? How did ISIL grow so quickly in 2014, without multi-year training missions? Why can’t the Iraqi government do the same? Are the Iraqis in ISIL that much smarter than Iraqis in the government service? The answer of course is no. The Iraqi government is simply content to let the US lead the fight for Iraq. The unconditional US support and the never ending training mission only reinforces this behavior. Until the Iraqi elites take responsibility for their country, the US will be involved in Iraq for long time; fighting a different iteration of Al-Qaeda/ISIL for the next century.
Lastly, the requirement of at least 50,000 soldiers to retake Mosul against 10,000 ISIL fighters is the easiest problem to solve. There are approximately 655,000 Iraqi males reaching military age annually. If Iraq institutes a draft, the manpower problems are solved. If ISIL is truly an existential threat to the Iraqi state then this should be an easy decision; yet the government of Iraq has not done so. Why? There is no good reason. As US demonstrated during the Civil War, WW I, and WW II, every time our national survival was at stake, we instituted a draft to provide manpower for the armed forces to ensure victory. The fact that Iraqis are not willing to do the same now only reinforces the narrative that the fight against ISIL is not a priority for the Baghdad government. Until they do so, the US strategy will not succeed.
There are a number of different reasons the fight against ISIL is not progressing. The most important is the fact that the root cause of the Sunni discontent based on power and religion is not being addressed. Until that problem is solved, no strategy we have in place will lead to a long term success. The Iraqi army material and personnel shortages could also be easily solved by a government dedicated to fighting the war, not one focused on enrichment of the Baghdad elite. Therefore, the current US strategy and unconditional support for the Iraqi state only allows such behavior to continue without addressing the root cause of ISIL success.