Photo by Tommy Avilucea/U.S. Air Force
By John Rodriguez |
After the capture of Mosul in northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), commentators have offered a number of explanations for how this catastrophe came about. Many, including the State Department, point out that “ISIL continues to gain strength from the situation in Syria.” Others such as John Nagl write that “by declining to provide a long-term security assistance force to an Iraq not yet able to handle the fight itself, we pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.” There have also been calls for increased U.S. military aid to Iraq, including a reported request by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the United States conduct airstrikes against ISIL staging areas.
While U.S. airstrikes and military aid can provide a tactical benefit, this situation is, as President Obama said, “not solely or primarily a military challenge.” Rather, the underlying problem in Iraq is political. The U.S. military rightly embraced the philosophy that in counterinsurgency you cannot kill your way to victory, and this is just as true for Iraqi Security Forces.
However, the biggest culprit for the calamity in Iraq is Prime Minister Maliki. By denying Sunnis a stake in the Iraqi government, Maliki has pushed them toward ISIL. The depth of fear was readily apparent when a large number of civilians fled Mosul not because they were afraid of ISIL, but rather because they were feared the response by the Iraqi Government. Though, this should not have come as a surprise. The alienation of the Iraqi Sunnis was articulated in a May 2013 report by the Institute for the Study of War, which was appropriately titled “Iraq’s Sunnis in Crisis.” Now, it is Prime Minister Maliki and his government that are truly in crisis precisely because of their intolerance.
A recent RAND study finds that politically “non-inclusive regimes are much more likely to suffer outright defeat than are more-inclusive ones.” Regimes that are politically inclusive are more likely to be able to come to a negotiated settlement with insurgents. They are also more likely to adopt effective counter-insurgency strategies that respect human rights. According to the study, fewer than 10 percent of politically inclusive regimes resorted to indiscriminate violence compared to 39 percent of less politically inclusive regimes. Among governments with low state capacity, more inclusive regimes also have a 50 percent greater chance of remaining at peace 5 years after an insurgency.
American air strikes in Iraq would be an appropriate response if Iraq was under a conventional assault by another state. While Iraq is facing an existential threat, it is from an insurgency with strong support within Iraq. The United States has also already been providing Iraq with large amounts of military aid since the withdrawal of American troops. American airstrikes or the delivery of a dozen F-16s or AH-64s to the Iraqi military are unlikely to turn the tide, and even less likely to convince Iraqi Soldiers to fight for a regime that many consider corrupt and illegitimate.
President Obama was absolutely correct when he said, “This should be…a wake-up call for the Iraqi government. There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shia who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists.”Unless the Iraqi government under Maliki decides to change direction and broaden its political support, Iraq is doomed to fail. Any assistance to Iraq must be conditioned on the Iraqi government reaching out to the Sunnis and Kurds and becoming more politically inclusive. With defeat now a real possibility, there is hope that Maliki will finally be willing to make that change.
The developments in Iraq should also inform U.S. partnerships around the globe. The United States must adopt a whole of government approach that focuses more on building credible institutions, politically inclusive societies, and militaries that embrace effective counterterrorism and counterinsurgency theory. Technical skills and military hardware are still important for enabling partner nations to fight terrorism, but they are secondary to the intellectual and political revolutions that are needed if countries like Iraq and Nigeria are going to effectively combat terrorism and insurgencies.
President Obama clearly articulated that the United States can assist nations that want to take these steps toward reform. But the aid the United States provides through programs like the proposed Counterterrorism Partnership Fund must be structured to enhance good governance. If foreign partners would rather enrich themselves and their inner circles than embark on the long road to reform, then the United States must recognize that providing military aid is an exercise in futility.
John Rodriguez is an MA candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, concentrating in Terrorism and Sub-State Violence.
 U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Condemns ISIL Assault on Mosul” U.S. Department of State, June 10, 2014. Available at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2014/06/227378.htm
John Nagl, “Iraq veteran: This is not what my friends fought and died for” Washington Post, June 11, 2014. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/06/11/iraq-veteran-this-is-not-what-my-friends-fought-and-died-for/
 Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Said to Rebuff Iraqi Request to Strike Militants” New York Times, June 11, 2014. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/world/middleeast/iraq-asked-us-for-airstrikes-on-militants-officials-say.html
 Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the President on Iraq.” June 13, 2014. Available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/13/statement-president-iraq
 Marc Lynch, “How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem?” Washington Post, June 12, 2014. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/12/iraq-trapped-between-isis-and-maliki/
 Tim Arango, “Iraqis Who Fled Mosul Say They Prefer Militants to Government” New York Times, June 12, 2014. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/13/world/middleeast/iraqis-fled-mosul-for-home-after-militant-group-swarmed-the-city.html?action=click&contentCollection=Middle%20East&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=Marginalia&pgtype=article
 Stephen Wicken, Iraq’s Sunnis in Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of War, 2013). Available at: http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Wicken-Sunni-In-Iraq.pdf
 Stephen Watts et al., Countering Others’ Insurgencies: Understanding U.S. Small-Footprint Interventions in Local Context (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2014), xv. Available at: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR500/RR513/RAND_RR513.pdf
 Ibid., 56.
 Leslie H. Gelb, “Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem” The Daily Beast, June 12, 2014. Available at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/12/iraq-is-vietnam-2-0-and-u-s-drones-won-t-solve-the-problem.html#
 “Transcript: President Obama’s remarks on upheaval in Iraq” Washington Post, June 12, 2014. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/transcript-president-obamas-remarks-on-upheaval-in-iraq/2014/06/12/5fdb9c36-f256-11e3-bf76-447a5df6411f_story.html