Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq

ISIS or ISIL or IS? Does it matter?

The President gave his speech on strategy towards ISIL…except everyone calls it ISIS in the West. ISIL is Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and ISIS is Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or al Shams, which is roughly the same territory as Syria. And the group calls itself the Islamic State or IS. What gives?

The dogged retention by the President of the term ISIL may be related to the legal powers he wishes to employ. Broadly, the force he wants to bring to bear derives from counter terrorism authorities that single out Al Qaeda as the objective. It seems ISIL is linked legally if not genetically to Al Qaeda or politically to Al Qaeda. We have a well-established legal and intelligence structure in place to kill Al Qaeda targets and the President has been making great use of it.

However, ISIS (I will use the popular term) is clearly not Al Qaeda. Because we are playing catch-up with this threat, our thinking and legal authorities have not been revised to accommodate something that is radically different than Al Qaeda. Is ISIS a terrorist organization? They want to be a state. Of course, this is the last thing we want (hence our aversion to accepting their name—Islamic State, IS). Maybe they think they can eventually be accepted as the PLO eventually transitioned from a terrorist group to a state with acknowledged legitimacy. Seems dubious now, but many never dreamed Yasser Arafat would be welcomed at the White House.

ISIS is exploiting some key voids. One is geographic. The territory of Syria is up for grabs. In a different way, the territory of Iraq is up for grabs.

A second void is that the US is not structured legally or bureaucratically to kill ISIS. We have a well-oiled machine for tracking and killing Al Qaeda, but ISIS…not even close. Moreover, no one wants to take the lead. President Obama reacted because it was no longer avoidable given the brutal videos that ricocheted around the planet. But so far, the local governments have priorities that are not congruent with ours. Iraqis all have different objectives. The new government is not going to be any better than the last. The Kurds, whom the President called out separately in his speech in tacit recognition of their long held goal of being an independent state, are fighting only for their own piece of territory. And Syria, well, we either go full bore in standing up a rebel group or accept that the Russians and Iranians were right and Bashar al Assad is more in our interests because he is only killing his own people, not threatening the US.

None of these things are yet addressed in the current strategy. This will be a mess for the rest of the current administration.

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Video Driven Policy vs. Strategy

The need for a strategy on ISIS was provoked by the videos of Americans being barbarically executed. A year ago, there was horrible video of Sarin use against civilians in Syria. That provoked action by the White House.   In both cases, the underlying dynamics were clear in advance. Nevertheless actions were taken only after videos provoked public fervor.

It makes you wonder what disastrous trends are lurking unattended simply because they don’t lend themselves to video.

The White House seems to be constantly in a reactive mode in foreign policy. Clearly their focus is on domestic issues—not surprising given the President’s background and the looming mid-term elections. Still, he’s got two years left and there are key foreign policy and national security issues that need forethought, not reactive strategies.

The Middle East is one obvious area. Consider ISIS.  Isis is a symptom, not the root issue.   ISIS grows because the chaos of Syria and Iraq offers fertile ground. Instability is an opportunity for ISIS and other radical groups.  The Arab spring was not a wholly good thing—that’s a long discussion in itself. Suffice to say that stability in the region has been reduced and risk has grown–a lot. Libya and Egypt stand out.  Opportunities for Iran have have increased. It appears to many that the White House is trying to rebuild a relationship with Iran and that comes at the expense of traditional allies and friends like Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc.

If you asked senior leaders in Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, or even Moscow or London, what the US policy and strategy for the Middle East (let alone East Asia and other regions) you would not get a clear answer. Far from it.

 

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ISIS – Next Steps

The President is now stuck with the ISIS problem. It is his, not former President Bush’s. The rest of his term may be defined by how he deals with ISIS, in some ways as Bush was defined by how he dealt with Al Qaeda.

I co-authored an OP-ED with former Iraq ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie in the Washington Post July 13, 2014 addressing the ISIS crisis in Iraq. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/outside-help-is-needed-to-save-iraq-from-sectarianism/2014/07/11/60c0fba6-06a0-11e4-a0dd-f2b22a257353_story.html  We stated that Prime Minister Maliki could not be part of any solution. He has now stepped down and a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi has been agreed by the new Iraq Parliament. This is a necessary, but clearly insufficient first step. Many, much more difficult steps are necessary—some by the US, some by Baghdad, some by the Kurds.

It is now generally agreed that efforts at inclusion of Sunni groups need to be made to remove the fertile ground where ISIS is spreading. I would go further. ISIS is benefitting not only from passive acceptance of a population alienated by the Shia dominated central government, but ISIS has organizational and military leadership beyond a terrorist group. Former Saddam military and Baathist officers are reportedly involved as some level. Former Saddam officers have tried to engage in dialogue over the years either directly or indirectly with the US. This has not happened so far as near as I can tell.

Why not? They are not Islamist radicals. The Saddam regime was steadfastly secular. Saddam emphasized in his debriefing sessions that he kept religion and religious leaders completely out of government. For all the horrors of Saddam, he was clearly secular. The former Baathists now operating with ISIS do not hate the West. They hate the government in Baghdad that has taken Iraq with a winner-take-all attitude about the electoral process. They do not seek (again as I hear it) to re-install a Baathist government. They want reconciliation and a respectable role.

Former Saddam lieutenant, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri or those generals and intelligence officers around him need to be peeled away from ISIS. In fact, if recent rumblings have any truth, those former Baathist and military leaders are already at odds with ISIS. Ultimately, these individuals can reverse the gains ISIS has made in the Sunni regions of Iraq.

A list of key steps that can be taken include:

  1. The central government should release selected members of the Saddam government who have been held in jail since 2003. Tariq Aziz, now quite ill is one candidate. This would be an important signal to Sunni groups that reconciliation is now on the agenda.
  2. The US should take a decision to actively engage with these groups. Optimally, it would be good if the US had a highly empowered Czar on for this issue. Someone who could make a deal and deliver. Since it is probably impossible for the Administration to do this (politically, organizationally and philosophically), they should at least not object when others follow this path.
  3. The Kurds, specifically the KDP led by Masoud Barzani, (and hopefully with the support of the PUK) should deeply engage with these groups. They have cut deals previously with these same people for various reasons. There were deals made to allow transport of Saddam’s oil illegally through Kurdistan during the sanctions.   Both sides made money. Barzani had an understanding with the regime when Saddam’s forces moved north militarily in 1996. The Kurds will understand that there is a congruence of interests in fighting ISIS. This is natural. The US should accept and indeed support this.
  4. The US should, in effect support step 3 by arming and training Kurds. The Peshmerga forces have turned out to be less than their reputation. This needs to change. Moreover, the Kurds need to believe that the US will reliably protect them (recall we provided aerial protection during the 1990’s) and they will not be forced to become a protectorate of Iran.
  5. The US must be unrelenting in pressuring Baghdad to open up to the Sunni interests. The new Prime Minister comes from the Dawa party like Maliki. I doubt he will be any better. The corruption of Maliki’s government will not be removed by this successor. Worse, the dependency upon Iran may grow. The Qods force chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani spends much more time in Iraq than anywhere else. He is not our friend. His forces have likely killed hundreds of Americans during the past decade.
  6. Once the US has a strategy and actions in place for the Iraq element, it will also need a stronger approach for the Syrian side—and that may be tougher.   Either the US supports a credible Syrian opposition group that can grow to compete with both ISIS AND the Bashar al-Assad government, or we in effect acquiesce to the survival of the Assad government—as the Russians have been suggesting. This is a tough choice and probably impossible for the President to address explicitly. However, providing insufficient support to opposition groups now will not suffice. ISIS has grown to the point where it is a bigger risk than a Syria ruled by Basher al-Assad.

 

 

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Obama Learns of Malaysian Aircraft Destruction form Putin?!

The Malaysian aircraft destruction is tragic, but not unique. Commercial Airliners have been shot down before.  In 1983 the Soviet air defense fighters shot down a Korean Airlines 747 that had strayed off course, impinged on Soviet airspace and the Soviet Air Defense presumably mistaking the aircraft for an American surveillance aircraft, downed it.  The completely bungled the aftermath by denying it and then the US let on that we had collected all the communications and we went on to play them in the UN Security Council. (I happened to be the State Dept. analyst who accompanied Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick during this Council meeting.)

The US mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian Airbus (killing about 300) during the Iran Iraq war when the US was patrolling the Gulf to protect oil shipping.  The USS Vincennes fired in error and it was a tragic disaster, but the US admitted it.

The Malaysian case will play out similar to the Korean incident.  The Russians will not be so boneheaded and deny the event.  What happened will be clear from intelligence sources and the investigation.  What Russian and Ukraine will be doing is making responsibility as murky as possible.   Intercepted communications will drive this.

One point that does stick out from the events of yesterday.  The White House declared that President Obama learned of the event during a phone call with Vladimir Putin on Sanctions.  This is amazing.  The Intelligence Community, which has lots of technical collection in the area (recall we still watch for Russian nuclear missile launches to warn of sudden attack among other things) must have seen this virtually in real time…but for some reason, no one  passed the word to the President?  Maybe they thought he wouldn’t care?   Maybe the message got tied up in the DNI bureaucracy?  Maybe the White House staff held it up?  Maybe they just dismissed it as a non-threat incident?  There is a story there that would be interesting to read.

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Don’t Trade Iraq for an Iran Nuclear “Agreement”

There will come a time, and that may be right now, when Washington has to decide if any deal on Iran nuclear programs is more important than the risk faced from ISIS in Iraq. So far it looks like we have the priorities wrong.

Iran is blatantly intruding on the future of Iraq according to some members of parliament. Iran is said to be blocking candidates for Prime Minister that are any less dogmatic and sectarian than Maliki. Iran’s actions, unless countered, will assure that Iraqi Sunnis continue to see no hope in the central government. Iran’s role in Iraq must be confronted forcefully, now. (There should be no hope of relaxing sanctions if they don’t back off in Iraq.)

If Washington continues to dither, Sunnis will never be persuaded to fight ISIS. Without the Sunnis taking on ISIS, these radicals will occupy and rule a large portion of Iraq (or as some call it, “Syraq” as it now includes a good piece of Syria.   This is a clear and present danger as they say.

If playing hardball with Iran over Iraq causes Tehran to back away from the nuclear talks, so be it. Iranian commitment to forsaking a nuclear weapon is dubious in any case.

Of course, it may be that Washington has taken a concerted decision to link its future to Tehran. This would be astonishing, but certainly that’s how some Gulf States interpret US actions. We have conceded points (i.e. enrichment of uranium) to Iran with their nuclear program that we did steadfastly refused to permit the UAE with there, truly peaceful nuclear energy program. Moreover, the US is now viewed as tolerating and even encouraging the Iran dominance in Iraq. And, add to that, just this week an Assistant Secretary of State who has long publicly opposed the regime in Bahrain, met with Shia opposition members in Bahrain in a direct snub to the government.  They Bahrain government (host to the US Navy fleet headquarter for the Gulf) threw him out of the country.

There are a lot of long-term allies in the region who see this as a concerted series of steps to align the US with the Shia generally and Tehran particularly.

I suspect these steps by the US were without any plan, but simply incoherent reactions to surprises that caught decision-makers off guard. However, it is very difficult to convince leaders in other countries that the US is not pursuing some strategy—at their expense.

Hello? Washington? Does someone have a strategy in there? Just wondering, but it looks from the outside like things are out of control. Or worse, we are aligning with Iran because we have changed, not Iran.

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Extremists at Former Saddam CW Facility

The Wall Street Journal reports ISIL extremists at a former Iraqi CW facility.  The Muthana State Establishment was a huge facility where the Saddam government produced tons of anthrax and sarin.  Most of it used against the Iranians in the 1980′s war. The UN weapons inspection team UNSCOM, inspected and destroyed all key equipment and munitions.  However some of the precursor chemicals were too unstable to move safely to the incinerator and hydrolysis plant we operated from 1992-1994.  So we placed barrels of this toxic waste and contaminated equipment in two huge bunkers on the facility, inventoried the contents and entombed them.   The contents are dangerous, but not as weapons.  I have been in one of the bunkers but with a full CW protection suite including self-contained breathing source and a detector which was flashing warnings.  Those bunkers will be very dangerous to anyone who tries to break into them (and people have, largely scavengers looking to extract re-bar metal).  But the risk that the contents can somehow be used against others is minute.  It is more akin to a toxic waste site than a weapons bunker.

In fact, if the bad guys succeed in getting in, it may be one way of getting some of them off the battlefield.

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Give the Sunnis an Alternative NOW!

Unless President Obama says something fast to give secular Sunnis some hope that the US will take their interests seriously this time, they have no alternative to ISIS.

Say something to the Sunnis!  Give them an alternative!  And it has to be real.  If we are seen to be warming to Iran, it will be a disaster.  Sunnis will never believe they have a path ahead.  And it must be soon.  Before any possible US military or intelligence support to existing government forces, or consideration of dialogue with Iran.  Finally, we must make clear that Maliki will go.   President Obama now owns the Iraq issue.  He needs to act now, not later this week.

If he doesn’t, it will be a mistake even bigger than the early missteps of President Bush’s Administration in firing the Iraqi Army and equating all secular Sunnis they have no place in the “new Iraq.”  It’s worse this time because it demonstrates an inability to learn from the past.

The President needs to be public in this message.  And he needs through credible representatives, reach out to tribal leaders, in Iraq and respected Iraqi leaders who have exiled themselves outside Iraq.  They have been pleading for the US to take a greater role for years to offset the drift of the Baghdad government toward sectarian division.

Ten years from now I hope people are not debating the mistakes of the Obama administration in Iraq–for Iraq’s sake as well as our own.

 

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Iraq – So What to Do?

A possible path ahead is to take advantage of the post election negotiations and configure a leadership that accommodates Sunni interests. This would by necessity mean someone other than Maliki becoming Prime Minister.

Someone (possibly an American, but I doubt we are that knowledgeable, coordinated, or competent) needs to talk with key Sunni tribal leaders and former Army leaders—to include former Baathists. Just finding interlocutors who can represent and make commitments for those with legitimate interests will be difficult.

Maybe a UN representative could do this, but it would be better (essential) if such discussions were completely confidential. Bear in mind that anyone representing the Sunni voices will be at risk of assassination from ISIS.  The vast majority of Iraqi Sunnis are secular (recall the Baathists and the Army under the former regime were strictly secular).  The radical Islamists of ISIS will know they are small in number and, while ruthless, they can be crushed by the other Sunni’s when the time is right.

Maliki needs to know that the US will not support him as Prime Minister and the new government must accommodate Sunni interests in a material way. Stitching something together will be extraordinarily difficult. The last thing we should do is to give more military support to Maliki at this point. We would be seen as supporting the Shia side in what is becoming a sectarian war.

Somebody needs to talk to Sunni leaders and fast. At a minimum, they need to know that the US will not oppose them (and indeed should support them) so long as their goals are limited and realistic. They need to know that the US does not support Maliki, but does support a balance of power between Sunni and Shia groups.

The alternative to this path is to let the conflict play out. That will be costly, unpredictable, and end with a divided Iraq. Iran will be supporting the Shia in the south and others will back Sunni groups. Baghdad could look like Beirut in the 70’s, or worse.

We may wind up there anyway.

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Maliki is the problem, not the solution

Prime Minister Maliki, who is in midst of negotiating a government in aftermath of the recent Iraqi elections, has asked for US support including airstrikes. The last thing we should do now is further imbed ourselves with Maliki. This is the shortsighted view that got us where we are now. It will be a tragic mess for a while, but the sizeable and powerful block of Sunnis who have been disenfranchised by the Maliki and now are taking up arms, will create new facts on the ground. ISIS is not a long-term threat in Iraq. Ultimately, Iraqis will kill ISIS. However, first the Iraqis have to sort themselves. The de facto partition of Iraq is now likely.

(It is worth recalling that under Saddam’s largely Sunni government, religion was kept out of government. Whatever its other problems, it was a strictly secular government.  Saddam said emphatically in debriefings that we should keep “the Turbans” out of government.)

Given where we are, this will not be quick or clean. The Kurds will now take undisputed control of Kirkuk (long the object of their intentions). They will protect their new border while the south may effectively become its own Shia enclave with a tentative relationship with Iran. As for the rest, and control of Baghdad, it will be ugly. Watch Maliki’s investments and family.   I bet they are going to moving out of Iraq swiftly—with good reason.

On the financial front, watch how this interacts with the upcoming Iran nuclear negotiations due to complete July 20.  Oil deliveries from southern Iraq are at risk.  Iran will play a role in supporting the Shia and Maliki in Iraq.  If Washington does align itself with Maliki and de facto, Iran, in the Iraq battle, Gulf states will be even more angry with Washington. Volatility in oil markets is going to be up for a while.

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Cascading Chaos in Iraq

Watching the disintegration of Iraq is a horror. Many predicted this. There were Iraqis reaching out to the US and others pointing out that there were large numbers of Iraqis who, if continually cut off from a role in the government, would ignite in fury against the government. That is happening.

While the western press is calling the attacks the work of ISIS, they are not the real force. The most effective fighters (according to Iraqis with long experience both under Saddam and post-Saddam), are former members of the former Army from Saddam days. Under Saddam the Iraqi army numbered in the hundreds of thousands. They all have families so if you multiply that number times the number of immediate family members, you get a large number of people who have been denied the positions and opportunity to participate in Iraq. They were dissolved in 2004. But they remained a potent and dissatisfied slice of the Iraqi population. While the US was present they sustained a hope of getting an equitable role in the new Iraq. However, the US is gone and Prime Minister Maliki has given them no stake in the success of the Iraqi government. The recent election was a punctuation mark, ending their hope.

Now there really may be a conflagration between Shia and Sunni with international consequences.   Next we may see Iran step in. The Kurds, wisely armed and protected will face the problem of massive refugees from the south. Turkey may get involved.   And or course Jordan, inundated with refugees from the previous Iraq war and now the Syrian conflict, may get yet another wave of refugees.

The underlying dynamic was knowable, indeed was known, but no one felt obligated to address it.

Conflict will break out in Baghdad. Maliki’s army will not fight for Iraq. Shia will fight for Shia and the Shia militias will be Maliki’s forces. The US, by its continued support of Maliki is doomed to be seen as an opponent now by the secular Sunnis. Ayatollah Sistani will likely be forced to rally Shia to arms. Will the Saudis and other Gulf States stand by while Iran supports the Shia?

The US has withdrawn to a corner and is seen as a trivial force. We can stop supplying spare parts to the military equipment we have provided, but what else?

Many Iraqis have said, the stability of Iraq under Saddam was preferable to insecurity that followed. There were moments in the last five years when a leader other than Maliki could have turned this around. Now, Iraq will likely fight itself to some draw and division of territory. Who will broker the peace? Not the US. Turkey? Iran? The UN?

 

 

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