Iraq – Avoiding the Next Insurgency | Charles Duelfer

Iraq – Avoiding the Next Insurgency

It is blindingly obvious that while ISIS soon may be expelled from Mosul, absent any further US policy change, there will be a renewed insurgency fueled by disaffected Sunni groups.

This is depressingly similar to Spring 2003. I was in Iraq in early April 2003 meeting with assorted Iraqis that I had come to know well from several years as the deputy head of the UN Iraq weapons inspection group, UNSCOM. It was clear at the time that, having removed Saddam but lacking anything to hold the Iraq together, there was inevitable conflict around the corner.

Worse were the US decisions to disband the army and condemn Baathists to having no future in Iraq. The pending turmoil was clear to see. The freshly disenfranchised Iraqis implored the US to listen to them. If the US offered no hope, then many would chose insurgency. It was clear in May of 2003 that if there was no major change by the US, there would be an insurgency by the 4th of July. There was.

We are at a similar moment. A range of groups with roots in the initial mistakes of 2003, will have little choice but to re-ignite internecine conflict. In fact, it’s worse this time. Iran has a strong motive and ability to fan those flames. Tehran does not desire a strong Iraq that is inclusive of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish tribes, territories and interests. The fragile progress that has been made by Prime Minister Abadi in nurturing national institutions and trying to constrain corruption will collapse. If the US does not take a bolder position in supporting an inclusive empowered central government, Abadi will remain weak and unable to rein in sectarian violence, corruption and the militias of various stripes.

Yes, Iraq is a mess. But it will get worse if the Washington refuses to take a stand. The Iranians, Turks, Kurds Gulf States, Russians and various Iraqi factions are tough for anyone to balance. But if the next elections in Iraq—2018—are not to be the last serious elections in Iraq, then all these parties must know that the US will put its weight and resources in back of Abadi’s efforts to reform the national Iraqi government. And time is running out.

Iran understands this. The Kurds understand this. And, the various Sunni resistance groups understand this. They do not want to return to fighting. The older members know the costs and privately indicate they just need some indication of a process that will include them and that the US will back or even just monitor, in some fashion.

However, as things now stand, the same forces that were shut off from any hope of a future in spring of 2003 will resort to violence and destruction. Assorted resistance groups will have no choice but to fight. External interests are reported to be offering weapons, training and funding. They are being goaded to take on, not only the militias that are largely Shia and supported by those aligned with Iran (i.e. former Prime Minister Maliki), but also to attack the US presence.

Ironically, Iran is reported to be offering resources via Maliki to these latent insurgent groups. Yes this means Iran is funding both sides of a conflict. This is not really surprising in that region.

Still, these groups, as in 2003, may avoid the path of renewed insurgency if they feel they have an alternative. It is imperative that the US supports a dialogue in some fashion between them and the central government.

Abadi, whose intentions are widely seen as being good, cannot take such steps without strong backing. There are lots of opposing forces, not just Maliki and his segment of the Dawa party, but the corrupt Sunni officials in Baghdad who do not want to risk losing their influence to Sunni empowered leaders in the Sunni provincial areas of Iraq.

Iran has a strong interest in a weak Iraq and will support groups that keep turmoil going. The Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis have different stakes in Iraq. Likewise, Turkey has its separate interests to support. And Russia has made its presence known. These competing interests can only be brought in line if there the US engages forcefully and influence events leading to the elections next year. If the vacuum of American disinterest (beyond defeating ISIS) continues, chaos will blossom.

The US needs to keep its military presence, support and training in Iraq post Mosul. In fact, an expansion would help. Building up a degree, perhaps at Qayyara military air base near Mosul and or Al Assad air base would send a potent message to all parties. (Other bases in Turkey and Qatar are recently looking less certain.)

The US should continue training for security forces in liberated areas and the Iraqi Army generally. It will have to encourage the provision of reconstruction efforts that are channeled directly to the regions that will use them. But it will also have to take convincing positions regarding strategy of engagement with all the outside parties—reversing our hands-off image.

Iran and its supporters in Iraq need to know that they will pay a price for fostering sectarian violence in Iraq. At the same time, all must know that the US will support the Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts for a strong Iraq with robust national institutions that represent all Iraqis. Of course that’s what we say now, but it’s not what people see on the ground. They see that Abadi cannot control the militias operating in his own country. They see that militias can take hostages and prisoners and Abadi has no control over their fate. This needs to change.

Washington must have a robust strategy for the political/military process leading to the next elections. Iran has a broad network of support and Iraqi politicians who will act consistent with Tehran’s interests—former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Badr Organization head Hadi al Amiri are the most prominent. Our current policy is not to pick winners. Well that sounds good, but we can sure tell who is bad. We can act to level the playing field that is now wildly tilted against a favorable outcome. Maliki is rumored to be one of the richest men in the Middle East. That means there are a lot of people in Baghdad whom he owns.

Only the US can step in and make a powerful stand that can give some hope to the disaffected Sunni resistance that there is a political path open to them. They know Abadi’s heart may be open to their views, but Abadi, without US support, is far too weak to take the necessary steps toward dialogue that would fend off the coming insurgency. The other parties will learn from this—i.e. the US is going to be reckoned with.

There is no time to be lost for the US to make clear it understands the stake it has in Iraq and its interest in Iraq extends far beyond the limited goal of removing ISIS.

This entry was posted in Iran, Iraq, ISIL, ISIS, Mosul, Sunni. Bookmark the permalink.

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