Are we on a “fools errand” for trying to (successfully) train Shia to fight ISIS and stabilize Iraq?
Last week we introduced the thesis that “peace candidate” Obama embraced Bush era policies in Iraq that have badly backfired. Now we are flailing about in search of a viable strategy to deal with Syria as well.
Essentially, ever since we mistakenly failed to keep elements intact from Hussein’s Republican Guard we had become the law and order stabilizer of Iraq. At enormous cost of treasure and lives both among our forces and Iraqis themselves. The hostile sectarian nature of Iraq, primarily between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, dominates the thinking and fighting on the ground. About six million Kurdish peoples with their own agenda of an independent Kurdistan live in Iraq, mostly in the northwest. Saddam Hussein was an ethnic Sunni as were the Republican Guard soldiers. The Shia, who trace their roots across the eastern border with Iran, number about half of Iraq’s population. They live mostly in an area of eastern Iraq, from Baghdad south. Iraq is the site of the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. It is safe to say that Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party were mostly Sunni and they did not share power in any meaningful way with the Shia. Now the Shia, who control the national government, despite promises to the contrary, don’t want to share power or wealth with the Sunni. This includes major weaponry to the Sunni tribal militias. The sectarian nature of Iraq can be seen in that the term “Iraqi Civil War“ is used to refer to: Iraqi–Kurdish conflict (1918–2003) 1999 Shia uprising in Iraq (18 February – April 1999 ) Iraq War (2003–2011) And while they are among the most religiously fundamentalist and militant of the Sunnis, the current war with ISIS since 2014 is clearly of a sectarian nature.
On March 20, 2003, a United States-dominated coalition invaded Iraq, a position long advocated by key members of the Bush administration, including Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Indeed the neo-conservative think tank that they helped form, Project for the New American Century (PNAC), had publicly urged then President Bill Clinton to invade Iraq.
In May of 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), that the Bush Administration established to govern Iraq, disbanded the Iraq army and precluded most government officials from the new government. This assured a Sunni insurgency, which it turns out to no surprise was formed largely by former army and secret police. Jama’at al-Tawhid wal Jihad and other jihadi Sunni militias were created shortly after, and in response to the CPA’s actions. Their deadly guerrilla actions were directed not only at Shia targets but our forces in Iraq.
From that point forward the die was cast. Despite proclamations to the contrary that we would never get involved in a sectarian conflict in Iraq, that’s precisely what we did. We basically, by virtue of our own CPA orders, had assured a Shia ruled government without experience or military capability. Not that some members of the administration and our military didn’t recognize the necessity of an inclusive government. But they thought that they could accomplish this through common sense argument and political pressure on Shia political leaders. Indeed they did get verbal and even written assurances. But this is the Middle East and sectarian differences trump verbal and even written good intentions. Especially where huge oil revenues and sharing military equipment, with a people often considered a hated enemy are concerned.
The lack of any kind of fighting heart or experience on the part of the Shia created a political and military vacuum. One that, from the day we effectively chose sides, set us on a fool‘s errand path of trying to train to success an Iraqi national army. Our presence in Iraq was supposed to buy us time to train Shia soldiers (and to recruit some Sunni as well to make it a truly national army).to defend themselves. But Sunni participation was token at best, and even then financially well incentivized. And, to put it kindly, the Shia do not seem to take to fighting very fiercely. Images from Mosul of a supposedly invulnerable large Iraqi army force, extremely well equipped, running from an ISIS force estimated at only around 2000, leaving most of the U.S. provided weaponry behind, remind us of how much of a fool’s errand it is. This was the quickest loss of an important target, as Mosul was, since the Maginot fortifications dissolved before the Germany’s huffing and puffing. ISIS grew to a world threat by stepping into the vacuum created by a Bush policy and this losing strategy has been continued by Obama. Also stepping into this military vacuum are jihadi Shia militias and their Iranian “advisers.” And now we have a situation where basically Iran has people assisting extremist Shia militias trying to liberate a Sunni city. Meanwhile as moderate Sunni militia are begging for the right weapons to fight ISIS in Anbar, we insist on giving all weaponry to the Shia military to give out as they see fit. Forgive me if I barf.
In Syria, we can’t seem to find any “safe” potential allies to train. The few volunteers for training who are not affiliated with a jihadist religious group won’t adhere to our requirement that they be trained to fight ISIS. They want to fight Assad as well, and because of that, we won’t train them. There may be more trainers than vetted and approved men to train.
Methinks a different strategy is called for.