The Iraqi conundrum
Partisans are exploiting President Obama’s recent news conference remarks, where he indicated that he had not yet settled on a strategy for dealing with ISIS. Taken out of context, they used his remarks to support their charges of poor leadership and a lack of direction in his dealing with ISIS, and terrorist threats in general.
Looked at in context, though, it is apparent that Obama’s main point was that our air attacks alone could not defeat ISIS and that only an inclusive Iraqi government could develop the kind of ground forces necessary to actually drive ISIS out of Iraq. This point is central to almost every analysis I’ve seen on how to defeat ISIS. And central though it is, Prime Minister Nouri (or Noori) al Maliki has repeatedly dragged his feet on the inclusivity issue. As a result, moderate Suni factions have remained on the side-lines with some actually fighting with ISIS, as their only avenue in what has become increasingly a sectarian conflict pitting Suni against Shia. Al Maliki, meanwhile, has made leadership positions in the national army on a sectarian basis, which has led to disastrous results on the field of battle. It should be remembered that experienced leadership in the former elite Republican Guard, were Sunis.
It is apparent to most interested countries, reportedly even including Iran, that al Maliki has to go. But he has vowed to resist these pressures. The parliament, as is their post-Sadaam history, keeps postponing all efforts to change the government.
By refusing to commit the United States to offer open-ended air power to support the Iraqi government without inclusivity actions, President Obama is putting further pressures on the Iraqi Parliament, and that is the correct thing to do. Indeed, there are reasons to believe that if an inclusive government is formed in Iraq, several moderate Suni factions would join in the fight against ISIS. Make no mistake about it though, the current Iraqi national army is poorly led, and a lengthy period would be required to effectively train them, while holding off ISIS. It is all to no avail, however, if al Maliki remains in power and if Shia sectarianism refuses a meaningful set of inclusivity measures—and that includes greater sharing of the oil revenue. As it stands now, the Kurds are in control of the Kirkuk oil fields in the northeastern part of Iraq, the Shia control the major fields in the south of Iraq, and the Sunis are left out. The ease with which ISIS took over Mosul and other cities right up to 45 miles from Baghdad demonstrates the weakness of al Maliki’s failure to live up to his promised development of an inclusive government. The Unites States, meanwhile, is left with the disheartening task of providing strategic air-strikes to support a weak sectarian government that cannot succeed as it is presently formed. The alternative to doing this is the even more distasteful presence of a strong ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq.