For years Iraq has been a deeply troubled nation spiraling deeper and deeper into sectarian violence. The primary causes were Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s exclusion of Iraq's Sunni Arabs from power and his politicization of the Iraqi military, which the United States expended so much money and effort to build. Then sparks from Syria's civil war leapt back across the border to ignite Iraq’s political tinderbox.
Yet even the most pessimistic observers did not foresee the events of the past two weeks
, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—a jihadist movement so violent and extreme that al-Qaida disavowed it—seized control of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and then marched to the belts around Baghdad. When ISIS forces appeared, the Iraqi military forces defending Mosul dissolved. Senior military leaders ran first, just as they did when facing the American invasion of 2003. As Iraq unraveled, the government desperately called for volunteers to help defend Baghdad. The Kurds, who were always ambivalent about remaining part of Iraq, took over the contested city of Kirkuk. So far the Maliki government, while teetering on disaster, has hung on to Baghdad, but it is unclear what the coming weeks and months will bring.
Meanwhile, Iraq's implosion has reignited the "blame game" in the United States. President Barack Obama's opponents dusted off the old argument that if the administration had tried harder, it could have convinced the Iraqis to allow some U.S. military forces to remain and that, somehow, this would have prevented the current problems. This argument was weak from the beginning, in large part because it misportrayed or misunderstood the nature of political leverage. In general, once a government facing an insurgency stabilizes the security situation, it tends to resist deep political and economic reform, thus leaving the root causes of the conflict intact. Since the victorious government feels that it is off the hook and needs less external support, outsiders have little leverage. The assertion that Maliki would have pursued more inclusive policies with a few thousand U.S. troops in Iraq makes no sense.
In any case, it is more important to consider what the United States should do next rather than haggle over what it should have done six or seven years ago. There is still time to turn Iraq in a different direction more amenable to U.S. interests. For a fleeting moment, Washington once again has leverage if it chooses to use it.
Of course what the United States can do in Iraq depends on how the situation unfolds over the next month. But even with the arms and money ISIS captured in Mosul, the extent of the group’s geographic control probably reached its high-water mark this week. It will not take control of Baghdad much less all of Iraq. Two scenarios are feasible. One is that the Iraqi government, perhaps with help from Iran and Washington, regains the major cities it lost and things return to what they were a year ago, with ISIS controlling a few towns and launching terrorist attacks in the bigger ones. The other scenario is the fracturing of Iraq into three parts: an autonomous or independent Kurdistan; a rump Shiite Iraq that is a de facto protectorate of Iran; and the Sunni Arab areas of the west and north. ISIS would try to control the Sunni Arab region and combine it with the parts of eastern Syria that it currently dominates to create a "caliphate," but a Somalia-like patchwork of militia and warlord potentates may also be plausible.
In the first scenario the United States should use the leverage it has during the government's time of desperation to cut a deal, offering increased help—including airstrikes against ISIS targets—for an end both to political and economic exclusion of Sunni Arabs and to the politicization of the security forces. This approach would face several sticking points. One would be the role of Iran. Tehran also realizes that Iraq's crisis increases its leverage too, and will exploit this by providing military help. This means that if the United States steps in with more assistance, it will be cooperating with Iran to one extent or the other. Washington and Tehran are already signaling
a willingness to pursue coordinated action. Even though this might make strategic sense, it would carry a heavy political price back home. The Obama administration would be excoriated for helping Iran by domestic critics more interested in scoring partisan points than promoting U.S. national interests. The rub would be whether the administration would risk paying this price with mid-term elections coming up.
The fragmentation scenario would be equally complex. Clearly the United States should support Kurdistan with increased assistance and training. The rump Shiite state would be even more in thrall to Iran, thus raising the same domestic political issues as would a government victory over ISIS. But the most difficult question would be what to do about whatever type of ISIS political entity emerges, whether it includes all or part of the Sunni Arab areas. One alternative would be de facto war, including U.S. strikes against ISIS targets and help to local forces once they tire of the extremists as they did earlier during the "Anbar awakening." The alternative would be to base U.S. policy on what the ISIS entity does rather than on its ideology, leaving it more or less alone so long as it does not actively support terrorism against American targets.
Despite these questions and problems, the United States has the opportunity to regain some influence in Iraq. But it will be fleeting. So far, Obama has expressed concern and said that nothing has been ruled out except sending a large number of U.S. troops. But if the administration spends weeks or months mulling and watching, Iraq will either collapse or find a way to survive without the United States. If so, whatever leverage exists today will dissipate, signaling the end of more than 70 years of U.S. involvement in shaping the regional security environment of Southwest Asia. Iraq's crisis has actually created an opportunity for the United States, but given the long odds of success, there is no guarantee that the Obama administration will seize it.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy
.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons
, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz