As Iraq faces disintegration due to the havoc unleashed by the terrorist group ISIS, the US is sending in 300 ‘advisers’ from the Special Forces. While US air strikes against ISIS are still being considered, the plan for these advisers is to prevent further collapse of the Iraqi military and add to its intelligence gathering capabilities. Barack Obama has already called upon Congress to approve $500 million to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels. In addition, the CIA is providing training to some Syrian rebels even though they don’t envision these groups winning back the territory lost to the ISIS. The hope is simply that these ‘moderate’ rebels will be able to hold on to their current space with proper assistance.
In 2011, the US wanted to leave behind a small team for training purposes, but that plan ran into complications when a Status of Forces Agreement could not be reached with the Iraqi government. The key stumbling block of this agreement was “immunity from prosecution” for US troops. In the end, however, it seemed that both Iraq and the US were relieved that the deal fell through and no US troops were left behind. It is unlikely that a residual US force would have been able to prevent the fall of Iraq anyway, similar to the odds they’ll face in Afghanistan.
After the US forces withdrew in 2011, Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki immediately began to remove Sunni commanders from the military and replaced them with Shia officers. Maliki opted for ideology over competence. No wonder ISIS was able to advance so swiftly across Iraq. The group uses social media to upload gory images and intimidating videos of its brutality to instill fear in its opponents. This strategy has proven effective since Iraqi soldiers are fleeing their posts rather than choosing to face a gruesome outcome if captured alive. Meanwhile, ISIS has built upon their strength by seizing weapons and US supplied Humvees from abandoned military bases. These vehicles were used to gain control of villages close to the Turkish border.
In these desperate times, while facing mass desertions from their army, Iraq’s government has provided “acceptable assurances on the issue of protections” for US personnel. However, it may be too little too late. Nuri al Maliki is not interested in sharing power, he has ignored the demands of the Sunni population, the Kurds are attempting to create an independent state, and the Sunnis agree on toppling the government even though they are divided over what to do with ISIS.
John Kerry’s attempt to piece together a new Iraqi government and his calls for unity are lagging behind military changes on the ground. As the crisis unfolds, US, Iranian, and Iraqi policies have been inconsistent with regard to their particular roles. A clear-cut agreement must be formulated between the nations. The Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shias of Iraq are heading their separate ways and this is why an all-inclusive Iraqi government is the answer, one that serves the interests of all Iraqis and not just the Shia. However, such a government remains an idealistic goal at the moment even though it may be the only way to defeat ISIS.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2014.