Iraq is a bloody mess. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has extended its hold from eastern Syria into western and northern Iraq, massacring Shi’ites, Christians and Yazidis wherever it can. Meanwhile in Baghdad there has been a constitutional crisis, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threatening to cling to power even though his own political bloc has chosen a different candidate.
The situation is now so bad that it has impinged on the holiday arrangements of our own leaders in the West. President Barack Obama, as he relaxes in Martha’s Vineyard, is at the same time somehow meant to be directing US warplanes back into action to succour tens of thousands of trapped Yazidis and to relieve the pressure on Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil. David Cameron, for his part, had to take time out from his holiday in Portugal so as to order the RAF to drop humanitarian supplies to the Yazidis.
But these are small steps that will hardly shake the newfound power of the Islamic State. What more are Obama and Cameron prepared to do to deal with the growing threat from Isis — which, left unchecked, would not only be a strategic disaster for their countries but a political disaster for them?
Faced with these troubles in a strange, far-away land, it would be natural for many westerners, including Obama and Cameron, to despair. No doubt many on both sides of the Atlantic are concluding that this latest spasm of ugliness is a natural result of the misguided Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, that Iraqis simply like to massacre each other and that there is little the West can or should do about it. Didn’t our previous intervention just make things worse?
This is alluring but wrong-headed. In point of fact, while the US and Britain did create a disaster in Iraq by not doing more to maintain law and order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall, the situation turned dramatically after the success of the ‘surge’ in 2007-2008. Violence fell more than 90 per cent and Iraqi politics began to function again. The situation was stable enough that in 2010 Vice President Joe Biden bragged on CNN that Iraq would be ‘one of the great achievements of this administration’.
The wheels came off only when, after failing to get a Status of Forces Agreement with Maliki, Obama pulled out all US troops at the end of 2011. With no Americans looking over his shoulder, Maliki was free to unleash his inner sectarian. His victimisation of Sunnis made them receptive to Isis, which was being reborn in the chaos of Syria.
This history is worth reciting to refute the common prejudice that Iraq is a hopeless basket case condemned to perpetual violence. Remember how dire the situation was in 2006 when even senior American military officers were convinced that Iraq was lost and when senior British officers were sheltering in their Basra bunkers from incessant rocket fire? Yet within a year there was a nearly miraculous turnaround brought about by an increase in the number of US troops, a change in their strategy and the mobilisation of the Sunni tribes against al-Qa’eda in Iraq (as Isis was previously known).
Similar success could be possible now even without dispatching 170,000 western troops, because Isis has a major weak spot that we can exploit: it is unpopular even with its Sunni constituents. Already there have been rumblings of discontent from Mosul among Iraqis who are not happy to have jihadists destroying their ancient monuments, such as the tomb of the prophet Jonah, and telling them how to live. (Among other things, Isis is fanatically opposed to smoking and drinking, two activities that ordinary Iraqis love.) Unfortunately, past tribal uprisings against Isis were brutally snuffed out until in 2006-2007 US military forces came to their aid. The US and its allies, including Britain, need to mount a similar campaign to mobilise tribal fighters once again.
It won’t be easy, because Sunnis are intensely suspicious — and understandably so — of the sectarian leaders in Baghdad. There should, however, be a decent chance to form a government of national unity under Haider al-Abadi (who, unlike the more insular Maliki, speaks fluent English and earned a DPhil at the University of Manchester) that would have more credibility with Sunnis and Kurds. Then it would be a matter of giving the vast majority of Iraqis, who detest and fear Isis, the means to fight back without having to rely, as the Shi’ites have been doing lately, on help from Iran’s notorious Quds Force.
What this means in practical terms is that the US and its allies will have to beef up their presence in Iraq. That doesn’t mean sending ground troops but it does mean sending more advisers, more intelligence personnel, more aircraft and more special operations forces. Obama has already increased the US presence to more than 1,000 troops and set up two joint operations centres with the Iraqi military in Baghdad and Erbil. He has also begun air attacks on Isis, which are being carried out from the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush. The CIA has apparently also begun to arm the Kurdish peshmerga, whose resistance to Isis had been hindered by lack of ammunition and heavy weapons.
This is a good start but only a start. The US and its allies, Britain foremost among them, need to expand their goals and their means to achieve them. So far President Obama has talked only of containing Isis, of preventing it from massacring Yazidis or taking Erbil. That’s not enough. We should not tolerate the existence of a terrorist state similar to Taleban-era Afghanistan sprawling across Iraq and Syria. Already thousands of foreign jihadis, including many Europeans, have been drawn to Syria. If left unchecked, this terrorist playpen is likely to generate attacks not only on neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Jordan but on western targets too. The West’s goal should be rollback, not containment. In for a penny, in for a pound. If we’re going to bomb Isis, let’s do it right. Or, as Napoleon aptly advised, ‘If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.’
Defeating Isis will require boosting the western advisory and special operations presence in Iraq to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10,000 to 15,000 personnel and sending aircraft that will be based in Iraq, rather than at sea or from distant bases, to facilitate a more sustained bombing campaign. Advisers should be evenly distributed between the Kurdish peshmerga, the Sunni tribes and some of the more capable units of the Iraqi security forces in order to make clear that we are not playing favourites among Iraq’s sectarian groups. Simply having western advisers present alongside anti-Isis fighters will greatly enhance their morale, professionalism and effectiveness.
With more American (and, one hopes, allied) eyes on the ground, it will be possible to call in more air strikes with greater effectiveness, as occurred in Afghanistan during the autumn of 2001. Western commandos such as Seal Team Six, Delta Force and the British and Australian SAS should also expand operations to carry out the kind of intelligence-driven leadership targeting that was an important part of the 2007-2008 surge. Such actions in Iraq must be complemented with greater aid to the Free Syrian Army in order to fight Isis on the other side of the rapidly disintegrating border with Iraq.
It will not be quick or easy to reverse the gains that Isis has made. But with the right strategy, appropriate resources and a little determination, Mosul and Fallujah can be retaken before the self-styled Islamic Caliphate solidifies its hold on a region larger than Jordan. However much they may want to avoid further entanglement in the messy Middle East, Obama and Cameron have no choice but to act unless they want to leave a new terrorist state as part of their legacy in office.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.