With the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi partly under the control of Qaida-linked militants, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki looks headed for a long, bloody slog in restive Anbar province. And President Obama is facing renewed criticism for refusing to supply more military aid to U.S.-friendly factions across the region after grim developments last week that empowered radical Islamists from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. And yet for the United States, this is a bright spot of opportunity. For the first time since 2011, when U.S. troops left Iraq, Washington has leverage with recalcitrant leaders like Maliki.
To fight the Qaida occupiers, Maliki needs a real air force beyond the ratty Cessnas and transport planes he has now. The United States, despite the failure to sign a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq in 2011, can supply it—especially F-16s and Apache attack helicopters, among other critical aid. (Some of that help is already coming in the form of Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones.) But current and former U.S. officials say they want to see Maliki change his behavior and broaden his Shiite-dominated government to welcome in Sunnis before he gets any larger-scale assistance. "I think now the Iraqi government has an opportunity to reassess their policies," says Tom Donilon, Obama's former national security adviser, adding that America should apply the pressure.
Donilon and other U.S. officials have long argued that Maliki has created his own crisis by isolating Sunnis from his government and forcing Sunni tribesmen back into the arms of al-Qaida. That scenario is hauntingly like what happened in 2004, when harsh counterinsurgency techniques by U.S. occupation forces led to a brief alignment of most Sunni factions against the coalition and even in support of al-Qaida. "A lot started in Anbar as a result of the Maliki government's inability to make common cause with the Sunni groups," Donilon said in separate remarks at the Aspen Forum in Washington on Tuesday.
Since then, Maliki has only sown mistrust among the Sunni tribal leaders. According to Mideast experts familiar with the views of Sunni tribal chiefs, Iraqi government forces are even now using the pretext of attacking al-Qaida in Iraq to justify taking on tribal militias, putting their leaders in the impossible position of having to choose between al-Qaida and the Shiite-led government. The danger is that large portions of the Sunni population could make a calamitous collective decision that al-Qaida in Iraq is a better protector against the government than the tribal leaders, who in turn could decide to back al-Qaida to maintain their support among the people. Iraq experts note that Qaida groups are far less likely to make the same mistake they did under leaders like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who alienated many Sunnis by indiscriminately murdering Muslims in terrorist attacks before he was killed by U.S. forces in 2006.
A solution may be possible, despite the intense pressure on Maliki from the fiercely anti-Sunni Dawa Party, his main base. Among the key Sunni tribal chiefs he needs to win over, for example, is Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, a former ally who is the unofficial leader of the Anbar tribal military council. Maliki's government has an arrest warrant out for Hatem, allegedly for inciting demonstrations against Shiites; now it needs to bring him to the table, and U.S. officials should leverage an offer of desperately needed air-strike capability in order to prod the prime minister into doing it. "This should absolutely be a major wake-up call for Maliki," says a former U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He needs better relationships inside his country and inside his government, and to foster stronger ties with countries like the United States."
Maliki isn't the only Muslim head of state facing a crisis of legitimacy that Washington can help solve. U.S. officials hope the lesson of Fallujah and Ramadi is also apparent to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has mulishly refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement but whose government could face an even more threatening insurgency after U.S. troops leave in 2014. "This is much more important for the Afghans than it is for Iraq," says Donilon, given the far less professional state of Afghan forces and the much graver danger from the Taliban.
In interviews over the past year, Afghan officials have said their most desperate need is air power. This week, after the Qaida-led takeover of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the White House issued another stern warning to Karzai: Sign, or risk a total departure, as in Iraq. "Afghan leaders can't be missing the potential analogue to what they could face if they don't handle their own transition well," says the former defense official. According to Donilon, the Iraqi foreign minister even warned Karzai recently not to kick out the Americans.
Without U.S. support, Maliki and Karzai may well face civil wars. Already, Sunni deserters are reportedly thinning the ranks of Maliki's forces in Anbar. And experts suggest this confrontation, led by Maliki's reckless Shiite-led forces, is potentially more dangerous than 2004, given the wider regional struggle between Shiites and Sunnis raging over the border into Iraq and Lebanon—a struggle largely supplied by Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. This spreading war makes U.S. coercive diplomacy critical not just to dealing with Iraq, but also to pressuring Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia (which is contracting with Iraq to sell arms) to cooperate. With increasingly desperate partners in Baghdad and Kabul, Washington now has its chance.
This article appears in the January 11, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine.