How the Fall of Fallujah Could Be Good for the U.S.

With radicals seizing key cities, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki desperately needs an air force. That gives Washington some leverage — and not just in Iraq.

A man shows off the V-sign for victory as he stands on top of a burn out lorry on the side of the main highway leading west out of the capital Baghdad to Fallujah, on January 5, 2014.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Jan. 8, 2014, 12:20 p.m.

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.

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