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
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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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