How Obama Can Help Iraq

The Iraq war President Obama never wanted is back. Here’s what he can do to help stop Iraq’s spiral into chaos.

Members of Montana's 163rd Alpha Company take pictures in front of an American flag as they prepare to depart Iraq at the conclusion of their tour on July 16, 2011 in Iskandariya, Babil Province Iraq.
National Journal
Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
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Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
Nov. 1, 2013, 9:32 a.m.

Nearly two years after Ir­aq ejec­ted U.S. troops, and with an es­cal­at­ing civil war nearly as deadly as 2006, Ir­aqi Pres­id­ent Nouri al-Ma­liki has come to Wash­ing­ton to ask Pres­id­ent Obama to in­ter­vene in a war he nev­er wanted in the first place.

The two men were un­able to come to an agree­ment in 2011, when the Ir­aqi par­lia­ment re­jec­ted the U.S. of­fer to keep thou­sands of U.S. troops in Ir­aq ““ only if they were gran­ted im­munity — to help sta­bil­ize the coun­try after the war. At the time, Obama wanted out; Ma­liki wanted his coun­try back. But 2013 has turned blood­i­er than either man an­ti­cip­ated. The vi­ol­ence across Ir­aq has worsened, and the spillover vi­ol­ence from neigh­bor­ing Syr­ia and in­creas­ing in­flu­ence from Ir­an threatens, for Ma­likik, a na­tion that has en­dured more than a dec­ade of war and, for Obama, Amer­ica’s se­cur­ity in­terests in re­gion­al sta­bil­ity.

The last thing Obama wants to do is send U.S. troops back to Ir­aq — and Ma­liki has already drawn that line in the sand in an op-ed in the New York Times, say­ing, “We are not ask­ing for Amer­ic­an boots on the ground. Rather, we ur­gently want to equip our own forces with the weapons they need to fight ter­ror­ism, in­clud­ing heli­copters and oth­er mil­it­ary air­craft so that we can se­cure our bor­ders and pro­tect our people.”

The Pentagon has been op­er­at­ing in Ir­aq, with small spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces units and coun­terter­ror­ism teams. Bey­ond send­ing Apache heli­copters and oth­er mil­it­ary equip­ment, these spe­cial­ized forces are Obama’s only choice to help Ir­aq from spiral­ing back in­to chaos. A seni­or White House ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said they’re already work­ing on sup­ply­ing the Ir­aqi mil­it­ary with weapons and en­hanced in­tel­li­gence shar­ing, though some of it is com­ing slowly and items like air de­fense sys­tems have ques­tion­able value to quelling the rudi­ment­ary ground in­sur­gency.

“The Ir­aqis have asked for weapons sys­tems from us. We’ve worked very closely with them and we sup­port those re­quests, and we’re work­ing with the Con­gress through those as ap­pro­pri­ate. We’ve made some pro­gress. For ex­ample, we no­ti­fied over the sum­mer a ma­jor air de­fense sys­tem which al­lows the Ir­aqis for — really, for the first time, to take sov­er­eign con­trol of their air­space, which right now they don’t have. So it’ll take some time to get that sys­tem in place, but that sys­tem had been pending for some time,” the of­fi­cial said.

The Ir­aqis are also look­ing to bring back the Sun­nis who were be­hind the “awaken­ings” that led to a uni­fied fight between Sun­nis and Shi­as against al Qaeda. The seni­or of­fi­cial said that’s something Ma­liki is look­ing to rep­lic­ate again. But those agree­ments were based on one im­port­ant caveat that no longer ex­ists — those Sunni tri­bal lead­ers knew they had the might of U.S. troops on the ground to back them up.

Re­tired Gen. Dav­id Pet­raeus, the former U.S. com­mand­er in Ir­aq, wrote in For­eign Policy that many of the con­di­tions that brought the vi­ol­ence down after the 2007 surge of U.S. troops should be rep­lic­ated. “If Ir­aqi lead­ers think back to that time, they will re­call that the surge was not just more forces, though the ad­di­tion­al forces were very im­port­ant. What mattered most was the surge of ideas — con­cepts that em­braced se­cur­ity of the people by ‘liv­ing with them,’ ini­ti­at­ives to pro­mote re­con­cili­ation with ele­ments of the pop­u­la­tion that felt they had no in­cent­ive to sup­port the new Ir­aq, ramp­ing up of pre­cise op­er­a­tions that tar­geted the key ‘ir­re­con­cil­ables,’ the em­brace of an en­hanced com­pre­hens­ive civil-mil­it­ary ap­proach, in­creased at­ten­tion to vari­ous as­pects of the rule of law, im­prove­ments to in­fra­struc­ture and ba­sic ser­vices, and sup­port for vari­ous polit­ic­al ac­tions that helped bridge ethno-sec­tari­an di­vides.”

But the U.S. spent years and bil­lions of dol­lars train­ing the Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces. And after just two years without U.S. hand­hold­ing, it doesn’t look like Ir­aq learned many of Pet­raeus’ les­sons. The polit­ic­al land­scape has only worsened between the Sun­nis and the Shia-led gov­ern­ment. “We know we have ma­jor chal­lenges of our own cap­ab­il­it­ies be­ing up to the stand­ard. They cur­rently are not,” said Luk­man Faily, the Ir­aqi am­bas­sad­or to the U.S., in an in­ter­view with the As­so­ci­ated Press. “We need to gear up, to deal with that threat more ser­i­ously. We need sup­port and we need help.”

So while Ir­aq wants U.S. help, one thing is clear — the way for­ward will not in­volve U.S. boots on the ground. Obama may be will­ing to help, but it will have to be the Ir­aqis do­ing the heavy lift­ing this time.

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