In Iraq, Now What?

Lawmakers question where the U.S. went wrong in military strategy.

An Iraqi Kurdish fighter aims his weapon as he holds a position on a roof near Tuz Khurmatu on June 24, as part of an effort to repel anti-government militants from seizing an oil refinery near Baiji, roughly 85 miles to the east. The former mayor of another city northwest of Baiji worries about refinery chemicals passing into extremist hands.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
July 23, 2014, 10:26 a.m.

Sev­en weeks after the fall of Mo­sul, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is scram­bling to shore up in­tel­li­gence in Ir­aq and map out a strategy to counter the grow­ing ter­ror­ist threat from the rise of mil­it­ants.

Seni­or State and De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials tried to as­suage law­makers Wed­nes­day that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is on top of the situ­ation, co­ordin­at­ing with part­ners in the re­gion to en­sure Ir­aq does not be­come a hot­bed for ter­ror­ists who threaten the U.S.

But law­makers on the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee ex­pressed skep­ti­cism—and for some, down­right frus­tra­tion—that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has not had a bet­ter handle on the situ­ation. Crit­ics ar­gued that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was too quick to pull out of Ir­aq early on, and that it failed to ad­equately re­spond to warn­ings over the past year that mil­it­ants led by the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia were gain­ing trac­tion and plot­ting to seize con­trol of key re­gions in Ir­aq.

“Nearly six months ago “¦ the ad­min­is­tra­tion test­i­fied that IS­IS “¦ planned to chal­lenge the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment for con­trol of west­ern Ir­aq and Bagh­dad,” said com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Royce. “IS­IS has done pre­cisely what the ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­dicted it would: It has taken over most of west­ern Ir­aq, it has turned its sights on Bagh­dad, and it may be pre­par­ing to launch at­tacks against the U.S.”

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said the U.S. strategy is to work with part­ners in the re­gion to starve IS­IS of re­sources, isol­ate and dis­rupt safe havens and train­ing camps in Syr­ia, and sup­port Ir­aqis in tak­ing con­trol of their west­ern bor­der with Syr­ia.

Brett McGurk, the State De­part­ment’s deputy as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for Ir­aq and Ir­an, stressed that the U.S. is en­cour­aging a “func­tion­ing fed­er­al­ism” in Ir­aq that “would em­power loc­al pop­u­la­tions to se­cure their own areas with the full re­sources of the state in terms of be­ne­fits, salar­ies, and equip­ment.”

McGurk said the gov­ern­ment­al re­forms, un­der this scen­ario, would have Ir­aq’s na­tion­al army fo­cus on se­cur­ing in­ter­na­tion­al bor­ders to com­bat hardened ter­ror­ist net­works.

But he ar­gued the U.S. has an im­port­ant role to play in fa­cil­it­at­ing such re­forms.

“Co­oper­a­tion will be es­sen­tial,” he said, adding that Ir­aq can­not knock down IS­IS on its own. “Restor­ing sta­bil­ity and de­grad­ing IS­IS will re­quire a smart in­teg­rated “¦ ap­proach, led by a new Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment with an ap­pro­pri­ate level of U.S. sup­port and as­sist­ance.”

The De­fense De­part­ment’s Elissa Slotkin, the act­ing prin­ciple deputy un­der sec­ret­ary for policy, said the U.S. policy in Ir­aq is to pro­tect U.S. people and prop­erty; bet­ter un­der­stand how the U.S. might best train and sup­port Ir­aqi Se­cur­ity Forces; and im­prove U.S. un­der­stand­ing of ISIL, primar­ily through ramp­ing up in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing.

“There is no ex­clus­ively mil­it­ary solu­tion to the threats posed by ISIL,” she said. “However, we do have a vi­tal se­cur­ity in­terest in en­sur­ing that Ir­aq, nor any oth­er coun­try, be­comes a safe haven for ter­ror­ists who could threaten our home­land or U.S. in­terests and cit­izens abroad.”

Still, com­mit­tee mem­bers ap­peared un­con­vinced and ques­tioned the U.S. re­sponse on sev­er­al fronts.

Royce, a Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an, pressed for an­swers about why the U.S. has re­fused to grant Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment re­quests for drone strikes against IS­IS. Demo­crat­ic Rep. Eli­ot En­gel of New York ques­tioned why the U.S. is com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing the state of Ir­aq, which he ar­gued was ar­bit­rar­ily set up by co­lo­ni­al­ists and could be split in­to three states to give the Kur­ds in par­tic­u­lar their own land. And Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Dana Rohra­bach­er of Cali­for­nia wanted to know why the U.S. hasn’t pushed Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki to step down.

A poignant mo­ment came after Demo­crat­ic Rep. Al­bio Sires of New Jer­sey de­man­ded to know how the U.S. has man­aged to pour so many bil­lions of dol­lars in­to train­ing Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces throughout both the Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions and have so little to show for it.

The De­fense De­part­ment’s Slotkin ac­know­ledged that four Ir­aqi di­vi­sions in Mo­sul es­sen­tially re­fused to fight, but ar­gued that such a broad brush can­not be used to de­scribe Ir­aqi de­fenses over­all, ar­guing that units in West­ern Ir­aq did fight back.

In Mo­sul, “rather than a lack of cap­ab­il­ity, I think what we be­lieve is that they just lacked either the will or the dir­ec­tion to fight,” she said. “Either “¦ there was a snow­balling ef­fect, and they, out of fear, stripped off their uni­forms and turned, or they waited for dir­ec­tion from Bagh­dad that did not come and there­fore de­par­ted.”

Slotkin ad­ded that un­der­stand­ing this fail­ure is crit­ic­al for the U.S. to de­cide what plans to pur­sue now in Ir­aq.

But the an­swer ap­peared to provide little re­as­sur­ance.

“We spent bil­lions of dol­lars on a group of people who are not will­ing to fight,” Sires sum­mar­ized, call­ing it “mind bog­gling” and a “mess.”

“Where did we go wrong?” he asked.

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