Washington believed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi would get serious about recruiting Sunni tribes to fight the Islamic State. Now it's not so sure.
- By Gopal RatnamGopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent visit to Baghdad and his tense meetings with leaders there have left some American officials worried about Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s commitment toward reconciliation with Iraq’s embattled Sunni minority, which is key to the U.S.-led effort to rebuild the Iraqi military forces and defeat the Islamic State.
Abadi not only pressed Hagel to supply more American weapons and increase the tempo of U.S.-led airstrikes on the Islamic State — taking the Pentagon chief by surprise — but also expressed doubts about normalizing relations in the long term with Iraq’s Sunnis, according to two senior American officials.
Leaders of the Sunni tribal groups in Anbar province that the United States wants to organize and equip into national guard brigades to take on the Islamic State are not trustworthy, Abadi, a Shiite, told Hagel in a Dec. 9 meeting in Baghdad, according to the two U.S. officials and a European official whose country is involved in the coalition against the Islamic State.
In a further surprise for the visiting U.S. delegation, Hagel was made to wait for about 25 minutes to meet Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi after the two of them had finished a meeting with Abadi. For some U.S. officials, the wait seemed to be a replay of December 2009, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates was made to wait a full day before meeting then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The surprise push by Abadi for more weapons and his doubts about reconciling with Sunni tribes are making some American and European officials worry whether the U.S.-led coalition is rushing to train and rebuild Iraq’s military forces without getting a matching commitment from the Iraqi government to make peace with its Sunni tribes. An American official said that one way to indicate U.S. displeasure at Abadi would be to hold back the deployment of the 1,500 additional American troops that President Barack Obama has authorized to be sent to Iraq to bolster the 1,400 troops who are already there, while another official cautioned that such delay tactics may backfire. All officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.
Abadi and the Iraqi government understand and “have made clear that Sunni tribal forces are going to have to be a part of the effort to defeat ISIL and for the security of their provinces,” Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in an email, using another acronym for the Islamic State. During the Dec. 3 Counter-ISIL Coalition Ministerial in Brussels, Abadi “once again acknowledged that military action alone will not defeat ISIL and that positive steps toward governmental reform, national reconciliation, and economic and social reconstruction will be needed in this fight. This process will take time but it is now underway. The new government is working to integrate tribal fighters into the Iraqi Security Forces.”
The Pentagon remains “committed to our advisory mission in Iraq, to include the deployment of up to an additional 1,500 troops that will not only advise Iraqi commanders, but also help build partner capacity through a training regimen,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
The U.S. military advisors already in Iraq are helping to train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi army, which had dwindled to nearly half its size from the 50 brigades it had when the U.S. forces left in 2011, in preparation for a coming ground offensive against the Islamic State. The fight to retake Mosul could start as early as the spring of 2015. The militants captured large parts of the country’s west and northern provinces after Sunni residents threw their support to the group after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had earlier helped battled the Islamic State’s precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq.
In 2011, Maliki also arrested several prominent Sunni lawmakers and tried to arrest the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, after accusing him of running an anti-government death squad. Hashimi later fled to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The U.S.-led coalition strategy rests on training and equipping the Iraqi Army so it can mount a counteroffensive against the Islamic State. U.S. officials have been clear that the fight against the militant group will be Iraq’s to wage, even though Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he may recommend American troops taking a more active role in the fight.
So slowing down the departure of additional American trainers would mean a delay in getting Iraqi troops ready and consequently the planned offensive to retake Mosul.
Obama announced in November that the United States would send 1,500 additional troops as part of a $1.6 billion effort to train and equip nine Iraqi brigades and three Kurdish brigades for a renewed push against the Islamic State. Iraqi officials say that offensive could begin before the end of December, significantly before many American officials believe the Iraqi troops would be ready for what would almost certainly be a lengthy and bloody campaign involving house-to-house combat in Mosul and other densely packed Iraqi cities.
The United States also wants to create as many as three brigades of Iraqi national guard units drawn from members of Sunni tribes in the Anbar province to fight the militants. Those tribal militias were a vital part of the so-called Sunni awakening that began in August 2006, during which Sunni fighters turned against al Qaeda in Iraq and helped American troops kill large numbers of militants, pushing the group out of Anbar province, which had been its longtime stronghold. The Islamic State’s current offensive began in Anbar, and the militants have been steadily consolidating their control over the province.
The $1.6 billion request was part of the Obama administration’s supplemental war request added to the Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal and was just approved by Congress on Saturday. The Obama administration also is asking Congress for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to counter the Islamic State, even though officials have said U.S. troops will not engage in direct combat against the group on the ground.
Obama has been “crystal clear that his policy is that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL and that will be the responsibility of local forces,” Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers on Dec. 9. The new authorization should be somewhat open-ended, allowing future presidents some flexibility both in the use of force and the duration of the authorization, Kerry said.
A small contingent of the American military advisors already have set up camp in Iraq’s Anbar province to train Sunni tribes. But the larger question of creating a standing national guard has met with opposition from among the country’s politicians, who fear that in the long run such an armed force of Sunni tribes could threaten the government in Baghdad.
Any slowdown or hesitation on the part of the United States to go through with its plan to train and equip the Iraqi military as well as support for the formation of national guard units will have far-reaching consequences, a third senior U.S. official said.
“While some people may have the idea that they want to wait, that’s a losing proposition,” the official said. “If we wait, they’ll wait and pretty quickly everybody is waiting.”
The Abadi government is still in its nascent stages and the United States and its coalition members must “resist making major assumptions about the trajectory of the situation in Iraq based on anecdotal information or a few data points.”
The U.S.-led coalition includes major Western nations such as the U.K., France, Germany, Australia, Italy, and Canada, as well as several Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey.
Arab partners in the coalition are keen to see that Abadi doesn’t end up being another Maliki who alienates Iraq’s Sunni population, which led to the rise of the Islamic State. And for that reason the Arab coalition members — many of whom fear the spread of the Islamic State’s power and reach could undermine their own governments — are weighing and watching their support for Iraq’s government.
If the United States waits to deploy additional forces “or if we look like we are starting to wobble in our commitment to Iraq we’ll pay for that inside the coalition and we’ll pay for that with our Arab partners,” the U.S. official said.
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