Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

My 3 major worries about Iraq right now, especially that we’re on the verge of holy war

By Ali Khedery Best Defense guest columnist 1. As in 2003, I am gravely concerned that Washington is misassessing the precise nature of recent events in the Middle East and their strategic consequences.  It wasn’t ISIS alone that conquered a full third of Iraq in the past few days — it was a full-blown Sunni insurgency consisting ...

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

By Ali Khedery

Best Defense guest columnist

1. As in 2003, I am gravely concerned that Washington is misassessing the precise nature of recent events in the Middle East and their strategic consequences.  It wasn’t ISIS alone that conquered a full third of Iraq in the past few days — it was a full-blown Sunni insurgency consisting of ISIS, Sunni Arab Baath party elements from both Syria and Iraq, and the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni tribes that all joined to cooperate on beating back the Iranians and their proxies in Baghdad and Damascus.  Many of these fighters are referring to their campaign as a "revolution."  General Odierno’s experience with the 4th Infantry Division in the Sunni Triangle in 2003-2004 taught us that military action absent a political framework will only further fuel an insurgency, not quell it. While Odierno captured Saddam Hussein, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III foolishly laid the foundations for a deeply divided, exclusionary, sectarian New Iraq.  The Petraeus-Odierno-Crocker partnership during the surge was of course the counterexample and the model of diplo-military coordination; violence was reduced 90 percent as the political process was reinvigorated in Baghdad.

2. During the 2010 government formation negotiations, Ambassador James Jeffrey dispatched me on a secret trip to Jordan to meet with a council of Iraq’s top Sunni leaders on his behalf, with a message that they needed to join Prime Minister Maliki’s government. What was their response?  "We will join the government in Baghdad, but we will not allow Iraq to be ruled by Iran and its proxies. We will not live under a Shiite theocracy.  We will not continue to accept political, economic, and social marginalization under Maliki and the Dawa party.  The United States gave us assurances during the Awakening that they would stand with us if we turned our arms against al Qaeda and joined the political process.  We devastated al Qaeda alongside the U.S. Army; we participated in the elections; and we won.  We want our share in the New Iraq, not to be treated as second class citizens.  If this does not happen, we will take up arms again, and this time we will retake Baghdad or we will burn it to the ground."  Why is anyone back in Washington surprised that we have another Sunni insurgency after the genocide in Syria, after Maliki’s humiliating power grabs, and after we abandoned the tribes who did indeed obliterate al Qaeda in Iraq?  Iraq’s Sunni leaders literally warned us this was going to happen four years ago, and I relayed every detail directly back to the ambassador, the commanding generals, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the White House itself.  The leaders of Iraq’s six million Sunnis pleaded with us not to force their hands, but we willingly did so after a protracted internal debate.  The White House backed a Maliki cabinet knowing that it was personally formed in Tehran by General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s spymaster and a man responsible for thousands of Iraqi and American casualties. Then Washington sold F-16s, Apache attack helicopters, tanks, drones, and other advanced equipment to Baghdad after watching Maliki and the Iranians launch one vicious sectarian campaign after another, not only against the Sunni Arabs, but against Iraq’s secular, moderate, and pro-American Kurds.

3. Has it struck anyone in Washington that the Iraqi central government now controls less than half of its "sovereign" territory?  As with Hezbollah and Syria , we’re now looking at a rump, sectarian, Iranian-allied central government that is overtly supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and that has totally lost control of its Sunni Arab and Kurdish provinces, not due to terrorism alone, but to an increasingly popular insurgency that, I suspect, has at least the tacit support of the vast majority of the global Muslim community after Baghdad’s complicity in helping Iran wage genocide in Syria.

We are almost certainly witnessing the start of a global holy war between Sunnis and Shiites — the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since the Great Schism in Europe, when millions of Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other for centuries, bleeding Europe of a third of its population, fracturing nations, and plunging it into the Dark Ages.  This time, though, 40 percent of global energy supplies are at risk as we face the prospect that millions of young Muslims will be radicalized, wage jihad, and then create chaos when they return home to their countries.  I’m terrified that, gone unchecked, this inferno will spread to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, and nuclear-armed Pakistan very quickly, at which point it’ll be impossible to contain. Under a worst case scenario, if energy supplies were disrupted by sovereign or non-state actors alike, we could easily witness a global energy shock that would devastate and potentially destabilize entire countries. If the disruptions were protracted, major global powers would be forced to intervene in the face of domestic civil unrest, potentially (although unlikely), igniting a world war.  In short, the stakes are much greater than many assess.  Iraq and the Middle East cannot be ignored, and they cannot be pivoted away from in favor of Asia.  A superpower must be global in its reach and attention.

If the current crisis is not dealt with swiftly, wisely, and nimbly, Iraq will become a second Syria, a hemorrhaging and mortal wound in the heart of the Middle East.

I can’t stress enough how important it is that we move to try to contain this sectarian fire by restarting the political process in Baghdad and forcing Iraqis back to the constitution which we helped them write.  First, President Obama must explicitly condition all American assistance to Iraq, including the bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement itself, on Iraqi leaders’ willingness to cooperate and form a national unity government that will fairly represent all Iraqis and treat them equally and with respect and dignity.  That is not the type of leadership Nouri al-Maliki has shown for eight years, and he must be moved aside, and in weeks, not months.

Second, as Ambassador Ryan Crocker has said numerous times, the Obama administration cannot simply walk away from Iraq.  Although many of us were against the start of the war in 2003, it happened, and it is imperative that we now move to safeguard our critical national security interests.  Rather than attending the World Cup, President Obama’s Iraq czar, Vice President Biden, should be actively engaging at the highest levels with Baghdad and neighboring capitals (including Ankara, Riyadh, and Tehran) to secure a solution that will satisfy all stakeholders.  Post-2003 Iraq is not a player in Middle East politics; it is a battlefield where Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf monarchies vie for economic, political, and religious influence.

Third, the scourge that are al Qaeda, ISIS, and other militant radical groups must be confronted directly and forcefully not only by the United States, but by a global coalition of military and intelligence services. The United States should absolutely refuse to continue subsidizing global security on the backs of American taxpayers.   As with the creation of the tribal Awakening in Iraq in 2006 that led to al Qaeda’s defeat, the United States and its allies should immediately move to identify, train, arm, equip, and liaise with secular, moderate Sunni tribal fighters in Syria and Iraq to fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS — the era of boots on the ground in the Middle East is over.

Ali Khedery is chairman and CEO of Dragoman Partners LLC, a strategic consultancy headquartered in Dubai. Previously he was an executive with Exxon Mobil Corporation wh
ere he was the architect and chief political negotiator of the company’s entry into Kurdistan.  He also has worked for the U.S. State and Defense departments, where he served as special assistant to five American ambassadors to Iraq and as senior adviser to three commanders of U.S. Central Command.  He was the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1