Wanted: Reliable Sunnis to Fight the Islamic State
The jihadists are on the march in Iraq -- and that's not going to change unless Baghdad gets serious about building a Sunni force to win this war.
The Islamic State has taken Ramadi, and the U.S. strategy to defeat the group is in tatters. As of yet, there has not been an Iraqi force created that can stand in its path. What is worse, there does not even appear to be the will to build one in Baghdad.
A predominantly Sunni Iraqi force must be developed now to stop the Islamic State’s march on western Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods. This force could defend the areas that the jihadi group seeks to occupy and eventually attempt to expel it from the territory it already controls. Much has been made of Iranian-funded Shiite militias, but it is Sunni Iraqis who will be willing to stay and fight to take back their neighborhoods from the Islamic State. On a practical level, they know the terrain, who the locals are, and who is foreign to an area. Many also have prior experience when it comes to dealing with jihadis: During the 2006-2007 Anbar Awakening, it was a Sunni force — empowered by U.S. advisors and combat power — that was finally able to rid their areas of al Qaeda.
Yet, the Iraqi government continues to fail to recruit effectively among Sunnis and remains more reliant on Iranian-supported Shiite militias.
That was not always the case. The Iraqi military trained and built by the United States had a sectarian balance in 2005 — 55 percent Shiite, 45 percent Sunni. However, an accelerated Shiite-ification of the force began in 2006. At that time, embedded U.S. advisors were ordered by the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, under the command of Gen. Martin Dempsey, not to provide information on the ethno-sectarian makeup of a unit to the intelligence community and the State Department.
On the face of it, that was not an unreasonable order. The United States did not care whether the troops were Sunni or Shiite — it just wanted them to be loyal Iraqi nationalists. The problem was that then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government cared deeply about the military’s sectarian makeup and actively worked to exclude non-Shiites. As a result, militia infiltration into the security forces accelerated, and the purge of effective Sunni and Kurdish commanders received a green light from the Maliki government. This politicized force — one that the United States spent $25 billion training — is the one we are watching fail now.
This is a familiar story. In 2007, the United States created the Sons of Iraq — a force of 90,000 Sunnis willing to not only fight al Qaeda, but also protect their neighborhoods from Shiite militias in Baghdad, Diyala, and Salaheddine. The Iraqi government insisted they be vetted before they were paid. The process was a delaying tactic by design: All five intelligence directorates in Baghdad would vet each name, with Sunnis being assessed for their connections to insurgents or “friends of terrorists.” The Maliki government then set up pay stations where U.S.-vetted Sons of Iraq members had to be physically present and fill out information cards bearing their addresses and names of next of kin and relatives before being paid. Many refused, believing the information would be passed to Shiite militias and security forces for targeting purposes. The United States intervened and negotiated a solution whereby the government made payments to commanders in the Sons of Iraq, who would then pay their men.
Even then, the payments were often two months behind. And later, those Sons of Iraq who wanted positions in the security forces were rejected and instead offered menial jobs in the ministries, where they were often subjected to daily security screenings and intimidation by security forces on-site.
This same tactic is playing out now with the vetting process for Sunnis willing to fight the Islamic State. Baghdad is reluctant to arm them, fearing a Sunni uprising against the leadership in a post-Islamic State Iraq. So it is once again dragging its feet.
The U.S. Defense Department has trained around 7,000 members of the Iraqi security forces since the summer of 2014, and it wants to develop a national force capable of fighting anywhere in Iraq. Yet it is once again failing to question what sect these fighters are coming from. In reality, the Pentagon is training a sectarian force that is being asked to achieve in months what it could not do in years with more than $25 billion to spend.
The responsibility for creating such a force lies with Baghdad more than with the United States. Washington cannot build a force without Baghdad’s approval – and, by extension, without the approval of Tehran.
This brings us to another significant flaw in the current U.S. strategy. President Barack Obama’s administration seems to believe Iran can become a regional power aligned with U.S. security interests that can help deliver stability to the Middle East. Yet Iran continues its use of its destabilizing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies in order to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power and entrench sectarian politics in Baghdad. There is no evidence that either of these Iranian strategies will change.
Furthermore, the IRGC-backed Shiite militias are largely unwilling to play offense. The militias will be content to cede historically Sunni areas to the Islamic State and, instead, look to defend cities of historical importance to Shiites that run through the heart of Iraq — Baghdad, Samarra, Najaf, and Karbala. These are the areas that the militias will die to protect — not the Sunni heartlands and cities like Ramadi.
Consider the following examples of Shiite militia activity. The Tikrit offensive generated a force of 20,000 fighters because it was an opportunity to avenge the Islamic State’s massacre of 1,700 Shiite cadets at Camp Speicher in June 2014 (not to mention the symbolic importance of retaking Saddam Hussein’s hometown). The offensive planned for Ramadi, however, has generated a hesitant 3,000 men, who are staging their attack from Habbaniya air base, in Anbar province, which cuts off the Islamic State from a route to Karbala.
We should also not forget that these factions, for which the United States is carrying out air support, contain groups that set Iraq alight not a decade ago. The Obama administration has made a bet that these factions will now extinguish the flames of war. It is a huge gamble, and one not informed by any evidence that Iran is willing to play such a role. Tehran may not want an Islamic State takeover, but it does want a weak and divided Iraq that remains reliant on it.
The flaws in U.S. strategy are allowing a myth to take hold: that the Islamic State is invincible. True, the group is smart, resilient, rich, and well-armed. But it is also facing significant problems: U.S. bombing efforts have made life more difficult for the group, its territorial gains had been somewhat stalled until the capture of Ramadi, key leaders had been killed, and living conditions in its territory are austere and brutalized.
The current strategy, however, is not taking advantage of this. Right now, we are watching the Islamic State advance on areas in Anbar and western Baghdad once defended by 20,000 U.S. troops, partnered with 30,000 Sunni fighters and seven Iraqi Army divisions. Now, 3,000 Shiite militia-led volunteers stand in the way — and even they will likely fall back to Shiite areas ahead of dying for Sunni ones.
The Islamic State is eminently defeatable. Yet if the status quo remains, it will not be — and Iraq will continue its downward spiral.
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