January 3, 2018
Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.
By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
ISIS has commanded the attention of the United States since it burst on the international political scene in 2014. But before the U.S. can take a victory lap about its defeat of ISIS, it needs to figure out what to do next for Iraq.
Throughout the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump vowed to lift the highly restrictive rules of engagement imposed by President Obama against the Islamic State. Trump sought to fully unleash the U.S. military and destroy ISIS.
This goal has been accomplished. A tactical victory has been achieved, but as far as achieving a strategic victory, the U.S. has yet to figure out how to rebuild Iraq.
President Bush’s Mistakes with Iraq
The past two administrations have made strategic miscalculations with regard to Iraq. For example, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the belief that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had developed and possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The removal of Saddam Hussein and his government from power was a tactical victory. But the U.S. blundered when the newly created Coalition Provisional Authority dismissed the Iraqi civil service and disbanded the Iraqi army.
This mistake led to the collapse of the Iraqi state and created a civil war that engulfed the nation. That war allowed al-Qaeda to entrench itself in the country and permitted Iran to expand its influence in Iraq.
After much bloodshed, the United States reversed course in the last two years of Bush’s second term. Additional U.S. troops surged into Iraq and stabilized the country. With the cooperation of Sunni tribes, they formed the basis of the “Sunni Awakening,” which reduced sectarian violence and eventually defeated al-Qaeda.
President Obama Disengages from Iraq
The second strategic miscalculation occurred in 2009, when President Barack Obama took office. Obama failed to build on the success of the power surge and use the support of the Sunni tribes to cajole Iraqi leaders into looking past sectarian hatreds. The focus was on compromise, with Obama disengaging from Iraq.
For instance, the 2010 Iraqi election was a pivotal point. The Iraqiya, a nationalist and nonsectarian political party headed by Ayad Allawi, defeated Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party in a close election.
The Obama administration failed to honor the results of the election, which would have permitted Allawi to form a stable government. Instead, Maliki remained Iraq’s prime minister, contrary to the Iraqi constitution and the strong opposition from Iraqi politicians.
The Obama administration turned to nationalist Maliki, whom Obama said was a friend of the U.S. Unfortunately, this action was an error that played into the hands of Iran.
Obama’s decision to disengage in Iraq and insist that Maliki remain as prime minister allowed Maliki to consolidate his power base with anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iranian support. They helped Maliki secure another term as prime minister.
Maliki knew Obama wanted to disengage from Iraq. He pushed for the United States to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, when the status-of-forces agreement between Washington and Baghdad was set to expire.
2010 Iraqi Election Undermined Confidence in Government-Led Change
The 2010 election changed the upward trajectory of Iraq. Rather than ensuring a peaceful transition of power, the election undermined confidence in the Iraqi government that change could come through politics.
Maliki secured a second term. He then reneged on all agreements with the Sunni tribes and crushed all Sunni dissent.
The policies that Maliki set in motion and the U.S. disengagement allowed a new terrorist group, ISIS, to rise from its ashes. ISIS claimed to represent the marginalized Sunnis against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Many Sunnis felt ISIS was the lesser of two evils. Maliki continued his consolidation of power by purging many competent Iraq military and security commanders, who were viewed as being too close to the United States.
When ISIS began its takeover of Iraqi territory, the U.S.-trained Iraqi army disintegrated. As a result, billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. military equipment fell into the hands of ISIS.
Obama Sends Military Forces Back to Iraq
Obama had to quickly reconsider his decision to withdraw from Iraq. He sent U.S. forces back into Iraq to deal with the threat from ISIS.
In addition, Obama also had to deal with the ongoing civil war in Syria. He only did what was necessary, not wanting to do anything that might derail his ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Trump campaigned on defeating ISIS and he has now accomplished that goal. But will he repeat the mistakes of the past by winning a tactical victory at the expense of a strategic victory?
Iraqi Reconstruction in the Future
With ISIS defeated, the reconstruction of Iraq now begins. Much of the northern and western parts of Iraq were devastated. Mosul, the largest city held by ISIS, needs almost $100 billion to repair or rebuild almost 40,000 destroyed and damaged homes.
This need is replicated throughout the northern and western parts of Iraq, mainly in Sunni areas. Much of the oil wealth of Iraq is concentrated in these Kurdish- and Shiite-dominated areas of the country. The devastation only further heightens the already deep sectarian divisions and corruption that make Iraq’s reconstruction extremely difficult.
The fear is that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad will abandon the Sunni population and leave them to fend for themselves. But if the Sunnis are forgotten and left to their devastated cities, they might fuel the next generation of militants.
How Will President Trump Deal with Iraq?
The reconstruction of Iraq requires a major influx of funds. Unfortunately, President Trump and his administration have already made it clear that funds will not come from the United States.
Iraqi leaders hope that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States will step in. If not, the likelihood is Iran will fill the breach.
If the U.S. doesn’t want to repeat past strategic miscalculations, Washington needs to reconsider its position on funding the Iraq reconstruction. We could be at a pivotal moment because the recent nationwide unrest in neighboring Iran will keep Tehran occupied with its own internal divisions.
The time may be ripe for the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and other Sunni nations to reverse Iranian influence in Iraq. Tehran could be prevented from establishing its arc of Shiite dominance throughout Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
No one expects the U.S. to fully fund Iraqi reconstruction, but it can help Sunni nations with the heavy lifting. It will be interesting to see what direction the Trump administration takes.