September 3, 2016

 As the battle to free Mosul of the Islamic State (or ISIS) looms in the foreground, veterans of Iraq remember a similar environment ten years ago.  Back in 2006 it was Al Qaeda in Iraq instead of ISIS, and they were hunkered down in places like Fallujah, Baghdad, and other hot spots in order to kill Americans and undermine a stable and independent Iraq.  As we think about what success means for coming battles in Iraq—and their aftermath—we need to learn the right lessons from the past, while challenging existing orthodoxies about the future.

A decade ago, I had just completed a tour in Iraq. The country was teetering on the brink of sectarian collapse.  Sunnis and Shi’a were massacring one another in scores, and with 130,000 pairs of U.S. boots on the ground, we couldn’t afford to say it wasn’t our problem. What transpired next was the surge of 2007 and the Anbar Awakening, when Sunni tribesmen in western Anbar Province stood up against the Islamists in their midst and won the day.  When George W. Bush left office, Iraq may not have been a Jeffersonian democracy, but it was in far better shape than it is today. Even Joe Biden declared Iraq a success.

But what happened next?

First, a newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama pulled our forces out of Iraq, as he’d said he would during the campaign.  At the time, most military experts believed that—at a minimum—it would be prudent to leave behind a contingent of U.S. forces to secure the gains we made. But, alas, politics trumped reason and Obama brought all the troops—and diplomats—home.

Then, following America’s military and diplomatic retreat, Iraqi President—turned strongman—Nuri al-Maliki started pursuing increasingly sectarian policies, purging the Iraqi military of Sunnis and making religious preferences the norm in state hiring and spoils. In 2010, Maliki lost an election to a secular moderate, but Washington, under pressure from Tehran, allowed him to remain in power anyhow, and things steadily grew worse.  Iraqi soldiers, now heavily infiltrated by Shi’a death squads, opened fire on Sunni peace protestors in Tam’im province, and later in Anbar.  And then, in late 2013 and early 2014, ISIS entered the mix.  By mid-2014, they controlled nearly half the country.

Meanwhile, Obama and his team (anyone remember Ben Rhodes?) were hard at work spinning and selling a nuclear deal with Iran—one that was to earn him the Nobel Prize he’d been gifted in 2009.  More clearly than ever, U.S. policy in the region became one of not irritating the mullahs in Tehran for fear they’d leave the bargaining table.  Egregious concessions were made under our noses, and continue right up until last month when $400MM were shipped to Iran as a ransom payment.  Opposing sectarian policies in Iraq would certainly irritate these mullahs.

We don’t know whether ISIS draws direct support from Iran or not, but we do know that senior Al Qaeda figures find shelter in Iran today.  And we also know that the rise of ISIS was made possible, in part, by Iranian-dominated policies inside the Iraqi government, all enabled by American military and diplomatic retreat. Moreover, the existence of ISIS gives Iran a military pretext to operate freely throughout Iraq.  So, as prosecutors often say, a pattern emerges.

Now, with a presidential election looming, the Obama administration has finally decided to get serious about destroying ISIS.  But anyone who has served in Iraq can tell you that providing air support for Iranian militias is not the answer.  As we learned during the surge and the Awakening, giving the people on the ground—aided by American military might—a reason to fight for their own security is the only path towards sustainable stability and against Islamism.

The bravest and most accomplished fighters against ISIS to date are the Kurds.  We should be directly arming them and supporting them in every way possible, but this administration drags their feet for fear of upsetting Tehran.  Still, the Kurds have fought against the odds to hold ISIS back and to regain territory. They need our support now more than ever.

The Sunnis who populate the areas ISIS controls today are caught in the cross-fire.  On one hand, they see first hand the brutality and savagery that ISIS calls governance.  On the other, they see an Iranian-controlled, sectarian government in Baghdad that has persecuted them before and can’t wait for the chance to do so again once ISIS has been driven back.  If the U.S. gave these Sunnis a reason to believe Shi’a militia wouldn’t immediately get back to their old tricks—including an option to govern themselves—they would likely, and aggressively, join the fight to destroy ISIS. One group that has been making this case in compelling terms is the newly-formed Committee to Destroy ISIS (—check them out.

After winning the war, and then watching Barack Obama lose it—it’s easy to be hung up on placing blame for ISIS. History matters. However, we have to get on with truly defeating ISIS—and then making sure they cannot reemerge. Using the lessons of the Anbar Awakening—and aided by clear-eyed American policies—I believe the Kurds and more moderate Sunni tribes can rise to the challenge for the sustainable reasons. For our own security and own interest, American needs to free our foreign policy of Iranian control and give those groups the motivation they need.  America’s next president must have the intestinal fortitude and intellectual honesty to do just that.

The Hill

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.