After U.S. warplanes dropped a series of 500-pound, laser-guided bombs onto assets of the Islamic State in northern Iraq, questions abound over the goals and consequences of renewed U.S. military action in the country — and over the wider battle plan for fending off the threat the extremist group poses to the region.
Hours before the U.S. airstrikes began on Friday, President Barack Obama announced that he authorized the attacks to protect American personnel, including diplomats and civilians in Irbil, the capital of the the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan. But the scale of the air raids suggests a wider mission.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” he said Saturday. “I think this is going to take some time.” But he reiterated that there was “not going to be an American military solution” to the problem. He said that the burden must rest on the shoulders of Iraq but that Baghdad would not be able to effectively combat the Islamic State without a “legitimate Iraqi government.”
“Our military is so effective that we can keep a lid on problems wherever we are if we put enough personnel and resources into it. But it can only last if the people in these countries themselves are able to arrive at the kinds of political accommodations and compromise that any civilized society requires,” Obama said.
The formation of a new government has been hampered by political deadlock in Iraq after an inconclusive election in April, undercutting efforts to deal with the Islamic State, an armed Sunni group that has also wreaked havoc in neighboring Syria and that many see as the most significant threat to Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
The Islamic State, which in the past two months has seized large areas along the Iraq-Syria border, has the ultimate goal of establishing a caliphate not just in those two countries but worldwide. Fighters from the group have beheaded and even crucified their captives in an effort to wipe out those it considers apostates.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged Friday that the U.S. mission includes “supporting integrated Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces as they unite the country to repel the threat that is posed by the [Islamic State] advance.”
The idea that Iraq can unite to repel the Islamic State may be wishful thinking, however. Even if the Iraqi army and the peshmerga forces of the Kurdish regional government could fight a common enemy, they remain sharply at odds over Kurdish moves to secede from Iraq and over possession of such key prizes as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan and the author of the blog Informed Comment, said the U.S. strikes against the Islamic State in support of the Kurds are a way to build leverage for Washington to persuade the Kurds to “remain within a federal Iraqi framework rather than declaring independence.”
Meanwhile, Sunni tribal leaders and politicians who once cooperated with the U.S. to fight Al-Qaeda have been so alienated by the sectarianism and authoritarian tendencies of the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that they have declined to back him against the Islamic State.
Hence the White House caveat.
“What will be required [to defeat the Islamic State], of course, is an integrated, inclusive political leadership in Iraq,” Earnest said. “It is why this country stands ready to support the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq.”
US strikes, Iraqi politics
Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, said that mantra is the administration’s way of saying that “there’s no point in degrading [the Islamic State] if there’s no fundamental change in the political composition of the government in Baghdad.”
The U.S. has said its involvement is also centered on a humanitarian mission to relieve the suffering of Iraq’s Yazidi minority — who follow an ancient religion and have been targeted by the Islamic State as heretics — and to protect the Kurdish regional government, which he described as the “one haven of stability in Iraq.”
“This is a very narrow intervention that is not designed to defeat ISIS [an acronym the group was previously known by]. It’s not designed to restore central government’s control over these northern areas,” Joshi said. “As long as [Nouri al-Maliki] remains prime minister, as long as Baghdad’s policies continue to be seen as sectarian, there is no point in the United States’ simply destroying [the Islamic State] because the fundamental conditions that gave rise to it — that is, Sunni grievances in the west and north of the country — will simply give rise to the same movement again.”
The problems go beyond Maliki’s tendency to be a polarizing figure. Iraq has a Shia majority, and Shia parties have prevailed in each democratic election held since the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. Although the April elections’ outcome was not decisive, Maliki’s bloc emerged in the dominant position, leaving him governing as a caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed. He has firmly rejected calls by Sunni, Kurdish and rival Shia politicians to step aside, warning earlier this week that the “the gates of hell” would be opened in Iraq if there was any unconstitutional attempt to form a new government.
The U.S. hope, according to Joshi, is that a new government “that involves a prime minister other than Nouri al-Maliki will be able to credibly reach out to Sunni communities and persuade them to turn on [the Islamic State].”
“That will create the conditions for the White House to give greater military support to the Iraqis, knowing that this problem can be defeated rather than just managed,” Joshi said. “Until that happens, I think we will see a very cautious and incremental policy on the part of the United States.”
Even though Obama recognizes the need for a change of leadership in Baghdad, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley wrote in an analysis for BBC News that this is something “Washington will not, on his watch, attempt to impose.”
Obama said Washington would continue to provide some forms of military assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces. But he has made it clear that will not involve boots on the ground, saying during his Saturday morning radio address that “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.”
The ground component
Since conventional military wisdom dictates that some sort of ground component is needed to complement airstrikes, the question is who will do the work on the ground.
In Kurdistan that responsibility would appear to fall on the peshmerga.
While the Islamic State has made significant advances in other parts of Iraq, the U.S. calculus at the moment is focused on supporting and protecting the Kurds, according to Joshi, hence the U.S. strikes targeting Iraq’s north and not other Islamic State–occupied areas such as Mosul and Tikrit.
“You need ground forces that are credible,” he said. “Right now the Americans think they have those [peshmerga] ground forces up in the Kurdish areas, which is why they are helping to protect Kurdistan, but they don’t think they have those credible ground forces and they don’t think they have the credible political support the ground forces need to be accepted as liberators to actually attempt any such campaign in other occupied areas.”
That reasoning was echoed by retired Army Maj. Mike Lyons, a senior fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a defense think tank.
“We don’t want to have this alignment too closely to the government in Iraq right now, only because the government is undergoing this upheaval,” Lyons told Al Jazeera’s Morgan Radford on Saturday. “The Kurds have been our friends for a long time. We’ve supported them. Back in ’90s, the no-fly zone that was put in place after Desert Storm gave the Kurds this room to breath, grow, create institutions. We’re very close to them, and I think this is a very smart move by the president.”
Lyons also pointed out how crucial it is for the Kurds — and for their aspirations of statehood — to be able to hold Irbil and not have it fall into the hands of the Islamic State.
Irbil “is the strategic center of gravity for the Kurds right now. It’s almost their Alamo. If they can’t defend that location, then any potential of Kurdistan becoming a sovereign, independent nation in the future just goes down the drain,” Lyons said. “There’s a million people in Irbil. If ISIS comes in and takes that over, the humanitarian effort alone to try to take care of the people that are there would be just tremendous.”
The U.S. has repeatedly made clear in recent days its contention that the outcome of the battle with the Islamic State hinges on Iraq’s ability to come together under new, inclusive political leadership.
Obama said the U.S. would be “pushing very hard to encourage Iraqis to get their government together.”
“Until we do that, it is going to be hard to get the unity of effort that allows us to not just play defense but also engage in some offense,” he said.
“There’s still a great possibility within the Iraq government to defeat ISIS and to defeat what they’re doing,” Lyons said. “But they can only do it if they’re united.”
With wire services