People who are making sense about Iraq

It's worth listening to those who've devoted their lives to studying war and the region.

Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against predominantly Sunni militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, carry weapons during a parade in the streets in the Iraqi city of Baquba June 20, 2014.

There has been a lot of writing about Iraq's crisis, much of it awful. This is an attempt to shout out some people and pieces that can help you get behind the headlines.

Let's start with Marc Lynch, the George Washington University political science professor who writes at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage. Today, he points out that helping Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki fight the Sunni Arab uprising against him would in effect be fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad. Should the United States actually intervene militarily in support of the Iraqi government, it will also find itself on the opposite side of many of the Arab networks that support the Syrian uprising," he writes.

That’s not because they support the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has been in a state of open warfare with most other Syrian rebel groups. They just mostly don’t see ISIS as the primary issue. Many of the most vocal Arab backers of Syria’s rebels support what they cast as an Iraqi popular revolution against an Iranian-backed sectarian despot. They equate the Iraqi uprising with the Syrian uprising, as a Sunni revolution against a Shiite tyrant, and actively oppose U.S. or Arab intervention against it. For just one example, the Kuwaiti Islamist preacher Hajjaj al-Ajmi, who has been one of the most prominent fundraisers for Syrian insurgency groups, has urged repeatedly against supporting “the moves by America and Iran to confront the Iraqi revolution.”

He concludes that "Washington shouldn’t expect much Arab popular or official support if it acts in the name of defending Maliki against ISIS."

Kenneth Pollack, who studies Middle Eastern politics and military affairs at Brooking's Saban Center for Middle East policy, had an excellent overview of the Iraqi military situation on June 14.

It is not a coincidence that the Sunni militants made rapid advances across primarily Sunni lands. That’s because it is not surprising that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) would crumble in those areas. As Baghdad has (rightly) observed, several of the divisions in the north were disproportionately composed of Kurds and Sunni Arabs, many of them frustrated and alienated by Prime Minister Maliki’s harsh consolidation of power and marginalization of their communities. They were never going to fight to the death for Maliki and against Sunni militants looking to stop him. Similarly, the considerable number of Shia troops in the north understandably saw little point to fighting and dying for principally Sunni cities like Mosul, Tikrit, Bayji, etc.

... It is important to understand a few key points about the Sunni militant side of the new Iraqi civil war. It’s a Coalition, not a Single Group. First, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is essentially the “lead dog” of a larger Sunni militant coalition—hence my preference for the latter, more accurate description. ISIS has been fighting in conjunction with a number of other Iraqi Sunni militant groups. Effectively the entire rogue’s gallery of Sunni militias from the 2006-2008 civil war have been revived by Prime Minister Maliki’s alienation of the Sunni Arab community since 2011. AQI, the Naqshbandis, the Ba’th, Jaysh al-Muhammad, Ansar al-Sunnah, and all of the rest are back in operation in Iraq, in at least tacit cooperation with a number of Sunni tribes.

These groups are key members of the Sunni militant coalition. They have done a great deal of the fighting, dying and occupying. Often they are indistinguishable from one another to outsiders or even Iraqis who are not themselves Sunni militants.

University of Michigan Historian Juan Cole writes about the history of Sunni elites in the country stretching through Ottoman times, through the installation of the foreigner Faisal, as King, by the British after World War 1, and on the rise of the Baath party in 1968.

The US overthrew Saddam Hussein of the Baath Party in 2003 in alliance with Shiite groups primarily. Those Shiite groups wanted revenge on the disproportionately Sunni Baath Party. They carried out a program of “de-Baathification,” in which they fired tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs from their government jobs as bureaucrats and even teachers. They hired Shiite clients instead. The Neocons hated the state-owned industries, and closed them down as inefficient without putting anything in their place. The Bush administration backed Shiite supremacism and debaathification to the hilt. Its proponents likened it to de-Nazification after WW II in Germany, but actually former Nazis below the top level in Germany typically kept their jobs.

In the new Iraq, Sunni high status was turned upside down. The Sunnis had been the top graduates of the officer training academies, the equivalent of West Point. They disproportionately dominated the officer corps. They were at the top of the Baath Party. They were the rich entrepreneurs to whom lucrative government contracts were given. Now they were made unemployed, or given menial jobs, while the goodies went to the members of Shiite religious parties. Massive unemployment swept the Sunni cities in 2003-2004.\

... From 2011 when there was a ‘Sunni Arab Spring’ in Iraq, with urban youth demonstrations and demands for an end to discrimination, the al-Maliki government heavy-handedly repressed it. If it instead had accommodated those moderate young people in their demands, it might have avoided losing the Sunni areas to religious extremists.

Col. (Ret.) Pat Lang, a former senior official focused on the Middle East for the Defense Intelligence Agency who has long been a prescient observer of Iraqi affairs and the impact of the US decision to invade, considers the military situation in Iraq in a post today, which bounces off a Reuters piece on a promised Iraqi government offensive to be launched to the north from the Shiite shrine city of Samarra. 

One of the major errors being made in the US military concerning the present situation in Iraq is to view it solely as a COIN/CT (counterinsurgency/counterrorism) problem. The media has picked this up and people like "Chuck" Todd are now urging the adoption of CT methods like those in use in Yemen.  The Iraq situation is much more than that, but the US armed forces seem to be so hypnotised by the COIN/CT experience that they can see little else.

This expected advance from the Baquba/Samarra area will be the major opportunity that the Iraq military will have to reverse the situation and regain ground lost to the north in the direction of Mosul.  What has been assembled for the effort is the bulk of the maneuver reserve of the Iraqi Army.   Once launched on this offensive, the "wind up" mechanism inherently present in any army will start to run down as distance, resistance, weather, maintenance problems, expenditures of supplies; fuel (POL), ammuniition and food all contribute to a decline in capability as the force moves forward.   The question then becomes whether or not the offensive or attack reaches the objective before the negatives affecting the operation outweigh the positive factors.

On the topic of the myths of America's vaunted COIN strategy in Iraq, you could do a lot worse than read Col. Gian Gentile, who served in Iraq and is now a professor of history at West Point, on the issue. A 2008 interview with him captures the flavor of that article.

In my opinion, the two necessary and controlling reasons for lowering the violence in Baghdad in the second half of 2007 had little to do with the increased number of U.S. combat brigades practicing so-called new counterinsurgency tactics. Instead, the two necessary conditions were the decision by senior Americans to pay large amounts of money to our former enemies -- the non-al-Qaida Sunni insurgents -- to ally themselves with us to defeat al-Qaida and, as a by-product of this alliance, to stop killing Coalition Forces. That and (Shiite cleric and militia leader) Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to stand down attacks against American and coalition forces and against civilian Sunnis were the main causes. If those two conditions were not in place, I can not imagine how more American combat brigades using so called new methods would have lowered violence.

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