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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Iraq: The Endgame for a Nation State?

Since we withdrew our forces in December 2011, the security situation in Iraq has gone downhill.  The government of Shia-dominated Nouri al Maliki would not approve a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with Washington that we could live with, so we left. Some have criticized the Obama administration for not pushing harder for a remaining military presence.  But few in Washington really had much interest in staying in Iraq. 

So, on June 9, we were greeted with the news that at least half the city of Mosul--Iraq's second or third largest city, it is hard to say--has been overrun by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), an Al Qaeda-inspired insurgent army.  Led by the charismatic Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (his nom de guerre), ISIS had already carved out control of much of western Syria and no sustains itself off the local economy.  In the attack on Mosul, ISIS captured substantial military equipment and looted at least one bank for $400 million. 

This was no raid, but a major military assault.  Perhaps the worse news, though, was the performance of the Iraqi Army.  According to most news accounts, troops of the 2nd Division simply fled.  The US spent billions training this army to sustain security after we left.  Iraqi officials now say that two divisions dissolved in the face of the attack. 

Yesterday the ISIS continued its push down the Tigris, capturing Tikrit (Saddam's home town) and the refinery town of Baiji.  Maliki has asked the National Assembly for a state of emergency, and has reached out to the US for help.  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/11/mosul-isis-gunmen-middle-east-states

Lot of moving parts to this story.  Iraq may be facing an existential threat.  A few conclusions from all this:
  • This is more than just ISIS, but a major Sunni revolt.  I suspect the former Baathist insurgents have joined up, as have the Sunni tribes of Anbar. 
  • If Abu Bakr managed to pull the Sunnis together to support him in this, he's the greatest guerrilla commander since Mao Tse Tung.  Certainly his ISIS is now the lead franchise of Al Qaeda, Inc.  He may indeed be the caliph they've been looking for.
  • Baghdad will struggle to contain this.  Obviously corruption and lack of commitment to the Iraq state led to the collapse in Mosul.  On paper, Baghdad should have been able to manage ISIS. But Maliik's divisive policies have alienated the Sunni population.  
  • The Army failed to retake Fallujah and Ramadi from ISIS back in December, a bad omen. (But Maliki never cared for what was happening in Anbar.  Mistake!)  If Balad falls to ISIS, watch out Baghdad.  Watch for Shia militia and Iranian IRCG troops getting into the fight. 
  • The end of Iraqi democracy might be near.  I could see Malik falling and being replaced by a Shia Army officers.   In a real parliamentary system, he'd be done by now. 
  • The Kurds might be on their way out of Iraq.  Or at least, this new conflict will start the ball in motion. They are under attack too near Kirkuk.  Baghdad can't contest Kurdish territorial gains.  The Kurds stay in Iraq largely because their territorial ambitions haven't yet been realized.  This crisis could enable them to consolidate and finally declare independence.
  • Washington is fighting the last war.  This weekend the White House touted its plan for more aid to the Free Syria Army to fight Assad and the ISIS.  Forget Assad; can't you see that's over?
President Obama, you've been lucky in foreign affairs up to now.  
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