Guest editorial: No easy solution for Iraq but more boots on the ground is not the anwer
Much of northwestern Iraq is now under ISIS control. Shia Iraq is losing its war with Sunni ISIS. Hawkish American conservatives and neocons demand that we re-invade that country and solve its problems. Others less bellicose tell us that we must increase our military presence there to the tune of about 1,000 troops, concentrating on advising the Iraqis on how to beat ISIS. Moderates generally are not eager to see any U.S. military involvement in the region, preferring to let the antagonists work out their own problems.
Today’s Iraq was the creation of colonial British occupation in the period 1918-1958, when they captured and then governed that region. For over 600 years, Iraq has been a part of some other state, so the agglomeration of Shia, Sunni and Kurds into one state was new to the region. It was a purely British decision and was made solely for the advantage and profit of that nation. It had nothing to do with the difficult national, sectarian and tribal realities that have always existed in the region.
After more than a decade of the 2003 American invasion and occupation of the so-called “state of Iraq,” there are few sentient Americans who are not aware of the deep-seated, historical animosities that exist between Shia, Sunni and Kurd. Modern Iraq has existed as a unified political entity only under repressive governance. Once we removed Saddam Hussein, the genie was out of the bottle. Since that moment in 2003, the inevitable, unimpeded slide of Iraq into civil conflict has reflected the national, sectarian and tribal forces in conflict in that “country.” It is difficult to think of Iraq as a modern state. It is more like three states in perpetual conflict.
Historical reality started to rule Iraq immediately after our invasion. The Sunnis, from whom the ruling, pre-invasion Baath Party had sprung, were stunned to learn and refused to believe that they were not the majority and not in charge. With U.S. backing, the Shia, who had always been the numerical majority, were delighted to take over and even things up with the Sunnis who had repressed them for so long. The Kurds, the largest national grouping in the world without a country, decided it was time that they governed themselves and have been quietly doing so ever since.
In May 2003, the Bush administration implemented a program of de-Baathification during which they stripped the Iraqi army of most of its Sunni leadership, turning it into a Shia-dominated organization. This was one of the major causes of the Sunni-led insurgency that was conducted against the American military and the Shia Iraqi government after 2003. Ultimately, it has provided many of the Iraqi Sunni members of ISIS.
Americans, including the Obama administration, who now search for further and deeper involvement in Iraq are now seeking a way for us to overcome the odds and wrest from hostile control that part of Iraq lost to ISIS. The consensus within our government is that we will have to work through the Shia government of Iraq to accomplish our goals there.
The problems here are endless. Much of ISIS is made up of the Iraqi Sunnis who lost their “country” to the Shia after 2003. Their hatred of the Shia is historical, deep and recently exacerbated. The jihadi volunteers they are welcoming from elsewhere in the Islamic world and from the West are all Sunnis.
The Shia Iraqi government has two choices available to take on ISIS: First, use their army, which is Shia-dominated and despised by virtually all the Sunnis in the north and west and, second, use the Shia militias which for the past decade have been killing Sunnis throughout Iraq. If anything, they are even more despised than the Shia in the Iraqi army.
Sunni ISIS has invaded Iraq and risen up against Shia-run Syria. There are virtually no Sunnis in the region who will fight alongside the Shia Iraqis against ISIS. Saudi Arabia, for example, is the philosophical home and strongest supporter of fundamentalist views like those of ISIS. So where is the regional Sunni entity that will vanquish ISIS? It’s not in evidence. Only Shia are apparently willing to take them on.
These realities in Iraq are not new. True to historical form, only Shia Syria, Hezbollah and Iran want to take on Sunni ISIS. Are they to be our new and probably only allies if we once again put U.S. boots on the ground? Is that not ironic? How will regional Sunni neighbors, our longtime allies, take that?
Do we have any idea what we are doing?
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in eastern and western Europe and the Middle East, and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.
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