Iraq is burning, and the United States of America is watching.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, a radical Islamist group more commonly called ISIS, has made good its name. It already governs Raqqah Province in Syria and has now seized Mosul, Tikrit and parts of Kirkuk and Samarra in Iraq. It has deployed hundreds of fighters as conventional forces and defeated the Iraqi military in the north, seizing vehicles and weapons while continuing on its path to Baghdad. It is no longer a terrorist group. It is becoming a nascent state with a small army.
President Obama says that he is mulling options for providing support to Iraq, but with great reluctance. “The U.S. is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis,” he said Friday.
A political plan for Iraq is vital. Everything the administration has said about the sectarianism and mis-governance of Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki is true. Assistance to Iraq must include strong conditions to press Maliki to change his approach – or leave office.
But the Iraqis need vigorous and intelligent American involvement right now to prevent a stalemate that will leave ISIS in control of much of northern Iraq. That is an unacceptable outcome, one that would do far more damage to America than our retreat from Vietnam in 1975.
We face a simple choice: We can either rejoin our demoralized Iraqi partners in the fight against ISIS or we can watch as this Al Qaeda franchise solidifies its control over several million Iraqis and Syrians, completes its plundering of military bases and continues to build up, train and equip an honest-to-goodness military.
Rejoining the fight means immediately sending air support; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; air transportation; Special Operations forces; training teams; and more military equipment back into Iraq. It does not mean re-invading Iraq.
Immediately sending air support and Special Forces to Mosul might shock ISIS and embolden the population enough to rout the jihadis from the city. But if it does not, the Iraqi Security Forces may well prove unable to regain Mosul on their own.
In that case, a small contingent of U.S. ground forces would be required.
Obama, however, has repeatedly touted ending the war in Iraq as his major foreign policy accomplishment (after killing Osama Bin Laden).And Friday he ruled out putting boots on the ground. He has consistently dismissed critics of his foreign policy as adventurers who want to invade everywhere Al Qaeda operates.
Cautiousness and deliberation are certainly warranted when contemplating re-entering a war, but delay risks allowing a key nation in the Middle East, one in which we’ve poured billions of dollars and thousands of lives, fall to violent Islamists.
The President no doubt has public opinion strongly on his side – especially since he has been leading the public to that side since before he first took office.
But his staunch determination to avoid dragging the United States back into a military conflict from which he prematurely retreated fails to answer questions crucial to America’s interests and the world’s security:
What are we to do as a country in which we have clear interests – preventing Al Qaeda from establishing a massive and wealthy safe-haven, stopping the evolution of a regional ethno-sectarian war, keeping Iran from establishing permanent forward military bases in Iraq – looks to be on the brink of falling to radical Islamists? If the Iraqis cannot find a political solution quickly,is it better for the U.S. to allow all of this to happen? And are the odds of a political solution in Iraq increased or decreased by American inaction?
When America is passive in such cases, others fill the vacuum.
As we speak, the Iranians are trying to help the Iraqi Shi’a resist the ISIS advance. Reports indicate the deployment of hundreds of Qods Force troops to Iraq, and Tehran has threatened to conduct its own airstrikes in Iraq if militants come close to its border.
That advance will halt in any event once it reaches the Shi’a-dominated areas in and south of Baghdad.
Shi’a groups, including Moqtada al Sadr’s militias, are already reforming in preparation for the full-scale sectarian war that is on its way.
Some may argue that we should align ourselves with Iran – that our interests and Tehran’s coincide in Iraq. This is folly. The U.S. and Iran share a common concern about Al Qaeda, but our approaches to dealing with the problem are antithetical.
The U.S. has been pushing for an inclusive political settlement in Iraq that brings the Sunni into the government and denies ISIS popular support. The current crisis has resulted in considerable part, in fact, from Maliki’s sectarian actions and systematic exclusion of Sunnis from political power and influence.
The Iranians have been supporting Maliki in this sectarian approach, and the Shi’a militias they back were a leading cause of the explosion of sectarian warfare in 2006.
Turning the problem over to Iran is absolutely incompatible with the conditions for involving the U.S. at all that the President announced Friday. If we back Iran in Iraq, we’re taking Iran’s side against our Arab allies and aligning with the Shi’a against the Sunni. We should not be taking sides, particularly since Iran’s approach is certain to lead to an expansion of sectarian war, providing a perennial recruiting masterpiece for Al Qaeda.
Relying on the Iraqis, with Iranian support, to beat back ISIS would have a predictable, almost inevitable, outcome: a transposition of the Syria conflict into Iraq – with Maliki in the role of Assad and ISIS playing, well, ISIS.
Under this scenario, Iraq would once again become another magnet for international jihadis, and the black-and-white ISIS banner will become the symbol not merely of Al Qaeda’s most impressive military victory in history, but also of an actual Al Qaeda state.
Some would dispute this characterization, pointing to the vehement disagreements between ISIS and Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda. Zawahiri, after all, partially expelled ISIS from the Al Qaeda movement.
Key to that disagreement is the argument about whether Al Qaeda affiliates should attempt to set up Islamic states now (ISIS says yes) or focus instead on the global jihad (Zawahiri’s insistence). In fact, we should not be surprised if we soon hear claims that it is actually better for us that ISIS prevail in this competition, since it is “locally-focused.”
Let us dispense with such sophistries at once. For all intents and purposes, ISIS is the Artist Formerly Known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. Whatever disagreements may fester at the moment, it is and remains part of the global Al Qaeda movement. The group continues to draw would-be jihadis from around the world, including the U.S. and Canada, to fight and die in Syria and Iraq. And it is about to become the most powerful and successful Al Qaeda franchise ever.
There is no way that such a development will be anything but disastrous for the U.S., even leaving aside the calamity that will flow from the full-scale regional and sectarian war that may already be underway.
The U.S. allowed North Vietnamese troops to overrun South Vietnam in 1975, providing no assistance to our erstwhile allies despite promises to do so. The Communists inflicted enormous pain on the southerners, especially those who had worked with us. But the conflict did not spread beyond Vietnam’s borders, apart from the invasion of Laos, which displaced an unfathomably brutal dictatorship, and a small border war with China that quickly subsided.
The American position in the world suffered enormously and the American psyche sustained a scar from which, it appears, we will never recover. But at least, back then, our entire security posture was not unhinged by the defeat.
That will not be true in this case. The conflict has already spread and indeed engulfs the region from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and south to the Red Sea. Vietnam was a sideshow for the Soviets, a pleasant distraction for the U.S. from the main theater in Europe. Mesopotamia is ground zero for the jihadis, the place they hope to make their strength and from which they plan to extend their rule.
The economic consequences of losing Vietnam were nil; the consequences of losing Iraq will be severe. ISIS will likely be able to disrupt the flow of oil from northern Iraq into Turkey with the gains it has already made – and has demonstrated its ability to conduct large-scale and well-coordinated attacks into southern Iraq, potentially threatening the oil fields there.
And so, the current impending defeat is much worse than the one we accepted so blithely in 1975. This war won’t end with U.S. personnel escaping from the embassy roof (although that might happen as well). There is, in fact, no end in sight for this war now, especially if we allow Iraq to go down. A policy of retreat and abandonment remains as it has always been the fastest road to endless war.
Kagan, author of the 2007 report “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,” is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.