One of the most common criticisms of the current United States strategy in Iraq is that President Obama does not have any strategy.
This is false. Though by no means sufficient, some measures — military aid, airstrikes against Islamic State group targets, economic sanctions and the promotion of regional cooperation — have been undertaken. What the United States lacks in Iraq is not a strategy but rather a tangible objective toward which all policies are oriented and by whose logic all diplomatic and military tactics are guided. Without a central goal, any foreign policy initiative is inevitably doomed, a phenomenon witnessed from Vietnam to Syria.
If the United States is to successfully achieve stability in the Arab world, it must reaffirm its commitment to one fundamental vision: a unified, multiethnic Iraq which comprehensively represents the interests of its Kurdish, Shia and Sunni populations.
In 2007 and again in 2014, proposals emerged regarding the division of Iraq into three independent entities: a northern Kurdish region centered on Mosul and Erbil, a western Sunni sector containing Ramadi and Fallujah and a Shia state in the east stretching from Baghdad to Basra. In the model of Yugoslavia, division along ethno-religious lines would avert tensions between hostile communities.
This scenario, however, would be an unmitigated disaster. If independent, the Kurdish nation would exist in a state of perpetual animosity with Turkey, which sees the Kurds as a potent threat to its national security. The Sunni portion of old Iraq, meanwhile, would be inherently disadvantaged by its lack of oil resources and the costs of rebuilding, potentially becoming a breeding ground for radical jihadism once again. Lastly, the eastern Shiite-dominated region would fall into the Iranian sphere of influence, a nightmare situation for United States and Arab leaders alike.
Determining the necessity of preserving Iraq as a multiethnic state, however, raises the more problematic question of how this can be feasibly achieved.
The first step would entail convincing key regional players to pursue the requisite policies to achieve the designated goal. The Iraqi government would be an enthusiastic partner but would need to demonstrate its inclusiveness and ability to unite the country’s diverse ethnicities and religious sects. Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, would need to fulfill a crucial intermediary role, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi might be required to downplay his Shia background in favor of nationalism and solidarity.
The United States would then need to engage in a robust diplomatic effort designed to convince Arab Gulf states that a united Iraq would be in their best interests considering the potential perils of the eastern region falling under Iranian influence. Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar would need to be both incentivized to crack down on wealthy domestic jihadist sympathizers funneling considerable sums to the Islamic State group and encouraged to bolster the war effort through either direct participation or considerable financial contributions.
Most dubious is the task of soliciting Kurdish support for this endeavor. The Kurdish Peshmerga army has proven an indispensable partner in the coalition against the Islamic State group; however, the Kurds understandably prefer an independent state governed from Erbil to continued association with a political entity by which they were subjugated for decades.
Consequently, to enlist Kurdish support, two promises from the United States are necessary. First, if Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani agreed to back a unified, federal Iraq, Kurdish regions would be promised a degree of autonomy, particularly concerning profit from oil sales. Secondly, the United States would exponentially increase direct military aid to the KRG, a policy less likely to provoke friction with Baghdad and Ankara if Barzani renounced ambitions of an independent Kurdistan.
If the aforementioned parties adopt the given objective, next would come a coordinated military strategy to eradicate the Islamic State group from Iraqi territory. After victory in Ramadi, the Iraqi army would need to maintain its momentum and move farther into Anbar towards Fallujah, while the Kurds sweep south and westward before eventually concentrating on Mosul. These forces, however, will not succeed unless the United States significantly increases the quantity of its airstrikes and expands its adversarial and target-spotting capacities to assist both Iraqi and Peshmerga units.
The fight would be treacherous and grueling — one town, road or refinery at a time — and the situation may be further complicated by fighters fleeing to Syria or by Islamic State group targeting foreign cities as its territorial holdings begin to shrink. But if such events transpire, they should only harden the resolve of the coalition as it approaches its final target.
While the military campaign is underway, representatives of the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni factions must collaborate to make vital changes to the country’s 2005 constitution and design a federal administrative system to enforce security in a post-Islamic State group future. Just as planning for postwar Europe was addressed long before the conclusion of World War II, the defeat of Islamic State group should be treated as a question of when, rather than if.
The road to stability in Iraq will be paved with diplomatic, economic and military pitfalls, and victory could incite the advent of authoritarianism rather than democracy. Nevertheless, such a prospect is markedly preferable to the currently untenable status quo. And while delineating an objective will not resolve the situation, aligning United States and coalition partners’ tactics toward a common aim is imperative if there is to be hope for peace in the heart of the Middle East.
Matthew Gregory is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Sense of the Middle East appears every other Tuesday.