Maliki’s Visit: The Three S-Words

The White House has announced the visit of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on November 1.  The issues to be discussed are wide ranging, but can be reduced to three S’s—Sunnis, Syria, and the Strategic Framework Agreement.

The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), signed in November of 2008, is a fairly comprehensive document that covers the bi-lateral relations between the United States and Iraq, at least in scope, if not always in detail.  Given recent events in Iraq, we can expect that the conversation relating to the SFA will remain primarily, though not exclusively, about defense.  And that topic itself is wide ranging, but we can reduce it to defense against Al Qaeda-style terrorism, and defense more generally.  Iraq has an Al Qaeda problem.  While the network in Iraq itself was never truly defeated, only suppressed by the U.S. “Surge,” American’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was able to keep Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) largely contained through the end of the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.  Since then, AQI has experienced a resurgence.  As I have written elsewhere, this is largely due to the release of AQI-affiliated detainees, spill-over from the Syria conflict,  passive support from elements of the Sunni population, and the simple fact that the Iraqi security forces fall far short of JSOC, particularly with respect to training and equipment.

To defeat this sophisticated terrorist network, the Iraqis must acquire more JSOC-like capabilities.  The bulk of the gaps have to do with intelligence – collection, fusion, and analysis.  Iraq needs more tools to gather intelligence, but the most critical gap is the ability to bring all the various pieces of intelligence into one common picture for analysis.  This is less about technology (though there are technologies that could help) than it is about tactics, techniques and procedures.  These can be improved only by training and experience. However, their leadership has failed to take decisive moves toward better intelligence, even though they have been presented with many options. Much of their budget, regrettably, remains unspent, especially in the intelligence arena.

Prime Minister Maliki will doubtless ask for assistance with his terrorism problem (the Iraqis have allegedly asked for—and been denied—armed drones).  The United States could agree to give assistance, but the lack of a Status of Forces Agreement makes the provision of any  military personnel problematic.  Perhaps a more feasible answer is for the United States to facilitate the Iraqi contracting of private U.S. firms that specialize in intelligence analysis, many of them formed and/or staffed by JSOC, and other military intelligence, veterans.   Once the Iraqi Security Forces know who is (and just as important, who is not) affiliated with AQI, then removing them from the population becomes much easier—and more surgical.

More generally, however, the Iraqis want weapons of all kinds to functionally re-equip their still nascent military.  Their need is exacerbated by the well-known inefficiency of the American Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system.  Under the best of circumstances, the FMS system is slow and ponderous, and in this case, it has nearly ground to a stop.  From the Iraqi perspective, they have paid billions of dollars into a system that has not delivered much in return—and that is increasingly being consumed by the cost of maintaining Western engineers and contractors in Iraq.  There is blame all around, of course (it is hard to see any systematic reasoning behind many of the Iraqi FMS requests), but the frustration with the delays in fighter jets, air defense equipment, helicopters, and armored vehicles has moved beyond the staff level and become a Prime Ministerial issue.  This should be of interest to the United States, as the reason Iraq needs this equipment is to stand up to—among others—its perennial rival, Iran.

The shortcomings of the FMS system are compounded by political agendas that can attend it. Iraq can never anticipate when some American politician, based on his or her understanding of Iraq and Iraq’s problems, may put a “hold” on a weapon sale.  The frequency of these holds has now reached a point where those initiating them should be asked a simple question—is their intent to continue to let neighboring states militarily intimidate Iraq, or do they really wish to benefit the defense industries of Russia and France?  At this point, American weapons sales to Iraq really are a win-win-win.  The logistics, training and ammunition resupply trail of U.S. weaponry could maintain American influence in Iraq, can permit Iraq to reach military parity (eventually superiority) with Iran, and can sustain the U.S. defense industrial base during the coming budgetary lean years.

Maliki is no doubt expecting—with some resignation—a lecture on Sunni inclusion and reconciliation.  This is a delicate issue and one that does not lend itself to easy solutions.  But the reasonable Sunni issues can be reduced to de-Baathification reform, inclusion in Iraqi society, and an end to persecution by the security forces.

Each of these issues remains difficult.  Regarding the alleged persecution of Sunnis, there is no doubt that some innocent Sunni are caught in the raids that the security forces engage in to try to discover the AQI cells.  On the other hand, it is difficult to advise what else they might do at this time.  It is a stubborn fact that the car bombs are being made (primarily) in the Sunni areas and are blown up (again, primarily) in the Shi’a areas.  Given this, what else would we have the Government of Iraq do, until it achieves a breakthrough in its intelligence system?  Surely we can all acknowledge that to “do nothing” is not an option for the Prime Minister’s Shi’a constituents, who are dying at a rate of over 1000/month.  In essence, the Sunni demands are that the government stop hunting for AQI in their midst – and yet, AQI is very much in their midst.

Inclusion remains a difficult issue not because it cannot be done, but because the expectations are so different that the Sunni do not appreciate what they do have.  While there has been no census in many decades, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq are no more than 25% of the population, and the CIA Factbook estimates they could be as little as 12%.  Yet most Sunnis believe they comprise at least 50% of the Iraqi population.  If the 12% is correct, Sunnis may well be over-represented, at 25% perhaps under-represented.   While the military is doubtless more Shi’a dominated than when U.S. forces left in 2011 (and obviously much more so than under Saddam), it is not clear that the supposed proportions are truly out of whack with actual Iraqi demographics.  Further, there are numerous key jobs that are held by Arab Sunni—though those who work closely with the government are then often ostracized as part of the alleged “Malikiyoun,” or pawns of the Prime Minister, as often are Sunni Arab parliamentarians who try to reach compromise.   Finally, Maliki has had temporary alliances with virtually all Sunni leaders—both elected and tribal—at one point or another. Iraq’s Arab Sunni are included and do have representation, but their demographic minority will always keep them in, well, the minority.

Finally, de-Baathification is a good idea that has outlived its shelf life.  If someone’s Baath ties were not significant enough to be noticed by now, they probably aren’t that significant.  The issue here is that de-Baathification remains extremely popular among those who were persecuted by the Baath party—a not insignificant demographic.  When Prime Minister Maliki and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak (a Sunni) brought forward a proposed de-Baathification reform law in April of this year, it was strongly opposed by Kurdish and Shi’a Iraqis—in fact, some blame Maliki’s party’s disappointing performance in the provincial elections that same month on this proposed policy to feather the fist of de-Baathification.  As in U.S. politics, the base does not always reward those who seek compromise with political opponents.

So even these moderate issues of Sunni inclusion are fraught.  Further, for many Sunni groups, nothing short of a return to Sunni majority rule and deposition of the current government will suffice.  It is difficult to see what Maliki might do to satisfy this particularly minority-within-a-minority.  It appears that the Prime Minister believes the best way forward is to reduce terrorism so that all Iraqi citizens might live better lives, though this will be difficult so long as Iraqi-Sunni insurgents continue to gain battlefield experience that is being re-imported from across the border.

On Syria, there may be perhaps real hope that Iraq could be a partner for some type of breakthrough.  Iraq has real incentives in this area.  A failure of Syria policy is largely an abstraction for the United States.  For Iraq, however, it is a nightmare on its border, an ungoverned space from which AQI plans, finances, trains, and then launches terrorist attacks on marketplaces and mosques in Iraqi cities and towns.  Just this week, car bombs hit every checkpoint on Iraq’s Syrian border. Further, Iraq – to put it gently – knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of a miscast and mismanaged U.S. policy and is in this regard well-positioned to cooperate in constructive plans to address the situation in Syria.

We can likely expect Iraq to be supportive of a dialogue and peace process in Syria, but to hold a more neutral stance with regard to the Assad regime and the rebel forces. Moreover, it is unrealistic to expect that there can be pre-conditions (read: the resignation of Bashar al-Assad) to a dialogue.  We should expect that Iraq’s actions will be placed in a multilateral frame—that Iranian overflights (which again, Iraq lacks the Air Force and Air Defense system to stop) should be linked to the interdiction of foreign fighters and monies to the Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria.

Prime Minister Maliki has been explicit that he wants to be a partner of the United States.  We can expect that during this visit he will revisit this theme of partnership repeatedly.  Maliki is not coming to the United States with hat in hand—he has his own money, and plenty of it.  He does not want Iraq to be a ward of the U.S. military, but, rather, a customer of U.S. business.  Iraq doesn’t need the U.S. to give it anything other than goodwill.  It just wants the U.S. to deliver on sales of goods and services.

And in this, the Prime Minister will be echoing the sentiment, if not the words, of Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address:  “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”


Dr. Douglas A. OIlivant is a Managing Partner and the Senior Vice President of Mantid International, a global consulting firm with offices in Beirut, Baghdad and Washington D.C.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and was last in Baghdad in June.  Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant


U.S. Army photo by Spc. Kimberly Millett