Obama Shouldn’t Lose His Cool Over the Islamic State


The beheadings of American journalists and the non-stop media coverage it spawned overshadowed a very important event that took place on August 22nd, one that will be repeated in the future. Militants attacked a Sunni mosque in the contested province of Diyala during Friday prayers, killing 64 worshippers. At first, people pointed to Shia militias active in the area, who responded that, in fact, it was the Islamic State (IS) retaliating against local tribes who refused to join their merry band. Both explanations are plausible, but most Sunnis are inclined to blame the Shia militias. As a result, Sunni politicians are increasingly reluctant to reconcile with an Iraqi government that they view as tolerating and even supporting sectarian, anti-Sunni militias.

Why exactly is the Iraqi government sanctioning sectarian militias to participate in the fight against IS, especially given the militias’ well-known history for extrajudicial killings (2004-2007)? The Iraqi state is faced with a phenomenon that any student of International Relations 101 is familiar with – a security dilemma. One state’s prudent measure taken to firm up defense (allowing Shia militias to defend vulnerable areas) becomes a threat to someone else; in this case, the Sunni population of Iraq. Reliance on a preexisting security organization filled with ideologues (that even share a common religious framework) is convenient and possibly even productive for short-term interests. In the long term, the use of sectarian militias will produce excessive collateral damage, contribute to a loss of legitimacy of the government, and raise the bar for future reconciliation between Sunni and Shia.

The use of militias presents a major problem for the Obama administration, whose policy to date has been to use U.S. military involvement in Iraq as leverage to bend the Iraqi government’s sectarian tendencies back toward a more inclusive government responsive to all groups. This policy recently achieved a measure of success with the first peaceful government transition since the Iraqi constitution was approved in 2005. Origins of the current crisis aside, this achievement prompted Iraq expert Doug Ollivant to recently give the Obama administration an A+ for crisis management in this situation. Unfortunately, political pressure resulting from the Foley killing has the potential to upend this policy for the worse.

Before the Foley execution, the United States was content to limit air strikes in Iraq to the protection of vulnerable populations, U.S. personnel in Erbil, and key infrastructure like the Mosul dam. These objectives have changed over time, as brilliantly described by Micah Zenko. The White House then announced an increase in reconnaissance of Islamic State positions in Syria, purportedly to identify high priority targets for possible future strikes. The media increasingly portrayed the mood of the foreign policy elite to be shifting toward supporting strikes in Syria; however, the inevitability of strikes was put into question by the President’s recent admission that his foreign policy team was still debating U.S. strategy going forward. Expanded airstrikes got the ice bucket treatment because there is a growing realization that while the Islamic State can be hurt, it cannot be defeated by strikes alone. Worse, a premature expansion of airstrikes will undercut our current policy of leveraging future American action to persuade all actors to move toward a more inclusive Iraq. Such a future requires the elimination of a key cause of sectarian division: Shia militias and their Iranian advisors.

A focus on the long view of internal Iraqi dynamics is not intended to understate just how dangerous the Islamic State is to all parties in the region. In a recent War on the Rocks article, I discussed the profound threat the Islamic State poses to the United States and others due to the genocidal policies inherent to their worldview. While our understanding of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s background remains murky, none of the concerns I stated in the piece has gone unrealized. The Islamic State is in the middle of a recruiting bonanza, has large cash reserves and producing oil fields, and a large fleet of American armored vehicles and weapons of war. Ollivant makes a convincing argument that the Islamic State is already a threat to the U.S. homeland. If they are such a threat, you may ask, then why shouldn’t we attack them all over Iraq and Syria? The answer lies in the current mismatch between what we need to do and what we are willing to do. As Brian Fishman recently argued in these pages, “we should only fight if we are fighting to win, and we will only win when we commit as a country.” This quote, more than most, demonstrates why the President needs more time to develop a new strategy to deal with IS.

As we reformulate a regional strategy in the midst of this crisis, the United States finds itself rebalancing risks, ways and means to achieve our goal of defeating the Islamic State and helping Iraq achieve a stability that limits the spread of extremism.  To do this, we need a political solution to the divisive forces that are straining communal relations in Iraq. In a recent article, Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka lay out such a strategy to defeat the Islamic State, but remarkably mention Iran only once (and then only in reference to its bankers!) I share their ultimate goal of defeating IS but disagree with the ways in which this should be done. Key to any solution is using U.S. leverage to create an atmosphere conducive to political reconciliation, and the best way to do that is to apply leverage on the Iraqi government to reduce its utilization of militias for good, especially ones that are funded and trained by a neighbor.

Why would prioritizing leverage work better than simply using airstrikes to defeat IS? The lessons of war are always difficult to glean and are always politicized. What we should have learned from our Iraq experience is that we underperform in regards to using our military and diplomatic tools to achieve our policy goals. This is a long established trend; during Vietnam, for example, we failed to address the underlying causes of conflict even while credibly defeating multiple attempts by the North Vietnamese to force a military solution. As a result, we left behind a government that was not legitimate enough to withstand future aggression. In Iraq, we stood by early on as the Iraqi government created sectarian police forces that tortured and killed. Our military leaders and diplomats often deferred to the wishes of Prime Minister Maliki and released captured Shia militia members who were killing Sunni civilians and American soldiers. Operations involving the targeting of Shia militia leaders were routinely disapproved by the Prime Minister. Our excessive deference to Iraqi sovereignty coupled with a naïve view of sectarian conflict led us down a very dangerous road.

This dynamic changed once we realized the dangers of this policy, especially in early 2007 under General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Their hardball tactics against Shia militias, including targeting for the first time by General Stanley McChrystal’s special operators, pressured the militias to reduce their activity and convinced moderate Sunnis and former insurgents to partner with the Iraqi government, an elusive political solution that ended a significant portion of the violence. This was a key factor in getting Iraq to the position in 2010 where they had a genuinely competitive election. Unfortunately, belief in a united Iraq has diminished significantly since that watershed year.

The reduced influence of Shia militias had an impact during the Surge and it can have an even bigger one now. The rebirth of the militias is a function of this latest crisis, and the opportunistic use of them by a panicked government has short-term security benefits but is catastrophic in the long term. The recent massacre allegedly conducted by the Shia militias in Diyala is an unsurprising consequence of allowing ideologically intense but untrained and undisciplined young men to undermine the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of lethal force. Furthermore, if this is what we get for acquiescing to Iranian Quds Force trainers on the ground, we need our money back. Quds leader Qasem Suleimani might be a genius at spreading mayhem, but the counterinsurgency skills of the group are suspect. The stated reason for the massacre of the Sunnis (according to a Sunni politician, at least) is that an IED struck a Shia militia convoy and the mosque murders were an impromptu retaliation. An investigation by the Iraqi government is pending. This believable scenario illustrates the requirements for immense patience needed for any effective counterinsurgency force, something it took professional U.S. forces a great deal of time to master. This is no place for sectarian militias put into hostile territory.

Iran will be resistant to a reduction in its significant and overt influence in Iraq, but there is a decent argument to be made that less would be better for Iran. As the United States found in its actions in Mexico one hundred years ago, direct meddling in a neighbor’s affairs can be enough to unite disparate groups you do not want united. Since then, we have treaded softly in the area and recognized how sensitive our neighbors to the south are to fears and perceptions of our interference in their internal affairs. Iran’s interest includes a stable Iraq that withstands extremist influences, not a small buffer zone between it and the Islamic State. If Iran does not reduce its support for the militias, reconciliation for the Iraqis will be impossible; without a cohesive and stable Iraq, U.S. strategic goals for the region are unattainable. Iraq is a viable state that has the ability to survive, but entrenched sectarian attitudes, if unaddressed, can make dismemberment a reality. Finally, from a legitimacy perspective, historian Reidar Visser argues that Iraqi Shia are much more nationalistic (and less sectarian) than U.S. policymakers are aware, and they support a long-term reduction in Iranian influence in their country.

The momentum for expanded airstrikes against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is increasing, if for no other reason than that the tool is readily available and has low risk for the United States. Unfortunately, the results of such a campaign will be extremely limited if they are not part and parcel of a policy that achieves a stable Iraq. One can look at the chaos in Libya to see that airstrikes cannot be a stand-alone solution, regardless of how much a group “deserves” that kind of attention. If we couple an expanded airstrike campaign with steps aimed at the elimination of militias and reduction in the Iranian presence inside Iraq (including proxies), we can help the Iraqi government convince (once again) the Sunni reconcilables to return. The consequences of failure are ten years of warfare over exactly how Iraq will be “partitioned,” a reduction in oil production and a rise in global energy prices, and a worsening of the sectarian civil war that is threatening the entire region. This is the time to “think slow”and not just react out of anger for the Foley/Sotloff tragedies and other IS atrocities.


Craig Whiteside is a former Army officer and Iraq War veteran who is currently a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College at Monterey. Follow him on Twitter: @CraigAWhiteside . The views expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.