Well, that didn’t take long.
The last pockets of the Islamic State in Iraq have still not been recaptured, and already the country’s sectarian divisions are coming out in the open as the common enemy dissipates.
On Monday, as Iraqi regular forces and Shiite militia rolled into the city of Kirkuk that lies at the center of the territories and oil fields disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi government, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued this statement: “ISIS remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace.” The U.S. commander on the ground, Maj. Gen. Robert White, said the same thing: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq.”
Translation: We have been given no political strategy from Washington, so please, everyone, just stick to our military plan until we work one out.
It is astonishing that we have arrived at this point, again. In war, strategy is supposed to connect operational action on the ground to wider political goals. Yet since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States and its allies have time and again been fixated on operational goals with no plan for what comes next politically.
Time and again, we have had what passes for “political strategy” defined in the negative without a positive political counterpart to tell us not only what you don’t want but what you do want. You can try to “liberate” Iraq, Libya, or Syria from a given “menace” all you want, but what comes next?
I don’t need to waste words rehashing the details of the most epic failure of strategic planning in U.S. history — the absence of any serious political plan for post-invasion Iraq in 2003. That was a strategic performance from the White House, the Defense Department, and the National Security Council so abominably incompetent that still today it remains hard to believe it really happened.
In Libya in 2011, the failure to plan for what came after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi gave us jihadi chaos. The result is that it now looks like Moscow will get its man, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, to rule at least half the country. In other words, it’s now perfectly possible that we get a Russian satellite state on Europe’s doorstep, turning the refugee flows across the Mediterranean Sea on and off at will.
In Syria, those who pushed for the U.S. intervention failed to answer the basic question of how to avoid Libya-like jihadi chaos if Bashar al-Assad were actually toppled and so ended up arming rebels with no accompanying political strategy. The result, as we know, was a botched U.S. campaign.
But here we go again: We are nearing a military success against the Islamic State but have failed to define the peace that follows, because no serious attempt has been made to even define what that peace should look like in advance. This is what happens when you fixate on defeating an enemy militarily but don’t bother with political strategy.
The inevitable result of having no political strategy is that others will fill the vacuum and determine the future. That’s why, in a June column, I wrote: “[T]he Trump administration should now lay out a positively defined political vision for the Middle East, which would accompany and tether its negatively defined anti-Islamic State and anti-Iranian goals. At this time, the fundamental part of this vision must be a clear U.S. position on the future of Kurdish-held areas in Iraq and Syria.”
Plainly, that has not happened. The absurd result is that we now have an Iraqi force that includes Iranian-backed Shiite militia using U.S.-issued military equipment to drive the KRG’s Peshmerga from Kirkuk, in the same week that President Donald Trump emphasized the threat of Iranian proxies to regional stability.
In fairness, the Trump administration inherited this problem. In a paper he published this month titled “A Lasting Defeat: The Campaign to Destroy ISIS,” Ash Carter, defense secretary under President Barack Obama, wrote, “My principal concern at this juncture is that the international community’s stabilization and governance efforts will lag behind the military campaign.” But Carter makes not one single concrete political recommendation for what those “efforts” should practically involve, beyond the ambition that “ISIS’s rule of terror must be replaced by stable, effective, legitimate governance.” President George W. Bush rehearsed similar such vague pieties about Iraq after Saddam Hussein: generic humanitarian jargon employed to cover for the absence of an actual political strategy.
One counterargument is that the United States should not play politics in the region and just let local players shape their own future. Of course, the reality is that this would not be a straightforward case of self-determination but a policy position in which the fate of Iraq and Syria is left to other outside players, above all Iran and Russia.
In Iraq, there is a looming fight within Iraq’s majority-Shiite political groupings between a more nationalist camp and a pro-Iranian one, with the Shiite militia groupings that now provide much of Iraq’s internal security split between the two. The desire to maintain what little U.S. influence remains among Iraqi Shiites informs the reluctance to support full Kurdish sovereignty. Doing so would surely infuriate Baghdad and risk driving it even closer to Tehran.
However, the Kurds have proved to be a reliable and relatively secular U.S. ally since Washington protected the region from Saddam after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and have played a key role in the fight against the Islamic State. It’s not unreasonable to think that the KRG, having been let down by Washington in its recent push for independence, will now increasingly turn toward Moscow. Notice how Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft built up its position in Iraqi Kurdistan ahead of last month’s independence referendum.
Of course, Kurdish sovereignty would greatly anger Turkey. But at some point Washington needs to decide whether it is appropriate to have what increasingly looks like a dictatorship in a NATO alliance ostensibly committed to preserving democracy. Backing the Kurds in Iraq, and perhaps also in Syria, would send a powerful signal that Ankara cannot take Washington’s support for granted.
These are hard choices, and they are upon us now. There are no simple answers, only trade-offs. But strategy in historical reality has ever been thus. The problem here is that Washington has not committed to any of these choices, and so other players are instead determining the peace settlement on the ground.
If that is actually the plan — for the United States to stand back and let the gains and losses lie where they fall — so be it. But if so, that should be made plain, as well as the risk of letting the politics determine themselves weighed against the proposed value of the United States disconnecting from the politics of the Middle East.
However, it seems to me that this is not, in fact, the plan. Rather, it seems that the fixation on achieving a military victory first, and only then talking about the politics of what comes next — as if it were a nice sequential process — is the reason why there seems to be no U.S. political strategy. Call it the “mission accomplished” approach.
U.S. military success against the Islamic State now risks initiating the violent coming-apart of Iraq because there is no common enemy to align the country’s various factions together. The Trump administration must present a political strategy, right now, because the window to avoid very obviously repeating the mistakes of the past is rapidly closing.