In the spring of 2003 I was head of a CIA base in the mountains of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. Shortly after the ground war against Saddam began one of my officers was successful, working with our Kurdish allies, in putting together a meeting between the senior US military officer in the area and representatives of the Iraqi military forces in the north. The purpose of the meeting was for the Iraqi military units to surrender and to place themselves under the control of the US military. In effect, the entire Iraqi military apparatus in the northern half of the country would not only cease hostilities against us but also go to work for the United States military in controlling the country and maintaining order.
The meeting was so badly handled by the senior US military officer present that the Iraqis stormed out. Despite our best efforts, and the continued willingness of the Iraqis to surrender, we were unsuccessful in getting the US military to engage in further discussions. Within weeks the issue became moot. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, ordered the entire Iraqi military disbanded and handed over the job of policing a nation exploding with ethnic and religious tension to the American military without any assistance from the now defunct Iraqi forces.
The result is well known. Iraq went up in flames. The US military spent years putting down at least two different insurgencies. It also spent nine years training and equipping a new Iraqi Army to replace the one we had discarded. The price tag for that effort was $26 billion.
Earlier this year in its first real test, this bright, shiny, new Iraqi Army failed miserably. It melted away into thin air in front of the advance of ISIS forces and abandoned most of western Iraq to Islamic forces.
Now as part of its new strategic plan for dealing with Iraq, the Obama administration has announced that it will train and equip yet another new Iraqi military to confront the ISIS threat. Something on the order of 1500 American troops are in Iraq already. That many more are on the way. The final price tag and scope of this effort remain unclear, but Congress has already been asked to appropriate $1.6 billion for this initiative.
What in the name of God makes us believe that this time around the results will be any different?
The first step in confronting any problem is to recognize what that problem is and to correctly define it. In this case, the Washington bureaucracy has defined the problem not based on the reality of the situation on the ground but on what it knows how to do. We know how to spend money. We know how to create giant new programs. We know how to hire contractors and send them abroad. So, that is what we will do.
I have a crazy idea. Let's try dealing with reality.
President Barack Obama put on his best McKayla Maroney face earlier this week when the Olympic Gold Medalist visited the white House. | Photo: Pete Souza |
The Iraqi military did not melt away in front of ISIS, because it lacked in training, equipment or personnel. ISIS may be a large force. It is also an irregular, largely ad hoc force using primarily cast off weapons. The Iraqi military it faced had more than enough firepower, personnel, ammunition and other concrete things to defeat it. It did not.
The Iraqi military lost western Iraq to ISIS, because it did not want to fight. It did not want to fight, because it was unprepared to stand up and defend a Shia dominated government in Baghdad that looks increasingly like a client state of Iran. This is why all of the Sunni areas of Western Iraq have been lost to Islamic control. Even those individuals in Western Iraq who don't much like ISIS's message would rather opt for domination by a Sunni insurgency than kneel at the feet of a hostile, Shia government.
The Obama administration can spend all the money it wants. The President can announce all the grandiose training initiatives he wants. Until we face this reality this policy has absolutely no chance of success.
If the United States really wants people to stand and fight in western Iraq for the purposes of defeating ISIS, it is going to have to guarantee those people that something dramatic is going to change in their relationship with Baghdad. As long as it is perceived that what they are fighting for is reestablishment of control in western Iraq by a Shia-dominated government there will never be a broad-based pushback against ISIS. Exactly what kind of guarantees it is going to take to secure support in a fight against ISIS remains unclear. I suspect, however, that it is going to look something very like the degree of regional autonomy enjoyed by the Kurds in the north.
The same is true in Syria. If we will not face the reality of the situation on the ground, we have no chance of success. Currently we are asking the so-called moderate rebels to join us in a fight against ISIS while doing absolutely nothing to address the underlying cause of the instability that has torn that country apart. We are, in effect, asking these rebels to assist us in destroying ISIS and then telling them that when it is all done we will leave them to fend for themselves in a fight to the death with the Assad regime.
Nobody in his right mind is going to sign on for that mission. If we want these individuals to stand with us and to fight against ISIS we have to guarantee them something meaningful. That means we have to guarantee them that we are going to take down Assad. Exactly how to do that would require some careful planning and preparation, but a good first step would be the imposition of a no fly zone over Syria and a clear unambiguous statement that we are going to topple Assad.
Our current actions in Iraq and in Syria are devoid of any relationship to the reality of things on the ground.
We are doing things simply because we can. The tools are dictating our strategy. It is living proof, if any was needed, of the age-old adage. When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.