The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Sectarian Divide Could Destroy Iraq

Yesterday we explained that, although Kurds are Sunnis, they fight ISIS, which is a Sunni movement. Today, we look at an example of how the Sunni-Shia divide elsewhere in Iraq seems deep enough that it might never be resolved.

The Wall Street Journal has a report on the efforts to resettle Sunnis into areas that were held by ISIS and liberated by Shia: (brackets and editing by the Wrongologist)

ISIS was driven out of Mohamad Mutlaq’s hometown in central Iraq six months ago, and since then, he and his family have tried every few days to…go home. But…each time [Sunnis] approach a bridge to cross back into the town of Yathrib, Shiite tribesmen at a checkpoint beat the Sunni refugees, saying: “Don’t even try to come back…”

The WSJ calls Yathrib a failure in Iraq’s efforts to repopulate ISIS-held Sunni areas, and it points to Tikrit as a success. Tikrit was recaptured from ISIS three months ago, and it is now at the center of a government campaign to rebuild and repopulate the area. But, the challenges are huge:

Tikrit and Yathrib, both in Salahudeen province, illustrate the challenges Iraq faces in trying to resettle…nearly three million displaced people in areas recaptured from ISIS.

Most towns and villages retaken from ISIS remain largely unpopulated as the government struggles to build a process that will return residents to their home towns. Security preparations, mine clearing and infrastructure rebuilding contribute to delays. Yathrib has been empty for six months since its 60,000 people fled ISIS. From the WSJ:

Instead, they couldn’t get past the checkpoint run by a Shiite tribe known as Bani Saad. An Iraqi army unit and three Shiite militias are posted inside the town, but there is little sign of any reconstruction.

When WSJ visited, they saw pockmarked walls of empty homes. Acres of grape vineyards have gone unattended for months. The ceilings of most houses leading into Yathrib are completely collapsed, suggesting they were blown up with improvised explosive devices. Yathrib residents and tribal leaders say Shiite militias aided by the town’s Shiite neighbors have blown up some buildings, while members of the Shiite militia stationed in the town say ISIS fighters blew up the buildings before retreating:

Residents of Yathrib and its neighboring Shiite hamlets are descendants of the same tribe, split into Sunni and Shiite branches. Shiite tribal leaders accuse their Sunni brethren of enabling ISIS to stage attacks against them from the town last summer. They have demanded their Sunni neighbors be allowed to return only on certain conditions.

The neighboring Shiite tribes suggest punitive measures for Sunni Yathrib residents. They included blood money payments, buffer zones between the town and its Shiite neighbors, and even a separate water supply. The Sunni and Shiite areas would report to separate local administrations.

Some of Yathrib’s Sunnis acknowledge they supported ISIS but refuse to apologize for it. The Shiite leader whose tribesmen guard one crossing into Yathrib, said his tribe would accept only blood money paid by the Sunni tribes themselves, not the government, saying:

If the government brings back the people of Yathrib without meeting our conditions, we are going to kill them all.

Tikrit is a different story. Last week, there was an orderly return of 1,400 families to Tikrit, a fraction of the 160,000 people originally displaced from the city.

Iraq’s government claims the return of Tikrit residents is an example of Sunni cooperation with the Shiite-majority militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Those forces led battles across Salahudeen province, and now are in charge of the repopulation effort. The plans for the orderly return of the population took months to get established, and local Sunni tribes that joined Shiite militias to fight ISIS have helped those militias and local officials set up an elaborate screening process. From the WSJ:

Other tensions remain. Sunni policemen stationed around Tikrit said some Shiite militiamen have refused to withdraw from the city despite government orders. In the city itself, they remain an intimidating presence, where residents complain their homes have been searched aggressively and some stores have been looted.

The Obama administration knows that the resettlement process is a make or break issue. If there isn’t a broader and successful reconciliation in Iraq, efforts to beat back ISIS will fail.

Yugoslavia went through the same thing after Tito’s death. There the conflicts were between Christians and Christians and Muslims.

The result was the creation of new nation-states organized largely around religion.

If it was ok for Yugoslavia, why not for Iraq?


More Iraq??

We have solved nothing in 12 years in Iraq. As Tony Wikrent says at Naked Capitalism,

The sheer imbecility of American leaders is brought into glaring light [by] Bush’s attempt at the transformation of Iraq from among the Middle East’s most repressive states to a multiparty democracy.

As Col Lang says, we own it [Iraq], but cannot fix it.

So naturally, we will send more troops there in the next month or so. And to a new location. This will bring American troop levels to 3,500 since we left Iraq in 2011. The air base where the additional US forces are to deploy is al-Taqqadum, which sits about halfway between ISIS positions in Ramadi, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) to the west, and Fallujah, to the east.

Pat Lang reminds us that al-Taqqadum was originally a British air force base called RAF Habbaniya, which later became an Iraqi air force base. It had been abandoned for a long time when US forces occupied it in March, 2003. We initially called it Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ridgway before settling on the more Iraqi-friendly Camp Taqqadum in 2004. Pat Lang on our plans:

Former RAF Habbaniya was the center of the…British presence in Iraq. Look at the pictures of chapels, cemeteries, and swimming pools for the British troops… Habbaniya is the place we will defend and try to make Sunni tribesmen and Shia cowards into fighters? The omens for this are not good.

Think about it: It is an airfield we know well and maintained for years, but it’s only 24 miles from the ISIS lines. We are by design putting our newest effort right where the enemy could take out our planes and our soldiers. Makes you think that it is a trip wire of sorts, leading to a large re-deployment to Iraq when ISIS crosses our wire. We will have to fortify and defend this place very heavily. Otherwise, ISIS will see it as a place to engage us directly in battle.

Da Nang anybody?

The idea behind the new site is to provide greater support for Sunni tribal fighters, who have yet to receive all of the backing and arms promised by the Shiite-led government. But there may be a glitch. The Guardian quotes Mr. Obama at the close of the G7 summit, saying that there were not enough recruits to train:

We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits…It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.

The Guardian also quoted Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar and expert on ISIS that:

Only 1,100 Sunnis had taken part in the US training program, and none of them have graduated from it. In total, about 9,500 fighters have completed the training.

Washington wants to revive the “Sunni Awakening” strategy that we used in 2007 when large numbers of Sunni tribal fighters joined with US troops to help defeat al Qaeda in Iraq. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised us that he would incorporate the Sunni fighters into Iraq’s standing security forces and pay them regular salaries, but failed to do so, sparking the sectarian anger across Anbar Province that left some Sunni tribal leaders amenable to working with ISIS.

Mr. Obama originally said that we did not have a strategy, now, a year later, he sends an additional 450 troops to train Iraqi recruits that he himself says don’t exist. The Wrongologist has supported President Obama, however, this has the makings of a fool’s errand.

Why do we keep talking about training Iraqis to fight? The evidence shows that lots of Iraqis already know how to fight, and many of them are fighting very effectively against the very government that America installed.

This is almost like early days in Vietnam. We dribbled in more and more advisers and support. But it’s not what’s in the hands of the soldiers, it’s what’s in their hearts, and we have no control over that.

The NYT says this will cost us $8 million per week, or $47,619.05 per hour, which is more than many people earn in one year. Do the American people want their tax dollars spent in this way? When our infrastructure is falling apart? When our kids have to take out onerous loans to go to college? When Social Security, which we paid for, is under threat from the right side of the aisle?

Thomas P. M. Barnett has advised US leaders on national security since the end of the Cold War, including the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, Central Command and Special Operations Command. Barnett said in a TED talk:

We field a 1st half team in a league that insists on keeping score until the end of the game

Barnett is correct. We have not learned how to play the 2nd half in Iraq.


Our Mesopotamian Badlands

We have been stuck in Iraq for 23 years, starting in 1991 when Pappy Bush gathered a coalition to chase Saddam Hussein’s invading forces from Kuwait. In 2003, George the Younger invaded Iraq, looking for WMDs. He killed Saddam and then got stuck in the quagmire. It took a commitment of large numbers of American troops to bring sectarian violence under control, and help a democratically elected Iraqi government to take hold. Then, Barack Obama extricated us from Iraq in 2011.

We are now back on track to be Iraq’s air force. Mr. Obama has America returning to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the ISIS jihadists who burst out of Syria and have reached the gates of Baghdad.

We have been asked to spend another $500 million to train Iraq’s fighters. Who pays to train the ISIS fighters? They seem to learn on the job. In fact, today’s New York Times reports on a Turkish ISIS fighter who trained for 15 days before assignment to a unit where he shot two people and was part of a public execution. From the NYT:

It was only after he buried a man alive that he was told he had become a full ISIS fighter.

And they make $150/day, plus all they can intimidate out of Iraqi businesses.

We are told that the effort will take many years. We are told that it will cost many more billions. NBC News estimates that costs will ramp towards $20 Billion per year:

The Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2014 authorized over $550 billion in spending on national defense, with an additional $80 billion for what’s called “Overseas Contingency Operations,” or OCO. That OCO fund is where officials have said funds for the ISIS fight will come from.

We are told that is quite possible that the effort will fail, because the (mostly) unwilling coalition Mr. Obama has rounded up really doesn’t want to fight ISIS. Why are most of them unwilling? The reasons vary. The Economist has a great chart that shows who sides with whom in the ME today:

Iraq Mosaic

The chart shows the degree to which America needs to play a delicate diplomatic game in holding together allies that may not always be friends with each other. Although ISIS is popular among young Muslim fundamentalists, the group has no allies on the political stage. But no country wants to put boots on the ground to cut ISIS off from their supply lines, their sources of cash, their command and communications. Dan Froomkin of the Intercept reports:

The big news out of the new “Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” meeting in Paris was that “several” Arab nations were willing to join President Obama’s latest bombing campaign.

But there were no details announced. And even the US’s most stalwart partner, the UK, wouldn’t actually commit to any specifics, because they are worried about the impact on the vote for Scotland secession. The “several” Arab countries are evidently “two”, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Guardian reports that Saudi Arabia felt so threatened by Isis that it was prepared to act in a front-line role:

There is a very real possibility that we could have the Saudi air force bombing targets inside Syria…That is a remarkable development, and something the US would be very pleased to see

A Grand Coalition is the military answer. But can Mr. Obama bring so many incompatible parties together and weld them into a coordinated military campaign?

It requires a far greater fear of ISIS for Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Shias and Sunnis, Alawites and Kurds to be military allies, while working with Western military powers, whom several Arab nations actively dislike.

For at least the past decade, there has been no oxygen in the room for Non-Middle East/Non-Arab problems. And yet, the world is still full of problems, many of which could benefit from resources and attention by a Grand Coalition. Those problems will wait while we try to win a war we don’t want, against an enemy who doesn’t truly threaten us.

There is a logic against doing nothing. ISIS has grown faster (up from 8,000, to nearly 40,000 militants), while also improving qualitatively much faster than any other terrorist group in the last 40 years. With control of part of the oil revenues in Syria and Iraq, they are on a trajectory for even further growth.

So, once again we trek back into the badlands. As Springsteen says:

Badlands you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good


Sunday Cartoon Blogging – August 10, 2014

On Sunday, we reach for humor and less seriousness, but lately, the cartoons aren’t funny, they tend toward the ironic, or are downright scary. Maybe that is understandable, since we are back in Iraq. ISIS is now as bad as or worse, than Al-Qadea, which might be good news for the Wrongologist’s defense stocks!

Why is the Iraqi government outgunned by a rogue group of thugs?


Expanding “Arabia” to the wider Islamic world, we Americans have been on very sandy ground, from Kabul to Baghdad to Benghazi. And, like quicksand, we can’t escape:
• We’re working with Iran in Iraq, but against them in Israel and in Syria
• Iran is working with Palestinians in Israel, but against them in Syria
• Turkey a member of NATO, supports Hamas against Israel, but is against Assad

Nations in the Middle East are frequently allies on one front and enemies on the other. Somewhere in that paradox is the solution. Now that we are out of Afghanistan, will we have to fight the new terror group of the month, or the new terror group of the year? Can we be the police department to the world, yet keep our social contract and our domestic freedoms intact?

Military recruiters are about the same the world over:

COW alqaeda
T.E. Lawrence – Britain’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, warned that Arabia is not a hospitable place:

COW Lawrence

Iraq didn’t stop being a cesspool when we left;

COW Intermission

Reingagement is a tough equation to solve:

COW Reingagement

In other news, the leaders of Africa came to DC to hear our new pitch:

COW Africa
Finally, Jim Brady died this week. The Wrongologist’s company was a vendor to the Brady Center, and played a very small part in building public support for the Brady Bill:

COW Brady