The media is awash with stories about the Obama administration's intention to revise its so-called Iraq-first strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State (IS). The impetus according to the press arose from the plea of coalition allies in the region to make good on President Obama's demand that Syrian leader Bashar al Assad leave office now and not after IS is driven from Iraq. Whether these reports are correct is unclear. However, the president apparently has met several times with his national security team on modifying the strategy to beat IS.
In simplest terms, the strategy so far is based on building a coalition in the fight to destroy IS in Iraq first; -- degrading IS through air and drone strikes, resurrecting Iraqi security forces and equiping Kurdish Pesh Merga as the means to eject IS from Iraq. Success or failure rests on three big bets.
The first bet is that the president will stay the course and not be distracted from defeating IS by events in Ukraine or elsewhere. Second, is ensuring that there is a clear-cut chain of command that the public and politicians can understand. Last, is the crucial need for the new Iraqi government to take the necessary political steps to reconcile the sectarian conflict among Shia, Sunni and Kurd; to weed out corruption and to install competent leaders in its security forces.
Meanwhile, some 3000 American are currently in the "train and assist" role to field at least a dozen or so Iraqi army and police brigades capable of driving IS from Iraq. These are three big bets. And many believe that without deploying substantial U.S. forces in a combat role against IS, this plan will not work.
But suppose this plan does work. While this is all necessary to the ultimate destruction of IS, sadly it is far from sufficient. As the George W. Bush administration failed to ask and answer the crucial "what next" question of what to do once Saddam Hussein and his army were overwhelmed, the Obama White House is repeating this act of strategic ignorance.
In this case, once IS is ejected from Iraq, who will take over the governing and overseeing of the recaptured cities, towns and villages? For example, in Iraq's second largest city Mosul, who will assume the governing jobs of mayor, police chief, school superintendent, garbage and tax collectors and others needed for society to work? If a governance vacuum persists, who will fill it? And what will prevent al Qaeda or IS from filling that vacuum?
The answer, so far, is no one.
The U.S. military is superbly efficient. It can retrain and reinvigorate Iraqi forces given enough time and the support of Baghdad in assigning competent and uncorrupt senior officers to lead. However, as history tragically and repeatedly demonstrates, no matter how good the U.S. military has been in destroying Saddam's army and routing the Taliban, so-called nation building and governing were beyond its level of competence.
Of course after the defeat of the Nazis and Japanese Fascists in World War II, the U.S. military played vital roles in the occupation of the former Axis enemies. Germany, Japan and less so Italy lay in various states of ruin. Unconditional surrender provided the U.S. with near total control and authority. And the some 12 million strong American military had drafted hundreds of thousands of men who had served in towns, cities and villages as mayors, teachers, policemen, firemen and other venues vital to the functioning of society.
That is not the case in Iraq. So who is in charge of providing the skill sets for honest and fair governance once the dreaded IS is vanquished? The other agencies of the U.S. government proved insufficient before in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Iraq is still so dangerous that much of the country team in Baghdad is restricted to the embassy for safekeeping.
So far, the new Iraqi government has shown no signs of providing the assets and human capital for these tasks. To assume that former leaders and responsible governing officials will simply re-assume old posts is as fatuous as believing in 2003 that the invading force would be welcome with flowers and candy and a new government would mystically beam in to take over from Saddam.
If the coalition is to succeed, this fatal flaw must be fixed now. Otherwise, we have the answer to General David Petraeus' penetrating question of "tell me how this ends?" The answer will be very badly.