The Roots of the Iraq Crisis: Political Failure, Military Collapse

Scenes from central Iraq in recent days are deeply troubling. Sunni jihadist forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have scored shocking victories over the Iraqi National Army, capturing the city of Mosul and threatening to move south on Baghdad. While the situation is grave, the same dynamics that made it impossible for the government in Baghdad to achieve effective security and stable governance throughout Iraq will likely confound these Sunni insurgents as they move on the capital and threaten predominantly Shiite population centers.

Any U.S. action should be carefully weighed in light of the complex nature of the ongoing conflict gripping the larger Middle East and long-term U.S. national interests. What is critical is to avoid rash short-term measures that may only exacerbate the current crisis and actually undermine U.S. objectives. It is essential to keep in mind that the problem is a political one, and while military force may be part of a solution, it is not sufficient to resolve the crisis as history has shown.

Despite billions of dollars invested in modern equipment and training by the most effective and professional military advisers in the world, it seems that the Iraqi army is simply not up to the task. But the root of its poor performance lies not merely in a lack of military effectiveness, but rather in the fundamental failure to construct an equitable political solution to the ethnic conflicts that had only been suppressed by brute force under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

What the Iraq experience has reaffirmed is that a necessary condition for an effective national army is the presence of a coherent nation state. Given Iraq's violent history, geography, and divided society a political solution would always be a daunting challenge. But rather than undertake even the pretense of reconciliation, the regime of Nouri al-Maliki has governed on the basis of narrow self-interests and advantages for his Shiite constituency. For many Iraqis, the army is little more than a well equipped militia, serving the interests of the Shiite population. The opportunistic seizure of the northern city of Kirkuk by Kurdish forces in the wake of the army's retreat south only underscores the inherent fragility of Baghdad's control over the nation.

At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some policy experts predicted a breakup of the country along ethnic lines. One plan for post-Saddam Iraq centered on the concept of a "soft partition," which would have attempted to work with these divisions to construct a federal Iraqi system with three relatively autonomous territories, with Baghdad as capital. The Bush administration pursued different strategy aimed at maintaining a more unitary Iraqi state, but the net result of various policy choices was to empower Shiites at the expense of Sunnis, harden ethnic divisions, and undermine the perceived legitimacy of the central government in Baghdad.

These policies (particularly disbanding the Iraqi army and prohibiting any former Ba'ath Party members from holding positions in the new government) and the emergence of Sunni jihadists sparked the insurgency that consumed Iraq in 2003-7. While hawkish U.S. leaders like Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) attribute the quelling of this insurgency entirely to an increase in U.S. combat forces (the "surge"), a critical factor was the rejection of violent jihadists by the larger Sunni community (the "Sunni Awakening"). This development undermined the jihadists' base of support and provided valuable allies at an opportune time. However, rather than build upon the opportunity to seriously engage with the Sunni community, al-Maliki reverted back to his authoritarian ways and alienated those Sunni elements. With a new wave of jihadists moving into western Iraq from Syria, these communities are unlikely to enthusiastically return to Baghdad's fold a second time.

Within U.S. political circles, the debate has predictably centered on ascribing blame for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But this debate serves little purpose. First, al-Maliki refused to allow U.S. forces to remain in Iraq. That was his choice as the leader of a sovereign state -- not one the Obama administration could simply impose. Second -- and more generally -- the dubious notion that a limited "residual" U.S. force would play a decisive role in staunching the current jihadist offensive only reinforces the perception of the Iraqi National Army as a hollow, incompetent failure.

Notwithstanding the best efforts of the United States and its military, the stark reality is that an effective military force cannot be built on a fundamentally broken foundation. In a fragmented Iraqi society, where ethnic divisions have been hardened by communal violence, a truly national force was almost impossible by definition. Even with a leadership truly committed to an inclusive multiethnic state, this may have been an exceedingly difficult task. Sadly, Nouri al-Maliki is no such leader.

While limited U.S. military action to prevent heavy weapons (most likely purchased and supplied by the U.S.) from being moved by ISIS to Syria, or perhaps to halt a major conventional offensive on Baghdad, may be useful, Washington's focus should be on a long-term, regional political and diplomatic solution. Iraq once again illustrates the harsh reality that there are limits to what U.S. military force can accomplish despite the best intentions of its elected leaders, soldiers, and citizens.