Iraq needs a political solution — but what does that mean?
In a lecture to field grade officers at the U.S. Army War College in 1981, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor described strategy as the sum of ends, ways and means; where ends are the objectives one strives for, ways are the course of action, and means are the instruments by which they are achieved.
Strategy = Ends + Ways + Means
Many people have been countering the Obama administration’s current efforts in Iraq and Syria and writing their own strategies on how to defeat the Islamic State. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) finds it difficult to restore order in the region without deploying ground forces. Michael Eisenstadt, from the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (WINEP), advocates more reconnaissance drones, joint terminal attack controllers, and arming Sunni tribes. Colonel (retired) Derek Harvey and Michael Pregent of the National Defense University advocate a new Sunni Awakening enabled by a “Combined Joint Task Force of special operations forces; a mixed aviation brigade of attack and transport rotary wing aircraft; a robust intelligence capability, command and control advisory teams; and other medical, logistics and force protection element.”
Air Force Lieutenant General (retired) David Deptula suggests the need for overwhelming and concentrated air power. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), General Martin Dempsey, advocates a lily pad strategy, where U.S. forces are stationed on “lily pads” to extend a force presence into the country. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter outlined nine lines of effort to defeat ISIL. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations advocates a much larger U.S. role. Recently the U.S. Congress examined ways of bypassing Baghdad and directly arming the Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribes in order to resist the Islamic State’s advances. Political commentator Charles Krauthammer agrees and suggests a “24-hour Berlin style airlift” into the country.
One way is to conceptualize all the strategies is by using a typology for the level of military engagement. While none of these strategies is entirely mutually exclusive, if level (1) was the lowest level of U.S. military engagement and level (6) was the highest, these would be the corresponding strategies:
- War of Attrition— Allow fighters on all sides of the conflict continue to fight each other and commit ‘genocidal incidents’ as well as escalate tensions throughout the region, but do not interfere. [Obama Strategy, 2012–2014]
- Bait & Bleed — Arm and train fighters in opposition to the Islamic State, including the Shi’ia militias, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribes, and Iraqi Security Forces, but do not deploy heavy operational ground forces. [SASC-Majority, Krauthammer]
- Whack-a-Mole — Conduct targeted airstrikes on Islamic State leadership. [Obama Strategy, 2014–2015]
- Escalated Whack-a-Mole — Targeted airstrikes on Islamic State leadership with U.S. boots on ground (joint terminal attack controllers) to aid in precision targeting. [Deptula, WINEP, Boot]
- Escalated Troops on Ground — Escalate the number of troops on the ground to conduct training, reconnaissance, and targeting. [ISW, CJCS, WINEP, Harvey & Pregent, Boot]
- Reoccupation — Deploy coalition ground forces en mass to the region, similar to surge of 2006–2008, to provide stabilization.
Famous Strategists Would Say…
General Taylor would likely point out that all the strategies above clearly show ways and means of achieving a goal, yet they neglect a central ingredient. Not one of the strategies above clearly elucidates how to get to the ends, or the objective of the military actions. Its important to note that the elimination of the Islamic State is not an end in and of itself (its a means); where as the establishment of a functioning non-sectarian, democratic, and inclusive government in Iraq is an end. The ends of nearly all military interventions are political objectives.
There are very few think tanks or theorists talking about the desired end state of our military intervention in Iraq.
The famous 19th century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Combining Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, the quintessential strategy to deal with the Islamic State is by never fighting at all—to confront the Islamic State politically.
Is it even possible to get from the military solution to the political solution?There are very few think tanks or theorists talking about the desired end state of our military intervention in Iraq. The voices for a political solution are faint, but are echoed in the ISW’s Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, Max Boot’s strategy, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s nine lines of effort to counter ISIL. And, while the ISW and Secretary Carter both recognize a political solution is necessary, they fail to detail the grievances and circumstances which led to the rapid rise of the Islamic State, nor do they demonstrate how incorporating the Sunnis into Baghdad’s decision-making apparatus will ultimately turn the tide on Islamist factions. The most recent DOD narrative still calls only for the elimination of ISIL, with no explanation of the political objective for the fight.
How Iraq Got Here
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, several political groups, militant factions, and organizations competed for control over Iraq’s governance. Because Saddam Hussein had accommodated the Sunni Arab population at the expense of the other religious and ethnic factions, there were not as many Sunni opposition groups operating in the country during the Ba’ath regime. To the contrary, the most organized political competition in Baghdad came from long-standing groups in opposition to the Ba’ath party: primarily the Shi’ia Islamic Dawa Party, the Supreme Council on Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the two preeminent Kurdish political factions: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). However, dozens of other armed factions, subversive groups, disgruntled Ba’athists, and Salafist fighters also sought to undermine the new political order. Eight years later, after the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State in war-torn Syria and western Iraq filled a political and security vacuum left exposed by the Shi’ia-dominant Baghdad government.
A State of Chaos
Without the Ba’athist regime in place to provide security, immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people took to the streets, looted, and burned the city of Baghdad. Initially, coalition forces were not ordered to contain the violence, which proved to be a critical error in decision-making. The impact of the lawlessness compounded the already dilapidated state of Iraq’s infrastructure, making it far more difficult to provide basic services. The looting made it difficult for the coalition to operate under the plans they had devised for the post-war occupation and recovery. The subsequent de-Ba’athification of the internal security police and military forces only exacerbated the problem, which resulted in widespread criminal activity and an inability to control the people.
The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time.
The coalition invasion of Iraq demonstrates that it is relatively simple to bring a system of order into a state of chaos. The Iraqi political and military system under Saddam Hussein was not fair. It was not just. It was not humane. But, it was orderly. There was a rule of law and a system of governance. When the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Ba’ath Party, it disbanded the one institution that provided law and order for the country. Iraq quickly descended into a state of chaos, thereby following the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which states: the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time.
A System of Order
Last summer, I interviewed Sa’ad Ghaffoori, who is also known by his nom de guerre, Abu Abed. Abu Abed was a household name in Iraq in 2007 because of his charismatic leadership during the Sunni Awakening, when ordinary Sunni citizens rose up against al Qaeda. Under his careful and methodical planning, and with the help of the U.S. Army, he took the besieged neighborhood of Ameriya in Western Baghdad back from al Qaeda in a matter of three months.
As we discussed his role in Iraq, his application of strategy and tactics reminded me of two, now deceased, great American military officers. The first is Colonel (retired) David Hackworth, who has been described as one of the greatest American soldiers of all time. Hackworth lied about his age to enter the military and fought in both Korea and Vietnam; he is also one of the most decorated soldiers in American history with ten silver stars and no less than seven purple hearts. His story is epitomized in his autobiography,About Face. Hackworth was famous for his ability to fight guerrillas in Vietnam. He coined the term “out g the g” in that he could out maneuver any other guerrilla. The other is fighter pilot Colonel (retired) John Boyd. Boyd’s story is told by Robert Corum in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot that Changed the Art of War. Boyd was undefeated in aerial maneuvering; he could go from a position of disadvantage to the position of advantage in a matter of seconds. Boyd redefined the art of war and his strategic foresight was critical in the planning for Desert Storm.
Much like Hackworth (tactical genius) and Boyd (tactical & strategic genius), Abu Abed:
- Took the initiative
- Stayed agile
- Broke the rules
- Made it his no. 1 priority to eliminate the adversary — at all costs
- Took extraordinary risks
- Made very quick decisions
- Let his adversaries fall into the trap of a routine
- Knew his adversaries very well
Abu Abed knew al Qaeda as well as John Boyd knew fighter pilots and David Hackworth knew guerrillas. How well do we know the Islamic State? I asked Abu Abed if he thought the Islamic State was a terrorist network. His answer was, no. Abu Abed said the Islamic State is the extremist front to a much larger Sunni civil insurrection.
Abu Abed knew al Qaeda as well as John Boyd knew fighter pilots and David Hackworth knew guerrillas.
He explained that because the Islamic State is funded by important political players, it begs for a political solution. These political players are not on the front lines, but they are concerned about the state of the Iraqi government. Their ultimate goal is to protect Sunnis against Iranian hegemony and U.S. interference. General (retired) David Petraeus recently echoed his concerns with Iran when he stated that the Islamic State wasn’t the biggest problem in Iraq, but that the “most significant long term threat is that posed by the Iranian-backed Shiite [sic] militias.”
The rapid rise of the Islamic State is a testament to the human need for a system of order in a chaotic environment.
Abu Abed explained to me that after the fall of the Ba’ath party the Iraqis turned to the only other institution that they knew well, which was their religion. The Sunnis today are no different than they were in 2003. When the politics of the central government failed, religion became an attractive alternative for governance and order. The rapid rise of the Islamic State is a testament to the human need for a system of order in a chaotic environment.
The puzzle I wanted him to answer was how he brought order to chaos. How did he undo the second law of thermodynamics?
Abu Abed told me to imagine a thousand schools of fish, all swimming against each together in a turbulent sea. He said, “the only way to get them all to swim in the same direction is a strong current. You need a current that is stronger than all the others.”
He told me that you have to organize, be consistent, and institutionalize along the currents shared by all the Iraqi people: nationalism, culture, land, tribal affiliations, history, and language.
Create a Political Win-Set
In order to defeat the Islamic State, the interests of all the major parties involved in the conflict must overlap in a way that creates a viable win-set. When U.S. policy makers and the Iraqis were negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) back in 2008, they were the only two major parties involved in Iraq’s security. With the incursion of Iranian forces into Iraq since 2014, as well as a rapidly deteriorating security situation in neighboring Syria, there are many more parties that have a vested interest in Iraq’s security.
From the Iraqi government’s perspective, domestically they seek to reclaim the territories lost to the Islamic State, however, the government of Iraq is dealing with political pressure from Iran and Syria as well as an influx of foreign fighters from across the world. It is in Iran’s strategic interest to keep the supply lines from Tehran to Damascus open, and a strong government in Baghdad will impede that objective. From the U.S. perspective, any strategy decided now is likely to come under intense scrutiny as the 2016 Presidential campaign commences. Furthermore, any strategy developed now is not likely to come to full fruition until 2017, when the new U.S. President takes office.
Currently, the Iraq’s Sunni Arabs do not have an abundance of mature political alternatives to the Islamic State.
The challenge will be for all the parties with an interest in Iraq’s security to develop a political alternative to the Islamic State for Iraq’s Sunni Arab population without upsetting the considerations of the other parties involved in the conflict — namely Iran. Currently, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq do not have an abundance of mature political alternatives to the Islamic State. Most secular Sunni Arab political factions that formed after U.S. forces left the country were directly targeted; Maliki eliminated most Sunni political rivals by threatening the lives of Sunni politicians, marginalizing Sunni leaders, and forcing Sunni Arabs into political exile. The only mature Sunni institutions left in Iraq come from examples of Islamic authority, like Iraq’s mujahids, the Sunni Endowment (waqf), the councils of tribal leaders and their networks, and the remnants of Sunni political parties.
Remembering General Maxwell’s dictum that strategy is the sum of ends, ways and means, it is important to note that the strategy to defeat ISIS is incomplete without an objective for the end state. A strategy without ends is like throwing ingredients in a bowl, but not knowing the dish you are preparing.
A strategy without ends is like mixing ingredients in a bowl, but not knowing the dish you are preparing.
The political solution to Iraq’s crisis of governance, the end state, has to start with a Sunni political alternative that is legitimate with the people. The U.S. role in ending the violence does not need to be complicated. The U.S. has the political and military power to facilitate, enable, and guarantee Iraq’s Sunni leaders that they can be integrated into Iraq’s system of governance and security without fear of reprisal, retribution, or retaliation. Iraq’s Sunni Arab leaders have the political and religious legitimacy required to subdue the Islamic State’s radical front, but they need political guarantees and military support. A grand bargain, one that recognizes Iraq’s Sunnis the right to self-governance and security, is the ultimate end state. If the U.S. reaches that objective first, then they will have completely out-maneuvered the Islamic State.
Dr. Diane Maye is a member of the Military Writers Guild and frequently writes about U.S. foreign policy, Iraqi politics, and grand strategy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author. The opinions expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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Header image: A pair of armed anti-American insurgents in Iraq in 2006 | Wikimedia Commons.