Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Iraq at the brink

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Last night, insurgents from the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized Mosul, the largest and most important city in northern Iraq. While Ramadi and Fallujah, Sunni-dominated towns in al Anbar have long been peripheral to Iraq, Mosul is not: Saddam Hussein recruited much of his officer corps from the town. Divided between Kurds and Arabs, Mosul has been more an ethnic flashpoint in Iraq than even Kirkuk, a city two hours away which receives the lion’s share of Western attention. And it has long been tense. I visited Mosul earlier this year. As I approached the city, soldiers at Iraqi checkpoints repeatedly warned me to stay away, telling me it was not safe for a Westerner. Already a tinderbox, the Syrian refugees at almost every intersection begging simply added fuel to the fire.

The Washington Post reported on a press conference given by Osama Nujaifi, brother to Mosul Governor Atheel Nujaifi, and the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, easily the most important Sunni Arab politician in Iraq:

When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” he told a televised news conference in Baghdad. All key facilities are now controlled by the insurgents, including the airport and the prisons, said Nujaifi, who is from Mosul. “Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis,” he said, appealing for international and government help to retake the city. “Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region.

Mosul’s fall to al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents should be a wake-up call both to the West and to the Arab world. A few lessons for the White House to learn:

  • It’s time to dispense with the nonsense that insurgents in Iraq exist because they dislike Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Al Qaeda is not on the warpath because the Iraqi army raided a protest camp in Ramadi. We shouldn’t be fooled. Al Qaeda is savvy enough to feign grievance to get the West to turn on itself, but at its core it is about ideology. Despite what the State Department or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel may believe, not all terrorism is rooted in poverty or grievance which can be resolved by diplomacy, concessions, or incentives. Sometimes, ideology simply has to be defeated. A decade ago, Gen. David Petraeus appeased insurgents in Mosul and the result was disastrous; we shouldn’t urge anyone to make the same mistake again.
  • Inaction on Syria has had a cost. Prime Minister Maliki has been warning for years that the radicalization inside Syria could destabilize Iraq and he has been right. That doesn’t mean the United States should arm Syrian rebels—the time for that would have been three years ago before the influx of al Qaeda. Sometimes leadership means doing the dirty work directly, and not simply leading from behind. Boots on the ground? No. But targeting high value regime and al Qaeda targets. Maybe it’s time to consider that. Sanctioning Turkey if it allows its borders to be crossed with impunity for the price of a $40 bribe by radical jihadis? Certainly.
  • President Obama entered office believing Iraq to be original sin. He ordered a troop withdrawal on the simple premise: If Iraq failed, he could blame Bush. And if it succeeded, he could brag about how his withdrawal enabled it. But that premature withdrawal would put security at risk was fairly obvious.

So what should the West do?

  • Al Qaeda loves a vacuum, but the United States should not give it one. It’s time to partner with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to provide him what he needs to roll back al Qaeda, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. Iraqi Kurdistan will likely need help caring for persons displaced from Mosul, and the United States should provide that as well.
  • Obama cares about his legacy. So does Secretary of State John Kerry. Neither may like it, but their legacy is more likely to be Iraq than an Iran deal or Arab-Israeli peace. Obama flubbed Syria at great expense to regional security. Iraq is now at the tipping point. Either the United States re-finds its leadership and recognizes that al Qaeda isn’t on the run, or we condemn Iraq to be a replay of Syria. Let’s hope Obama has the vision to realize that leadership matters.

Follow AEIdeas on Twitter at @AEIdeas.

6 thoughts on “Iraq at the brink

  1. These deadly militant jihadists with their heinous violence with their mad and evil mindset of the jihad for the cause of Islam Sura 2:216. 9:111,112. 47:4. Such evil madness as this is explained, in part, in the Bible. Which reads “The hearts of men are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterwards they join tthe dead.” Ecclesoates 9:3. [NIV]

  2. Iraqi soldiers at Mosul ran away from their duty? Blame it on Obama.
    And as a taxpayer I am supposed to pay to fix this lack of resolve?
    Count me out.

    • Well, we made sure religious minorities and the middle class were driven out of Iraq and that women became second-class citizens…we created a Shiite state to replace a secular state…but AEI says throw more money!

  3. I kinda think that the US should be urging the Saudis and Turks to fix the problem. And it’s well past time that we admit that we need Assad running Syria because in his part of the world he’s a “moderate”.

    But I’m mostly upset with the Kurds. The US Army gave the Kurds de facto Kurdistan, including Kirkuk and Mosul. If the Kurds will not in fact defend their country from foreigners after all of their whining for so many years, then they deserve what they get.

    And if the idiots who run Iraq can’t find 100,000 troops from Saddam’s old army to put down invaders, then Iraq deserves whatever it gets, too.

    Hopefully, at some point the Saudis will realize that, no, you can’t just sit on the sidelines and pass out money.

  4. PM Nouri al-Maliki has long been right in his projections about the middle east, time is proving that and Syria is an example! it is worth paying attention to him when it comes to both Iraq and Syria, both nations are suffering from what can be a more serious issue for the middle east and whoever has interests in this region. A very good article by Michael Rubin, I have been following his work for a while. Regards from Iraq!

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