When American troops were about to invade Iraq in 2003 to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus told a reporter: “Tell me how this ends.” Eleven years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, thousands of U.S. troops are once again in Iraq fighting a different foe. But the same question still resonates.
President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of American forces in 2011 after failing to win a security agreement with Iraq has already been undone by Obama ordering as many as 3,100 troops to help train the Iraqi military to take on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. But even if U.S. and Iraqi forces defeat the militant group, preventing a disintegration of Iraq along sectarian and religious lines may require a long-term presence of U.S. forces, former American officials and defense analysts say.
“You cannot get the goal you want of a stable Iraq and a permanently defeated” Islamic State, “or a son of ISIS,” without a long-term American presence, said James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. “Even if they’re promised the moon, only if we have a presence will the Kurds and Sunnis buy into a Baghdad that’s dominated by the Shiites and indirectly by Iran.”
Jeffrey said that moves to establish a peacekeeping or monitoring force should be led by the U.N. but backed by U.S. military power. That means a modest American force should plan on remaining in Iraq and eventually in Syria once the Islamic State is defeated, he said.
More than 2,000 American troops are helping retrain the Iraqi military to fight back against the Islamic State on the ground, even as U.S. drones and jet fighters have carried out hundreds of airstrikes, yielding some earlysuccesses by halting the militant group’s advances.
A major ground offensive against the militant group won’t be launched for several months. But experts say that in order to avoid a repeat of the American withdrawal in 2011, which allowed Iran to become a dominant power, thus marginalizing Sunnis and leading to the birth of the Islamic State, it’s time to plan for what comes after the militant group is defeated or sufficiently contained. One option gaining currency is an international force that can keep the region’s Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites at peace and prevent the breakup of Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.
For starters, Obama may have to allow American troops a deeper role in fighting the Islamic State along with Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Sunni tribes, as well as giving both those groups “some guarantee that we’d be there for the long term,” said Jeffrey, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Even if the Kurds and Sunni tribes fully commit to taking on the Islamic State, once the fight against the militants is over, “the Kurds and Sunnis will be open to the same temptation as before: Kurds would want to go independent and the Sunnis may make common cause with the next jihadi group,” Jeffrey said.
The United States has 2,140 troops in Iraq out of the 3,100 that Obama has authorized, according to Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. The remainder of the troops will head to Iraq in the coming weeks.
About 800 of the troops are there to protect the American Embassy in Baghdad and other U.S. personnel, while the rest are training Iraqi military forces, Warren said. A group of 320 Marines are at al-Asad air base in Iraq’s Anbar province — a stronghold of the Islamic State — and are drawing almost daily fire from the militant group, Warren told reporters Jan. 5.
Many of the Sunni tribes the United States is trying to woo now to take on the Islamic State were once critical to the so-called Anbar Awakening that helped the United States defeat al Qaeda in Iraq back in 2006. The tribes later turned on the government of Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a Shiite — who refused to pay the fighters or fold them into the standing Iraqi military after the violence subsided, setting the stage for the emergence of the Islamic State.
While Iraq’s current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi — a Shiite with close ties to Iran — has, unlike his predecessor Maliki, publicly committed to running an inclusive government, in private meetings with officials he has voiced skepticism about trusting Sunni tribal leaders, according to U.S. and European officials.
Even if the militant group were defeated or just degraded, the impact of such an outcome will be limited “unless the U.S. can also work with the key factions in Iraq, and its allies, to create a stable structure for cooperation between Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab, and Kurds,” Anthony Cordesman, a national security scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email. “It is far from clear that this is possible.”
But such political accommodation between the different groups is essential to prevent the “next millennial Islamist movement from gaining a new foothold,” Jeffrey wrote in an article published in late December on the Washington Institute’s website.
Although Iraq has allowed some autonomy to Kurds in the north, letting the country’s Sunnis enjoy similar freedoms in the Sunni Arab areas of the country “will require internal cultural change, international guarantees, and an outside monitoring force,” Jeffrey wrote.
U.S. military and State Department officials said there are currently no discussions about such a peacekeeping or monitoring force.
The Obama administration has said that as many as 60 countries are involved in the coalition against the Islamic State, including several Arab nations, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait.
Although Arab countries in the coalition see the predominantly Sunni Islamic State as a threat to their own well-being, they also “still deeply distrust the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Central Government and this tends to push it into the hands of Iran,” the Shiite power in the region, Cordesman said.
A U.N.-backed international peacekeeping force has precedent.
The international body has led such an effort in the past, with the U.N. Mission in Kosovo in 1999. The U.N. Security Council in June 1999 authorized NATO to station 50,000 troops after the end of the war to stop Serbian human rights violations and clashes between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Yugoslav forces. About 4,500 NATO troops from 30 countries currently remain in Kosovo to keep the peace.
Unlike in the Balkans in the late 1990s, the long-term presence of American troops in Iraq may produce its own backlash, said Nicholas Heras, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
A U.S. role “in such a peacekeeping force would likely be highly controversial, considering the baggage that the U.S. has in the Middle East region and the anger in the region toward the U.S. occupation of Iraq from the last decade,” Heras said.
Such a stabilizing force may make more sense in Syria, serving “as a guarantor of security in a post-Assad transitional period,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. There, a multinational force could oversee the “disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of militias, and prevent the return of ISIS in eastern and northern Syria, once ISIS is removed from those areas of the country,” he said.
But the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria remains so incoherent that moderate rebel forces have been weakened and extremist ones have gained the upper hand. No credible peacekeeping force is likely to control the conflicting pressures, and there’s “no clear way that anyone can as yet predict whether, much less how, these various conflicts will end,” Cordesman said.