In the latest development in Iraq, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) managed to capture the city of Mosul. What is surprising is not that Mosul was overrun, but how it fell:
Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Isis extremists roamed freely on Wednesday through the streets of Mosul, openly surprised at the ease with which they took Iraq's second largest city after three days of sporadic fighting.The New York Times further elaborated:
WASHINGTON — The stunning collapse of Iraq’s army in a string of cities across the north reflects poor leadership, declining troop morale, broken equipment and a sharp decline in training since the last American advisers left the country in 2011, American military and intelligence officials said Thursday.
Four of Iraq’s 14 army divisions virtually abandoned their posts, stripped off their uniforms and fled when confronted in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit by militant groups, principally fighters aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the officials said.
The divisions that collapsed were said to be made up of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish troops. Other units made up of mainly Shiite troops and stationed closer to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, were believed to be more loyal to the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, and would most likely put up greater resistance, according to the officials.
In one instance a few years ago, a leading Sunni general in northern Iraq whom American officers lauded for his operational skills was ousted and replaced by a Shiite officer. And since the last American forces left Iraq, United States officials said the government in Baghdad had failed to finance and maintain the same training missions.Basically, the Iraqi military simply disintegrated. Why? The politicization of the military, Maliki's overreaching political ambitions, and his splitting the society based on religious lines, where he favored the Shiites more than the Sunnis, making the Sunni population to actually sympathize with the militants (which I predicted back in 2011), have all played big roles here.
So how bad is the current situation in Iraq?
Actually, not that bad. Granted, the fall of Mosul and how it fell were demoralizing to both the government of Iraq and the pundits in the United States. Still, ISIS is not THAT powerful. The fact is that ISIS is a very small force (though disciplined enough to rout the demoralized Iraqi army) and overextended, as it is also preoccupied in Syria and, at the same time, fighting the tribal insurgents (the Anbar Awakening members), as noted in this interesting analysis:
ISIS still faces serious challenges in Anbar, including the potential for a broader tribal-government coalition that could push it out of the city. A political deal with the federal government to facilitate this coalition, if reached, would almost certainly lead local military councils and tribal insurgents to switch sides. The latter, despite their deep mistrust of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would prefer to be reintegrated into state institutions than to harbor a terrorist organization. This is compounded by the losses ISIS has faced in Syria, where the Free Syrian Army and some Islamist factions including Jabhat al-Nusra are pushing back against them, which will restrict the flow of militants into Anbar. In recent months, ISIS has ceded chunks of territory in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor Province on the Iraqi border, with most of its fighters retreating to Raqqa Province, deeper within Syria. Other fighters have apparently crossed into Iraq, as suggested by the killing of top ISIS leader Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Kuwaiti near Ramadi in late March.So, I really doubt that Baghdad is going to fall anytime soon. ISIS could take over Mosul because it was defended by ineffective army and as noted in this Foreign Policy article, ISIS was already in Mosul for quite a while anyway, before it took over the city." So there is still time for the Iraqi government to actually get its act together and get rid of the militants.
The problem, however, is that the Maliki government is really good in alienating or insulting any possible Sunni allies -- and worse, also attacking them militarily. And at this point, with the situation deteriorating and his political position in peril, Maliki will likely raise the stakes, using the banner of religious nationalism and violence. This option of course will be supported by his Shiites brethren, jealously guarding their power and fearing another dictatorship by the Sunni minorities. Already there are reports that Iran has sent Revolutionary Guard troops to help the beleaguered Maliki government.
In essence, this is a situation that spiraling out of control due to Maliki's incompetence.
So what should the United States do?
Obama is correct when he made an argument that Iraqi government had to make political changes. At the same time, however, the best option for the United States is probably to send troops to reimpose order.
Granted, this is a very unpopular option. It is also very expensive. At the same time, however, there are no "safe" options, such as lobbing missiles or aerial bombings, because the United States doesn't have any information of who to bomb, as noted by the CNN:
Among other complications, U.S. officials don't have good intelligence about where militants are. Even if they did, the militants don't have the type of targets -- command and control centers, air defense sites, military bases -- that lend themselves to aerial attacks, the officials said on condition of not being identified.More importantly, the United States is seen as an honest broker that would not take sides -- and actually perform much better than the Iraqi army in maintaining order. Keep in mind that the United States managed to make deals with the Sunni tribes and created the first Anbar Awakening that managed to pacify Iraq and create the conditions for the United States to be able to withdraw its troops.
Unfortunately, Obama is not entertaining this option because he never wanted to take ownership of the Iraq mess. It is easy to blame Bush for invading Iraq in the first place with insufficient troops, thus setting the condition for Iraq to self-implode. That said, Obama is elected as the President of the United States and he needs to start taking ownership of Iraq, and as noted in my twitter conversation with Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College:
.@YohanesSulaiman @20committee Exactly. Even if it's not your war, you can't pick & choose which legacy problems you'll accept as President.My guess is that Obama will, at most,
— Tom Nichols (@TheWarRoom_Tom) June 13, 2014
In the end, I doubt Obama is going to send drones into Iraq. Obama will simply muddle through, exhorting Maliki to make political changes that the latter would ignore (or do very slowly with just cosmetic changes), which in turn will give Obama an excuse to do nothing.
@Pradhana_Adi @ForeignPolicy The keyword there is "considering."By muddling through, though, Obama might recreate another Syria -- a de facto partition between the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds. And this, in the end, would only create a breeding place for more extremists.
— Yohanes Sulaiman (@YohanesSulaiman) June 13, 2014
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