Obama’s Iraq strategy boils down to ‘don’t lose’

Updated July 09, 2015

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Obama might leave as the president who lost the Iraq War, not the president who ended it. — Official White House photo by Pete Souza
Obama might leave as the president who lost the Iraq War, not the president who ended it. — Official White House photo by Pete Souza

If you’ve been following the crisis in Greece, you may not have noticed, but President Barack Obama held a news conference on Monday at the Pentagon that will be significant for his legacy. What was important was not so much what he said as what he didn’t say: that there’s any chance of defeating the self-styled Islamic State group in the foreseeable future. Instead, the president emphasised that the fight against the insurgent group will be “long” and that experience has shown that it can be “degraded” only with effective local ground forces.

In effect, Obama was acknowledging that when he leaves office, the IS will still be around. And he was signalling that his real objective now is to keep the militants from entering Baghdad before his presidency ends. If this sounds familiar, it should: it’s basically the same strategy the US has been taking toward the Taliban in Afghanistan. Obama apparently thinks he can’t win the IS war any more than he can win in Afghanistan — but he also doesn’t want to lose either one.

So why, you might well ask, would Obama bother to hold a Pentagon news conference about IS if he had little more to say than that the US supports the Iraqi plan to retake Ramadi?

The answer, almost certainly, is that he was trying to do two incompatible things. First, he wanted to make it appear as if the US and Iraq have a coordinated strategy against IS.

Several months ago, the Pentagon wanted the Iraqis to focus on taking back the strategically important city of Mosul.

The Iraqis, however, wanted to focus on Ramadi, which isn’t as significant militarily, but is politically important as the capital of the Sunni province of Anbar. If Ramadi remains in IS hands, then Iraq increasingly looks like a Shia state, which harms the legitimacy of the Baghdad government.

Because the Iraqis have to provide the ground forces for an invasion, the negotiation was a bit one-sided. What’s more, if the US withholds air support, the anti-IS efforts are guaranteed to fail, which would also be bad for Obama. Inevitably, the State Department prevailed on Obama to make the best of a bad situation and agree with the Iraqis to try to retake Ramadi first. Confirming this approach at the Pentagon is supposed to signal that the military is now on board, too.

The second, contradictory thing Obama was trying to do on Monday was lower expectations for the fight against IS — and shift blame and responsibility for failure to the Iraqis. Obama made it very clear that success in Iraq is dependent on the availability of reliable local ground forces. So far Iraqi government troops have had little success against IS. Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias have done a bit better — but the US doesn’t want them fighting in Sunni- dominated areas, lest their presence contribute to still deeper sectarian tensions.

By focusing on the importance of a local effort, Obama was saying that the effort against Ramadi may not succeed.

And he was also saying that if it does fail, the fault will lie with the Iraqi government troops, not with the US. You can see why this message may not exactly inspire confidence that the Iraqis and the US are really on board together.

The shifting of responsibility in the news conference certainly doesn’t signal that the US is committed to a long-term fight against IS, but rather that the continued commitment depends on the Iraqis. So what, then, is the Obama administration’s real strategy?

The tragic truth is that, at present, the strategy appears to be one of containment. Announcing a campaign against Ramadi that depends on Iraqi troops is pretty close to announcing that no one in the US establishment is counting on a meaningful win in the foreseeable future. If IS were to fall in Ramadi, then Mosul would be the next logical target — but Obama didn’t say so, probably because it would sound like a game plan that might fail to materialise.

What the Obama administration can’t tolerate is for more of Iraq — namely, parts of Baghdad — to fall into IS hands.

The closest parallel is the situation in Afghanistan, both now and toward the end of the Bush administration.

President George W. Bush stayed in Afghanistan after his administration judged the war there wasn’t winnable — because he feared that a withdrawal would lead to the fall of Kabul, and the Saigon-like scenario of terrified, miserable flight. For complicated political reasons, Obama then took on the Afghan war as his own project — and he, too failed.

Now the US has announced its intention to keep troops in Afghanistan into 2017 — because Obama doesn’t want a spectacular defeat on his hands any more than Bush did. If he kicks the can down the road, maybe his successor can negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.

Baghdad is fast becoming the new Kabul. Obama must keep up the facade of efforts against IS, and of course he’ll be happy if the Iraqis score some victories. But his underlying objective must be to keep the militants on the defensive so they don’t mount an attack on the outskirts of Baghdad. If they do, and if government troops were to perform as poorly as they mostly have done, the city could enter a phase of panicked chaos. Shia militias with Iranian backing would fight back with US air support — but the city could still end up divided, with IS in control of some Sunni neighbourhoods.

That would leave Obama as the president who lost the Iraq War, not the president who ended it. Which leaves you wondering: so long as IS exists, how exactly can any president leave Iraq once and for all?

—By arrangement with Bloomberg-The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2015

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