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Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy
Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
When Measuring ISIS’s “Resurgence”, Use the Right Standard
When Measuring ISIS’s “Resurgence”, Use the Right Standard

Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy

Against the odds, the U.S. military surge contributed to a significant reduction in violence. Its achievements should not be understated. But in the absence of the fundamental political changes in Iraq the surge was meant to facilitate, its successes will remain insufficient, fragile and reversible.

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Executive Summary

This is the second of two companion reports on Iraq after the Surge, which Crisis Group is publishing simultaneously, with identical Executive Summaries and policy Recommendations. Part I analyses changes in the Sunni landscape. Part II analyses the state of political progress.

Against the odds, the U.S. military surge contributed to a significant reduction in violence. Its achievements should not be understated. But in the absence of the fundamental political changes in Iraq the surge was meant to facilitate, its successes will remain insufficient, fragile and reversible. The ever-more relative lull is an opportunity for the U.S. to focus on two missing ingredients: pressuring the Iraqi government to take long overdue steps toward political compromise and altering the regional climate so that Iraq’s neighbours use their leverage to encourage that compromise and make it stick. As shown in these two companion reports, this entails ceasing to provide the Iraqi government with unconditional military support; reaching out to what remains of the insurgency; using its leverage to encourage free and fair provincial elections and progress toward a broad national dialogue and compact; and engaging in real diplomacy with all Iraq’s neighbours, Iran and Syria included.

Many factors account for the reduction in violence: the surge in some cases benefited from, in others encouraged, and in the remainder produced, a series of politico-military shifts affecting the Sunni and Shiite communities. But there is little doubt that U.S. field commanders displayed sophistication and knowledge of local dynamics without precedent during a conflict characterised from the outset by U.S. policy misguided in its assumptions and flawed in its execution. A conceptual revolution within the military leadership gave U.S. forces the ability to carry out new policies and take advantage of new dynamics. Had they remained mired in past conceptions, propitious evolutions on the ground notwithstanding, the situation today would be far bleaker.

One of the more remarkable changes has been the realignment of tribal elements in Anbar, known as the sahwat, and of former insurgents, collectively known as the “Sons of Iraq”. This was largely due to increased friction over al-Qaeda in Iraq’s brutal tactics, proclamation of an Islamic state and escalating assaults on ordinary citizens. But the tribal and insurgent decisions also were aided by enhanced military pressure on the jihadi movement resulting from augmented U.S. troops: in both instances U.S. forces demonstrated more subtle understanding of existing tensions and intra-Sunni fault lines. Overall, the military campaign calmed areas that had become particularly violent and inaccessible, such as Anbar and several Baghdad neighbourhoods, and essentially halted sectarian warfare.

But on their own, without an overarching strategy for Iraq and the region, these tactical victories cannot turn into lasting success. The mood among Sunnis could alter. The turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq is not necessarily the end of the story. While some tribal chiefs, left in the cold after Saddam’s fall, found in the U.S. a new patron ready and able to provide resources, this hardly equates with a genuine, durable trend toward Sunni Arab acceptance of the political process. For these chiefs, as for the former insurgents, it mainly is a tactical alliance, forged to confront an immediate enemy (al-Qaeda in Iraq) or the central one (Iran). Any accommodation has been with the U.S., not between them and their government. It risks unravelling if the ruling parties do not agree to greater power sharing and if Sunni Arabs become convinced the U.S. is not prepared to side with them against Iran or its perceived proxies; at that point, confronting the greater foe (Shiite militias or the Shiite-dominated government) once again will take precedence.

Forces combating the U.S. have been weakened but not vanquished. The insurgency has been cut down to more manageable size and, after believing victory was within reach, now appears eager for negotiations with the U.S. Still, what remains is an enduring source of violence and instability that could be revived should political progress lag or the Sons of Iraq experiment falter. Even al-Qaeda in Iraq cannot be decisively defeated through U.S. military means alone. While the organisation has been significantly weakened and its operational capacity severely degraded, its deep pockets, fluid structure and ideological appeal to many young Iraqis mean it will not be irrevocably vanquished. The only lasting solution is a state that extends its intelligence and coercive apparatus throughout its territory, while offering credible alternatives and socio-economic opportunities to younger generations.

The U.S. approach suffers from another drawback. It is bolstering a set of local actors operating beyond the state’s realm or the rule of law and who impose their authority by force of arms. The sahwat in particular has generated new divisions in an already divided society and new potential sources of violence in an already multilayered conflict. Some tribes have benefited heavily from U.S. assistance, others less so. This redistribution of power almost certainly will engender instability and rivalry, which in turn could trigger intense feuds – an outcome on which still-active insurgent groups are banking. None of this constitutes progress toward consolidation of the central government or institutions; all of it could amount to little more than the U.S. boosting specific actors in an increasingly fragmented civil war and unbridled scramble for power and resources. Short-term achievement could threaten long-term stability.

By President Bush’s own standards, the military surge was useful primarily insofar as it led the Iraqi government to forge a national consensus, recalibrate power relations and provide Sunni Arabs in particular with a sense their future was secure. Observers may legitimately differ over how many of the administration’s so-called benchmarks have been met. None could reasonably dispute that the government’s performance has been utterly lacking. Its absence of capacity cannot conceal or excuse its absence of will. True to its sectarian nature and loath to share power, the ruling coalition has actively resisted compromise. Why not? It has no reason to alienate its constituency, jeopardise its political makeup or relinquish its perks and privileges when inaction has no consequence and the U.S. will always back it.

The surge is the latest instalment in a stop-and-start project to build a functioning state and legitimate institutions. All along, the fundamental challenge has been to settle major disputes and end a chaotic scramble for power, positions and resources in a society that, after a reign of terror, finds itself without accepted rules of the game or means to enforce them. Politically, this conflict has expressed itself in disputes, both violent and non-violent, over the structure of the state system (federalism/regionalisation and the degree of power devolution); ownership, management and distribution of oil and gas wealth (a hydrocarbons law); internal boundaries (particularly of the Kurdistan region); mechanisms for settling relations between post-Saddam “winners” and “losers” (for example, de-Baathification, amnesty, reintegration); and the way in which groups gain power (elections vs. force).

A small number of agreements have been reached and are regularly trumpeted. But they have made virtually no difference. Without basic political consensus over the nature of the state and the distribution of power and resources, passage of legislation is only the first step, and often the least meaningful one. Most of these laws are ambiguous enough to ensure that implementation is postponed, or that the battle over substance becomes a struggle over interpretation. Moreover, in the absence of legitimate and effective state and local institutions, implementation by definition will be partisan and politicised. What matters is not principally whether a law is passed in the Green Zone. It is how the law is carried out in the Red Zone.

Three things are becoming increasingly clear: First, the issues at the heart of the political struggle cannot be solved individually or sequentially. Secondly, the current governing structure does not want, nor is it able, to take advantage of the surge to produce agreement on fundamentals. Thirdly, without cooperation from regional actors, progress will be unsustainable, with dissatisfied groups seeking help from neighbouring states to promote their interests. All this suggests that the current piecemeal approach toward deal making should be replaced with efforts to bring about a broad agreement that deals with federalism, oil and internal boundaries; encourages reconciliation/accommodation; and ensures provincial and national elections as a means of renewing and expanding the political class. It also suggests yet again the need for the U.S. to engage in both genuine negotiations with the insurgency and for vigorous regional diplomacy to achieve agreement on rules of the game for outside actors in Iraq.

In the U.S., much of the debate has focused on whether to maintain or withdraw troops. But this puts the question the wrong way, and spawns misguided answers. The issue, rather, should be whether the U.S. is pursuing a policy that, by laying the foundations of legitimate, functional institutions and rules of the game, will minimise the costs to itself, the Iraqi people and regional stability of a withdrawal that sooner or later must occur – or whether it is simply postponing a scenario of Iraq’s collapse into a failed and fragmented state, protracted and multilayered violence, as well as increased foreign meddling.

The surge clearly has contributed to a series of notable successes. But the question is: Now what? What higher purpose will they serve? For the first four years of the war, the U.S. administration pursued a lofty strategy – the spread of democracy; Iraq as a regional model – detached from any realistic tactics. The risk today is that, having finally adopted a set of smart, pragmatic tactics, it finds itself devoid of any overarching strategy.

Baghdad/Istanbul/Damascus/Brussels, 30 April 2008

An Iraqi fighter with the Popular Mobilisation Forces inspects the site of the Islamic State (IS) group attack, May 3, 2020. AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

When Measuring ISIS’s “Resurgence”, Use the Right Standard

Memories of the Islamic State’s 2014-2015 “caliphate” peak in Iraq and Syria colour views of its present capacity, leading officials and observers either to exaggerate or understate its threat. In Iraq, the group does pose a danger. Gauging it properly is key to containing it.

On the night of Friday, 1 May, the Islamic State (ISIS) launched one of its most ambitious operations in Iraq in recent memory. Several units of the jihadist group converged on Iraqi paramilitary forces securing a rural section of Salahuddin province, engaging them in an hours-long attack that ended with ten paramilitaries dead. The 1 May assault followed a month in which ISIS had become more direct and aggressive in its attacks on Iraqi security forces.

A military official in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the U.S.-led multilateral partnership that has supported Iraq’s fight against the group, noted the complexity of the Salahuddin attack and several others that weekend. He also confirmed that the preceding month had seen a postural shift from the group, even if there had not been a qualitative improvement in its equipment and tactics.

Yet he also emphasised how far ISIS remains from the height of its prowess in 2014, when it could marshal large motorised columns to roll across the desert, seize swathes of both Iraq and neighbouring Syria, and declare a “caliphate”. “Are they [ISIS] recruiting anybody?” asked the Coalition official. “No. Are they putting out a cool video that’s getting put on the front page of the Daily Mirror? No. Are they able to raise money from taxes, oil wells, foreign donations – a little bit, but mostly no. … So their strength has to be measured in those terms”.

In its recent flurry of activity, ISIS has demonstrated nothing close to its capability and reach circa 2014 or 2015.

All of which is true. In its recent flurry of activity, ISIS has demonstrated nothing close to its capability and reach circa 2014 or 2015 – or even its potency in the preceding years, during which the group laid the groundwork for its eventual seizure of territorial control.

But ISIS’s “caliphate” apex was also a unique, anomalous moment. And memories of that moment have distorted subsequent analysis of the group’s insurgency in Iraq, years later.

The result is that both hyperbolic claims that ISIS has returned to the sort of operations and capabilities that immediately preceded its 2014 “caliphate” and attempts like the Coalition official’s to tamp down that alarmism are often framed and argued in terms of that 2014-2015 “caliphate” peak. ISIS’s current capabilities end up being measured relative to a historical experience that was shocking and terrible, but also likely an outlier.

Crisis Group itself has warned of ISIS’s “resurgence”. But that resurgence, if it happens, probably will not look like 2014. Meanwhile, using this “caliphate” standard may make it harder to discern changes in the group’s operations that are incremental but still meaningful for assessing the threat posed by its insurgent campaign – changes like the shift over the course of April, which seems to have presaged the genuine and deadly qualitative escalation on 1 May.

ISIS Leans Forward

The 1 May operation was apparently planned and complex. ISIS first attacked local tribal auxiliaries belonging to Iraq’s paramilitary al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force south of the Salahuddin city of Tikrit. The jihadists assaulted and killed one group of six Hashd fighters, only to hit incoming reinforcements with an improvised explosive device (IED) the group claims it planted in advance, killing three more. Another Hashd fighter was killed in a separate, simultaneous attack. The ISIS units advanced along four axes, according to a Hashd official, who also said some militants approached on skiffs crossing the Tigris.

The new frequency of these direct engagements contrasted with the group’s previous preference for asymmetric attacks.

Throughout April, ISIS had seemingly been aiming more directly at Iraqi security forces. According to its own reporting, as well as diplomats and a military official who spoke to Crisis Group, the jihadist group initiated more head-on firefights with those security forces, as well as more daytime attacks. The new frequency of these direct engagements contrasted with the group’s previous preference for asymmetric attacks on Iraqi security personnel – relying more heavily on means like roadside bombs and sniper attacks – and the steady targeting of rural civilians.

As a Western diplomat from a Coalition member country put it: “They’re bolder, more aggressive. … They use IEDs, as usual. But more and more they engage in firefights, whether with the [Iraqi security forces] or [the Hashd] – and they kill”.

ISIS’s latest, more assertive attacks have been concentrated in a rural belt reaching across Iraq’s centre north, in Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. The stretch includes territories disputed between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region. Since ISIS’s 2017 territorial defeat in Iraq, its guerrillas have taken shelter in especially rugged terrain in these areas. Over April, the group also seemingly escalated attacks on the western edge of Anbar province, along the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian borders.

“You have some remnants of the organisation, cells, that try to carry out operations here and there – in desert areas, like western Anbar, or on plains, ravines and mountains”, Iraqi defence spokesman Brigadier General Yehia Rasool told Crisis Group. “Areas where the nature of the terrain is difficult, which are hard to totally control”. In Iraq’s disputed territories, the organisation also exploits the stretches of no-man’s land separating federal Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, as well as failures of coordination between them.

ISIS’s April attacks did not mark a qualitative escalation, insofar as they evinced no obvious improvement in the group’s underlying capabilities. The group’s dispersed units used the same uncomplicated tactics they have adopted since 2017 – small guerrilla bands executing one-off attacks with small arms and IEDs.

Using the same means, ISIS units appeared to be making new choices in terms of target selection and timing.

Still, even if the attacks were not qualitatively better or more complex, they did seem qualitatively different. Using the same means, ISIS units appeared to be making new choices in terms of target selection and timing.

On 28 April, ISIS attempted a suicide attack on an intelligence service headquarters in Kirkuk’s provincial capital – an operation with scant precedent since 2017, given how the group has avoided suicide bombings and conserved manpower after losing its territorial control. Security personnel engaged the lone attacker as he approached, and he detonated his explosives before reaching the building. Several men were wounded but none killed. Delivering a single attacker equipped with an explosive belt for a failed attack thus mostly showcased the group’s intentions, not its capabilities.

The group’s coordinated attack on 1 May, however, is different – a real qualitative escalation after the group’s attitudinal change the preceding month.

Unclear Causation

ISIS’s latest attacks are likely an attempt to force Iraqi security forces to retreat into fortified bases and cities, while intimidating local civilians into non-cooperation with the Iraqi state. Such motives would follow a standard insurgent logic, one the group has itself articulated in its publications. In effect, the group has written, government forces would be ceding the countryside by moving into cities and hardened facilities. Then, they “would become encircled in the urban areas they are attempting to secure, which would turn little by little into fortresses”. At that point, ISIS could transform its units from guerrilla bands carrying out limited attacks into “semi-conventional formations that can – with the permission of God Almighty – carry out coordinated, medium-size or even large operations, in terms of their range and the nature of their targets”. But if this logic is fairly clear, why the group has escalated now is less so.

The attacks come after months of tensions and tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iran-linked Hashd factions.

The attacks come after months of tensions and tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iran-linked Hashd factions that have disrupted counter-ISIS cooperation between Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led Coalition. On 3 January, the U.S. killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Hashd chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike as the two men left Baghdad airport. Since then, Iraq has been beset by recurrent violence between the U.S. and Iran-linked Hashd factions. In addition, the country has been riven by controversy over whether to expel U.S. forces and end what Iraqi opponents of the U.S. presence call an “occupation”. Over March and April, U.S. and Coalition forces withdrew from a number of forward Iraqi bases, where they were exposed to attack, into a few safer compounds, claiming the move was “long-planned”.

Iraqi counter-ISIS operations have nonetheless continued, and, after an initial interruption in January, so has at least some Coalition support. “We never had a large number of troops [in those bases] anyway”, said the Coalition official. “And in the past week, the Coalition has provided support for Iraqi forces, including drones and airstrikes. We didn’t need infantry sitting in Kirkuk to do that”. Yet it is unclear how the Coalition forces’ withdrawal from these bases – where they worked alongside some of the Iraqi units most directly involved in fighting ISIS – has affected counter-ISIS cooperation and the Coalition’s situational awareness in insurgent hot-spots. Moreover, tensions between the U.S. and Iran’s Iraqi allies have had other effects. According to Western officials, for example, some U.S. surveillance assets that had been used for counter-ISIS operations have been diverted to “force protection” – keeping watch for paramilitary attacks on U.S. soldiers.

ISIS has evidently followed these developments, and in particular the base withdrawals, referencing them in its weekly newsletter for members and sympathisers. It is unclear what conclusions the group has drawn, however, or if they informed its field units’ operational thinking.

COVID-19 does seem to have some impact on Iraqi security forces’ readiness.

ISIS may also be seizing on Iraqi security forces’ distraction by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, ISIS enjoined its members and sympathisers worldwide to capitalise on their enemies’ preoccupation with coronavirus and to continue carrying out attacks. The withdrawal of foreign Coalition trainers from Iraq because of COVID-19 and a related halt to training Iraqi forces seems unlikely to have had an immediate effect on counter-ISIS efforts. But COVID-19 does seem to have some impact on Iraqi security forces’ readiness. Some have been tasked with enforcing curfews and other public health measures, according to military officials. A second security unit that had been based near the paramilitaries targeted on 1 May was reportedly redeployed to urban areas to help implement COVID-19 measures.

“The army has a number of missions; among them is this humanitarian effort”, said Iraqi defence spokesman Rasool about the security forces’ role in enforcing COVID-19 measures, though he emphasised that counter-ISIS efforts were also continuing.

Iraq has also suffered through a protracted political vacuum, going without a functioning government from December until a new government was formed earlier this month. The country has also faced a deepening economic crisis. ISIS may have also timed a surge of attacks to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The coincidence of these various factors in Iraq makes it hard to clearly identify a single cause for ISIS’s latest moves. As a Coalition member country diplomat said: “It’s too early to draw conclusions. But it’s clear something is happening”.

An Unlikely 2014 Redux

Still, ISIS’s current insurgent attacks do not compare to the outsized threat the group posed in the past.

ISIS wants to communicate that it still has this capability. But really, its capabilities are low.

As Rasool, the Iraqi defence spokesman, stressed, ISIS is no longer blowing up massive car bombs or seizing territory. Speaking before the 1 May attack, he said the organisation has reverted to its “old style – one-off attacks, here and there, to send a media message, and to raise the morale of the group’s members who may now be lying low. It wants to communicate that it still has this capability. But really, its capabilities are low; they don’t rise to the quality they were previously”.

Indeed, ISIS insurgent activity is limited mostly to the country’s rural periphery. Iraqis who lived through the group’s 2014 rampage, as well as, before that, its years-long campaign of mass-casualty bombings and mafia-style violence in places like Mosul, know that ISIS’s violence is much reduced.

In parts of the countryside, said a Kirkuk-area tribal sheikh, ISIS “is present, and it’s merciless”. But, he added, “It’s not in cities or urban areas. It’s out in the [rural] districts and subdistricts; in the bush, or in ravines and mountains”.

The impulse to discourage residual ISIS scaremongering is understandable, particularly as Iraq has worked to recover from the war to defeat the group and to address the country’s many, accumulated non-ISIS problems. It is all the more reasonable given the at-times melodramatic descriptions of the putative threat. Analysts have often couched warnings of ISIS’s possible resurgence in terms of the group’s imminent return to territorial control, or to the 2013 and 2014 periods that anticipated its “caliphate”.

In the most recent issue of ISIS’s newsletter, the group itself noted the alarmed media coverage of its escalating operations, as part of “the great shock [the group’s] latest attacks had yielded in enemy ranks”. ISIS’s enemies “are comparing the situation today to how things were before [Iraq’s] cities fell into the mujahideen’s hands” in 2014, the newsletter reported.

The awful spectacle of ISIS circa 2014 and 2015 has also helped frame discussions of jihadist insurgents far from Iraq. To take one example, U.S., French and West African officials recently told the Washington Post that “to avoid scrutiny from the West, [West African jihadist] groups are not declaring ‘caliphates’”.

Now, after the years-long, destructive battle to dislodge ISIS, both Iraqis and their international partners are alert to the group’s threat.

But setting aside terminological issues – local ISIS affiliates would not announce a second “caliphate” to rival the one the main branch declared in 2014, which the group still insists is extant and valid – the proto-state that existed in Iraq and Syria is unlikely to reappear.

In 2014, ISIS seized on an exceptional historical circumstance. The Arab world was in epochal flux, as longstanding incumbent regimes had fallen, and national borders seemed suddenly subject to revision. Money, arms and thousands of foreign fighters had poured into Syria’s roiling insurgency, which by then had diminished the Syrian state’s writ to a fraction of the country. ISIS – whose origins lay in neighbouring Iraq – used the non-state void in Syria as an extensive, resource-rich rear base, from which it prepared an Iraqi surge. In Iraq, the group had already infiltrated a mass Sunni mobilisation against the central state, a movement that was encouraged publicly by Sunni states in the region. Too many people – not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in the West – were too slow to recognise ISIS’s threat. By the time the group had swept through large sections of Iraq and Syria in the summer, then doused local municipal buildings with its trademark black paint, it was too late.

Now, after the years-long, destructive battle to dislodge ISIS, both Iraqis and their international partners are alert to the group’s threat. ISIS maintains that its ultimate aim is a return to territorial control and administration, after an extended war of attrition. But while the organisation remains dangerous – in Iraq and elsewhere – it can no longer surprise its enemies in the same way.

All of which is to say that a redux of 2014 – that type of military blitz, the return of the “caliphate”, or renewed ISIS control of more than a handful of peripheral, rural areas – is hard to imagine. The group would evidently like to duplicate its 2014 surge. But the confluence of factors that permitted it is not there and arguably seems unlikely to be there any time soon. Gauging the organisation’s capabilities in those terms, therefore, is not useful.

It is crucial to stay tuned to subtler shifts in ISIS’s activity, below the 2014 threshold.

In Iraq, ISIS’s “resurgence” seems likely to look less like 2014 and the “caliphate,” and more like the group’s 1 May attack in Salahuddin. That prospect might not animate an international audience, the way warnings of another 2014 would. But for Iraqis – particularly in the rural areas most vulnerable to the group’s attacks – that sort of resurgent ISIS would again be terrifying and lethal.

It is thus crucial to stay tuned to subtler shifts in ISIS’s activity, below the 2014 threshold – qualitative “change”, if not necessarily qualitative “escalation”. That is the sort of change that may alert Iraq and its international partners to the need for a course correction.