Sinjar and the Afghan model redux

For all of the criticism of Barack Obama’s policies in Iraq and Syria in the past week (re: Hillary Clinton’s interview in The Atlantic), one item has gone unnoticed: the strategy behind the recent airstrikes in Iraq was directly lifted from the Afghan model’s playbook- and it seems to have worked.  American airpower and the Peshmerga on the ground had broken the Islamic State’s (IS) hold on Mount Sinjar, preventing a possible genocide of the Yazidis trapped there.

The Afghan model combines airpower with the use of indigenous and special forces.  The Obama administration’s use of force represented the Afghan model “lite,” as a small team of Special Forces and military advisors were used to assess the situation on Mount Sinjar

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For the time being, the air strikes have had a measure of success, having temporarily beaten back IS’s advance in the Kurdish region and prevented an attempted genocide at Mount Sinjar.  The American air strikes have also proven valuable in beefing up the efforts of the Kurdish Peshmerga.  They have suffered multiple setbacks in the past few weeks, including the loss of the Mosul Dam and several towns.  The U.S. air strikes enabled the Peshmerga to defend the Kurdish autonomous region’s capitol, Erbil, and retake the towns of Gwer and Mahmour.

Problems with the Afghan model going forward

The Afghan Model is only as good as the ground forces of the U.S.’ indigenous allies. Unlike the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan circa 2001, the Peshmerga have not been fighting an incumbent government- or much of anyone- until recently.  If it weren’t for the U.S. air strikes, IS would not have been compelled to disperse its forces.  Unlike the previous generation of Peshmerga fighters known for their hearty resolve, this cohort not only needs weapons, but training.  Furthermore, local forces are only reliable as long as they share our objectives.  In Afghanistan, local forces were of little assistance when it came to searching for Osama bin Laden.  Similar concerns surround working in concert with Iran itself or with Iranian-trained Shiite militias. 

Critics have been quick to point out the obvious: airstrikes are insufficient when it comes to destroying IS. While the majority of the American public supported the air strikes, an overwhelming majority opposes the introduction of U.S. ground forces.  Despite these constraints, the Obama Administration has a few options available to it in Iraq:

Support the emerging government of Haider al-Abadi- Maliki’sdeparture from will not in and of itself bring Iraq’s sectarian tensions to a pass.  However, a unity government that makes good on the promises of voice opportunities that the Sunnis were supposed to receive during the Surge would be a positive start.  Moreover, al-Abadi has received the blessing of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei.

Keep launching airstrikes against IS and arming groups like the Peshmerga- In other words, what it has done in this brief campaign has had a modicum of success.  Provide the Peshmerga with arms and training so they can do more of the fighting so that the U.S. does not have to. 

Re-awake the “Awakening Councils”- The damage Maliki did cannot be understated.  Breaking up the Awakening Councils (or “Sons of Iraq”) is one of the key variables behind the emergence of ISIS, now IS.  The best way to lure them away from Sunni militants is through a combination of (1) giving them influence at the national level, (2) arms and (3) bribes. 

Craft a consistent policy toward Syria- The U.S.’ policy seems to support the same people in Syria it is opposing in Iraq.  There are many things to dislike about the Assad regime: its use of chemical weapons, the fact that it is a dictatorship, its serial abuse of human rights before the Arab Spring.  However, it is not as bad as IS.  For now, we should make peace with the fact that Bashir al-Assad is the lesser of two evils and, when necessary, carry the fight to Syria.

Work with Iran where possible- Some experts have suggested that Iran is one of the keys that could unlock the Iraq problem.  To the extent that a nuclear deal facilitates U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Iraq, all the better.  Some may worry that if we fail to close a nuclear deal with Iran, we will not be able to work with them in Iraq, or, that we should make concessions on nuclear items to gain their support in Iraq.  This would be a mistake.  We should not subordinate one interest to the other.  Iran has a stronger interest than we do in preventing a radical Sunni-dominated regime from emerging in Baghdad. 

The limited air strikes President Obama ordered against IS in Iraq have had a limited but positive effect, having helped to halt the Sunni militant group’s advance and attempt to mass murder the Yazidis.  However, the humanitarian crisis is not over and the Islamic State has not been eliminated.  In order to accomplish these goals while limiting American involvement, the Obama White House will have to bolster the new Iraqi government, switch sides in Syria and work with Iran. 

Wolf is a fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus.  He can be followed @albertwolf82

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