The Iraqi army recently liberated one of ISIS’s final territories in Iraq, al Qaim, in what the U.S.-led Coalition referred to as the “last big fight.” More generally, the once expansive caliphate has lost its strongholds and been reduced to remote territories around the Iraq–Syria borders. Amidst counter-ISIS victories, the Trump administration has claimed credit, while detractors attribute much of the success to Obama era policies.
In one sense, some recent gains against ISIS is inherited from the prior administration. But in the larger scheme, the Obama administration has bestowed a tragic legacy in Iraq that will burden their successors.
One of the less told stories of Iraq is its success in 2008, at which time Coalition Forces, diplomats, and the international community began to gain momentum under the ‘surge’ strategy. By 2010, the once formidable al Qaeda in Iraq had been relegated to the countryside of Mosul, civilian deaths fell from as high as 3,500 per month in late 2006 to below 250 per month, and Iraqi’s, who previously hid in their dark Baghdad homes, could walk the streets and dine out.
Another positive development was the emergence of a non-sectarian Sunni-Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Movement (al Iraqiya), which would win a narrow majority in the 2010 election against Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s State of Law Collation.
Although the victors normally have the first opportunity to form a collation government, Maliki influenced the Iraq courts to sanction his party with a prevenient opportunity to form a government. A nine-month standoff ensued as a result, during which time Maliki retained power while Iran pressured wayward Shiite groups to join Maliki’s coalition.
The U.S. Administration was faced with a decision: to reinforce Iraq’s democratic process; or, to support the Maliki government. As reported by Ned Parker in Foreign Affairs and Politico, Vice President Biden and then Ambassador Hill chose to back the politically stronger Maliki as prime minister through a compromise power sharing arrangement, or the Erbil Agreement.
The outcome was dire. After U.S. troops departed from Iraq at the end of 2011, Maliki reneged on the terms of the Erbil Agreement. Instead, he moved to centralized power, exiled several Sunni leaders, and marginalized Sunni groups in what many analysts believe set fertile soil for the rise of ISIS.
As ISIS grew, the administration was initially slow to react until mid-2014, at which time it pursued a strategy of containment, or what has been referred to as aggressive containment. Aggressive containment sought to restrict ISIS to its territories, while degrading it through air attacks, financial restrictions, and counter-ISIS messaging, in an effort to ultimately marshal the group’s economic, military, and ideological collapse.
Aggressive constrain did eventually curtail ISIS’s expansion in Iraq and Syria; however, it ceded time and maneuverability to the group, which ISIS used to deepen control over its caliphate, raise funds, disseminate propaganda, and expand regionally and internationally.
By the end of 2015, ISIS controlled a territory in Iraq and Syria the size of the country of Georgia, wielded an estimated annual budget between $700-800 million, and recruited (in the preceding 18 months) from 27,000 to 31,000 foreign fighters. Additionally, while geographically contained in Iraq and Syria, the group metastasized through a complex network of affiliates in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Russia (Chechnya), and the Philippines and planted cells in North America, Europe, and Asia.
The continued success of ISIS and rising international attacks prompted the Obama administration to begin a more aggressive campaign in late 2015 to recapture ISIS territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, which successfully began to degrade ISIS’s caliphate. However, by the time ISIS was eradicated from its de facto Iraqi capital of Mosul, much of northern Iraq had been devastated and over three million inhabitants displaced.
The strategy also failed to train and support Sunni groups to fight ISIS, as was done to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS’ predecessor). Instead, counter-ISIS forces relied on Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which grew to an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 fighters. Many of these groups are backed by Iran, and append a wider regional network of Shiite paramilitary groups that are supported or directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Popular Mobilization Front militias have been formerly integrated into Iraq’s security framework (against strong Sunni protests), and four of these groups have recently agreed to form a political list that will run in Iraq’s 2018 elections, further stoking concerns that Iraq will eventually become an Iranian client state. There are also fears that Sunni distress, continued political marginalization, and Iranian interference could revive insurgent groups, while the shadow of Kurdish secession presages internal conflict.
Despite recent counter-ISIS victories, the Trump administration has inherited a largely vexed legacy in Iraq. As such, the administration has slowly begun to address the volatile issue of Kurdish secession and the threat of Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces; however, more will be needed to steady Iraq’s tragic and unnecessary decline.
C. Alexander Ohlers, Ph.D is a former senior analyst for the U.S. Department of State in the Republic of Iraq and the founding director of International Human Development Corporation.