Thursday, December 10, 2015

Why Washington Doesn’t Understand Iraq, Interview With Douglas Ollivant

While the United States and Iraq are erstwhile allies in the war against the Islamic State, Washington seems be ignorant of Iraqi politics and the effects their statements can have in Baghdad. There have been repeated examples of this from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter saying that Iraqis had no will to fighter after Ramadi fell in May to Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham’s recent call for U.S. ground forces to be sent to Iraq, which they claimed would cause no problems with Iraqis. To help explain the disconnect between the two countries is Douglas Ollivant who is a Senior Fellow at the New American Foundation and Senior Vice President at Mantid International, which does business in Iraq. Ollivant is also an Iraq War veteran. He can be followed on Twitter @DouglasOllivant.

1. The United States occupied Iraq from 2003-2011, and today is leading a coalition to help Baghdad fight the Islamic State, but it seems like the two countries are always speaking at cross purposes. Many statements coming from Washington are considered insulting like Carter’s “no will to fight” or are an affront to national sovereignty like talk about sending U.S. ground troops to the country. Why do you think American officials and politicians consistently make these kinds of comments despite their negative reception in Iraq?

Some of these comments are truly baffling.  Let us begin with Secretary Carter’s “no will to fight” statement.  Even were this to be true—and I think the record shows not to be the case, post-Mosul—you are still left with the obvious question, “Why say it?”  Let’s be candid; we have a multitude of allies who have “no will to fight.”  It is inconceivable that a senior defense official would say that about one of the allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, for instance.  This despite the commonplace that the acronym ISAF really stands for ‘I See Americans Fighting,” clearly implying that the bulk of these allies have “no will to fight.”  But instead we—properly—have taken an approach of “All brothers valorous; all sisters virtuous” with this coalition.  So why is it okay to make such a clear diplomatic snub regarding Iraq?  I can’t wrap my head around this thought process.

But then we move beyond the mere insulting of an ally to talk of formally or informally breaking up their country.  When senior congressional officials propose directly supplying the Iraqi Kurds or the Sunni tribes with weapons, this is a clear violation of the national sovereignty of an ally.  And as the recent Turkish incursions have shown, Iraqis of all stripes remain very touchy about national sovereignty.  I think Baghdad has gotten used to the repeated calls for a Kurdish state, but when proposals for a Sunni state also pop up (despite recent polling that shows the Sunni to be even more dedicated to a unified Iraqi state than are the Shia), this is seen as an American plan, or plot, to break up Iraq.

2. It seems like whenever there is a debate about military aid to Iraq members of Congress bring up arming the Kurds and Sunnis directly without going through the central government. Why do these ideas keep on coming up in Washington and how do Iraqi politicians perceive them?

I think that in each of these cases there is a well-organized and well-funded lobby—Kurds and their business allies in the first case and the Gulf States and those handling their money in the second—that is vested in the breakup of the Iraqi state.  I think those behind these debates are concerned much less about arms and fighting Daesh and much more about the creation of an independent Kurdistan, in the first case, and the weakening of the (democratic) Baghdad government, relative to the surrounding (authoritarian) Sunni states, in the second. 

This demonstrates what we already knew.  That despite the advent of Daesh or the Iraqi state, all actors in the region are continuing to advance their political aims, most of which pre-date the advent of the Islamic State.

But to answer your question directly, these proposals are seen as an attempt to cut Iraq into manageable pieces that can then be more easily manipulated by the United States.  These proposals also reinforce the street rumors that the United States is the hidden hand supporting and promoting Daesh.  Playing into existing conspiracy theories is not helpful.

3. The United States played a large role in getting Prime Minister Haider Abadi appointed to office and supports his government. What kind of position is he put in when Americans make these types of statements?

Haider al-Abadi is undoubtedly the most pro-American figure one can imagine emerging in Iraqi politics at this point.  This also means that he is on the blame line for American political rhetoric, as he is seen as “America’s guy.”  So when senior American figures insult his Army, talk about arming sub-groups inside Iraq, or openly promote the breakup of his country, we are weakening his political power relative to his opponents.  Let’s be very frank on this point.  Those who make these statements are strengthening the more Iranian-influenced factions that are arrayed against an embattled Prime Minister Abadi.  It amazes me that some of the most anti-Iranian factions in the United States continue to make statements that aid and abet Iranian aims in Iraq.

4. Overall, how is the U.S. perceived by Iraqis today and how is it doing promoting its role in the war against IS within the country?

It is pretty well documented that most Iraqis believe that America is supporting Daesh in Iraq.  Liz Sly’s Washington Post story most recently covered this pretty well.  But the story is more nuanced, and there are two versions of it—what I call the “crazy” and “not crazy” versions.  The crazy version is that the United States is directly sponsoring Daesh for its own unclear reasons and has helicopters performing resupply to Daesh units.  That is just crazy, and I tell this to those who repeat these stories.  But there is a second, more nuanced version.  In this version, Daesh comes about with ideology from Saudi Arabia, money from Qatar, and supply lines through Turkey.  All three of the states are U.S. allies.  So couldn’t the U.S. stop them if they wanted?  And since the U.S. is not doing so, then the most likely reason the U.S. isn’t stopping these actions is because it is orchestrating their efforts.  This version is wrong, but it’s not crazy.  It is a coherent theory that explains the available facts.

Bottom line—U.S. political actors need to act with greater care when making bold statements about Iraq and the region.  Arabs—and Kurds and Persians and Turks—actually do read what is said, and a casual remark that is a footnote on page 20 here may well be a front page headline in the Arabic press. 

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