Dr. O'Driscoll is chair of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism. He received his PhD from the University of Exeter and has done extensive field work in Iraq. This article was written while he was a visiting fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
On April 13, 2015, Mac Thornberry, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced draft bill H.R.1735 — National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016.1 According to the committee's report on the bill, Section 1223 — Modification of Authority to Provide Assistance to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — would do the following:
require that the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Sunni tribal security forces with a national security mission, and the Iraqi Sunni National Guard be deemed a country, which would allow these security forces to directly receive assistance from the United States… [emphasis added].2
By separating Kurds and Sunnis from Shiites and the central government, this clause goes against the main stable element of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq since 2003: championing a strong central state. Although the wording did not make it through Congress in this exact form, its federalist principles remained intact. Why did the House Armed Services Committee think it was time to change U.S. Iraq policy? Moreover, if the House Armed Services Committee, along with experts on the matter, deems change necessary, why has U.S. foreign policy in Iraq been so intransigent in the first place?
This article will address several questions revolving around U.S. Iraq policy and the changing dynamics of the Iraqi state system. Did the United States get its foreign policy in Iraq wrong following the 2003 invasion? What caused the recent change in direction of U.S. Iraq policy? Are U.S. policies towards Iraq partly responsible for the current dynamics of virtual state failure? In light of recent developments, what might the future hold for Iraq?
As demonstrated in the opening quote, the initial bill proposal called for recognizing the Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq as separate countries. This is effectively recognizing a federalist Iraq despite the fact that this has not been fully implemented. Although Congress withdrew the section identifying Kurds and Sunnis as separate countries, some members of the Senate attempted, unsuccessfully, to reinstate it. In the final version of the bill — agreed upon by the Senate and Congress and presented to the president to sign on October 21, 2015 — the Kurds and Sunnis are no longer referred to as "countries," making it impossible for the United States to lawfully arm and finance them directly.3 However, the United States still recognizes them as separate entities, in what could be considered a more diplomatic manner than using the term "countries." The bill now requires the Iraqi government to distribute all arms and funds provided by the United States proportionally among the central government, Kurds and Sunnis. Failure to adhere to these strictures, along with other provisions that encourage ethnic diversity in Iraq, would lead to the withholding of U.S. assistance to Iraq in favor of direct support for the Kurds and Sunnis. The bill also distinctly mentions separate Sunni forces, thus further differentiating Sunnis from the central government and the army.4
Therefore, although the wording of the bill has changed, it essentially still says the same thing. The United States is backing the Sunnis and the Kurds in Iraq as separate entities, thus moving away from advocating a strong centralized state and, in effect, supporting federalism.
Under both Presidents Bush and Obama, the United States promoted a strong central government in Iraq, though very early on, Joe Biden, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed creating Sunni and Shiite federal regions alongside the already established Kurdish region. However, this proposal was rejected by the United States, and a strong centralized state was continually promoted.5 The question is whether Biden or the U.S. administration was right.
Backing a centralized state following the ratification of the Iraqi constitution in 2005 was not necessarily the wrong decision; Sunnis were entirely against federalism.6 Meanwhile, Shiites only backed its inclusion in the constitution as a hedge against the return of Sunni domination.7 This left only the Kurds favoring federalism, although this was limited to trying to strengthen their own autonomy.8 When it became apparent that centralization was turning into authoritarianism, the U.S. strategy should have been revised in line with the changing internal dynamics of Iraq.
The Iraqi prime minister between 2006 and 2014, Nuri al-Maliki, used the U.S. centralization mandate as a tool to accumulate power.9 It was a multifaceted operation. First, alongside his role as prime minister he became minister of defense, minister of interior, minister of state for national security and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.10 Second, Maliki eliminated political opponents through nonpolitical means such as accusations and arrests.11 Third, he disbanded the Sunni Sahwa12 forces in 2008, thus ridding himself of (Sunni) military opposition.13 Fourth, he replaced high-ranking military officials with his allies and began giving direct orders to them, effectively running the Iraqi Security Forces both on the ground and in the parliament. Additionally, Maliki created provincial command centers with generals loyal to him and placed both the army and police under their control.14 Finally, when Sunni opponents to all these actions gathered in protest — as is their constitutional right under Article 38 of the Iraqi constitution — Maliki sent in the army, causing many deaths.15
During all this time, the United States continued to back Maliki and a centralized state, despite warnings from its longest continuously serving diplomat in Iraq that Maliki was returning Iraq to a dictatorship.16 Moreover, following the 2010 national elections, the United States backed Maliki as prime minister in defiance of the majority of Iraqis, who voted for al-Iraqiya.17 It was at this stage that the United States cemented its path towards the wrong strategy. If initially it was correct not to push for federalism — in line with the will of the population — it should have revised its stance when Maliki's authoritarian tendencies became apparent.
As Romano argues, U.S. support "may have shown more commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity than to its constitutional integrity," even though "recent events suggest that commitment to the latter would have proven more effective at securing the former."18 It was during the period between 2010 and 2014 that Maliki pushed Iraq towards a de facto dictatorship, thus isolating the Sunnis and the Kurds. As a direct result, faith in a centralized Iraqi state was shattered, and Kurds and Sunnis, as well as many Shiites, called for federalism to be implemented. However, Maliki blocked any attempts to form new federal regions from both Sunnis and Shiites.19 Still, the United States backed a centralized state, ignoring the fact that the tide was turning. Why did it take the United States so long to implement polices that would support federalism?
RETHINKING THE STRATEGY
Many of the policies implemented by Maliki allowed the Islamic State (IS)20 to flourish in the Sunni territory of Iraq. First, by disbanding the Sahwa, Maliki effectively got rid of the most successful force against extremism. Second, by solely focusing on strengthening his control over the military, Maliki weakened it as a force; this was only too evident when IS seized Mosul with only 800 men.21 Finally, Maliki's alienation of the Sunnis, paired with his using the military against them, caused them to look for any other viable option. He handed IS a population desperate for change. Therefore, it could be argued that, in Iraq, the centralization and authoritarianism implemented by Maliki created the conditions that have allowed IS to flourish. As the United States backed this centralization and indeed was key to Maliki's gaining and maintaining power, it has to take some responsibility for the outcome.22 What previously seemed to be an unwavering policy towards Iraq is now being questioned and is slowly changing. Moreover, as the United States deems IS a major threat, tactics to oppose it have to be formulated that are not generally compatible with previous U.S. policy.
As Maliki came to be seen as partly responsible for the rise of IS in Iraq, ceasing to support him was the next logical step. Thus, following the 2014 elections, the United States did not back Maliki as prime minister, despite the fact that he won the most votes this time around. However, in the changed dynamics of Iraq, replacing Maliki was not enough. The centralization process that Iraq underwent led to the political sidelining and alienation of the Sunni population, which in turn has led to a distrust of a centralized Iraq. Therefore, if the United States or any other entity, for that matter, wants the Sunni population to reject IS and support the Iraqi state, a centralized Iraq is no longer an option. Although the Sunni population has gradually been moving towards favoring federalism, this has largely been ignored.23 However, the threat that IS poses to the territorial integrity of Iraq has changed things, and now the political aspirations of the Sunnis are finally being taken into consideration.
Additionally, apart from getting the Sunnis on board, the creation of an entirely federal Iraq is instrumental in the fight against IS. It has been argued that, in order to defeat IS in Iraq, a separate Sunni force is necessary,24 and that the creation of a Sunni region is an instrumental part of this strategy. In short, the creation of a Sunni region would boost Sunni trust in the political system; it would offer a viable alternative to IS, and it would allow for the creation of a Sunni armed force. Moreover, to back federalism is to recognize the Kurds as a separate entity in Iraq. Supporting the Kurds and their desire for a fully federal Iraq is important, considering the role they have played in the fight against IS. Finally, if the Kurds' constitutional rights are continually ignored, Kurdish secession is a real possibility.25
It is also important to highlight that, in the initial draft of the bill released by the Armed Services Committee, an Iraqi Sunni National Guard (ISNG)26 is referred to and deemed a "country" in order to enable the United States to support them directly.27 However, the ISNG does not exist; the closest thing to it were the Sahwa forces that were disbanded during the U.S. occupation. The reason the United States wants to create an ISNG force is that the Sahwa forces were successful in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq. Effectively, this bill is an admission that the United States should have prevented Maliki from dismantling Sahwa when it had a strong influence and presence in Iraq. The rise of IS makes it clear that a permanent Sunni force is needed for long-term security.28
The centralization project carried out by Maliki and backed by the United States has brought Iraq to the edge of failure. Washington has been slow to change its policies; rather than pre-empting failure, it is trying to stave off the virtual collapse of Iraq. The change of U.S. policy is no longer instrumental to what is happening on the ground. That said, the United States does supply military support and numerous forms of aid. Moreover, as new U.S. policies are aligned with the political will of large portions of the Iraqi population, they are more likely to be carried out.
There is one vital exception to this: the United States does not want Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to support the Shiite militias in Iraq that are loyal to Iran. As part of the new National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, the United States will carry out a review of its aid to Iraq, including whether the government has seized support for Shiite militias "under the command and control of, or associated with, the Government of Iran."29 However, this policy fails to take into consideration the current state of affairs in Iraq. The Iraqi army is in a perilous condition and is not up to the task of fighting IS alone; therefore, Abadi needs the Shiite militias. To some extent, he is over-reliant on them, to the point that they can influence policy. In response, U.S. policy needs to be flexible and take these dynamics into consideration. If Washington does not want Abadi to support the Shiite militias loyal to Iran, the United States has to help him strengthen and reorganize the army, build better relations with the peshmerga, and form Sunni forces. Moreover, the United States needs to help develop a working central command in Iraq in the fight against IS — preferably under a peshmerga general, as they are the only force with any credibility.
With these measures implemented, Abadi will not have the same need for Shiite militias as he does now.30 That said, Abadi should not seize support of these militias altogether; rather the aim should be to take away his overreliance on them. In asking for the Iraqi government to stop supporting these militias, the United States is demonstrating that they have not learned the lessons they should have from their time in Iraq. By taking these militias out of the government framework, Iraq would give them little choice but to align themselves more closely to Iran and to become a force opposing the Iraqi state, rather than supporting it. Taking away their financing invites extremism. This was the case with the disbanding and isolation of the Sahwa and the Baathists, which played a role in the formation and success of IS.31
When Abadi replaced Maliki as prime minister, it should have been clear to him that for his own political future, as well as for the future of Iraq, there would have to be a drastic change in the way Iraq is run. He would therefore have to formulate policies that would gain the backing of the people of Iraq (Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites), help in the fight against IS and stabilize the country, thus, putting him, the United States and the majority of his people on the same page. Abadi has already begun the process of reversing the damage created by Maliki's rule. He has begun to repair the relationship with the Kurds by agreeing to a hydrocarbon deal, a budget and peshmerga financing.32 Additionally, he has begun decentralizing Iraq by giving more power to local governments. He has also lifted the veto on creating new regions, opening up the possibility of making Iraq a fully federal state.33
These are not the only issues the population has with the political system, however; corruption and the patronage system have caused wide protests. Thus, Abadi has also begun the process of parliamentary reform, slashing the number of positions and advisers within the government (this included canceling Maliki's position of vice president). Additionally, on the surface at least, it seems Abadi is introducing mechanisms that promote political responsibility. A parliamentary report blaming Maliki's government for the fall of Mosul and the resulting rise of IS could lead to legal charges against Maliki.34
With the drop in oil prices and the cost of fighting IS, Abadi may find it financially difficult to keep these promises and make the impact that is needed without outside support. He is already having difficulty living up to his financial promises to the Kurds, which is creating conflict between the two and has led to the Kurds once again calling for a referendum on secession. Yet again, the Kurds need to be convinced to remain part of Iraq and further financial, military and political guarantees have to be made and kept in order to prevent the break up of Iraq.35 Therefore, the change in U.S. policy and the large amount of military aid already set aside for Iraq are still important. However, Abadi is not just up against Maliki and his legacy, but also against Iran, which is entrenched in the notion of a centralized Shiite-dominated Iraqi state.36 Therefore, although both the government of Iraq and the United States have policies that are leading Iraq in the right direction, due to the perilous condition that Iraq is in — paired with the rise of IS and the influence of other exogenous actors, such as Iran — there is a long road ahead.
Based on the fact that the majority of Iraqis were not seeking federalism at the time, the initial U.S. policies in Iraq were correct. However, the United States allowed Maliki to polarize Iraq and continued to back him and a centralized state despite the fact that a large portion of the population was being denied adequate representation and calling for change. The constitution of Iraq guarantees the people the choice of a federal region and protection from the authoritarianism that was witnessed under Saddam Hussein. Yet, the United States supported Maliki despite his unconstitutional actions.
It took the rise of IS for the United States to change its policies, and now it is trying to quickly backtrack, supporting and proposing policies it helped prevent and destroy. Washington remained static in its position while the dynamics of Iraq changed, thus contributing to the perilous state Iraq finds itself in today. Moreover, U.S. influence in Iraq has waned; it no longer has the ability to affect change as easily, and this further compounds the error of not changing its policies in Iraq when it actually had the leverage. Currently, the influence of Iran is going to make it more difficult to create a Sunni region, a Sunni force and a central command (in the fight against IS) under a peshmerga general, and to transfer influence from the Shiite militias to the army. However, these are the only policies that can help defeat IS and, more important, prevent it from returning in another guise. Therefore, it is imperative that efforts to install these polices are maintained and increased in order to give Abadi the necessary support to carry out his reform program. The constitution of Iraq allows for federalism; however, this aspect of the constitution has been ignored. It is now time to allow the people of Iraq to fulfill their constitutional right to federalism, as only federalism — and the dynamics it enables — can save Iraq from disintegration.
1 House on Armed Services Committee, "H.R.1735 — National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016," Library of Congress, May 5, 2015, http://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1735.
2 House Armed Services Committee, "House Report 114-102 — National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016," Library of Congress, May 5, 2015: 265, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/cpquery/?&dbname=cp114&sid=cp114cT0f3&refer=&r_n=hr102.114&item=&&&sel=TOC_959225&.
3 President Obama vetoed the bill due to the fact that it allows the Pentagon to get around federal spending caps, which would still remain for other agencies. Obama also objects to the restrictions made on transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as he wants to close the facility before the end of his term in January 2017. However in November, 2015, Congress and the Senate passed a revised version of the bill that reduced the budget, which Obama consequently signed into law.
4 United States Congress, "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016," Library of Congress, October 21, 2015, http://www.congress.gov/114/bills/hr1735/BILLS-114hr1735eh.pdf.
5 Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb, "Federalism, Not Partition," Washington Post, October 3, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/02/AR2007100201824.html.
6 David Romano, "Iraq's Descent into Civil War: A Constitutional Explanation," Middle East Journal 68, no. 4 (Autumn 2014): 547-566.
7 Joost Hiltermann, Sean Kane and Raad Alkadiri, "Iraq's Federalism Quandary," National Interest 28 (March-April 2012): 20-31, http://nationalinterest.org/article/iraqs-federalism-quandary-6512.
8 The Kurds have had a de facto Kurdish region since a no-fly zone was created following the first Gulf War. The stability this created helped them to gain a recognised autonomous region following Gulf War II.
9 See Toby Dodge, "Can Iraq Be Saved?," Survival 56, no. 5 (September 2014): 7-20; Toby Dodge, "State and Society in Iraq Ten Years after Regime Change: The Rise of a New Authoritarianism," International Affairs 89, no. 2 (March 2013): 241-257; Philippe Le Billon, "Oil, Secession and the Future of Iraqi Federalism," Middle East Policy 22, no.1 (Spring 2015): 68-76; Dylan O'Driscoll, "Autonomy Impaired: Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State," Ethnopolitics (September 2015): 1-18; Romano, "Iraq's Descent into Civil War: A Constitutional Explanation"; and Gareth Stansfield, "The Islamic State, the Kurdistan Region and the Future of Iraq: Assessing UK Policy Options," International Affairs 90, no. 6 (November 2014): 1329-1350.
10 O'Driscoll, "Autonomy Impaired: Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State"; and Romano, "Iraq's Descent into Civil War: A Constitutional Explanation."
11 Dylan O'Driscoll, "The Costs of Inadequacy: Violence and Elections in Iraq," Ethnopolitics Papers 27 (June 2014): 1-29.
12 The Sahwa forces were a Sunni force created to fight al-Qaeda in the Sunni region of Iraq.
13 Myriam Benraad, "Iraq's Tribal 'Sahwa': Its Rise and Fall," Middle East Policy 18, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 121-131.
14 Dodge, "State and Society in Iraq Ten Years after Regime Change: The Rise of a New Authoritarianism"; Marwan Ibrahim, "New Iraq Army HQ Sends Arab-Kurd Ties to New Low," Middle East Online, November 16, 2012, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=55545; O'Driscoll, "The Costs of Inadequacy: Violence and Elections in Iraq"; and O'Driscoll, "Autonomy Impaired: Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State."
15 See Duraid Adnan, "Deadly Turn in Protests against Iraqi Leadership," New York Times, January 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/26/world/middleeast/clashes-turn-deadly-after-iraqi-forces-open-fire-on-protesters.html?_r=2&; Al Jazeera, "Dozens of Iraqi MPs Quit over Anbar Violence," Al Jazeera, December 31, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/iraq-anbar-violence-20131230222045598880.html; O'Driscoll, "The Costs of Inadequacy: Violence and Elections in Iraq"; Romano, "Iraq's Descent into Civil War: A Constitutional Explanation"; and Mohammed Tawfeeq and Saad Abedine, "Clash at Sunni Protest in Iraq Leaves Dead and Wounded," CNN, April 23, 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/04/23/world/meast/iraq-violence.
16 Ali Khedery, "Why We Stuck with Maliki — and Lost Iraq" Washington Post, July 3, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-we-stuck-with-maliki--and-lost-iraq/2014/07/03/0dd6a8a4-f7ec-11e3-a606-946fd632f9f1_story.html.
17 Al-Iraqiya won two more seats in the 2010 national elections than the State of Law coalition led by Maliki.
18 Romano, "Iraq's Descent into Civil War: A Constitutional Explanation," 565.
19 O'Driscoll, "Autonomy Impaired: Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State."
20 Although referred to as the Islamic State in this article, this term only came into being after a caliphate was declared on June 29, 2014; it was formerly known, and is often still referred to, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It is also often referred to as Daesh, which is based on the Arabic acronym of its name.
21 Martin Chulov, Fazel Hawramy and Spencer Ackerman, "Iraq Army Capitulates to ISIS Militants in Four Cities," Guardian, June 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/11/mosul-isis-gunmen-middle-east-states.
22 Philippe Le Billon, "Oil, Secession and the Future of Iraqi Federalism."
23 See James Gavin, "Provinces in Iraq Call for Autonomy," MEED, March 16, 2012, http://www.meed.com/supplements/2012/iraq-projects/provinces-in-iraq-call-for-autonomy/3129608.article; "Iraq's Sunnis Divided over Need for Their Own Federal Region," Rudaw, May 16, 2013, http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/16052013; Megan R. Wilson, "Iraqis Hire DC Consultant for Autonomy Push," The Hill, September 25, 2014, http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/lobbying-hires/218955-sunnis-in-iraq-hire-dc-consultant-for-autonomy-push; and Salam Zaidan, "The Rationale behind the Regionalization of Iraq," Alakhbar English, January 14, 2015, http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/23211.
24 Stansfield, "The Islamic State, the Kurdistan Region and the Future of Iraq: Assessing UK Policy Options."
26 In the final version of the bill, this is changed to Iraqi National Guard, thus ceasing to differentiate it as a separate Sunni force. However, it would still essentially facilitate the creation of a Sunni force.
27 House Armed Services Committee, "H.R.1735 — National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016."
28 Ariel I. Ahram and Frederic Wehrey, "Harnessing Militia Power: Lessons of the Iraqi National Guard," Markaz, May 27, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/markaz/posts/2015/05/27-militias-iraq-national-guard.
29 United States Congress, "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016," 236.
30 Ned Parker, "Power Failure in Iraq as Militias Outgun State," Reuters, October 21, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/iraq-abadi/.
31 Thomas Juneau. "Containing the Islamic State," Middle East Policy 22, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 36-43. For more on the formation of the Islamic State, see Ahmed S. Hashim, "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate," Middle East Policy 21, no.4. (Winter 2014): 69-83.
32 Matt Bradley, Sarah Kent and Ghassan Adnan, "Iraq and Kurdistan Agree on Oil Deal," Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/iraq-agrees-kurdistan-oil-deal-1417513949.
33 Haider al-Abadi, "A United Iraq Is Pushing ISIS Back," Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/haider-al-abadi-a-united-iraq-is-pushing-back-the-islamic-state-1418946399; and Sarkawt Shamsulddin, "Can Abadi's Decentralization Plan Save Iraq?," NRT, May 3, 2015, http://nrttv.com/EN/birura-details.aspx?Jimare=1031.
34 Ahmed Rasheed and Stephen Kalin, "Iraq's Maliki Rejects Blame for Fall of Mosul," Reuters, August 18, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/08/18/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-reforms-idUSKCN0QN1GY20150818.
35 Isabel Coles, Rania El Gamal and Dmitry Zhdannikov, "Kurdish Oil Deal with Baghdad Unravels As Tensions Rise," Reuters, March 13, 2015, http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN0M91MQ20150313?irpc=932; Bahez Kamil, "PM Barzani about Baghdad Accord: We Struck a Deal with a Bankrupt Country," Rudaw, February 16, 2015, http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/160220151.
36 Frederick Deknatel, "After Promising Start, Iraq's Abadi Must Confront Maliki—and Iran," World Politics Review, December 19, 2014, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/14712/after-promising-start-iraq-s-abadi-must-confront-maliki-and-iran.