The Big Picture

U.S. Policy in Iraq After ISIS

David Pollock

Kaufman Fellow at The Washington Institute

Logically, it must be said at the outset, the first question to answer for this essay should be, “Is Iraq now really post-ISIS?”  And the answer must be, “no, not really” -- because even the military defeat of ISIS will probably not end the threat it poses to Iraq, and to the U.S. and its allies.  On the contrary; at least in the short term, defeat in Mosul and other major Iraqi cities could conceivably even increase the threat of ISIS branches or affiliates in other locations, or, more plausibly, in scattered acts of terrorism all over the region, and in Europe, the U.S., and perhaps beyond.  In the medium term, to be sure, military defeat will likely decrease the number, motivation, and capability of terrorist recruits to the ISIS banner.

But, as always, one needs to get through the short term problem first.   Consequently, counterterrorism will almost certainly remain an important element in U.S. policy calculations about Iraq in the near future.  This alone virtually guarantees at least a continuing, small-scale U.S. military presence in the country in the coming few years, along with the associated intelligence, diplomatic, logistical, and related deployments.

The precise number may rise, or more likely fall, from today’s roughly 6,000 active Special Forces and other troops, plus a few thousand contractors, diplomats, advisors, and other official or semi-official personnel.  Yet given the Trump Administration’s political emphasis on counterterrorism, the U.S. military’s enthusiasm for this winning war but not for grander occupations, and the “lessons learned” from the previous near-total U.S. military withdrawal and subsequent resurgence of ISIS, one should expect roughly this configuration to characterize the American presence in Iraq in the immediate foreseeable future.

Moreover, especially in the longer term, another Iraq-based revival of ISIS terrorism or some variant thereof is unfortunately entirely plausible.  It could be the result of renewed Sunni Arab disenchantment with Baghdad, of smoldering resentment over Iranian (and possibly also Kurdish) over-reach inside Iraq, of missteps there by American, Turkish, or other foreign forces, or of some combination of all these plus other factors.  Current Iraqi Sunni Arab public opinion predicts precisely this phenomenon.  Half of those who lived under ISIS are already concerned that Baghdad will now treat them differently than it does the Shia – and even more, 70 percent, worry that eventually Iraqi policies will revert to their discriminatory pre-ISIS norm.   As a result, two-thirds foresee that ISIS or a similar organization will reappear in their cities.

With this in mind, the longer term U.S. counter-terrorism mission in Iraq must strive to help reconcile, or at a minimum coordinate, these very diverse Iraqi and outside players, above and beyond purely tactical operations.  This includes Iraq’s own Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities, alongside Turks, other foreign coalition forces, and possibly even Russians, Iranians, and more.  All these allies against ISIS, or simply partners of convenience, are often not friends of each other.  In fact, some are just temporary and wary collaborators, rivals, or even outright enemies.  As a result, a high priority and still unresolved challenge for the U.S. is how such disparate components can be forged into a coherent, durable counter-terrorist front – or at least deconflicted sufficiently to maximize the odds of success at stabilization in this exceedingly fluid and fractious environment.

The keenest American observers have presented some suggestions along these lines.  Michael Knights, for instance, has written that the U.S. should consider reviving something like its previously effective security coordination mission in Kirkuk, which preempted conflict between Iraqi military and Kurdish pesh merga units there and supported a relatively stable environment in that ethnically mixed, and politically contested, and economically and strategically vital city.

Of course, times have changed; and in the wake of their successful campaign against ISIS, the Kurds now have much more control and claim much more authority in Kirkuk than before.  The participation of some Kirkukis in the KRG independence referendum, as against the boycott by some of their neighbors, will probably only add fuel to this combustible mix.  In these new circumstances, it seems far from certain that the U.S. will want to become reengaged so directly in Kirkuk – or, for that matter, in other disputed Iraqi territories – even if that risks intense and quite possibly violent local jockeying for power and position.       

U.S. Policy Formulation on Iraq:  Does It Exist? 

Having made the point that the U.S. will still consider ISIS and other jihadis a potential threat in Iraq, and will respond accordingly, probably for quite a long time, the second question for this essay must be, will the U.S. actually have a larger policy toward Iraq? Here the answer is less clear.   

President Trump publicly blames his predecessor for the “hasty” military withdrawal in 2011 that led to the resurgence in Iraq both of ISIS and of Iran.  At the same time, he is on record as opposing either “nation-building” in foreign countries, or a renewal of any massive American presence or military commitments there.  Furthermore, Trump has been historically slow to fill key diplomatic and other positions relevant to Mideast policy, creating a vacuum that to date has largely been filled by military officers, either on detail in Washington or in the field.

At the same time, despite Trump’s characteristic disavowal of the previous president’s policies, he has kept on key Obama Administration figures like Brett McGurk, and so far only marginally adjusted Obama’s overall approach to Iraq,  Rumors circulating in Washington suggest an ongoing internal debate about next steps in this theater, particularly over how to prioritize Iraq in comparison with Syria or other crises -- and how hard a line to adopt toward Iran, whether on the nuclear deal or on its more urgently threatening but non-nuclear regional interventions.  At the moment of writing, the center of gravity inside the Trump team appears to lean toward greater emphasis on a direct U.S. role in Iraq than in Syria, and toward a tough line toward Tehran, but without totally scrapping the JCPOA nuclear accord.  Yet the practical dimensions of this emerging concept are still scarce, or at least not yet in the public domain.

Altogether, U.S. policy on Iraq today, and probably in the tomorrow, seems more like improvisations on a general orientation than an elaborate strategic plan.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, given the unpredictable nature of many events in the region.  And Trump himself is of course demonstrably capable of surprises, reversals, open disputes with his senior subordinates, sudden personnel changes, and seemingly offhand policy departures.  For all these reasons, one would be wise to avoid categorical prognostication about the future U.S. presence in Iraq, and to stick instead to scenarios, probabilities, and underlying factors.  

Among those factors, it is worth noting that U.S. economic interests in Iraq are distinctly limited.  Iraq’s surging oil exports of nearly 3.5 million barrels per day, with an additional half million or more from Iraqi Kurdistan, are increasingly significant to the general global economy, but (apart from Exxon Mobil) much less so to the United States specifically.  Other U.S. business investment or exposure in Iraq is relatively small.  Likewise insignificant any longer is any ideological element in U.S. policymaking on Iraq.  The impulse to implant democracy there is long gone, not just under Trump but also under Obama as before him.  Nor is it likely to be resurrected anytime soon, given the sour public mood about all that back home.  

The U.S. and Iran’s Influence in Iraq

Rather, the single most fateful underlying factor looming over U.S. policy toward Iraq is the shadow of Iran.   This applies both to the minority Kurdish and the majority Arab parts of the country, in somewhat different ways.  In the former, Iran has few friends, but thousands of agents.  In the much larger, mainly Shia Arab parts of the country, though many resent Iranian influence, Iran can count its sectarian friends, many of them in armed militias, in the hundreds of thousands, if not more. 

A crucial medium-term issue for Washington is therefore how, and how much, to confront Iran’s influence in Iraq as a whole – or perhaps even to cooperate with it in certain respects.  This is a key question, along with counterterrorism and to a much lesser extent economic and other U.S. interests, as the Trump Administration struggles to define its new approach to Iraq.  The answer, still far from clear, will to a great degree determine the contours of the U.S. presence in that country for years to come.  As two leading American experts and former senior officials put it in mid-August 2017,

The biggest problem facing the administration is an Iran poised to control Iraq and Syria, and thus a corridor from Tehran to southern Lebanon, in the wake of ISIS’s defeat.  Tehran, with its Shia militias and missile arsenals and at least limited Russian support, seeks thereby to upend regional security, threatening Jordan, Israel, Turkey, and ultimately the Gulf states from this corridor.  The Trump Administration signed up to contain this threat at the May [2017] Riyadh summit but so far has not figured out how.  

Other analysts have focused on the extent to which, and the means by which, the U.S. might or might not be able to counter Iran by working with the Baghdad government and the forces under its effective (not just nominal) control.  For example, Michael Knights and Hamdi Malik have recommended targeted American support for the Al-Abbas PMU, which he convincingly claims is essentially different from and preferable to other, extremely sectarian, pro-Iranian units.   This and similar cases in point are vitally important in principle, if highly problematic in practice; but they have been adequately addressed elsewhere.

 U.S. Policy on the Kurdish Conundrum

This essay will therefore focus instead on an often overlooked aspect of this major challenge:  what steps the U.S. could take to check Iran’s interference in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.      

As the KRG prepares for the September 25, 2017 referendum on eventual independence from Iraq, the specter of Iran darkens the picture.  Iran continues to voice its firm opposition to this option.  Official Kurdish delegations to Tehran, whether of Islamic or other party leaders, regularly receive public lectures about the evils of such “separatism” – and the daunting dangers of “international” (really meaning Iranian) reaction to it.  For the past year or more, KRG president Massoud Barzani has refused a standing invitation to visit Tehran, in part because Iran refuses to fly the Kurdish flag to mark the occasion. 

Most recently, Iranian officials, at increasingly higher levels, are stepping up their rhetorical blasts against the prospect of Kurdish independence, or even a referendum about it.  In September, for example, a very senior spokesman warned of a “twenty-year regional war” if the Kurds proceeded further down this path.  From conversations with senior KRG officials, they are well aware that Iran’s political, economic, and undercover leverage in Baghdad -- and on the KRG’s borders, and inside the KRG itself -- presents a formidable obstacle to Kurdish independence, or even full autonomy.

This means that how the U.S. will respond to Iran’s responses to KRG moves is now a crucial variable.  Will Washington be willing to offer Kurdistan serious guarantees of security and economic survival even if Iran turns very hostile, for whatever reason?  And if Washington does offer such guarantees – not just words, but real actions on the ground – will Iran, in turn, view that as even more reason to oppose Kurdish freedom of action? 

These are big questions with large consequences.  The Trump Administration, anti-Iran as it is, is also more interested in internal American than in foreign policy. And it is not interested at all in another huge commitment of American manpower and resources to some conflict in the faraway Middle East – particularly now, as the North Korean “missile crisis” escalates. 

The close yet tense relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran thus poses an intriguing conundrum for the U.S., a more concentrated microcosm of its larger Iraq policy calculations.  On the one hand, the KRG offers a prime opportunity, with strong local support, to counter and perhaps even roll back Iranian regional influence.  Doing so could have ripple effect far beyond Kurdistan, weakening the chain of Iranian proxies through Iraq and on to Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean coast.   On the other hand, such a forward U.S. policy would probably require a deeper commitment to protect the Kurds from Iranian threats.  And it could raise the issue of Iraqi Kurdistan’s eventual independence, as the next logical step in this sequence, with all of the complications that would entail.

Yet if the U.S. is now really determined to stand up more strongly against Iran’s regional challenges, while maintaining a valuable ally and buffer against post-ISIS violent extremists, Iraqi Kurdistan would be an excellent place to start.  The first step would be a simple, firm assurance to the friendly KRG leadership that, in exchange for their restraint in post-referendum moves toward independence, Washington will unequivocally back their indigenous efforts to check Iran’s subversion, intimidation, and power projection on Kurdish soil. 

The second step should be a clear U.S. offer to keep a small yet substantial military presence inside the KRG even after victory against ISIS – and even if Baghdad declines a parallel offer.  After that, U.S. partnership with the KRG and others in pushing back against Iran’s encroachments, not just in Kurdistan but around the region, would be increasingly effective – and decreasingly risky.
The preceding is not a prediction but a prescription for U.S. policy in Iraq during the coming period.  It is far from certain that the U.S. will actually follow this advice, either in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Iraq as a whole.  Nevertheless, the odds are that Washington will try to move in this direction.  In part that is because it is likely to face little opposition to it, and possibly even some support, from other outside stars in the Iraqi constellation. 

U.S. Policy on Other Players in Iraq:  Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia

Beyond the specter of Iran, the U.S. role in Iraq will also respond significantly to Washington’s relations with other actors in that arena.  Most important among them is Turkey, a major NATO ally with its own major stake across the border in Iraq.  Washington will therefore try hard to coordinate with Ankara on all Iraqi issues, and in this case will probably succeed.

The main reason for this atypically optimistic assessment is the solid, now eight-year-old entente between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, against the PKK in Turkey or the PYD in Syria, and in favor of great economic, political, and security cooperation.  Behind this entente are some surprising realities.  The old, Sykes-Picot borders remain unexpectedly durable.  A pan-Kurdish project is simply not in the cards, not only for reasons of state sovereignty, which is weak in both Iraq and Syria, but also of intra-Kurdish divisions. 

Moreover, the full independence or secession even of Iraqi Kurdistan is also not on the immediate horizon, despite the recent referendum.  But Kurdish autonomy or federalism of some kind, if only in Iraq, is clearly a constructive option for all concerned, including Turkey.  Indeed, the exceptionally warm ties between Ankara and Erbil strongly suggest that this particular “age-old ethnic conflict” need not be an insurmountable obstacle to political expediency.  And this greatly mitigates the biggest obstacle to close U.S. coordination with Turkey on Iraq policy writ large.

Compared to Turkey, Russia is poised to be only a secondary player in Iraq, at best.
True, Russian influence is rising in the broader region.  Yet Moscow’s resources are limited.  In an informal alliance of some fashion with Iran, it may make a play for a greater role in Iraq.  On the whole, however, Russia appears more likely to concentrate on other neighbors like Syria, or on targets further afield in Egypt, Libya, and the Gulf, where easier opportunities beckon.  As a result, U.S. policy in Iraq likely will not depend heavily, for better or worse, on reactions to Russian intervention. 
Finally, new signs are emerging that Saudi Arabia (and perhaps other friendly Arab governments as well) are attempting, at long last, to enter the Iraqi political space, in order to better balance Iran.  Senior Saudi officials have lately exchanged cordial visits with their Iraqi counterparts – including even erstwhile pro-Iranian Shia leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr.  For the time being, this seems mostly political theater, not practical intervention.  Eventually, however, if this new trend gathers momentum, it could perhaps prove to be another useful adjunct to U.S. policy in Iraq.  

A combination of American and Arab influence and inducements, in other words, might actually help keep Iraq’s government from tilting totally toward Tehran.  And beyond Baghdad, today there exists an unprecedented if fleeting opening to consolidate such a rebalancing.  That derives from a measurable shift in Iraqi public opinion, as the next section explores.   

The U.S. and Iraq’s Sunni Arab “Reawakening”

At the popular level, as measured by credible polls for the first time since 2003, there is now a post-ISIS window of opportunity for Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to reconcile with the Baghdad government.  This would naturally make it easier for the U.S. to deal constructively with both of those parties.  A prominent Iraqi pollster, Munqith al-Dagher, summarizes the relevant background and current shift as follows:

Sunni public opinion from 2003 until the first half of 2014 has shown great negativity … [which] lay behind the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraqi Sunni areas in June 2014.  There was a fair degree of acceptance of the Islamic State in occupied Sunni areas for nearly the first full year of occupation…. [But] new quantitative and qualitative research, especially in the newly freed areas in Anbar, Salahuddin, and Mosul, shows … one of the rare moments when the Sunnis are more optimistic, more confident in the prime minister, and more trusting in Iraqi forces than other groups. 

The corresponding numbers are quite striking:  as ISIS is pushed back, more than half of Sunni Arabs say that Iraq is going the right direction – compared with just 36 percent of the Shia, and a mere five percent of Kurds!  Similarly, half of the Sunnis support a second term for Prime Minister Abadi, compared with only 35 percent of Shia.  Still more decisively, two-thirds of the Sunnis now have favorable views of Abadi.  And two-thirds of those in Mosul would prefer any new governor he might appoint for them, even a Shia, over the existing Sunni provincial governor; while the vast majority wants Mosul to remain under Baghdad’s central government control, rather than under some new, more decentralized administration.

Similarly, on the highly salient question of perceptions about the security forces, the latest survey demonstrates that those who had to live under ISIS rule now mostly want the Iraqi army and police to be their main protectors – not local Sunni Arab tribal forces.  Indeed, most Sunnis acknowledge and even appreciate the role of the heavily Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in liberating their areas from ISIS.

Nevertheless, according to the same survey, most Sunni Arabs do not want these sectarian PMUs to perform protracted security functions in their environs, now that ISIS has been largely repelled.  That is why it will be so important for the U.S. to help Iraqis from all communities find acceptable local alternatives for this mission, in close coordination with the more moderate elements in the central Iraqi government and security establishment.

Once again, Michael Knights and colleague have spelled out suggested details, at least for Kirkuk, Mosul and Nineveh province as a whole.   It is a compelling agenda.  What is not yet obvious, though, is whether the U.S. will actually maintain the patience, concentration, attention to detail, resources, and resolve necessary to fulfill this role.  And even if it does, there is inherently no guarantee of success in such a complex and risky endeavor.  This author’s best guess is that the U.S. will make some serious efforts in this direction, but that more will depend on the locals in this arena than on anything Washington does or does not do in Iraq -- leaving the outcome almost impossible to predict.
Implications for U.S. Policy 

Given the preceding analysis, what should the U.S. do in Iraq?  One recommended scenario would follow the sage advice of Jim Jeffrey and Wa’el Alzayat, two top former U.S. officials directly involved with these issues, who defined the challenge so acutely in their article cited previously:

In Iraq, the U.S. would support the Abadi government, lead international reconstruction, maintain a special relationship with Kurdistan without encouraging its independence, and integrate Iraq into the global financial and energy system.  The U.S. would also keep a small military contingent there to root out ISIS remnants and develop the Iraqi military, as well as signal U.S. commitment…. Iraq would not be fully in either the U.S. or Iranian camp, but independent enough to block Iran from projecting power out of Iraq as it does in Lebanon.  Such a course of action would exploit concerns of Iraqis from all sects and ethnicities about Iranian encroachment in Iraq.  If this scenario is not achievable, the fallback would be close U.S. security ties with an autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq, traditionally pro-Western. 

The only problem with this scenario is that it appears to gloss over the acute differences between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, over such issues as disputed territories, oil revenue sharing, and even possible Kurdish secession and ultimate independence.   In the short term, the solution to this riddle could be simply to maintain the U.S. position that all these differences should be negotiated in good faith between the two parties, with no unilateral political steps and certainly no military provocations by either one.  This may suffice for a time, leaving the U.S. free to pursue continued close security and other ties with both Baghdad and Erbil, without having to make an invidious choice between them.

In the longer term, however, these issues may well come to a head, forcing all parties including the U.S. to confront some very difficult dilemmas.  In that case, the likely American preference, as usual, will be to try and have it both ways, remaining on friendly terms with Kurds and Arabs by offering to mediate, compromise, or perhaps overlook their disputes.  Yet if a selection seems unavoidable, the U.S. position will probably be heavily influenced by the crucial underlying factor identified above:  how the choice would play in the larger game of containing Iranian influence in Iraq, and in the region as a whole.

For this author, at least, that objective is indeed the correct one for future U.S. policy in Iraq.  Containing Iran’s malign influence there, and in the Middle East as a whole, will be a very daunting task.  Yet that would serve the both the interests and the values of the United States, as well as it regional and global allies.  It is thus worth a substantial cost in American human, political, and financial capital – although our regional partners will bear the greater burden.

This is not to say that Iran should be isolated or ostracized, let alone attacked.  It is, however, to say that the central U.S. goal in Iraq should be to prevent it from falling completely under Iran’s domination -- which would surely be a step toward Tehran’s regional hegemony, and an anti-American interlude for the entire Middle East.  The U.S. should, and probably will, take on the responsibility to support a better future, for its own sake, for this very volatile yet still vital region of the world.