As the United States advances into its third war in Iraq in a quarter-century, it’s important to have a mental checklist to assess whether U.S. strategy there can succeed. Right now, because of Iraq’s continuing corruption and sectarianism, it’s hard to be optimistic.
President Obama’s basic strategic framework seems right, in theory. Obama reiterated Monday in Beijing: “It’s not our folks who are going to be doing the fighting. Iraqis ultimately have to fight [the Islamic State] and they have to determine their own security.”
As Obama pledged again that America’s role will be “to help Iraqis help themselves,” he also authorized the Defense Department to add 1,500 more troops as advisers in Iraq, roughly doubling the U.S. force there.
How can this country avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? Looking for answers, I spoke this week with Stuart Bowen, former U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, whose office audited the chronic waste and mismanagement in the last Iraq fiasco. He helped me prepare a score card for assessing the current effort.
To understand how bad things went in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in March 2003, read Bowen’s 2013 final report, titled “Learning from Iraq.” He estimates that almost 40 percent of the U.S.-sponsored projects he audited had major deficiencies.
Here’s an eerie reminder of how out of control Iraq spending was: Bowen writes that in 2003 and 2004, the United States delivered more than $10 billion in cash, drawn from Iraq’s frozen oil revenues, sending it in “massive shrink-wrapped bundles of $100 bills.” Bowen pointedly observes: “This money was not managed particularly well.” In fact, much of it was probably looted.
Describing Iraq’s Central Bank, Bowen writes: “The U.S. reconstruction program inadvertently fostered a ‘triangle of political patronage,’ involving political parties, government officials and sectarian groups. This lethal axis fomented a brew of terrorism and corruption that poisoned the country.”
There’s the challenge, in a nutshell. Iraq over the last decade was sabotaged by sectarian violence and corruption. Any U.S. effort to rebuild an Iraqi military that’s strong enough to help defeat the Islamic extremists must tackle these issues. Here again, Obama was right to insist that the corrupt, polarizing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki must go as a condition for U.S. military assistance. But now what?
How is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the U.S.-backed successor to Maliki, doing on the key issues of cleaner, less-sectarian government? He’s off to a slow start. Let’s go down the list:
● Corruption. Iraq cannot succeed militarily or economically without a curb on the massive corruption of the Maliki era. According to Bowen’s report, money laundering through the Central Bank produced losses of more than $100 billion over the past 10 years, much of it funneled to banks in Dubai, Amman and Beirut. The newly appointed Central Bank governor is Ali Mohsin Ismail al-Allaq, who previously headed Maliki’s council of ministers and who, in that role, oversaw government contracting. That’s discouraging news.
● Sectarianism. Maliki used the government to punish Iraq’s Sunni minority, pushing them toward the extremists. Abadi talked about ending this sectarian police state. But for the key post of interior minister, he chose Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, an official of the Badr Corps, which many Sunnis view as a Shiite death squad. Sunnis fear that Ghabban will take orders from Hadi al-Ameri, the Badr leader.
● Military training. Iraq’s U.S.-trained military collapsed when the Islamic State took Mosul in June. New trainers from the United States and other nations are now arriving to rebuild the military. But a caution: The United States spent over $20 billion training Iraqi security forces from 2005 to 2011. Pentagon planners need to ask: What will be different this time?
● Kurdish outreach. To win Kurdish support, Abadi must carry out a promise in the Iraqi constitution to provide Kurdistan with 17 percent of the national budget; he should also pass a law guaranteeing that oil money will be shared. Since January, the Kurds haven’t received a dinar of the promised budget allocation.
● Regional outreach. To rebuild trust with Sunnis, Abadi must work with neighboring Arab Gulf states, not just Iran. Arab engagement is a two-way street: Abadi has to travel to Riyadh and other Gulf capitals, and the Saudis and others have to reciprocate. So far, neither has happened.
Iraq can take the lead against the Islamic State only if it becomes a more inclusive (and decentralized) state. Obama’s strategy makes sense, in principle, but it won’t work without progress against sectarianism and corruption.
Read more on this from Opinions: