Defense Secretary Ashton Carter did misspeak last week with remarks that caused a firestorm in both Washington and Baghdad. He explained the Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi by saying Iraqi forces “showed no will to fight.” He just forgot to complete the sentence by adding the words, “for Iraq.”
It’s clear that many people are willing to fight fiercely and bravely in that part of the world — just look at the levels of violence. The Kurds fight ferociously for Kurdistan. The Shiites have been fighting doggedly for their people. The Sunnis of the Islamic State are killing and dying for their cause. But nobody is willing to fight for Iraq. The problem really is not that Iraq’s army has collapsed. It’s that Iraq has collapsed.
The Islamic State is, at heart, an insurgency against the governments of Iraq and Syria. And no insurgency can thrive without some support from the local population. The Islamic State gets that support from the disgruntled Sunni populations of both countries, who feel that they are being persecuted by the Shiite and Alawite governments.
Munqith al-Dagher runs a polling firm in Iraq that has conducted more than a million interviews in the country over the past decade. He points out that the vast majority of Sunnis despise the Islamic State. More than 90 percent of Iraqis in Sunni-dominant areas regard it as a terrorist organization. But the extremist group has been able to capitalize on “the deep, profound discontent Sunnis felt with the central Iraqi government.” Before the fall of Mosul, 91 percent of its residents (mostly Sunnis) said that Iraq was headed in the wrong direction.
Sunni discontent is not about small slights such as the awarding of jobs and contracts to Shiites. It’s about life and death. For example, in August, a combination of the Iraqi army and Kurdish and Shiite militias — all supported by U.S. air power — drove the Islamic State out of the town of Amerli. “Following the operations to end the Amerli siege,” Human Rights Watch reported, “pro-government militias and volunteer fighters as well as Iraqi security forces raided Sunni villages and neighborhoods around Amerli . . . looted possessions of civilians . . . burned homes and businesses of the villages’ Sunni residents; and used explosives and heavy equipment to destroy individual buildings or entire villages.”
David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times described the same pattern after the liberation of Jurf al-Sakhar, when 70,000 Sunnis were driven out. “The town’s representative on the provincial council was its lone Sunni member, and he was found dead with a bullet through his forehead,” he wrote.
The vast majority of Sunnis oppose the Islamic State and flee every place it seizes. But they cannot find towns where they can resettle. The ethnic cleansing of Iraq — with Shiites moving to Shiite areas, and Kurds and Sunnis doing the same — began with the civil war in 2006 but has accelerated dramatically. Even Baghdad, which was a diverse and mixed city, has been segregated into sectarian ethnic enclaves and become mostly Shiite.
Iraq today no longer exists. In 2008, 80 percent of those polled said they were “Iraqi above all.” Today that number is 40 percent. The Kurds have taken every opportunity to further enhance their already considerable autonomy. I recently asked a Kurdish politician how many Kurds would support independence for their provinces. He replied, “Somewhere between 99 percent and 100 percent.” Twelve years after Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Kurds and the Baghdad government still cannot agree on a deal to share oil revenues.
In June 2014, the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack wrote an intelligent essay for the Wall Street Journal outlining seven specific laws and policies that Iraq needed to put in place to give the non-Shiite communities confidence and a stake in the country. He argued that U.S. military aid should be conditioned on the enactment of those changes. Almost a year later, Iraq has fulfilled only one of those conditions.
The sectarian divide is being exacerbated from the outside. Iran supports the Baghdad government and Shiite militias. And Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia have funded Sunni militant groups in both Iraq and Syria and have declined to support the Baghdad government, even in its struggle against the Islamic State. After many announcements of Arab airstrikes, forces and military aid, the reality remains that many of the Arab states around Iraq are more anti-Shiite than they are anti-Islamic State. Republicans urging that Americans join with an “Arab force” to fight the extremist group might not have noticed, but there is no such Arab force.
Washington can provide aid, training, arms, air power — even troops. But it cannot hold together a nation that is falling apart.