by Robert A. Caruso
To actively shape a new Middle East, the U.S. must invest in our partners on the ground. The task is straightforward: we must build the capacity of moderate Sunni and Kurdish groups across the region, while isolating and ultimately combating the Islamic State (IS) and Iran’s allies.
A viable regional policy must define clear and achievable goals. Military gains of Hizbollah, Shia militias inside Iraq and Syria, and IS should be blunted to curb sectarian bloodshed. The collapse of Iraqi military leadership in Mosul this summer brought to focus weaknesses in the Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Army, including a hollow officer corps, Iranian infiltration, and inadequate targeting capabilities. Iran’s Shia militia proxies control Baghdad and exercise significant influence over Iraqi military operations. The U.S. can no longer allow the Iraqi military and police to function as extensions of Iran’s military, especially while the outcome of nuclear negotiations with Tehran remain tenuous.
As such, Baghdad cannot be considered a credible partner in Iraq. The international coalition should work to establish air corridors to Erbil and begin to establish a significant U.S. military presence behind Kurdistan’s borders, replete with barracks and storage depots.
To counter the tactical advantage held by IS and the Shia militias, moderate Sunni and Kurdish groups across the region should be armed, trained, and equipped by special operations forces. Haidar al-Abadi’s new government in Baghdad is not inclusive and will not garner support of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. Additionally, Iraq’s security apparatus is an extension of Iran’s military, presenting obstacles to Sunni inclusion.
The enemy’s usage of urban fortification and human shields ensures airstrikes will result in civilian casualties. Terrorists are moderately sophisticated criminals and as such, do not communicate in ways easily susceptible to intercept by the National Security Agency. Adversarial insurgent networks regularly outfox our Central Intelligence Agency and their use of urban camouflage complicates the targeting process. Efforts to locate IS fighters, therefore, require the coalition to identify and cultivate human sources on the ground as Dan Senor, a former top U.S. government official, has stated publicly.
Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi Kurds will be critical to the intelligence collection effort in Iraq and Syria. Properly equipped, moderate Sunnis and Kurds can dismantle the Islamic State while combating Iranian influence throughout the region. Moderate groups must be provided with Javelin anti-tank missiles, Mine Resistant-Ambush Protected trucks, and night vision equipment to provide a military advantage. This will not require legislation as $5 billion has already been allocated for intelligence programs to the United States Army and can be easily reprogrammed to support this initiative.
Finally, the U.S. should abandon efforts to unify a national government. It is time for the international community to move to support Kurdish independence. There is precedent for this in the establishment of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, where then-President Roosevelt dispatched warships to support Panamanian independence over regional objections.
The U.S. should commit to building and sustaining a force of approximately 15,000 U.S. Armed Forces in Kurdistan before the Iraqi provincial elections in 2017. Recognizing the mutually beneficial relationship, the U.S. should seek a status of forces agreement with Erbil remaining in effect until 2100.
Also, an international coalition should shape the future of Syria and Iraq with military force. This global coalition could develop an inclusive government-in-waiting in Syria, while returning contested areas with large Kurdish populations to Kurdish control.
These missions will require as many as 25,000 ground troops inside Iraq and Syria. Special operations forces, Combat Aviation Brigades and quick reaction forces with a nucleus provided by the United States Marine Corps can handle the bulk of this effort. Additional forces may be required to establish bases, provide battlefield medical services, interrogate detainees, and process intelligence.
Iraq is plagued by long-term problems, and military action is just the first step in a long slog that will last decades. Failure by the coalition to support sensible military and political policies will ensure dissipation of American influence and a blow to national interests across the region—with Iran as the victor.
Kurdish and Sunni groups require extensive technical assistance today, and the international community must act urgently and decisively before it is too late. Let’s stand tall in Iraq.
About the Author
Robert Caruso served with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the Department of State, the Department of the Navy, and a Joint Task Force.