No One Really Knows What Is Happening in Iraq

Iraq's Shi'ite paramilitaries and members of Iraqi security forces gather in Nibai, in Anbar province May 26, 2015. Iraq's Shi'ite paramilitaries said on Tuesday they had taken charge of the campaign to drive Islamic State from the western province of Anbar, giving the operation an openly sectarian codename that could infuriate its Sunni Muslim population. Reuters

On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter appeared on CNN's State of the Union, during which he reflected on the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces in the recent battle for Ramadi.

"What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight," he said. "They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight."

It was a stunning admission. The United States has been retraining and re-equipping the Iraqi military (again) since last summer and its ignominious performance in Mosul, Tikrit and every place in between.

The defeat in Ramadi and Secretary Carter's blunt assessment suggests that the Obama administration's return on investment is close to nil.

It is extraordinarily worrisome, because the White House's entire strategy is based on providing local actors, primarily the Iraqi Security Forces, the means to "degrade and defeat" the self-proclaimed Islamic State instead of deploying American soldiers to do the job.

The secretary's statement was particularly surprising since Secretary of State John Kerry assured the press a few days earlier that the Islamic State's grip on Ramadi would be temporary, while the White House called it a "tactical setback."

Perhaps Carter was responding to the Iraqis who blamed Washington for the defeat. Or maybe he knows better than anyone what is what in Iraq, and when the inevitable accounting is done, Carter and the Pentagon do not want to take the blame for who lost Iraq (again).

The most straightforward explanation for the administration's mixed signals, however, is this: No one really knows or understands what is happening in Iraq.

This is all terribly disconcerting given the $2.5 trillion the United States has spent in Iraq, as well as the political pressure to deploy more American forces—on top of the three thousand already there—to rescue Baghdad.

It is unlikely that the American people will support such a move, but what about an additional five thousand advisors, and then in another six to eight months three thousand more, and when the Iraqis are still having a hard time perhaps another five thousand will be the "game changer"?

There are influential people already arguing for an increased American commitment. It is a fair argument to make. Iraq was held together in 2006 and 2007 through the combination of American arms and money. Maybe "Surge 2.0" or "Grandsons of Iraq" would work. Then again as the Turks say, "You cannot bathe in the same bath water twice."

So what to think about Iraq?

1. The fog of war—Remember in April when Islamic State fighters were driven from Tikrit and everyone started talking about the coming battle to retake Mosul? At around the same time the Kurds cut the main artery leading to the Islamic State's rear in Syria.

The Islamic State, we were told, was on the defensive. The military situation was looking very good. Islamic State fighters could not move, their lines of communication were disrupted and they were having a hard time resupplying.

Then the Islamic State took Ramadi (and Baiji, which remains contested) and the sky was falling again. The current conflict is likely to be a long and grinding one—the Pentagon has planned for a thirty-six-month campaign—and who has the battlefield momentum is likely to change again and again. Already, Shia militias and Iraqi Security Forces are preparing to retake Ramadi.

2. Carter was correct—The Iraqi Security Forces are bad. It is a damning state of affairs. By my count, the United States has trained the Iraqi military at least four times (maybe it is five, but it could be six).

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with what has been happening in Iraq these days understands that when battlefield success has come, it has been the result of American airstrikes, the Popular Mobilization Units—the Hashed, or Shia militias, to use the media's catch-all term—Kurdish peshmerga, and tribal fighters.

In the battle to liberate Tikrit, the Iraqi Security Forces were present in relatively small numbers. There are, of course, units of the ISF that are better than others, but overall it is a poorly led force that has proven over and over again that no matter how much time, energy and resources Washington puts into it, the Iraqi military cannot or will not fight.

3. Iraq has come undone—The Islamic State is a major threat to Iraq, but with enough firepower one can certainly imagine that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's forces can be diminished significantly. Some analysts perceive this to be happening already, despite gains in Ramadi and the renewed threat to Baiji (it was under Islamic State control from July to November 2014, then again in December, and it has been back and forth ever since).

As I have written previously, the apparent remedy for the Islamic State problem—giving weapons to the ISF, the Kurds (subject to Baghdad's approval), turning a blind eye to Iranian efforts to fight the Islamic State through local Shia militias—creates a whole set of new problems.

Every undergrad who has ever taken "Introduction to Political Science" is aware of Max Weber's observation that the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence is a necessary condition of statehood. For Weber, this did not mean that only the state had the capacity to use violence, but that it did so legitimately was of central importance. The state could permit others to use violence, but it could also revoke its consent.

Does the Iraqi state have a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence? Would the Kurds or Shia militias lay down their arms should the Iraqi prime minister demand they do so?

The answer to both these questions is likely to be, "No." What this says about the future of Iraq is an issue that too few people are willing to confront directly: The Iraqi state is increasingly irrelevant.

There is a lot of breathless commentary about Iraq, mostly because the people on television or the people who write columns are surfing the news cycles. If they had some perspective, they might recognize that the battles for Ramadi and Baiji are moments in a longer process that has been playing out for some time in which Iraq is coming apart.

We are lost in Iraq because Iraq—no matter what the outcome of the struggle with the Islamic State may be—is itself lost.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on the Council for Foreign Relations website.