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<p>Adnan Khan</p>


The U.S. debate over Iraq is missing the most serious questions

Adnan Khan

Published Thursday, Jun. 19, 2014 09:54AM EDT

Last updated Thursday, Jun. 19, 2014 09:59AM EDT

Adnan Khan is a writer and photographer who lives in Istanbul and Islamabad.

There is a terrible truth to the debate currently playing out in the United States over recent events in Iraq: Republicans are still entirely clueless about the Muslim world. It’s shocking: after more than a decade of post-9/11 engagement, the kind of understanding one would expect has not been forthcoming. The opposite has happened, in fact: Republicanism has retreated into a bunker made impenetrable by self-delusion.

Fox News is again the worst culprit, spinning the debate into a denunciation of President Barack Obama’s entire foreign policy. Cal Thomas, a regular Fox op-ed contributor, puts it this way:

“On Friday, the president announced the U.S. would not send military forces back to Iraq unless the Iraqi government finds a way to bridge sectarian differences. Even then, he suggested, military power alone won’t bring stability to the country. Basically, the president said, ‘Iraq, you’re on your own.’”

How exactly, a rational mind must ask, does demanding a democratic government act democratically before another democratic government will give it assistance equate to abandonment?

This is how far Republicans have gone down the road of political expediency, sacrificing fact for political points. But Mr. Thomas doesn’t stop there. His argument devolves into paranoid claptrap: “The Islamist infiltration of schools in Birmingham, England, is an example for what is to come there and in the U.S. if they are not stopped,” he goes on to say. “This war for the future of the planet is not over.”

Really? And this from a person Fox describes as “America's most widely syndicated op-ed columnist.”

A thinking mind, on the other hand, must ask the important questions:

Why should the United States intervene now?

ISIS is no doubt a powerful force, but it faces ideological isolation (both al Qaeda and other Islamist groups in Syria have rejected it). The best estimates place their forces at around 10,000 to 15,000 fighters. The recent offensive is much more than simply the product of a radical jihadist group flexing its muscles. According to the spokesperson for the Military Councils of Iraqi Revolutionaries, an anti-government group in Iraq made up of former Baathist generals from the Saddam regime, it was MCIR support that proved decisive in Mosul. The spokesperson conceded that the MCIR is working with ISIS but took the extraordinary step of calling them “barbarians” and added that once their usefulness is exhausted, they will be ejected from Iraq.

The MCIR is ideologically supported by the Association of Muslim Clerics (AMC), who also warned ISIS to abide by its rulings, which call for respecting civilians and avoiding turning Iraq into a sectarian killing field.

So what has been reported in the media as a radical jihadist takeover is in fact much more complicated. There is no imminent threat of a military and political collapse in Iraq, and certainly no danger of a new al-Qaeda-style jihadist breeding ground. There is time to think and come up with a prudent strategy to the crisis, something Republicans seem incapable of.

Who, then, should the United States support?

Is it the al Maliki government, which has proven itself divisive and singularly obsessed with the interests of Iraq’s Shia at the expense of the Sunnis? The Sunni-Shia divide lies at the heart of Iraq’s troubles; it was the hornet’s nest George H.W. Bush poked during his first Gulf War and that his son cracked open 14 years later. Backing al Maliki now, without a firm pledge to act like the prime minister of a diverse nation and not the standard bearer of a particular sect, would be like swatting a stick at a swarm.

Is it then the Kurds, who represent the best military option in light of the coherence and professionalism of their Peshmerga forces? The Kurds have been edging toward independence ever since 2003 when the Peshmerga worked closely with U.S. Special forces during the invasion of Iraq, gaining not only their deep respect but a measure of support from the U.S. administration for the Kurdish independence movement.

Now, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region has its own visa regime at its borders, maintains its own standing army, engages in unilateral oil extraction and sales despite a constitution that declares oil a national resource to be overseen by the central government, and generally flips the bird to al Maliki whenever he accuses the Kurdish government of acting like an independent nation.

Is it, lastly, the Sunni tribes, or their MCIR representatives, who have fought alongside Iraq’s radical jihadists, then turned on them and now appear to be switching sides again? Backing the Sunnis, or at least ensuring that they feel included in Iraq, is key to preventing another slide into civil war, and extracting them from the clutches of Islamic radicals. It is a delicate operation, however, requiring both tact and an understanding of Iraq’s Sunni tribal structures. And it needs to have Mr. al Maliki and his Shia cohorts on side.

What would be the goal of military intervention?

Cannonballing into rough waters risks doing more harm than good. In strategic terms, intervening in Iraq now, when the basic foundations of Iraqi society and politics are so fragile, would repeat the mistakes the Republicans made in 2003. Bombing the insurgents would kill both ISIS and MCIR fighters as well as many Sunni civilians. It would not fix the underlying issues, and potentially inflame them further.

Playing the global jihadist card, using the argument that the enemy is out there and it wants to kill Americans, is foolish. In the words of Mr. Thomas:

“Following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, al-Qaida will likely have two states from which it can plan and execute new assaults on America, Israel, Britain and other ‘infidel’ nations.”

This is patently untrue. The ability of al-Qaeda to re-group in Iraq, let alone Afghanistan, has been severely curtailed. Whether al-Qaeda even exists as an active military threat is debatable. The Taliban in Afghanistan were always somewhat naive hosts for Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and have learned their lesson. Most experts agree that it is unlikely global jihadists will gain a foothold in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.

Iraq still poses a threat. Certainly if the country breaks apart, the impoverished and Sunni-dominated east and northeast could become a haven for ISIS and its brand of global jihad. But that is not a certainty by any calculation. Iraq’s Sunnis are generally moderate and despise extremist ideology. Their loyalties are based on something much more human: leaders who promise them a peaceful and prosperous future. Ensuring that requires reasoned thought and a collective effort that includes the United States, the Iraqis and other regional players, including Turkey.

So the question is not when the United States should intervene, but if President Obama is right: intervening at this stage, in the absence of a well-thought-out strategy that takes into consideration the why, who, what and when, will change nothing. The United States will again be seen as taking sides in a broader conflict between Sunnis and the Shia, the end result of which will be more innocent lives lost, more sectarian violence, and most importantly for the American public, more U.S. dollars – and potentially American lives – wasted.