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CSIS Commentary
The Real Center of Gravity in the War Against the Islamic State
Special Contribution
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Iraq war

Much of the debate over the air war and “boots on the ground” ignores the real center of gravity in the campaign against the Islamic State. There is no near-term possibility of any form of military victory unless the new Iraqi government can bring Iraq’s Arab Shi’ite, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds back together as some form of functioning state.

Even if the United States could solve the logistic and sustainment issues involved on a timely basis, the United States cannot deploy its own major ground force combat units into the middle of a civil war. The rise of the Islamic State and the support it has gained from Iraq’s Sunnis is the result of the conflict between Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’ite that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki provoked between 2010 and being pushed out of the position in 2014. Far too many Iraqis will now see any U.S. action as taking sides in their civil war, there are far too many hostile Shi’ite and Sunni militias, and far too many Iraqi politicians who will exploit the situation for their own benefit.

These problems go beyond Iraq’s borders and involve ethnic as well as sectarian conflicts. There are no clear dividing lines between Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis and Iraqi Sunnis who will seek to secure Iraq out of some loyalty to the central government. Iraq’s Kurds have had far too few reasons to be loyal to the central government, strong incentives to turn to Turkey for exporting oil, and very different incentives to come to the aid of Syria’s Kurds and grab as much disputed territory in Iraq as they can. The United States cannot deploy ground forces where it will be seen by one side or another as either supporting Kurdish claims and separatism or taking sides against them.

The United States also faces the problem that there are no clear boundaries between Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish Kurds and deeply divided factions within them as well as the problem of coping with the PKK – a group the United States has labeled as a terrorist organization. The United States also could not easily avoid coming to the aid of every threatened minority or humanitarian crisis in Syria, or being perceived – as many in the region already perceive it – as supporting Assad and Alawites in some conspiracy against the Sunnis and Turkey.

Furthermore, virtually no one really believes that the United States can create a meaningful moderate rebel force in Syria in time to deal with the Islamic State. All it can do is to weaken it that a mix of other rebel forces – many Islamic extremists – will take advantage of its weakness along with the pro-Assad forces while the United States hopes that some kind of meaningful moderate forces will gain real power and credibility with several years of U.S., Jordanian, and Saudi support. It is always possible that such hopes will triumph over experience, but it is more probable that Iraq is the country the United States and its allies can salvage and Syria will remain a divided mess: a mess where U.S. ground combat units would face a nightmare of hostile and uncertain factions.

It is also essential to understand that some kind of political accommodation is critical to any effort to coopt the Sunnis into the provincial national guard units. The United States has made this the key to reassuring the Sunnis that this time they will get both security and a fair share of power if they support the government.

It is essential to making the Iraqi Kurds and pesh merga strong enough as military forces to truly secure the Kurdistan Regional Government without leaving a future conflict in the making over the disputes as to how much territory the Kurds should control. And, it is essential to addressing the shattered, corrupt, and Shi’ite dominated Iraqi government military and police forces, and cleaning out the abusive, Shi’ite aligned, and incompetent elements of such forces.

A survey of Iraqi government forces done for General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, found that only 26 of some 50 remaining brigade equivalents were anything like “reputable partners” and that many of these forces would take up to three years to fully rebuild. The other units were so tied to Shi’ite abuses, corruption, ghost soldiers, and incompetent officers that they needed to either be disbanded or purged and rebuilt from the ground up.

These units cannot be rebuilt simply by offering Iraqi young men the jobs and income no other source can provide them. Desertion and absentee rates are too high, and the incentive to run under pressure is too great. There have to be reasons to be loyal and to fight.

These problems are still further compounded by the break down, corruption, and incompetence of many Iraqi training combat support, service support, intelligence, and other sustainment and enabling forces. The same is true of a demoralized, corrupt, fragmented, and sectarian police force that lacks paramilitary weapons and equipment. It true of making the police work in their equally important function of bringing security and the rule of law, and creating the other elements of a court system and rule of law to make this possible.

A “train and equip” program also cannot work unless it has something it can build upon. As General Dempsey has already warned, the present U.S. approach of trying to keep as many advisors distant from Iraqi combat troops is almost certainly unworkable, and should never have been attempted in the first place.

The United States does need Special Forces, enablers, intelligence personnel, air support experts, and wide range of skills that can help create effective units and combat leaders to be deployed forward with Iraqi combat units, not simply safely in the rear. The numbers can be far smaller than in U.S. combat units, and the cost in dollars and blood can be far smaller, but putting the right mix of “boots on the ground” in the right places to create combat capable forces rather than simply train and equip is as critical to success as putting major U.S. combat forces into Iraq is stupid. But, this requires Iraqi political acceptance and the support of Iraqi forces in the field. Thrusting U.S. advisors forward without such acceptance means taking terrible risks in terms of problems with hostile Iraqi forces.

In short, the real center of gravity is not air power, Iraqi or Syrian ground forces, or any form of U.S. boots on the ground. It is having an Iraqi government and set of political compromises that is functional enough to unite its key factions, that offers all the incentives of security and a fair share of power and the nation’s oil wealth, and that can make a quick and real start in job creation, economic development, and reviving the nation’s education and medical systems when security is restored.

The new Iraq government must be able to show that each faction has a reason to be loyal, and that the government will not repeat Maliki’s mistakes in driving the nation into sectarian civil war and ethnic anger. As President Obama said on 60 Minutes on September 28th: "We cannot do this for them, because it's not just a military problem, it is a political problem…And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means [and] think about what tolerance means."

The key question that surrounds every aspect of the present campaign against the Islamic State, and the effort to create an effective alliance, is whether the Iraq can still achieve the necessary level of political accommodation and compromise to make Iraq work. A survey by Munqith M. Dagher, an ex-Iraqi general and key Iraqi pollster warns how difficult and urgent this task will be. This survey is called ISIL in Iraq: A disease or just the symptoms? A public opinion analysis: Second wave. It surveys each Iraqi faction, shows the level of broad discontent and distrust and provides a critical perspective as to why the political dimension in Iraq now has a higher priority than attacks on the Islamic State. This survey is available on the CSIS web site at

Changing these attitudes and building trust is going to require more than policy declarations and statements of good intentions by Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and the other, key Shi’ite. Sunni, and Kurdish political figures in Iraq. It requires urgent action and probably firmly pushing Maliki and his supporters out of any position of responsibility. Fortunately Abadi may have the skill and will to do this, and the mix of Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish support that is equally critical.

Abadi has already begun to push out Maliki loyalists in the government and the military, and has rejected Maliki’s effort to make Hadi Al-Ameri, the leader of the hardline Shi’ite Badr Organization the new Minister of the Interior. He is reported to have scrapped the Office of Commander-in-Chief—which Maliki created and used instead of even trying to create an effective Minister of Defense and Minister of Interior. He also is reported to have pushed out two incompetent army generals appointed by and loyal to Maliki and have been blamed for some of the worst losses to the Islamic State in June. He also seems to have halted the kind of Iraqi airstrikes that were so poorly targeted under Maliki that they did little more than kill Sunni civilians and make sectarian tensions worse.

Iraq’s other Shi’ite factions, Sunnis, and Kurds need to do their share. Some quick approach to power and revenue sharing and federalism may be vital, but there does seem to be a basis for a start. It is critical, however, that Americans understand that it will take time to create political unity, that no amount of U.S. and allied bombing or ground troops can do the job, that it will be the ground forces of all the Iraqi factions that will ultimately determine military success, and that this success may well not be possible unless the United States can send suitable advisory teams forward as well as provide them in the rear.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).






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