At least since the Osama Bin Laden raid in 2011, and possibly since the start of the SOCOM video game franchise in 2002, America has had Special Forces fever. For a nation that has waded through a decade-plus of messy counterinsurgency, special operations forces seem like a universal fix to foreign policy disasters.
They’re not. We don’t have enough, for one thing. But more importantly, special operations can only affect issues around the edges. Other than perhaps a prehistorically dead Adolf Hitler in 1925, the killing of a few individuals is rarely enough to change the course of human events.
Bin Laden died in 2011, and since then Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have murdered a US ambassador in Libya, conducted a successful mass terrorist event at a BP facility in Algeria, carved out a duty-free zone in Syria’s eastern and Iraq’s western provinces, and most recently captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Special Forces are not always the solution. But they could help in Iraq.
By now, the story of the turning of the tide in Iraq is fairly well known. Alienated by Al-Qaeda’s excesses, Sunni tribes in Iraq’s western Anbar province began to turn against their Al-Qaeda guests in 2006. US forces took advantage of that shift; combined with General Petraeus’ more embedded, local counterinsurgency strategy and additional US troops to protect Baghdad, the militias were semi-regularized as the Sons of Iraq and managed to push out the Islamists. As Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the future Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) lost room to operate, sectarian tensions damped down.
Not entirely, of course. Even after the crisis had passed, Iraq’s Shia central government in Baghdad didn’t trust the militias. It’s not surprising. The Shia ascendency in the Arab world – in Lebanon, Syria, and now Iraq – is so historically tenuous that the Baghdad government can almost be forgiven for fearing the growth of Sunni military power.
Almost, but not quite: it doesn’t take a regional expert to see that though a 35 percent Sunni minority will probably never take power from a 65 percent Shia majority, national peace depends on throwing it a political bone every now and again.
Maliki didn’t see. He persecuted influential Sunnis and their lawmakers, and built an identity as an in implicitly sectarian strongman willing to restore order to the lawless – Sunni – parts of Iraq. Most importantly, however, he didn’t make a serious effort to integrate the anti-Al-Qaeda militias into his security forces.
That was a mistake.
The tide in Iraq ultimately started to turn when the responsibility for security in Sunni areas fell to the most local level possible: families and tribes. In heterogeneous states like Iraq and Afghanistan, people will fight to defend themselves, their villages, and their kinsmen. But asking them to side with armed strangers from a sectarian central government? Harder.
That’s why the ISIS advance probably stops at or before Baghdad. The city has a large Shia population, and ISIS has not yet expanded out of broadly Sunni territory. The security forces and Shia volunteers are likely to fight harder for their shrines and homes than for Sunni areas, where they have little local support. With breathing space, and time to marshal the resources of the state, the Iraqi government will probably be able to recapture some of the territory it lost.
But, what then? How does it win back the Sunnis? Well, Maliki could halt their discrimination and persecution under his regime, and do some formal political bridge building. However, this seems unlikely. Even assuming a positive outcome, this kind of near-death experience doesn’t make Middle Eastern states more likely to build tolerance bridges and cooperate.
Look at Assad in Syria; look at President Sisi in Egypt, Jordan after the Palestinian violence in 1970 or (god help us) Omar Bashir in Sudan. It seems unlikely that Shia troops roaming the reconquered streets of Ninevah villages are going to turn over power to those who helped the jihadists. And if regular Iraqi soldiers will be un-magnanimous, irregular Shia volunteers will likely be genocidal.
Americans could help rebuild the anti-Al-Qaeda militias that offered Sunnis both security and an informal guarantee of political autonomy. The disintegration of these militias, after they were shut out from the regular security forces, was the start of Iraq’s collapse. If Baghdad wants to hold onto its Sunni center and west over the long run, it has to rebuild them.
Building local militias and the security capabilities of foreign governments is a core strength of U.S. Army special operations forces. U.S. Green Berets and SEALs have been performing this mission over the past four years in Afghanistan where they have been overseeing the Afghan Local Police’s largely successful efforts to defend their villages from Taliban infiltration.
The same could be done, again, in Iraq. A small contingent of US Special Forces, partnered with the Iraqi military, would be extremely helpful in rebuilding Sunni militias. They’d need certain protections, like an ad hoc immunity from Iraqi prosecution and authority for close air support. But it’s a better solution over the long run than sporadically dropping anti-terror missiles on Iraq, a policy that has failed to win us many friends in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia.
Nobody wants to restart the Iraq War. But if the administration is serious about intervening in this conflict, and winning, the option should be on the table.
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