There is no easy way to stop the endemic violence and ethnic strife in Iraq. After a litany of failed interventions, the international community has grown weary of lengthy foreign adventures with dubious goals. Similarly, after a decade of pouring blood and treasure into Iraq, the US is reluctant to be drawn back into the fray. That said, if the international community wants to remove the threat of the Islamic State (IS), the only viable option is an international military intervention.
The latest iteration of the Iraqi conflict commonly draws parallels with US military action in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Libya – but most importantly the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Unsurprisingly, a chorus of voices has argued against entering another fruitless foreign war. But the Islamic State is a distinctly different opponent than the Iraqi insurgency during the previous US occupation. The current conflict, although mobilized along sectarian fault lines, is a traditional military contest of territory, of which sides can conquer and hold cities. This is not a counterinsurgency campaign aiming to win the hearts and minds of a suspicious civilian population while searching out a handful of insurgents.
Akin to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, the Islamic State is a pseudo-state waging a conventional war for cities and territory. The Islamic State commands a military, collects taxes, installs power lines, operates a postal service, and generates revenue from oil fields. Consequently, the success and legitimacy of the Islamic State is explicitly fettered to its ability to gain territory and administer newly acquired cities. In 2009, the Sri Lankan military exploited the organizational rigidity of the LTTE, leveraging the LTTE’s dependence on territory for revenue and legitimacy. Hence, the rigid reliance on maintaining a territorial Caliphate may prove to be the fatal weakness of the Islamic State.
According to Cam Simpson, “the foundation of Islamic State’s management model is more akin to General Motors than to a religious dynasty.” The Al Anbar division of the Islamic State provides oversight and funding to smaller branches of the organization throughout Iraq, but regional commanders direct daily operations. Therefore, each IS stronghold heavily relies on the local revenue generated from its territorial holdings to thrive, whether through oil production, extortion, smuggling, or protection rackets. The lifeblood of the organization is intimately connected to its ability to retain control over populations. Therefore, expelling the Islamic State from its urban strongholds will cripple the organization’s ability to generate revenue and pay its expansive militia. A military intervention will deny the Islamic State the critical infrastructure it requires to operate, both politically and militarily.
The political will to rollback the Islamic State already exists. Several countries including the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have already begun military operations ranging from reconnaissance flights to sending military advisors to assist the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The current strategy of equipping and advising the ISF, however, is a half-hearted, superficial response to a determined and well-equipped adversary. Furthermore, there are serious doubts about the ability of the ISF to successfully retake IS strongholds like Mosul. The operation to liberate Tikrit, a city was a huge struggle and Tikrit is only one-eighth the size of Mosul. .
Unlike the previous US occupation, the intervention would not be a nation-building enterprise, an attempt to re-create the socio-political fabric of Iraqi society. Ideally, an international coalition similar to the First Gulf War force will coordinate a complex, joint arms operation to expel the Islamic State from major cities like Mosul. Combining the resources and advanced capabilities of Western militaries with the legitimacy of Arab partners may prove the decisive factor. Moreover, significant losses in territory will substantially undermine the legitimacy and logistics of the Islamic State. Without the control of populous cities, the Islamic State will be hard pressed to recoup battlefield losses against a sustained international intervention.
International interventions with limited goals of military rollback have proven to be successful in certain contexts. Operation Desert Storm succeeded in expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 through an international military intervention. The Battle of Fallujah (2004) and the Battle of Sadr City (2004) demonstrated that an expertly executed military operation could dislodge insurgents from difficult urban battlefields. Likewise, after a few months of combat, a French-led military force followed by a UN-sanctioned intervention in Mali expelled the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg pseudo-state, from the north. A successful military intervention could provide Iraq the crucial opportunity to reach a permanent political compromise that would satisfy the fragile balance between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds.
Admittedly, the Islamic State may revert back to clandestine operations or other rebel groups may simply replace them. Nevertheless, as long as the Islamic State serves as an alternative to the Iraqi state, however brutal their reign may be, a long-term political solution to Iraq’s civil strife will remain improbable. Furthermore, the longer the conflict wages on, the probability of a brutal theocratic state exporting terror and violence in the region only increases. Before the fractured Iraqi society can be stitched back together, the Iraqi state must consolidate its political supremacy in the country.
The alternative to an international intervention is the continuation of a civil war characterized by ethnic cleansing. According to Human Right Watch, during the Iranian-led liberation of Amerili, the destruction of “47 predominantly Sunni villages was methodical and driven by revenge and intended to alter the demographic composition of Iraq’s traditionally diverse provinces of Salah al-Din and Kirkuk.” The report highlights the pervasive use of torture, rampant looting, and unbridled destruction of property.
Tragically, a person’s sectarian and ethnic lineage is becoming a death sentence in Iraq – death arbitrated either by the Islamic State or the opposing militias. A twenty-one year old Yengija resident, after being beaten brutally, described how Khorasani militiamen “asked me if I was Shia or Sunni. I told them I was Shia Turkoman and they ordered me to prove it by praying the Shia way.” Left unchecked, the conflict will escalate into systemic ethnic cleansing reminiscent of Rwanda. In the end, international intervention may not only be the best option, but the morally necessary course of action.
In 2003, the US wielded a sledgehammer in Iraq when the conflict required a surgical scalpel. Now, the international community is using a toothpick when the Islamic State demands a sledgehammer. Yet we must first ask ourselves if we are drawing the right parallels and lessons from the past or simply disguising our own inaction with historical justification. If we ignore the lessons of history, we will repeat our tragic mistakes.
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