This story has been updated.
Nearly two years after Iraq ejected U.S. troops, and with an escalating civil war nearly as deadly as 2006, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki has come to Washington to ask President Obama to intervene in a war he never wanted in the first place.
The two men were unable to come to an agreement in 2011, when the Iraqi parliament rejected the U.S. offer to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq – only if they were granted immunity — to help stabilize the country after the war. At the time, Obama wanted out; Maliki wanted his country back. But 2013 has turned bloodier than either man anticipated. The violence across Iraq has worsened, and the spillover violence from neighboring Syria and increasing influence from Iran threatens, for Malikik, a nation that has endured more than a decade of war and, for Obama, America’s security interests in regional stability.
The last thing Obama wants to do is send U.S. troops back to Iraq — and Maliki has already drawn that line in the sand in an op-ed in the New York Times, saying, “We are not asking for American boots on the ground. Rather, we urgently want to equip our own forces with the weapons they need to fight terrorism, including helicopters and other military aircraft so that we can secure our borders and protect our people.”
The Pentagon has been operating in Iraq, with small special operations forces units and counterterrorism teams. Beyond sending Apache helicopters and other military equipment, these specialized forces are Obama’s only choice to help Iraq from spiraling back into chaos. A senior White House administration official said they’re already working on supplying the Iraqi military with weapons and enhanced intelligence sharing, though some of it is coming slowly and items like air defense systems have questionable value to quelling the rudimentary ground insurgency.
“The Iraqis have asked for weapons systems from us. We’ve worked very closely with them and we support those requests, and we’re working with the Congress through those as appropriate. We’ve made some progress. For example, we notified over the summer a major air defense system which allows the Iraqis for — really, for the first time, to take sovereign control of their airspace, which right now they don’t have. So it’ll take some time to get that system in place, but that system had been pending for some time,” the official said.
After meeting with Maliki at the White House on Friday, Obama was vague about exactly what kind of help he’s willing to give to Iraq. “I emphasized the ambition of continuing counterterrorism support and partnership,” he said before listing a number of things the Iraqis need to do to help themselves, like holding free and fair presidential elections next April, combatting the overflow of terrorist activity from Syria, partnering more with Turkey and Kuwait and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.
Maliki offered this from his meeting with Obama: “We talked about the way of countering terrorism, and we had similar positions and similar ideas.”
At a press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked about any plans to send troops – including special forces — to Iraq. “No, I don’t anticipate troops on the ground. What I think will be a focus of the discussions is the ways in which the United States can provide assistance. We are providing assistance and believe it’s important that we make that case on Capitol Hill,” Carney said. “I wouldn’t expect any announcements, but if you’re asking about boots on the ground, I think we’ve made clear we withdrew from Iraq and we think that we can continue to provide assistance to Iraq in its effort against al Qaeda short of boots on the ground through our foreign military sales and through other means.”
The Iraqis are also looking to bring back the Sunnis who were behind the “awakenings” that led to a unified fight between Sunnis and Shias against al Qaeda. The senior official said that’s something Maliki is looking to replicate again. But those agreements were based on one important caveat that no longer exists — those Sunni tribal leaders knew they had the might of U.S. troops on the ground to back them up.
Retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote in Foreign Policy that many of the conditions that brought the violence down after the 2007 surge of U.S. troops should be replicated. “If Iraqi leaders think back to that time, they will recall that the surge was not just more forces, though the additional forces were very important. What mattered most was the surge of ideas — concepts that embraced security of the people by ‘living with them,’ initiatives to promote reconciliation with elements of the population that felt they had no incentive to support the new Iraq, ramping up of precise operations that targeted the key ‘irreconcilables,’ the embrace of an enhanced comprehensive civil-military approach, increased attention to various aspects of the rule of law, improvements to infrastructure and basic services, and support for various political actions that helped bridge ethno-sectarian divides.”
But the U.S. spent years and billions of dollars training the Iraqi security forces. And after just two years without U.S. handholding, it doesn’t look like Iraq learned many of Petraeus’ lessons. The political landscape has only worsened between the Sunnis and the Shia-led government. “We know we have major challenges of our own capabilities being up to the standard. They currently are not,” said Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., in an interview with the Associated Press. “We need to gear up, to deal with that threat more seriously. We need support and we need help.”
So while Iraq wants U.S. help, one thing is clear — the way forward will not involve U.S. boots on the ground. Obama may be willing to help, but it will have to be the Iraqis doing the heavy lifting this time.