It’s Time To Arm the Sunni Tribes

Members of Iraq's Sunni tribes walk at the front line during a battle with ISIS militants in Tikrit, Iraq, on March 16, 2015.

Khalid Mohammed/AP

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Members of Iraq's Sunni tribes walk at the front line during a battle with ISIS militants in Tikrit, Iraq, on March 16, 2015.

The United States must work with what partners it has available in Iraq, not fictitious ones it might prefer.

Iraq is collapsing. Last week, another major city – Ramadi – fell to the Islamic State, or ISIS. The loss is particularly painful as the U.S. paid a heavy price to liberate Ramadi from al Qaeda only a few years ago.

The broader campaign against ISIS is faring little better. Even where ISIS has been pushed back, often it is Shiite militias on the ground advancing, not the multi-sectarian uniformed Iraqi forces. In their “liberation” of cities held by ISIS, Shiite militias are engaging in an orgy of sectarian violence – burning homes and killing anyone they deem to be collaborators. The result is that even where ISIS is losing ground, the result is not peace and security. Rather, with each city retaken by Shiite militias, Iraq tears further along its sectarian seams.

The United States’ strategy has been to strengthen the Iraqi central government’s ability to control its territory by training, equipping, and advising Iraqi security forces. That strategy is failing. It isn’t failing because of a lack of money, equipment, advisors, or U.S. airpower. It is failing because the forces the United States is backing lack the will to fight.

ISIS swept into Iraq last year not because they are a militarily powerful force – their forces largely consist of lightly armed fighters with pickup trucks and machine guns – but because Iraqi security forces dissipated without a fight. American support hasn’t changed that. Iraqi government forces were unable to make significant advances in Tikrit without assistance from Shiite militias, and they melted away in Ramadi.

The only effective fighting forces on the ground in Iraq today are sectarian-based: the Kurdish peshmerga, Shiite militias, and ISIS.

U.S. forces just left Iraq, and if nine years of occupation with over 160,000 troops at its peak didn’t bring about lasting stability, it’s hard to see what a few thousand troops might do. 

Faced with this reality, the United States needs a new approach. Sending U.S. ground troops into Iraq to fight ISIS directly won’t solve anything. U.S. forces just left Iraq, and if nine years of occupation with over 160,000 troops at its peak didn’t bring about lasting stability, it’s hard to see what a few thousand troops might do. The U.S. military is more than capable of retaking ISIS-held areas like Ramadi and Mosul, but then what? For how long would U.S. troops stay? A generation?

 Effective security forces are needed to retake and hold terrain in western Iraq, but they cannot be Shiite or Kurdish forces. The solution to this dilemma was supposed to be the creation of Sunni National Guard units, local security forces akin to the Awakening’s “Sons of Iraq,” but that would fall under the authority and control of the central government. But political dysfunction in Baghdad has stymied this effort.

The United States should move to directly support Sunni tribes against ISIS, outside of the Iraqi government if necessary, much as the U.S. did to support the Kurdish peshmerga last year. While standing up Sunni tribal units through the central government would be preferable, waiting for the Iraqi government would be a mistake. ISIS’ advance has been enabled in large part by the disenfranchisement of Iraqi Sunnis by the central government, which failed to deliver on the Awakening’s promise of political and economic participation in Iraq’s future. A U.S. strategy for defeating ISIS that hinges on Baghdad fixing its political dysfunction is doomed to fail. The United States cannot have an Iraq policy based on hope. The United States must work with what partners it has available, not fictitious ones it might prefer.

 A U.S. plan to support moderate Sunni tribes against ISIS would begin by tapping into the personal relationships the U.S. military and intelligence community developed during the Sunni Awakening. Once willing partners are identified and vetted, money, guns, and U.S. airpower should follow. Similar to U.S. support for Iraqi government forces today, the United States should provide intelligence, advice, and training. Whether U.S. special forces should accompany tribal fighters into battle as frontline combat advisors is another matter. Over time, if some tribal units prove themselves in combat and the presence of U.S. advisors on the ground would make a decisive difference in an operation, a decision can be made at that time. But the U.S. role should always remain in support of Sunni tribal fighters, not fighting for them.

If the Obama administration moves to support Sunni tribes directly, it is likely to find a willing partner in Congress. The recently passed House version of the defense authorization act mandates that at least 25 percent of Iraq military assistance goes directly to Kurdish and Sunni groups. Many Congressional leaders are calling for additional steps to roll back ISIS; giving direct support to moderate Sunnis, much like the United States is doing across the border in Syria, is a sensible step.

Iraq teeters today on the brink of an abyss, not just of ISIS domination in western Iraq but of an irreversible descent into sectarian warfare. The argument against directly backing Sunni tribes is that strong tribal forces not beholden to the central government could exacerbate sectarian tensions. But it is the lack of such forces that has allowed ISIS to spread into Sunni-dominated areas in the first place, bringing marauding Shiite militias in response. A failure to support moderate Sunnis strengthens ISIS’ hand as well as spoilers like Iran who can argue they are necessary to counter ISIS.

Strong tribal forces can be a bulwark against both ISIS and rampant sectarian violence. In Kurdistan, the existence of a strong and independent local security force – the peshmerga – has enabled autonomy and stability. Similarly, empowering moderate Iraqi Sunnis to provide for their own local security is not only central to defeating ISIS, but to protecting Iraq’s future as well.

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