Sometimes in war, it’s darkest just before the dawn.
Less than two months ago, an offensive by Iraqi forces to recapture Tikrit from Islamic State fighters was stalled. American commanders had washed their hands of a major operation led by Iranian Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani and dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias that many feared would further provoke a sectarian civil war with retribution killings. The entire U.S. campaign to turn back the Islamic State tide in Iraq was floundering on the shoals of strategic incoherence.
At that dire moment, American officials believe an Iraqi champion stepped forward. And subsequent events have only reinforced their view.
This week, National Journal contributing editor James Kitfield spoke with Amb. Brett McGurk, deputy special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), about hopeful signs in a grim landscape of war.
An edited version of their conversation follows.
NJ: When the Iraqi government’s offensive to retake the city of Tikrit became dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and then stalled, it looked like a disaster for the U.S.-led campaign against the group. Was that a pivotal moment in the fight against the Islamic State?
McGurk: The Tikrit operation was very fluid and dynamic, and it did represent an important inflection point. Initially, the operation was not fully coordinated with U.S. military commanders and the Joint Operations Center that we operate with our Iraqi counterparts. We had visibility of the operation but did not participate in the planning, which made it difficult for the United States to supply air support. I was in Iraq and speaking regularly to Prime Minister [Haider] Abadi when the Tikrit offensive bogged down. At that point, the Iraqi government had an important choice to make. As a result of the hangover from the Iraq War, there are still some people in the Iraqi system that didn’t want U.S. support. But the vast majority of Iraqi officials did want U.S. help, including Prime Minister Abadi. In order to participate, however, we insisted that all participating units had to be under the command and control of the Iraqi military, or else we risked providing air cover to an operation that could have spun out of control.
NJ: Did the Iraqi government comply?
McGurk: To his credit, Prime Minister Abadi imposed control over all participating units, and those who wouldn’t submit to government control left the field. And within 96 hours of the United States launching air strikes in support of the operation, the Iraqi offensive broke through the Daish [Islamic State] defenses and recaptured Tikrit. That was a significant achievement.
NJ: It has been reported that some of the most notorious, Iranian-backed Shiite militias quit the fight, but there were still concerns that Shiite ”popular mobilization forces” that participated in the operation might engage in revenge killings of Sunnis in Tikrit. Why didn’t that happen?
McGurk: That was also a very significant moment. After Iraqi forces recaptured the city, Prime Minister Abadi traveled to Tikrit and raised the national flag alongside the Sunni governor of the province. Since taking office last year, Abadi has articulated a vision for stabilizing Iraq that is fundamentally different from his predecessor, [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki. That vision is of a more decentralized Iraq, with much more autonomy for local governance. Abadi restated that vision in Tikrit, insisting that local security forces would be responsible for stabilizing the city and the surrounding area.
NJ: And yet weren’t there some reports of looting in Tikrit?
McGurk: There were some initial reports of looting by Shiite militia groups, which was of extreme concern to us. But Abadi gathered his security commanders and local officials, and together they stabilized the situation almost immediately. There was no apologizing or government tolerance of looters or any other criminal activity by militias. And recall that this came at a time when Iraqi troops were unearthing mass graves and the bodies of over 1,000 Iraqi soldiers executed by Daish on YouTube video, so emotions were obviously running high. At the end of the day, Abadi and the Iraqi government get very high marks for wresting control of a volatile situation in Tikrit and stabilizing it.
NJ: Not long after recapturing Tikrit, Abadi announced that Iraqi forces would seek to secure strategic towns and highways in Anbar Province, the Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad that originally gave rise to al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIL’s former namesake. Was that premature?
McGurk: I don’t think so. Soon after Tikrit was recaptured, Abadi held close consultations with all the key players about what to do next. He traveled to Irbil to consult with Kurdish leader [Massoud] Barzani, and he met with [supreme Shiite religious leader Ali] al-Sistani. He also reached out to the leadership of the Sunni tribes in Anbar. Then he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the president and top U.S. officials, and we talked in great detail about his plans to launch operations in Anbar. Immediately on his return to Iraq, Abadi called the Sunni governor of Anbar and traveled immediately to a joint base in Anbar where he handed out more than a thousand rifles to Sunni fighters and helped coordinate the reinforcement of Iraqi Security Forces in the Anbar capital of Ramadi. In all of his discussions and in his outreach to Sunni tribal sheikhs in Anbar, Abadi has made it clear that he wants to recruit locals to lead local security forces, which is a vision that everyone supports, including us.
NJ: Were you surprised that Islamic State fighters in the past week have launched counterattacks on the Baiji oil refinery, as well as on Ramadi?
McGurk: That shows that Daish remains an adaptive and formidable foe. Just in the past week, however, Iraqi forces launched their own counterattacks with U.S. air cover to successfully restore control of most of the Baiji refinery. They also have reinforced Ramadi, and I believe they are going to hold the city. So this is a long-term campaign that is going to take years, not months. But we’re now seeing an Iraqi government that is exerting leadership, and Iraqi Security Forces that in both Baiji and Ramadi have been able to launch successful counteroffensives on their own against Daish, with U.S. air support.
NJ: But didn’t the Islamic State fighters very nearly capture Ramadi?
McGurk: I would remind your readers that this terrorist group has been attacking around Ramadi for the past 16 months. That’s not news. It’s also important to note that when Daish launched its attack, we saw nearly 100,000 local citizens flee Ramadi, proving false the Daish narrative that they are there to “protect” the Sunni population. Meanwhile, the commander of the Iraqi Special Forces unit that reinforced Ramadi is a Kurd, and Shiite cleric al-Sistani recently called on the Iraqi government and all Iraqis to come to the aid of the people of Anbar. So we’re seeing a coming together of Iraq’s disparate groups in support of the Iraqi state in a way that would have been almost unimaginable just 10 months ago, when there was a real risk that the state would disintegrate. That’s why I believe the trend lines in Iraq’s fight against Daish are positive: Granted, the slope of improvement is not steep, but it’s going in the right direction.
NJ: Is it possible there will be a tipping point where the Sunni tribes turn decisively against the Islamic State, repeating the “Anbar Miracle” of 2006-2007, when they similarly turned against al-Qaida in Iraq?
McGurk: Well, there are very few Sunni tribes that are openly on the side of Daish, even at this point. What Daish did beginning in 2013, however, was to infiltrate the tribal infrastructure and begin killing off tribal sheikhs and local leaders who refused to pledge their loyalty to the group. They essentially tore apart the local societal structures that sustained the tribes, to the point where there really is no such collective as “the Sunni tribes” anymore. All the Sunni tribes are different, and there are divisions even within the tribes. Because of that fracturing, I don’t think we’re likely to see the kind of tidal wave that the Anbar Miracle represented.
NJ: Have U.S. train-and-assist forces in Iraq found cooperative Sunni groups to work with?
McGurk: Yes. Let me give you an example. With the full support of the Iraqi government, we deployed some of our Special Forces to al-Assad Air Base in Anbar last November. Working closely with three of the Sunni tribes, we have trained roughly 2,000 Sunni fighters. With those tribal fighters and the 7th Iraqi Army Division, which we are also training at al-Assad, we have supported significant operations that have opened up the key transit route between the town of al-Baghdadi up to Haditha, along the Euphrates River Valley. A few months ago, all the headlines were that Daish had surrounded al-Baghdadi and the nearby al-Assad Air Base, but the 7th Iraqi Army Division, working with the Sunni tribes, took back the town and largely secured the route to Haditha. All of the Sunni tribes along the route are not only anti-Daish at this point, they are fighting the group aggressively.
NJ: Last year, the United States supported an Abadi proposal to create local National Guard units to maintain local security, a potential solution to the problem of overwhelmingly Shiite Iraqi Security Forces or militias operating in Sunni areas. Why did that idea seem to go nowhere?
McGurk: That’s a really important and not well-understood issue. Under Abadi, the government passed a budget a few months ago that not only helps resolve the issue of oil-revenue-sharing with the Kurds, but also requires that all “popular mobilization forces” have to be under the control of the government, and a certain percentage of them have to be made up of Sunni volunteers from Anbar. Once the Iraqi parliament passes the law, those Sunni popular mobilization forces will eventually become the local National Guard units for Anbar. So any Sunni tribal fighter in Anbar who wants to fight Daish today only has to raise his hand, and he’ll have a salary from the state and be under control of Iraqi government structures. About 7,500 Anbari fighters have already done so. So the process of recruiting Sunni fighters is already underway, and no one is waiting until the Iraqi parliament to, hopefully, eventually pass the National Guard legislation.
NJ: In 2006-2007 the combination of the “Anbar Awakening” and the U.S. troop surge combined to create a tipping point and a steady retreat by al-Qaida in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency. Do you think such a tipping point will ever be achievable in Iraq again?
McGurk: Well, you certainly hope for such a tipping point, but our plan is for a long, steady, slow-burning campaign against Daish. We’re beating them every day on the battlefield and slowly growing the capacity of Iraqi Security Forces. In terms of Iranian influence, I would also note that Prime Minister Abadi recently stated publicly that if Iran were allowed to control proxy forces on Iraqi soil, it would amount to a hostile act against the legitimate government of Iraq. That’s a bold and hopeful statement as well. Abadi’s decision to deploy Iraqi forces to Anbar to liberate more than a million Sunnis from Daish also sends an important message. So hopefully all of the signs of progress are setting the conditions for a positive tipping point down the road.