During his first official visit to Washington, the United States offered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi $200m in humanitarian aid for Iraq, well short of the sophisticated weaponry it is assumed Baghdad will need to continue the fight against ISIL.
Not only did Abbadi not get what he would have liked, he also expressed displeasure during this trip, criticising the Saudi campaign in Yemen, an indirect critique of the US, which has given its support to Riyadh in this endeavour. Abbadi’s trip to Washington is not just about the future of Iraq, but the shaping of an entire regional order.
However, a visit made by Iraq’s previous prime-minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to Washington in December 2013, demonstrated the perils of half-hearted US efforts, focused just on military solutions, in bolstering the government in Baghdad.
The US, then and now, should devote significant military aid to Iraq, not as a means to an end, but to provide enough “carrots” to the Iraqi state for it to pursue the elusive goal of fostering a national reconciliation process.
Patch-work military solutions
Back in December 2013, ISIL had begun making its first forays into Iraq, seizing practical control over Fallujah, a rehearsal for its eventual seizure of Mosul in the summer of 2014.
During this earlier crisis, the US mulled leasing Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi state to combat ISIL, but the plan wavered in the Senate out of fear that these attack aircraft would be used by the Maliki government against domestic opponents among Iraq’s Arab Sunnis.
Instead, Maliki was only able to secure 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, fired from the few Cessna planes in Iraq’s air force. The failure to aid Iraq then, when ISIL was confined to Fallujah, should serve as a lesson of the dangers of “patch-work” military solutions to the crisis in Iraq.
In 2013, US lawmakers had good reason to critique Maliki’s treatment of Iraq’s opposition. However, preventing the use of Apache helicopters by the Iraqi military proved to be a futile strategy. Maliki’s greatest damage inflicted on Iraq’s Sunni opposition had been by imprisoning large numbers of its community. He would not have needed helicopters to do this.
Second, Maliki was able to resist US pressure by turning to Russia and later Iran for attack aircraft, and eventually abandoned any pretences of fostering a national reconciliation project.
When previous Iraqi premiers visited the US, they focused on issues that only affected Iraq itself. Abbadi now visits the US amidst a greater regional conflagration, a Saudi-Iranian proxy war afflicting Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Granted, it is both a matter of speculation and hindsight as to whether these helicopters, the most advanced in the world, would have enabled Baghdad to repulse ISIL’s push into Mosul in the summer of 2014.
Nevertheless, a wiser US policy then would have been to connect the leasing of these helicopters to a good-faith measure by Maliki, such as a prisoner release of Iraqis held on flimsy charges of “abetting terrorists”, one of the factors that lead to Iraqis initially lending their support to ISIL in towns such as Mosul and Tikrit.
By December 2013, when Maliki was in DC, the Iraqi military had already been crippled by the phenomenon of “ghost soldiers“, military rosters inflated by fictitious names, with officers collecting their paychecks. There were indications that the Iraqi military had become brazenly sectarianised by then, well before the world started to pay attention to the prominent role Shia militias were playing in Iraq.
It is precisely for this reason that the US should have stepped in with more sophisticated military aid to prop up a crumbling Iraqi military. The half-hearted measure of providing only 75 missiles in 2013 gave Maliki little incentive to reform the greater structural problems in Iraq’s security sector or pursue national reconciliation.
Just as the failure to support Maliki’s requests at a critical juncture in December 2013, had drastic consequences, the same is likely to follow Abbadi’s trip to Washington. Although ISIL has recently been forced out of Tikrit, it’s demonstrated its ability to regroup and launch counterattacks against several villages in Anbar province.
Despite Abbadi’s pleas, throwing large amounts of American money or weapons at Iraq, whether it be helicopters, missiles, or drones, will not serve as a long-term strategy for stabilising Iraq. They would, however, contribute to a military process that weakens ISIL on the ground. Iraq has been racked by more than a decade of communal conflict, yet it has failed to institutionalise national or even local grassroots reconciliation processes among its aggrieved sectarian communities as a long-term solution to its problems.
Unfortunately, the sectarian mindset of policymakers in Iraq and waning US pressure meant this process faltered, which in hindsight could have alleviated some of the conditions which lead to the rise of ISIL in the first place.
Abbadi also took the opportunity to attack Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. When previous Iraqi premiers visited the US, they focused on issues that only affected Iraq itself. Abbadi now visits the US amid a greater regional conflagration, a Saudi-Iranian proxy war afflicting Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Since 2003, I have been researching the need for Iraq to develop a reconciliation process. Back then, the problem was relatively simple, requiring communication among leaders of Iraq’s communities. However, as Abbadi’s comments indicate, problems in Yemen, or Syria for that matter, also have ramifications for Iraq. Iraq desperately needs reconciliation.
However, at this stage, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US appear to need to reconcile among themselves before stability takes root in the rest of the Middle East.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.