To Defeat ISIS, Change the Balance on the Ground

Recently in this magazine, I advocated for the United States to begin a focused operation to rejuvenate and empower a new “Sunni Awakening” in Iraq. Just a few days afterward, the U.S. Air Force and air forces from five Arab nations launched the first strikes against ISIS forces inside Syria. The majority of Americans know that military action against ISIS is necessary. Though committed to a campaign to degrade ISIS from the air, the White House also remains committed to keeping U.S. troops—other than advisers—out of Iraq. I still believe a decisive victory against ISIS in Iraq cannot be won without the United States changing the balance of force and momentum on the ground.

A flabby and corrupted Iraqi army, organized since the U.S. departure to protect the sectarian interests of the Shia majority, has been unable to turn back the tide of ISIS since the beginning of the groups June offensive. Shia militias, better trained, organized, and motivated, have been more successful in holding back ISIS than the Iraqi army. Unfortunately, they take their orders from Iran or Hezbollah, not Baghdad. Reportedly these militias are even mimicking ISIS brutality against Sunnis in some places.

In its initial retreat, the Iraqi army was doing what their government and leaders ordered they be trained and instructed to do: Defend the sectarian interests of the Shia majority government. They saw no reason to defend Sunni Iraq. As it stands, they have little stake, incentive, or will to venture back into Iraq’s Sunni territory, let alone fight hard to recapture it. Iranian forces have bolstered their defensive positions in eastern Iraq around Shia holy sites, but seem to be doing little in the way of retaking the initiative. Meanwhile, ISIS is now just ten miles outside of Baghdad. The enemy is at the gates.

There can be no decisive victory against ISIS unless the balance of power is shifted and reversed on the ground, not just from the air.

In order to change the balance of power on the ground in Iraq, especially if it wants to avoid putting its own troops in, the United States and its allies will have to twist Baghdad’s arm to reorganize and restructure its military into a serious fighting force. The Iraqi government, under Iranian influence, will resist any kind of measures they believe may strip Shia of their gains over the past decade. The U.S., however, can and must press Iraq to reform its military structure. It is necessary to preserve Iraq and will have a great impact on the outcome of the war against ISIS. There will be resistance, but without these changes, the air strikes will be useless no matter how long they go on because conditions on the ground—which have allowed the success of ISIS in the first place—will not change.

First, there must be an aggressive restructuring and reorganizing of all of the units that surrendered, abandoned their posts, or inexplicably lost battles over the past three months. It should begin with an investigation into commanders who neglected their duty to defend the country and move down the chain of command. Current and former senior Iraqi commanders from all national stakeholder groups who are professional and loyal to the military and their country should be the core of this process. It should review who was ordered to do what and by whom. Only a reconstructed Iraqi army will be able and willing to take up the fight against ISIS. The current army is simply a Baghdad militia, not an effective military force capable of a viable offensive. Any other country which claims to have a professional military would do the same in similar circumstances.

Second, militias, Shia or Sunni, must be eliminated and their members integrated into the national military structure. ISIS has been successful because it has shown its ability to maneuver and coordinate its massed forces. It has a command and control structure—and so far one that works better than the combined Iraqi forces facing it. For there to be one Iraq, there must be one Iraqi military that is answerable to central authority, not many smaller militias and forces with their own interests, chain of command, and sectarian agendas roaming the countryside.

Third, the United States was previously successful against extremists in Iraq by partnering with Iraqi Sunni allies whose power and authority was being challenged by outside extremists from al Qaeda. A very similar dynamic exists today with ISIS over the same terrain. America and Iraq must find a way to work with tribes and residents of western Iraq and liberated towns and cities to establish a new “Awakening force” under coordination and cooperation with the Iraqi Army to hold their ground and provide support to Iraqi forces counterattacking ISIS. In order to achieve a new “Sunni Awakening” to deprive ISIS of its base in Iraq and turn the tide against them, America will have to force Baghdad to finally grant Sunni leaders a real role in the Baghdad government and address Sunni grievances as an incentive to expel ISIS from their territory. An air campaign alone will not be able to achieve this.

America and its allies recognize that ISIS is a threat to them and to regional stability in the Middle East and the national sovereignty of Iraq and Syria. The American people understand that military action against ISIS is necessary. The debate as to whether the United States should send ground troops to Iraq, despite the White House’s current position, should and will continue. Regardless if U.S. troops reenter Iraq, there can be no decisive victory against ISIS unless the balance of force and momentum of attack is shifted and reversed on the ground, not just from the air.

It is vital that the Iraqi military be whipped into shape, militias are reined in, and the U.S. and its allies build on previous success by re-igniting a “Sunni Awakening” in Anbar if it wants to change conditions on the ground. This is important to victory against ISIS if the U.S. does put “boots on the ground” in Iraq—and absolutely vital to victory if it does not.

[Photo source: James, via Flickr Commons]


General (Ret.) Mohammed Al-Samarae was a career Iraqi army officer, serving in various command positions, culminating with command of the 6th Division of the Iraqi Army in 2006. A graduate of the First Military Academy (Baghdad) and the Iraq Joint Air Defense College, he has lectured at the U.S. Air Force War College and provided counterinsurgency training to U.S. military commanders at JRTC and NTC. He is a decorated veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Gulf War, and Iraq War. He is now an American citizen living in Virginia where he runs his own consultancy, General’s Experience.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *