It's Washington's worst nightmare. Less than three years after the last American combat troops rolled out of Iraq, the country is plunging into chaos — again. Islamic radicals are on the march toward Baghdad, the capital, as the country edges closer to civil war. Iraq may yet restore order, but the stunning developments this week beg several key questions.
1. How did Iraq get here?
Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has done little to reconcile with other religious and ethnic groups in Iraq, notably Sunnis, who are a minority in Iraq. Sunni insurgents have fed on that Sunni fear and discontent to draw recruits and support its cause.
"Nouri al-Maliki established an authoritarian government and a very sectarian regime, and he's lost the trust and confidence of the other groups that make up the Iraqi state," said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army officer and author of Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War.
Iraq's army, once a symbol of national power, is viewed by many in Iraq as just another militia designed to protect the regime – not the nation. Built with billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money, Iraq's army collapsed in the face of the insurgent threat. Since the U.S. military left Iraq, al-Maliki has appointed cronies to leadership positions within the armed forces, undermining the professionalism of the military. "He replaced all the commanders with people beholden to him," Mansoor said.
The army has done little effective training since American forces withdrew, and they no longer have the capability to conduct coordinated attacks using ground troops, artillery support and air power, said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
2. Could chaos have been avoided?
Critics of the administration argue that leaving a residual force behind after combat troops left in 2011 would have helped stiffen the resolve of Iraq's armed forces and checked Maliki's sectarian impulses. "The Obama administration looks fairly unwise in having not worked harder to have U.S. forces remain in Iraq," Mansoor said.
The administration's failure to reach an agreement with al-Maliki on keeping U.S. forces in Iraq "continues to have serious consequences for Iraq and American interests in the region," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. The administration has said it had no choice but to withdraw its forces after 2011 because they couldn't operate without legal protections. It's also possible that even the presence of a small U.S. force wouldn't have stemmed the chaos.
3. Who are the insurgents?
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was formed soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and was part of the Sunni-based insurgency battling American forces and their Iraqi allies. At the time, it pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda. Since then, the Islamic extremist group has expanded operations into Syria, where it is battling forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
This year it severed ties with al-Qaeda after months of disagreements over operations in Syria. Essentially, the group was too extreme even for al-Qaeda central, said Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. "ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) literally marks the right-hand boundary of extremism," White said.
The head of the organization is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a ruthless and effective leader who was once held in a U.S.-run detention center in Iraq. His fighters are battle-hardened and have learned from their extensive experience fighting government forces in Syria. The insurgents proved in the recent fighting that they are capable of conventional tactics, directly confronting Iraq's army and seizing terrain. "This is a full-blown military assault," Mansoor said.
4. How vital is a stable Iraq to U.S. interests?
Iraq is a major oil-producing country that shares borders with Iran and Syria. The United States has a large embassy in Iraq, and the country has attracted sizable foreign investment. "We're committed to this country," Jeffrey said. "Its stability is important." Growing chaos in Iraq would lead to a spike in oil prices and would likely spread instability throughout the region.
5. What options does the Obama administration have?
The United States has already expedited the sale of billions of dollars in weapons and military equipment to Iraq after insurgents seized ground in western Iraq earlier this year. The White House has said it is considering increasing that support, including the possibility of airstrikes, something al-Maliki has been pressing the administration to provide. The administration has flatly ruled out sending ground troops back to the country.
"Airstrikes would be helpful if things are getting out of hand and the Iraqis wanted it," said Charles Wald, a retired Air Force general and former deputy commander of European Command. The strikes could help blunt insurgent attacks, providing Iraq's army a chance to mobilize and strike back.
But airstrikes carry risks. If insurgents mingle among civilians in cities, airstrikes could kill non-combatants. Using air power might require sending in American teams to help control the strikes. "You have to have somebody on the ground you trust," Wald said.
U.S. assistance further runs the risk of strengthening Maliki's regime, which continues to alienate Sunnis and other non-Shiite factions. The United States should "demand fundamental political reform and power-sharing" as a condition for expanded military support, said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution.