By David Ignatius
May 22, 2015
President Barack Obama is right in pushing Iraqi leaders to unite and take action after the fall of Ramadi, the capital of the province of Anbar, last weekend. But he needs to mobilize the efforts of his own administration so that one person drives the military and political strategy of the United States against ISIS. Political strife in Iraq led to the debacle in Ramadi. The Shiite-dominated government wouldn’t supply weapons or training to embattled Sunnis in Anbar province, and the mistrustful Sunnis quarreled among themselves and refused aid from Shiite popular militias that might have saved Ramadi. If this internal strife doesn’t end, the reality is that Iraq will splinter.
The United States, too, is afflicted with its own internecine quarrels that impede effective action in Iraq. These are mundane turf battles among different branches of government, rather than sectarian feuds, but they’ve hindered the U.S. campaign. This is the kind of interagency tension – State Department versus Pentagon with a cautious White House in the middle – that’s all too familiar in Washington. But it has to stop.
How can one unify efforts in Baghdad and Washington? Both challenges are politically difficult, but not impossible.
First, the Iraq part: Obama told his advisers Tuesday that the U.S. must do everything it can to support Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s outreach to Iraq’s community. That means pushing the Iraqi parliament to enact, at last, the legislation that would create Sunni national guard brigades and police units that would report to provincial governors – and give Sunnis some skin in the game. If Abadi and his government wait for much longer, they will not have a country left to protect.
The Sunnis are part of the problem, too. They need to gather forces behind sensible leaders who happen to have clout in Baghdad, starting with parliament Speaker Salim al-Jibouri. And they need to recognize that Ramadi, Mosul and other Sunni provincial capitals won’t be liberated without help from the military and popular militias that are commanded by Abadi’s government and backed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s Shiite religious leader in Najaf. That doesn’t mean submitting to Iranian hegemony, as many Sunni leaders argue. In fact, working with Abadi may be the Sunnis’ last chance to avoid Iranian domination of what turns into a failed Iraqi state.
As for deconflicting the Washington interagency mess: Obama has tried to straddle this one. Last September, he appointed John Allen, a retired Marine general who had commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as “special presidential envoy” for the global coalition against ISIS. What did that title actually mean, and what authority would Allen have to coordinate policy? It wasn’t clear at the time, and it still isn’t clear today.
Obama decided to base his “presidential envoy” at the State Department, rather than the White House. That was an attempt to placate a turf-conscious Pentagon and avoid a policy czar who would bulldoze opposition, like a reborn Richard Holbrooke. But it was a mistake, which from the start impeded coordination of policy.
But the problem was compounded by a jealous U.S. Central Command, which hoarded authority and has made a series of blunders, from Centcom’s premature announcement in February of the campaign to retake Mosul to last Friday’s bland assessment by a Marine brigadier general of the situation in Ramadi, only hours before the city fell.
Judging by events, it’s hard not to conclude that Centcom has been too much focused on Mosul, and too little on Ramadi and the surrounding area of Anbar province. Obama finally appears to have decided – and he is right in doing so – that the battle in Anbar should be the priority now.
Who’s the right person to coordinate this campaign? Logic suggests that it’s Allen, who has assembled a 60-nation coalition against ISIS and negotiated effectively with headstrong allies, from Ankara to London. But Obama may decide he wants someone else who draws less hostile fire from the Pentagon. The point is that the president has to appoint someone to coordinate this fight, and install that person at the White House with the authority to speak for the administration.
If Obama insists on unified command and control in Baghdad, then he surely needs to make the same demand in Washington.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.