The standing of counterinsurgency suffered a heavy blow when 20+ U.S. Special Operatives landed in a modest “mansion” courtyard in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Up to this point the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan had grudgingly forced the Pentagon to think horizontally and non-militarily - to accept the political and social realities of asymmetric warfare. Iraq’s “surge” was launched with these principles in the minds of COIN proponents, such as CIA Directer David Petraeus, and President Barack Obama felt enough political pressure to affix a COIN face onto his counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan.
This front fell off in the jubilant aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death. Believing that America no longer had a reason to occupy Afghanistan, the majority opinion in mainstream and beltway circles has settled around cheaper, robotic counterterrorism to fight insurgents. Except COIN isn’t “dead” and cannot be killed. Systematically organized in the 1960s, the practice and its evolving theories simply phase through cycles of awareness in relation to current events. No coincidence is necessary to explain how COIN still determines the fate of U.S. policy in Iraq.
The country isn’t experiencing new instability due to a lack of U.S. troops, but a lack of political action from Washington.
Several days ago Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pushed his country another foot deeper into hostilities, taking the boycotting Iraqiya party off “leave” and formally suspending its nine ministers. Government spokesman Ali Hadi al-Moussawi downplayed the move by calling it a “vacation,” and the State Department would avoid going into details. According to spokesman Mark Toner, “In terms of the broader political situation in Iraq, we’ve continued to press on senior Iraqi politicians the importance of dialogue to work out their differences, and that continues to be our message to them.” However the Obama administration’s infrequent statements remain unchanged despite a sharp escalation in Iraq’s political crisis, creating the vivid impression that Washington is still favoring al-Maliki.
Either the administration doesn’t understand the need for open diplomacy or refuses to accept the responsibility, a dilemma with only one outcome. The less active the White House is publicly, the more publicity Iraq will receive.
Having ignored multiple advisories from Iraqiya chief Ayad Allawi, who warned in early December that “Iraq is not a democracy,” Obama greeted al-Maliki shortly afterward with the hope of turning Iraq’s page into history. The President’s approval of al-Maliki triggered a landslide of criticism from the Sunni opposition, starting with Deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlaq’s assertion that al-Maliki is ruling like “a dictator.” Allawi subsequently urged the administration to act in an ominous op-ed to The New York Times; amid U.S. silence, one of its authors hit an IED outside Samarra. Finance Minster Rafe al-Essawi, a vocal opponent of the Premier, held al-Maliki's forces accountable for security lapses as officials denied the incident.
Undaunted, al-Mutlaq and Iraqiya finally called for al-Maliki’s removal after multiple attempts to arrange a national conference on even terms. U.S. officials shifted from no comment to telling Iraqiya that grievances should be kept out of the media.
Sunnis have resorted to their information campaign because of this reaction - because they have run out of political options for al-Awlaki and Washington - and Allawi isn’t finished attacking. Iraqiya’s chairman explicitly rejected the White House’s previous comments over the weekend, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “President Obama said very clearly that the United States have left Iraq as a stable and democratic country. It’s neither stable nor democratic, frankly speaking.” His interview was similarly brushed off by the State Department even though Allawi warned, “The terrorists are hitting again very severely. Al Qaeda is fully operational now in Iraq.”
His solution, though, has nothing to do with U.S. troops.
"I am not asking for the American forces to come back, but for the United States to use its diplomatic and other channels through the strategy agreement between the United States and Iraq to try and bring about sanity to the political process and inclusivity. And I think there should be frank and real discussions with the Prime Minister, between him and between the Administration, to make it very clear that what is happening in Iraq is not acceptable.”
These discussions have yet to occur due to the White House’s tepidness to confront al-Maliki, belying the widespread local support to do so. Iraqiya continues to discuss possible actions with the Kurds, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shia bloc and independent parties, citing a loss of faith across the capital. Still, Sunni officials remain undecided on their future course of action. After several Iraqiya members (al-Mutlak and spokesman Haidar al-Mulla) demanded the removal of al-Maliki before holding a national conference, Allawi alluded to the possibility while keeping his door slightly ajar.
"Iraq is at a crossroads and I say that Iraq needs forgiving leaders, who will raise above their personal hatred," he told a news conference in Baghdad. "This is not the state for which we battled the dictatorship. On the contrary it represents the return to square one by building a dictatorship in the clothing of the disfigured democracy left behind by foreign troops."
Certain that al-Maliki cannot lead a unified Iraq, but cautious of bearing responsibility for the security fallout, Iraqiya officials and their potential allies are wary of another volatile election. Spokesman Maysoon al-Damaluji also predicted, “Opposition means that we will be further targeted. Fabricated accusations will continue to go around; we will have no protection whatsoever." Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi (the third co-author of Allawi’s NYT op-ed) continues to favor “de-escalating” through negotiations. He envisions a three-tier position, starting with the full implementation of 2010‘s power-sharing agreement and depoliticalization of security forces. The second phase would lobby for a Shia replacement, and finally give way to a no-confidence vote and early elections. Nujaifi called the no-confidence motion “unrealistic” at the present time, saying, "There is not a sufficient majority for this."
One must assume that they will play this option once a majority is secured, as the other options would be theoretically exhausted. Mutlaq observed that Baghdad’s political equation isn’t ripe for withdrawing from the government, but “maybe there will be a time when we will do it. It's a possibility."
Overt political action from Washington, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, is precisely what Iraq needs at this juncture. Enough popular support exists to justify public intervention and the implementation of 2010’s power-sharing agreement; many political forces expect U.S. officials to act because al-Maliki is considered “their man.” Allawi must be awarded his seat at the head of a foreign council, and political parties in general must be allowed to act with relative freedom. Autonomy shouldn’t create excessive problems with a representative prime minister sitting in Baghdad.
In sum, Iraq must be engaged at all non-military levels to stabilize its security environment. COIN is no less applicable today than it was in 1967 or 2007.