Things in Iraq Remain Uncertain and Unclear
It’s April, and that means that the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2022 is over. And that means my former colleagues at the Defense Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) are plowing through pages of documents received from the Defense Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve, and U.S. Central Command.
Those documents contain responses (or in some cases non-responses) to more than 100 questions the OIG asks each quarter about the status and progress of Operation Inherent Resolve. Questions typically ask about the strength and capabilities of ISIS, changes in its operations, the capabilities of Iraqi and Syrian forces the U.S. military trains and supports, the activities of Iranian-aligned and backed militias, and other security concerns.
Over the course of this month, the OIG team will weave the responses into the 29th quarterly Lead Inspector General (Lead IG) report on Operation Inherent Resolve. Here’s my prediction: the report won’t say anything radically different than any of the reports dating back to March 2019, when Syrian Democratic Forces (with U.S. support) liberated the last territory held by ISIS in Syria. This is not a critique of my former colleagues, but a commentary on how the situation in Iraq and Syria is a fraught status quo.
Since 2019, things in Iraq and Syria have festered, simmered, boiled over a bit here and there, but they have not changed in any meaningful way. Here’s the basic rundown of the reports for the last couple of years:
Thousands of ISIS fighters continue to operate as an insurgency in parts of northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
ISIS cells take advantage of difficult terrain that security forces can’t continuously monitor and clear.
ISIS fighters move across the porous Iraq-Syria border.
ISIS fighters also operate in parts of Syria outside the eastern territory effectively controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. advisors.
ISIS conducts harassing attacks and periodic “complex” attacks in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS seeks to resurge and retake territory.
ISIS aspires to conduct, or at least inspire, attacks in the west.
Iraqi and Syrian partner forces are improving but have significant capability gaps and rely on Coalition support.
There is no military solution to the ISIS problem.
The last point gets to the real problem today and what the Lead IG reports have said for years. The social, political, economic, and ethnic/sectarian conditions in Iraq and Syria remain complicated and unstable, and that leads to an environment where terrorist groups can recruit and operate.
This is the reason ISIS came into being after al-Qaeda in Iraq was vanquished in the 2007 to 2011 period. The underlying conditions in Iraq and Syria did not improve. And without a military boot on the neck of bad actors between 2011 and 2014, the ground was fertile for the growth of al-Qaeda 2.0: ISIS.
When I worked on the Lead IG reports, that was the message I constantly tried to hammer across: the military was doing about all it could do to mow the grass and keep ISIS contained to a low-level insurgency, but until the Iraqi government made substantial progress in providing jobs, services, justice, and a state that people could believe in, the ISIS cancer would continue and slowly mutate and spread.
The situation in Syria is even more complicated given the range of actors (Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, Turkey, United States, Syrian rebels, Syrian Democratic Forces) controlling different parts of the country. While ISIS is the common enemy, only the SDF and U.S. forces are focused on the threat. And the SDF and U.S. forces do not have any legal status or agreement to operate in Syria, so the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, could upset the status quo at any time (as I wrote about earlier this year).
My point? The ISIS problem in Iraq and Syria needs a long-term solution to replace the improvised triaging that is ongoing. Easier said than done of course.
Iraq held elections last October and has yet to form a new government. Iranian-aligned political parties and militias continue efforts to pull Baghdad closer to Tehran and drive out the United States. The next Iraqi government could tear up the agreement with the United States and send U.S. forces packing out of Iraq and Syria. That would be a boon to ISIS.
I expect the next Lead IG report to raise concerns about the ongoing instability and the lack of levers the United States has to push things in a better direction. Unfortunately, I doubt the report will have anything optimistic to say. Most of the problems in Iraq have to be solved by the Iraqis, and there is not a great track record.
In 2010, I traveled to Kirkuk to report on the ongoing struggle to resolve the status of the city. The post-Saddam constitution had a provision calling for a referendum to decide whether Kirkuk should be under the Kurdish or Iraqi government. That referendum was overdue in 2010, and the status of Kirkuk, like many things in Iraq, remains unresolved.
The following paid subscriber content is an outtake from my book detailing my embed in Kirkuk in April 2010, 12 long years ago…