Iraq’s Maliki Can Learn Counterinsurgency Lessons from Americans

Iraq’s leader won’t reduce the violence through military force alone. He has to reach out to his opponents.

President Barack Obama greets Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009
President Barack Obama greets Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

For the millions of Iraqis who are still trying to recover from a decade of war, terrorism is nothing new. Ten years of warfare and insurgency have not only brought about the partial destruction of Iraq as a strong state but also the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians while millions more were made refugees in their own country.

So when American troops finally withdrew in December 2011 after officially declaring that coalition military operations were over, Iraqis of all sects and religions were hopeful that their lives would get better — or at the very least, more peaceful.

Nearly two years after that withdrawal, however, the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated to a point that even the most pessimistic Iraqi had not predicted. The scope and scale of terrorism that is devastating the Middle Eastern country this year is on a level not seen since 2008 when the sectarian civil war that tore Iraq’s social fabric apart was finally burning itself out.

2013 is turning out to be one of the most violent years in recent Iraqi history. As of this month, more than 7,000 Iraqis have died in terrorist attacks. Last year, 4,574 were killed in such incidents. If the current rate of violence continues, 2013 would surpass the previous two years combined in the number of civilians killed by terrorism — a development that, if met, would be a striking warning to the world that Iraq is still very much in the middle of an asymmetric war.

The pace of violent attacks has also increased markedly in comparison to just a year ago. Hardly a day goes by without a car bombing, ambush, assassination or suicide bombing. Since last month, there have been 26 days when at least thirty Iraqis were killed in acts of insurgency or terrorism.

Indeed, the last mass casualty attack occurred just this Monday when a suicide bomber crashed his vehicle into a café and detonated his explosives, killing 38, mostly young men enjoying a night out. This incident came only four days after nine car bombs exploded throughout Baghdad, the capital, claiming 61 lives.

The situation has become so dire that it is often difficult to determine which group is responsible for specific attacks. There are a number of Sunni Islamist groups carrying out attacks against the central government but the vast majority of the mass casualty bombings are no doubt the work of a resurgent Al Qaeda branch that, just four years, ago, was the verge of collapse.

The United States will have the opportunity to drill home all of these points on November 1 when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is due to meet President Barack Obama in Washington DC.

With a civil war raging in Syria and negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program just beginning, the Obama Administration has put the Iraq file on the backburner — not ignoring it, but not prioritizing it either. Most bilateral discussions to date have centered on implementing the Strategic Framework Agreement which allows American forces to assist their Iraqi counterparts in intelligence gathering and counterterrorism operations.

With terrorism in Iraq at a five year high, and Shia premier Maliki refusing to give major concessions to his Sunni opponents, the message from the United States should be clear. Simply co-opting parts of the Sunni protest movement with short-term carrots will not mend the sectarian divides in Iraq. More Sunnis should be let into the security forces and an anti-terror law that is overly broad in its implications ought to be revised.

At the height of the civil war, America realized it could not pacify the country nor extinguish the insurgency through military force alone. Tackling the political obstacles underlining the unrest was just as important. Now that Iraq is in the middle of its most widespread violence in five years, it is time it taught those lessons to Iraq’s own officials.