Here's How the US Can Defeat ISIS

The U.S. may be engaged in a complex military battle with ISIS, but let’s not forget that America’s main goals in Iraq are political.

Since directly confronting the ISIS threat in August, the United States has taken several measures to ramp up its actions against the terrorist group. Internationally, the U.S. successfully assembled a large coalition of nearly forty nations (albeit, strange bedfellows) to combat ISIS. In Iraq, the U.S. has committed thousands of military advisors to train local security forces and bolster the Iraqi Army. At home, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations authorized earlier this month the use of military force against ISIS, limited to three years and without the use of ground troops for combat operations.

In the midst of carrying out these military strategies for “ultimately destroying” ISIS, what is missing from the equation is a long-term political and economic game plan. While the Obama Administration has acknowledged that ISIS is a political problem, and was right to condition U.S. airstrikes on achieving a more inclusive government in Baghdad, it will take more than air strikes and elections to solve Iraq’s political struggles.

The first step is to acknowledge the true strength of America’s political capital in Iraq.  Indeed, the U.S. has tremendous leverage across Iraq’s various political, ethnic and religious factions, which can strengthen the nation’s renewed efforts to building Iraq’s civil society. Even the Anbar Governorate, a Sunni stronghold, has officially requested assistance from the United States.

As one concrete example, direct cooperation between the Sunnis, U.S. Special Envoy John Allen and the American Embassy in Iraq resulted in the “Arab Conference to Fight Extremism and Terrorism" in Erbil on December 18. There, Sunni tribal leaders and local figures met for the first time to develop a plan for fighting ISIS. The conference was also reportedly attended by the Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraqi government officials, and participants from the EU, UN, the Arab League, and diplomatic missions to Iraq. Moving forward from this meeting, it is crucial that Sunni participants maintain trust in America’s commitment, otherwise ISIS will continue exploit Sunni areas and constituencies.

Despite positive advancements such as these, the task of long-term political engagement in Iraq is daunting. Yet success in these endeavors has been achieved before. For a model of what can happen through sustained political, diplomatic and economic engagement, we should look no further than the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq.

The Kurdish Success Story

Many see the democratic and stable Kurdistan as an exception in its neighborhood, rather than a model. As Iraq’s military forces prove shaky, Syria’s civil war rages on, and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey jostle for regional balance of power supremacy, it is miraculous that the Kurdistan region remains relatively peaceful and prosperous. One might say that it has never been stronger – international investment continues to pour in from oil conglomerates such as Exxon and Total and regional construction giants including Emmar, which built the world’s tallest structure, the Khalifa Tower, in Dubai.

Over the last decade, it has seen its GDP per capita rise from $800 to $5600. The President of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani, was even nominated as Runner-Up in Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2014.

The Kurdistan Regional Government also governs with strong degrees of ethnic and religious tolerance. This peace holds despite hosting refugees from the current ISIS crisis, as well as over 1.4 million IDPs from across Iraq since the 2003 war. The capital city of Erbil itself is the largest host of Arab IDPs from Fallujah, Baghdad and Tikrit. And yet, it remains peaceful.

But Kurdistan has not always been this tranquil, with its capital cities serving as havens for international business and American government workers. Until 1991, Kurdistan was at the center of Iraq’s turmoil. This time harkens back to a dark era in which Saddam Hussein carried out countless human rights atrocities in an attempt to exterminate the Kurdish people living in Kurdistan Iraq. These atrocities include Saddam’s use of chemical weapon in Halabjah in 1987, and the 1988 Anfal campaign, in which Saddam carried out bombings and mass executions of men, women and children, killing upwards of 180,000 Kurdish civilians.

Following the first Gulf War, the United States, authorized by a U.N. resolution, maintained a no-fly zone to stop the killing of Kurdish civilians. Still, the hardship continued. The Kurds were then subjected to a double embargo: one imposed by the U.N. on Iraq and one imposed by Saddam Hussein on the provision of fuel, gas, oil and even salaries to the region.

Between 1994 and 1997, conflict raged in Kurdistan after a power sharing arrangement between the two main political parties, the PUK and the KDP, broke down and resulted in civil war. It took President Clinton’s successful mediation – U.S. political intervention -- in 1998 to bring about a formal ceasefire. The subsequent Washington Agreement initiated a strategic revenue and power sharing arrangement between the two parties that holds to this very day. The U.S. also pledged to use military force to protect the Kurds from further aggression by Saddam Hussein.

The Power of Political Engagement and Leadership