As I walk through my company’s assembly area, I face the insomnia and nervousness that millions of people have faced throughout history. I wonder if I have done enough to prepare my soldiers. I wonder how my father and my grandfather felt when they stood on this ground decades ago. I worry that I won’t bring credit upon the U.S. Army, my family, my fellow female commanders, and myself. No matter what the party line is, I know the actions taken by women in Operation Iranian Freedom will receive a high level of scrutiny. While I worry about the second and third order effects in this operation, especially the interactions between Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and the Iranian Shi’ia, I know I can only focus on what I can positively control. I can control my actions, I can influence those around me, and I can set a positive example for my soldiers.
My father told me this would happen — he said the conflicts in this area of the world would never end. He served in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom; I was only five years old when he went on his first deployment. I’ve been told that it was the worst time to be in Iraq. It was 2006 and the violence was at an all time high. He went back two more times, in 2009 when I was just eight, and again in 2018 when I was a senior in high school. Each time he went he stayed for a year or more. The justification for the invasion of Iraq during my father’s time was that Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq, had violated United Nations (UN) resolutions as part of his weapons of mass destruction program. The invasion of Iraq led to many years of conflict in that country, and the broader region, before the UN-backed partitioning in 2020.
This piece first appeared in the Strategy Bridge here in 2016.
My father told me that when the Ba’ath party fell following our invasion of Iraq in 2003 there was an intense power vacuum. Saddam Hussein may have been an evil tyrant, but he was able to keep the state of Iraq stable, forcing the disparate Sunni, Shi’ia, and Kurdish factions to live together under a single government. After the removal of Saddam Hussein, various groups vied for power over the years, each backed by various external actors — Iran being the most tangible and concerning, given their role in killing Americans in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and the later Operation Just Recovery.
It was only after the second Sunni Awakening in 2017, a response to the tyrannical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that Iraq began to stabilize. After the U.S. government decided to arm the Sunnis independently and recognize their right to self-governance, the tribes and moderate elements of the former Ba’athist regime rose up and defeated the “Islamic State” in western Iraq one village at a time. Once they resumed control over Anbar, Salah al Din, Ninewa, Diyala and the Western half of Baghdad, Iraq’s Sunni Arab leaders declared their independence from the central Iraqi government. They vowed to never again let themselves be persecuted by a ruling Shi’ia body. Shortly thereafter, the Kurds followed suit into the partitioned Iraq that we have today.
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Though the fighting internal to Iraq has largely ceased, with the exception of some ethnically motivated border raiding and infrequent incursions into the now-Shi’ia controlled Baghdad, the partitioning had a serious effect on the balance of power within the region. Largest among these effects is Iran’s continuing consolidation of regional hegemony. Their support of the Iranian-leaning Kurdish elements, the Shi’ia in Southern Iraq, and the everlasting Alawite regime in Syria have all but ensured their dominance in the region. No amount of cash from the oil-rich Gulf States has been able to halt their progress. The Kurds have generally kept to themselves over the past decade, reaping the benefits of the first peace they’ve enjoyed since Iraq’s 1920 revolution a century before. The peace wasn’t perfect, however. The Kurds stayed internally divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which favors Turkish hegemony, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which tends to bend towards Iranian interests. But, the wealth of the region, and the balance of power between the two factions has served as a catalyst for economic growth.
The biggest success story in the region is the area I’m in sitting today. To the great surprise of many policy makers during my father’s time, the National State of Iraq (NSI) is now the United States’ strongest ally in the region. My father still calls it “Sunnistan,” but this term is not politically acceptable. The “grand bargain” of 2018, after the tribes and former Ba’athists took back their territory from the Islamic State as part of Operation Just Recovery has created unparalleled economic growth in Anbar province. Looking at Fallujah and Ramadi today, it is hard to imagine the blood that was shed here only one generation ago. The peace treaty opened up the ability for the U.S. and European Community (EC) to conduct natural gas exploration, and pump Anbari gas in pipelines that were built directly through Jordan and Israel to the Port at Haifa. In Haifa, the gas is containerized and shipped across the Mediterranean into Europe. The gamble paid off. Between the natural gas shipments endowed by the U.S. shale gas boom beginning in the mid 2010s and the NSI exports, the Europeans no longer had to rely on Russian natural gas by 2020. The foreign direct investment into Anbar, coupled with Israeli shipping technology, cut the EC’s natural gas expenditures by nearly 60%. It is amazing what less than one decade of economic growth can accomplish.
In 2015, Iran signed a deal with the United States regarding their nuclear program. Part of the agreement dictated inspections similar to what the UN attempted with Saddam Hussein. Initially, the Iranians were compliant, and allowed International Atomic Energy Agency weapons inspectors access to their key facilities. Over the years, however, the Iranians pushed back on inspections. Despite several U.N. Security Council Resolutions demanding weapons inspectors have unfettered access to nuclear facilities at Nantanz, Fordow and Arak, Iran has demurred. The 2015 agreement stated that Iran be given 24-days notice before an inspection. Over the years, Iran has not complied with this window, and there is mounting evidence that Iran’s nuclear scientists have been enriching uranium in undisclosed, underground locations. Iran’s gross violations of the agreement are why we are here now, in the NSI. Preparations for invasion are underway.
Compared to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this will be much more challenging. Unlike then, the U.S. does not have assured access to the Persian Gulf. Iran’s anti-ship missiles and air defense systems have made the Navy and Air Force skittish at the prospect of sending their multi-billion dollar platforms into harm’s way. Even if the Kuwaitis were willing to host the buildup of U.S. forces, not a terribly likely prospect since the rape and murder of a young university student in Kuwait City by a U.S. contractor in 2019, getting equipment there would be an operational nightmare. Fortunately, at least for the air campaign, our lingering air bases in Afghanistan provided a less dangerous air corridor into Iran. Long-range air strikes emanating from Shindand and Bagram Air Bases are planned to support the land campaign as part of the eastward march. There was more to worry about than simply Iran, however.
For the past thirteen years, the predominantly Shi’ia provinces in Iraq have acted as an Iranian puppet and buffer zone. We no longer call this area Shiastan, like my father does. Iraq’s Shi’ia government officially changed the name of this region to Sumer in spring of 2021. Sumer’s leaders saw the U.S.’s support of the Sunnis as outwardly aggressive, and instead of dealing with the U.S. for weapons, they turned to the Russians and the Chinese. My father told me that the Sumeris had procured F-16 fighter aircraft from the U.S. around the same time of the historic nuclear deal, but the Sumeri government did not budget for training and maintenance. The F-16 aircraft quickly fell into disrepair. We do know the Sumeris have T-90 main battle tanks from Russia, modified Soviet-era T-72’s, and two dozen JH-7 Xian fighter aircraft from the Chinese. The Russians and Chinese are earning more on their maintenance contracts than the weapons themselves.
The first challenge for the U.S. will be to simply get to the Iranian border without succumbing to a spoiling attack from the forces of Sumer. I think this will go well, as we have the U.S.-trained and equipped NSI Army supporting us. There is still a high level of military tradition and proficiency with Sunni Iraqis dating back to the Saddam Hussein era. The Sumeris never institutionalized traditions across their military services; they are much more disparate and militia-oriented. Our intelligence predicts they will fold quickly. Our biggest opposition comes from Hashim al Sadr’s militia, Sayara al Salaam. Hashim’s father, Moqtada al Sadr, was a firebrand religious cleric during my father’s time. My father told me stories of the legendary Jaysh al Mahdi, a notorious Shi’ia militia operating from the slums of northeastern Baghdad. Our intelligence sources tell us Hashim never developed the same passion or charismatic following as his father; but we are prepared for any asymmetric attacks Sadr could use during our push through the eastern provinces.