Despite the 2011 withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, the United States continues to maintain military ties with Iraq. But recent revelations of Iraqi support for Iranian policies suggest it may be time to reassess military cooperation. U.S. military assistance to Iraq should be part of a broader regional security-cooperation strategy that aims to incorporate Iraq into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Iraq faces serious challenges in building its military strength over the next decade. The Iraqi military’s chief of staff, Lt. General Bebaker Zebari, has predicted that Iraq will not be able to secure its borders against external threats until 2020. For almost a decade, Iraq will continue to be defenseless in the crossfire of a regional Sunni-Shia divide and a brewing Saudi-Iranian confrontation.
Thus, perhaps not surprisingly, Iraqi leaders have sought U.S. assistance in building their military capabilities, especially in terms of land and air power. In late August 2012, the Iraqi military received the last American M1A1 Abrams tanks in an order that Baghdad had originally requested in 2009. Meanwhile, Iraqi Air Force pilots are currently training in the United States and Baghdad expects the first delivery of F-16s in September 2014. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently expressed his hope that Iraq will seek military cooperation with the Pentagon.
The United States can be an indispensable partner in Iraq’s military buildup over the next decade, but military cooperation between the two countries does not make sense unless it is tied to strategic outcomes shared by Baghdad, Washington and the wider region.
Several recent events illustrate why U.S. security assistance must be based on mutual benefits. On September 4, the New York Times reported that Iran was supplying the Assad regime in Syria through Iraqi airspace. Only a month earlier, the United States had accused Iraq of helping Iran curb sanctions that were meant to stop Tehran’s nuclear program.
In an August visit to Iraq, General Dempsey refused to bring up any one of these concerns, instead choosing to focus on promoting a military relationship between the two countries. U.S. State Department officials, however, later pressed Iraq to stop Iranian flights that were believed to carry arms to Syria. And in a recent visit to Iraq, three U.S. senators stressed to the Iraqi prime minister that if Iraq was seen as being complicit with Iran, it would be difficult to get congressional support for assistance.
The senators’ concern is justifiable: the United States does not want to help build a military that acts against American interests. At the same time, Washington seeks to maintain some influence over Iraq, and military cooperation is one way in which it can do so. How can U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation be promoted in such a way that it advances the strategic interests of both sides?
Security Cooperation in the Gulf
The issues raised above are only two of the conflicts of interest between Washington and Baghdad since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. There are numerous other questions to answer. How will the United States reconcile its strong relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)? For decades, Iraq’s Kurdish minority was the victim of Iraqi Air Force attacks. What happens when the Iraqi Air Force actually receives F-16s in 2014? The KRG has already protested these sales, and its voice will only get louder closer to the actual delivery date.
The United States must implement a security-cooperation strategy that addresses future challenges. At present, security cooperation with Iraq seems to only be undertaken in a bilateral fashion. This strategy is doomed to fail: Iraq will simply continue to accept American military assistance while acting against U.S. interests. But if security assistance programs are implemented in a regional context, they may advance the strategic interests of Iraq, the United States and its allies in the Gulf.
Washington should encourage Iraq’s incorporation into the GCC. This will be difficult because Iraq lies at the intersection of Saudi Arabia and Iran, two countries that (at least in the modern era) have been ideological and military rivals. Iraq will be reluctant to join and the GCC will be reluctant to accept it. But policy makers in Washington, Baghdad, and the GCC states should consider the following three perspectives on Iraq’s integration into the regional security architecture.
1. Iraqi interests. No Iraqi official—Sunni, Shia or Kurd—can deny that their country’s number one priority is security. Further, they do not accept that violence and instability are intrinsic to Iraq, or that regional politics play no role in the ongoing violence. They know that the Sunni-Shia divide has a direct impact on the ongoing violence in their country. Iraqi leaders also realize that the conflict between Iran and the GCC states makes possible the continuation of the Shia-Sunni violence, especially through the finance and support of foreign fighters. U.S. policy makers should stress to Baghdad that unless Iraq chooses one side or the other, it will continue to act as a stage for its neighbors’ proxy wars. By showing interest in joining the GCC (at present a majority Sunni union), Iraq would send the message that it could be a bridge between the Sunni-Shia divide. It would also decrease the likelihood that regional actors would continue financing foreign fighters (especially Sunni extremist groups) that continue to operate in Iraq.
2. Gulf interests. The United States has strategic allies in the region with which it maintains important economic and military ties, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the three other members of the GCC. Impacted by ongoing border disputes, historical animosities, different ideologies and ethnic makeup, the GCC countries have been reluctant to accept Iraq into the council. The U.S. should make it clear to the Gulf States that it is in their strategic interest to resolve these conflicts. By accepting Iraq into the council, the GCC states would win an important military ally, one that could become a regional economic power, thus creating a council that has a better chance at deterring the expansionist aspirations of their neighbor to the east. (The GCC has considered including Morocco and Jordan, which are not in the Gulf region, highlighting the desire to create a council that has more weight in balancing Iranian military power.) Most importantly, by incorporating Iraq (a majority Shia state), the GCC states would send a message that they are above the Sunni-Shia divide, taking the moral high ground against Iran.
3. U.S. interests. Promoting regional security cooperation also serves U.S. interests. A GCC that includes Iraq would be a stronger balance to Iran. It could also bring greater stability to Iraq by lowering the risk of Saudi support for foreign fighters in Iraq (since Iraq would be part of the GCC). Finally, it would send a message to Tehran that if it sponsors its extremist groups in Iraq, it risks relations with the entire GCC.
Undoubtedly, it will be difficult to promote these ideas to Baghdad, Riyadh or other capitals in the Gulf: history, ideology, ethnic differences and a myriad of other outstanding factors (Iraq-Kuwait boundary disputes, 1991 Gulf War reparations to Kuwait) all work against mutual cooperation between Iraq and the GCC. But this GCC integration strategy holds the prospect of greater stability in Iraq, a stronger regional security architecture, a more representative GCC and a better U.S. partnership.
Bilateral relations between the United States and Iraq have not delivered the outcomes that policy makers on either side have hoped for. It may be time for a more regional approach.
Oleg Svet is a doctorate student in the war-studies department in King’s College London.