Civil war seemed inevitable. Shia from the south marched north to avenge their sons. The immediate aftermath of ISIS’s expulsion saw a wave of looting and lynching. Had he been asked, McMaster could’ve scripted the conflagration to come, like an omniscient playwright. In Act One, the Shia conflate every Sunni with a pulse with ISIS and its war crimes. The Sunnis are too busy accusing the Shia of making blatant generalizations to offer nuance. In Act Two, revenge killing begets revenge killing. Tikrit’s displaced locals do not return. No Sunni trusts the overwhelmingly Shia security forces, least of all the militias. In Act Three, the Shia militias use disproportionate force to restore order, falling just short of war crimes. In Act Four, ISIS returns to Tikrit and hoists its black flag. This time, more Sunni tribes than before acquiesce. They’ve come to hate Baghdad more than any jihadist.
McMaster the playwright would’ve been within his rights to anticipate such a bitter tragedy. He knows the motifs inside and out. But in the case of Tikrit, he would’ve been wrong.
Tikrit was the first major Sunni city retaken from ISIS. USIP’s intensive monitoring paid dividends; months before the battle concluded, the institute was already reckoning with the brewing storm. USIP mobilized an intervention team with its network of Iraqi facilitators. Well versed in the fine contours of Tikrit’s tattered social fabric, the team convened a series of meetings in Baghdad. Sarhang Hamasaeed, the institute’s Middle East director, helped design the Tikrit initiative. He likens revenge killing to an improvised explosive device. It hides in plain sight and can detonate at any moment, triggering cascading violence. That violence, he told me, becomes “the cleavage that ISIS exploits,” its fundamental sustenance.
The goal of the dialogue was to dispel notions of collective blame, to introduce nuance. But the situation was “way too hot” to immediately bring the Tikriti Sunnis accused of complicity face to face with the southern Shia mourning their children. USIP dubbed these parties the “inner circle.” What the mediators needed was an “outer circle.” Their homework on local power dynamics bore fruit. They identified viable enablers and probable spoilers. They carefully selected an outer circle of tribal leaders who exerted strong influence over the inner circle. Sunni and Shia a heartbeat away from war gathered under one roof. USIP’s Iraqi facilitators ran the show. (“At the end of the day,” Hamasaeed told me, “you want the Iraqis to have the credibility and the know-how to do this on their own.”) Compelling anecdotes challenged dangerous prevailing narratives. Not every Sunni, it turns out, abetted ISIS. They too lost loved ones. Some Sunni tribes put themselves at risk to protect Shia from the jihadists.
USIP brought crucial stakeholders into the fold. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric in the world, sent two representatives. Sistani’s blessing conferred moderation. The office of the prime minister, meanwhile, cleared four hundred Sunni families of ISIS collusion, allowing them to return home. The disputants struck a bargain virtually unprecedented in tribal tradition. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “In front of more than 30 satellite TV channels, Tikriti tribal leaders denounced the Speicher massacre, blamed IS, and vowed to help Iraqi security forces identify and capture individual culprits within their own tribes, and help identify mass graves.” It was more than a rhetorical coup; the prospect of justice was coming into relief. Bereaved Shia families received moral and financial compensation from Baghdad. In exchange, hundreds of thousands of displaced Tikritis were given a right of return. Monitors were dispatched to the area to deter reprisals.
USIP’s plot was not, alas, a miracle cure for all that ails Iraq. Salahuddin Province and Tikrit, its capital, have recently suffered a number of suicide bombings, in part, the result of ISIS feeling the squeeze in Mosul. And the provincial governor seems to have gone rogue. Under a new policy, authorities are forcibly displacing and detaining hundreds of families accused of ISIS ties. Hamasaeed readily acknowledges USIP’s limits. “We can cut into the communal tensions the militias want to exploit,” he told me. “But we cannot end the militias.”
And yet, in Iraq, “it could be worse” has currency. NPR reported that Tikrit has “confounded expectations,” observing the city center “bustling with life.” The Wall Street Journal described a degree of normalcy and saw “no signs that local resentments are going to turn violent.” Tikrit University has reopened, and most of its twenty-three thousand students, including Shia from the south, are back in attendance. Over 90 percent of Tikritis displaced by ISIS have returned home. And Shia forces are not summarily executing Sunnis with power drills, as was the case during the worst years of the Iraq War. USIP’s follow-up work is ongoing. It has implemented Justice and Security Dialogues in Kirkuk, Baghdad, Karbala and Basra, which are intended to build trust between security forces and the locals they serve.
The real test comes down to resilience. When ISIS or the Shia militias spill blood, are there vehicles of redress strong enough to dissuade victims from reacting violently to attacks designed to provoke just that?
Despite the caricature of a tree-hugging think tank that does nothing but write earnest policy reports, USIP has actionable comparative advantages. In Tikrit, USIP advanced core components of McMaster’s Tal Afar agenda, but with less money. The institute runs lean. Its annual budget of $35.3 million wouldn’t register as a rounding error at the Pentagon. The entire Tikrit project cost around $1 million. In contrast, anti-ISIS operations run the military $11.2 million a day.
John Nagl considers USIP a “combat multiplier,” insofar as its specialists “understand cultures and tribal and local politics more deeply and more instinctually than anyone but the very best and rare American soldiers.” And it’s not restricted by limited deployments. Peter Mansoor lauded the institute’s “staying power.” When the Defense and State Departments move on to the next crisis, he said, “USIP stays behind for a longer-term commitment.” Its longevity allows it to accumulate relationships and granular expertise. Moreover, USIP isn’t beholden to the embassy’s chain of command. Its staff can maneuver around the country to places where neither the State Department nor USAID is permitted.
The institute has shed the baggage of the American occupier, and is respected among Iraqis for not having an agenda. Michael Knights is a foremost expert on Iraqi security affairs. Although he’s distinctly military-centric in his analysis—“I’m not a soft-security person,” he told me—he considers USIP “very credible in Iraq.” I spoke to him not long after he delivered Senate testimony on the future of U.S. policy in Iraq. Visibly disillusioned by inefficient foreign-aid delivery, he sees in USIP a potential viable model: “If the U.S. government could throw some resources at some genuine Iraqi-led organizations—even if USIP were the conduit—it could have a big impact.”
USIP also maintains access to the highest levels of the Iraqi government. “When you come to Washington and you see that thing,” Knights said of USIP’s glassy, Lincoln Memorial–facing headquarters, “you know that you’re somewhere powerful. It has prestige, and prestige matters a lot in a place like Iraq.” In the past seven years, the institute has hosted Iraq’s prime ministers on each of their visits to Washington.
By the end of our interview, Nagl was effusive. “USIP prevents wars from happening and ends them sooner, on terms more favorable to the United States. It keeps American soldiers alive,” he annunciated slowly. “USIP understands how wars end.”
“WE’RE DOING very well in Iraq,” President Trump recently extolled. “Our soldiers are fighting, and fighting like never before.” In March, U.S.-led air strikes killed more civilians than in any other month since the anti-ISIS campaign began in 2014. A single March 17 attack reportedly killed as many as two hundred Mosul residents, and the U.S. military “probably had a role.” Razing ancient cities with women and children still inside—not what most would consider “doing very well.” Rubble and cinder play well both in jihadist propaganda and on CNN, but for inverse reasons. Not to worry: the president has assigned Jared Kushner the Iraq portfolio.
Incoherence is a staple of the administration’s foreign-policy messaging. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, for instance, declared that Washington would not “focus on getting Assad out” ten days before telling Jake Tapper, “There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.” In the interim, Trump fired fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the regime’s gruesome chemical attack on civilians.
U.S. policy in Iraq is equally discordant. “As a coalition, we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said. “We must ensure that our respective nations’ precious and limited resources are devoted to preventing the resurgence of ISIS and equipping the war-torn communities to take the lead in rebuilding their institutions and returning to stability.” Empowering Iraqis to take the lead is fine and good. But passing the buck on reconstruction is a sure-fire way to guarantee an ISIS resurgence. “A short-term approach to long-term problems,” Colonel McMaster wrote of America’s post-9/11 wars in 2008, “generated multiple short-term plans that often confused activity with progress.”