01 April 2014

While the ‘zero option’ becomes increasingly popular as far as U.S. troops are concerned in Afghanistan, the unfolding scenario two countries over may cause the Obama administration to weigh its available strategies again.


Before the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a strong al-Qaeda affiliate, overran and seized the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq, the idea of pulling out all American troops from a particularly volatile world region had a fair amount of support. Amongst a war-weary nation, after all, such prescriptions sound quite nice. Take Afghanistan, for example. After more than a decade of war, who would oppose a complete evacuation? Never mind the reasons for America’s entrance into the war, the ‘zero option’ still remains popular. And now for the Administration, timing is everything.


The recent unwinding of Western Iraq could not have occurred at a worse moment for the Commander in Chief. Sponsored and executed by the ISIS, Sunni-populated cities in Iraq’s Anbar province have been captured and claimed as Islamic states. For its part, the ISIS has had a very busy year. Whether destroying neighborhoods in Iraq or battling moderate rebels and the Assad regime in Syria, the al-Qaeda affiliate group has maintained a hard-line position against civil society.


As the larger agenda of ISIS remains untenable, however, several sectarian divisions have resulted in its latest rise. From a broad platform, the Sunni-Shia divide has continued the civil war within Islam for a long time indeed. To the extent that religious disputes, in which both sides represent a glimpse of the untrue, will always be irresolvable, al-Qaeda’s surrogate has capitalized on an opportunity. An extreme interpreter of the Sunni faith, al-Qaeda is not a stranger to exploiting religious differences. So that Fallujah and Ramadi are both inhabited with Sunni Muslims, meanwhile Iraq’s government is Shiite-led, should come as a surprise to nobody.


Political disagreements are also worth discussing, albeit briefly. It is absolutely the case that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has overseen some discriminatory policies toward the Sunni population. It is also true that such policies could explain why a certain number of residents in Fallujah and Ramadi are somewhat sympathetic with their current occupiers. But, the leap from these plain facts to the assertion that the ISIS is acting for the betterment of Sunnis across Iraq is nothing short of absurd.


If this were true, and the well being of Sunni Iraqis marked the ISIS platform, then the establishment of an Islamic state would not have described the first order of business in Fallujah. The case studies of theocracy are plain as day, and in recent years we have long enough memories to recall the horrors of Afghanistan under the Taliban. If this is insufficient then the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly enough. These are merely examples, and the ISIS has both in store for Iraq (though the ISIS obviously has its differences with Tehran.)


Now, with Iraqi forces staring down ISIS strongholds in Fallujah and Ramadi, the White House and State Department are assuming their usual rhetorical tap dance. As each day passes, fewer and fewer Americans seem to think the Iraq intervention was worth it. But after the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was signed in 2008, a ‘zero option’ appeared in real terms on the ground in Iraq. By January 1, 2012, all American troops were gone from Iraq. In keeping his promise to the American people, President Obama would be watching the events in the region rather closely over the coming years, to say the least.


Fast-forward two years, and Western Iraq looks like a complete disaster ready to lose cities to the ISIS. Without a troop on the ground, the practical response from an uninformed observer would be, ‘Iraq is on its own.’ Leaving aside the morality in this implication, that statement is more or less a paraphrasing of Secretary Kerry’s response to the scenario in Iraq. He and the State Department have stated that this is Iraq’s fight, but with a crucial caveat for the U.S. The State Department has underlined and emphasized that, although Iraq is essentially on its own on this one, American aid will be flowing to Iraq in the form of weapons.


So, while the U.S. is not involved in Iraq, the U.S. is still involved in Iraq. Both simultaneous and conflicting messages, it’s high time for a reexamination of the ‘zero option’ strategy in Iraq.