Washington must act if the United States wants to stop ISIS from becoming the only cohesive military and political force in Iraq’s Sunni districts. On June 10, Osama al-Nujaifi, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker and most senior Sunni politician, requested greater military support for Mosul under the auspices of the 2011 U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement, the treaty that governs relations between the two countries. Behind closed doors, multiple Iraqi government officials relayed to me, the Iraqi government has insistently requested U.S. air strikes on ISIS along the Syrian border and the outskirts of Iraqi cities, which are the launch pads for ISIS takeovers. For the U.S. administration this has been seen as a step too far. Instead, the U.S. government has been engaged in internecine diplomacy — using its good offices to prod Iraq’s factions towards a national reconciliation effort that could give Sunni Arabs faith in a nonviolent resolution to their complaints of discrimination by the Shiite government. Reconciliation could also lay the groundwork for Sunni Arab cooperation in stabilizing Mosul and other lost areas, such as Fallujah. This is vital work — but with ISIS forces capturing city after city, Washington has to do more (and quickly) to prevent the loss of government in Iraq. Intensified U.S. on-the-ground mentoring of Iraqi military headquarters and perhaps U.S. air strikes might also be needed to reverse the collapse of Iraq’s military.
The Obama administration is determined to honor its campaign pledge to end the wars. To that end, the White House withdrew U.S. combat troops in 2011. However there is an increasingly strong case that Iraq needs new and boosted security assistance, including air strikes and a massively boosted security cooperation initiative to rebuild the shattered army and mentor it in combat. The Middle East could see the collapse of state stability in a cross-sectarian, multiethnic country of 35 million people that borders many of the region’s most important states and is the world’s fastest-growing oil exporter. Any other country with the same importance and the same grievous challenges would get more U.S. support, but the withdrawal pledge has put Iraq in a special category all on its own. Washington doesn’t have the luxury of treating Iraq as a special case anymore. ISIS has moved on since the days of the U.S. occupation and they have a plan. Washington should too.