One of the many downsides to having an incoherent foreign policy is that you tend to veer from crisis to crisis, rather than seeing the big picture and thinking long term.
Discussions at the level of the president and the National Security Council ought to be dominated by geopolitical considerations and grand strategy. They ought not to be, as they are now, endless crisis management sessions.
Witness Iraq. Our policy since 2008 has been, in effect, bring the troops home. Full stop. Nothing follows. No plan for contingencies; no vision for the future beyond hoping for the best.
The predictable has happened. The situation has spiraled out of control, and we are running several steps behind events. Only now are we devoting any significant energy to an effort to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq. Too late. Too little. Iraq no longer exists.
Take a look at a map of Iraq 100 years ago when it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. You will see that it was divided into three provinces, or valiyets, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Now lay that map alongside an outline of the areas controlled by the primary actors in Iraq today, the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunnis. You will see that they match almost exactly. The artificial construct that was modern Iraq has come unglued.
The Ottomans were not perfect. Nor has the exact distribution of ethnicities and religions within Iraq stayed completely unchanged in the century since 1914. The Ottomans division of Iraq, however, was grounded in recognition that there were three very distinct regions.
The Mosul valiyet was largely mountainous and heavily populated by Kurds. The Basra valiyet in the south was largely Shia and had historic ties to Iran. The Baghdad valiyet in the north and west was Sunni and connected to tribes and clans in what are now Syria and Jordan.
Since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of modern Iraq only overwhelming force has kept these three very different entities together under one flag. First that task fell to the British Empire and, then, after independence, it rapidly fell to the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein. From the moment Saddam fell there was a clock ticking in the background on the life expectancy of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq.
Only with continued, active involvement on the part of the United States was such an entity viable. Without it, Iraq was doomed.
Kurdistan has not yet declared fully its independence solely because of concerns about the reaction of other regional players, principally Turkey. As the threat from ISIS increases and the region descends into anarchy, the Turks are quickly recalculating their longstanding opposition to an independent Kurdistan.
What was once viewed as an automatic cause for war may now seem like the least bad option to a regime in Ankara that sees fires springing up everywhere to the south and east. When that position is solidified Kurdistan will walk away from Iraq forever.
What exactly will happen in the Sunni west of Iraq is unclear. ISIS may, through sheer terror, weld together an Islamic State and become the new standard bearer of world jihad.
Just as easily, the Sunnis of western Iraq may tire of ISIS, turn against it and banish it to the dustbin of history. As far as the future of Iraq is concerned, however, the outcome of that internal struggle is irrelevant. The cities of Mosul and Fallujah fell, because the bulk of the population wanted a complete break with the regime in Baghdad.
That sentiment is not going to change. Whatever shape the new Sunni state now emerging takes it will not choose to put itself back under the control of a Shia dominated government in Baghdad that seems increasingly a client state of Iran.
The implications for our foreign policy are profound. As Iraq unravels, Kurdistan will be the single, most powerful, most secular entity in the area. We should support it and make sure it survives.
The new Sunni state in the west will be struggling with the horror that is ISIS and trying to chart a course forward. Rather than confronting the Sunnis as a group, we should be encouraging those that want a secular future and making sure their vision is the one that triumphs.
Finally, in Baghdad, we ought to recognize that we are treating with a rump state and focus our attention, not on helping it regain territory it has lost forever, but on keeping it from becoming a puppet of Tehran.
To do any of that, we need to recognize reality. Iraq, as we have known it, is gone. And, as they say, all the king's horses and all the king's men are not going to change that fact.
Charles S. Faddis, President of Orion Strategic Services, LLC, is a former CIA operations officer with 20 years of experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe. He is the senior intelligence editor for AND Magazine and a contributor to a wide variety of counterterrorism and homeland security journals. His nonfiction works include "Operation Hotel California," a history of the actions of his team inside Iraq from 2002 – 2003, "Willful Neglect," an examination of homeland security, and "Beyond Repair," an argument for intelligence reform. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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