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How the ISIS war looks from Baghdad

A peshmerga soldier in position during combat with ISIS forces.
A peshmerga soldier in position during combat with ISIS forces.
(Hamit Huseyin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Sitting here in the US, it's easy to be confused about what's actually happening in the American-led war against ISIS. So it's invaluable when experts like Doug Ollivant — former National Security Council Director for Iraq and current partner at Mantid International — visit the country.

Ollivant, who recently returned from a visit to Baghdad surveying the military and political situation, sat down with me to talk about what he saw. He thinks Americans are missing a lot of important developments: initial signs of ISIS weakness, a more promising Iraqi government, and an improving Iraqi army. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: You were just in Baghdad. How was it?

Doug Ollivant: I wouldn't say it's better than people think it is. I would say it's more nuanced than the perception here is.

A couple things jump off the page at you. Life in Baghdad is normal: people are going to work, there are traffic jams, etc. Even though, in some places, the Islamic State isn't that far away, Baghdad's just very normal.

Second, there are some very encouraging signs with the government. I was hearing about this before the Kurdistan deal [a major oil-revenue sharing agreement with the central government] signed. The mood is more accommodating; much of this has to do with [the replacement of former Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki.

Maliki speech (Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

Maliki. (Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

It reached a point where Maliki just had to go — not because of his personal views; his sectarianism was much overwrought — but because he became a symbol of dysfunctional politics. There was so much personal hatred for him that it just froze the politics. No deals were gonna happen. This deal with Kurdistan — I think it's been on the table for a year. The Kurds could have had this deal at pretty much any point, but it wasn't going to happen under the last regime.

In that sense, the replacement of Maliki is good just as a reset button for relations.

Third, we're starting to see some decent signs that the Iraqi security forces are starting to get their act together. They're pushing out through Samarra and Diyala provinces; no major victories in the sense that they're not retaking huge cities yet. We've heard some reports of Sunni leaders in Anbar reaching out to [Shia] militias, though they're still isolated incidents.

ZB: It sounds like ISIS might more vulnerable — and the American strategy against it more effective — than people generally believe. Is that how it looks on the ground?

DO: Yeah. The Islamic State's Achilles Heel is that it's an Islamic state. When it takes over territory, it acts like an Islamic state. Most people don't like that very much. Once they get in, and they really start governing, it's remarkably unpopular.

I don't have many friends in the [ISIS-controlled] north, but I have friends who do. They get calls from people they know, from the old days, that people have worked for the government or for the Americans are being rounded up. And the Islamic State is rounding up their daughters — plaintive calls from Iraqi men saying "please, they've taken my 14 and 15-year-old daughters." What can they do? The answer is nothing.

ZB: Did you see any signs of backlash from Iraq's Sunnis while you were there? I've seen a few scattered reports of uprisings, but nothing cohesive.

DO: I think part of it is that the Islamic State has learned as well [since 2006]. We actually saw this before their large invasion; two to three years prior to that there was a very quiet campaign going on of killing senior Awakening/Iraqi tribal leaders. At the time, most people blamed Iranian militias for it. But in retrospect, maybe that wasn't what was going on. This was laying the groundwork to make sure that the leadership structure was attrited.

I think that's what's going on now. Former Awakening leaders are being rounded up. The Islamic State knows what happened in 2006 and 2007 [when a tribal uprising against al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS's former incarnation, broke its hold on large parts of Iraq]. They want to make sure that doesn't happen again.

ZB: There've been some reports that they've conducted an extermination campaign against a Sunni tribe — the Abu Nimr — after a minor revolt.

DO: Yeah, the Abu Nimr, right in the center of Anbar Province. I'm not real clear on the reason for their uprising — whether it was a reaction to one particular event, or whether it was just "this is our land, not yours." But whatever it was, they stood up to the Islamic State. And it looks like the Islamic State destroyed their fighting force in detail. They were just overwhelmed.

ISIS fighter

An ISIS fighter in Syria. (AFP/Getty Images)

So I think they recognize this weakness [vulnerability to tribal uprisings]. But there's a snowball effect. The steps that they take to ensure that no one rises up against them are also very draconian. And in turn inspire even more resentment, and family and tribal debts, so to speak.

Now, I don't think we really have a feedback loop yet. But we have some anecdotes. We know there's anger, but I don't think anyone up there [in ISIS's northern strongholds] is in a position to do anything yet. I think there were groups that kind of let the Islamic State in, thinking they can control this. It appears they can't control this, which sets the stage for the return of the Iraqi state — if they can get the politics worked out.

ZB: So what has to be done to get the politics right? You suggested the removal of Maliki was making a difference. Is new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a better leader?

DO: Abadi's kind of on his honeymoon. But he's making hay while the sun shines, so to speak. Getting the Kurdish oil deal was a big deal.

ZB: What does it enable in terms of the ISIS fight?

DO: It's about money. This was a win-win deal: there's more money in the system and there's more oil to be exported.

Militarily, this allows Baghdad to fund the peshmerga [Kurdish militias] directly. This allows the peshmerga to be paid. And while it's not explicitly stated, I think it allows for having a lot more weapons flow through Baghdad up through Kurdistan — which they've wanted for a long time.

We'll see. There could be a lot of devils in the details. But still, just getting the deal could be a positive sign.

ZB: How well is Abadi doing at including Sunnis in the government? That's obviously a huge part of signaling to Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory that the national government is on their side.

DO: He appears to be doing OK. You have a Sunni defense minister and, given that it'll be the army in the lead for the eventual retaking of Mosul and Fallujah, that's a big deal. The bulk of those troops will be Shia, but everyone will know that the defense minister controlling them is a Sunni Arab.

There is one thing I saw there that made me pessimistic. There's less of a sense, among the Shias and the Kurds, that the Sunni Arabs are people they can live with.

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A peshmerga fighter. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

We've read a lot about the Shia militias purging Sunnis out of some areas in the south; we hear less about the Kurds pushing Sunnis out of areas in the north, though it's also going on. It's not ethnic cleansing: not super-violent, more bureaucratic, but it's nonetheless happening.

Many Iraqis see the Sunni population as collaborators with ISIS. It's going to require a lot of work for someone to knit this back together again.

ZB: And what about the military? Is it getting any better?

DO: The problem with Iraq is that it's a cash economy. It's really hard to figure out who's getting paid what, so it's difficult to put systems in place to guard against corruption and waste.

That said, we've seen a response to the army being mistrained and mispositioned. They've recently announced that, instead of trying to train 300,000 troops, they're trying to train about nine shock brigades [which will require an unclear, but significantly smaller number of troops than 300,000]. It's an acknowledgement that it's a different fight, requiring a different army and a different kind of training.

The kind of army that's going to be needed to go retake Fallujah is an entirely different one from the kind that are going to be different from the people you want pacifying Mosul. There's a great literature about how hard it was for the US Army to try to do both; it's not hard to believe that a much less capable army would need to train almost two different armies to accomplish both missions.

ZB: How does the US training play into this? Is the US presence contributing?

DO: The Americans have set up training sites where they'll train these shock brigades, explicitly teaching them how to retake terrain.

Americans will live on these training sites. The intent is that they'll never have to leave the walls, and will really be invisible to the local population. That's very important: Americans being inside Iraq is really a huge political trigger inside Iraqi politics. And even something as simple as a military resupply column going from Baghdad to al-Assad Airbase might well be seen as a provocation. I think the American commander understands that.

ZB: The criticism that you hear a lot is that the US spent so much time and effort training the Iraqi military during the invasion, and it didn't take. Could a comparatively small deployment make such a difference?

DO: I think it's different. The Iraqis have a sense of urgency that they may not have had before. The holding of their terrain by a terrorist force is a grave personal affront to the Iraqi polity, so there's a different level of motivation on the part of the Iraqis to do this.

Moreover, the Iraqis are a very young, immature, weak democracy. We know from the political science literature that these kinds of countries go through repeated crises. The US helped get them through the 2006-2008 crisis — and we should be proud of ourselves.

But that doesn't mean there isn't going to be another crisis down the road. And that crisis might be related to the crisis that came before it — maybe even as a result of the responses taken to the last crisis. But that's just the way it is. Iraq is a young, immature democracy and it's going to have repeated crises. If we solve this one, there's probably going to be another crisis four or five years down the road.

Eventually, you want these crises to be less serious.

ZB: This one's pretty bad!

DO: So was the last one.

And here's one thing that still makes me hopeful about Iraq. There are those who say that "Iraq isn't a nation." That just isn't true. Are the borders kind of unclear? Yeah. Is there a strong sectarian and tribal identity that moves across these borders? Yes, that's also true.

But that's not incompatible with there being a sense of Iraqi identity. That identity is still there, and it's still important. It is by no means a fait accompli that the Iraqi state survives, but it's just untrue to say to say these people don't see themselves as Iraqi.

People who go to Iraq tend to be more optimistic — it's a place that looks worse than it is. You see the dysfunction up close, but it functions. Particularly when you look at the south — there's this pretty stable, resilient base in the south that's generating income, and that can be used as a base for the Iraqi state for the foreseeable future.

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