Just six months ago, I was having a traditional Iraqi dinner with a friend in a building overlooking the Tigris River. But this was no ordinary Iraqi, and our surroundings were hardly luxurious. My friend is a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and a close aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the setting was his bunker-like office in a heavily guarded military compound in Baghdad. Security threats left us no choice.

People leaving areas controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria wait to clear the Khazer checkpoint between Mosul and Erbil in Iraq, June 14, 2014. Photo Credit: The New York Times/ Bryan Denton
People leaving areas controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria wait to clear the Khazer checkpoint between Mosul and Erbil in Iraq, June 14, 2014. Photo Credit: The New York Times/ Bryan Denton

Our conversation quickly turned to the escalating security and political turmoil in Iraq. “The conflict in Syria is our major concern,” he told me. “The groups are moving freely between Syria and Iraq and are building up forces in some areas in Iraq where we expect more troubles. We think of this as an existential threat, and all our energy is focused now on curbing the expansion of these movements.”

Unfortunately, “all” the energy turned out to be mainly focused on military efforts rather than the desperately needed political accommodation that might have headed off the downward spiral we see in Iraq today. But it’s not too late – in fact, it’s even more urgent -- to think about the political approach needed now to ensure that any potential military counter-offensive will be sustainable this time.

Despite those huge military and security efforts, the question is why the militant group Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) still was able to conquer a geographical space as large as North Carolina? It is an achievement that no non-state player in the region had been able to claim before.

Although there certainly are various factors at play, including regional dynamics such as the competition between primarily Shia Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, groups like ISIL cannot operate so freely in an environment of public hostility toward them. So, does the fact that they’ve swept easily across northern Iraq mean that the Sunnis of Al-Anbar, Nineveh, Salah El-Dine, Diyala and other provinces are all supporters of ISIL? Are they all terrorists? Certainly not.

The most reasonable analysis of why ISIL was able to move without significant resistance by local citizens in the Sunni provinces is that the political process in Iraq failed. The Sunnis who helped suppress a previous extremist-led insurgency in 2007 felt disenfranchised from the government that Maliki controlled. He invested heavily in military and other security measures in response to political grievances that turned into months of public demonstrations. He put far less energy into building trust with Sunnis, Kurds and other components of today’s Iraq.

Call it shortsighted strategy or the curse of the powerful or the trend of new-wave dictatorship or whatever -- the result is the same: a huge percentage of Iraqis felt targeted, marginalized, ostracized and dismissed. The Iraqis waited for elections, and all they got was a renewal of the same political order that they saw as responsible for disaster for the last seven years. In their frustration and desperation, would they resist any attempt to force change, regardless of what form it took? Not likely.

The International community is mobilizing now to address the ISIL surge in Iraq. While some military actions might be considered, the most pressing need is for a political strategy.

There is no way a military response will pacify Iraq and the region. It might halt the progress of ISIL for a while. But a sustainable peace in Iraq cannot be achieved without a credible political settlement.

If there is a niche where the U.S., the EU and other Western countries could be particularly effective, it is in pressing for and supporting the design and implementation of a full-fledged, inclusive national dialogue in Iraq, as should have been done in April 2003.  Such a dialogue would aim to address the legitimate concerns of various constituencies in Iraq, including revisiting the current political arrangements to ensure all are represented fairly.

To further strengthen the outcomes of such a dialogue would eventually require a de-escalation at the regional level as well, namely between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is a process the U.S. already started pushing for and is worth continuing.

My friend in Baghdad is busy today with the military response launched by the government of Iraq. Will he and others in Iraq’s ruling elite acknowledge that a political settlement will be imperative to sustain any military gain that he and his fellow generals achieve in the coming days? Will the U.S. and the West deliver enough resources and pressure to make sure the 2014 counter-insurgency does not fade away as did the one in 2007?

Let no one try to fool Iraqis and public opinion in the West by promoting an exclusively military response. There’s also an urgent need to talk politics.

Elie Abouaoun is USIP’s director of Middle East programs, based in Beirut.

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