Live-Blogging from DC: To what point does international community accept that there’s a state within a state? #IRAQ – What is Happening?”

August 14th in Washington, DC ~ The New America Foundation asks “Iraq: What Is Happening?” from its office in Washington, DC.  Earlier this week, Iraqi president, Fouad Masum, announced the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, who is SUPPOSED to take over from Nouri al-Maliki — Iraq’s Prime Minister since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. (Since this post, Al-Maliki resigned at 5pm EST.  Al-Abadi now has 26 days to form a government according to the constitution.)

Rightly or wrongly — depending on if one views this as an impeachment or  as a coup that dismisses constitutional processes — Al-Maliki is taking legal action to fight for a third term.  It is no surprise that the UK Foreign Office welcomes Al-Abadi as the new PM — he was educated at Manchester University.

More political drama unfolds since the Obama order airstrikes on August 7th.  Despite the Obama’s administration pledge to keep troops out of combat, the Pentagon confirms US special operations are headed to Mount Sinjar, Iraq.

New America Foundation: Two-and-a-half years after the United States withdrew from Iraq, President Obama has ordered air strikes against Sunni militants in the country without giving any sort of timetable on how long the United States will remain involved.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken over major cities in the north, Iraqi army officers have abandoned their posts, and people are fleeing the region by the hundreds of thousands. ISIS has also taken over at least four small oil fields and Mosul Dam, the largest dam in the country, which has the capacity to flood cities and farms downstream.  Iraqi Kurds have also taken over parts of the north, fighting back ISIS militants.  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki clashed with Iraq’s president on Monday after he asked a veteran Shiite politician, Haider al-Abadi, to form a new government on Monday, setting the stage for a political showdown.As the humanitarian crisis worsens and the level of U.S. involvement deepens, we will explore some key questions: What is the trajectory of ISIS? Will Maliki try to stage a coup? What does this mean for a country with some of the largest oil reserves in the world? Is President Obama is doing the right thing? And what is the fate of Kurdistan?


We will be live-blogging the conversation, which includes comments from the following participants:

Col. Derek Harvey (Ret.): Professor, University of South Florida Former Senior Analyst for Iraq for General David H. Petraeus Denise Natali: Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Author, The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq

Steve Levine: Future Tense Fellow, New America Foundation; Author, The Oil and the Glory, The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea

Moderator: Douglas A. OllivantASU Future of War Senior Fellow, International Security Program, New America Foundation Former NSC Director for Iraq


The Moderator, Olivant,  opens with a Sad Joke about Iraq –like Russia–producing more history than GDP.  He emphasizes war between moderates and ‘Jihadists’ prefers emphasizing “Sunni Jihadist” and the sectarian, regional conflict.


  • ISIS is not a terrorist organization, but a terrorist army b/c strong social media and strongholds great strategic military planners

Military Organization

  • ISIS made up of former Mukhabarat and Iraqi army officers
  • Strengths: good leadership and organization
  • Arm and ally w/Peshmurga: training and reforming the Iraqi Forces, augementation of intelligence need combined joint task force

(Although there’s a “democritzation of violence” we disagree w/the construct – democratization of violence


  • Kurdish region media coverage hyperfocuse on arming Kurds
  • Pushing back on ISIS in Sinjar area, but Pehsmarge having difficulty in east area where no airtstrikes occurred
  • Concerned about the politicization of aid: why just looking at safeguarding the Yazidis?
  • “We were too busy predicting breakup of Iraq. myth that peshmurga were capable of defending region” Look at Baghdad, PKK, and Iran
  • Iraqi govt was the one providing airport, arming Kurds is undermining terrirotial integrity of Iraq… but done w/approval of Iraqi govt

Economic Side:

  • Operations are suspended in Kurdish region: almost every intl oil company has evacuated, but service companies no longer there
  • Building construction are at standstill; commercial flights are not running unless to Istanbul or Jordan
  • 25% occupancy of hotels


  • 200K bpd produced, only 120 bpd exported
  • Not focused on “do Kurds get independence?” or discourage Kurds from selling oil
  • ISIS understands centrality of resources: captured in Syria and Iraq, producing by using crews on ground earning $1M a day
  • Reuters reported similar thing of ISIS asserting economic control of wheat.

Here’s the jist of what Levin is saying regarding wheat, which we already noted as 5 provinces in Iraq represent 40% of Iraq’s supply.  ISIS tactics and strategy is reminiscent of when the Taliban captured the heroin trade in Afghanistan.  Given that ISIS operates like a state trying to control resources (oil, wheat, and now water) we see that this is no longer a terrorism issue, but an Iraqi soveriegnty issue.   As Levin pointed out, and we agreed, ISIS is working on control of water and dams.


  • Iraq projected ambition 12M bpd now downgraded projection to 5M bpd
  • Now 80% of expats have flown out of Erbil, oil companies aren’t there anymore – their share prices: lost 25% of value, but resurged?
  • Kirkuk key area: Exxon tried to drill, but even if you do drill, it is percieved that ISIS can threaten oil fields or transportation b/c needs to get it to Turkey

Olivant on Baghdad Politics:

  • We have a new nominee for PM, same from same party as Al Maliki (Al Dawah Party not Sadrists) but has a Phd in engineering — a technocrat w/o political study….(hmmm…we said that last week)
  • Kurds are in areas where violence will exist for some time in addition to corruption and ghost soldiers — requires reassesment of US forces in region as assessing Peshmurga and Iraqi forces
  • Kurds have lost their brand b/c they used to be in the safe part of Iraq
  • selling weapons directly to Kurds “above board” are against U.S. law b/c must deal with the state
  • Insurance rates for oil companies operating in Erbil are going to skyrocket


far left (doug?): challenges the “lost their brand” comment
not a matter of law, but matter of policy

Policy suggestions:

1) Reynolds: Frame correctly and understand threat frame correctly by specifying who the threat is– This is not a terrorism issue.(PITAPOLICY NOTE: But didn’t we already do that by identifying ISIS and their origins??? It makes sense to go after sanctuary areas in Syria, but then it revisits what Olivant warned the US not to do: deal with Syria.  Tactical measures aren’t enough. )

2) Do not reinforce ethnic/sectarian divisions existing now, which the US has done w/aid operation last week
Not in the Kurds interest to give into Barzani’s interest

3) Natali: Be careful not to create a political cushion that doesn’t get Iraqis to stand with their decisions
praises Kirkuk Governor Najmuddin Kareem for not getting sucked into the accusation that Kirkuk getting ‘Arabized’ // now similar accusation with “Kurdization” of territories
have a referendum in any territory is a wise idea


Why can’t the Arabs should take care of this ISIS crisis?

– Well, unwise to put in a GCC force given the opportunity for sectarian opportunists

Olivant: Assad is now secondary or tertiary priority b/c it’s too complex for near term solution

 Why didn’t we do more? former employee of firm that entered Iraq right after Saddam ouster:directed to Colonel Reynolds

(ummm… b/c ISIS/ISIL didn’t exist when US withdrew from Iraq)
Levine:  If we did airstrikes 10 weeks ago, wouldn’t have had Yazidi sitution, but was held hostage to a domestic situation in Iraq and not enough intelligence for precise targets


  • Not enough local buy-in within Iraq. Note the Mosul coup: Barzani said “We won’t fight ISIS!” b/c risk of attacking Sunni Arabs civilians



  • Downside of recognizing an Islamic State: create a cascade of sectarian warfare that will create a 30 year war from Mediterranean to Asia
  • ISIS has military, ideological, political and financial bureaus that know how to recruit technicians and how to invest.



  • Administration should get an ‘A’ for crisis management
  • US needs to identify which groups deals may be cut with… (PITAPOLICY NOTE: and hope/pray that ISIS doesn’t capture and torture special forces guys and put it in Youtube)
  • Maybe necessary to have an interim state to hold Iraq together: imagine an Obama and Karl Rove leading US jointly where one department led by Republicans and another led by Democrats: klunky, but unity may trump efficiency


  • Only 5% of revenue stream to support ISIS coming from Gulf

(PITAPOLICY NOTE: GCC states got slapped in the face b/c ISIS predecessors were no longer “good guys gone bad” after they left Syria for Iraq)

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