Before he entered Congress, Chris Gibson spent 24 years in the U.S. Army, including three high-profile assignments in northern Iraq, where a Sunni rebellion is now threatening to tear the country apart. In an interview this week, Gibson rejected calls for intervention by U.S. ground troops to stem the insurgency. Instead, he said the U.S. should press Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to seek political rapprochement with Iraq’s Sunni minority and avoid a return to bloody sectarian warfare.
“I think [deploying American ground troops to Iraq] would be counterproductive,” said Gibson. “Sometimes in America there is a tendency to think that American military power can solve all problems, and that’s not the case. There’s been some politicization of this conversation, but I think the [Obama] administration has got it right.”
In 2004 Gibson commanded a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division tasked with securing the restive multi-ethnic city of Mosul for the first elections of the post-Saddam Hussein era. On a second tour, Gibson led a battalion of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment battling insurgents in the northern city of Tal-Afar. In his final tour during 2007’s “surge,” Gibson served as operations officer for all coalition forces in northern Iraq. In that role, he worked with Sunni militants who quit the fight against coalition forces and turned their guns on their former al-Qaeda allies.
That experience, Gibson said, gave him insight into the motivation of the Sunni fighters, some of whom have drifted back into the militant orbit of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Sunnis, who comprise about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, dominated the Shia majority during the Saddam era. During the U.S. war, Gibson said, many Sunni groups were successfully integrated into the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government. Since, the departure of American-led coalition forces, however, they have faced unfulfilled promises and steady disenfranchisement at the hands of the Maliki government.
According to Gibson, the disaffected Sunnis can be won back with appeals to Iraqi nationalism and a firm commitment to reform from Baghdad. “The Sunni have realistic expectations, they don’t believe they are going to rule like they did in the days of Saddam,” said Gibson. “They just want a fair shake.”
The same disaffection with Baghdad, Gibson believes, was behind the stunning collapse of Iraqi government forces in the face of the ISIS onslaught. Coalition forces invested years and billions of dollars training and equipping an Iraqi national army and police force capable of maintaining security and containing the militant threat. Those forces, however, virtually evaporated, abandoning positions in Mosul, Tal-Afar and other northern cities where militants have seized control. Gibson, however, sees the collapse as a symptom of political dysfunction rather than military ineptitude.
“Iraqi forces have the capacity [to turn back the ISIS advance],” said Gibson. “But even the best-trained Iraqi soldier, if he doesn’t believe what he’s fighting for is in his best interest and the best interest of his family, is going to be disinclined to fight.”
Gibson, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, expressed optimism about the prospects for retaking the lost territory in northern Iraq. He said the region’s Kurdish minority — which has a well-trained loyal militia, and includes members of both the Sunni and Shiite sects — would be able to serve as mediators and “a calming force” in the region. Meanwhile what he termed the supersized U.S. embassy in Baghdad would be available to provide expert military advice and other assistance. Militants, meanwhile still have a long way to go in transforming the newly conquered territory into a fully functional “liberated zone” that would threaten Iraqi sovereignty and accomplish ISIS’ goal of a fundamentalist Sunni state straddling the Iraq-Syria border.
“The only thing al-Qaeda has to offer is Sharia law, and the people there don’t want that,” said Gibson. Generations of Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis have freely intermarried, he noted. “Iraq is a relatively secular state.”
Gibson said retaking the lost territory and quelling the insurgency would have to be accomplished by Iraqis in a political context. Images of ISIS militants executing Sunni prisoners were intended to spark sectarian warfare. He believes the atrocities would backfire if Al-Maliki changed course and appealed for unity among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in the face of the militant threat. And, while Gibson acknowledged that it was discouraging to see ground that had been secured with the blood of soldiers under his command lost to insurgents, he believed the fight was far from finished.
“Tal-Afar went back and forth at least a couple of times over the decade that [American forces] were involved there,” he said. “This is not the first time.”