The Way Forward In Iraq




The talk of Washington is the Iraq Study Group. Everyone, including the Democrats, is waiting for the two beltway sages, James Baker and Lee Hamilton, to rescue them from the chaos in Iraq. You will recall that some time ago Washington was eagerly awaiting a similar sounding group, the Iraq Survey Group, to rescue George W Bush from his temper tantrum in Iraq, although in a different way. The Iraq Survey Group failed to find any Weapons of Mass Destruction (remember them?) buried in the Iraqi desert, so now its successor, the Iraq Study Group will try to dig out George W Bush’s legacy from the sands of Iraq.

George W Bush, however, is not so easily saved. Rumor has it that Barney has blessed the "stay the course" strategy in Iraq. While others see civil war in Iraq, Mr. Bush and Barney see a mission in need of completion:

President Bush, rejecting what he called "pessimistic" assessments of his Middle East policy, pledged Tuesday to make necessary changes in Iraq but vowed never to pull out U.S. troops before completing the mission there.

Bush said, "We will continue to be flexible, and we’ll make the changes necessary to succeed. But there’s one thing I’m not going to do. I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are "part of a struggle between moderation and extremism that is unfolding across the broader Middle East," he said. "And in this struggle, we can accept nothing less than victory for our children and our grandchildren."

Apparently, the mission in Iraq has been "accomplished" but not yet "completed".

Save Mr. Bush’s determination to achieve "victory", the parlor game in Washington is all about when the United States will withdraw and how much damage will be caused, both to the United States and to Iraq, before the withdrawal takes place. Now that the mainstream media has started calling the Iraq Civil War a civil war, we can also now discuss what the possible outcomes of this war will be and what role, if any, the United States should play in that outcome.

In order to not be left out of the parlor game, I offer below my thoughts on the future of Iraq.

Last summer Harvard Professor Monica Toft discussed the three possible ways civil wars can end in an article for the Nieman Watchdog Journalism Project:

Civil wars end in one of three ways: (1) negotiated settlement; (2) partition; or (3) military victory. U.S. support for any of these options comes with considerable costs and only a slim possibility of an outcome that advances U.S. interests beyond what they were at the close of Saddam Hussein’s rule in April of 2003.

She does not see a negotiated settlement as a long term solution in Iraq:

In a negotiated settlement, warring factions agree both to end violence and to become partners in a new government. Although negotiated settlements are the most popular policy option (promising high short-term benefits and low risk), they may not be best if we want a permanent settlement to civil war.

A negotiated settlement is what the U.S. has attempted to implement for the last two years in Iraq and it has failed. The process of writing and adopting a constitution and electing a president and parliament were all designed to give each of Iraq’s different communities a say in the government. Although the Kurds and the Shiites fully participated in the process, the Sunnis did not.

A key factor in the failure of negotiated settlements has been that both sides maintain a capacity to harm each other by force of arms, and because the fighting has not reached a clear outcome, both sides can claim legitimacy in their pre-cease-fire resort to violence. Negotiated settlements by their very design leave a state’s offices divided, both in terms of physical infrastructure and human capital. … The bottom line is that most often civil wars ended by negotiated settlement re-ignite within five years, often leading to escalated violence and destruction (and not inconsequently increasing levels of authoritarianism). This is Iraq today.

She also does not see partition as a viable option in Iraq:

Theoretically, partition is an ideal way to end a civil war and keep it ended; especially when that violence involves identity groups that live in largely separate enclaves.

In effect, Iraq is becoming partitioned today, with the Kurds maintaining their grip on the north and the Sunnis and Shiites consolidating their control over the west and south respectively. The unmixing of mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad is only consolidating the populations into concentrated and mutually hostile enclaves. Concentrated enclaves turn out to be one of the most dangerous settlement patterns of ethnic and religious groups in terms of the likelihood of violence and civil war. Think of Chechnya, which continues to fight Russia for independence.

Partition of Iraq would work only if two conditions held: (1) the parties were consolidated into internationally recognized states and Iraq’s resources were distributed in a way that made each state economically viable; and (2) the partition into independent states was enforced by a generation of occupation by skilled and politically well-supported troops (preferably Muslims). Given that Iraq’s Sunni minority has been implicated in decades of persecution of both Kurds and Shiites, getting Kurds and Shiites to agree to support creation of a viable Sunni state will be difficult to achieve. Moreover, one can hardly imagine a third party both capable and willing to maintain an occupation of Iraq for twenty years to insure the interests of each of the parties, but this is what would need to be done. … Finally, given the long-standing reluctance of the international community to support partition as a general solution to civil wars, the U.S. is unlikely to find much support for partition from its allies. Regional actors will be even more intransigent: Kurds, for example, currently inhabit four of the region’s states (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). These bordering states would steadfastly resist the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

She sees victory by one of the warring sides as a more lasting option:

A final option is military victory: one side in civil war – rebels or incumbents – demonstrably defeats the other side by force of arms. Military victory is not only the most common type of civil war outcome historically, but also the one which most often results in enduring peace: military victories are far less likely to break down than are negotiated settlements. 

The U.S. can choose to support either the Sunnis or Shiites. Supporting either side to achieve victory would be difficult and costly in terms of time, taking as long as a decade to succeed given Iraq’s porous borders and the support each of the sides receives from across those borders.

Supporting one of the two sides in the civil war comes at a cost of tipping the regional balance of power either toward the Arabs or toward Iran.

Finally, she suggests the throwaway option of pulling out of Iraq and letting the chips fall where they may. She also suggests a way that Mr. Bush could walk away and declare victory:

Having gone to Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, the U.S. has discovered that what the people of Iraq wanted most was to be free of Saddam Hussein; but once free (a negative objective), positive objectives varied. The Shiites wanted representation in the control of Iraq commensurate with their population (and many wanted revenge for the persecution they suffered under Sunni rule). The Sunnis wanted to maintain their preferential status. The Kurds wanted their own state. To the extent that the war in Iraq, under U.S. auspices, has become a civil war, the civil war itself represents the success of a U.S. policy of bringing freedom to the people of Iraq.

Although Professor Toft’s listing of the three outcomes of civil wars is sound, she only discusses the three options in the context of an American occupation. She does not discuss fully the throwaway option of an American pullout, and what the three possible outcomes in Iraq then look like. To me, the latter discussion is much more interesting and more relevant since the United States has, dare I say, decided to pull out of Iraq.

I think there is a strong case to be made that the American presence in Iraq is fueling the civil war by delaying its resolution. That is not to say that the United States has effective control of the situation on the ground – it does not, but the presence of American troops gives the respective parties cover to arm and consolidate control of areas of the country. Without a doubt, the American presence guarantees that the Kurds in the north are able to consolidate their hold on Kirkuk and beef up the peshmerga. The American presence also allows the Shia factions to consolidate power in the various arms of the government, especially the security forces. The American forces also act as a buffer between the Shia and the Sunni by providing some measure of protection to the Sunni community to arm and consolidate their power in the western parts of Iraq. The American presence has also allowed the systematic ethnic cleansing of Iraq by Shia, Sunni and the Kurds. The ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods in Baghdad and other parts of the country has now effectively drawn geographical battle lines in Iraq’s civil war. The American presence also holds together a fractious Shia coalition that would otherwise collapse, and probably needs to if Iraq is to survive as a nation.

It seems to me that it is essential that the United States pull out of Iraq. After an American pullout, the Iraqi civil war may start to resolve itself. The Iraqi civil war has regional implications. Those regional forces can, without the constraints of American occupation, begin to pull Iraq toward a resolution.

As cited above, one possible outcome is military victory by one warring side. The conventional wisdom is that if the Americans leave the Shia will prevail in a civil war by virtue of their majority. I do not believe that is likely to occur for three reasons. First, the Sunni Arab countries of the region would see a Shia victory in Iraq as an expansion of Iranian hegemony into Arab territory. Without an American presence, the Sunni Arabs are likely to get significant support from regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. The risk of a regional conflagration is likely to dampen any hopes of a Shia military victory in Iraq. Second, the Shia in Iraq are fractured between pro-Iranian groups such as SCIRI and more nationalistic Shia such as the Sadrists. Moqtada al-Sadr, like his father the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, represents an Iraqi nationalist Shia movement. Sadr’s Shia movement and the Mahdi Army are likely to come into open conflict with the Iranian backed SCIRI and the Badr Brigade when the American occupation ends. Al Maliki’s Dawa Party sits in the uncomfortable middle between Sadr and SCIRI while being at the mercy of both. With an American exit, the Dawa Party is likely to see its fortunes dwindle. Lastly, the Shia cannot prevail over both the Sunni and the Kurds. Any military victory by the Shia would have to accept an independent state in the Kurdish north.

The other possible outcome of a civil war is partition. However, any partition of Iraq that leaves the Kurds with an oil-rich independent country in the north of Iraq will be fiercely opposed by Turkey, and to a lesser extent by Iran and Syria. Turkey has between 25 to 30 millions Kurds who have been long persecuted. Any Kurdish country to Turkey’s east will endanger Turkish territorial integrity and will be a non-starter. The Sunnis in the west and center of Iraq also cannot form a viable country without having access to the oil rich north and south of Iraq. There is no three country map that can be carved out of Iraq that does not deny one of the group’s much needed oil revenue.

The only remaining outcome for Iraq is then a negotiated settlement. The negotiated settlement may however come after an attempt at all out military victory is fought to a stalemate. The negotiated settlement will happen not because it is the preferred outcome, but because it is the only viable outcome. A negotiated settlement will certainly have to include the major regional players such as Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. The negotiated settlement will come after realization by the Arab states, and acceptance by Iran, that Iraq is, and historically has been, the Arab bulwark against Persian influence. Iran will find once again that the Iraqi Shia are not Iran’s fifth column in Iraq. An American departure from Iraq will eventually lead to a restoration of the balance of power in the region between the Arabs and the Iranians.

The Kurds of Iraq will once again be denied an independent homeland. But that denial will likely come at a price for Turkey. Turkey may be forced to give autonomy to its Kurds as a condition for Kurdish guarantee of Iraq’s territorial integrity.

The Iraq that is likely to emerge through the meat grinder of civil war will owe its stability to a regional need for stability, not to some gift of freedom given by George W Bush. Ironically, Mr. Bush is likely to see this precarious yet stable Iraq emerge from the ashes of his failed policy. Yet, it will emerge because Mr. Bush will finally have left it alone, and not because of his efforts at playing puppet master to the Arabs.

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One Response to The Way Forward In Iraq

  1. james says:

    If you went forward in Iraq woulden’t they be marching into syria and Iran:-?:-s

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