Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 October 2006

Cut and Stay: A Strategy for Iraq


It should now be obvious to all who are not in complete denial that Iraq is no longer a viable state. It is already partitioned, and its people seem determined to make the partitioning permanent.

The evidence is overwhelming. Iraqi Kurdistan, including Kirkuk and Mosul, has been firmly in Kurdish hands since the beginning of the war. Except for occasional incursions of Sunni forces and Sunni-inspired suicide bombers, the Kurds have run it democratically, competently and mostly peacefully for a long time. It is by far the most secure part of Iraq. Therefore few Coalition troops are stationed there.

Next most peaceful is the Shiite south. There Sunni and Sunni-inspired incursions are more frequent, and interethnic violence is increasing. Shiite on Shiite violence has now reared its ugly head, in the recent battles between Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade in Amara. Yet the Shiites are armed and partly trained and appear capable, with some help, of holding their territory. Their short-lived but intense experience of democracy, coupled with the calming influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in time may help them achieve stable government, if they are left to their own devices in defensible territory.

Except for the parts of Baghdad where ethnic mayhem is flaring, the rest of Iraq is under Sunni control. Already the Coalition has abandoned Al-Anbar Province to the Sunni insurgents and their Al-Qaeda fellow travelers. The Sunnis hold their parts of Baghdad, from which they mount death-squad attacks against their Shiite neighbors. Now that the Coalition’s plan to pacify Baghdad has failed, there is de facto recognition of Sunni control even there.

The Iraqi National Parliament recently recognized this de facto partition. It passed a national law to give the three ethnic areas substantial autonomy in governance. It has consistently refused to do what the Coalition wanted it to do: throw the Sunnis a bone of control over additional territory or oil money in order to reduce the Sunni insurgency’s attraction. After suffering three decades of Sunni tyranny and terror, the Kurds and Shiites are understandably, if regrettably, reluctant to enrich their erstwhile oppressors.

Thus facts on the ground, the Coalition’s troop positions, and Iraqi law all implicitly recognize the same now-obvious fact. “Iraq” is a nation in name only.

Under these circumstances, there is not much left for Coalition troops to do but die for little purpose. Despite Tony Blair’s valiant attempts at “spin,” British forces have recognized this point implicitly. They have abandoned Amara, where they took relentless mortar fire from supposedly “friendly” Shiite militias, for the relative safety of patrolling the border with Iran. Our own forces have recognized this reality by abandoning Al-Anbar province. Now they have failed to secure even part of Baghdad despite heavy casualties. The cresting waves of ethnic reprisals are simply too strong to contain, and our troops are caught in the middle.

Perfecting the existing de facto partitioning of Iraq is the only sensible strategy left. There are three reasons for this conclusion.

First and most important, time has proved the notion of impartial and professional Iraqi security forces and police to be, like the notion of a unified Iraq itself, hopelessly quixotic. The soldiers and police whom we have tried to train professionally fight as Iraqis one day, then as ethnic death squads the next. Or they loan their uniforms and/or weapons to their less-trained compatriots for revenge killings.

Our attempt to overcome a millennium of ethnic rivalry and decades of terror, tyranny and torture with a few months of training in “military professionalism” was a pipe dream. It is now clear that the effort has failed. The so-called “Iraqi Security Forces” and national police have become part of the problem, not the solution. Dividing the forces into ethnic components and separating them is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for interethnic peace.

Second, mixed and adjacent ethnic neighborhoods have become centers of violence. Where inimical groups live cheek by jowl, there is simply too much risk of an escalating series of reprisals.

Iraq is awash in weapons and explosives. Three years of war with no front lines, coupled with constantly escalating random violence, has produced an atmosphere of hopelessness, fear, and unfocused anger and hatred. It is difficult for anyone who works at a desk in safety to imagine the kind of atmosphere that prevails on the streets and in the homes of Iraq today. Combined with inbred Iraqi ideas of “honor” and revenge, that atmosphere is combustible. It turns otherwise ordinary soldiers, police and civilians into ethnic death squads. Under these conditions, simple propinquity of ethnic rivals is an invitation to mayhem.

Therefore separating the warring factions is the only near-term solution. The Iraqi people themselves have already recognized this point. According to the U.N.’s “conservative” estimate, 300,000 of them are already internally displaced, and another 600,000 have fled the country entirely. Nearly a million refugees have voted for separation with their feet.

Completing the partitioning process will not be easy. It may require clearing defensible lines through the cities—even dynamiting buildings. For American troops, accustomed to a stable, multiethnic society at home, that work will be sordid and unpleasant. But the alternative is worse: escalating internal pogroms that make modern civilization, let alone stability, impossible.

The final reason for completing the partitioning process is a simple military principle: it’s easier to defend a perimeter than all the territory inside it. As ethnic separation progresses, the level of violence will subside. Death squads will have a harder time hiding in “enemy” territory, and the population will begin to see some peace. As fighting moves to the periphery, the war will begin to resemble conventional warfare, with front lines and relief for civilians. When death squads have to cross well-defended borders, the level of violence will subside.

Equally important, the troops that defend those borders will have their own natural motivation. Soldiers and police will defend their perimeters out of real loyalty to their ethnic group, locale, and tribe, rather than fictional loyalty to abstract and utopian ideas imposed by a foreign culture.

In the final analysis, the idea of an Iraq built on American notions of pluralism, interethnic tolerance and the rule of law was a dangerous fantasy from the start. The Roman Empire and Genghis Khan* had far better law and administration than most of the peoples they conquered. Yet after decades (sometimes centuries) of occupation—and far more ruthless methods of suppressing rebellion than any modern democracy would dare impose—most of the subject peoples reverted to type as soon as the occupation weakened or ended.

Changing cultures takes centuries, and neither modern weapons nor modern psychology can speed up the process. Modern weapons only enhance the violent reaction, and modern psychology only dulls the pain.

Therefore the “goal” of a democratic and stable Iraq, united and thriving under Western cultural norms, flouted reality. Iraq already has splintered along ethnic lines. The only question now is how to make the best of that reality.

This does not mean that our mission in Iraq has failed. We wanted to remove Saddam. We did that. We wanted to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and we found there were none. We wanted to build democracy in Iraq, and we have succeeded partially in that mission. Iraqi Kurdistan is a thriving democracy and will remain so if we can protect it diplomatically from the Turks.

As for the Shiite south, we have liberated it from Saddam’s tyranny, armed and trained its soldiers, taken it through three elections, and guided it through forming a majority in a democratic parliament. In so doing we have partially expunged our national shame: allowing Saddam to slaughter the Shiite Marsh Arabs after Gulf I.

At this point, we have done about all that we are qualified by culture and language to do. If Shiites want to resolve their differences with the Sunni and among themselves with bullets, rather than ballots (as the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade appear to have done in Amara) there is little we can do to stop them. Nor is it our responsibility to impose peaceful democracy on them, far less by force. We have shown them the way; the rest is up to them.

The Iraqi Sunni, as always, appear to be the problem. But the real problem is our own ambivalence. We wanted their leader out, so we captured Saddam and killed his sons. Then we disbanded the army, largely run by Sunni Baathists, in order to avoid a Baathist comeback. Surely we didn’t hope to make the Sunni love us.

Now we appear to want Sunni participation in an Iraqi government. Our ostensible reason is fairness and equity. Our real reason is that we don’t trust the Shiites, who are too close to Iran, to deliver the sort of secular, mercenary management of the south’s oil resources that we’d like to see. We prefer to have Shiite control leavened with secular Sunni influence as a hedge against increasing Islamist tendencies.

The problem is that Sunni “playing nice” with Shiites and vice versa is never going to happen. That is no less a fantasy than Donald Rumsfeld’s “they’ll greet us as liberators with flowers” daydream when we went to war. The whole insurgency began as an attempt by the Sunni to preserve their power and influence. Now that we have armed and trained the Shiites, whom the Sunni oppressed, brutalized and slaughtered for decades, the Shiites are never going to give that power back. And despite overwhelming odds against them, the Sunni appear just as determined to get it back. We could wait decades for either side to back down, with our troops bogged down and dying all the while. Folks in the Middle East have long memories and bear grudges.

So what is the best we can realistically hope for now? A thriving and stable democracy already exists in Iraqi Kurdistan, in control of the northern oil resources. With our military help and guidance, the Shiite south could become a similar democratic enclave, in control of the greater southern oil resources. It might be more Islamist than we’d like, and it might be closer to Iran than we’d like. But we can use the Shiites’ gratitude for their liberation, plus their need for continued military and reconstruction support, to moderate their behavior.

In any event, our fear of a close alliance of the Shiite south with Iran is overblown, for three reasons. First, the Iraqi Shiites have a different language, culture and history. The people of Persia and the Arabs of Iraq have been rivals for centuries. Second, Iraq fought an eight-year war with Iran not so long ago, and the resulting pain is still fresh in memory. Finally, Muqtada Al-Sadr has the closest relationship with Iran, and it is far from clear whether he will emerge as the eventual leader of all the Shiite south. We can certainly have some influence over how the south evolves as time goes on.

The most difficult problem is what to do with the disgruntled Sunnis. Will their territory become a failed state and an Al-Qaeda haven?

There is that risk, but three factors suggest it also is overblown. First, the Baathist Sunni were the most secular of all Iraqis. The war may have Islamicized some rural folk in Al-Anbar province, but the savvy, secular, business-oriented Baathists in the cities are hardly ready fodder for recruitment as suicide bombers. Second, for the foreseeable future, Iraqi Sunnis’ primary goal will be regaining what they’ve lost. If they recruit any suicide bombers from abroad and send them out to kill, the targets will be in Iraqi Kurdistan or the Shiite south, not the United States. Our fears to the contrary are but a paranoid fantasy. Third, the only possible allies of Iraqi Sunniland—Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—are hardly eager to encourage an Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, which would target their own regimes long before ours.

Even if an Al-Qaeda enclave developed, its first targets would be the rest of Iraq and the neighboring Sunni autocracies. Three of those neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan—are our allies and will help to contain the danger, for example, by gathering intelligence and providing financial support for reconstruction in Iraqi Sunniland. With a little arm-twisting on our part, they might even provide some compensation for the lost oil revenue to assuage Sunni bitterness. Syria also has a strong common interest with them in this regard, which is why we should be talking with Syria.

Thus recognizing the existing partitioning of Iraq as reality will not be so bad. It is not a matter of “victory” or “defeat,” as some argue so simplistically. It is a matter of making the best of a complex, fluid and rapidly deteriorating situation.

Stabilizing a partitioned Iraq will require further effort. We must do all we can to minimize bloodshed and hardship. “Ethic cleansing” will be inevitable, at least in the sense of relocating people to ethnically safe areas. Yet that process has already begun with 900,000 Iraqi refugees, a third of them still inside Iraq. We must help insure that the remaining relocations occur without slaughter or needless hardship, and we must help to establish perimeters that are defensible enough to permit stability.

To this end, we should take the following steps, beginning immediately:

    1. Officially recognize the de facto partitioning of Iraq and announce our intention to oversee its completion as fairly, bloodlessly, and efficiently as possible.

    2. Announce our intention to begin withdrawing our troops as soon as secure borders are drawn and ethnic relocations have been completed. (This step might help reduce our casualties.)

    3. Announce our intention, for the foreseeable future, to provide air power, logistical support and (where necessary) direct military support to prevent any incursions into partitioned territory and to neutralize any Al-Qaeda operations that are identified to our satisfaction.

    4. Announce our intention to assist in reconstruction, as requested, anywhere in the present territory of Iraq.

    5. Announce our intention to seek just compensation (for example, in international tribunals and among friendly neighbors) for the Sunnis’ loss of their fair share of oil revenue.

    6. Withdraw our troops, as soon as practicable, to Kuwait, with the bulk heading home but a substantial force remaining in relative safety for contingencies.

    7. Maintain a substantial base in Kuwait, as long as requested and as long as necessary, to provide assistance for the purpose of maintaining stability and minimizing conflict and bloodshed in partitioned Iraq.

    8. Continue to offer training in Kuwait, in military, police and democratic political skills, for suitably screened personnel from all three ethnic areas.

    9. Enforce a “no-fly zone” throughout Iraq to insure that any combat remains on the ground and to discourage an arms race among the three ethnic groups.

This “cut and stay” strategy has several advantages. First, it would minimize Coalition casualties and preserve domestic support for maintaining a military presence in the region. The presence of that force would be a symbol of American commitment and a bulwark against regional turmoil. Second, this strategy would recognize reality on the ground and offer a real chance of peace and stability for large portions of Iraq in the near future. Third, it would place on Iraqis, as early as possible, the responsibility for their own future. Fourth, it would result in one stable, prosperous and democratic entity (Iraqi Kurdistan) in the near future, and the strong possibility of another (the Shiite south) in the medium term. Fifth, by separating the ethnic groups and identifying clear and defensible borders between them, it would help curb inter-ethnic violence and set the stage for reconstruction.

The model would be Yugoslavia. Ethnic partitioning there led relatively quickly to peace and a real chance to rebuild. Despite a few bombed-out buildings, Dubrovnik is now a peaceful and pleasant resort town. Without a change in strategy, how soon can we say that any part of Iraq will remain peaceful?

Our present policy in Iraq exemplifies the old truism, "the best is the enemy of the good." We have an impossible dream of a stable, unified, and multiethnic Iraq. Events on the ground, recent history, ancient history, and the minds and hearts of three warring ethnic groups have turned that dream into a nightmare. If we continue to pursue it, Iraq will continue to fester, and images of needless death and destruction will continue to radicalize Muslims from Jakarta to Jeddah, not to mention Paris and London. Our pursuit of perfection subverts our larger dream of sowing the seeds of democracy in the heart of a stable Muslim Middle East.

Yet that larger dream is within our reach. Partition will recognize an already thriving new Muslim democracy, Iraqi Kurdistan. With patience plus financial and military support, another will soon rise out of the rubble in the Shiite south. The same air power that we used to contain Saddam for so long can prevent the contagion of Iraqi Sunniland from spreading, while we work diplomatically to stabilize Sunni territory through reconstruction aid and the help of friendly neighbors.

We have a chance for achieving significant partial success in a dangerous situation that is rapidly spiraling out of control. It may be our last chance, and we should take it.



*Genghis Khan has gotten a very bad rap in the West. His regime's rules included religious freedom, reward based on merit, protection of women, legitimacy for all children, regulation of hunting, prohibitions on adultery and theft, written codification of law, and subjection of everyone, including the Great Khan himself, to the rule of law. See Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World 67-70 (2004). His grandson Khubilai Khan's administration respected property rights, protected trade routes, used paper money, regulated the professions of medicine and law, disfavored torture as punishment, and established early rules of evidence and procedure in criminal trials, among many other things. See id. at 200-206.


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