Sahel or Partition: Take Your Pick
New York Times reporter Ed Wong has taught us a new word. “Sahel” is an Arabic term used in Iraq. It means total, incontestable, humiliating victory, celebrated by dragging vanquished leaders’ mutilated corpses through the streets.
According to Wong, that’s what many Iraqis say they want. Many of them think there will be no peace in Iraq until one side or the other achieves sahel.
Sahel is a concept as foreign to America as daily suicide bombings are to small towns in Iowa. Yet Wong is a sensitive, resourceful and insightful reporter. If he and his sources are right, we must get our minds around the idea of sahel. We have to understand where that Iraqi custom might lead once our forces leave Iraq.
No one is likely to achieve sahel over the Kurds, at least as long as we do not abandon them entirely. They are good fighters, well armed and well organized. So the victims in any sahel will be Sunnis or Shiites.
At this point, it is hard to say which of them is most likely to achieve sahel once we leave. The Sunnis are a minority, but they are the better fighters. Many of their hardened Baathist generals and colonels now sit in exile in Amman and Damascus. There they sip tea, nurse their grudges, and prepare to return to Iraq to fight for sahel as soon as our forces leave.
Iraqi Shiites outnumber Sunnis three to one. We have armed and trained them and given them political control of Iraq. In so doing, we have partially expiated our guilt for allowing Saddam to slaughter the Marsh Arabs, who were Shiites.
But the Shiites are still fractious, undisciplined and disorderly. If can they pull themselves together enough to achieve sahel, it will probably be under the leadership of a strong man like Muqtada Al Sadr. Then Iran’s influence, which affects many Iraqi Shiites and especially Muqtada, will have the whole of non-Kurdish Iraq as its field.
Whichever side achieves sahel, democracy will disappear from non-Kurdish Iraq for the foreseeable future. Sahel requires ruthless means and a strong man to use them. If sahel occurs, a new dictator will arise to replace Saddam, either in achieving sahel or in consolidating its fruits. Politically, Iraq will be right back where it started in 2003, when we began our invasion, except perhaps for a free Iraqi Kurdistan. We will have a new Saddam under another name. If the Shiites win, they will do so with Iranian help and under Iranian influence. Is that what we want?
We can do better. Amid all the dispiriting mayhem, there are signs of separate progress among both Shiites and Sunnis. The Shiites won’t share real power with their erstwhile oppressors, but they do have an embryonic democracy among themselves. Who could say where it might lead after a few years of relative calm within defensible borders?
No longer distracted by civil war, the Shiites could devote their efforts to wiping out Al Qaeda (their sworn enemy) in their midst. They could reconstruct their oil fields with international help. The influx of new oil revenue could promote rapid reconstruction of Shiite Iraq. Perhaps it might restore Iraqi Shiites’ traditional secularism and internationalism, heading off the current trend toward Islamic extremism and dependence on Iran. The added oil production would also help stabilize the world oil market and lower gas prices.
As for Iraqi Sunniland, there are encouraging signs there, too. Sunni sheikhs recently joined our forces to rid Anbar Province of the scourge of terrorism. As this writer predicted, they have been enormously effective in doing so.
These public-spirited sheikhs could be the nucleus of an emerging Iraqi Sunni democracy. Apparently they made the decision to join us collectively, and they put their lives on the line to do so. From their ranks could emerge a council of elders and an embryo of democratic government. The sheikhs joined with us to stamp out mayhem and protect their communities, not to achieve sahel. That, too, is a good sign.
But our current policy in Iraq is counterproductive to all these trends. By pursuing our pipe dream of a unified, democratic Iraq, we are in fact setting Iraq up for sahel after we leave. Our stated goal is undermining our only chance for leaving Iraq as a whole better off than we found it.
So what we need now is not a false choice between withdrawal now and withdrawal later. What we need is a brand new policy: partition.
Only partition can avoid sahel. And only avoiding sahel can give non-Kurdish Iraq a chance at achieving stable reconstruction, let alone democracy. We therefore must abandon the policy of trying to unify Iraq, which in the end will only promote sahel. We must partition Iraq to create space for stability and reconstruction.
It does not matter whether the partitions are “hard” or “soft.” It does not matter whether they reflect “federalism” or separate nations. Planners can use whatever legal structure seems appropriate, and diplomats can use whatever euphemisms and circumlocutions they need to pacify the neighbors.
What matters is that the three warring ethnic groups be confined largely to contiguous and defensible territories so that the mayhem can stop and ordinary life and reconstruction can resume, without sahel. Experts and military leaders such as General Petraeus should help draw the boundaries and create the partitions. They should make sure (among other things) that the Sunnis receive their proper share of oil revenue.
Once our forces have helped achieve stable partitions, Iraqis can maintain them, and our troops can begin withdrawing. We can continue to police partitions afterward, with far fewer casualties, through judicious use of air power and “no fly” zones.
As the mayhem subsides, millions of Iraqi expatriates can come back. Some of them may secretly desire sahel. But most will simply want to live, work and improve their lives without having to fear being blown up, executed, or tortured every time they go out their front doors.
There is a good chance that war weariness will lead returning Iraqi expatriates to demand peace and reconstruction, not sahel. After all, the expatriates are the ones who voted against mayhem with their feet in the first place. By and large, they are the merchants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and other educated folk whom reconstruction requires. But as smart folk, they won’t return just to become victims of a quest for sahel. A key goal of partition would be enticing these cooler heads back to begin reconstruction.
Achieving our other objectives will follow naturally from partition. Once the warring parties have reasonably contiguous, defensible territories, we can wind down our combat role and begin withdrawing our much-abused troops. Partition will also serve our goal of suppressing Al Qaeda, for all of the three ethnic groups hate Al Qaeda. As relative calm comes to their respective territories, each group will devote less energy to exterminating the others and more to exterminating terrorists in its midst.
Finally, partition will help us achieve our regional strategic objectives. It will avoid a continuing bloodbath and therefore a wider civil war that might drag in neighbors. It will create a balance of power within what is now Iraq, avoiding the extension of Iranian influence into Kurdish and Sunni areas. By encouraging Shiite Iraq to stand on its own with a rudimentary democracy, it could even limit Iranian influence there, for example, by promoting Iraqi Shiites’ secularism and feelings of independence.
For four years, our effort in Iraq has had the wrong goal. We have tried to glue together a “unified” Iraq with our troops’ blood. But “Iraq” is a fiction, imagined by the British Foreign Office during its colonial era. By softening our focus and recognizing the reality of ethnic communities mired in millennial power struggles, we can achieve nearly all of our objectives—calm, stability, reconstruction, and a chance for democracy to take root over the long term. All we have to do is give up our pipe dream and get serious, and our troops can begin to come home.