How to End It

Larry Diamond

In his trenchant analysis, Stephen Biddle ("Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon," March/April 2006) argues that the escalating violence in Iraq is not a nationalist insurgency, as was the Vietnam War, but rather a "communal civil war" and that it must therefore be addressed by pursuing a strategy different from "Vietnamization": if the United States were simply to turn over responsibility for counterinsurgency to the new Iraqi army and police forces, it would risk inflaming the communal conflict, either by empowering the Shiites and the Kurds to slaughter the Sunnis or by enabling a Trojan horse full of Sunni insurgents to penetrate the multiethnic security forces and undermine them.

Biddle is right in many respects. First, Iraq is already in the midst of a very violent civil conflict, which claims 500 to 1,000 lives or more every month. Second, this internal conflict has become primarily communal in nature; as Biddle writes, it is a fight "about group survival." It pits Sunnis against Shiites, in particular, but also Kurds against Sunnis and, more generally, group against group, with smaller minorities coming under attack on multiple fronts. Third, as Biddle warns, the current moderate-intensity communal war could descend into an all-out conflagration, with a high "risk of mass slaughter." Thus the United States cannot in good conscience withdraw from Iraq abruptly -- and doing so would not even be in the United States' national interest -- because that would remove the last significant barrier to a total conflagration.

Washington needs a new strategy, and, as Biddle writes, it cannot simply be "Iraqization" of the conflict. Biddle proposes two bold steps: slowing down the buildup of the Iraqi army and police and threatening to "manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate." But these steps (particularly the latter) are dangerous and unlikely to work, because they follow from an incomplete analysis of the formidably complex, multidimensional nature of the Iraqi conflict.

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