Defense In Depth
Why U.S. Security Depends on Alliances—Now More Than Ever
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.
Although the war in Iraq is mainly a communal conflict, it is not only that. It also contains an important element of nationalist insurgency. One misses an essential piece of the puzzle -- and a reason the conflict is so difficult to contain -- if one does not grasp that many Iraqis (mostly Sunnis) are fighting in some significant measure because they believe they are waging a war of resistance against American occupiers and the Iraqi "traitors" who cooperate with them. Among the score or more of Sunni insurgent groups, both the radical Islamist forces and the secular resistance (which includes Saddam loyalists and surviving Baath Party members) have as one of their principal aims the expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq. That this goal coincides with the ambition of some to return the Baath Party to power or with the dream of others to establish a Sunni Islamic caliphate -- and with the conviction of all that the Shiite Islamist parties are controlled by Iran or at least stalking-horses for Tehran -- should not obscure the insurgents' dedicated, ideological resistance to the U.S. presence. The communal hatred that extreme Sunni Islamists have deliberately provoked (a cynical tactic in a war of destabilization, eviction, and conquest) has overshadowed the resistance's nationalist dimension but has not removed it.Special Web-only feature
The Sunni resistance believes the United States seeks to establish permanent military bases in Iraq in order to control the country and its oil indefinitely. Some of the most ideologically extreme insurgent forces, such as al Qaeda in Iraq, will fight to the death to expel the Americans and achieve their own goal of domination. But since the autumn of 2003, other insurgent groups (accounting for a significant portion of the Sunni insurgency) have sent signals through international intermediaries that they want to talk directly to the United States. Two of these groups' objectives have been to obtain an unambiguous statement from Washington that it will not seek permanent military bases in Iraq and to set up a timetable for a complete U.S. military withdrawal, even if it stretches over two or three years. For more than two years now, Washington has had the opportunity to open negotiations, with the help of international mediators, with these elements of the insurgency and then draw Iraqi government leaders into those talks. The result could have been -- and might still be -- an agreement by key elements of the resistance to wind down the insurgency: Sunni political and religious leaders could send clear messages to their constituencies to suspend the war of resistance and pursue their political interests through the emerging game of peaceful politics and governance instead. In exchange, the United States would need to commit at least to a flexible timetable for the withdrawal of its troops, tied not only to dates but also to facts on the ground and confidence-building measures. Now that the conflict has become "communalized," much more will likely be required to curb the violence. But the need and the opportunity for dealing with the Sunni-based resistance remain.
CURSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS
Biddle misses another crucial element of the conflict in Iraq. His proposed strategy of threatening to manipulate the military balance of power among the factions rests on two reciprocal assumptions, both highly questionable. On the one hand, Biddle assumes that the Sunni resistance would be compelled "to come to the negotiating table" if Washington threatened to throw in its lot with a Shiite-Kurdish force. He implies, and other strategists have explicitly argued, that the United States could solve the insurgency problem by backing a joint Shiite-Kurdish military campaign to crush the Sunni resistance. But this threat is not likely to move Sunni forces: many of them believe Sunnis actually represent a majority of the country's population, and all of them would expect and probably receive massive assistance from neighboring Sunni Arab states in any all-out conflict with the Shiites and the Kurds.
By the same token, Biddle is on shaky grounds when he assumes that a U.S. threat to back the Sunnis militarily would be credible or that a U.S. threat to withdraw altogether militarily would necessarily panic the Shiites. Many of the Shiite Islamist parties and Shiite militia factions that constitute the ruling United Iraqi Alliance -- most of all, Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement and his irregular Mahdi Army (which fought two campaigns against coalition forces in 2004) -- are eager to be rid of the Americans and might well call their bluff. At that point, Washington would have to either back down from its threat and surrender its remaining leverage with the Shiites or follow through and watch Iraq descend into just the kind of civil war it has been trying to avert.
Biddle is right to argue that the United States does not have the leverage to achieve needed compromises over the fundamental issues that divide Iraq: the constitutional structure, the distribution of oil revenues, and security. But Washington is not likely to summon that leverage through hollow strategic threats. A better strategy -- perhaps the only remaining alternative -- would be for the United States to accelerate its mediation efforts and do so with international assistance. Washington needs and, at this critical juncture, can obtain the active partnership of the United Nations and the European Union to help the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and other senior U.S. officials broker political compromises.
A combined diplomatic effort by the United States, the un, and the eu, working in close coordination and speaking with one voice, might well engage all the relevant actors and gain the leverage to extract concessions from them on key issues. One crucial actor with whom un or other mediators could talk -- but who will not talk with the U.S. occupiers -- is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, still the most widely revered Shiite religious leader in Iraq and still a vastly underestimated force for moderation and compromise. But there are many others who might respond better to coordinated international appeals and to the financial and political incentives that the United States and Europe could together provide. A critical element of this approach would be for the U.S.-un-eu team to bring into the negotiations, at the right moment, the Arab League, which has developed ties with a number of political actors in the Sunni resistance and thus could offer them credible assurances and induce them to compromise.
U.S. and international mediation must begin by facilitating the work of the Constitutional Review Commission. This commission, which was conceived just before last year's October 15 constitutional referendum but has yet to be formed, is to be appointed by the Iraqi Parliament and given four months to recommend amendments to the constitution; those amendments will then have to be adopted by a simple parliamentary majority and approved by another referendum. This process was established because the current constitution has not been able to garner a consensus and is thus not viable. The document leaves Iraq with an extremely weak central authority. And it implicitly splits control over future oil and gas fields between a new Shiite superregion containing 80 percent of the country's oil and gas resources and a Kurdish region that, once it incorporates Kirkuk, will contain the other 20 percent.
If a constitutional compromise can be brokered, joint mediation might then address the other imperative concern, security, and with the various militias produce a plan, backed by extensive international financing, for the demobilization and disarmament of the various nonstate militias and the reintegration of their members into civilian economic life. Until the militias' control of territory and state structures (including the police) is substantially diminished, Iraq will lack a state with sufficient authority to hold the country together and restore some measure of order.
While intensified efforts at mediation proceed, the rebuilding of the Iraqi police and armed forces must go forward as well. It is true that the penetration of the police (and the Ministry of the Interior) by sectarian militias has been alarming and must be reversed; a new leadership and perhaps the embedding of U.S. forces in some police units could help. The rebuilding of the Iraqi army is one area in which the United States has achieved at least some incremental success. Such efforts must continue: Iraq simply cannot be held together much longer without a national army that can defend the new political order.
A truly international mediation process in Iraq would need to be carefully planned, designed, and coordinated. And there is relatively little time to do this. But there is no better option for achieving the political compromise necessary to stabilize Iraq and prevent it from descending into all-out civil war.
Larry Diamond, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.
Stephen Biddle has provided a very useful reminder that history teaches a variety of relevant lessons -- even if official Washington often has difficulty absorbing more than one at a time. In 2003, the Bush administration based its plans for the reconstruction of Iraq on the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan. Its critics have increasingly compared the results to Vietnam. Biddle suggests that the better analogy may be post-Cold War Yugoslavia.
Biddle's choice is apt in many respects. The Bush administration invoked Germany and Japan as models for Iraq's transformation because the occupations of those countries were highly successful and because those successes had nothing to do with Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, or, for that matter, Richard Nixon. But if the administration's choice was politically safe, it was not otherwise very instructive. In 1945, when the United States occupied Germany and Japan, those countries were both highly homogenous societies with first World economies. And they had both surrendered following devastating defeats after years of brutal warfare.
None of these conditions existed in Yugoslavia in the 1990s or in Iraq a decade later. Both these countries had been created in the early twentieth century from the remnants of other empires (the Austrian and the Ottoman) and were established within borders that included disparate ethnic and religious groups that would have preferred not to live in the same state. Neither Yugoslavia nor Iraq ever developed a first World economy, nor had either surrendered.
Had the Bush administration used Bosnia or Kosovo as the model for Iraq, it would have realized that the stabilization and reconstruction of that country was going to require a lot more time, money, and manpower than it had planned. It would have anticipated the security vacuum that was likely to emerge immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. It would have arrived with plans for the orderly disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration into society of sectarian militias and Republican Guard troops, and with blueprints for expanding the police and reforming the army. It would have moved quickly in the aftermath of the invasion -- at a time when U.S. prestige was high, when no significant resistance had emerged, and when the world still assumed that weapons of mass destruction would be found -- to expand international participation in the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq.
But it did none of these things. Instead, a faulty historical analogy led to faulty policy choices. When Baghdad fell, the Bush administration initially seemed to view Iraq as a prize won rather than as a burden acquired. It banned French, German, and Russian companies from reconstruction contracts. President George W. Bush rebuffed Prime Minister Tony Blair's efforts to give the United Nations a central role in the mission. The United States chose to designate itself an occupying power, basing its continued military presence on the laws of armed conflict rather than the UN Charter. All these positions were eventually reversed. But by then, an armed resistance movement had emerged, and with it disappeared any opportunity to draw the rest of the international community into Iraq more deeply.
As the possibility of Balkan-style peace enforcement in Iraq receded, that of Vietnam-style counterinsurgency advanced. Some critics of the administration have used the Vietnam analogy to argue for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. For others, it provides a model for how to redirect U.S. efforts. A number of experts (such as the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack) have drawn on the Vietnam experience to make the case for a step-by-step pacification campaign, in which coalition forces would concentrate on securing a gradually expanding swath of territory and on protecting the local population therein, giving it better government and thereby winning its cooperation in marginalizing violent extremists.
DOING MORE WITH LESS
In his article, Biddle argues against a campaign based on such a "hearts and minds" approach, insisting that Iraqis are not fighting for good government, but for a state dominated by their own group (Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd). However, like some of those employing the Vietnam analogy, Biddle identifies the Kurdish and Shiite militias as the greatest long-term threat to Iraqi unity and urges the United States to shift the weight of its operations in Iraq from hunting down insurgents in the Sunni heartland to establishing secure areas, initially in Baghdad and the Shiite south.
There is much to be said for the Vietnamese and Balkan models. Today, U.S. troops in Iraq are having to relearn valuable techniques honed in Vietnam but since forgotten. Ethnic tensions in Iraq are reminiscent of those that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia, and they could produce a similar result. The Shiite and Kurdish militias do present a growing threat, if not to U.S. forces, then certainly to the unity of Iraq. Some repositioning of U.S. and Iraqi troops to ensure greater control over Baghdad -- the country's center of gravity and home to 20 percent of its population, where the Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni communities are thoroughly intermixed -- may well be desirable.
It seems unlikely, however, that the United States at this late stage will deploy a force in Iraq large enough to successfully execute either Balkan-style peace enforcement or Vietnam-style pacification. The United States put 500,000 troops into South Vietnam, a country that in 1970 had a population that was little more than half the size of the population of Iraq today. Nato put over 100,000 troops into Bosnia and Kosovo, societies that in combination are around a fifth of the size of Iraq's. Coalition forces are currently not numerous enough even to suppress the Sunni insurgency; they are certainly insufficient to take on the much more powerful Shiite and Kurdish militias as well.
Biddle and those using the Vietnam analogy have made good abstract cases for a deeper, larger, and longer U.S. military role in Iraq. Unfortunately, the political basis for such a commitment is absent in both U.S. and Iraqi societies. U.S. economic assistance to Iraq has already largely dried up. And the U.S. military presence seems likely to diminish over the coming year. If the United States is to avert a wider civil war in Iraq, it must supplement the influence it derives from these two waning assets with a much more deft and active campaign of regional diplomacy.
Holding together ethnically divided societies is hardly a new or unfamiliar task. Similar efforts were required to end the war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and to install a successor to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Iraq is not a more divided society than was Bosnia or Afghanistan. Both of those states were in the midst of open, long-running civil wars when the United States stepped in. What makes Iraq different and a particularly difficult case is that for the first time the United States has tried to put a society back together without securing the cooperation, however grudging, of the principal neighbors of the state in question.
In contrast to the administration's earlier approach in Afghanistan, its approach in Iraq -- especially the way Washington has characterized its objectives there -- has precluded any sort of regional cooperation. The United States did not invade Afghanistan in order to remake that country as a model for Central Asia, nor did Washington announce an intention to subsequently promote the democratization of all of the states neighboring Afghanistan. Had the United States committed itself to such a program, it would never have secured the support of Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan for the war, nor would it have had their help in shaping the subsequent peace.
The United States, however, did invade Iraq with the intention of making that state a model for the Middle East, promising that success in Iraq would be followed by efforts to transform the political systems of Iraq's neighbors. This was not a vision any of those regimes was likely to embrace. Nor have they.
When states disintegrate, the competing claimants to power inevitably turn to external sponsors for support. Faced with the prospect of a neighboring state's failure, the governments of adjoining states inevitably develop local clientele in the failing state and back rival aspirants to power. Much as one may regret and deplore such activity, neighbors can be neither safely ignored nor effectively barred from exercising their considerable influence. It has always proved wise, therefore, to find ways to engage them constructively.
Washington's vocal commitment to regional democratization and its concomitant challenge to the legitimacy of neighboring regimes work at cross-purposes to its effort to form, consolidate, and support a government of national unity in Iraq. Iraqi political leaders will work together only if and when they receive convergent signals from their various external sponsors. The administration's drive for democratization in the region, therefore, should be subordinated (at least for the next several years) to its efforts to avert civil war in Iraq. Unless Washington can craft a vision of Iraq and of its neighborhood that all the governments of the region can buy into, it will have no chance of securing those governments' help in holding that country together. The central objective of U.S. diplomacy, therefore, should shift from the transformation of Iraq to its stabilization, with an emphasis on power sharing, sovereignty, and regional cooperation, all concepts that Iraq's neighbors can reasonably be asked to endorse.
Neither the American nor the Iraqi people are likely to support a larger, longer U.S. military role in Iraq. Neither the Balkan model of peace enforcement nor the Vietnamese model of pacification is open to the United States. Insofar as a future U.S. military role in Iraq is concerned, the more apt analogy would be the counterinsurgency campaigns of Central America in the 1980s, where U.S. military involvement was largely limited to advice and training. In Iraq, however, this reduced military engagement will have to be paired with a much more active U.S. campaign of regional diplomacy if the slide toward wider civil war is to be averted.
James Dobbins directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and is the lead author of The RAND History of Nation-Building.
Three different civil wars are now raging in Iraq: the first between U.S.-led coalition forces and antigovernment insurgents, the second between the Kurds and other communities in northern Iraq, and the third between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs in the center of the country. The last is the most important because it represents the greatest potential for humanitarian disaster as well as for long-term instability in Iraq and in the region.
Stephen Biddle offers the right diagnosis of the situation but the wrong prescription for treating it. The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is, as Biddle argues, a communal civil war, not a war based on class or ideology, and the U.S. military's efforts to learn, or relearn, best practices for fighting a counterinsurgency from the Vietnam War are thus beside the point. But his proposal for communal power sharing -- which has been the Bush administration's policy since January 2006 and has become conventional wisdom -- is impractical. Power sharing rarely works well, and in Iraq its prospects are especially bleak: the Shiites are too strong to want or need to share power, there is too little trust between communal elites, and no institution in Iraq is capable of guaranteeing anything to anyone. Worse, the level of violence has passed the threshold where the communities can safely live together. At an earlier stage, this conflict might have been resolvable by compromise. But at this point, that no longer is possible.
Today, all members of both the Sunni and the Shiite communities face real security threats. The violence has escalated dramatically since the bombing of the Askariya shrine, in Samarra, on February 22, 2006, but it had been intensifying for several years. Sunni insurgents have been killing Shiite civilians since 2003, and since Shiite parties won control of the Iraqi government in early 2005, the Shiite-dominated police forces have often operated as death squads. As of late April 2006, the U.S. press alone had recorded 3,500 deaths over the previous two months, and the total number of actual deaths was probably higher. During that period, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent, more than 89,000 Iraqis became refugees. This estimate is likely low too, as it implies a ratio of deaths to refugees of about 1 to 20, and in ethnic-cleansing campaigns such ratios typically run closer to 1 to 100.
Today, no Iraqi Sunni is safe anywhere within the reach of Shiite militias or Shiite-controlled police forces, and no Shiite whom Sunni suicide bombers or assassination squads can get to is safe either. The danger is greatest and the violence worst where the two communities cohabit, as in Baghdad and in parts of the four surrounding provinces -- Anbar, Babil, Diyala, and Salahuddin.
And the situation will get worse, because communal atrocities have hardened sectarian affiliations. Before 2003, virtually all Iraqi Arabs identified themselves as Arabs, in opposition to Kurds and others. Since then, national and ethnic identities have not vanished, but they have been overshadowed by more specific, sectarian identities. Some 92 percent of the votes in the December 2005 elections were cast for sectarian parties, and both communities now use increasingly extreme language, each describing the other in sweeping generalities.
Biddle recommends that Washington suspend its efforts to strengthen the Iraqi state until it can broker a grand bargain among all the communities, coercing them to compromise by threatening to manipulate their relative military power. In practice, such a policy would mean trying to force the United Iraqi Alliance (uia), the main bloc of Shiite religious parties, to surrender the victory it won in last December's elections. The idea would be to threaten to remove U.S. support for the Iraqi police and army if the forces remained split along sectarian lines and refused to reorganize based on loyalty to Iraq. The United States' trump card would be the threat to leave Iraq altogether. (Except for the last point, this essentially is current U.S. policy.)
This strategy is likely to fail. Attempts to compel power sharing among sectarian groups in Iraq will not stop the fighting and could even accelerate it. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has stepped down, but the uia has not split. Despite serious internal rivalries, Shiite leaders have redoubled their commitment to make key decisions among themselves before negotiating with the U.S. government or anyone else. In April, the uia chose Nouri al-Maliki to replace Jaafari. The main Kurdish and Sunni parties promptly accepted the nomination even though Maliki, whom they see as inflexible and excessively sectarian, was their least favorite candidate (their endorsement may reflect the fact that they have little leverage). Shiite leaders will retain control of the all-important Interior Ministry. In early May, it was still unclear whether the Defense Ministry would remain under uia authority or if its control would go to a technocrat not affiliated with the alliance.
A governing coalition has yet to be formed. But it might come to resemble the Kurdish-Shiite accord that underpinned the last government: Baghdad turned a blind eye toward Kurdish activities in the north in return for Kurdish acquiescence on anything the central government did elsewhere. A few Sunni ministers might be appointed, but the Shiites do not want -- nor do they need -- to offer significant concessions. Even if an all-party unity government could be formed, it would not be able to function; the parties' demands cannot be reconciled, and their mutual distrust is far too great.
Trying to create a genuinely Iraqi security force will not work either, because there is no powerful, legitimate political movement loyal to "Iraq," in or out of government. Nor could most members of the security forces be persuaded to identify with such a force if it did exist. Some Iraqi army units, under tight U.S. control, have been deterred from using violence for purely sectarian goals, but others are openly loyal to Kurdish or Shiite leaders. Reforming the police is a lost cause; any U.S. remark about the force's performance is met with heated retorts from Shiite leaders. In March, uia spokespeople demanded that U.S. forces stand aside from further involvement in internal security. Most Shiite leaders do not desire an immediate U.S. departure, but only because they hope to collect more U.S. aid before the civil war escalates further. An additional barrier to coercing Shiite leaders is the fact that Shiite militias are already receiving aid from Tehran on a moderate scale.
Any serious attempt to compel the Iraqis to share power would result in either a quick, ignominious reduction in U.S. troops or an actual U.S. withdrawal followed by a massive escalation of hostilities. Control over every mixed settlement and neighborhood in the country would be up for grabs, which would increase incentives for ethnic cleansing throughout the country. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government might also find itself forced deeper into a clientelistic relationship with Iran.
In any case, it is beyond the power of any Iraqi government to stop the violence between the communities if they are not separated first. Although the main Shiite militias are controlled by factions within the uia, they do not answer to it or to one another. The most active death squads seem to be those of the Badr Brigades, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which controls the Interior Ministry. Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has also killed many people.
As a result, Iraq is breaking up into communal cantons. As they become unsafe, mixed towns and urban neighborhoods are becoming segregated. No one knows how far this process has gone already; some reports suggest that many towns have already become monoethnic. Shiite and Sunni militias have been inundated by new volunteers, and new independent neighborhood militias are forming, too. Free movement between Sunni and Shiite areas will be increasingly curtailed by checkpoints manned by militias, if not by government forces, as is already happening within and around Baghdad.
Iraq will eventually develop internal communal borders with a few heavily guarded crossing points. Since the ethnic makeup of Baghdad is far too complex for the city to be divided into just two parts, some of its neighborhoods will become isolated enclaves surrounded by barbed wire. This ugly solution has worked before: in Jerusalem, Mount Scopus was a Jewish island from 1948 to 1967. Any such partition of Iraq would likely be de facto, because many Shiite leaders still hope that a unified country can emerge, and no regime in the Middle East would tolerate formal independence for the Kurds.
In the meantime, the United States will remain the strongest military force in Iraq. As such, it will have one remaining duty: the moral obligation to minimize the damage, human and otherwise, caused by ethnic cleansing. This is also a U.S. national security interest: the U.S. government is -- and will continue to be -- blamed by most of the world for all of the harm that befalls the people of Iraq. The shorter that bill of indictment, the better.
Satisfying this obligation would mean using U.S. military strength to protect Iraqi refugees who wish to relocate. U.S. forces must defend the most vulnerable mixed towns and urban neighborhoods from both Sunni and Shiite attackers for long enough to organize transport for those who want to move to safer locations. Otherwise, who controls Baghdad and dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of towns in central Iraq will be determined by full-scale sectarian battles that could go on for months or even years.
Which settlements need to be defended and which communities need to be evacuated are questions that would largely determine the location of the de facto line that would separate Sunni and Shiite communities. Protection and relocation would have to be coordinated with the strongest forces in Iraq, the main Shiite factions. These groups would not be enthusiastic: two of the main uia factions -- the Dawa Party and the Sadrists -- still want a unitary Iraq. But sober Shiite leaders would also realize that such a policy would save many Shiite lives and bring the Shiite-dominated government greater control over more settlements than it could manage otherwise.
Little active cooperation would be required; all that would be needed is enough forbearance on the part of the Shiite militias to let temporary defensive garrisons and evacuation convoys complete their tasks without having to fight. Washington would have to explain its intentions clearly and establish firm limits to its mission both in aim and in time. The tolerance of the Sunni militias would also be needed in areas under their control. But if U.S. forces were scheduled to depart shortly -- leaving the affected settlements in Sunni hands -- the Sunni militias would have little reason to oppose the evacuation of those Shiites who wished to go. So far, few groups have displayed such bloody-mindedness as to suggest that they would take the risk of attacking U.S. forces solely to murder refugees in flight. (Afterward, the number of minorities living on the wrong side of the separation line would be small, which would limit incentives for "rescue" offensives.)
In the longer run, it will be important to ensure that the Shiites remain the stronger side militarily, as any change in the balance of power could encourage Sunni factions to challenge them again. The outcome of a civil war tends to be more stable when the party that is most satisfied is also the stronger one.
Some might say that this policy will legitimate ethnic cleansing. But they would have to face squarely the costs of not protecting refugees; to the extent that the policy did succeed, Iraqis would experience less suffering than if it failed or was never attempted. Others will object that the current U.S. administration is unlikely to adopt these measures. Perhaps, but saving at least some lives would require getting only a few brigade commanders in a few places to think seriously about refugee protection.
Such protection would not mollify the Iraqi Sunnis, who would still be out of power, or angry Sunni Arab governments. But no policy can prevent such discontent. It is also inevitable that whatever rump Sunni statelet remains will continue to be poor, disorderly, and unable to prevent terrorists from operating on its soil. Three years of counterinsurgency in Iraq has stimulated more terrorism than it has suppressed. But if Iraq's sectarian wars were ended, ordinary Iraqi Sunnis might come to realize that the greatest threat to their well-being is not Iraqi Shiites or U.S. troops, but foreign jihadists in their midst. Then, perhaps, they would begin to work at restoring order in their country.
Chaim Kaufmann is Associate Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University.
The United States' way forward and out of Iraq now comes down to a fatal choice between President George W. Bush's policy of simply staying the course even as security in Iraq slowly deteriorates and his critics' policy of quickly withdrawing U.S. forces even with civil war looming. The Bush approach looks like an attempt on Bush's part simply to avoid defeat and pass the tar baby on to his successor, Democrat or Republican. The alternative looks like a way to have the United States escape from a quagmire, whatever the consequences. Either way, Americans and Iraqis lose.
There is a third way: for the United States to stop its futile resistance to the inevitable sectarian tides now rolling over Iraq and help the Iraqis channel these forces into a viable political settlement -- uniting Iraq by decentralizing it. This deal would be driven into place by bringing the Sunnis in with an offer presenting them with prospects far better than any of their present ones and by promising U.S. troop withdrawals and redeployments before 2009, all backed up with regional diplomacy.
There are three parts to the Bush strategy in Iraq. First, the United States is putting its top priority on creating a government of national unity, with the expectation that doing so will help solve other political problems. But Iraq has had national unity governments for the past three years, the latest one inclusive enough to count seven Sunni ministers holding positions as important as the deputy prime ministership and the ministry of defense, and they have accomplished little on critical issues such as maintaining security and reducing corruption. It would be foolhardy to predict that the next such government will do much better. Second, Washington is planning to withdraw U.S. troops as Iraqis are trained to take over -- to "stand down as they stand up." But this policy gives Iraqis little incentive to fight their own battles. Third, and most devastating, although Bush persistently proclaims that he is still pursuing victory, his actions suggest that he is, instead, merely trying to avoid defeat.
According to a New York Times article in April, despite small signs of progress, a team of U.S. diplomats and military officers in Iraq described the situation early this year as serious or critical in more than a third of Iraq's provinces. Their report also found that sectarian militias still dominated Iraq's security forces and that rampant ethnic cleansing was taking place throughout the country -- all of which adds up to the start of de facto partition. Yet the Bush administration has decided to end further U.S. economic reconstruction aid after this year, even though the insurgents, as everyone knows, cannot be defeated without rebuilding Iraq. It also has slashed funds to develop democracy in Iraq. Finally, it has largely pulled U.S. troops off the streets of big cities, leaving the insurgents with greater control.
The result of this deteriorating situation and of Bush's pulling back on key programs will be a draining stalemate. Although the insurgency will grow, the insurgents will never prevail as long as U.S. troops remain in sufficient force, with, say, 30,000 troops. Any insurgent effort to hold large chunks of territory would fail against the United States' dominant firepower. Thus Bush will be able to avoid defeat in Iraq until he hands the problem over to the next president, in 2009. In the meantime, Iraq and the United States will stagger tragically through the next three years -- unless a totally frustrated Congress, supported by an increasingly disillusioned American public, decides that it has had enough of the quagmire and mandates an immediate withdrawal. But a quick U.S. exit from Iraq, however explainable by frustration, would only weaken U.S. national security and the war against terrorism.
AN HONORABLE OPTION
It may be that the situation has reached the point where no strategy, no matter how clever on paper, can work. But to believe there is no choice save to follow Bush deeper into the quagmire would bespeak moral and strategic bankruptcy. There is, in fact, a way to keep Iraq whole and make it politically stable: rather than continue to tear the country apart with futile efforts at centralization, decentralize it. This strategy flows legally from Iraq's existing constitution and is consistent with both U.S. military thinking about orderly troop withdrawal and the desire of U.S. diplomats for a more active regional diplomacy. The United States, along with its friends and allies, can and should lead the Iraqis in this direction. Vital U.S. interests are involved as well as Iraqi ones. But the final decision must be the Iraqis', and Washington should not impose it on them. Helping decentralize Iraq is also more honorable and realistic than either hanging in there or getting out.
This policy has five elements. The first is to establish, consistent with the current constitution, three strong regions with a limited but effective central government in a federally united Iraq. Doing so would build the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq around Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shiite Arab regions, each largely responsible for its own legislation and administration. Each region's government could pass laws superseding those passed by the central government, as stated in the present constitution, except in areas of the central government's exclusive jurisdiction. The central government would have the deciding responsibility for foreign affairs, border defense, oil and gas production and revenues, and other countrywide matters, as agreed to by the regions. Its writ would be limited and restricted to areas of clear common interests, which would allow Baghdad to meet its responsibilities effectively. The oil provision, in particular, would strengthen the central government beyond its present powers. The underlying principle behind this policy would be to hold Iraq together by allowing each group to satisfy its real ethnic and religious aspirations.
Keeping Iraq united in this manner would be in the interest of all parties. Key oil pipelines run through the country, north to south, and Baghdad remains the only possible business hub for the country. Most Iraqis also share a powerful interest in seeing that their regions and their country do not get picked apart by greedy neighbors. Divided, Iraq would be an irresistible target for outside meddling; united, the country would stand a chance of survival. More and more leaders -- among the Kurds, the Shiites, and, increasingly, the Sunnis as well -- are favoring negotiated regionalism and moving toward a federal system over civil war. (The existing constitution provides for federalism by allowing provinces to unite with each other and form a regional government.) Nonetheless, Washington would have to play a pivotal role in helping the Iraqis secure this agreement.
Big cities with highly mixed sectarian populations, such as Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul, pose a huge problem now and would continue to do so under a federal solution -- or any other solution. To fix this, the Iraqis will have to make special security arrangements, such as ensuring that the police forces in these cities are composed of members from all the sectarian groups and backed by international police. The factor that will most determine the fate of these cities, however, will be whether the sectarian groups find the overall political settlement fair and viable. And as painful as it may be, the United States will have to assist those Iraqis who wish to relocate to safer terrain, temporarily or permanently. It is essential to realize that this proposal will not cause ethnic cleansing or the country's breakup. These terrible things are already happening. Regionalism may be the only option left to stop them.
The second element of this policy is to bring the Sunnis on board with regionalism with an offer they cannot reasonably refuse. The carrot will have to be very sweet, namely, control of their own region in the center of the country and a constitutionally guaranteed share of oil revenues. Until recently, most Sunni leaders flatly opposed controlling their own region because they fully expected to be running the whole country again. They still saw themselves as masters of their universe and wanted Iraq to remain intact and ready for them to reassume the power they held for hundreds of years. And they pressed for the strongest possible central government.
Now, however, growing numbers of Sunnis are recalculating. Many see that a centralized structure would leave the Sunnis as a permanent minority in a government run by Shiites and Kurds. And whereas the Sunnis used to be convinced that they were invincible in battle, they now understand that they would be the principal victims of a civil war. Today it is obvious, except to Sunni fanatics, that the Kurds have the best militia in the country and that the Shiites are willing and able to fight. And so the prospect of running their own affairs in a Sunni region now looks more appealing to Sunni leaders.
The Sunnis' remaining nightmare is about money, but this could be taken care of with a second carrot: oil revenues. The present constitution calls for distributing "oil and gas revenues in a fair manner in proportion to population." But it does not define "fair" or provide population percentages. It refers to "extracted" oil, suggesting that the rule applies only to current revenues, not to future revenues, which are expected to be much greater, thanks to increased production. The current constitution also disadvantages the Sunnis by giving the final say on oil revenues to the governments in the regions that have the oil, leaving the Sunnis out in the cold, since almost all of Iraq's oil and gas resources sit either in the Kurdish north (about 20 percent) or in the Shiite south (about 80 percent).
The cure is to satisfy all but the greediest Sunnis by amending the constitution to make oil and gas production and revenues the sole province of the central government and to determine that both present and future revenues will be distributed according to population percentages. Such an arrangement would be far better for the Sunnis than the current deal and infinitely preferable to what they would receive -- namely, nothing -- if the country split into three separate states. It should be sufficient to co-opt most Sunni leaders into subscribing to the federal approach and provide them with considerable incentives to try to curb the insurgency in the Sunni region. The Sunnis would gain far less from being granted a larger role in the central government, the plan the Bush administration is currently advocating.
The third element of this third way would be protecting the rights of minorities and women by linking U.S. aid to regional governments to their respect for the politically and culturally vulnerable people in their regions. For women, especially in Shiite territory, and for Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites living in a region other than their ethnic group's own, there will be problems. Washington will not be able to solve these problems, but it must be tough and clear about trying to ameliorate them.
Fourth, the U.S. military should prepare a plan for the orderly and safe withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. forces, to be carried out before the end of 2008. It should also provide for a residual force that would deter and fight any large-scale military disruptions by insurgents or others and continue training Iraqis for the Iraqi military and police forces. Such a measure would recognize the fact that U.S. troops are both part of the solution and part of the problem. They must stay in Iraq -- although in declining numbers -- to take care of the security problem, and they must leave steadily in order to effectively motivate Iraqis to take over security matters.
Finally, Iraq's territorial integrity should be reinforced through a regional nonaggression pact, which must be achieved through active international diplomacy. As a first step, a regional security conference should be convened, where Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, should be encouraged to pledge respect for Iraq's borders and its federal system and to establish procedures to implement a nonaggression plan. Iraq's neighbors have strong incentives to try to make such a deal work. For Turkey, it would be the best way to avoid Kurdistan's becoming a separate state and a rallying point for separatist Kurds in Turkey. States with majority Sunni populations, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, would find consolation in the fact that Iraqi Shiites and Iran would not be controlling all of Iraq. For Iran, stability in Iraq would help it avoid new and unsettling confrontations with other countries. All parties would also share a strong interest in preventing Iraq's meltdown into a civil war, which could draw them into a wider conflict.
The United Nations, particularly the five permanent members of the Security Council plus the European Union, should precede the conference with appropriate diplomacy and help promote some kind of regional mechanism to ensure that the proposed nonaggression deal, once in place, is respected.
Of course, all parties would bring cynicism to such a diplomatic enterprise. But a similar mechanism has worked for Bosnia and is worth trying in regard to Iraq. It is a long shot, but a necessary venture nonetheless.
A BETTER DESTINY
All wars are messy, and all plans for ending them are flawed. But the messy war in Iraq could metastasize into an out-of-control civil war and a regional conflict. The Bush strategy does almost nothing to reduce these terrible risks and only threatens to drag the United States deeper into the Iraq quagmire. As the flaws in this strategy become ever more evident, it is increasingly possible that the American people will sweep aside Bush's strategy in favor of ill-considered demands for an immediate and total pullout. Even optimists about Iraq would be remiss not to confront these looming dangers. Americans and Iraqis must look at other choices.
Uniting Iraq by decentralizing it is not likely to make most Iraqis happy, but it is a plan that gives each group most of what it considers essential: re-blessed autonomy for the Kurds, some degree of autonomy and money for the Sunnis, and for the Shiites, the historic freedom to rule themselves and enjoy their future riches. For all of these parties, it is perhaps the last chance to escape civil war.
This plan provides reasonable time for Iraqis to tend to their own security, and its incentives are tangible. It is carefully paced to salvage the honor of those Americans who served and sacrificed themselves in Iraq. And it allows the U.S government both to depart honorably and to leave Iraq to the Iraqis for their own disposition -- as it should be.
Leslie H. Gelb is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
It is a privilege to respond to such an august panel, especially when we agree on so much. Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Chaim Kaufmann, Leslie Gelb, and I all agree that current U.S. strategy in Iraq is unlikely to succeed. Diamond, Dobbins, Kaufmann, and I further agree that Iraq is already embroiled in a civil war, albeit one waged at low intensity for now, and Kaufmann and I agree that "Iraqization" is likely to make things worse.
Perhaps most important, we all agree that if the United States is ever to succeed in Iraq, Washington must help Iraq's communities reach a compromise on a viable constitution that distributes power among them. Kaufmann thinks this goal is impossible to achieve, meaning failure is inevitable. The rest of us believe the United States' current leverage for obtaining such a compromise is limited but propose ways to increase it.
I have argued that the United States' most powerful source of unexploited leverage is military: a U.S. threat to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, realign U.S. support for the parties to the conflict, or reinforce any one of them may be necessary to motivate compromise. Diamond, Dobbins, and Gelb propose a variety of other ways for the United States to increase its leverage. Diamond suggests turning to international mediators, Dobbins seeks regional collaboration among Iraq's neighbors, and Gelb advocates U.S. support for a decentralized Iraqi government and both security and financial guarantees for Iraq's Sunnis. These options are not mutually exclusive, and each merits careful consideration.
But each one also has important drawbacks. International mediation, for example, could be hard to obtain. Intervention by the European Union would certainly be very unpopular with the European public, which overwhelmingly opposes the war. Many Iraqis resent the United Nations for having imposed harsh sanctions on Iraq for a decade. Nor is it clear that either the eu or the un could offer anything to the parties that would outweigh the grave dangers that Iraqis associate with intercommunal compromise.
As Dobbins notes, for regional diplomacy to be effective, the United States must retreat from its initial aim of turning Iraq into a democracy in the near term, because pursuing this goal threatens the political stability of Iraq's neighbors and makes them unwilling to assist. As I argued in my original essay, deferring this project may be necessary anyway. But it would be a bitter pill to swallow for a president who repeatedly cites democratization as the United States' chief interest in Iraq. And it would sacrifice important U.S. interests, at least temporarily. Moreover, regional concord could be difficult to achieve. Iraq's neighbors are as divided over sect and ethnicity as is Iraq itself, and so satisfying their conflicting desiderata could prove far from easy.
Decentralization, which Gelb advocates, would amount to a form of partition. Various partition proposals have been floated since 2003, ranging from a hard division of the country into three separate ministates (one for Shiites in the south, another for Kurds in the north, and a third for Sunnis in the center-west) to variations on federal systems, with a weak central government and more or less autonomous regions. The problem with hard partition is that the Sunnis will not accept it: as an independent state, the Sunni heartland would not be economically viable. The Sunnis would rather fight than accept such impoverishment; hard partition would therefore not end the war. But a softer form of federalism might well offer a basis for constitutional compromise. The problem is not a shortage of ideas on how to divide oil revenues or protect the rights of different regions; it is getting the Iraqis to agree on one of them. Anything they accept would surely satisfy U.S. interests. But to date they have been unwilling to make the needed compromises. Breaking the parties' intransigence will require not so much a new proposal for softer or harder partition, but a new source of leverage over the parties.
Of course, military leverage, too, has many shortcomings. As I noted in my article, to use its military leverage effectively, the United States might need to keep its forces in Iraq for longer than the troops could endure or than U.S. voters would tolerate; a realignment of U.S. positions would be hard to sell domestically; and both Sunni political development and clear-eyed rationality on all sides would be needed before a successful compromise could be reached (and yet these are two elements that may be unavailable given the emotions the war has triggered and Iraq's cultural complexity). Because there are no easy options for Iraq -- all proposals have important disadvantages, and none can guarantee success -- a combination of imperfect initiatives may be needed. And Washington must consider using in such a combination every major source of unexploited leverage at its disposal, including the threat that the United States will realign itself militarily.
Is this threat likely to be credible or effective? Neither Diamond nor Kaufmann thinks so. Kaufmann thinks it is too similar to current U.S. policy to succeed; Diamond thinks it is too different to be credible. In fact, it is neither. A threat of military realignment would add a missing military dimension to the current U.S. policy of brokering a compromise by pressuring each side to negotiate. Realignment already is U.S. policy, but today that policy excludes military threats from the realignment tool kit. If anything, current U.S. military policy actively undermines Washington's bargaining leverage: it aims to build an indigenous Iraqi military as quickly as possible, regardless of the parties' behavior in negotiations, and then to withdraw U.S. forces whether the war is over or not. This policy promises to get U.S. troops home as soon as possible, but in the meantime it is undermining the prospects for settlement by discouraging the parties from compromising. The Shiites and the Kurds will be protected until they can fight their own war, whether they bargain or not, and the Sunnis will face a U.S.-armed opponent whether they bargain or not. So why should any of them compromise? Rather than pursue a military policy that undoes its diplomacy, the U.S. government should coordinate its military and political strategies by deliberately using contingent military threats to create bargaining leverage.
Skillfully conveyed, such threats could be powerful levers. So far, the United States has actively restrained Iraq's security forces, which are dominated by Shiites and Kurds, granting them only light weapons of limited firepower. If it were to remove such constraints and provide the security forces with liberal quantities of modern tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, body armor, night-vision equipment, armed helicopters, and fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft, the capacity of the Kurds and the Shiites to commit mass violence against the Sunnis would increase dramatically -- and very visibly. Threatening such a change could provide an important incentive for the Sunnis to compromise.
Conversely, a U.S. threat to cease backing the Shiites, coupled with a program to arm the Sunnis overtly or in a semi-clandestine way, would substantially reduce the Shiites' military prospects. Iran might provide more aid to the Shiites to compensate them for some of their loss, but the United States' military potential so far outstrips that of Iran that rational Shiites could hardly welcome the prospect of being abandoned by Washington and having to confront U.S.-armed Sunnis.
This threat could be made credible to the combatants. The Shiites are very attentive to signs that the United States might abandon them or realign itself against them. Many of them already charge that even Washington's limited tilt toward the Sunnis in the ongoing political negotiations amounts to a "second betrayal" (the first one being the United States' failure to support the Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991). An official U.S. threat of military realignment would be hard for the Shiites to ignore. On the other side, some Sunnis already view the United States as a potential protector against Shiite violence, as the fighting in Tal Afar last spring suggests.
Effective leverage need not take the form of clumsy ultimatums, which risk forcing the United States into corners, or the kind of blunt expositions that analysts like me put forward in the interest of clarity. Diplomats enjoy a rich palette of subtler signals with which they can indicate incremental movement in one direction without irrevocably committing to a maximum use of force.
Ideally, Washington would combine any threat with an inducement: the promise to keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long as would be necessary to protect the parties who cooperate. Does the U.S. government have enough political capital at home to accomplish this? Perhaps not. Recent polls of U.S. public opinion are not encouraging. On the other hand, public opinion is not independent of government policy, and voters might have a higher tolerance for casualties if they thought both that the stakes of U.S. involvement in Iraq were high and that Washington's policies there were feasible. The stakes certainly are high. But the American public currently lacks a reason to think that the Bush administration's policies can succeed.
Some analysts, however, believe that the war is already lost, whether or not the Bush administration can get the American people to rally behind it. Kaufmann, for example, argues that communal tensions in Iraq have already passed the point of no return. Calming the situation is now impossible regardless of U.S. policy, and so U.S. forces should withdraw, tarrying only long enough to escort Iraqi refugees to new homes.
He may be right. But he overstates his case by ignoring any contradictory evidence. Although Kaufmann sees no hope of intercommunal accommodation, both the Shiites and the Sunnis, when under sufficient pressure from the United States, have made important concessions to ethnic rivals over the past year. Last fall, the Shiites agreed to the Sunnis' demands for more permissive procedures for amending the constitution; in deference to the Sunnis and the Kurds, the Shiites withdrew Ibrahim al-Jaafari as a nominee for the prime ministership of the permanent government last April; and the Sunnis accepted Nouri al-Maliki, a staunch Shiite, for the prime minister's post even though they clearly preferred other candidates. These concessions were made grudgingly and slowly, and they required heavy U.S. pressure. Much heavier pressure would probably be needed to reach a lasting agreement about issues as important as the constitution. But is there really no chance for a compromise solution, as Kaufmann claims, even if the United States uses all the leverage it has?
Perhaps most important, the pattern of sectarian violence that followed the Samarra mosque bombing in February is inconsistent with Kaufmann's argument that communal tensions cannot be contained. Contrary to many dire predictions, the civilian death toll in Iraq did not spiral out of control in the aftermath of the bombing; on the contrary, it fell sharply. According to Iraq Body Count, a British antiwar group, during the week of the bombing, the violence did spike, causing some 270 Iraqi civilian deaths. But the number of casualties then dropped by 40 percent over the next seven weeks. In fact, the death toll declined every week between March 22 and April 18 (the last day for which data was available when this article was being prepared). If communal violence is spiraling out of control, then why is the number of fatalities decreasing? Is it not possible that the two sides have pulled back from the brink? The data provide no conclusive case either way, and the United States might indeed fail to calm the sectarian violence. But the evidence does not exclude the possibility that the United States might succeed if it somehow increased its leverage over the parties.
What, then, is to be done? Given all the uncertainties, how long should the United States keep trying in Iraq? The longer it persists, the more Americans will die. Yet withdrawal could produce near-genocidal sectarian violence, a regional war, the disruption of international oil supplies, and both a recruiting windfall and new basing possibilities for al Qaeda. If these outcomes are inevitable, then the United States should leave Iraq now. But if they are not, then sacrificing U.S. lives now could save many more later, and staying is an imperative.
How does one know if there remains a reasonable chance of success? There is no formula for determining so. But I would offer three guideposts. First, is the gap between the positions of the Iraqi factions on key constitutional issues narrowing or widening under U.S. pressure? Good-faith negotiating generally causes parties' divergences to narrow; backtracking or reneging on past offers is a dangerous omen. Second, are the Shiites unified? Conducting three-way negotiations among the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds is complex enough, but if the Shiite alliance splinters, then the bargaining will become impossibly challenging. Third, and perhaps most important, has the United States used all its leverage? If Washington has exhausted all resources for compelling a compromise, then it should go. If not, it should try harder.
By these standards, it is not yet time for the United States to leave Iraq. As of late April, when the Shiites withdrew Jaafari's nomination, the parties were still moving -- albeit slowly -- toward compromise. Worrisome signs of a split among the Shiites receded when Muqtada al-Sadr accepted Jaafari's withdrawal without bolting. And, as I have argued, and as Diamond, Dobbins, and Gelb have suggested in their own ways, the United States has not exhausted all options for increasing its leverage with the parties.
It is time for the United States to start maximizing its leverage. Flexing military muscle is not the only way of doing so, but it is probably a necessary one. At a minimum, the United States must change its policies regarding the Iraqi security forces, which are only making matters worse. The United States might need to try many different levers. But it must seriously consider invoking its military role as a tool for compelling the parties to reach a settlement rather than as a preface to its disengagement.