A Mehdi Army fighter loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gestures during military-style training in Najaf, June 19, 2014.
A Mehdi Army fighter loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gestures during military-style training in Najaf, June 19, 2014.
Alaa Al-Marjani / Courtesy Reuters

The news that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had taken control of Mosul on its way toward Baghdad caught Americans by surprise. 

It shouldn’t have. More than a third of all ethnic civil wars restart within five years. And about a third of all post-conflict power-sharing agreements fail within the same time frame. For example, in Angola, concessions to increase representation through multiparty elections led to a new bout of war in 1991. In Afghanistan, the losing side remobilized in 1992, 1996, and 2001. And in Sri Lanka, a 2002 ceasefire collapsed in 2006.

In other words, today’s reignition of the 2006–07 Iraqi civil war fits a well-established pattern. And that pattern has several implications for U.S. strategy in the region. 


Peace after an ethnic civil war is so tenuous because violence reifies ethnic identities and post­–civil war politics is inevitably cast along ethnic lines. This creates a dilemma. To cultivate peace, citizens must learn to identify with their nation more than their ethnic group. But leaders often stand in their way. Since officials do not trust that nationalism will fully replace parochialism, they are reluctant to give up the sectarian basis of their political power in favor of the unknown. And so they play to ethnic tensions to shore up their bases.

Iraq illustrates the dilemma. U.S. observers and officials increasingly demonize Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who they say is to blame for sectarian conflict. But he is a symptom more than a cause.

At first, Maliki enjoyed the support of some Sunni leaders who appreciated his decisive moves against Shia militias in early 2008. But their trust in him was never complete; they wanted to wait and see how he would treat the Sunnis who had fought al Qaeda in Iraq and had participated in local and national elections in 2009 and 2010. Needless to say, Sunnis were soon disappointed as Maliki personalized his rule, politicized the security services, and resorted to the old sectarian politics.

At the same time, though, to attribute all the blame to Maliki is to assume that sectarian conflict is due to a few bad leaders. Before Maliki, Sunnis had held power in Iraq since the British mandate. These authoritarian regimes had put down all forms of civil society, but as groups, the Shia and Kurdish populations suffered under the Sunni dominated hierarchy. From Maliki’s perspective, every Sunni leader thus constituted a threat to his rule; there was no reason to believe in their commitment to national institutions. The apparent Sunni acquiescence to ISIS’ latest push only confirmed Maliki’s fears. Although other Shia leaders would be glad to take his place, they would face the same political logic.

All this means that the plan U.S. President Barack Obama laid out last Thursday -- the United States will share intelligence with Iraq and help the country coordinate a plan to turn back ISIS in return for Maliki promising to share power with Sunni leaders -- won’t work. The sectarian dilemma will persist even if ISIS is defeated, and any feints at sharing power are likely to be short-lived.

It is up to Iraqi politicians to overcome the sectarian dilemma. But leaders’ loyalties can only gradually change from their sect to their nation. Politicians must follow the constitution and limit their power to create public expectations about the rule of law. Citizens might then vote on performance rather than sect, but that process can take decades and is hard to get started. 

Third-party interventions can help move things along by providing monitoring for both sides and helping keep spoilers at bay. Yet interventions’ very success often brings mounting pressure to restore full sovereignty to the nation. Third parties are asked to leave before new patterns of behavior are entrenched, which creates a power vacuum. That is certainly what happened in Iraq. The United States fought hard for five years to open a window for impartial state building. But the window started closing in 2008 when the United States committed to withdrawal by 2011.

In general, only impartial interventions -- the ones that provide assistance at a scale large enough to be effective and small enough to be tolerated by the national authorities -- can last long enough to succeed. And that also holds true in Iraq. At this point, another round of intense American involvement would be hard for Iraqis (and Americans) to stomach. But, at the same time, the current level of U.S. commitment to Iraq is perceived to be too low to keep Maliki -- and any successor -- from falling back on sectarianism. 


So what can the United States do? The country might still want to help Iraq defeat ISIS, since it deems that doing so is in its interests. But it should intervene in a way that improves the chances for longer-term stability. Rather than treat Iraq’s request for support as an opportunity to solicit non-credible political promises, for example, the United States would have to reengage. It would have to commit to doing much less than last time, precisely so that it can commit to doing it for much longer.

Doing less would mean promising not to return conventional U.S. troops to Iraqi territory. This is the primary red line for both the American and Iraqi publics. On the other hand, committing to staying involved for longer would allow for military and diplomatic strategies that offer Iraqi leaders incentives to establish bases of power that are not purely dependent on sect. Since the U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer administered the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003­–04, five governments have been formed around the hope that sectarian leaders could share power. They all failed. The United States needs to commit for as long as it takes for Iraqi leaders to make successful appeals to constituents outside their sect -- at least several more elections.

What might such a commitment entail? 

Militarily, Obama’s offer of intelligence assistance, advisors, and possible airstrikes would have to be considered the start of a real partnership in training, civil-military administration, and ongoing operations. A stronger military-to-military relationship would make it harder for a Shia prime minister to politicize the armed forces and, on the flip side, make the military a less threatening platform for a possible Sunni coup.

The fight with ISIS is a regional conflict that requires a regional solution. It took a Central America­­–wide peace effort to end El Salvador’s civil war and a similar collective approach to end Cambodia’s genocidal war. Ultimately, the same is needed in Iraq (and Syria), but “friends” who could shepherd a peace process are in short supply. Iran and some Arab states have waged a proxy war in Syria. To gain at least tacit consent for U.S. reengagement in Iraq, it will be necessary to appeal to their shared interest (along with Russia and Turkey) in denying ISIS a state. More optimistically, the ISIS crisis might provide a diplomatic opening to limit the flow of arms and funds across Syrian and Iraqi borders.

Within Iraq, convening Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni leaders was always a tiresome exercise of brinkmanship and crisis management for U.S. diplomats, made even harder by the ticking clock of the withdrawal. The United States should now play the long game and work toward non-sectarian nationalism. That means moving away from a focus on divvying up ministries and toward one on jobs and political participation for the Sunni lower and middle classes, including within the tribes outside of Baghdad.

At this point, the most important measure of success for any U.S. strategy in Iraq is whether it prevents a regional war. Iraq is the region’s lynchpin due to its geographical location and its relationships with other countries in the area. Accordingly, the United States should make Iraq the central pillar of a regional strategy based on the “lighter, longer” principles of no ground troops and no disengagement. Targeting extremists and shoring up the moderates will be difficult, but Iraq is not Syria, where the United States cannot even identify the interests of a fractured array of fighters. Americans fought to establish relationships in Iraq. Now it is time to take them further and help Iraqi leaders develop new constituencies that are not defined by sectarian identity. If the United States doesn’t play this limited but long-term role, the sectarian cycle will repeat and engulf the region.

The sectarian power-sharing strategy is not working, but even that is probably better than doing nothing. It at least gives the United States a foothold in Iraq to ensure that ISIS does not acquire its own state. But the strategy is shortsighted at best. In his 2009 “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, Obama said that “America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraqis forge a better future -- and to leave Iraq to the Iraqis.” This meant withdrawing ground troops while supporting Iraq as a military and economic partner. Obama has only lived up to part of his commitment to Iraq. It is not too late to live up to the other.

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  • KEVIN RUSSELL is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Yale University. He was an Iraq policy analyst for the Department of Defense from 2006–08 and State Department Governance Specialist in 2008–09. NICHOLAS SAMBANIS is Professor of Political Science at Yale University.
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