I’m still mildly skeptical that the U.S. government really will wind down the war in Iraq, but all the proper authorities say the process is about to get underway. Whether it does so or not, it is important to review the situation and try to extract usable lessons from the sorry experience. Much of the evidence to date is that conventional analysts have learned precisely the wrong lessons from the adventure in Iraq, which after a period of (relative) quiescence is showing signs of heating up again.
This is especially important, as it is still possible that the flawed approach in Iraq could be applied elsewhere in the world by a U.S. government that, despite the misadventure in Iraq and the financial meltdown at home and abroad, still seems to consider itself the indispensable nation, charged with fixing troubled and failed states hither and yon. Oh, wait. It’s not a prospective problem at all. Virtually the same strategy that is showing itself not to have been a permanent solution in Iraq is being applied in Afghanistan, a larger, topographically more troublesome, and ethno-religiously more complicated country.
So let the recriminations begin!
The preferred explanation among neocons and much of the foreign policy establishment is that while things went tragically wrong in Iraq for a while, largely because the Bush administration refused to see the signs of impending civil war that spoiled its clean narrative of unquestionable American success, the "surge" of U.S. troops tamped down the violence to an acceptable level and was the key to success. There is some truth to this, although whatever success resulted probably has more to do with Gen. Petraeus’ decision to deploy troops differently – in neighborhoods, working closely with Iraqi forces rather than on fortified U.S. bases, and making forays out to take on insurgents.
It is surely the case, however, that a more important factor was the phenomenon of the "Sunni Awakening," whereby Sunni insurgent forces became disillusioned with their erstwhile al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia allies and came over to the U.S. and Iraqi-government side – helped along by the decision of U.S. commanders to pay these former foes to switch sides. This change of heart, remember, began around November 2006, before the "surge" was a gleam in the Bushlet’s eye.
Although a few journalists have noted the ensuing violence, a certain complacency about Iraq seems to have set in. The subject of Iraq didn’t even come up – perhaps understandably given intense concern about the economic doldrums – during President Obama’s recent press conference. But recent events suggest that various tensions are merely bubbling beneath the surface and could erupt with a vengeance.
A fierce battle in Baghdad over the previous weekend may serve to symbolize increasing problems. Iraqi government troops backed by U.S. troops battled a contingent of Sunni Awakening militia members in the slum neighborhood of Fadhil. Most of the Awakening members eventually turned their weapons over to government troops, but an unknown number escaped with their weapons.
The Sunni Awakening Councils, we have noted, one may remember, were probably more important than the "surge" in U.S. troops in quelling violence over the last year or so. The U.S. ended up paying salaries for about 94,000 militiamen, who quickly suppressed al-Qaeda and other insurgent forces and took up policing duties in various Sunni neighborhoods.
But the Shia-dominated central government of Iraq never quite trusted these armed Sunni militias, although it promised to incorporate them into the national security forces. For the last couple of weeks Sunni tribal leaders had been complaining publicly that the government had hired only 5,000 of the 94,000 Awakening members. Then on March 28, the government arrested (and just released) a prominent Awakening leader (who probably was involved in criminal activity), which triggered the battle in Baghdad. More arrests have followed.
That battle was hardly the only example of increased violence. Well-planned bombings, including one on a market street that had just been reopened because authorities thought it was safe, have killed at least 123 Iraqis in the last several weeks. The northern city of Kirkuk is perpetually unsettled and violent. There have been several abductions of Awakening members and assassination attempts on Awakening leaders. There is evidence that Ba’ath Party members associated with the late Saddam Hussein are resurfacing. In the eastern city of Diyala (once known as the "City of Death"), 43 people were killed in March, compared to 29 in February and six in January.
It is perhaps unlikely that this troubling trend will lead to a renewed civil war, but it highlights the lack of political progress in Iraq. There is still no oil-revenue-sharing law – and oil revenues are declining as world oil prices have fallen. Most Sunnis still distrust the Shia-dominated central government, and the Shi’ites are mistrustful of armed bands of Sunnis. All factions are armed.
This situation does not bode well for building the kind of strong central government that seems to be the default position for the pack of leaders and bureaucrats laughingly known as the "international community." For most of Iraq’s history, including the period when it was ruled by the fading Ottoman Empire, before the British created "modern Iraq" by drawing lines arbitrarily on maps, the Sunnis ran the area around Baghdad. The regimes that followed British rule, culminating in Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, were Sunni-dominated.
However, in Iraq as presently constituted, Shia Muslims are a strong majority. With Western-facilitated "democracy," they now dominate the central government, such as it is, and many Shi’ites are inclined to use this power to exact revenge on the Sunnis for the decades (one could make a case for centuries) when the Sunnis brutalized and repressed them. The Sunnis are understandably wary of engaging too closely with a Shia-dominated central government. The violence of the last couple of weeks has been latent all along.
The only way the factional Iraqi state has been kept together traditionally is through an iron-fisted regime like Saddam’s. The closest I have seen to a potentially workable solution is contained in Ivan Eland’s new book, Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, which contains several suggestions for a weak central government responsible for foreign affairs and not much else and almost complete local autonomy for local regions in which Kurds, Turkmens, Sunnis, Shi’ites, and others are the predominant demographic groups.
I have gone back and forth over the years on the desirability of a partitioning plan for Iraq, and respectable arguments have been made against the idea – not that it is or should be up to Ivan Eland or me or any other American. If most Iraqis don’t buy into it (as they obviously haven’t bought into whatever vague plan is in place now), it’s not going to happen. As Ivan points out, however (beyond the fact that what is now Iraq has historically not been united), one of the sad consequences of the 2004-2008 violence that might have a silver lining has been a form of what might be called ethnic cleansing, as what used to be mixed neighborhoods of Sunnis and Shi’ites in Baghdad and other cities have generally come to be populated only by members of one religious faction or the other. As tragic as this might be in some ways, it makes partitioning potentially more workable. There are simply not many neighborhoods left where one group isn’t predominant, so local rule could be less vexing than it might have been with more mixed neighborhoods and cities.
Delaying the withdrawal of U.S. troops is no solution to these problems, although if the Iraqis choose partition it would be a good idea to get the process underway while U.S. withdrawal is occurring. The presence of U.S. troops has not been sufficient to quell ethno-religious tensions for more than a short period, and in some instances may have exacerbated them or allowed the Iraqis to delay serious efforts at political accommodation.
Eventually the Iraqis will have to come to terms with the deep divisions in their country and come up with their own solutions, whether de facto partition or some other scheme. U.S. withdrawal should proceed as quickly as logistically possible, but we should abandon the pretense that we "won" this war and be forewarned that the process of reaching an acceptable status quo is likely to be messy and bloody.
The larger lesson the U.S. should take – and one we just might be ready to absorb in financially straitened circumstances – is that trying to mold other countries to fit some Western-liberal version of an ideal democracy with a vibrant civil society is a fool’s errand. The U.S. has plenty of problems at home just now and plenty of disagreement over how to approach them. Maybe we should leave the rest of the world to its own devices – as long as it doesn’t pose direct threats to the continental U.S., which no country does at this point – for a while. Or maybe that should be our policy going forward, as it has eventually become for every overstretched empire.