The American media continues to tout the reduced violence in Iraq without foreseeing the long-term potential for a resumption of severe ethno-sectarian violence and the absence of mechanisms – à la Sudan – to defuse it.
The lull in Iraqi mayhem was mainly achieved by the U.S. bribery of Iraqi Sunni tribes (the “Awakening”) to fight against their foreign-led Sunni brethren from al-Qaeda. The bribery worked because even Sunnis were shocked at the over-the-top brutality of al-Qaeda against civilians, including Sunnis; these ruthless foreigners were eventually perceived as being worse than even an American occupation. A similar outcome occurred in Malaya from 1948 to 1960, as majority Malayans hated the minority Chinese (perceived foreigners) more than the British occupation. It enabled Britain to tactically defeat the largely Chinese insurgency and adroitly exit Malaya.
Despite the likely ephemeral nature of the respite in Iraq, the United States should similarly withdraw its remaining 50,000 troops from Iraq and not be suckered by any Iraqi government requests to stay longer. The longer U.S. forces stay, the more likely they are to be engulfed in any renewal of ethno-sectarian violence.
Neighboring Iran wielded its now significant influence in Iraq to end the nine-month post-election stalemate, allowing the return of the fiercely anti-American critic Muqtada al-Sadr. The United States, even with its remaining troop presence, was eclipsed by Iran in ending the political gridlock. Al-Sadr’s triumphant return as a key pillar in support of Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government means the pressure for a full U.S. withdrawal will increase. Thus, a seemingly hidden goal of the George W. Bush administration for invading Iraq in the first place – gaining access to Iraqi military bases to safeguard Persian Gulf oil, replacing those in Saudi Arabia that were lost – would need to be abandoned. With al-Sadr back in the country and acting as a power broker in al-Maliki’s governing coalition, an Iraqi request for U.S. forces to stay past their end-of-2011 withdrawal date is less likely.
To the Obama administration, the liberal interventionist cousin to its neoconservative cowboy predecessor, this may seem like a stomach punch after all the United States has done for Iraq (harrumph!), but it is a blessing in disguise.
Unlike the U.S.-brokered peace settlement of Sudan’s bloody civil war – that had a built in referendum on whether to keep the country together, which has been exercised – in Iraq, the United States just assumed, like the British who artificially created the country, that disparate ethno-sectarian factions could be forced to live together for the sake of Western oil supplies. In Sudan, the U.S. has pressured the unfriendly Islamic Sudanese government in the North to allow Christian and oil-rich southern Sudan to vote on secession. After all, the United States would likely have greater access to the oil if Christians are selling it rather than Islamists.
Yet, in the long-term, Iraq has some of the same issues that originally caused Sudan’s massive civil war. Iraq has intense hatred among ethno-sectarian factions, most of which have qualms about being together in a united country and have potentially explosive disputes over oil and oil revenues. The Kurds clearly don’t want to be part of a unified Iraq and want to take oil-laden and Kurdish-inhabited territories from Sunni Arabs when they secede. Also, the Shi’ite government’s largely broken promise to reintegrate Sunni Awakening members into the Iraqi military and government could spur renewed Sunni-Shi’ite violence, especially if al-Qaeda in Iraq fuels the ample ethno-sectarian hatred between the groups with continued attacks. Like the oil-rich Kurdish regions in the North, the petroleum-laden Shi’ite areas of the South have made noises about at least autonomy from the Iraqi central government. Even the oil-deprived Sunni regions in the center of the country are leery of oppression by a strong Shi’ite-dominated central government. Absent a Sudanese-style referendum on devolution or secession, which has not even been contemplated, the artificial Iraq is likely to eventually succumb to more ethno-sectarian turmoil, probably ending in a bloody civil war.
even if the Iraqi government somehow manages, out of intense fear of
such a future, to muster up a request for U.S. forces to remain beyond
the end of the year, President Obama would be wise to keep his campaign
pledge and promptly get out (while the gettin’s good).