October 25, 2007
If the US is to win any meaningful kind of "victory" in Iraq, it cannot consist of simply defeating Al Qaida in Iraq and the worst elements of the Shi'ite militias. Such victories will ultimately be pointless, and a waste of American lives and capital, unless the end result is a stable and secure Iraqi state or mix of states that can survive on their own without years of instability, civil conflict, and outside interference.
The attached report examines these issues in detail, and provides suitable maps, grpahics, and data on Iraqi public opinion, sectarian and ethnic divisions within Iraq, and the impact of different forms of separation on Iraq's security, internal stability, external security, and prospects for economic development. It provides a major revision of a previous draft report on the prospects for federalism, separation, and partition in Iraq, and is virtually a new document.
This report has no simple bottom line. All of the real-world options present agonizing trade-offs and are almost certain to resulting some degree of added separation and displacement.
At the same time, the analysis indicates that the vast majority of Iraqis — other than Kurds — do not want a weak central government or any form of division of the country. It shows that violence is serious in the areas dominated by the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ite as well as in mixed areas, and that any form of federalism or partition that divided Iraq's economy, infrastructure, and petroleum sector would be almost impossible to achieve on anything close to an equitable basis or using Iraq's present governorates and divisions by sect and ethnicity.
As the current crisis between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey shows, the situation would be further complicated by the creation of a vulnerable weak state, or group of states, that would come under immediate pressure from Iraq's neighbors. The result would not be security and stability, but constant pressure from both the sectarian and ethnic factions within Iraq and from Iraq's neighbors as they competed for influence and to ensure their own security.
At the same time, no one can deny that Iraq is already dividing along sectarian and ethnic lines in many areas. This process, however, has been forced upon Iraq's population by its violent extremists rather than by popular will, and Iraq's Kurds are the only faction in Iraq that have shown a high level of popular support any formal effort at partitioning. Moreover, these divisions have already proved that the term “Soft Partitioning” has become a cruel oxymoron. Virtually every aspect of sectarian and ethnic struggle to date has been brutal, and come at a high economic cost to those affected. The reality is that partitioning must be described as “hard” by any practical political, economic, and humanitarian standard.
If such divisions continue and reach the level of partitioning or federalism that divides Iraq on sectarian and ethnic lines to the point that Arab Sunnis, Arab Shi'ites, Kurds, and minorities cannot function as a nation, the consequences are likely to be much grimmer. It is far from clear that such developments will lead to a large-scale blood bath — although this is possible. However, isolated cases of large-scale violence and local atrocities seem all too likely. Major new displacements of population are almost certain, and every step towards further division will come at great economic cost to those involved.
The divisions within Iraq, the lack of broad national political accommodation, and a weak and ineffective central government have already led to ongoing local and regional power struggles even within those areas dominated by one sect or ethnic group. The result of broader and more permanent division will be continuing insecurity and political instability that easily could play out over a decade or more. The resulting mix of tensions, conflicts, rivalries, and instability might well cripple much of Iraq's economic development. It also could lead to political or military intervention by Iraq's neighbors as they take sides, and some — like Iran — will seek to exploit Iraq's weakness and divisions.
As for the role the US should play in Iraq, nothing about the history of US intervention in Iraq to date indicates that the US has the competence to pressure Iraq to adopt a particular solution to dividing up the country or redistributing its population. If the US does attempt to intervene in federalism, it will confront major new security problems in every divided area and see Iraqi security forces polarize even further along sectarian and ethnic lines. Leaders and officials in the central government will question US motives and almost be forced to support given factions at the expense of any effort to build a nation or reach accommodation.
Any US effort to “plan” such divisions could well end in discrediting any such proposal simply because it came from the US while breeding new sources of Iraqi anger against the US from whatever elements in Iraqi society felt the US proposals were unfair — if not all elements simply because the proposals came from the US. The US might also hopelessly compromise its ability to act as a buffer between Iraq's sectarian and ethnic factions or to take humanitarian action to halt new outbreaks of open fighting between them.
There is, however, a good case for continuing the present US efforts to help Iraq's leaders find solutions that adjust to the grim realities that have emerged over last four years. Al Qa'ida in Iraq is less able to provoke civil conflicts, and the tribal awakening in Anbar and other areas has created a time window in which negotiation seems far more possible. The Iraqi government may be slow to act, but there also have been meetings between the leaders of Iraq's faction that indicate progress may be possible outside the formal structure of Iraq's parliament, and can occur at the local and regional levels and not simply at the level of the central government.
No one can guarantee that Iraq's leaders will reach some form of accommodation, and the odds may be against. The fact remains, however, that Iraqi public opinion does support the continued unity, and only political accommodation can create areas that empower Arab Shi'ites, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds without breaking up the country, that develop more legitimate local and provincial governments, and that ensure a proper sharing of the nation's oil wealth.
Iraq does not need help in dividing and in becoming less safe and less secure. It does need continuing help in moving towards accommodation. Unless the US helps the Iraqi government implement such an accommodation agreement — one that preserves the basic functions of a central government and ensures that any form of “federalism” comes largely through consensus — Iraqis will probably fail to achieve any workable solutions to their divisions that can actually be put into practice. Efforts to pay compensation and actually manage such separation in peaceful ways are almost certainly likely to fail in many cases because of sectarian and ethnic divisions over how to pay the money, the specific details of any given set of shifts, and the inability to create housing and jobs in ways that match population migration. Efforts to create military and police forces and a justice system that is not divided along sectarian and ethnic lines are almost certain to fail. Preserving and improving Iraq's infrastructure — petroleum, water, utilities and transport — will at best present massive challenges.
In contrast, there is a solid case for continuing US security efforts and aid if Iraq can move towards such political accommodation. The US military presence and ISF development effort may not be popular among Iraqis, but it is almost certainly doing more to reduce the cost of hard partitioning, and to make some form of gradual Iraqi political accommodation possible, than any US effort to encourage partitioning or federalism could possibly accomplish.