War Stories

What Can We Still Achieve in Iraq?

Reconciliation’s off the table, but there are other decent ways out.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. Click image to expand.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih 

One of the more disturbing articles, in a spate of almost nothing but disturbing articles, about Iraq lately is Joshua Partlow’s front-page dispatch in the Oct. 8 Washington Post, reporting the widespread view among Baghdad politicians that “reconciliation”—the prospect of a unified national government—is an illusory goal.

“Iraqi leaders argue that sectarian animosity is entrenched in the structure of their government,” Partlow writes. (Italics added.) He quotes Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih as saying, “I don’t think there is something called ‘reconciliation,’ and there will be no reconciliation. To me, it’s a very inaccurate term. This is a struggle about power.”

Two inferences can be drawn from this story, each dismaying, the two together more dismaying still.

First, the “surge,” at least as originally designed, seems hopeless. The idea of the surge, recall, was to provide enough security in Baghdad to give Iraq’s political leaders the “breathing space” to reconcile their differences. Yet if there simply is no way for the leaders to settle their disputes—if sectarian animosity is not merely rife but “entrenched in the structure of their government”—then the surge has no strategic purpose. (It may reduce civilian casualties, and that’s a notable accomplishment; but unless it makes Iraqis feel secure, and unless that facilitates political order, it’s like plugging a few leaks in a wall riddled with holes. It’s not a sustainable mission.)

However, the Post story also casts doubt on the proposition, advanced by many critics of the war, that if the United States merely sets a timetable for withdrawal, Iraq’s political leaders would realize that they had to get their act together. The Post story suggests there is no act.

This is the Democrats’ (and some Republicans’) dilemma. On the one hand, they don’t want to pull all the troops out now and watch Iraq very possibly collapse into a bloodbath. (Most Iraqis don’t want us to go home, either, at least not right now.) On the other hand, the present path seems to be a dead end.

So, what to do?

One approach is to go back to basics: What are America’s interests in Iraq? Which of these interests can realistically be achieved? How can we go about achieving them?

Here’s a list of feasible and worthwhile aims: 1) preventing al-Qaida in Mesopotamia from becoming a powerful political force; 2) maintaining stability in the one part of Iraq that is fairly stable; and 3) keeping sectarian conflicts from spreading outside Iraq’s borders and across the Middle East.

Take these aims, one by one:

1) To keep AQM diminished as a force, the United States should continue, and even step up, its alliances of convenience with Sunni and tribal forces in Anbar and other provinces. Yes, this strategy holds risks. We could be arming and strengthening militias that, after defeating AQM, might go back to attacking Shiite militias or U.S. troops, as they were doing before. Certainly there should be no illusion that the experience of fighting alongside American soldiers and Marines will turn the Sunni insurgents into our friends or allies—any more than the United States and the Soviet Union remained pals after joining together to beat Nazi Germany.

Still, the strategy is worth pursuing for two reasons. First, though AQM hardly created Iraq’s sectarian tensions, its main goal is to aggravate them and to sire general chaos. It is in no nation-state’s interest, least of all ours, for a country like Iraq to deteriorate into violent anarchy at the hands of Islamist fundamentalists. Second, when we do pull out of Iraq, it will be good—both on its own merits and for America’s image in the world—to have defeated or gravely diminished our one genuine, self-declared enemy in the conflict.

2) The one area of Iraq that shows signs of stability and long-term promise is the Kurdish area in the north. This area enjoyed a decade of peace after the 1991 Gulf War, thanks to a clause of the cease-fire that guaranteed U.S. air supremacy to keep Saddam Hussein’s military out. The Kurds are also the most Western-leaning ethnic group, and their security force, the peshmerga, is capable of self-defense.

It is worth the deployment of some U.S. troops to keep the Kurdish territories somewhat peaceful and secure. However, this means protecting the Kurds from themselves as well as from others. For instance, in exchange for U.S. protection, they should stop striking their own deals with foreign oil companies (which could only accelerate the dissolution of Iraq) and stop stirring trouble on the Turkish border (that could well incite a Turkish invasion, which not even the peshmerga could withstand).

3) Turkey is hardly the only border state that might feel compelled, out of self-defense or self-aggrandizement, to send its troops into an increasingly turbulent Iraq. If sectarian conflict escalates into all-out civil war, it’s easy to imagine Iran going in—far more overtly than at present—to defend the Shiites; or Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan going in to bolster the Sunnis; or some states, transnational movements, or armed bandits moving into the vacuum to grab what’s up for grabbing.

The United States alone cannot repair all the gashes within Iraq or maintain the various loosely stitched fixes. This would be true if the surge could be sustained for years on end; it is all the more true since the five extra brigades that constituted the surge are due to leave by this summer, and neither the U.S. Army nor the Marine Corps has any troops ready to replace them.

And, right now, the United States is pretty much alone. The “coalition of the willing,” long a paltry and motley crew, is on the verge of folding. Britain, its second-largest contingent, is pulling out half of its 5,000 troops. Most of the other 23 non-U.S. members contribute only a few hundred, in some cases a few dozen, personnel; many of them are forbidden to engage in combat; most of the others are incapable of doing so.

To keep the sectarian violence from spreading beyond Iraq’s borders, and possibly to keep it from doing too much harm within, the United States has no choice but to embark on a campaign of creative regional diplomacy involving all the states of the region.

I do not mean to attach lofty ambitions to a diplomatic track, at least for now. Conditions are not ripe for, nor does any outside force have the clout to impose, a regional peace or “grand bargain.” The purpose of this diplomacy, in the short run, would be simply to try to keep crises from erupting or escalating, to put a check on expansionist impulses.

There could be, for instance, a permanent “contact group,” so all the players have a forum for talking and meeting—a set of names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and so forth. (This can stimulate a lot of additional diplomatic activity if, until then, some of the countries have no relations at all.) This group could set up something like a “hot line,” a means for heads of state to talk the moment a crisis breaks out or seems on the verge of getting out of control. Such a forum would probably have to involve more than talk. Collective-defense arrangements would have to be worked out, to deter and contain aggression. What these arrangements might be can’t be outlined ahead of time; they would have to meet the approval of all participants, and so would grow out of the contact group. The United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, NATO, and who knows what all else, might, in some guise or another, be involved.

It’s unclear how much U.S. military presence this arrangement, or the pursuit of the other two interests, might require. But it’s not enough for Congress or a presidential candidate to say how many troops should stay in Iraq for how long. They also have to decide just what those troops will be doing.

Obviously, none of these steps will be taken until after the 2008 elections. But something like this will have to happen, unless the next president wants to perpetuate an infinite deadlock or precipitate even deeper disaster.