Saturday, January 13, 2007

On the ground: de facto partition

In his weekly radio address, George Bush complained that “those who refuse to give this plan [for Iraq] a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success. To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible.”

So in the spirit of constructive criticism that Bush invites, here are some modest proposals for bringing relative stability to Iraq while extricating U.S. troops in the near future. Some of these ideas are not entirely new, but they at least reflect the situation on the ground, and the limitations it imposes, more than anything that has come out of the Administration.

The profound flaws of the Bush proposal have already been exposed in minute detail, both in the Congress and around the world. It’s founded in delusional thinking rather than any tenable view of reality. It assumes a level of military and political cooperation from the Iraqi government that would be unprecedented in this long conflict.

Last spring, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware proposed a formal partition in order to “maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group ... room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.” Biden also suggested that the U.S. could maintain a small “residual” force of about 20,000 to train Iraqis and deter internal and external threats.

Biden’s proposal attracted a substantial amount of criticism. For one thing, the federal model he proposed is already written into the Iraqi constitution, including a formula for allocating oil revenues on a per capita basis. Critics argued that a formal partition would also result in even greater disruptions caused by the massive relocation of Iraqis from one region to another, raising the specters of Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing (which killed 110,000 people and dislocated 1.8 million) and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (with 14 million dislocated and up to a million killed).

During the eight months since Biden made his proposal, while politicians dithered in Washington and Baghdad, Iraq has been staggering towards a de facto partition, with over 12,000 Iraqis killed and countless uprooted since August. Death squads, suicide attacks and car bombings have forced Sunnis and Shi’ites alike to massively abandon* their homes and businesses in areas controlled by opposing militias. U.S. forces have discovered that aggressive patrolling can temporarily pacify contested neighborhoods, but these patrols regularly expose American troops and Iraqi civilians to firefights and attacks by IED’s, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and snipers. Once American and Iraqi units leave, insurgents are quickly able to infiltrate back and resume their strategies of intimidation, sectarian cleansing and mass slaughter.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including many academics and professionals, have voted "no confidence" with their feet by fleeing mixed Sunni-Shi’ite neighborhoods or leaving Iraq altogether*. Baghdad is rapidly evolving into a divided city, with Sunnis on the west bank of the Tigris river and Shi’ites on the east.

The de facto partition of Iraq into Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish regions is a harsh reality and the least onerous alternative is to adapt to it and address the humanitarian catastrophe that it's creating. The Iraqi and U.S. governments need to take immediate action to reduce the miseries of hundreds of thousands of refugees by offering material aid and assistance in relocation, including adequate food and shelter. Meanwhile, the U.S. should discontinue the aggressive and futile patrols in contested urban neighborhoods that serve no real purpose except to create more targets for insurgents, causing a steady drumbeat of casualties among Americans and Iraqi civilians.

The Iraqi military and police, as now constituted, simply can’t or won't perform their assigned duties. Shi’ite members of an Iraqi army unit, for example, are unlikely to follow orders that require them to fight their fellow Shi’ites in the Mahdi army. Sunnis are unlikely to perform aggressively, if they even show up, in offensives against Sunni insurgents in places like Fallujah or Ramadi. Kurd units like the elite Peshmerga (estimated at 100,000 strong) are highly motivated to defend Kurdish autonomy, but they seem to have little or no allegiance to the Shi'ite government in Baghdad.

For now, a majority of Iraqi soldiers and police is far more likely to defend perceived sectarian interests than national interests. Attempts to utilize integrated security forces have usually failed for this reason. Sadly, many or even most Iraqis no longer identify their self-interest with anything like "national" concerns. Nonetheless, the Iraqi regime and the U.S. should attempt to quickly form and equip several elite integrated units that will have the capacity and motivation to defend the central government in Baghdad and, perhaps, the small portion of Iraq's critical infrastructure that remains intact.

As the internal flow of refugees makes partition even more of a reality, separate Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd units, organized like state national guards in the U.S., could prove more effective at providing security than the nominally “integrated” forces that exist today. Sunni units patrolling the Sunni Triangle, for example, would play a very different role than they would in Sadr City, where their presence is provocative in the extreme. Ideally, these regional guard units would retain, or eventually develop, an Iraqi identity that would enable them to be mobilized for a true national emergency.

During a transitional period of three months or so, U.S. forces should concentrate on two roles that are primarily defensive and low-profile, thereby making them much less vulnerable to casualties and calming the political situation in Iranand at home.** First, they can train and equip Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurd forces to provide security in their autonomous regions. Second, American troops can deter large-scale attacks on the three regions by foreign or domestic enemies and, if necessary, help defend them (or the central government) if attacks occur.

The prompt transition to a defensive role is critical for both the U.S. and Iraq. Although sustained urban guerilla warfare neutralizes many of its military advantages in Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to be challenged by any foreseeable organized units there. In a conventional setpiece battle, overwelming American superiority in armor, air power, training and weaponry will almost certainly be decisive. This defensive role has the additional advantage of making U.S. forces far less visible as occupiers, while providing greater security for civilians and risking far fewer civilian deaths and injuries. The U.S. could further reinforce its background role by announcing that it has no ambition to establish permanent military bases in Iraq.

Military disengagement, beginning with immediate withdrawal of American forces not needed for a defensive role, should be joined with a far more assertive strategy of political and diplomatic consultations. It's abundantly clear that there will be no military solution for any side in this conflict. An overall political strategy would have to include participation by Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia as well as the contending parties within Iraq.

The central question for Iraqis, meanwhile, is whether Article 1 of their present Constitution has any meaning: “The Republic of Iraq is a single, independent federal state with full sovereignty.” If the central government in Baghdad fails, of which there is an obvious risk, Iraq could quickly disintegrate into three separate entities on the Yugoslav model. These states could soon be at war with each other or with foreign invaders such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Even worse, the Sunni and Shi’ite regions could suffer from irreconcilable internal conflicts of their own between rival factions and gangs, producing the ultimate failed states on the Somali model.

In the case of the Sunni Triangle or Shi'ite areas, there’s the additional risk that Al Qaida or another radical group could seize effective control and create a base for terrorist activities elsewhere, on the Afghan model. Either or both regions could become Islamist fundamentalist bases, a risk that the Bush plan fails to address due to its focus on Baghdad. Even a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north could provoke Turkish intervention, as threatened many times in the past.

The real choice is between a Bush plan that is doomed from the beginning, since it's a nothing but a regurgitation of failed approaches from the past, and a somewhat less risky approach that could reduce U.S. and Iraqi casualties, quickly end U.S. engagement and give Iraqis a reasonable hope for greater stability. Meanwhile, the partition of Iraq by sectarian cleansing will continue no matter what political choices are made in Washington or Baghdad.


*Since the bombing of the Samarra temple last February, an estimated 452,000 internal refugees have registered with the Iraqi government, including 108,00 in December alone, while another 100,000 have been leaving the country each month.

**Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki suggested that U.S. forces lower, rather then raise, their profile when he met with Bush in Jordan on November 30th.

GRAPHIC: Leksikon

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that some form of partition may in fact be the best of a very, very poor and shrinking list of options for US strategy in Iraq. (The Bush escalation is a domestic political move and doesn't deserve to be taken seriously as a strategy.)

I'm not sure that there's much point in discussing best-case or least-bad case (or even less-than-worst-case) scenarios here, though. Even if, per impossible, the Bush administration immediately adopted a partition plan and a troop drawdown of the kind you suggest, I'm sure they'd find some way to mess it up worse than we can even imagine.