US policy in Iraq must come to grip with two realities: Iraq is in a civil war, and Iraq is a failed state. The Baker-Hamilton report issued Wednesday moves the debate on Iraq in a constructive direction. But if policymakers fixate on the formula of transferring responsibility to rapidly-expanded Iraqi forces with more embedded US trainers but fewer US troops, then expect more violence, more instability and more US casualties.
The term “civil war” is not just a matter of rhetoric. Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Congo, Mozambique, Northern Ireland and countless other conflicts have shown that civil wars require a political solution. Even with a far greater force than we currently have deployed to Iraq, all that military forces can do is to keep a lid on the violence to make a political solution possible. Without that level of force (which in Iraq would amount to roughly 450,000 troops), only a new political compact among Iraq’s leading parties can end the violence.
Iraq’s civil war is also fuelled by an insurgency. There, too, history is unequivocal that military measures alone are barely half the solution. Guerillas can strike and hide. Countless times US troops cleared out insurgents in Iraq, and the insurgents would simply move. Without a political agreement that creates a stake in peace, the incentive will be to disrupt, wait and fight for power later.
That Iraq is a failed state is fundamental to understanding its limitations. Iraq cannot fix itself, no matter how much pressure we apply. The problem is not that the Iraqis do not want to do the right thing – although some do not – they simply cannot. The Iraqi state cannot protect its people, deliver services, collect revenues, or administer the rule of law. Iraqi militias dominate on the ground, control the country’s police and ministries and are subverting the armed forces. Fewer external restraints will provide more opportunities for Sunni insurgents and Shia death squads to slaughter people. It will produce greater collaboration between Shia militias and government forces to attack Sunnis. And it will trigger more and more violent responses from the Sunnis and other Iraqi groups. The fighting will escalate.
In this environment, embedding more US troops with Iraqis while reducing US force levels will result in more American casualties. More of Iraq’s streets will become battlegrounds, and Iraqi military units will find themselves constantly under attack. Without the protective shield of their American units, US trainers will take more casualties. So too will the remaining US combat units when they get called to rescue American trainers and embattled Iraqi combat units, and have to fight their way onto streets they once controlled.
These realties – civil war and a failed state in Iraq – leave just three options: get out and ignore the consequences, try to stabilise Iraq and, if that fails, try to contain the impact of war, insurgency and terrorism on the rest of the region. There are no guaranteed solutions.
Precipitously pulling out US forces and letting the war rage would have devastating effects on the region and US interests. Already 1.5m refugees have spilled out of Iraq and millions more will follow. Insurgents and terrorists will go with them – both to export their trade, especially to Saudi Arabia and Jordan – and to bring back new recruits. Kurdistan could declare independence. Turkey, a Nato ally trying to bridge the gap between Europe and the Islamic world, may directly intervene. Iran would gain a stronger regional role just when the international community is trying to curb its nuclear programme. Israel will be more vulnerable to extremist attacks. Oil prices will surely rise due to speculation, and spike even further if flows are disrupted. We can be almost assured that some form of regional unravelling would occur, with consequences we simply cannot ignore.
The harder question is whether, at this stage, it is possible to stabilise an Iraq increasingly under the control of militias. We should start with the first lesson on civil wars: settle them politically. In this spirit, we endorse the Baker-Hamilton recommendation for a “diplomatic offensive” to build stability in Iraq and in the region. At the core must be a truce to stop the killing and stabilise security. The goal would be at least a five-year understanding on federal-regional relations, control over oil revenues, the role of militias, minority rights and amnesty for combatants.
With a political understanding must come the first lesson of dealing with failed states: create a secure environment that allows basic governance and people to begin to reclaim normal lives. If a security vacuum prevails, it will drive besieged Iraqis to choices – such as supporting vicious sectarian militias – they would otherwise deplore. External military forces are therefore vital to help create security around a political settlement, starting in key parts of the country. But we have painfully seen that without a political understanding, the finest military forces in the world alone cannot impose a sustainable peace on their own.
Prospects are already low, and the more violence escalates, the harder it will be to achieve a political settlement. That is why stabilising Iraq requires not only a top-down effort to forge a new political settlement coupled with a bottom-up effort to create relative security and economic revival, but also a major diplomatic effort to harness the leverage of all of the states of the region as well as the international community to enable those Iraqi leaders willing to reign in the militias and reach a political compromise to do so.
If a political settlement fails, all other options amount to either trying to contain the civil war, or withdrawing and allowing the war to rage while hoping for the best. Internal fighting is already claiming about 3,500 Iraqi and 100 American lives every month. There is no reason to think that a halfway house solution with fewer US forces will produce greater stability. The vast majority of the violence in Iraq is Iraqi on Iraqi; US troops are not causing the violence, they are actually dampening it. So taking America out of the equation will not improve the situation.
Containing the conflict within Iraq could entail placing troops in safe-havens and buffer zones along Iraq’s borders in order to stop the outflow of terrorists and insurgents, and to reduce their access to Iraqi refugees who could become recruits to the conflict. They would also be designed to prevent Iraq’s neighbors from intervening in the conflict as a number are already threatening. The US should seek a United Nations mandate, regional co-operation and international troop contributions for such an initiative. Without the co-operation of the surrounding states, such an effort will have little impact. If it fails, containment could then be a staging platform for a complete withdrawal.
Those who still speak of “victory,” in the sense of placing Iraq on an irreversible path toward becoming a stable democracy, are either too wrapped in the ideology of American power to understand reality, or playing semantic games. Consider what it would take, starting with today’s Iraq, to succeed in a new joint civilian and military intervention: 275,000-450,000 troops (Kosovo or Bosnia troop levels); at least 3-5 years to rebuild Iraqi forces; political arrangements accepted by all sects; a new injection of economic support; a multilateral authorisation for legitimacy; and (as in Bosnia) a sustained international presence for at least 10 years. Today, it is unthinkable.
America launched a war to fight terror in Iraq. Now, however, Iraq could become a regional breeding ground for terrorism and instability. It may be too late for a political solution to the civil war. But because the alternatives are nightmarish, we should still try, while planning for the worst and the means to contain it.
Carlos Pascual is vice president and director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution; Kenneth M. Pollack is director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution