The United States has had troops in Iraq now for over six years. The heady early goals of creating a stable model democracy, with Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd side by side, has given way to hope that somehow we can get out of there without Iraq ready to implode. A mixture of internal exhaustion and the efficacy of the counter-insurgency campaign led by Gen. David Petraeus has moved Iraq away from the chaos of 2006, when the country was in what can only be described as civil war. But where is it now, and where is Iraq going?
The Iraqi government recently announced that it had given up trying to reconcile with the Saudis. While this story has flown under the radar, given American distaste for even thinking more about Iraq, it is telling. To the Saudis, Iraq remains a proxy for Iran, a Shi’ite state that is more dangerous than helpful for the region. Iraq has also had tensions with Kuwait, going back to disputes about the 1991 war. Meanwhile Prime Minister Maliki’s anti-graft campaign seems to be going nowhere, the Kurds cling to their autonomy in the north, and the central government has yet to really penetrate into Sunni regions.
Telling is the change taking place with Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. Officially the army disbanded, and al-Sadr went to Qom, in Iran, to continue his theological studies. His long term plan is to become an Ayatollah, and have claim to a more powerful role in Iraqi politics and society. His old army, however, is not really gone. It has become an underground militia, capable of acting again if called upon, but also very involved in protection rackets and other aspects of corrupt Iraqi life. This works against real rule of law, or reconciliation with the Sunnis.
If you read news reports from Iraq, Sunni areas are relatively peaceful, but protected by American forces. There is a real fear that the Shi’ite dominated government will clamp down hard against the Sunnis once the Americans leave, and hatred between the two groups remain. The long sought after and promised “reconciliation” remains elusive, perhaps unachievable. The Sunnis, the original anti-American insurgents, now hope the US stays longer, realizing that they are a minority and vulnerable to the Shi’ites. And as the US tries to counter an Iran with nuclear aspirations, the Iraqi government remains uncomfortably close to, and perhaps infiltrated by, Iran.
Iraq is not that much different than in 2006, except that the violence is down (though there has been a recent uptick). That is important, but raises questions about just what the US can accomplish or should accomplish before finally departing. Will US departure simply allow a renewed Shi’ite-Sunni civil war and blood bath? Will internal Shi’ite disputes boil over and create instability? Or will Maliki, or some other Iraqi figure, emerge as a new “strong man,” a Saddam without the regional military ambitions.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak continues to rule with an iron fist, rejecting American calls for more democracy. He has to. A democratic Egypt could tear apart at the seams, and risk the rise of increased extremism, endangering the peace with Israel. Mubarak believes Iraq needs a similar sort of leadership.
Meanwhile, with the Taliban on the rise in Afghanistan, and the US devoting more troops to that “first front” on the once called war on terror, the US cannot afford to stay too long in Iraq, or risked being pulled into a deeper conflict. President Obama knows that the Iraq war made it possible for him to win his job; it could also be his undoing.
I remain convinced that a tripartite solution is the most viable future for Iraq. Kurdistan is never going to truly integrate into Iraq; their support for the government is contingent on their autonomy. They are already defacto independent. With the Shi’ites overwhelming the Sunnis in the rest of Iraq by a 3 to 1 margin, it’s unlikely there will be any true effort at reconciliation. The Shi’ites don’t have to, and in a state with intense corruption and a recent civil war, radicals can sabotage any attempt to unite the two sides. A consociational solution would require the Shi’ites to be more united than they are.
One possibility is that the US negotiate a Dayton like accord for Iraq, dividing the country into three autonomous zones, with deals on oil, territory, and scope of rule. The US could also negotiate a long term presence for a stabilization force, perhaps multilateral. The idea is that this force could be stationed at bases in Sunni and Kurdish regions, be relatively small, and there only to keep the agreement in force. But if the Shi’ia don’t go along with such a plan, do we still have leverage? Or will we simply end up having to go, and hope that things don’t fall apart completely?
The “surge” did not end the conflict in Iraq, or bring success. It did help stop a civil war, and it creates the possibility of a Nixonian “peace with honor.” We’re not cutting and running, when we leave, we can claim we helped stabilize things. But, of course, Nixon’s peace with honor lasted only two years. In 1975 the North took over South Vietnam completely, and in short order Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge.
Starting a war is easy; getting out of one when the locals are engaged in corruption, ethnic conflict, and governmental instability is a different story. Although relegated to “yesterday’s news” in today’s short attention span media, Iraq remains one of the most important tests of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.