This week, leading U.S. officials forecast that Iraq could largely be able to take control of its security needs within 12 to 18 months. Moreover, Vice President Cheney added that the U.S. and its coalition partners are "about 75 percent of the way there in terms of getting an Iraqi force that's able to provide for their own security." If history is a guide, such expectations probably will not be met.
The sectarian rivalries underlying the strife between Sunnis and Shia and Kurds and Arabs have not been overcome. At this time, there is little evidence that a grand economic and political compromise that would satisfy each of the sides' core needs is near at hand. Such a compromise would entail constitutionally-protected rights for all the sides, full political participation, and a sharing of the nation's oil wealth. Shia would need to be assured that they would have the opportunity to govern. Sunnis would need a commitment that constitutional safeguards would protect them from a tyranny of the majority. Kurds would need assurances that their nascent democratic experiment would continue to have the chance to flourish within a federal Iraqi state.
Unless those needs are accommodated within a democratic and free framework, ethnic rivalry will continue to play itself out on the streets of Baghdad rather than the halls of Parliament. Until each side enjoys real constitutional protections and equal opportunity, they will seek protection through their own armed groups. As a result, part of the solution to Iraq's security challenge rests with a laying of a foundation for rule of law constructed jointly by the varying sides.
Iraq's political leaders have also rejected any timetables. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared, "I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it."
At the same time, he condemned a U.S.-led raid on Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, even as evidence surfaced that this militia was carrying out what amounted to a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad's Washash neighborhood. At the same time, he has steadfastly refused to issue any deadlines or ultimatums for disarming Iraq's growing number of militias. With two major militias--the Mahdi Army and the Badr Militia--constituting armed factions of political parties that hold approximately 60 seats in Iraq's 275-member Parliament, the political obstacles under the current arrangement likely preclude such action.
Nevertheless, in addition to the political avenue, a robust and concerted role must be undertaken to roll back the proliferation of arms among Iraq's growing number of factions and militias if the country is have a chance at overcoming its current violent state. The U.S. will need to play a leading role in any such effort if it is to be successful. Military rules of engagement for nationwide disarmament, starting with the disarming of the militias, will need to be decisive and modeled after those put in place in post-World War II Germany. Sufficient U.S. military manpower will need to be present and more than modest increases in U.S. combat firepower will be required. The U.S. political situation will likely prevent deployment of the necessary U.S. manpower.
At the same time, assessments of progress in Iraq will have to be judged by outcomes, not inputs. Yet, even as the violence reached new heights in the first part of October, the U.S. remained trapped in an input-oriented approach. On October 24, U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. stated, "The Baghdad security plan continues to have a dampening effect on sectarian violence." With armed violence up 22% in the past month, someone forgot to tell those responsible for the violence that there had been a "dampening effect" on the sectarian violence that constitutes a low-level civil war.
Nowhere in the press conference was the increase in violence mentioned. Instead, General Casey explained that 6 of the 10 Iraqi divisions are forward deployed and that almost 90 of 112 Iraqi battalions are in the lead. Those are inputs. Even they may not be representative of actual progress. The New York Times reported, "The Pentagon said in an August report to the U.S. Congress that Iraq has more than 277,000 troops and policemen... But these figures, which have often been cited at Pentagon press conferences as an indicator of progress, paint a distorted picture. For instance, only a portion of the Iraq Army troops are actually available for duty in Baghdad and other hot spots."
What about the outcomes? They have been very bad. As a result, Iraqis are moving to areas dominated by their own ethnic group or fleeing the country outright. Iraq's Immigration Minister, Abdul-Samad Sultan recently revealed that approximately 890,000 Iraqis have moved to Jordan, Iran, and Syria since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Another 300,000 have fled to other areas within Iraq, largely to areas in which their ethnic group predominates. Those are hardly votes of confidence. Worse, they represent the seeds by which Iraq could fragment.
Those figures tell part of the story. "If we continue on as is in Iraq, we will leave here (sooner or later) with a fractured state, a Rwanda-waiting-to-happen. 'Stay the course' and refusing to admit that we're screwing things up is already killing a lot of people needlessly. Following through with such inane nonstrategy is going to be the death knell for hundreds of thousands of Sunnis," a U.S. Army Sergeant who is involved in the collection of human Intelligence recently explained. His prescription?
We need to backtrack. We need to publicly admit we're backtracking. This is the opening battle of the ideological struggle of the 21st century. We cannot afford to lose it because of political inconveniences. Reassert direct administration, put 400,000 to 500,000 American troops on the ground, disband most of the current Iraqi police and retrain and reindoctrinate the Iraqi army until it becomes a military that's fighting for a nation, not simply some sect or faction. Reassure the Iraqi people that we're going to provide them security and then follow through. Disarm the nation: Sunnis, Shias, militia groups, everyone. Issue national ID cards to everyone and control the movement of the population.
That is the real story of what is happening in Iraq. It is an increasingly grim tale. Unless those challenges are overcome, Iraq will have little chance to grow into a stable state, much less a democratic one.
All said, Iraq currently lacks a political consensus around which its peoples can unite, it has suffered from a spread of armed groups, and the new U.S. timelines exist in the absence of a plan to bring about the desired outcomes. As a result, the dynamics suggest that Iraq probably will not be ready to assume full responsibility for its security needs over the next 12-18 months. Failure to do so could well put Iraq on a path toward a return of illiberal government centered on a "strong man" who would impose order via authoritarianism or a breakup of the country into three or more states that could well wind up in conflict with one another over Iraq's oil resources or ethnic grievances, even as they are exploited by Iran and Syria. The transition to such an outcome could well be even more violent than the current period. Coups and coup attempts could be a prelude to a new authoritarian era. Much wider-spread conflict or outbreaks of violence along the lines of that seen between Hindus and Muslims during the India-Pakistan partition could take place during a population transfer that could precede the rise of new states within Iraq's boundaries.
Don Sutherland has researched and written on a wide range of geopolitical issues.