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How the U.S. can elicit a draw in Iraq

As James Fearon argues in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. military bogged down inside Iraq’s civil war can only exacerbate problems there. The title of the piece speaks for itself: “The U.S. Can’t Win Iraq’s Civil War.”

Fearon, a scholar at Stanford University, argues that despite early squeamishness with the term, there is clearly a civil war going on in Iraq, and the many civil wars fought around the world in recent decades can be instructive. What they demonstrate is that neither a surge nor a training role (as suggested by the Iraq study group) will help.

Fearon writes that the civil war will likely have to rage on for some years and that civil wars rarely end with power-sharing agreements. He has looked at a number of them (he makes clear the different ways to define a civil war and shows which ones he has looked at) and cites them amply. He writes: “The rate of killing in Iraq — easily more than 60,000 in the last three years — puts the conflict in the company of many recent ones that are routinely described as civil wars (for example, those in Algeria, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Sri Lanka). Indeed, even the conservative estimate of 60,000 deaths would make Iraq the ninth-deadliest civil war since 1945 in terms of annual casualties.”

Of the length the Iraqi civil war might endure, Fearon writes: “Their average duration since 1945 has been about ten years, with half lasting more than seven years.” By looking at conflicts in Turkey and Lebanon, and comparing their dynamics with those in Iraq, Fearon decides that a military coup will likely lead to the breakup of the Iraqi military into factions.

Here’s an interesting bit of historical precedent: “Of the roughly 55 civil wars fought for control of a central government (as opposed to for secession or regional autonomy) since 1955, fully 75 percent ended with a clear victory for one side. The government ultimately crushed the rebels in at least 40 percent of the 55 cases, whereas the rebels won control of the center in 35 percent. Power-sharing agreements that divide up control of a central government among the combatants have been far less common. By my reckoning, at best, 9 of the 55 cases, or about 16 percent, ended this way. Examples include El Salvador in 1992, South Africa in 1994, and Tajikistan in 1997.”

Fearon writes:

To avail itself of more attractive policy options, the Bush administration (or its successor) must break off its unconditional military support for the Shiite-dominated government that it helped bring to power in Baghdad. Washington’s commitment to Maliki’s government undermines U.S. diplomatic and military leverage with almost every relevant party in the country and the region. Starting to move away from this commitment by shifting combat troops out of the central theaters could, accordingly, increase U.S. leverage with almost all parties. The current Shiite political leadership would then have incentives to try to gain back U.S. military support by, for example, making more genuine efforts to incorporate Sunnis into the government or reining in Shiite militias. (Admittedly, whether it has the capacity to do either is unclear.) As U.S. troops departed, Sunni insurgent groups would begin to see the United States less as a committed ally of the “Persians” and more as a potential source of financial or even military backing. Washington would also have more leverage with Iran and Syria, because the U.S. military would not be completely bogged down in Baghdad and Anbar Province — and because both of those countries have a direct interest in avoiding increased chaos in Iraq.

And he writes:

Despite the horrific violence currently tearing Iraq apart, in the long run there is hope for the return of a viable Iraqi state based on a political bargain among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish leaders. Indeed, they may end up cooperating on terms set by a constitution similar to the current one — although only after a significant period of fighting. The basis for an Iraqi state is the common interest of all parties, especially the elites, in the efficient exploitation of oil resources. Continued civil war could persuade Shiite leaders that they cannot fully enjoy oil profits and political control without adequately buying off Sunni groups, who can maintain a costly insurgency. And civil war could persuade the Sunnis that a return to Sunni dominance and Shiite quiescence is impossible. Kurdish leaders have an interest in the autonomy they have already secured but with access to functioning oil pipelines leading south.

He continues:

Even if the coming “surge” in U.S. combat troops manages to lower the rate of killing in Baghdad, very little in relevant historical experience or the facts of this case suggests that U.S. troops would not be stuck in Iraq for decades, keeping sectarian and factional power struggles at bay while fending off jihadist and nationalist attacks. The more likely scenario is that the Bush administration’s commitment to the “success” of the Maliki government will make the United States passively complicit in a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing. Standing back to adopt a more evenhanded policy in the civil war already in progress is a more sensible and defensible course. To pursue it, the Bush administration or its successor would first have to give up on the idea that a few more U.S. brigades or a change in U.S. tactics will make for an Iraq that can, in President Bush’s words, “govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself” once U.S. troops are gone.

The piece is very much worth reading, and I hope I haven’t “sampled” too much of it. Once again it’s available here.

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