Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Civil War in Iraq? Implications for the U.S. Mission

There's some current debate over the labeling of the Iraq conflict as a civil war. Today's Los Angeles Times has a piece by Barry Lando discussing the decision by both NBC News and the Times to adopt the civil war terminology.

What are the implications of adopting the civil war label? Over at the new National Interest,
Stephen Biddle argues that Iraq has long been in civil war and the fact of enduring sectarian conflict makes victory in Iraq exceedingly difficult:

Iraq may or may not become a stable democracy someday—but the demonstration effect is already lost. Complete success is thus unlikely. But total failure can still be averted.

The challenge here is not to avert civil war, however. Iraq is already in a civil war—and has been for a long time. It is too late for prevention. The real challenge now is termination.

This means we need to shift from a strategy designed for classical counter-insurgency to one designed for terminating an ongoing civil war....

Current U.S. policy, however, undermines our prospects for this in at least two ways. First, we have little leverage for compelling the mutual compromises needed for real power sharing. Each camp sees potentially genocidal stakes in power sharing: the downside risks if the deal fails to ensure their security could be mass violence at the hands of communal rivals. Against such enormous stakes, major leverage will be needed to convince nervous parties to accept the risks; U.S. offers of development aid or trade assistance or political recognition are trivial by comparison. And this thin gruel is getting thinner as the United States begins to cut even the modest aid we now provide—the Marshall Plan this is not. Such weak leverage will never persuade Iraqis to take the huge risks involved in real compromise.

Second, we are apparently unwilling to play the role of long-term peacekeeping stabilizer. Though disliked by many Iraqis, in principle U.S. forces could still do this. In recent months American efforts in suppressing Shi‘a militias and our comparative sectarian evenhandedness in places such as Tal Afar and Baghdad are persuading Sunnis that we are potential defenders against Shi‘a violence. Though Shi‘a are wary of American motives, three years of U.S. combat against Sunni guerillas give us the bona fides to keep Shi‘a trust if we play our cards right. We can be neutral—the problem is that we are not willing to stay. Who would trust a deal enforced by a peacekeeper who announces its intention to leave as soon as it can hand its job over to one of the combatants in an ongoing civil war?

Theoretically, at least, the second problem could be solved if we could create a truly national, rather than sectarian, institution in the Iraqi security forces to replace us—a force with true intercommunal balance; with soldiers and officers who see themselves as Iraqis and not as Shi‘a, Kurds or Sunnis; that fights any rebel or protects any population regardless of sect or ethnicity; and with the competence and motivation to defeat those rebels in battle. There are a host of practical barriers to accomplishing this in objective reality, ranging from the increasing salience of subnational identity among all Iraqis since 2003, to the reticence of many Iraqi recruits to fight outside their home provinces (in practical terms, a reluctance to do something other than defend their subgroup from outsiders), to the challenge of motivating soldiers to give their lives for a government many see as corrupt or incompetent, to the difficulties of establishing modern systems of pay, leave, resupply and administration in a society which has seen little efficient public administration in the past, to many other challenges large and small.

But a more fundamental problem is perceptual. Even if the Iraqi military were, in reality, a competent, evenhanded, nonsectarian force, Sunnis do not see it that way. All polls show radical differences in trust for the national security forces across communal groups, and the Sunnis clearly do not trust the state’s instruments. This should be no surprise: Overcoming this inevitable lack of trust in an ongoing civil war is extremely difficult. This is why the civil war termination literature puts such stress on outside peacekeepers. To build trust across such divides is hard enough in a postwar peace policed by others; to believe Iraqis can do this themselves in the midst of the fighting after the only quasi-neutral force—ours—has departed would require tremendous optimism.
Today's lead editorial at the Wall Street Journal is critical of the civil war label, arguing that it essentially implies impending defeat for the U.S. project in Iraq:

The sectarian violence is a horrible problem. But by any reasonable definition, a "civil war" implies at least two militarily strong factions with a popular claim on political leadership. Neither of those conditions exists in Iraq.

The country's elected, pan-sectarian government and its several hundred thousand security forces remain the only legitimate power center. The Sunni insurgents, meanwhile, are a mix of Islamists and Baathists who enjoy little support and are capable only of terrorist-style attacks. They hold sway only through murder and intimidation in areas where the government lacks enough troops to assure public safety. Shiite militia leaders are also divided and what support they enjoy is due to the perception among ordinary Shiites that the government has been unable to protect them. Few Shiites would be eager to see Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric, in Mr. Maliki's chair.

The next Iraqi or American official to be asked about "civil war" might want to reply by asking the journalist who, precisely, is fighting whom, and why Iraqi security officers of all backgrounds continue to risk their lives for the elected Baghdad government. The truth is that the enemies of Mr. Maliki's government are terrorists and thugs. Mr. Bush could help give Mr. Maliki the confidence he needs for the tough fight ahead--first against the Sunni terrorists, then against the Shiite revenge killers--by assuring him that U.S. policy will be based on this fact.
Reading these two excerpts, it's clear there's disagreement on what to label the conflict -- civil war or sectarian violence. Yet there's also consensus on the need for the U.S. to maintain a robust troop presence in Iraq going forward. Biddle is realistic in stating that U.S. opinion does not take well to "peacekeeping" operations, and the midterm elections showed that the American public has little stomach for extending the Iraq mission indefinitely.

As I've noted before, we need a political compromise among the Iraqis. Meanwhile, the U.S. would continue to contain the terrorist violence with the ultimate goal of moving toward a limited drawdown and an increased advisory role for American forces.

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