Sunday, February 25, 2007

Victory Elusive for United States in Iraq's Civil War

James Fearon, a professor of political science at Stanford University, has a penetrating essay on the sectarian violence in Iraq in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. Fearon picks up his discussion by noting the media's semantic debate late in 2006 over whether civil war had indeed broken out in Iraq. Participants on both sides of the issue have serious stakes in how the war is defined, for if Iraq's civil war is in full swing, Americans might ask "why are we waging someone's else's fight?" Fearon goes beyond semantics, and examines what the existence of civil war means for American strategic success in the war:

In fact, there is a civil war in progress in Iraq, one comparable in important respects to other civil wars that have occurred in postcolonial states with weak political institutions. Those cases suggest that the Bush administration's political objective in Iraq -- creating a stable, peaceful, somewhat democratic regime that can survive the departure of U.S. troops -- is unrealistic. Given this unrealistic political objective, military strategy of any sort is doomed to fail almost regardless of whether the administration goes with the "surge" option, as President George W. Bush has proposed, or shifts toward a pure training mission, as advised by the Iraq Study Group.

Even if an increase in the number of U.S. combat troops reduces violence in Baghdad and so buys time for negotiations on power sharing in the current Iraqi government, there is no good reason to expect that subsequent reductions would not revive the violent power struggle. Civil wars are rarely ended by stable power-sharing agreements. When they are, it typically takes combatants who are not highly factionalized and years of fighting to clarify the balance of power. Neither condition is satisfied by Iraq at present. Factionalism among the Sunnis and the Shiites approaches levels seen in Somalia, and multiple armed groups on both sides appear to believe that they could wrest control of the government if U.S. forces left. Such beliefs will not change quickly while large numbers of U.S. troops remain.

Fearon goes on to examine why Iraq's ethnic fault lines make victory there unlikely. He says the Bush administration's current attempt to create a system of power sharing faces an uphill climb. Both Sunni and Shiite forces see themselves prevailing in civil war after a U.S. withdrawal, and the intense factionalization within each ethnic grouping -- at the national level, and down to neighborhood militias and gangs -- prevents the definitive cohesion of one group necessary to consolidate power. The implication, Fearon argues, is that U.S. forces could end up providing security in Iraq for decades. Plus, by backing the Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki, the U.S. could be bolstering a "dirty war," since there's some evidence that Shiite-sponsored ethnic cleansing enjoys the tacit support of the Dawa Party regime in Baghdad. Support for the Shiite forces in Iraq would likely cause a regional alignment among Iraq's Sunnis, Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern regimes, and the forces of al Qeada.

Fearon does not completely dismiss the eventual possibility of a U.S. victory. To be successful, argues Fearon, the U.S. needs to begin a movement away from unconditional support for Shiite power in Iraq, which would place deep pressures on all sides to consolidate the existing process of governmental sharing. Partition of the country's not likely to work, notes Fearon, so the best bet is for the U.S. to become an offshore power, intervening in Iraq politically and militarily to promote long-term power sharing.

I find Fearon's essay compelling, for the most part. If this were a longer, academic article, I'd expect to see an analysis of the administration's current troop surge and its likelihood of success. Fearon largely dismisses the idea of military victory, so long as the current constellation of ethic rivalries continues.
However, in an earlier post I cited the analysis of Donald Stoker of the U.S. Naval War College, who noted that in fact the Bush troop surge could work. Insurgencies rarely win, say Stoker. The problem is that the U.S. may be past the critical stage for success. If that's so, then perhaps Fearon's piece will provide realistic analytical foundations on Iraq's ethnic dynamics for moving forward. As I have noted before, time constraints on the deployment, accelerated by declining public support, may make it necessary for the U.S. to drawdown the commitment over the next couple of years. See my post on "The Drawdown Option" for more information.

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