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Defining Victory and Defeat in Iraq

Author: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
November 10, 2006
National Interest


Many now believe that victory means a friendly, prosperous, self-defending democracy, while defeat means civil war—and the metrics that matter most are thus measures of elections held, Iraqi security forces trained, electricity generated, etc. Such a victory creates a demonstration effect in which Iraqi democracy catalyzes political change elsewhere in the region, removing the underlying cause of Islamist terrorism; a defeat, by this logic, would produce region-wide chaos that would undermine, not facilitate, the larger War on Terror.

Yet this whole analysis is deeply flawed. 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.

The two are very different. The standard playbook for classical counter-insurgency is to win hearts and minds with political and economic reform while building up the indigenous government’s military and handing the fighting off to them as quickly as possible. This makes sense if the enemy is an ideological, nationalist or class-based insurgency waging a violent competition for good governance with an existing regime. Vietnam was such a struggle; Malaya was another.

But Iraq is not. The underlying conflict in Iraq is not between competing ideas of legitimate government; it is between ethnic and sectarian subgroups fighting for self-interest and group survival.

In this kind of war, classical counter-insurgency strategy makes things worse, not better. In particular, the effort to hand over security to an indigenous army just throws gasoline on the fire. In a civil war there is no “national” military that all can regard as a plausible defender of their interests: the subgroup that controls the government controls the state military, but to their rival’s population they are the enemy—the problem, not the solution. For Iraqi Sunnis, the “national” security forces look like a Shi’a-Kurdish militia with better weapons. The stronger the United States makes this force, the harder the Sunnis fight back in a struggle all sides see as existential.

By contrast, the standard approach for terminating a communal civil war is to negotiate a power-sharing deal, then to enforce this deal with neutral peacekeepers drawn from outside. The state military cannot serve this purpose, certainly not alone. The whole problem in communal civil war is that the parties do not trust one another; a large, unchecked indigenous army will look to the minority like a threat to their survival. A power-sharing deal is just a scrap of paper if the real power—the military—could fall under the sway of communal rivals. Hence the need for outsiders: Without a reasonably neutral force to police a deal, no deal can be stable and the prospects for settlement are slim.

In a better world, some multinational institution would broker the deal and provide the peacekeepers. This is not going to happen in Iraq. So if the civil war termination script is going to be followed here, the United States is going to have to do the heavy lifting itself.

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.

How, then, can the ongoing civil war be terminated without ruinous escalation?

There are options. James Dobbins of rand has proposed a regional diplomatic campaign to induce Iraq’s neighbors to use their influence with their Iraqi clients to compel compromise on a power-sharing deal. Given the Sunnis’ dependence on outside backers for money and supplies, and the growing Shi’a links with Iran, an agreement by neighboring states to sever this support unless their clients compromise could have real traction. Of course, this means offering neighbors such as Iran and Syria inducements that would make this worth their while; inducements sufficient to do the job could be expensive indeed, in many ways. And even if Iran and Syria cooperate, someone would still have to police the deal. But regional diplomacy could at least provide some real bargaining leverage, which we lack today.

The United States could also begin to use its own military policy in Iraq as a tool for settlement, rather than merely as a quick ticket home for U.S. troops. This would require the United States to make our presence, and our assistance, conditional on the parties’ bargaining behavior: Those who compromise must be rewarded with security guarantees, but those who refuse must be threatened with military sanction. Today, U.S. military policy is independent of Iraqis’ bargaining behavior: It is disconnected from our diplomatic strategy. In an ongoing war, military power is a potentially powerful lever, yet today the United States has left military power off the table as a reward for cooperation or a punishment for obduracy. Of course, military force is a blunt instrument: to use it as a bargaining tool could strain U.S. diplomacy beyond its capacity. An American willingness to realign militarily could destroy all sides’ confidence in U.S. guarantees if not handled deftly. And any American promise to remain in a potentially dangerous Iraq could well prove beyond the tolerance of American voters.

But unless some new source of leverage is found—and quickly—our chance for even an intermediate outcome in Iraq could evaporate. The best-case outcome at this point is for a negotiated ceasefire in which the Sunni insurgency—not just the elected Sunni political leadership in Baghdad, but the insurgents and their armed leadership in the field—agrees to peace in exchange for concessions that would surely have to include a broad-based amnesty and a role for former insurgents in the government security apparatus, among other requirements. Such a deal would require U.S. troops to oversee its terms. But it also requires at least some level of Iraqi willingness to set aside the desire for revenge in exchange for the hope of peaceful coexistence. With every passing day, however, this reservoir of tolerance is being drawn down as the sectarian body count rises. At some point, it will surely be exhausted and the chance for a negotiated settlement will be lost in an uncontrolled escalatory spiral of violence and retribution. This point of no return does not appear to have been reached yet. Although the death toll rises, it also periodically falls—Iraqis still appear to be able to draw back from the precipice and restrain their combatants. But this will not last forever. And it may not last very much longer.

This brings me back to metrics. The analysis above implies a very different set than those most common in today’s debate. Rather than Iraqi battalions trained or hours of electricity in Baghdad, the real measures of success and failure in Iraq are threefold. First, how close are the parties to achieving a power sharing deal and associated ceasefire? Second, how willing is the American public to accept a sustained peacekeeping role sufficient to police any deal the parties may reach? And third, how rapidly is the sectarian death toll rising?

Iraq today is a race between progress toward a settlement and acceleration of inter-communal tensions fueled by sectarian killing. Success requires that a settlement precede the loss of tolerance; defeat will occur if killing outpaces compromise. And to obtain the former rather than the latter will almost certainly require that Americans be willing to accept a long-term role in policing any ceasefire.

For now, the trends in these metrics are not promising: Compromise has been slow and grudging; while the death toll occasionally falls, the overall trend is sharply upward; and Americans are displaying diminishing tolerance for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Time is thus not on our side. Current U.S. policy is not yielding an aggressive pace of communal compromise in Baghdad; we risk letting the war slip out of control if we cannot find a means of accelerating the deal-making, and soon. And the longer the fighting goes on and the more Americans die without intercommunal accommodation or a ceasefire, the slimmer the political prospects for a significant long-term American troop presence. If a truce comes soon, trends in U.S. support for Iraqi deployments might reverse; if not, they surely will not. We still have a chance, but this window will not stay open forever. And this implies that we must aggressively seek out new forms of leverage to move this process along soon—before it is too late.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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