First, let’s get one thing straight. Contrary to the suggestions sometimes heard on conservative talk radio, the terrible headlines out of Iraq aren’t an invention of liberal news media. They all too accurately reflect the grim reality. Since the bombing of Samarra’s mosque in February, at least 20,000 Iraqis have died violently and more than 230,000 have been displaced from their homes. The restraint once exercised by Shiites is gone; Shiite death squads have become as big a problem as Sunni terrorists.
Tuesday’s election results will no doubt reinforce attempts to find an exit strategy from this mess. Various face-saving options have been proposed to accomplish this elusive end: Strike a deal with Iraqi political factions on key issues, such as sharing oil revenues. Reach an accommodation with Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Iran and Syria. Divide the country into separate Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni zones. Keep the country whole but replace its infirm democracy with a vigorous dictator.
Given how dire the situation has become, no option can be ruled out, but we should not fool ourselves that any of these plans has much chance of success. All founder on the fact of the radical atomization of Iraqi society. Central authority is disintegrating. It’s ethnic group versus ethnic group, tribe versus tribe, village versus village, block versus block, family versus family.
Even major militia leaders like Muqtada Sadr and Abdelaziz Hakim don’t control many of those who fight in their name. The Iraqi security forces have shown themselves too weak and too divided to stop the sectarian bloodbath, and American troops are too few in number. And each new murder creates fresh vendettas that make it harder to get the situation under control.
The ongoing mayhem makes a mockery of attempts to cut a political deal. Even if the politicos in Baghdad could reach agreement (unlikely), they could not deliver their followers. No one would trust anyone else to disarm. Iraq has a chicken-and-egg problem: No security progress is possible without political progress, but no political progress is possible without security progress.
Iran and Syria couldn’t be very helpful even if they wanted to—which they don’t. (They’re happy to watch the U.S. bleed.) They can add fuel to the fire, but they can’t extinguish it. A division of Iraq into three ethnic enclaves wouldn’t solve the problem because figuring out who gets what would multiply the bloodletting, and even then you would be left with numerous groups within the Sunni and Shiite regions competing for power at the point of a gun.
It would be nice if a benign dictator—Saddam Lite—could bring order out of chaos. But how would a putative strongman enforce his writ? Saddam Hussein’s security services no longer exist, and any attempt to reconstitute them would meet staunch resistance from the Shiites and Kurds. The existing army and police are inadequate to the task, no matter who holds power in Baghdad.
The only real hope of restoring order in the short term is to send American reinforcements. Unfortunately, pacifying the entire country would probably require 400,000 to 500,000 troops, an obvious nonstarter. A smaller number—25,000 to 50,000—might suffice to control Baghdad, but, in the current political climate, it seems unlikely that even that many will be sent. A few thousand extra troops won’t make much difference.
Bad as the situation is today, it could get a lot worse if we simply pull out. The probable result might be labeled “civil war,” but it would bear scant resemblance to our own Civil War. It wouldn’t be two sides fighting one another; it would be a war of all against all. Iraq would probably degenerate into the kind of anarchy seen in Somalia and Afghanistan in the 1990s. As in those countries, the resulting backlash could produce an Islamist dictatorship that would threaten American interests. We would also be hurt by the perception that we are a “weak horse” (to quote Osama bin Laden) that can be driven out of a country by a few suicide bombers—a perception sure to embolden terrorists.
Not a pleasant scenario. But we need to be honest with ourselves about what is involved in an unseemly dash for the exits. By all means, try to apply a political Band-Aid to Iraq’s gaping wounds. Just don’t be under any illusion that it will hold.
Only the presence of American troops keeps the patient alive—just barely.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.