Many Westerners now see Iraq as a solved problem. Conditions may be imperfect, it is thought, but the war is over, the country's fate is now in Iraqi hands, and the only job left for foreign forces there is to leave, in good order and as quickly as possible.
This view is premature, however. Iraq is indeed far less violent than it was. But it is too early to judge this a permanent success. To leave Iraq to its own devices now is to court a serious risk that the country could slide back to the open warfare of 2007 or worse - with serious consequences for Westerners as well as Iraqis.
Iraq today is in the early stages of a negotiated end to an intense ethnosectarian civil war. Transitions from civil warfare to peace and reconciliation are notoriously volatile and uncertain. Some succeed, but others collapse into renewed fighting. As the political scientist Barbara Walter notes, of twenty-three such settlements between 1940 and 1992, ten-or almost half-failed within five years of the original cease-fire. And the Iraqi transition may be more fragile than most.
Today's ceasefires in Iraq are extremely decentralized. In fact there are over two hundred separate parties to a series of small-scale, bilateral agreements reached mostly between individual factions of former combatants and the U.S. military. These parties include the mostly Sunni Sons of Iraq (SOI) groups (many of whom are essentially former insurgents), and a variety of erstwhile Shiite militias; the Iraqi government was rarely an explicit partner in the negotiations. The result is a patchwork quilt in which former rivals who retain their weapons, their organizations, and often their leaders, coexist uneasily in close proximity under the terms of deals reached with local U.S. military authorities over the course of 2007.
Renewed sectarian violence remains a serious threat in this environment. Parties to intense ethno-sectarian warfare do not just forget the mass violence of the past overnight. Rarely can they simply live together without fear in the immediate aftermath, and the cease-fires' decentralized nature creates many independent actors and many potential flashpoints for violence among wary and distrustful former combatants.
Signs of continuing ethno-sectarian tension are not hard to find in Iraq today. Kirkuk is a potential flashpoint with Kurdish Pesh Merga militia and government soldiers eyeing one another in a nervous standoff; either accident or deliberate provocation could easily spur violence. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has never really accepted the Sunni SOI movement, and has periodically cracked down on individual faction leaders as opportunity permits, arresting them and disbanding their followers. The Iraqi Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice, led by Shiite Ahmed Chalabi, recently banned 511 mostly Sunni candidates from standing in Iraq's forthcoming Parliamentary campaign, spurring widespread concerns over sectarianism and reinforcing Sunni fears of Shiite intentions. Terrorist bombings, never wholly absent in Iraq, have recently increased in frequency, with Sunni extremists targeting Shiite civilian and government facilities and allied Western interests.
None of this has yet reached crisis proportions. But this is a dangerous situation. Where civil war settlements such as Iraq's have held, it is usually because substantial foreign peacekeeping forces combine with active political engagement by outsiders to stabilize a volatile situation. Few would have expected Bosnia or Kosovo, for example, to be able to sustain peace among wary, fearful former combatants without Western troops to keep the peace and Western political intervention to manage disputes. Yet we are now embarked upon a withdrawal process in Iraq that could yield complete removal of all foreign troops by 2011 if current agreements between the United States and the Iraqi government are implemented. This withdrawal schedule would produce a much faster removal of foreign troops from Iraq than ever happened in the Balkans - 16 years after Dayton and 11 years after the Kosovo settlement there are still thousands of foreign peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo today.
A return to mass violence in Iraq would be a humanitarian disaster for Iraqis - and it would pose serious risks to Western security interests as well. Civil wars often spill over their borders to embroil their neighbors: of the 142 civil wars fought between 1944 and 1999, forty-eight saw major military intervention by the regular armed forces of neighboring states at some point in the fighting. In Lebanon, for example, civil warfare eventually brought Syrian and Israeli state intervention. In Congo, the recent civil war became a region-wide conflagration involving eight foreign state militaries and causing over 5.4 million fatalities to date. Renewed warfare within Iraq's borders would be bad enough; a region-wide war in the heart of the Persian Gulf would be far worse.
Such perils are not certainties, but neither can they be excluded. And if we persist in viewing Iraq as a solved problem, the solution could easily unravel.
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