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No, it's not Vietnam. This one's a civil war.

Author: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
March 3, 2006
International Herald Tribune

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All sides in today’s Iraq debate share a common but unspoken assumption: the way to succeed in Iraq is to refight the Vietnam War, but the right way this time. Official strategy mirrors the Nixon administration playbook: win hearts and minds while handing the fighting over to the locals.

The antiwar movement thinks we have already lost Iraqi hearts and minds and should thus get out. Prowar critics argue that we should use late-war Vietnam territorial defense tactics, not early-war Vietnam offensive methods.

But while the debate is Vietnam redux, the war is not. Vietnam was a Maoist “people’s war,” Iraq is a communal civil war with very different dynamics, and civil wars demand very different strategies than Maoist wars.

U.S. military strategy for Iraq now centers on “Iraqization,” the program to equip and train Iraqi security forces to replace American troops. For a Maoist people’s war, this would make sense: it would undermine the nationalist component of insurgent resistance, improve intelligence and provide the troops needed for real security.

But in a civil war, Iraqization only throws gasoline on the fire. Sunnis perceive the national security forces as a Shiite-Kurd militia on steroids. They have a point: In an intercommunal conflict, the most effective units are the ones that are communally homogeneous. And if we want an effective Iraqi force anytime soon, it’s going to be mostly Shiite and Kurdish.

The bigger and stronger we make national security forces, the more threatened the Sunnis feel, and the harder they are likely to fight back in a struggle that is ultimately about communal self-preservation.

The solution to inter-communal conflicts like this is a constitutional deal wherein each party agrees to ironclad guarantees of shared power that deny any the ability to oppress the others. But a large, powerful, U.S.-armed, U.S.-trained, Shiite-Kurd security force makes any such constitutional deal a fiction.

To resolve an intercommunal civil war, as opposed to countering a people’s war, implies at least two major policy changes.

First, we must slow, not accelerate, the growth of Iraqi security forces. Even an Iraqi force with Sunni enlistees is a problem if it precedes, not follows, a constitutional deal. Combat motivation is bound to suffer if mixed Shiite-Sunni units are asked to fight Sunni enemies. And the force we can get in the near term may have few Sunnis despite efforts to recruit them. Either possibility aggravates the real conflict.

Second, we must treat the military future of Iraq as a tool for brokering constitutional compromise, not as a quick ticket home for American troops. That is, we must threaten to throw American military power behind either side in today’s civil war as needed to compel the other to compromise.

If the Sunnis refuse to compromise, they must be threatened with full U.S. support for a homogeneous Shiite-Kurd army. If the Sunnis do agree to a compromise, they must be promised U.S. protection from communal rivals until a stable power-sharing deal can ensure their security without us.

Conversely, if the Shiite-Kurd alliance refuses to compromise, they must be threatened with abandonment or even U.S. assistance to their Sunni rivals. If they do compromise, they, too, must be promised sustained American protection until a power-sharing constitution is fully implemented.

Today’s policy does the opposite. We have promised to remain until the creation of an effective Iraqi security force that Sunnis see as hostile, and we intend to do this regardless of either side’s bargaining behavior.

This undermines both sides’ incentives to negotiate. For the Sunnis, the national military is coming whether they compromise or not - indeed, compromise merely trades their arms for a piece of constitutional paper backed by a hostile Shiite-Kurd army.

Shiites and Kurds, conversely, fear the Sunnis, but have been promised U.S. protection until and unless they can defend themselves whether they compromise or not. So why should they?

Yet the picture is not hopeless. Each of Iraq’s parties is better served by a power-sharing deal than by an unconstrained, high-intensity version of today’s low-intensity civil war. The willingness of the Shiites to compromise on constitutional amendment procedures last December gives grounds for hope that these common interests may yet prevail.

But today’s U.S. military policy hinders rather than helps these crucial negotiations. Our prospects in Iraq are surely better if we stop opposing a civil war with a strategy designed for a Maoist people’s war.

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