U.S. and Iraqi Conceptions of Reconciliation

July 17, 2007

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

The Interim Report

The interim surge report underscores the chasm that separates US and Iraqi conceptions of reconciliation. For Americans, reconciliation signifies a bargaining process through which Sunnis participate in the governance of the state and get their fair share of Iraq’s resources.

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Congresses and Parliaments

Iraqis see things differently. Shi’as tend to emphasize the need for justice. The centrality of justice is rooted in the history of Shi’a thought and in their experience as Iraqis. For them, justice demands that their suffering under previous regimes – not only Saddam’s – be compensated. This in turn necessitates the subordination of Iraq’s Sunni population to the needs of the Shi’a community. For the Shi’a run government, justice precedes reconciliation.

For many Sunnis, reconciliation means restoration. This goes beyond mere inclusion in power sharing arrangements. It means regaining control of the state. For Kurds, reconciliation means respect for their claims to autonomy as well as to prospective territorial gains.

These differences will not be reconciled soon. Dethroned elites do not easily surrender their dreams of a reversal of fortune. The process resembles the way people grapple with imminent death through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In the case of Sunnis grappling with the implications of Saddam’s overthrow, the losers are not yet near the bargaining stage.

Duration of Civil Wars

Studies of civil wars since 1945 show that most last 7 to 10 years and generally end with the military victory of one side or the other, rather than a negotiated settlement. Where power-sharing arrangements have been reached, they have been short-lived and often led to renewed hostilities. Moreover, civil wars tend to be harder to resolve when the rebel side is fractured, a point relevant to the currentUS strategy of driving wedges in the Sunni insurgency. With or without the presence of US forces, the Iraqi civil war is likely to grind on for some time.

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Congresses and Parliaments

What Purpose Do US Forces Serve?

The large presence of US ground forces has had little effect on Iraqi politics, or on the insurgency. The surge has redistributed insurgent activity but not suppressed it. Ironically, the violence now touches more of the country than before, with a corresponding erosion of societal stability and government credibility.

At the same time, the presence of US forces is a godsend to jihadists. Talk of a Korea-like commitment and an elaborate base structure, alongside an unwillingness to discuss a timetable for withdrawal, has fueled suspicion and further energized the jihad.

Meanwhile, given our large presence in Iraq, we are bound to be held responsible for the awful things happening there, even though we are unable to prevent them — culpable, but not capable. Against the background of regrettable but unavoidable battlefield excesses, the US seems both ineffectual and cruel. This image of America is continuously broadcast to the world in the form of the 900 insurgent communiqués and videos generated from within Iraq every month.

Why a Near Term Decision to Withdraw is Essential

Public support for the war has dwindled. Casualty tolerance is weakening and could crack at any time. Should this happen, the resulting US withdrawal will appear confused and ill-prepared; the hasty reaction to a sudden reversal. We must therefore begin planning now for a deliberate and orderly redeployment of US forces from Iraq . It is vital that a withdrawal appear to be a matter of volition, not compulsion.

Which is Worse: The Cost of Staying or the Cost of Leaving?

The Administration contends that the hypothetical costs of withdrawal are necessarily bigger than the demonstrated costs of staying. Predictions of catastrophe, like the President’s assertion that the results of a so-called “precipitous” withdrawal will be “horrific,” have transformed the unknowable into the unthinkable. But think we must.

Spread of Civil War

Will the withdrawal of U.S.forces open the door to “regional chaos”, per Stephen Hadley? Armed clashes between or among the armies of Iraq’s neighbors do not seem likely. Mid-to-late twentieth century civil wars in the region—in Algeria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, even Lebanon—did not spark wider wars. In most cases, surrounding countries tried to protect their interests through proxies, while avoiding the risks and costs of military intervention.

Indirect conflict, however, is more probable, especially in the absence of a diplomatic process designed to stave off, or at least regulate moves by neighboring countries to protect their interests using proxies. Indeed, this low profile competition is already underway, albeit confined to Iraqi borders.

The real threat of instability is directed at Jordan, which is host to an Iraqi refugee cohort equal to one tenth its population. This calls for international assistance and heightened vigilance by Jordanian security forces. But there is little that a large US military presence inIraqcan due to mitigate the threat.


In thinking about genocide, it is worth remembering that Sunni insurgents already act with impunity and that only in neighborhoods where the US presence is temporarily bulked-up have militias desisted from cleansing operations. The question is how much worse it can get.

A prudent forecast is that the lack of organizational capacity, broad communal consent and heavy weapons on either side will impede a drastic increase in the already appalling casualty rate. The largely Sunni areas are uninteresting to the Shi’a as objects of conquest. Without artillery, armor, and attack aircraft, Shi’a forces will be hard pressed to reduce Sunni majority cities to rubble as the Serbs dealt with Croatian or Muslim urban areas in the formerYugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing in mixed areas will continue, refugees and the internally displaced will grow, bombings and death squads will claim many lives, but necessary conditions for nationwide genocidal violence are as yet absent.

The Credibility Cost of Leaving

The Administration believes that the withdrawal of American forces would damage American credibility. This disregards the damage that floundering in Iraqhas already inflicted on America’s reputation for competence, integrity and military prowess.

It is also unclear how staying the very course that exposed America to worldwide ridicule and dislike will somehow cause America to be admired and trusted.

Al Qaeda will no doubt revel in the sight of US troops withdrawing fromIraq . But AQ already sees Iraq as a victory. If we stay, AQ will have it both ways: vindicated by America’s failure to control events and by Washington’s determination, despite fierce resistance, to occupy the heartland of the Arab world.

At a strategic level, an orderly, systematic withdrawal is unlikely to affect the calculation of a future state adversary deciding whether to push its luck in a confrontation with the United States. In such a crisis, the adversary will be focused on assessing the stakes for the US and Washington’s ability to defend them at that moment. The adversary is unlikely to look back to what theUS did or didn’t do years before in Iraq.

How Should the US Deal with an Al Qaeda Mini-State in Iraq?

There is no easy fix for this problem we created. The bleed-out specter is real, as the UK, Lebanon and Jordan have already experienced. AQI has also deepened the sectarian divide in Iraq. While its numbers are small, the recruitment pool is deep and mostly born in Iraq. The cracks in the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigade reflect a tendency for insurgents to opt for more radical solutions when the so-called moderates do not appear to be capable of delivering results. It is therefore premature to celebrate episodic, local rifts between AQ affiliates and other insurgents or see them simply as a rejection of AQ.

In helping the good “bad guys” fight the bad “bad guys,” we need to remember a few things:

—This is not a mission for which the US needs 165,000 troops inIraq;

—the US troop presence helps drive the insurgency that ad hoc deals between US and insurgent commanders are supposed to undermine;

—for AQI, becoming the target of good “bad guys” will likely help it to recruit new fighters by conferring on AQ the glow of integrity and even nobility;

—and lastly, that the moving parts of the insurgency can reengage quickly to threaten not only US forces but the Iraqi government.

Why should the US not withdraw its forces immediately?

A rapid withdrawal is logistically feasible only if we were to leave behind what couldn’t be flown out. If we wish to give the Iraqi army our equipment, that is one thing. If not, perhaps because the Iraqi army might use it for genocidal purposes, then leaving materiel behind will cause our departure to be seen as a rout. This perception must be avoided.  If the US takes the latter, prudent road, port and shipping capacity will limit the speed with which our materiel can be redeployed.

We will also need time to put in place a multilateral structure to support economic recovery; care for refugees and the displaced; improve border controls; and plan for an international humanitarian effort should Iraq disintegrate.

Time will also be needed to negotiate a withdrawal with the Iraqi government that might afford a window on Iraqi forces, give Washington the clout to enforce a red line against genocidal actions by the government, and to offset some of Tehran’s significant influence, thereby giving Iraqi nationalists an alternative to Iranian patronage.


Predictions of across-the-board post-withdrawal disasters, or fantasies about Iraqi national reconciliation must not deter us from considering all available options.

Regional chaos is unlikely, as is genocide within Iraq. On the other hand, the al-Qaedization of the insurgency is underway and internecine violence will remain severe. Yet a long term US troop commitment won’t stop these trends.

US credibility is already tattered. The way to restore it is by cutting our losses inIraq, shifting the basis of our support for the country toward diplomacy and economic development, and showing that Washington can still act creatively and effectively in the region.

Withdrawal is the strategically appropriate course of action, provided that it is systematic, orderly and geared to a coherent diplomatic gameplan. The sooner we grasp this nettle, the better.

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