posted by TheDon
Reports are swirling around that the White House is considering a plan to partition Iraq. The plan is presented in a paper from The Brookings Institution authored by Edward P. Joseph and Michael E. O’Hanlon. This frightening and desperate bit of colonialist thinking has been presented as a possiblity since before the invasion, was advocated by some as the first signs appeared that we were not being greeted as liberators, but is now being presented as the only logical option in some important quarters. It’s even the official position of Senator Joe Biden. From the intro (emphasis mine):
The time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is a soft partition of the country. Soft partition would involve the Iraqis, with the assistance of the international community, dividing their country into three main regions. Each would assume primary responsibility for its own security and governance, as Iraqi Kurdistan already does. Creating such a structure could prove difficult and risky. However, when measured against the alternatives—continuing to police an ethno-sectarian war, or withdrawing and allowing the conflict to escalate— the risks of soft partition appear more acceptable. Indeed, soft partition in many ways simply responds to current realities on the ground, particularly since the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque, a major Shi’i shrine, dramatically escalated intersectarian violence. If the U.S. troop surge, and the related effort to broker political accommodation through the existing coalition government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki fail, soft partition may be the only means of avoiding an intensification of the civil war and growing threat of a regional conflagration. While most would regret the loss of a multi-ethnic, diverse Iraq, the country has become so violent and so divided along ethno-sectarian lines that such a goal may no longer be achievable.
Soft partition would represent a substantial departure from the current approach of the Bush Administration and that proposed by the Iraq Study Group, both of which envision a unitary Iraq ruled largely from Baghdad. It would require new negotiations, the formation of a revised legal framework for the country, the creation of new institutions at the regional level, and the organized but voluntary movement of populations.
Absent compelling evidence of significant Iraqi involvement with the al Qaeda network or the events of September 11, the likely costs and risks of a commitment of American military forces to a regime-change campaign in Iraq would outweigh the benefits. A U.S. overthrow campaign would entail a large-scale military operation that the United States would probably have to undertake essentially alone; the increased risk of triggering terrorist attacks against American or allied targets; significant American casualties given the potential for intense urban combat and Iraqi use of chemical and biological agents; and the likely need for a long-term American military presence in Iraq to avoid regional destabilization. While these costs and risks are not so high as to rule out a possible overthrow policy under certain circumstances, they should be sobering to any advocate of sending U.S. troops to war to change the Iraqi regime.
I don’t praise Brookings papers easily or often, but this pre-war position was as sound and reasoned as any policy papers of the time. It earns the author a hearing on his current position, even one which sounds so uncompelling at first glance, especially since it is (reportedly) being considered by the brain trust in the White House. Are we really at the point where partition is the best option for Iraq? Is partition even possible? What is O’Hanlon’s vision of partition?
The Iraqi government has been unable to meet any benchmarks, or compromise on any legislation. No oil revenue sharing, no ammendments to the constitution, no changes to the de-Baathification laws, no provincial elections law, no disbanding of militias – all this according to the Pentagon report which is about to come out. There can be no national reconciliation (or nation) until all or most of these issues are dealt with in a universally satisfactory way. O’Hanlon acknowledges this, but claims that partitioning would spur these compromises because:
Indeed, Kurds and Shi’i Arabs would have far more incentive to cede on the fundamental issue of oil production and revenue sharing if they knew that their core strategic objectives would be realized through secure, empowered regions.
As opposed to now, when the incentive is to stop a civil war which is driving the upper and middle classes from the country, destroying infrastructure, keeping the nation impoverished, and killing dozens of citizens every day.
O’Hanlon insists throughout that the relocations are voluntary, despite all evidence that they would be coerced. The immorality of forced relocations is obvious to him. He briefly mentions that the people who decide to stay in the minority will find themselves in an increasingly smaller minority, probably causing them to leave their chosen home. Some might not consider that “voluntary”. The morality of “voluntary” relocation is debatable as well, but forget all the morality – shoot, forget if it’s even smart strategically! The important question is if can we really do it.
Those means include creating processes to help people voluntarily relocate to parts of Iraq where they would no longer be in the minority, and hence where they should be safer. This is not an appealing prospect to put it mildly. However, if the choice becomes sustaining a failing U.S. troop surge or abandoning Iraq altogether, with all the risks that entails in terms of intensified violence and regional turmoil, then soft partition might soon become the least bad option. The question will then be less whether it is morally and strategically acceptable, and more whether it is achievable.
Of course, this would be a logistical nightmare, involving lots of armor, weapons and logistical support. It would also require the blessing of leaders who could keep the columns of “relocated” Iraqis from being attacked. I am unaware that such leaders exist, but I’d like to be pleasantly surprised.
Among other things, it would involve the organized movement of two million to five million Iraqis, which could only happen safely if influential leaders encouraged their supporters to cooperate, and if there were a modicum of agreement on where to draw borders and how to share oil revenue.
Oh thank god! All they have to do is agree on where to draw borders and how to share oil revenue. How hard could that be? Oh wait… It’s been four years? Dammit! So what other obstacles could there be? (as always, emphasis mine)
As for the wider ramifications, a carelessly conceived and implemented partition could potentially cause regional destabilization and conflict. Indeed, this is a crucial difference between Iraq and Bosnia. In the latter’s case, its neighbors, Serbia and Croatia, were unified in their ambition to divide Bosnia and achieved a common approach. By contrast in Iraq it is precisely the ongoing civil war that presents the worst risk for regional stability.
Well, at least we wouldn’t have to worry about anything being carelessly conceived or implemented! We have a crew of strategic and tactical geniuses in charge of our military policy, not to mention the State Department. I’m starting to feel optimistic now.
“But Don”, you ask, “What about the Sunnis?” Good question. O’Hanlon acknowledges that Sunnis won’t be on board for the plan, but seems to argue they won’t have any better options.
So while it is hard to argue that enhanced regionalism would find any initial Sunni Arab support, there is no viable alternative for this large group of embittered Iraqis.
No viable alternative? Keep in mind that the Sunni were the masters of the Shia in Iraq for several decades, and consider themselves superior. They also wouldn’t control any significant oil fields, and would have to trust that the oil revenues would flow in from their friends the Kurds, and their friends the Shia. Viable is in the eye of the beholder. You never know, but they might consider a civil war to be viable, or attacking the occupying army. I know it sounds like a long shot, but it could happen.
There are several problems which occur after the “voluntary” relocations. Home swaps, job creation programs, national IDs to name a few, each a problem of monumental porportions. O’Hanlon proposes solutions to all the problems, but to an engineer it sounds waaaaaay too complicated to have even a small chance of working.
One other glaring problem is that this paper looks to the recent experience in Bosnia for encouragement, techniques and results. I think this is much more like Partition in India and Pakistan, where the result has been 60 years of conflict (so far), both sides developing nuclear weapons, and still unresolved borders. But if I were writing the Brookings paper, I’d stick with Bosnia too.
So to summarize: relocation is probably immoral, could attract violence from all sides, requires careful planning, requires buy-in by all sides in Iraq, requires agreement on revenue sharing, borders and reconciliation laws, and probably won’t work. Yet here is a top intellectual from the right pushing “soft partition” as policy. Why? (emphasis mine)
Soft partition could fail. It could fail because Iraqis simply refuse to consider it or change their minds after they have initially decided to adopt it. It could fail through poor implementation, with violence accelerating as populations start to relocate. It could come too late to save many lives, and it would require the creation of major Iraqi institutions largely from scratch. Leaving aside the unsavory aspects of having the international community help relocate people based on their ethnicity or confession, soft partition is not an option to turn to lightly or happily. But it may soon be all we have left.
Just. Fucking. Lovely.