The U.S. Must Prepare for the Dissolution of Iraq

STRATEGIC HORIZONS

The U.S. Must Prepare for the Dissolution of Iraq

http://www. worldpoliticsreview.com/ articles/15123/the-u-s-must- prepare-for-the-dissolution- of-iraq

Shiite militia fighters sing anti-Islamic State group songs on the frontline near Kirkuk, Iraq, Feb. 15, 2015 (AP photo by Emad Matti).
By Steven Metz, Feb. 20, 2015, Column

Iraq is an artificial creation cobbled together from provinces of the old Ottoman Empire by outsiders. The ethnic groups and religious sects that live there were not always mortal enemies, but there was an undercurrent of enmity among them that turned malignant when Saddam Hussein imposed a murderous domination by his group, the Sunni Arabs.

When the United States waded into Iraq, it hoped that this precarious political entity could hang on in part as a barrier to Iran. After the removal of Saddam in 2003, Washington encouraged Baghdad to develop an inclusive government balancing the interests of its component ethnic groups and sects. This was a long shot from the beginning. The only chance for it to work would have been if Iraq had had a grace period of stability and economic growth, and somehow stumbled into an effective, inclusive government. Unfortunately, neither happened. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s regime simply swapped domination by a minority group for domination by the majority Shiite Arabs. Then the chaos in neighboring Syria spread to Iraq and undercut everything.

Now the chances are slim that Iraq can weather this storm and hold together. Dissolution into three parts-a Sunni Arab west, a Kurdish north and a Shiite section in the south-is so likely that American strategists should be thinking about how to respond.

The best possible outcome would be a negotiated dissolution with agreed-upon boundaries, some degree of economic cooperation, transit rights and perhaps even shared ownership of areas like the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk. The nightmare scenario would be the rapid and outright collapse of the national government and a protracted Syria-style civil war between ethnic and sectarian militias, provoking outside intervention by Iran and other Arab states, with the chaos giving even more operating space to the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other militants.

If and when Iraq unravels, the U.S. must accept it and do what it can to steer the process in a less dangerous and damaging direction. America cannot stop or control the dissolution. Most importantly, Washington must prioritize its strategic objectives, recognizing that it cannot get everything it would like.

Because of the complexity of the Iraq problem, five major U.S. objectives will be in play: keeping Iraq from becoming a base for transnational terrorism; containing and degrading IS; preventing or limiting genocide, ethnic cleansing or long-term refugee crises; preventing armed conflict between the successor states or ending it as soon as possible if it does occur; and preventing a proxy conflict pitting Iran, Hezbollah and Shiite Iraq against Sunni Arab militias allied with the armed forces of other Arab states.

Of these objectives, containing IS would undoubtedly get the most attention from elected officials, pundits and the media in the U.S. But in the long run, it would be less important than preventing a wider regional war. And although it would be desirable if the dissolution of Iraq did not increase Iranian influence, that is unlikely. However unintentional, the 2003 U.S. intervention propelled Iraq in a direction that virtually guaranteed a larger role for Tehran.

As Iraq unravels, the U.S. will face two broad strategic options. One would be to simply walk away from the whole mess, perhaps strengthening ties with Jordan and the Gulf states and launching raids or strikes against IS if it supports transnational terrorism, but otherwise letting things take their course-even if the result is a full-blown Syria-style civil war in Iraq and a humanitarian disaster. This would minimize the direct costs to the U.S., but also increase the chances that Iraq’s dissolution spirals out of control and sparks a wider regional conflict.

The second option would be for the U.S. to actively work for a soft landing as Iraq dissolves. The centerpiece would be a strategic relationship with Kurdistan, the only potential successor state likely to be interested in working closely with the U.S. Washington might provide some assistance to anti-IS militias in the Sunni Arab regions, but that part of Iraq would undoubtedly see protracted conflict and great suffering. And the U.S. would have to accept that the Shiite part of Iraq would be Tehran’s client.

If Washington opts for active involvement, American policymakers should think now about how close the relationship with an independent Kurdistan should be. Should the U.S. offer security guarantees? Should Washington consider a military presence to deter Kurdistan’s enemies and execute raids and strikes against IS? Would Turkey oppose an independent Kurdistan and, if forced to choose between the two, which way should the U.S. go?

These questions need to be answered quickly. History is clear-national dissolution rarely happens without turmoil and violence. Czechoslovakia is a rare example of a peaceful separation, whereas the dissolutions of Sudan, Ethiopia, Yugoslavia, British India and pre-1971 Pakistan, among others, brought great suffering. Most of that suffering was borne by civilians, the accidental victims of war.

Signs are that Iraq will dissolve and that the dissolution will be ugly. The more the U.S. and other nations can do to prepare, the better-both for Iraqis and the rest of the world.

Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.

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