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Archive for January, 2007

A Way Out of the Mess: Divide and Exit

[Originally published in The Valley News.]

Supporters of President Bush’s proposal for a “surge” in troops to be deployed to Iraq are guilty of one really shoddy tactic in the current debate. Having themselves been unable to find an alternative other than a continuation of the old policy, which is precisely what the “surge” is, they now challenge all those who disagree with the policy to find an acceptable alternative — on their behalf.

If they were really serious about “winning” in Iraq, they would use a force of hundreds of thousands of men, as was recommended before the war by our military leadership. According to many military experts, anything much short of that had then and has now little chance of pacifying the country. But that was never a rational approach to Iraq. Perhaps if it had been properly considered at the onset, it might have stopped the invasion before it started. Troop levels fall in the same category as the lack of adequate and appropriate arms for our troops — armored Humvees and body armor, for example. In short, we went to war with what we had, to use the formulation of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and it was simply inadequate for the long haul.

So they blame the current policy impasse on the Democrats’ inability to come up with a viable new plan, when the entire mess clearly results from their own invasion.

Not that the Democrats are covering themselves in glory. Those Democrat legislators who fell for the Bush rationalization for the Iraq invasion and voted to enable it are, quite frankly, morally and politically compromised on this issue. Except for those few who have repudiated their own votes, they have lost their standing and credibility. And most aren’t contributing to the policy debate much anyway; they’re just carping incessantly and unconstructively against the president’s policy.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has repudiated the only way out of this mess — a plan that curiously is not being actively pushed by the Democrats. Iraq is not a country and never has been, unless that status was imposed on its inhabitants by force of arms — a la Saddam Hussein. Its logical and natural condition, even more so after Saddam’s departure, is to be divided into three pieces — Kurdish, Shia and Sunni.

If you look carefully at the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and its approach to today’s miserable realities in Iraq, it’s clear it is interested first and foremost in pursuing sectarian goals and not in any greater Iraqi good. It has consistently blocked or resisted U.S. attempts to shut down the Mahdi army, the militia operating under the control of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It has not made any attempt to redress Sunni concerns about the Iraqi constitution. It is interested primarily in having the Iraq army take on only Sunni insurgents. The Shia government wants an Iraq on its terms.

Since the invasion, the Sunnis, although they appear recently to have realized their error, have simply not participated in the national government in any meaningful way. They have done much to keep the sectarian pot boiling through their alliance with al-Qaida and through suicide bombings and other acts of violence.

The Kurds in the north are content to run their own virtual nation. They seem far more interested in assuring that when Iraq falls apart, they will maintain their independence and get northern oil and the cities that go with it.

And that’s the blueprint. No one in Iraq seems to want to lay down arms and negotiate to become a real country. When the vast majority of the citizens of Iraq put their own ethnic and religious interests first, partition is the logical answer to their problem. It really doesn’t matter what we want to happen. What matters is only what they want, and, at best, that would appear to be some sort of confederation, the primary glue for which would be the sharing of the national wealth — oil.

On the positive side, al-Qaida would not survive in a divided Iraq. Only America’s presence keeps the secular Sunnis and fundamentalist al-Qaida on the same page. Once the Americans have departed, the Sunnis will be done with al-Qaida.

However, the three-state solution does have its own built-in problems. Partly because of their concerns about Shia Iran’s incipient domination of the region, the Sunnis in the neighborhood (Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, etc.) do not want to see an Iraq dominated by Shias. Because the Turks preside over a large, unhappy minority of Kurds in their own country, they are extremely nervous about the creation of a Kurdish state on their southern flank. Because the Iranians seek increased power in the region, they are likely to support the Shias in Iraq to advance their regional goals.

These are potential, not actual, problems. None of those neighbors wants the kind of civil or regional war that supporters of Bush policy constantly and apocalyptically predict. None of them can afford it. Each neighbor has its own reasons to want to stop the problem before it begins. The only way they can get there is through negotiations. Such talks will not take place without American leadership. As long as we reject such talks, there will be no peace.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in the Middle East, East and West Europe and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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