By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006
As the U.S. military struggles against persistent sectarian violence in Iraq, military officers and security experts find themselves in a vigorous debate over an idea that just months ago was largely dismissed as a fringe thought: that the surest -- and perhaps now the only -- way to bring stability to Iraq is to divide the country into three pieces.
Those who see the partitioning of Iraq as increasingly attractive argue that separating the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds may be the only solution to the violence that many experts believe verges on civil war. Others contend that it would simply lead to new and dangerous challenges for the United States, not least the possibility that al-Qaeda would find it easier to build a new base of operations in a partitioned Iraq.
One specialist on the Iraqi insurgency, Ahmed S. Hashim, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who has served two tours in Iraq as a reservist, contends in a new book that the U.S. government's options in Iraq are closing to just two: Let a civil war occur, or avoid that wrenching outcome through some sort of partition. Such a division of the country "is the option that can allow us to leave with honor intact," he concludes in "Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq."
Bush administration officials have expressed relief and optimism since Iraqi politicians ended a four-month impasse this month by finally choosing a prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki, a Shiite politician. Such political milestones, coupled with the ongoing training of Iraqi security forces, are the cornerstones of U.S. policy and the keys to building a unified, stable Iraq, U.S. officials say.
At the same time, the continued violence across the country has convinced some analysts that U.S. options in Iraq are narrowing, as both U.S. influence inside the country and patience at home for the war wane.
The fundamental fact of Iraq is that insurgent attacks on Iraqi police and army troops continue essentially unabated, said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst of Middle Eastern security issues.
"There are peaks and valleys," he said Friday at a seminar of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It goes up and down, but it seems to grow over time." Also, he said, lately there has been a spate of worrisome, large-scale direct attacks on Iraqi police stations and army outposts, some involving as many as 50 fighters.
The goal of U.S. foreign policy right now, said former ambassador James Dobbins, a Rand Corp. expert on peacekeeping, should be to prevent the country from sliding into a large-scale conventional civil war. "Our economic leverage is already essentially gone," he said at a recent discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, and "our military leverage is also a waning asset." So he is calling for a much more intense campaign of regional diplomacy by U.S. officials.
Others say it is too late to go shopping for help in a region whose governments are generally hostile to U.S. goals in Iraq.
"I agree with Ahmed," said retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, a counterinsurgency expert who has worked in Iraq on training security forces there. "The Iraqis are positioning for civil war," and so, he said, the United States should be contemplating a "soft partition" of the country by design, rather than through violence. An all-out civil war would not only endanger U.S. troops more but also would be more likely to spill over into neighboring states and so wreak havoc on the international oil market, Hammes said.
On the other side of the debate are many military insiders who believe steady progress is being made in Iraq, despite violence and setbacks.
"I do not agree that there are only two options, especially these two options" of civil war or breaking the country apart, said Army Lt. Col. James A. Gavrilis, a Special Forces officer who participated in the invasion of Iraq and now works on Iraq issues for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gavrilis said that allowing a civil war or a partition of Iraq would be an admission of failure that is not required by the current situation.
"The potential for civil war is there, certainly, but it is not as far as many are claiming. We have not seen indicators of full-scale civil war or mass mobilizations or a collapse of politics," said Gavrilis, noting that he was expressing his personal views. He argued for continuing to emphasize the democratic revolution that he believes is changing Iraq. Likewise, Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel who in the past advised the Pentagon on the Iraqi insurgency, thinks that the administration should stay the course: "I think drawing down our participation . . . and continuing to grow security forces that are loyal to the central government rather than to sects is the way to go, but that is obviously easier said than done."
The U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, declined to provide a senior officer to be interviewed about the issues addressed in this article.
Even carrying out a planned division of Iraq may prove more difficult than it appears, warned an officer now serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, which is on its second tour there. "It's a simple, blunt approach to preventing sectarian violence," he said. "However, it won't stop all infiltrations and violence, and it may simply result in armed camps that eventually resort to all-out, partitioned state-on-state war."
Preventing major ethnic and sectarian massacres such as occurred in the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan would require huge investments of time and money, hard to come by four years into the war, warned Hammes, the counterinsurgency expert. "We will have to develop and fund some kind of displacement agency to move the families and set them up -- very manpower and civilian expertise intensive!" he said in an e-mail interview.
Because of those hurdles, Hammes said, he expects that the U.S. government will be incapable of managing a breakup of Iraq. He considers a "hard" division of Iraq, achieved through civil war, more likely. "This will spread disorder to Saudi and other Gulf states," he predicted.
Others think that dividing Iraq itself is a pipe dream because it wouldn't solve the basic problems racking the country.
"There is no way a partition would work," said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joe Rice, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, expressing his personal opinion. Baghdad is a deeply mixed city, he noted: "The largest Kurdish city in Iraq? Baghdad. The largest Sunni city? Baghdad. The largest Shiite city? Yep, Baghdad." Also, he said, it would be difficult to parcel out Iraq's greatest treasure, its oil reserves, in a way that all three major groups would find acceptable.
What's more, if partition actually happened, it probably would have several unintended consequences, such as creating a hard-line, anti-American Sunni mini-state, possibly giving al-Qaeda a new haven, said Michael Quigley, a former expert on terrorism at the Defense Intelligence Agency who has served in Iraq.
The most radical view, which even now appears to have only a few proponents in the U.S. military establishment, is that the United States should step back and let a civil war occur. In this argument, the U.S. government created a revolutionary situation when it invaded Iraq and brought about a wholesale transfer of power from the country's Sunnis to its Shiites. So, this argument goes, civil war isn't something to be avoided, but rather a necessary part of the process of changing Iraq.
One of the few officers who have expressed this view publicly is Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, an inventive former planner with the 101st Airborne in Iraq who now teaches at West Point.
"Should we give civil war a chance in Iraq?" Wilson asked in an essay posted on the Internet last month. His answer: probably yes. That is, such a conflict may be what is needed to save the country.
"For Iraq, as ironic and illogical as it may seem," he said, "a true and sustainable future may come in the aftermath of the very sectarian-based civil war we have been striving to prevent."