Iraq Is Gone. Now What?

By Monica Duffy Toft
Monday, November 13, 2006

Some 3 1/2 years after the U.S. invasion, most scholars and policy analysts accept that Iraq is now in a civil war. But many policymakers have not been willing to face up to the consequences. The key question is how Iraq will be stabilized.

It is an important question, because the stability and prosperity of a post-civil-war state depends in large measure on how the war ends. The fighting can stop in a variety of ways -- by military victory or negotiated settlement. Historically speaking, military victories have been the most common and have most often led to lasting resolutions. So while a negotiated settlement may seem the most desirable end point, this resolution is frequently short-lived even with third-party support.

A negotiated settlement is what the United States has attempted to implement for the past two years in Iraq, and it is failing.

The process of writing and adopting a constitution and electing a president and parliament were all designed to give each of Iraq's communities a say in the government. Although the Kurds and the Shiites participated fully in the process, the Sunnis did not. Consequently, the Sunnis do not see the government as representing, much less protecting, their interests. Although the Kurds participated in the formation of the government, they have maintained their distance while strengthening their own militia.

The trend lines in Iraq are toward a continuation of this fragmentation. So the argument in favor of a sustained U.S. presence to help enforce a peace settlement ignores both the situation there and past precedent.

Military victories, by contrast, historically result in the most stable outcomes. The reason is that typically a strong faction with a robust military is preserved. In these instances, problems with democratization, governance and political institutions certainly remain, but the state that survives retains its monopoly on the legitimate use of force and is able to leverage that legitimacy to stabilize and institute peace. Only after peace is achieved can issues of democracy, development and justice be dealt with.

Although the United States seemed to have forgotten the centrality of a state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force when it summarily disbanded Iraqi security forces, it subsequently relearned this lesson. The United States and its Iraqi partners are desperately trying to rebuild Iraq's security forces in order to have more effective policing. The problem is that it is already too late for "Iraqi" security forces to reestablish stability. The Iraqi government's forces are increasingly identified as "Shiite" forces. As it stands, schisms will continue to grow, neighbor will attack neighbor, quasi-states with their own militias will solidify and the challenges of stabilizing an Iraqi state will escalate by an order of magnitude.

What does all this mean for Iraq's end state? First, it means the end of the state of Iraq as we have known it. Iraq is rapidly disintegrating, and there is no longer anything that can stop the disintegration, save perhaps an invasion by Israel, Iran or Syria. Second, having missed a number of critical opportunities from the beginning of its campaign to topple Saddam Hussein and establish democratic government in Iraq (the latter proposition dubious at best), the United States is now faced with an awful choice: leave and allow events to run their course or lend its dwindling support to one or more of the emerging states.

If it leaves, the Shiites will brutally settle accounts with the Sunnis before, perhaps, opening hostilities against the Kurds (with tacit support from Iran and Turkey).

If it supports the Kurds and Shiites -- the two peoples most abused under Hussein, most betrayed by the United States since 1990 and, as a result, the two most worthy of our support on moral grounds -- it risks alienating important regional allies: Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. On the other hand, doing the right thing (supporting the Shiites) also means doing the most practical thing, which is ensuring a stable peace and establishing long-term prospects for democracy and economic development. As a bonus, it is possible that U.S. support of the Shiite majority might pay diplomatic dividends as regards Iran's impending nuclearization.

If the United States supports the Sunnis, it will be in a position very close to its Vietnam experience: struggling to underwrite the survival of a militarily untenable, corrupt and formerly brutal minority regime with no hope of gaining broader legitimacy in the territory of the former Iraq.

Moreover, even if successful, supporting the Sunnis -- in effect the incumbents in what was until recently a brutal dictatorship -- will result in a much greater likelihood of future war and regional instability (not to mention authoritarianism), even with a formidable U.S. military presence (and the less-than-formidable U.S. presence has already become politically untenable in the United States).

It is high time the United States and its allies began national discussions about the relative merits of leaving or staying and, if they stay, about the merits of supporting the Sunnis, Shiites or Kurds. Either way, what we now think of as Iraq is almost certainly as gone as what we once thought of as Yugoslavia, and for the same reasons.

The writer is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of "The Geography of Ethnic Violence" and is finishing a book on the termination of civil wars.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company