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A devilish thought is forming in the back of the American mind: which is better, to have Iraqis shooting at American soldiers, or at each other? During the Cold War, Moscow stood to gain from instability, and Washington sought to stabilize allied regimes (Iran being the exception that proved the rule). Now, with no strategic competitor, America can pick up the pieces at its leisure. As in finance, volatility favors the player with the most options ( Geopolitics in the light of option theory, Jan 26, 2002).
No one in the Bush administration wants to let slip the dogs of civil war. On the contrary, the White House still hopes that Iraq will set a precedent for democracy in the Muslim world. Yet civil war is the path of least resistance, so clearly so that the punditry of the world press has raised the alarm with one voice. A Google news search turns up 900 hits for the search terms “Iraq” and “civil war.” What is so bad about a civil war? No self-respecting state ever has been formed without one. All the European countries had at least one (some of them called religious wars). America has had two. The Middle East and Africa have them all the time (Civil War: A do-it-yourself guide, Aug 29, 2003). States are founded on compromise. Civil war is just nature’s way of telling the diehards to slow down.
For the time being, the US proconsul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, has offered the devil his little finger. Washington hopes that the threat is mightier than the execution. Leslie Gelb’s November 25 call for a three-state solution (“Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shi’ites in the south”) demarcated an extreme option for the Bush administration. In effect, Bremer is warning the Shi’ites that an electoral coup would push the Kurds towards independence, the Kurds that overreaching would provoke the Shi’ites, and the Sunnis that partition would leave them an impecunious rump state far from the oil fields (Will Iraq survive the Iraqi opposition? Dec 23, 2003).
Fear of the Kurds and Shi’ites is supposed to make the Sunnis more cooperative. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported from Baghdad on January 16: “Iraqis fear that their country is drifting toward civil war. [Bremer’s] polls tell him 57 percent of Iraqis would feel less safe if American troops pulled out tomorrow. In Baghdad, that figure is 65 percent; in Basra, it’s 67 percent.”
To flush determined irregulars out of hiding among the civilian population, the occupier must persuade the civilians to turn them out. America cannot win the hearts and minds of the Sunnis. As former overlords, the addictive taste of mastery remains in their mouth. Elements of the Saddam Hussein regime used to power and privileges will not return to humble lives without fighting, and to pacify the Sunni triangle the Americans must kill a large proportion of the diehards (More killing, please! Jun 12, 2003). “Oderint dum metuant ,” said Cicero – let them hate us as long as they fear us.
But it is not likely that the specter of partition alone will be enough to frighten the Sunnis into good behavior. Bremer may have to give the devil his due, and do more than show the Iraqis the instruments of torture. Last year I predicted that America will end up “recruiting Turks to patrol Basra, Kurds to patrol Tikrit, Shi’ites to occupy Baghdad, while offering bribes, territory and other inducements to Iraq’s neighbors to meddle. The result would be a ghastly mess, perhaps even a state of perpetual war, but one for which the US could take limited responsibility.” (How cherry-picking militant Islam may win, Oct 3, 2003).
Only within the strange, sad subculture of diplomats does it matter whether Washington meets the June deadline for Iraqi elections, preserves the territorial integrity of Iraq, and so forth. It is not within America’s power to determine such things. Over time we will learn how many regime holdovers prefer death to humiliation, how much the Kurds will risk for autonomy, or how boldly the Shi’ites will play their hand. None of this matters to American voters, who cared not at all that no weapons of mass destruction caches turned up. They continue to support the Iraqi incursion as a response to an external attack. Does anyone imagine that Americans will care now if Iraqis kill each other or not? For that matter, will Americans care if Turkey and Iran become embroiled in a regional war in the aftermath of partition? Throughout the 1980s, they did not notice that Iraq and Iran were fighting a full-scale war.
In the meantime, Washington is struggling to improve the quality of its counterinsurgency forces on the ground. As I suspected (Why America is losing the intelligence war, Nov 11, 2003), America has enlisted Israeli help to train special forces, as Seymour Hersh reported in the December 15 New Yorker. Even if the US could recruit and deploy a sufficient number of capable personnel, their success still would depend on the willingness of the locals to work with them. The more the locals fight each other, the more they will need the US. Recall that Afghani tribal fighters welcomed American Special Forces precisely because already they were losing a civil war with the Taliban.
Context is everything. Fewer than 3,000 British officers controlled India, Sir John Keegan observes (in Intelligence in War), many of whom “wore a version of native dress, spoke Indian languages and prided themselves on their immersion in the customs and culture of their soldiers.” Irregular forces under British officers put down the 1857 Sepoy rebellion and then became the regular British army, Keegan adds. This would not have been possible, however, had not the European powers stumbled into a perpetual civil war between Hinduism and Islam marked by countless smaller conflicts. Once Pax Britannica had settled over India, the last rebels were suppressed, and the last recalcitrant maharaja had succumbed to carrot or stick, Hindus and Muslims combined to throw the British out.
Americans are accustomed to happy endings. President George W. Bush wants to be remembered as the benefactor of the Muslim world, not as a second Genghis Khan (George Bush, tragic character, Dec 9, 2003). Only in the paranoid imaginings of the Muslim world has Washington set out to destabilize the region.
Nonetheless, the tragedy will proceed as Washington at each step discovers that its only viable option is the one that pushes Iraq closer to dissolution.