Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq

Part IV of a series about America’s new Long War

Summary:  How will the Iraq War end? Is there a solution? These are the questions readers most frequently ask me. Here is my answer.

This is the 34th article I have published at DNI over the past four years, the 22nd about Iraq. I wish there were happier things to say about it.

What with the Crocker/Petraeus report and Maliki’s rapidly crumbling position, everyone involved in the Iraq issue is gaming the coming month, calculating the angles and trying to position themselves for whatever changes may be forthcoming.
Marc Lynch, professor of political science at George Washington University

We’re lost in the details about Iraq, even experts like Lynch. The statistics, the differing narratives, the personal attacks. Forecasts for next month, next week, the next news cycle. Here we will instead look for the big picture. What are the major trends in Iraq?

The following are guesses amidst the fog of war. The first two expand upon observations in my article of March 2007. These were controversial then, but almost consensus wisdom today.

  1. Iraq is fragmenting into three parts.
  2. Development of local, armed “governments” drives this process.  Ethnic cleansing is their major tool.  This is a road to peace for Iraq, perhaps the only path still open.
  3. It’s not about us. The Coalition has been and probably will be irrelevant to nation-building in Iraq.
  4. More fighting lies in Iraq’s future, mostly battles for control of the new proto-states and border wars. Hopefully this means less killing.

The last two sections of this paper discuss what this means for America.

  1. Recommendations for our Expedition to Iraq
  2. What does this tell us about our Long War?

Let’s examine each in of these in turn.

1. Iraq is fragmenting into three parts.

GALLIA est omnis divisa in partes tres … (All Gaul is divided into three parts)
— Opening line of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War

Throughout Iraq local elites are creating regimes. Supported by militias which run the gamut from criminal gangs to formal armies, they fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Iraq’s central state.

This fragmentation can be seen as a descent into civil war, or as the preliminary to formation of a new Iraq state. These proto-states can be building blocks for something larger. Many of these powerful local elites have the power to negotiate and strike deals. This offers a path to peace for us and the Iraq people, perhaps the only such. In this sense the details matter little: soft partition, hard partition, a federation, or individual sovereign entities.

The “Anbar model” shows the future of Iraq: local elites defeat “foreign” forces, consolidate power, then “ally” with the Coalition. That is, we provide arms and training; in exchange they give us little or nothing. No wonder the Shiite Arabs wish to join the Kurds and Sunni Arabs at this free lunch.

In this context “foreign” includes not only Coalition forces, but those of ethnic or religious groups either foreign to that region of Iraq or a minority within it.

The first zone, Kurdistan is a fact. As usual, diplomatic recognition lags the fact. After fifty years of fighting, the Kurdish insurgency has won. They control an army (the Peshmerga), levy taxes, enact laws, and have the loyalty of a majority of the region’s people.

Taking the next step to their future, they’ve signed their first oil contract. Significantly, they’ve signed with the Hunt Oil Company. The bio of their CEO, Ray L. Hunt, tells us much. Son of Texas oilman H. L. Hunt, Bush appointed him to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in October 2005.

There is no insurgency in the second zone, southern Iraq, where authority has devolved to local communities run by a mixture of tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders.

There is no longer an insurgency in the third zone, the Sunni Arab regions. There, as in Kurdistan, the locals have defeated both internal and external opposition – including the foreign fighters brought in as shock troops against Coalition and Iraq (i.e., Kurdish, and Shiite) forces. We have sounded the death knell of the “National” Iraq government by financing and arming the Sunni Arab police/militia. Doing so without their consent blatantly signals to everyone that it’s finished. (Imagine if Iran armed the Bloods and Crips to “bring peace to Los Angeles”.)

Elites in all three regions have come to terms with the foreign occupiers (i.e., us). To varying extents we arm and finance them in exchange for real or imagined concessions and/or support.

Our government’s actions, if not yet its words, acknowledge defeat in Iraq. Our “national strategy for victory in Iraq” is titled “Helping the Iraqi People Defeat the Terrorists and Build an Inclusive Democratic State.” The terrorists are what pass for governments in Iraq, except for the tiny fraction of foreign terrorists now being expelled. These new governments are not inclusive. Some of them might become democratic.

Our long-term goal: “Iraq is peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism {GWOT}.” At best we might get some of these things. Which of these is most important? Which are worth paying this war’s high cost in blood and money?

  • “United” looks unlikely. There might not even be an “Iraq.” Whatever the new form of Iraq, Iran probably becomes the hegemonic power in the Middle East. That is, if they can overcome their internal political and economic problems.
  • A “partner in the GWOT” is possible, in the limited sense that Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are partners: formally so, but many of their people are either our enemies or support them.
  • The others are possible: peaceful, stable, secure, integrated – as it was before March 2003, except for the boycott imposed upon them, before we deposed Saddam. We can only hope.

2. Development of local, armed “governments” drives this process. Ethnic cleansing is their major tool. This is a road to peace for Iraq, perhaps the only path still open.

Nationalism is the dominate form of social organization today because it allows mobilization of greater energies than other forms. A common step in its implementation is elimination of “alien” peoples in the new body politic through

  1. Forced assimilation.
  2. Forced emigration.
  3. Death, natural over time or forced.

This process horrifies even the winners – but only afterwards – and so goes into the memory hole. Children’s history texts usually tell only the story of heroic nation-building, not the unfortunate side-effects.

  1. Massive “cleansing” followed the American Revolution. Article Five of the Treaty of Paris (1783) required that Congress “earnestly recommend” to state legislatures that they “provide for the restitution of all estates, rights, and properties, which have been confiscated belonging to real British subjects” Many Loyalists (100,000 – 250,000) fled our new nation during or soon after the Revolution. Probably their descendants have given up waiting for their checks.
  2. France resulted from two intense waves of nation-building during the Napoleonic Wars and WWI. For more on this see “The Great Transformation” section in Chapter Four of Martin van Creveld’s Rise and Decline of the State (e.g., the long effort to make French the national language of France).
  3. The peaceful Europe of today results from two centuries of extensive ethnic cleansing, especially surrounding WWI and WWII. As a result, ethnic groups concentrated in their “home” nations. Many minorities (e.g., the Jews) were assimilated, ejected, or killed.
  4. More recently these age-old tools were used to produce Algeria, the proto-state of Quebec, the fragments of Yugoslavia (the new states inhabited by Czechs and Slovaks), and newly re-emerged Baltic States., and newly re-emerged Baltic States.

This is how nationalists build nations. This is the path to peace for Iraq, or perhaps the nation formerly known as Iraq.

3. The Coalition has been and probably will be irrelevant to nation-building in Iraq.

“Who says the British won in Malaysia? It was a victory, but not for British arms. British propaganda convinced everyone they had won.”
— Martin van Creveld, private communication.  He expands upon this conclusion in his new book, The Changing Face of War.

It is not about us. It should not be about us. This is a major tenet of fourth generation war (4GW). Western analysts distort history when they overemphasize our impact on the post-WWII, post-colonial world.

The American west was shaped by cheap, available firearms. As the saying goes, “The good Lord made all men, but Colonel Colt made them equal.” Today 4GW shapes the world by allowing even small proto-states to defeat foreign occupiers – even superpowers like the USA and Russia. Waging 4GW, the Iraq people will determine the outcome in Iraq. It makes little difference what we do. Stay or go. Retreat to our forts in the desert or patrol the cities. Bombing or subtle COIN tactics. Events in Iraq evolve according to its internal dynamics, which we do not understand and have proved beyond our power to substantially influence. Our pride, even arrogance, makes this difficult to see and almost impossible to accept.

Let me be clear. The violence in Anbar has gone down despite the surge, not because of the surge. The inability of American soldiers to protect these tribes from al-Qaida said to these tribes: we have to fight al-Qaida ourselves. It wasn’t that the surge brought peace here; it was that the warlords took peace here, created a temporary peace here, and that is because there was no one else there protecting them.
— Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), from the Congressional Record of 5 September 2007

This moment of honesty and clarity was too hot for Senator Schumer. His website shows this speech with the offending words “inability of American soldiers to protect these tribes” changed to “The lack of protection for these tribes”. Comforting vagueness, shielding Americans from the awareness that our power has limits.

The tribes used al-Qaeda as shock troops, and turned on them when their usefulness was over. Coalition leaders predicted neither the start nor the end of this process. Local wars, determined by local factors. Also, we see here the same lack of intelligence that hobbled our COIN programs in Vietnam forty years ago – just as it does in Iraq today – and is a key element of the home court advantage in 4GWs.

To successfully wage 4GW requires confronting harsh realities. We have borrowed and spent a vast fortune in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government. Far more important than the money is the cost in blood: the injuries and deaths of our troops. All this was probably spent in vain. No matter how fine our intentions, Iraq has and will go its own way. Twenty years from now we might look at the Middle East as today we see Southeast Asia – and wonder how it differs from what would have been if we had not spent so many long, bloody years there.

Iraq is their land, which means that the locals have the “moral high ground.” It matters not who has the finer ideals, which only God can judge. Our inability to accept this might prevent us from ever adapting to 4GW, and doom us to an age of defeat in our foreign wars.

4. More fighting lies in Iraq’s future: struggles for control and border wars.

How much fighting remains until the Iraq region regains peace? Warnings of massive bloodshed are often made by pundits with a near-100% record of error in this war. This is just one possible scenario, which does not make it worth our spending unlimited funds and blood attempting (perhaps in vain) to prevent it.

There are other scenarios. Each proto-state might achieve internal order. They might even come to terms with each other. At this point almost anything seems possible.

We can expect continued conflicts of two kinds in Iraq. The number, duration, scope, and intensity of these conflicts are unknowable.

First, fighting within the three zones, as local elites fight for control. It need not be large scale killing, nor even violent. Will the PUK and PDK continue to peacefully share power in Kurdistan? How much influence do the Turkmen have? How is the northern oil shared? Who rules the Shia-dominated areas?

To mention just one fault line in detail, will fighting continue or even intensify between Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), nominal followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, and those aligned with the other major Shi’ite group, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC, formerly SCIRI). In one of Iraq’s many ironies, both the US and Iran support SIIC against JAM. For more on this conflict see the Department of Defense’s September “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” report, especially page 24.

Second, fighting to establish the borders between zones. For example, the next flashpoint might be over control of Kirkuk.

Whatever the nature and scope of the fighting, as the national government fades to oblivion our role as the arms provider for all sides will become increasingly problematic – both morally and diplomatically.

5. Recommendations for our Expedition to Iraq

Even for those who believe we are in a Long War, not every battleground need be the decisive one. Let’s conserve our strength for better opportunities, knowing when to hold and when to fold.

  1. Announce a schedule for withdrawal of all forces. Carefully execute it. This means no “enduring bases” for a “long-term stabilizing presence” from which we can “project power.” We are an alien and disturbing presence in this unsettled land. After things settle, perhaps someone will invite us back.
  2. We might obtain basing rights in Kurdistan, continuing our feckless policy of allying with small, threatened states that are regional hotspots – annoying their large, powerful neighbors. Let’s not do it again.
  3. Ask an international agency coordinate a humanitarian relief effort for Iraq, to which we will contribute generously. This may or may not work, but all we can do is try.
  4. Suggest to the Iraq government that they invite some international group to attempt mediation. What happens afterwards is not our responsibility.

There are dozens of proposals for withdrawal from Iraq. See the Commonwealth Institute’s website for links to most of these.

6. What does this tell us about our new Long War?

In Iraq we have made many mistakes, but that is neither unusual in history, nor even inconsistent with winning.

  • Going to war by mistake, or being led to war by lies. That is nothing new, as in William Randolph Hearst’s instructions “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” (Also, Spain probably did not sink the Maine).
  • Going to war for immoral reasons. Grant wrote that the Civil War was our punishment for starting the Mexican-American War.
  • Poor execution of the war. For more on this read Geoffrey Regan’s fascinating book Great Military Disasters.

Our conduct of the Iraq War is probably no worse than par. While not encouraging for our prospects in our new Long War, neither does it warrant despair. However, some mistakes are often terminal in warfare.

First, lack of clarity about goals. One cause of the runaway escalation of WWI was changing goals, as both sides adopted new goals – since the current ones did not justify the slaughter taking place. So it has gone in this war.

  • First we set out to overthrow Saddam’s regime.
  • Second, we sought to bring democracy, feminism, and other western beliefs to Iraq.
  • Third, peace and order became our goals.
  • Now we fight an almost imaginary global al Qaeda menace in the cities of Iraq.

The first was accomplished. The second was and is probably unrealistic. The third was always beyond our power. The last (hopefully the last) is almost delusional. Not a good progression.

Second, perhaps worse, is our distorted vision: seeing events in Iraq as progress – not a series of defeats incurred at great cost. This suggests our senior political and executive remain trapped in their own spin. Perhaps they believe that al Qaeda is our primary opposition in Iraq, and that taking our arms, training, and money makes one an ally of America. If so we are in serious trouble.

This is part four in a series analyzing our new Long War, one of the great challenges for 21st century America – our confrontation with a world in which fourth generation warfare has become the dominant form of global violence.

For more information about the Iraq War

  1. My posts about the war
  2. Important articles about the Iraq War– include some about our use of airpower.
  3. Our goals and benchmarks, and reports about progress towards them

3 thoughts on “Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq”

  1. Ralph Hitchens

    A very thoughtful overview, leaving (for the most part) only room to quibble. The fact that mistakes in warfare are not “unusual in history” does not excuse our huge strategic miscalculation — taking a successful military component of the “War on Terror” (Afghanistan) and expanding it to include invasion of a rogue state with little or no connection to terrorism in the name of a largely nonexistent threat that was, in any case, well-contained. But the “partition” outcome seemed inevitable once Saddam and the Ba’athist regime were overthrown. Yugoslavia pointed the way.

    And your three recommendations are spot-on. “Bases? We don’t need no stinkin’ bases!”

  2. Robert Petersen

    Very good article. I have, however, some comments:

    First of all I think you make the United States far more weak and powerless than it actually is. This is in line with the view of van Creveld and others, but I think they almost exonerate the US government that way. Of course the United States army can’t win in Iraq, but it is still the largest militia in the country and has a lot of influence over the other militia’s.

    Second: I am not so sure if it wasn’t at least to some degree intentional for the United States to carve up Iraq. The White House sure didn’t go for a strong state. The journalist Dahr Jamail has suggested several times the United States wanted to play the etnic groups against each other in order to divide Iraq. He even claims that some of the ethnic violence was provoked by “false flag” operations by the Americans and the British. You might be sceptical, but on the other hand: When have we been told a truth about Iraq from Downing Street or the White House? don’t you think they are just capable of doing such stuff? Of course that would mean that president Bush is far more clever than I could imagine, but it is worth considering.

    Finally with oil prices close to 150 dollar per barrel the United States is never going to leave the Middle East. Period. Rather they use their mega-bases as old style forts in the “Injun country”, secure the supply of oil and make sure no hostile central power is able to take charge. They will suffer casualties, but two dead soldiers on the average each day is acceptable. Iraq will basically become like a typical African state, where warfare is kept alive by foreign groups. Please bear in mind that one of the reasons why the wars in Liberia or Congo were so bloody and so long was because of raw materiels. Your average cell phone is probably made of materiel produced by warlords in Congo. The gas in my car might be from a warlord in Iraq.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps you are correct in #1 and #2. Of course, much the same was said by the various colonial empires after WWII, but they have all been swept away (Russia’s 19th century Imperial conquests being the last to go).

    As for #2, who knows at this point? I suspect our goal was to set up a strong puppet regime that would rule Iraq, or at least the non-Kurd parts.

  3. I listened to Chris Hedges today. He strongly believes that partition is not the “path to peace”, but in fact guarantees ongoing conflict. The principal reason is the re-armed Sunnis (thanks to the US), who have every reason not to accept their second-class status in the state they formerly ran. They have Saudi Arabia on their side, especially if, as Fabius says, a Shia state becomes effectively the ally of Iran.

    The political consensus in the US seems to be that American troops will be in Iraq for somewhere between five and 100 years (McCain). This is another reason why partition will not lead to peace.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I wonder what he defines as “peace.” A fragmented Iraq might be peaceful, for the reasons I indicated in this article. Asserting that it “guaranteees ongoing conflict” is just guessing, ruling out some scenarios with little basis — in an area in which the unpected is the norm.

    The current elite consensus in America is that we want bases and oil. Civil conflict in Iraq means that we must stay. No conflict means that we can stay. QED.

    IMO the only thing that will get us out would be action by the Iraq people. Even then we will probably keep bases in Kurdistan, another problematic ally that costs us more than helps.

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