As Congress debates when and how to withdraw American troops from Iraq, the most critical question for every single member to answer is: What sort of Iraq will the United States leave behind? Having torn the country to pieces, destroyed its social order and brought millions of Iraqis to the point of utter despair through the Bush administration s tragic misadventure, America has a moral obligation to help the Iraqi people reconstitute their civil society and restore their shattered lives.
It is only in this context that the debate in Congress ought to be conducted. Its focus should not be on whether U.S. troops need to withdraw from Iraq in three, six, or nine months, or even in a year or two, but what must America do to help end the horrific civil war in a way that prevents a total disintegrationof Iraqi society, thereby averting a further escalation of violence between the Sunnis and the Shiites that could rapidly plunge the entire Middle East into bloody turmoil. Those Democrats – and the several Republicans joining them — supporting a quick withdrawal are dead wrong in their assessment of what would be its effects. The likeliest scenario is that it will lead to anarchy in Iraq and usher in regional war of catastrophic proportions. Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress who support the president s policy still do not grasp, or cannot admit so, that nearly five yeas into the war, it has been a dismal failure.
Regardless of any signs of progress, there is no military solution because no troop surge can permanently quell the insurgency and end the sectarian violence. If there is a reduction of violence in and around Baghdad, which is debatable and in the number of American soldiers killed, it is temporary at best. The Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias know only too well when to lie low and how and when to resume and intensify their bloody campaign against each other. Neither side is exhausted: each in fact is certain it can improve its position dramatically. Specifically, while the Sunnis continue to believe that they can regain power once the Americans leave, the Shiites want to consolidate their hold on power at any cost.
It would be only another great folly if the intent of the surge is to give U.S. commanders and the Maliki government more time to train and better prepare Iraqi internal security forces and the military to take over from the Americans. To begin with, both institutions are Shiite dominated, and the Shiite militias have effectively penetrated their ranks. Tribal and religious loyalties remain the driving forces behind their conduct and the administration can do very little to change socially, culturally, and politically ingrained behavior. On many occasions, members of the Iraqi security forces have directly participated in violent attacks against Sunni civilians. There is absolutely no evidence that the hatred and the deadly rivalry between the two sects that fuel the conflict will abate, especially when the outcome of their power struggle is undecided and existential fear of each other is omnipresent.
This brings us to the third fallacy of the administration. The president s propensity, supported by the vice president, to adopt a strategy based on wishful thinking. This tendency is currently most apparent in Mr. Bush s efforts to push the Maliki government to enact laws and take concrete steps toward political reconciliation with the Sunnis. Meanwhile, just about everyone else of any influence – Congressional leaders, the American commanders on the ground in Iraq, and even members of the administration itself – has concluded that the Maliki government has not delivered. It has failed mainly because the Shiite political parties, especially the Dawa and the Sciri, are unwilling to relinquish any of their power that they have captured after decades of persecution by Saddam Hussein. Maliki is not Nelson Mandela. Forgetting and forgiving is not in the prime minister s dictionary. Besides, even if Mr. Maliki decides to take some steps toward political reconciliation, his efforts will be stymied by hardliners in his party. In his testimony on July 31 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that without political reconciliation, no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of difference.
Meanwhile Iraq s largest Sunni political party resigned from the government dealing another serious blow to any prospect of reconciliation. Knowing what we now know about Mr. Maliki and the rivalries between the Shiite political parties and their militias, one might then ask where the administration s optimism comes from.
Given this situation, what course is open to Congress? A new strategy is needed, and at its center is the creation of a self-ruled Sunni entity, which I advocated here more than four years ago. The United States must persuade the Sunnis to establish self-rule in their three Sunni dominated provinces, and Congress must provide them with the initial economic assistance and military means and equipment for self-protection. In the interim, the United States must bring all the necessary pressure to bear on the Maliki government (including the threat to remove him from power) to pass the oil law, which is necessary for the long-term economic viability of any Sunni entity.
In time, perhaps 10 to 15 years, as the three separate entities–Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite-each run their lives as they see fit, with somewhat loose federal ties, they will, of necessity, gravitate toward one another and begin to reconcile their differences and grievances. The sooner the administration and Congress adopt policies encouraging this end, the sooner the carnage in Iraq will end. With it, the potential for regional conflagration will diminish, and U.S. troops can then withdraw with some dignity. That much America owes the Iraqi people.
Alon Ben-Meiris a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.