Face to Face-The Recent Spike in Violence in Iraq

Christopher Preble and
Christopher Preble Co-Director, New American Engagement Initiative - Atlantic Council
Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

March 2, 2006

Is the ongoing violence in Iraq—and the recent surge in attacks in particular—a sign of the impossibility of the U.S. mission there? Or is this merely an unfortunate part of the difficult transition to democracy?

Daalder: The violence that exploded in the aftermath of the Sumarra mosque bombing is symptomatic of what ails Iraq today—the absence of an Iraqi state that enjoys the loyalty and support of all the people. Today, sectarian identities are far stronger than any national identity—and the escalating violence only strengthens the desire of Shiites to be ruled by Shiites, Sunnis by Sunnis, and Kurds by Kurds. The Bush administration has failed to appreciate this essential fact, which is why it has been caught off guard by the escalating sectarian violence. The administration believed that once Saddam Hussein was removed, Iraqis would rally together in search for a national democratic future. That was always unlikely, but it simply became impossible when violence and chaos spread throughout Iraq following Saddam’s ouster. At that point, Iraqis sought security within their own tribal and sectarian groups rather than within a non-existent national state.

The administration’s attempt to create such a national state through elections and the training of Iraqi security forces was hobbled from the start by its insistence that the violence in Iraq was inspired by a foreign-directed terrorist insurgency, which is seeking to control Iraq as a whole. But the principle purpose of violence—including the terrorist bombings—is to foster a sectarian civil war. The aftermath of the Sumarra bombing demonstrated how close to achieving that goal they now are.

Preble: I have never believed the U.S. mission in Iraq to be impossible, but I always doubted that the benefits that we would derive from forcibly removing Saddam Hussein from power would be greater than the costs of success. That is how any policy must be judged—by its results. In other words, the recent violence is unfortunate, but not unforeseeable. I hope that Iraqi political and religious leaders will be able to rise above their differences, and that the Iraqi public will follow their lead. But there is precious little that the United States can do to force reconciliation between the various religious and ethnic factions, and there is a very real danger that our interference might make the problem even worse.

Is there a point at which the United States will have to cease “staying the course” and opt instead to cut its losses in the face of insurmountable challenges in Iraq? If so, what would have to happen for that moment to occur?

Daalder: Many of the problems confronting the United States in Iraq come from the administration’s insistence to stay a failed course. Having misunderstood the fundamental challenge in Iraq, its actions over the past three years have made a bad situation worse. The current focus on building up Iraqi security forces in the hope that they can secure the country’s future without us ignores the central reality that it is impossible to create a national army or police force without a national state. The U.S. has sought to create such a state through a political process emphasizing national elections, a national unity government, and a national compact on how power over territory, oil, resources and security forces is to be divided between central and regional authorities. But far from forging national unity, this process has demonstrated the deep sectarian divisions within the society.

The point of no return will be reached if and when there is a civil war. The United States cannot be a participant in such a civil war. It lacks the capacity to end the violence on its own, and it cannot afford to take sides. America cannot become the praetorian guard of an Iranian-backed, Shiite-controlled government. It cannot afford to take sides with the Sunnis who are most responsible for the 2,200 American military casualties. And so, when the low-level civil war explodes openly, the only option for the United States is to leave Iraq while focusing on deterring foreign military intervention in Iraq’s civil war.

Preble: We have already passed the point where “staying the course” is a reasonable strategy. The United States will leave Iraq eventually. Most Iraqis don’t believe it, however, and this poses a problem for our troops. The U.S. government must provide the Iraqi people with that credible guarantee by pledging to withdraw all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2007, at the latest. Because it is in the United States’ interest to end the occupation of Iraq on our terms, and because the challenges that we face are likely to become worse over time, our withdrawal should not be contingent upon conditions on the ground. We must remain focused on our primary strategic objective – destroying the al-Qaida threat—and that requires ending the distraction of nation-building in Iraq.

Although the violence captures the headlines, is there enough progress taking place in other aspects of Iraqi life to conclude that the attacks aren’t as much of an setback as they may initially appear?

Daalder: The progress that has been made in Iraq is largely illusory. Reconstruction efforts have failed to bring Iraq back even to where it was prior to the invasion. The effort to train security forces has faltered because in a state as divided as Iraq, militias and sectarian interests will triumph. And the political process that produced a constitution and elections for a national assembly, far from demonstrating growing national unity, has underscored Iraq’s deep sectarian divisions. The constitution was overwhelmingly approved by Shiites and Kurds and overwhelmingly rejected by Sunnis. National elections saw the victory of sectarian parties and the defeat of secular national lists. Ten weeks after the elections, talks on creating a new national government are only just getting under way. What is increasingly clear, though, is that in a divided Iraq descending into civil war, the United States has no real role to play.

Preble: The violence unearths the sectarian divide that has always been lurking just below the surface. This pattern has accelerated within the past week, with perhaps as many as 1,300 Iraqis killed. While parts of Iraq are relatively peaceful, the security environment can only be as strong as its weakest link. Trouble in the problem spots will remain the most important story, and will certainly trump good news about schools painted and infrastructure projects completed. What good is a gleaming school building if parents are afraid to send their children there? How useful is it to provide security to 95 percent of an oil pipeline when attacks on the vulnerable 5 percent can reduce the flow to a trickle? Meanwhile, insecurity impedes progress on the political and economic front. Accordingly, Iraqis must be empowered to take charge of their affairs while the United States plays a less and less visible role.