previous article, Harvard political scientist Monica Toft showed how Iraq meets all the objective criteria for civil war. Now she considers the consequences – and examines the three possible outcomes: negotiated settlement between the parties, partition, or outright military victory." />
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Iraq's civil war: What next?

ASK THIS | August 14, 2006

In her previous article, Harvard political scientist Monica Toft showed how Iraq meets all the objective criteria for civil war. Now she considers the consequences – and examines the three possible outcomes: negotiated settlement between the parties, partition, or outright military victory.

By Monica Duffy Toft

The war in Iraq has devolved into a civil war. The next questions are:

Q. What are the likely consequences?

Q. What can or should the U.S. government do about them?

Civil wars end in one of three ways: (1) negotiated settlement; (2) partition; or (3) military victory. U.S. support for any of these options comes with considerable costs and only a slim possibility of an outcome that advances U.S. interests beyond what they were at the close of Saddam Hussein’s rule in April of 2003.

The Negotiated Settlement Option

In a negotiated settlement, warring factions agree both to end violence and to become partners in a new government. Although negotiated settlements are the most popular policy option (promising high short-term benefits and low risk), they may not be best if we want a permanent settlement to civil war. Negotiated settlements have ended about one-fifth of all civil wars since 1940 and they are two and half more times more likely to break down than military victories. The probability of failure is even greater for identity-based civil wars ended by negotiated settlement.

A negotiated settlement is what the U.S. has attempted to implement for the last two years in Iraq and it has failed. The process of writing and adopting a constitution and electing a president and parliament were all designed to give each of Iraq’s different communities a say in the government. Although the Kurds and the Shiites fully participated in the process, the Sunnis did not. Consequently, the Sunnis do not see the government as representing (protecting) their interests. Furthermore, it did not help that the key internal security ministry, the Interior Ministry, came under the control of Shiites who used the ministry’s resources to target their former abusers, the Sunnis.  Furthermore, the Shiites have their own militias to protect them (the Mahdi Army/Badr Brigade). Although the Kurds have participated in the formation of the government from day one, they have maintained their distance while strengthening their own militia. The trend lines in Iraq are toward a continuation of this fragmentation.

Negotiated settlements promise to save lives at low cost and risk for third parties, but with rare exceptions (e.g., El Salvador, 1992–1994) the lack of attention to underlying conflict issues and credible support undermines them. From the standpoint of third parties, the big mistake is assuming that “rational” actors necessarily prefer peace to all other values or goals. Attention to underlying issues would make it clear that although most leaders and their people do value peace, the reasons they have been fighting in the first place is because they prefer to risk their lives to achieve some other valued goal.

A key factor in the failure of negotiated settlements has been that both sides maintain a capacity to harm each other by force of arms, and because the fighting has not reached a clear outcome, both sides can claim legitimacy in their pre-cease-fire resort to violence. Negotiated settlements by their very design leave a state’s offices divided, both in terms of physical infrastructure and human capital. Both sides will have some say in a postwar state’s government, and may demand partial control of the police and military. Key territory, including international borders, may become porous transit points for arms, drugs, contraband, or recruits. Thus although the chief public good of non-violence may be gained by negotiated settlement at a lower cost in the short term than military victory, this good may come, paradoxically, at the expense of the public good of an effective postwar administration; one premised on the state’s ability to maintain order. The bottom line is that most often civil wars ended by negotiated settlement re-ignite within five years, often leading to escalated violence and destruction (and not inconsequently increasing levels of authoritarianism). This is Iraq today.

The Partition Option

Theoretically, partition is an ideal way to end a civil war and keep it ended; especially when that violence involves identity groups that live in largely separate enclaves. However, there are two related problems. First, because historically, partitions are so rare, measuring their success has been difficult and has led to a good deal of debate among academics and policy-makers about whether they do indeed thwart future violence. The proponents argue that the separation of populations into viable states deals with the problem of fear, hatred, resentment and anxiety between the main warring factions. Partition allows for each side to arm and defend itself, thereby eliminating insecurity as a major motivation to fight. Opponents of partition argue that the violence is not contained: in fact, the danger of is merely transformed from being a domestic, civil matter, to an international one. Second, the international community – a community composed almost entirely of multinational states – does not welcome the creation of new states. It will accept them in rare cases – as in the demise of the former Soviet Union and to some extent former Yugoslavia – but will not advance partition as a solution for fear of setting a dangerous and destabilizing precedent.

In effect, Iraq is becoming partitioned today, with the Kurds maintaining their grip on the north and the Sunnis and Shiites consolidating their control over the west and south respectively. The unmixing of mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad is only consolidating the populations into concentrated and mutually hostile enclaves. Concentrated enclaves turn out to be one of the most dangerous settlement patterns of ethnic and religious groups in terms of the likelihood of violence and civil war. Think of Chechnya, which continues to fight Russia for independence.

Partition of Iraq would work only if two conditions held: (1) the parties were consolidated into internationally recognized states and Iraq's resources were distributed in a way that made each state economically viable; and (2) the partition into independent states was enforced by a generation of occupation by skilled and politically well-supported troops (preferably Muslims). Given that Iraq’s Sunni minority has been implicated in decades of persecution of both Kurds and Shiites, getting Kurds and Shiites to agree to support creation of a viable Sunni state will be difficult to achieve. Moreover, one can hardly imagine a third party both capable and willing to maintain an occupation of Iraq for twenty years to insure the interests of each of the parties, but this is what would need to be done. Think of Bosnia under the Dayton accords—ten years have already passed. Finally, given the long-standing reluctance of the international community to support partition as a general solution to civil wars, the U.S. is unlikely to find much support for partition from its allies. Regional actors will be even more intransigent: Kurds, for example, currently inhabit four of the region’s states (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). These bordering states would steadfastly resist the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

The Military Victory Option

A final option is military victory: one side in civil war – rebels or incumbents – demonstrably defeats the other side by force of arms. Military victory is not only the most common type of civil war outcome historically, but also the one which most often results in enduring peace: military victories are far less likely to break down than are negotiated settlements.

Following a military victory, one side gains control of all the state’s resources and, crucially, the ability to set the postwar political and economic agenda. While it is true that even a relatively centralized actor may make mistakes—say, bad economic decisions—it is also generally true that it will gain advantages in recovering from mistakes. Moreover, the fact that the winners gain control of the military and police gives them an advantage in preventing the emergence or re-emergence of organized violence and crime. Creating a legitimate public order, in which the government is capable of controlling the governed, is the government’s first and most important function. Finally, available evidence indicates that a victory will not necessarily result in diminished levels of democracy or increased levels of autocracy.

In Iraq the problems associated with military victory go straight to interstate politics and U.S. domestic interests: leaving aside the thorny problem of the Kurds for the moment, in a contest between Sunnis and Shiites which side should be the victor? In the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960), one of the few successful external interventions in a local civil war, the intervening power, Britain, had to choose between two groups: ethnic Malayans or ethnic Chinese. Britain chose to support the Malayans, and after twelve long years, during which they made and recovered from a number of mistakes, the Malayan government succeeded in defeating the insurgency.

The U.S. can choose to support either the Sunnis or Shiites. Supporting either side to achieve victory would be difficult and costly in terms of time, taking as long as a decade to succeed given Iraq’s porous borders and the support each of the sides receives from across those borders. British public opinion regarding Malaya was patient – the “emergency” lasted twelve years – one can hardly expect a U.S. public to be that patient.

Nevertheless, in the U.S. case, there are some sound reasons for supporting the Shiites. First, the Shiites are the majority, and their oppression under generations of Sunni rule make them the just choice, even as their expanding political and military power make them the practical choice. Supporting the Shiites would bring the violence in Iraq to a conclusion within a decade, and leave Iraq with a stable state (democracy would be a feature, but democracy mainly for Shiites). However, improving Iraq’s fate would likely come at the expense of other vital U.S. interests in the region, including increased friction with Sunni-dominated states such as Saudi Arabia, a major exporter of petroleum to the U.S. and Europe; and Pakistan, a major U.S. ally in the "war" on terror. In human right terms, it might also spin out of control, devolving into a genocidal bloodbath or mass deportation of Sunnis and Kurds. U.S. support of the Shiite majority might also strengthen Iran’s influence not only in Iraq but across the Middle East; or it might paradoxically weaken it. Recall that during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–89), many in Iraq and Iran believed Iraqi Shiites would become a virtual fifth column for Iran, yet this didn’t happen. Instead, Iraqi Shiites proved to be Iraqis first and Shiites second.

If the U.S. were to support the Sunnis, they would face the moral problem of putting in power a minority group that in the past had little regard for the protection of the rights and liberties of the others groups (ironically, the Iraqi government’s tacit support of continued anti-Sunni pogroms is increasing international sympathy for the very groups who, during Hussein’s tenure, systematically and brutally deprived Shiites of economic, political, and social rights). And given that a broader U.S. political objective in Iraq was the establishment of a democratic state, support of a minority insurgency would make the U.S. look nakedly hypocritical at best. Furthermore, it is not clear how Al Qaeda/Wahhabists would be affected. One can imagine the secular, Baathist Sunnis going up against the Islamists, but they would not be able to do this until the Shiites were put down. Supporting the Sunnis would help buttress alliances in the region and perhaps globally since the majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni. One possibility is that the Sunnis would look upon the U.S. as their benefactor and perhaps help protect U.S. interests in the region. Yet, we know that client states often do not protect the interests, much less do the bidding of their benefactor.

A Final Option: Getting Out

Finally, the U.S. could pull out and let the chips fall where they may. Historically, states such as the United States have always worried that pulling out will have two devastating consequences. First, it will be tantamount to an admission that the U.S. blood and treasure spent in the pursuit of U.S. interests will have been wasted: Our troops will have “died for nothing.” Second, it will damage U.S. credibility and reputation in future engagements; making future engagements much more costly than they might have been had the U.S. only “stood firm” in the present engagement.

Neither argument need be compelling. In retrospect, states are best judged on what they attempt to achieve rather than on what they actually achieve. Many of the consequences of U.S. policy, in other words, are matters of leadership and interpretation. We can admit we failed in Iraq without tarnishing the sacrifice of our troops there. They did not “die for nothing,” but rather gave their lives in order to help the people of Iraq transition from dictatorship to democracy. In terms of reputation, it may be that some states will think the U.S. weak for pulling out, while others will think the U.S. strong for having the courage to see that further expense of lives and treasure will only delay a bad outcome, rather than achieve a good one. Having gone to Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, the U.S. has discovered that what the people of Iraq wanted most was to be free of Saddam Hussein; but once free (a negative objective), positive objectives varied. The Shiites wanted representation in the control of Iraq commensurate with their population (and many wanted revenge for the persecution they suffered under Sunni rule). The Sunnis wanted to maintain their preferential status. The Kurds wanted their own state. To the extent that the war in Iraq, under U.S. auspices, has become a civil war, the civil war itself represents the success of a U.S. policy of bringing freedom to the people of Iraq. The only real surprise is U.S. shock (cf. Hamas’ victory in Palestine) over the uses to which that new-found freedom would be put.

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