By PETER W. GALBRAITH
WHAT is the mission of the United States military in Iraq now that the insurgency has escalated into a full-blown civil war? According to the Bush administration, it is to support a national unity government that includes all Iraq’s major communities: the Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. O.K., but this raises another question: What does the Iraqi government govern?
In the southern half of Iraq, Shiite religious parties and clerics have created theocracies policed by militias that number well over 100,000 men. In Basra, three religious parties control — and sometimes fight over — the thousands of barrels of oil diverted each day from legal exports into smuggling. To the extent that the central government has authority in the south, it is because some of the same Shiite parties that dominate the government also control the south.
Kurdistan in the north is effectively independent. The Iraqi Army is barred from the region, the Iraqi flag prohibited, and central government ministries are not present. The Kurdish people voted nearly unanimously for independence in an informal referendum in January 2005.
And in the Sunni center of the nation and Baghdad, the government has virtually no control beyond the American-protected Green Zone. The Mahdi Army, a radical Shiite militia, controls the capital’s Shiite neighborhoods, while Qaeda offshoots and former Baathists are increasingly taking over the Sunni districts.
While the Bush administration professes a commitment to Iraq’s unity, it has no intention of undertaking the major effort required to put the country together again. During the formal occupation of Iraq in 2003 and 2004, the American-led coalition allowed Shiite militias to mushroom and clerics to impose Islamic rule in the south, in some places with a severity reminiscent of Afghanistan’s Taliban.
To disarm militias and dismantle undemocratic local governments now would bring the United States into direct conflict with Iraq’s Shiites, who are nearly three times as numerous as the Sunni Arabs and possess vastly more powerful militias and military forces.
There are no significant coalition troops in Kurdistan, which is secure and increasingly prosperous. Arab Iraqis have largely accepted Kurdistan’s de facto separation from Iraq, and so has the Bush administration.
In the Sunni center, our current strategy involves handing off combat duties to the Iraqi Army. Mostly, it is Shiite battalions that fight in the Sunni Arab areas, as the Sunni units are not reliable. Thus what the Bush administration portrays as “Iraqi” security forces is seen by the local Sunni population as a hostile force loyal to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, installed by the American invaders and closely aligned with the traditional enemy, Iran. The more we “Iraqize” the fight in the Sunni heartland, the more we strengthen the insurgents.
Because it is Iraq’s most mixed city, Baghdad is the front line of Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite civil war. It is a tragedy for its people, most of whom do not share the sectarian hatred behind the killing. Iraqi forces cannot end the civil war because many of them are partisans of one side, and none are trusted by both communities.
For the United States to contain the civil war, we would have to deploy more troops and accept a casualty rate many times the current level as our forces changed their mission from a support role to intensive police duties. The American people would not support such an expanded mission, and the Bush administration has no desire to undertake it.
The administration, then, must match its goals in Iraq to the resources it is prepared to deploy. Since it cannot unify Iraq or stop the civil war, it should work with the regions that have emerged. Where no purpose is served by a continuing military presence — in the Shiite south and in Baghdad — America and its allies should withdraw.
As an alternative to using Shiite and American troops to fight the insurgency in Iraq’s Sunni center, the administration should encourage the formation of several provinces into a Sunni Arab region with its own army, as allowed by Iraq’s Constitution. Then the Pentagon should pull its troops from this Sunni territory and allow the new leaders to establish their authority without being seen as collaborators.
Seeing as we cannot maintain the peace in Iraq, we have but one overriding interest there today — to keep Al Qaeda from creating a base from which it can plot attacks on the United States. Thus we need to have troops nearby prepared to re-engage in case the Sunni Arabs prove unable to provide for their own security against the foreign jihadists.
This would be best accomplished by placing a small “over the horizon” force in Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is among the most pro-American societies in the world and its government would welcome our military presence, not the least because it would help protect Kurds from Arab Iraqis who resent their close cooperation with the United States during the 2003 war. American soldiers on the ground might also ease the escalating tension between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey, which is threatening to send its troops across the border in search of Turkish Kurd terrorists using Iraq as a haven.
From Kurdistan, the American military could readily move back into any Sunni Arab area where Al Qaeda or its allies established a presence. The Kurdish peshmerga, Iraq’s only reliable indigenous military force, would gladly assist their American allies with intelligence and in combat. And by shifting troops to what is still nominally Iraqi territory, the Bush administration would be able to claim it had not “cut and run” and would also avoid the political complications — in United States and in Iraq — that would arise if it were to withdraw totally and then have to send American troops back into Iraq.
Yes, a United States withdrawal from the Shiite and Sunni Arab regions of Iraq would leave behind sectarian conflict and militia rule. But staying with the current force and mission will produce the same result. Continuing a military strategy where the ends far exceed the means is a formula for war without end.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former United States ambassador to Croatia, is the author of “The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.”