THE BLOG
12/07/2006 03:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Endgame In Iraq (Part 2) -- The Aftermath Within Iraq

[This is the second in a series of three articles. Part 1, which addressed "Politics And Diplomacy," ran yesterday. Part 3 will be posted tomorrow.]

After seeing the White House's reaction to the Iraq Study Group's report yesterday, it seems there's a danger of President Bush trying to repackage his "stay the course" strategy as: "We'll leave when milestones are met, but we'll set impossible milestones, so expect a whole lot more of the same for the next one or two years." This may postpone the aftermath within Iraq for a while, but postponed or not, it will still hang over Bush's head like a modern-day sword of Damocles. The aftermath may not take any of the forms I have outlined, but it will be waiting nonetheless for our eventual withdrawal.

If Bush's answer to the Iraq quagmire is just to stall until the next administration is forced to clean up the mess, then a whole lot of Americans and Iraqis will have to die to pay that political price. Stalling would only make sense if things were indeed getting better in Iraq right now. If that were the case, we could then hope to "wait the insurgents out" while the central Iraqi government grows stronger, more capable, and more competent.

That's a wonderful dream, but there is absolutely no currently verifiable evidence that such an outcome could happen. The violence is getting worse, the Iraqi government has little influence outside the Green Zone, and the insurgents and militias seem to be getting stronger and better trained over time, not weaker.

We all know the neo-con fantasy of peace and democracy in Iraq, because they've been telling the American people that things are going to be wonderful if we could just "turn the corner" -- pretty much since the war began. I briefly touch upon this scenario below, but it should be considered highly unlikely at this point. I included it here since the purpose of this series is to examine all possible and probable outcomes in Iraq in a realistic and straightforward manner.

The Aftermath Within Iraq

There are several possible outcomes within Iraq, but very few of them are good.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's government could surprise everyone and institute some necessary reforms, reach out to the Sunnis, get the militias under control on both sides, and gain the support of the populace. This ship, sadly, may have already sailed. The window of opportunity for the current unity government to succeed (if it hasn't closed already) is closing fast. It is doubtful whether they can survive the next six months, unless the security situation in Iraq drastically improves in the very near future. Which is also doubtful -- and some would say doubtful in the extreme.

If the Maliki government does not survive, it will be the ultimate repudiation of the ideological neo-con fantasy (which they successfully sold to the American public, at least for a time) about transforming the Middle East through bringing democracy to Iraq. The fall of the Maliki government will also likely be the death knell for President Bush's insistence that we leave behind a functioning democracy in Iraq. Watch for "stability" to become the new buzzword instead.

The Bush administration may already be preparing for this possibility. The recently leaked memo by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley offers a lot of advice to Maliki on how his government could succeed. But as I pointed out last week, the suggestions offered to Maliki seem to be actually designed to bring about his political suicide in Iraq. That is to say, if Maliki actually took any of Hadley's advice, the result would be the almost immediate collapse of his unity government. This may have been the crazy-like-a-fox intention of Hadley, especially when you consider the fact that the memo was intentionally leaked by the White House -- just before Maliki met with Bush. Perhaps the memo was leaked to provide some sort of political cover for Bush if Maliki's government falls. The administration could therefore convincingly tell the American public: "We tried to tell him how to save his government, but he just wouldn't listen." Since most of America wouldn't realize that the suggestions were impossible for Maliki to follow, this would effectively shift the blame from Washington to Baghdad.

But currently, the talk from the punditocracy is all about motivating the Iraq government to somehow fix their security problems, usually by threatening withdrawal of American forces. While I normally don't agree with his opinions, the most interesting and original new idea for motivating Maliki comes from a recent article by Charles Krauthammer: give the Iraqis two months, then pull all US forces in Baghdad back into the Kurdish area -- in other words, threaten to stop protecting the Green Zone (where the Iraqi government meets). This might indeed light a fire under them (in more ways than one), when their own safety is at risk.

If none of this works, and Maliki cannot get the violence under control, his government is likely doomed. One of the first "canary in a coal mine" signals of the central unity government's imminent collapse will almost surely be the Kurds pulling out of the government, and retreating north into a de facto (or de jure for that matter) "Kurdistan." The Kurds are only a small minority of the population, but they are unique in that they already have their own region and they are actually fairly friendly to America, since we protected them with the northern no-fly zone in between the two Iraq wars. As a result of our protection, they have already created a self-governing region. So they can (in essence) give up all interest in what happens in Baghdad, and just retreat into their own ethnic enclave.

There are a few problems with this option, although less pronounced than in the other regions in Iraq. The Kurds have already been quietly performing their own under-the-radar ethnic cleansing in their territory. Iraqi Kurds feel they are entitled to reclaim territory and cities that were historically theirs to begin with -- until Saddam forcibly moved Sunnis into the region years ago, in his own version of ethnic cleansing (since Saddam was a Sunni, he was moving in his loyalists to try to tame the region).

The bigger problem the Kurds have, though, is not with the central Iraqi government, but rather with Turkey and Iran. Historically, Kurds have never had their own country, and have always dreamed of an independent Kurdistan to call their own. When the current world map's boundaries were drawn up, traditional Kurdish lands were divided up by several different countries. So there is a Kurdish section of Turkey, and also one in Iran -- just across the borders from Kurdish Iraq. Both Turkey and Iran have suppressed the Kurds, and Kurdish separatists exist in both countries. If the Iraqi Kurds proclaim to the world their own independent Kurdistan, this will only encourage rebellion in Turkey and Iran -- portions of which would want to secede and join the new Kurdish state.

Turkey has been preparing for this eventuality by massing troops and war matériel near the Iraqi border. If the Kurds in Iraq declare themselves an independent country, Turkey may well invade immediately. This would be politically problematic for the US, since the Iraqi Kurds are the only group that America still counts as a friend in Iraq, but also since Turkey is a member of NATO. So if the two start fighting, who will we back? Do we back the Kurds, and face a fellow NATO member across a battlefield? Or do we just look the other way and allow Turkey to crush the Kurds? And what would Iran's reaction to all of this be? There is no easy way out of this situation for the United States.

But the Kurdish situation is only one facet of the larger Iraq problem, and a more isolated and self-contained problem than the rest of it. The bigger issue is the Sunni / Shi'ite rift. Whatever the Kurds wind up doing, the aftermath of Maliki's government collapsing must be addressed next.

This collapse could happen in a number of ways. The most benign of these would be a coup from within the Iraqi parliament. This could happen within the framework of the constitution (which, since it has a parliamentary system, also assumably has the possibility of a vote of "no confidence," which would dissolve the government). It could also happen as some sort of bloodless political coup. Either way, Maliki would be most likely be replaced by another Shi'ite leader from within the current government.

Another option is a true coup d'état by the military, as either one general or a junta of military leaders seizes power, declares a national emergency (an easy thing to justify in Iraq these days) and declares an "emergency provisional government." This would gradually and eventually become the permanent government (much as Musharraf did in Pakistan), and further elections would be put off, delayed, and otherwise eternally postponed.

A third possibility would be a Sunni strongman who takes the reins of power, reassembles the army and institutes Ba'athism II (or "post-Saddam" Ba'athism). Late-night American television comedians have been joking for months now: "What we need in Iraq is a strong central figure who can keep control of the country -- how about Saddam?" This should not be seen as a realistic outcome (even if the Sunnis do grab power), since Bush simply would not stand for it. The possibility of a Sunni power grab is smaller than the possibility of a Shi'ite military coup, but it does still exist.

I was directed last week to an extensive article in the Asian Times that details many of the possibilities and almost all the growing rumors of such a coup in Iraq. It is well worth a read if you'd like to learn more about the rumors and facts which are currently circulating outside the realm of the American media. I don't agree with all of the article's conclusions, but it does put together a strong and realistic case for the possibility of an Iraqi coup.

But if such a coup did happen, how would the US react? Publicly, Bush would be forced to condemn such action, but privately it may actually be welcomed in the White House situation room. There has been a sustained effort by this administration's spin doctors in the past few months to pin all blame of the war's failure on the Iraqis themselves -- and this would be the culmination of such efforts. Bush has always carefully couched his own language about staying in Iraq to include some variation of the phrase: "...for as long as the Iraqis want us there." If the new strongman (whoever he happens to be) immediately calls for all US troops to leave, the White House can shrug its metaphoric shoulders and say: "Well, we tried, but they kicked us out before we could succeed in Iraq, so it's not our fault."

This would give Bush and the neo-cons the huge benefit of saving face. They can argue forevermore that: "It would have worked, if only we had been given a little more time." Neo-con architects of the war will then comfortably go to their graves denying the sheer folly of this war from the onset, since they never have been comfortable living in the "reality-based" world. While publicly expressing disappointment in the fall of democracy in Iraq by shedding plenty of crocodile tears for the world to see, the White House would (behind the scenes) collectively be heaving an enormous sigh of relief at being handed a quick and blame-free exit strategy as a gigantic present by the new Iraqi strongman government.

As a footnote, the Hadley memo leak should be re-examined in the light of this scenario, as it makes a lot more sense if this is the desired outcome in Iraq.

Finally, the last possibility for an Iraqi endgame is the most frightening, but sadly, may also be the most probable. The unity government could hobble along until we leave, with no great change in the situation on the ground in Iraq. Note that this outcome is not time-dependent at all. We could pull out all our troops tomorrow, we could wait six months to pull out (one "Friedman," perhaps?), or we could pull out some time in the next two years (with or without a timeline, as it wouldn't really matter). If the Iraqi government is the same as it is now, and the situation on the ground is the same or similar, then the outcome is likely going to be the same no matter when it happens.

And it's not pretty. Currently, the suicide bombers and IED attacks (mostly Sunni) happen in broad daylight, but the death squads dressed in police and army uniforms (mostly Shi'ite) only operate at night. If there is essentially no reason to hide anymore (if the American military and, importantly, most of the American media are gone), then the civil war will begin to be blatantly fought out in the open, with heavier weapons used. Ethnic and sectarian cleansing will explode, as whole villages and entire sectors of Baghdad will be "purified" into either 100% Sunni or 100% Shi'ite. Barricades will go up in the city streets. Militias will begin aggressively and openly patrolling their individual sectors. The Iraq army will most likely disband, and the (fully trained and armed) individual members who don't already belong to militias will start joining up and taking sides. We will have ended up training both sides' soldiers to more effectively fight a civil war (a bitter irony indeed).

If this overt civil war phase begins, it may last years. The Kurds, as previously noted, will immediately withdraw into the north and grab all the land (including all the oilfields up there) that they believe they can hold militarily, and they will forcibly expel all non-Kurds. The Shi'ites, backed by Iran, will grab all the southern oilfields. The Sunnis, backed by Saudi Arabia, will essentially have nothing to lose as they desperately attempt to control Baghdad. Their region has lots of sand and desert, but no oil. Baghdad will become another Beirut for the foreseeable future.

Instead of dozens of Iraqi bodies found tortured and mutilated every day, the total will soar to hundreds (or even thousands) a day. If you think Iraq is a bloodbath now, then you ain't seen nothing yet. Division lines between factions will appear across the countryside, and (more lethally) in Baghdad. Fighting will escalate to whatever level the arms flow to each faction allows.

It needs to be said in no uncertain terms, over and over again: this is what will happen when we leave, if the political and security situation in Iraq is the way it is now. Everyone arguing over "pull out all our troops tomorrow," or "pull out in six months," or "pull out on a timetable," or "if we threaten to pull out, then do so, Iraqis will be motivated to solve the problem politically," needs to wake up and admit that what we will leave behind will be a slaughter of immense proportions.

The sad thing is, if this bloodbath is an inevitable outcome now in Iraq (and I don't believe it is, just a high probability), anyone advocating for America pulling out sooner rather than later may have an overwhelming case to make: "If it's going to happen, then we should just get out of the way and let it happen, rather than waste more US lives postponing it." In other words, if the result of us pulling out tomorrow is going to be exactly the same as the result of us staying two years and pulling out -- then pulling out tomorrow (even with the resulting slaughter) saves American lives. And by avoiding the postponement, it may even wind up saving Iraqi lives as well. This is a very strong point in favor of the argument for immediate withdrawal, if you accept the underlying theory.

The problem (as I see it) is that almost all of the people who advocate such a quick American exit refuse to face the likely consequences of such an action. This is intellectually dishonest. Hard questions and hard conclusions should be addressed in such advocacy, as horrifying as they are to consider. Perhaps the pundits and other advocates for such a withdrawal have other plausible endgame scenarios, but if so, they should spell them out honestly, in order to prepare the American public for the eventuality.

As I stated previously, there may just be no good answer. This clearly has to be faced. There may be a bloodbath no matter what the US does, or when it does it. Iraq may be broken beyond our ability to fix. If that is true, though, Americans need to be warned about it so it won't be a shock if-and-when it happens.

From a recent Washington Post article comes this grim assessment, which I leave for you to ponder:

"For all the excitement in Washington, this will be decided on the ground in Baghdad," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former US ambassador to the United Nations who brokered the Dayton peace accords, which ended the Bosnian war in the 1990s. "The United States has lost its capacity to shape the events on the ground, regardless of what's recommended by the [ISG Baker-Hamilton] commission, regardless of what's done by the US military and the president."

 

[This is the second of a three-part series of articles. The first part can be read here. The final installment, dealing with US military options and the long term outcome, will be available tomorrow.]