I'm not surprised that Iraq is in danger of breaking apart. I considered this scenario almost 10 years ago in a column published by the Christian Science Monitor.
My question then and now is the same: How will the US react if the Kurds decide their best option is to declare independence and then request ongoing American financial and military support?
It's time to seriously consider the consequences of a failed Iraq. I'm tired of pundits and politicians who keep using phrases like "The Iraqi government must... " and "the Obama administration should insist...." No amount of "insisting" what "must" be done in Iraq is going to make it happen. This fact has been obvious for years as the government of Nouri al-Maliki consolidated its power and showed no interest in building a coalition with the Sunni population.
A lot of news stories these days include quotes from disillusioned Americans who have adopted a similar narrative line: "We went over there and gave them a chance to be a democracy and they blew it!" This kind of simplistic thinking makes democracy sound like a societal software update. The Bush/Cheney administration thought they could install it in Iraq, give the recipients some on-the-job training and the result would be a role model for other countries in the Middle East. It was a ridiculous idea from the start. Modern Iraq encompasses a region that has no tradition of democracy and has been simmering with cultural, ethnic, and religious conflicts for centuries. But critics who pointed out that fact were dismissed as weak and indecisive in the fight against terrorism.
There are two important facts about the Iraq invasion that many Americans have forgotten. First, between 2005 and 2008 when daily violence was at its worst, approximately 4 million Iraqis became refugees. About half left the country and the other half relocated to other areas within Iraq. You never hear about these people anymore. They disappeared off the media radar.
The other cruel consequence of our involvement was that thousands of Iraqi citizens who helped US forces in the aftermath of Saddam's ouster were murdered and thousands more have been granted asylum in this country to avoid the same fate. That should have been a huge red flag to everyone that a tolerant, inclusive way of thinking among the Iraqi population was not taking root as backers of the war had confidently predicted.
By 2009 the number of car bombings and other insurgent attacks violence had declined significantly but there will still plenty of warning signs that Iraq was in big trouble. One brilliant piece of reporting on the situation was a broadcast of This American Life on NPR in October 2010. A team of reporters and producers visited Iraq and presented a vivid picture of grim living conditions, ongoing ethnic and religious rivalries, lack of trust in the government and no confidence that the future would be better.
I was listening to the broadcast and I'll never forget the ending. Reporter Nancy Updike said that many Iraqis they had talked with had said the same thing: They wanted to leave. That was the mood on the street four years ago.
The one area of Iraq where this feeling did not exist was in the Kurdish region. The Kurds benefitted greatly from the US intervention and have been operating as an autonomous province since the Coalition Provisional Authority declared Iraq sovereign and left in 2004.
The Kurds have a territorial identity and long historic aspirations for an independent homeland. They have a reliable military force and, most important, a goal they believe is worth fighting and dying for.
The regular Iraqi army has none of these motivating factors. Some US military officials expressed surprise and disappointment that so many Iraqi units crumbled and fled as fighters for the Islamic State swept into Mosul and other northern cities. But no amount of training or modern weaponry can produce an effective army if the troops don't have any common cause or belief to rally around. When the fighting got intense in Mosul I wonder how many Iraqi soldiers were thinking, "Our government is counting on us! We must stand and defend our democracy!"
This is familiar territory for the US. A similar situation played out during the final phase of the Chinese civil war. As the Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek retreated, many of the troops abandoned their weapons or took their gear and went over to the Communist side. Mao Zedong is said to have remarked that during the last few months of fighting his best military supplier was the US government.
After Chiang fled to Taiwan, Republicans in Congress were furious. Many of them accused the Truman administration of sabotaging the Nationalist cause by not sending enough aid. Secretary of State Dean Acheson created more outrage when he said the best course of action for the US at that moment was to "let the dust settle" before looking at future policy options.
My advice to any candidate planning to run for national office in 2016 is this: Be prepared for a Middle East scenario that requires us to walk a diplomatic tightrope between Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, a new independent Kurdistan, and whatever is left of the former Iraq. None of them are friends with each other. Can we work with this group to stabilize the region?
One thing is certain. Our path into the future is obscured by a huge amount of dust, and it isn't going to settle anytime soon.