Partitioning Iraq?

In my post Moving the Iraq Debate On a couple of weeks ago I discussed the emergence of the the idea of greater regional autonomy for its three sectarian groups – the Kurds, the Sunni, and the Shiites. Normblog recently referred to Iraq’s Salvation Lies in Letting it Break Apart in the UK Times by Peter Galbraith which argues very forcefully for complete partition. Christopher Hitchens, again via Normblog, reviews Galbraith’s book The End of Iraq, here.

According to Hitchens, Peter Galbraith has been anti Saddam for a long time and was for the overthrow of Saddam, but is sharply critical of the way the Bush administration handled Iraq. He is the son of economist John Kenneth Galbraith and, Hitchens points out, an architect of the Clinton administration’s policy in Yugoslavia. He also, like Hitchens and conservative NY Times columnist (retired) William Safire, has strong ties to the Kurds.

Here is the core of Galbraith’s argument:

If the coalition could not prevent Iraqs unraveling when it was fully in charge of the country, it is illogical now to put all the emphasis on building strong national institutions, such as a single Iraqi army and powerful central government, when American influence is much diminished.

How could a divorce be carried through? Arab Iraqi leaders have told me privately that they accept Kurdistans right to self-determination. Some seem to prefer that Kurdistan should leave, having grown weary of its refusal to make any concessions to a shared state. With settled borders, the split between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq could be more like Czechoslovakias velvet divorce than Yugoslavias wars.

One of the main objections that is always raised to an independent Kurdistan is that Turkey would not stand for it. Galbraith deals with the issue thus:

Turkey with many Kurds living within its borders has long been considered the chief obstacle to Kurdish dreams for an independent state. Turkish attitudes have evolved significantly, however. Some Turkish strategic thinkers, including those within the so-called deep state comprising the military and intelligence establishments, see a secular, pro-western and non-Arab Kurdistan as a buffer to an Islamic Arab state to the south.

He proposes that US troops withdraw from the Shiite and Sunni areas but remain in Kurdistan. A Sunni regional guard to enforce security in the central Sunni area instead of the current national army which he sees as Shiite. He continues:

There is one remaining problem. Partition is a way to get most coalition forces out of Iraq quickly. It does not solve the problem of Baghdad, however.

Theoretically, the United States has the power to provide some level of security in Baghdad. This would require many more troops and result in many more casualties. And it might not work. It is hard to imagine that there is any support for this role in America.

The alternative is to recognise that there is not much that America is able and willing to do to stop the bloodshed in Baghdad. Once they get started, modern civil wars develop a momentum of their own. In Baghdad and other mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, America cannot contribute to the solution because there is no solution, at least not in the foreseeable future.

What Galbraith does not deal with in his article is the key problem of oil revenues. The oil in Iraq is in the Kurdish and Shiite areas so a full partitioning would leave the Sunnis and Baghdad without oil income. Galbraith may deal with the issue in his book, The End of Iraq, but he doesn’t bring it up in the Times article.

When I consider Galbraith’s proposals along with the article Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon by Biddle and the round table discussion of it in Foreign affairs on which my earlier post was based I think we are finally getting a considered alternative to the Bush policy of Iraqization and democratization. Hopefully we are seeing something of what the Democratic party would do if elected in 2008, rather than simply withdraw as is proposed by its left wing. I think Galbraith’s proposals are too extreme – certainly so if they fail to address the problem of the Sunni’s getting oil revenue. But the overriding point for me here is that we are beginning to get proposals that give us an alternative vision of the future of Iraq. Biddle’s summary of the round table discussion is instructive here and, I believe, applies to Galbraith’s proposals as well:

……we all agree that if the United States is ever to succeed in Iraq, Washington must help Iraq’s communities reach a compromise on a viable constitution that distributes power among them. Kaufmann thinks this goal is impossible to achieve, meaning failure is inevitable. The rest of us believe the United States’ current leverage for obtaining such a compromise is limited but propose ways to increase it.

It should be remembered that decentralization – as opposed to, outright partition – is built into the Iraqi constitution. Three regional governments are specifically allowed to form and it is inevitable that any unitary Iraq state will in fact be, more or less, a federation of these three regions. Biddle goes on to describe the broad parameters of what such a federal Iraq would look like:

Decentralization, which Gelb advocates, would amount to a form of partition. Various partition proposals have been floated since 2003, ranging from a hard division of the country into three separate ministates (one for Shiites in the south, another for Kurds in the north, and a third for Sunnis in the center-west) to variations on federal systems, with a weak central government and more or less autonomous regions. The problem with hard partition is that the Sunnis will not accept it: as an independent state, the Sunni heartland would not be economically viable. The Sunnis would rather fight than accept such impoverishment; hard partition would therefore not end the war. But a softer form of federalism might well offer a basis for constitutional compromise. The problem is not a shortage of ideas on how to divide oil revenues or protect the rights of different regions; it is getting the Iraqis to agree on one of them. Anything they accept would surely satisfy U.S. interests. But to date they have been unwilling to make the needed compromises. Breaking the parties’ intransigence will require not so much a new proposal for softer or harder partition, but a new source of leverage over the parties.

I have reservations about these ideas as I do about the President’s policies, but I really welcome the emergence of credible alternatives to current US policy in Iraq. For example, I do not agree with Galbraith that the Iraqi Army is simply Shiite and that they are incapable of pacifying Baghdad. They may fail but they have not done so yet. Nor do I agree that Iraqi democracy has failed. The new government has just begun the job of trying to negotiate what was always going to be a federal solution of some description. I hope that this is the beginning of a serious debate about real alternatives consistent with US interests that will result in the US electorate having an informed choice in 2008.


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