Studies of the Iraq Disaster When Democracy Looks Like Civil War

Recent studies offer a damning assesment of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq. Thanks to US political and military failures, the country could soon become failed state. Experts warn that it's time to implement an emergency plan before civil war breaks out.

By Yassin Musharbash


The verdicts reached by the experts are harsh: "The political system that the United States has helped set up in Iraq … is a house of cards," writes failed-states expert Marina Ottaway in her recent study "Back from the Brink: A Strategy for Iraq." "Time is running out," warns Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution in a February Atlantic Monthly article. "A six- to 12-month window of opportunity may be all that remains before the spiral toward possible chaos and civil war is beyond control."

And that's unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg. Well-respected think tanks, big-name military experts and Middle East specialists are currently producing a flood of reports painting a frighteningly pessimistic picture of Iraq and its immediate future prospects. It's no secret, of course, that the country is currently on the very brink of a civil war. But the experts want to know why -- and the virtually unanimous conclusion they have arrived at may be surprising. It's not only the terrorists and the insurgents who are propelling the country toward chaos. More than anything else, policies followed by the US government and procedures of the American military can be blamed for the impending disaster.

Taken as a whole, hardly a single element of the American occupation -- whether political or military -- remains free of criticism.

According to some experts, in fact, the situation in Iraq has deteriorated so far that a completely new approach to the problem is required. The International Crisis Group, in its study "The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict," writes "the international community, including neighboring states, should start planning for the contingency that Iraq will fall apart, so as to contain the inevitable fall-out on regional stability and security." Furthermore, the US government should begin considering what to do should Iraq erupt into an all-out civil war. "Such an effort has been a taboo," the report says, "but failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future."

But what may sound like doomsday prognoses from anti-Iraq activists are actually far from it -- the reports are all based on a sober analysis of the facts available. The studies take a close look at individual aspects of the Iraq war and the resulting situation in the country today before offering suggestions on how to proceed. All of the authors arrive at the conclusion that US policies in Iraq must be changed as quickly as possible if a catastrophe is to be avoided.

"The United States must … approach 2006 as a make-or-break year in Iraq," Pollack writes in his study "A Switch in Time -- A New Strategy for America in Iraq," for Brookings. The abridged version of the study appears in the Atlantic Monthly with the subtitle, "Seven steps toward a last chance in Iraq."

The steps that Pollack and his colleagues recommend consist of far-reaching shifts to Washington's strategy. The US, he argues, must approach the fight against the insurgency in a completely different way: it must follow a defensive plan rather than an offensive one.

In other words, the report explains, the first priority has to be providing protection for the civilian population against terrorist attacks rather than hunting down insurgents. Expending massive amounts of materiel and manpower to attack and bombard the centers of the insurgency repeatedly makes little sense, the study argues, because the US doesn't have enough soldiers in the country to hold on to captured cities and towns. The result? After a few weeks -- at most a month or two -- the militants return as though the attack never happened.

Instead, the experts at the Brookings Institution suggest an "ink spot" approach: zones of security must be established which could then gradually grow as security forces increase in strength and numbers. These areas would then "spread throughout the country, pacifying and rebuilding those areas that it touches." More soldiers in Iraq, ideally some 500,000, wouldn't be a bad idea either, the authors of the report contend.

The authors of the Brookings study are far from alone in their desire to see a drastic increase in US forces. James F. Dobbins, an Iraq expert at the Rand Corporation and co-author of a book on American nation-building, arrives at a similar number of necessary troops in his paper, " America's Role in Nation-Building From Germany to Iraq." He argues that at least 460,000 US and coalition troops would be necessary to provide troop coverage similar to that used in pacifying Bosnia in the 1990s. Currently, there are only 140,000 troops on the ground in Iraq -- a number which is set to shrink this year.

But the failure goes beyond military difficulties. The Iraqi political process brought to life by the Americans has likewise emerged as a complete failure, argues Iraq expert Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Iraqi constitution -- written under the guidance of the United States and barely adopted amid accusations of vote fixing in a nationwide referendum -- contains all the ingredients necessary for a civil war. According to the document, oil profits will most likely be split between the powerful Shiite and Kurd dominated provinces, leaving the Sunni provinces weak and poor. Iraq, Ottaway argues, may soon fulfil the criteria of a "failed state."

The International Crisis Group is likewise skeptical of the Iraqi constitution. It is, ICG argues, essentially a roadmap to the disintegration of the country. A careful rewrite of all clauses dealing with the federal structure of Iraq is unavoidable. Furthermore, the US has been simplistic in its approach to the complicated realities in Iraq and shares responsibility for the growing cleft between the Shiites and the Sunnis in the country. The US, writes the ICG, didn't do enough to prevent the political marginalization of the Sunnis and thus fuelled the insurgency. The US strategy of "de-Baathification" was, for example, perceived as "de-Sunnification" the authors write.

Virtually everything the US has proferred to the world as milestones on the road to a new, democratic Iraq, the experts argue -- be it elections, referenda, the constitution or the provisional government -- must now, unfortunately, be viewed as small steps taken towards civil war. Coming as they do from authors on both sides of the political spectrum, the studies represent a damning verdict against the Bush administration's Iraq policies.

One particular element of the approaching disaster receives special attention in virtually all the studies: the Iraqi security forces and militias attached to ethnic and religious groups. Ottaway, in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, even went so far as to express her concern that the US, by training the Iraqi military and police, is actually preparing soldiers to fight in an Iraqi civil war. Split loyalties are already becoming visible. "In some of the Kurdish units, for example," Ottaway said, "you have troops who are not only wearing the insignia of the Iraqi army on their sleeves, but also the insignia of the Peshmerga -- the Kurdish militia."

It's a development Iraq analysts are following closely. In its report, Brookings advises the US government against the planned acceleration of training of Iraqi security forces. The quality of training is far more important than the quantity of those being trained. It also warns that the militias -- which, according to the constitution may be merged into the security forces in individual provinces -- should be dissolved. Another worry shared by many of the experts is that moderate Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani seems to be losing influence while that of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Islamist Shiite group, appears to be growing.

"We have opened the Pandora's Box and the question is, what is the way forward?" US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said earlier this week. It was a surprisingly candid assessment of the difficulties faced by the American occupiers in Iraq. The assumption shared by many is that Khalilzad's statements were an attempt to support military leaders who are currently trying to convince the US government not to go ahead with its planned troop reduction. In other words, from Khalilzad's perspective in Iraq, the conclusions arrived at by the think tank experts seem reasonable. The Bush Administration has a slightly different viewpoint. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently blamed Iran for the recent wave of bloody violence in Iraq without uttering a single word of self-criticism.
Khalilzad, on the other hand, didn't mince words. One has to be careful that Iraq doesn't turn into a country that "would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play," he warned.

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