Stephen Biddle. Foreign Affairs. Volume 85, Issue 2. March/April 2006.
The Grand Delusion
Contentious as the current debate over Iraq is, all sides seem to make the crucial assumption that to succeed there the United States must fight the Vietnam War again—but this time the right way. The Bush administration is relying on an updated playbook from the Nixon administration. Pro-war commentators argue that Washington should switch to a defensive approach to counterinsurgency, which they feel might have worked wonders a generation ago. According to the antiwar movement, the struggle is already over, because, as it did in Vietnam, Washington has lost hearts and minds in Iraq, and so the United States should withdraw.
But if the debate in Washington is Vietnam redux, the war in Iraq is not. The current struggle is not a Maoist “people’s war” of national liberation; it is a communal civil war with very different dynamics. Although it is being fought at low intensity for now, it could easily escalate if Americans and Iraqis make the wrong choices.
Unfortunately, many of the policies dominating the debate are ill adapted to the war being fought. Turning over the responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces, in particular, is likely to make matters worse. Such a policy might have made sense in Vietnam, but in Iraq it threatens to exacerbate the communal tensions that underlie the conflict and undermine the power-sharing negotiations needed to end it. Washington must stop shifting the responsibility for the country’s security to others and instead threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in order to force them to come to a durable compromise. Only once an agreement is reached should Washington consider devolving significant military power and authority to local forces.
As it is in 2006, in 1969 Washington’s strategy was built around winning hearts and minds while handing off more and more of the fighting to indigenous forces. From the outset of the Vietnam War, efforts to coax the Vietnamese people away from the communists and into supporting the Washington-backed government in Saigon were a crucial part of U.S. policy. “The task,” President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, “is nothing less than to enrich the hope and existence of more than a hundred million people.” The United States transferred $2.9 billion in economic aid to South Vietnam between 1961 and 1968 alone. In 1967, allied forces distributed more than half a million cakes of soap and instructed more than 200,000 people in personal hygiene. By then, thanks to U.S. pressure, elections at all levels of government had taken place throughout South Vietnam. The plan was to undermine the Vietcong by improving the lives of the South Vietnamese through economic development and political reform.
Of course, the counterinsurgency was about more than winning hearts and minds; it was also about fighting. At first, following Congress’ decision in 1965 to commit large-scale U.S. ground forces, Americans did much of South Vietnam’s defensive work. But in 1969, the Nixon administration changed course and decided to transfer responsibility for ground combat to the South Vietnamese. “We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable,” Richard Nixon declared. “This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.” The strategy, which became known as “Vietnamization,” led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from Vietnam by 1973. After that, South Vietnamese troops who had been trained and equipped by the Americans conducted all ground operations.
U.S. strategy in Iraq today is remarkably similar. To win the war, President George W. Bush has advocated following three parallel tracks—one for politics, one for economics, and one for security. The first two involve using democratic reform and economic reconstruction to persuade Iraqis to side with the new government in Baghdad and oppose the insurgents. The goal of the Bush administration’s third track is the creation of an Iraqi national military and an Iraqi police force that can shoulder the burden of counterinsurgency on their own—a project many call “Iraqization,” after its counterpart from Vietnam. The details of how to implement today’s policy may differ from those for the policy in the 1960s, but the two plans’ intents are effectively indistinguishable. Even the rhetoric surrounding the two plans is strikingly similar. Bush’s claim that “as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down” parallels Nixon’s hope that “as South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.”
Meanwhile, commentators such as Andrew Krepinevich argue essentially that Washington is not refighting Vietnam properly (“How to Win in Iraq,” September/October 2005). Krepinevich sees the current U.S. strategy as a repeat of the failed search-and-destroy missions of early Vietnam and wants Washington to adopt instead the approach of territorial defense used in late Vietnam. Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird argues that Vietnamization was working fine until Congress pulled the plug on support for South Vietnam in 1975, and so he advocates recycling the strategy and following through with it (“Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam,” November/December 2005). Journalists scorn U.S. officers who insist on overusing firepower—a mistake made in Vietnam—and lionize those who try to bring good governance to Iraq by holding local council elections, fixing sewers, and getting the trash picked up—the good lessons of Vietnam. Advocates of outright withdrawal think the United States has already lost the hearts and minds of Iraqis and should therefore cut its losses now, earlier than it did last time around.
A Category Mistake
Unfortunately, the parallel does not hold. A Maoist people’s war is, at bottom, a struggle for good governance between a class-based insurgency claiming to represent the interests of the oppressed public and a ruling regime portrayed by the insurgents as defending entrenched privilege. Using a mix of coercion and inducements, the insurgents and the regime compete for the allegiance of a common pool of citizens, who could, in principle, take either side. A key requirement for the insurgents’ success, arguably, is an ideological program—people’s wars are wars of ideas as much as they are killing competitions—and nationalism is often at the heart of this program. Insurgents frame their resistance as an expression of the people’s sovereign will to overthrow an illegitimate regime that represents only narrow class interests or is backed by a foreign government.
Communal civil wars, in contrast, feature opposing subnational groups divided along ethnic or sectarian lines; they are not about universal class interests or nationalist passions. In such situations, even the government is typically an instrument of one communal group, and its opponents champion the rights of their subgroup over those of others. These conflicts do not revolve around ideas, because no pool of uncommitted citizens is waiting to be swayed by ideology. (Albanian Kosovars, Bosnian Muslims, and Rwandan Tutsis knew whose side they were on.) The fight is about group survival, not about the superiority of one party’s ideology or one side’s ability to deliver better governance.
The underlying dynamic of many communal wars is a security problem driven by mutual fear. Especially in states lacking strong central governments, communal groups worry that other groups with historical grievances will try to settle scores. The stakes can be existential, and genocide is a real possibility. Ideologues or nationalists can also be brutal toward their enemies—Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge come to mind—but in communal conflicts the risk of mass slaughter is especially high.
Whereas the Vietnam War was a Maoist people’s war, Iraq is a communal civil war. This can be seen in the pattern of violence in Iraq, which is strongly correlated with communal affiliation. The four provinces that make up the country’s Sunni heartland account for fully 85 percent of all insurgent attacks; Iraq’s other 14 provinces, where almost 60 percent of the Iraqi population lives, account for only 15 percent of the violence. The overwhelming majority of the insurgents in Iraq are indigenous Sunnis, and the small minority who are non-Iraqi members of al Qaeda or its affiliates are able to operate only because Iraqi Sunnis provide them with safe houses, intelligence, and supplies. Much of the violence is aimed at the Iraqi police and military, which recruit disproportionately from among Shiites and Kurds. And most suicide car bombings are directed at Shiite neighborhoods, especially in ethnically mixed areas such as Baghdad, Diyala, or northern Babil, where Sunni bombers have relatively easy access to non-Sunni targets.
If the war in Iraq were chiefly a class-based or nationalist war, the violence would run along national, class, or ideological lines. It does not. Many commentators consider the insurgents to be nationalists opposing the U.S. occupation. Yet there is almost no antioccupation violence in Shiite or Kurdish provinces; only in the Sunni Triangle are some Sunni “nationalists” raising arms against U.S. troops, whom they see as defenders of a Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government. Defense of sect and ethnic group, not resistance to foreign occupation, accounts for most of the anti-American violence. Class and ideology do not matter much either: little of the violence pits poor Shiites or poor Sunnis against their richer brethren, and there is little evidence that theocrats are killing secularists of their own ethnic group. Nor has the type of ideological battle typical of a nationalist war emerged in Iraq. This should come as no surprise: the insurgents are not competing for Shiite hearts and minds; they are fighting for Sunni self-interest, and hardly need a manifesto to rally supporters.
The uprisings led by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia in Baghdad and Najaf have been an exception to this general pattern, but it is the exception that confirms the rule. Although Sadr may still have a political future, so far he has failed to spur a broad-based Shiite uprising against either the U.S. occupation or the Shiite-dominated government. Some Iraqi Shiites do resent the U.S. occupation, and nationalism does feed anti-American violence. But nationalism is only a secondary factor in the war, and its main effect is to magnify the virulence of the Sunnis’ violence in what is fundamentally a communal civil war.
This is not to claim that there are no Iraqi patriots who place nation above sect, or that a unified state is beyond reach. And this is certainly not to denigrate the courageous efforts of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers who have sacrificed much for a new Iraq. But these efforts may be in vain if the communal civil war in Iraq continues to be misunderstood.
Keep Nixon Out of Baghdad
The problem with recycling the Vietnam playbook in Iraq is that the strategies devised to win a people’s war are either useless or counterproductive in a communal one. Winning hearts and minds, for example, is crucial to defeating a people’s rebellion that promises good governance, but in a communal civil war such as that in Iraq, it is a lost cause. Communities in Iraq are increasingly polarized and fear mass violence at one another’s hands. Some Sunnis hunger for a return to dominance; many others fear violent Shiite-Kurdish retribution for Saddam’s Sunni-dominated tyranny. Some Shiites and Kurds want revenge; others fear they will face mass killings in the event of a Sunni restoration. Economic aid or reconstruction assistance cannot fix the problem: Would Sunnis really get over their fear of Shiite domination if only the sewers were fixed and the electricity kept working? This is not to say that Washington should not provide reconstruction assistance or economic aid; the United States owes Iraq the help on moral grounds, and economic growth could ease communal tensions at the margins and so promote peace in the long term. But in the near term, survival trumps prosperity, and most Iraqis depend on communal solidarity for their survival.
Rapid democratization, meanwhile, could be positively harmful in Iraq. In a Maoist people’s war, empowering the population via the ballot box undermines the insurgents’ case that the regime is illegitimate and facilitates nonviolent resolution of the inequalities that fuel the conflict. In a communal civil war, however, rapid democratization can further polarize already antagonistic sectarian groups. In an immature polity with little history of compromise, demonizing traditional enemies is an easy—and dangerous—way to mobilize support from frightened voters. And as the political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder have shown, although mature democracies rarely go to war with other democracies, emerging democracies are unusually bellicose. Political reform is critical to resolving communal wars, but only if it comes at the right time, after some sort of stable communal compromise has begun to take root.
The biggest problem with treating Iraq like Vietnam is Iraqization—the main component of the current U.S. military strategy. In a people’s war, handing the fighting off to local forces makes sense because it undermines the nationalist component of insurgent resistance, improves the quality of local intelligence, and boosts troop strength. But in a communal civil war, it throws gasoline on the fire. Iraq’s Sunnis perceive the “national” army and police force as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids. And they have a point: in a communal conflict, the only effective units are the ones that do not intermingle communal enemies. (Because the U.S. military does not keep data on the ethnic makeup of the Iraqi forces, the number of Sunnis in these organizations is unknown and the effectiveness of mixed units cannot be established conclusively. Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests that the troops are dominated by Shiites and Kurds and that the Sunnis’ very perception that this is so, accurate or not, helps fuel the conflict. Either way, Iraqization poses serious problems, and the analysis below considers both the possibility that integration might succeed and the possibility that it might fail.) Sunni populations are unlikely to welcome protection provided by their ethnic or sectarian rivals; to them, the defense forces look like agents of a hostile occupation. And the more threatened the Sunnis feel, the more likely they are to fight back even harder. The bigger, stronger, better trained, and better equipped the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get.
The creation of powerful Shiite-Kurdish security forces will also reduce the chances of reaching the only serious long-term solution to the country’s communal conflict: a compromise based on a constitutional deal with ironclad power-sharing arrangements protecting all parties. A national army that effectively excluded Sunnis would make any such constitutional deal irrelevant, because the Shiite-Kurdish alliance would hold the real power regardless of what the constitution said. Increasing evidence that Iraq’s military and police have already committed atrocities against Sunnis only confirms the dangers of transferring responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces before an acceptable ethnic compromise has been brokered.
On the other hand, the harder the United States works to integrate Sunnis into the security forces, the less effective those forces are likely to become. The inclusion of Sunnis will inevitably entail penetration by insurgents, and it will be difficult to establish trust between members of mixed units whose respective ethnic groups are at one another’s throats. Segregating Sunnis in their own battalions is no solution either. Doing so would merely strengthen all sides simultaneously by providing each with direct U.S. assistance and could trigger an unstable, unofficial partition of the country into separate Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish enclaves, each defended by its own military force.
Unfortunately, the alternatives to the Bush administration’s policies currently on the table are no more promising. Shifting from tactical offense to defense, for example, could make things worse. Krepinevich proposes an “oil-spot strategy” that focuses on providing security to civilians rather than on killing insurgents. In principle, such an approach could help by protecting Iraqis against violence perpetrated by ethnic rivals. But finding the appropriate troops to implement it would not be easy. There are too few Americans to protect more than a fraction of Iraq’s population, and it is far from clear that Sunnis would accept their help anyway. So the plan would have to rely on Iraqi troops, which will inevitably end up being either integrated and ineffectual or segregated and divisive. Tactical defense by the wrong defenders can be fatal in a communal civil war, and in Iraq it will remain far from clear how to provide appropriate defenders until the communal strife itself has been resolved.
The case for withdrawing U.S. troops is no stronger, largely because the war does not hinge on the United States’ winning—or losing—Iraqi hearts and minds. The war is about resolving the communal security problems that divide Iraqis, and it is too early to give up on achieving this goal via constitutional compromise. In fact, the very prospect that today’s conflict could degenerate into attempted genocide if compromise fails should be a powerful lever for negotiating a deal. The presence of U.S. troops is essential to Washington’s bargaining position in these negotiations. To withdraw them now, or to start withdrawing them according to a rigid timetable, would undermine the prospect of forging a lasting peace.
The Best Plan
What, then, is to be done? Some elements of the current U.S. strategy are worth keeping. The efforts of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to broker a constitutional deal between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, for example, are crucial for success; his interventionist approach is a major improvement over the strategy of quiet behind-the-scenes encouragement favored by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority from May 2003 to June 2004. Economic assistance is a moral imperative; it should be continued and reinforced whatever its marginal strategic value.
But critical departures from the current strategy are also necessary. First, Washington must slow down the expansion of the Iraqi national military and police. Iraq will eventually need capable indigenous security forces, but their buildup must follow a broad communal compromise, not the other way around. If the development of the army and the police gets ahead of the agreement, the forces will either exclude the Sunnis and be effective but divisive or include the Sunnis but be weak. The latter result would mean lost effort and perhaps lives, but the former would probably be worse, because it would jeopardize any constitutional power-sharing deal that may emerge from Khalilzad’s efforts. This dilemma leaves Washington with no choice but to continue providing enough U.S. forces to cap the violence in Iraq.
Second, the United States must bring more pressure to bear on the parties in the constitutional negotiations. And the strongest pressure available is military: the United States must threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate. Washington should use the prospect of a U.S.-trained and U.S.-supported Shiite-Kurdish force to compel the Sunnis to come to the negotiating table. At the same time, in order to get the Shiites and the Kurds to negotiate too, it should threaten either to withdraw prematurely, a move that would throw the country into disarray, or to back the Sunnis.
If Washington fails to implement this plan, it will continue to have only limited leverage over the parties, each of which sees compromise as risky. The groups fear that if their rivals gain control of the government, they will face oppression, impoverishment, or mass violence. Compromising means ceding some power to rivals, and a miscalculation that cedes too much power could result in the enemy’s seizing the rest later, with catastrophic results. In contrast, an ongoing low-intensity war does not look so bad: as long as U.S. forces patrol Iraq, the country will not break up and the conflict will not descend into all-out chaos. The parties’ refusal to compromise may be an obstacle to real peace, but it is also a way to avert mass violence.
The only way to break the logjam is to change the parties’ relative comfort with the status quo by drastically raising the costs of their failure to negotiate. The U.S. presence now caps the war’s intensity, and U.S. aid could give any side an enormous military advantage. Thus Washington should threaten to use its influence to alter the balance of power depending on the parties’ behavior. By doing so, it could make stubbornness look worse than cooperation and compel all sides to compromise.
Today, however, Washington is doing just the opposite. Washington’s stated policy is to field an ethnically mixed Iraqi military as quickly as possible in order to replace U.S. troops, with or without a stable constitutional deal in place—an approach that forfeits Washington’s primary source of leverage with all three local factions. The Sunnis have little to fear from the plan, for if it succeeds, they will have been saved from a powerful U.S.-trained Shiite-Kurdish army without having had to make any concessions. The prospect that the United States’ policy could fail, thus leaving the Sunnis on their own, may frighten them, but since the likelihood of that happening is unrelated to their willingness to make political compromises, they have little reason to negotiate. Iraqization gives Washington no more sway with the Shiites or the Kurds, because it involves keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until these groups can defend themselves, regardless of whether they negotiate seriously in the meantime. So the only way out of this problem is for Washington to postpone Iraqization and make it contingent on the parties’ willingness to bargain.
This shift in strategy will require changes in other current policies, too. For example, Washington will have to suspend its campaign against the Sunni insurgent leadership, former senior Baathists, and Sunni tribal leaders. If the key to success is a negotiated communal compromise, Washington needs negotiating partners who can make a deal stick—in other words, leaders with authority among their own people and combatants. But many of the Sunnis with such stature are now fighting in the insurgency, are in hiding, or are banned from politics because of their Baathist pasts; others are excluded by Washington’s reluctance to reinforce a tribal loyalty system based on graft and patronage. The result is a weak Sunni political leadership lacking both the legitimacy and the power to negotiate a settlement. Since such weakness could be fatal to the prospects for ethnic compromise, Washington should consider trying to accelerate the emergence of a credible Sunni leadership by endorsing a wider amnesty for former Baathists and insurgents and learning to tolerate nepotistic tribal leaders.
Washington should also avoid setting any more arbitrary deadlines for democratization. Pressure to reach demanding political milestones can further polarize factional politics, and the parliamentary elections in December 2005 may already have hardened communal divides. In a people’s war, early electoral deadlines can make sense; in a communal civil war, they are dangerous. Democracy is the long-term goal in Iraq, of course, but getting there will require a near-term constitutional compromise whose key provision must be an agreement to limit the freedom of Iraqi voters to elect governments that concentrate ethnic and sectarian power. Resolving the country’s communal security problems must take priority over bringing self-determination to the Iraqi people—or the democracy that many hope for will never emerge.
Back On Track
Putting such a program in place would not be easy. It would deny President Bush the chance to offer restless Americans an early troop withdrawal, replace a Manichaean narrative featuring evil insurgents and a noble government with a complicated story of multiparty interethnic intrigue, and require that Washington be willing to shift its loyalties in the conflict according to the parties’ readiness to negotiate. Explaining these changes to U.S. voters would be a challenge. Washington would have to recalibrate its dealings with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds with great precision, making sure to neither unduly frighten nor unduly reassure any of the groups. Even the most adroit diplomacy could fail if the Iraqis do not grasp the strategic logic of their situation or if a strong and sensible Sunni political leadership does not emerge. And the failure to reach a stable ethnic compromise soon could strain the U.S. military beyond its breaking point.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons to think such a plan could work. Most important, the underlying interests of all local parties would be far better served by a constitutional compromise than by an all-out war. The losers would have to pay the butcher’s bill of combat and bear the oppressor’s yoke in the aftermath; even the winners would pay a terrible price. Since no side today can be confident that it would come out on top in a war, the prospect of losing should be a powerful motivation to compromise. The December 2005 round of negotiations in Baghdad suggested that the parties may have started to understand these stakes: the willingness of the Shiite negotiators to yield to the Sunnis’ preferences on the procedures for amending the constitution indicates that compromise may be possible. The current U.S. strategy in Iraq makes this compromise less likely by shielding Iraqis from the full consequences of their stubbornness and thereby weakening Washington’s potentially formidable leverage over the military balance of power. But if that changes—and it can change—the chances for success will be significantly increased.
At a minimum, Washington should stop making matters worse. Understanding the war in Iraq as a communal civil war cannot guarantee success, but without this understanding failure is far too likely. Whatever the prospects for peace, they would be considerably better if Washington stopped mistaking Iraq for Vietnam and started seeing it for what it really is.