Partitioning Iraq may actually be the best solution for the state overwhelmed by sectarian feuding.
Unless you live under a rock or read the American version of Time magazine — which featured an admonition to eat more butter on this week’s front cover — then you’re likely aware of the hugely important foreign policy story that broke this week: the complete collapse of Iraqi state authority across a wide swath of that country’s northern territory. In the space of just a few days, the black-clad, Sunni-fundamentalist warriors of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and appear to be now marching toward Baghdad.
This lightening success in the form of a low-tech blitzkrieg, carried out with up-armored technicals and manned by less than 10,000 hardened guerrillas trained by years of fighting in Syria, did not, however, come out of the blue. In January, for instance, Fallujah — a hotbed of Sunni radicalism — fell to ISIS, while a bit further to the east and closer to Baghdad, Ramadi narrowly avoided capture only because the locals decided to fight to keep them out. ISIS had, moreover, been increasing its operational reach in Iraq lately by conducting attacks across the porous Iraq-Syria border in response to aid given to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime by the government in Baghdad, which, like Damascus, is a client of Iran.
What’s more, for years now the regions now under occupation by ISIS or otherwise threatened by it — including Fallujah, Ramadi and now Mosul, as well as other cities and towns across Iraq’s north — are all Sunni-majority areas that have also been the biggest losers of all the changes that have taken place in the country since 2003. Indeed, it would seem that the success of ISIS probably has much more to do with long-simmering resentment against the central government among Iraq’s Sunni population than any new factor suddenly present on the battlefield.
Faced, therefore, with a competent enemy and a population utterly ready to throw them out, it is little wonder that Baghdad’s Shiite troops garrisoning cities in areas now fallen to ISIS melted like snow in summer. Indeed, four divisions of the Iraqi army — some 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers — hightailed it back to safer regions further south, abandoning in the process literally tons of U.S. military equipment gifted to the Iraqi military by the U.S. government that has now fallen into the hands of the ISIS guerrillas. The guerrillas, it turns out, have even been able to loot the central bank’s offices in Mosul, netting ISIS a cool $429 million and instantly making it the richest terror group turned guerilla army in the world.
Thus, what we have now in northern Iraq is the emergence of a zone of anarchy created by the collapse of the authority of the Baghdad government there that is being filled by a mix of local Sunni militia and this ISIS guerrilla group that looks set to establish some form of government over these newly conquered — or liberated, depending upon your point of view — areas. If ISIS can retain the support of the Iraqi Sunni population, continue to receive covert assistance from Wahhabist elements in the Gulf States, and fight off Shiite and Kurdish counterattacks long enough to reestablish rudimentary oil production in the zones it controls, then the stage will have been set for the emergence of a new and viable Sunni state in what is now known as northern Iraq.
This effectively splits the country into three parts — a Kurdish far-north that is all but independent already; the Shiite south, including Baghdad, which is allied with Iran; and a new Sunni state stretching across much of north-central Iraq and deep into Syria which effectively has the tacit support of much of the Sunni Arab world. The question for us now is whether this is an acceptable outcome and what, if anything, the United States should do about it.
For those on the neoconservative right, such as Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the answers to those questions are obvious. Not only should such an outcome be actively fought against, but the U.S. should once again intervene via airstrikes against ISIS forces that are now advancing on Baghdad. What this would accomplish beyond stopping ISIS in its tracks, however, is unclear, given that the root problem the Baghdad regime faces is its lack of popular support among Sunni Iraqis. Airstrikes would do little to change this basic fact and troops on the ground — God forbid — would accomplish even less.
But this even supposes that Iraq can, in fact, be put back together again like some geopolitical version of Humpty Dumpty. In fact, as the last 10 years have increasingly shown, it would seem that Iraq as an idea was something of a misnomer to begin with, as its apparent unity for much of the post-war era was a fiction maintained by the Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the country itself has always been something of a stitched-up state that was cobbled together more to please British and French imperialists than the interests of the people actually living there.
What’s more, it is not at all clear that a partitioned Iraq — after the initial bloodletting is finished, of course — would be any more violent or less stable than other countries whose people have parted ways. There is a good case to be made that territorial partition and independence as separate states may actually be the best solution for Iraq’s sectarian woes. India and Pakistan, for instance, proved much more workable once they parted ways after the end of the British Raj, and both Pakistan and Bangladesh — once joined together in the same political unit — are now far better off than they were before Bangladeshi independence in 1972.
Likewise with Yugoslavia. Since falling apart in the 1990s, it has seen most of its successor states become relatively successful members of or aspirants to the European Union and NATO. Sudan, which had an Arab north subjugating an African south, has now split apart, and even with terrible violence now wracking South Sudan, no one is suggesting the two be joined together again. Similarly, an independent Eritrea is probably better off separated from Ethiopia than when it was part of it, and even some of the broken-up pieces of the former Somalia — Puntland and Somaliland — are relatively successful, if unrecognized, successor states.
Indeed, history shows that even the strongest, most well-established and powerful states can be forced apart by subnational claims for autonomy and independence. The Soviet Union, for instance, fell apart largely because its constituent nations rejected the Soviet system, not because democracy and capitalism suddenly triumphed in the hallways of the Kremlin. Likewise, the U.K. found it couldn’t hold onto Ireland and parted ways with that country in 1921, while even today Scotland will be holding an independence vote later this year. Spain, of course, has had issues with its Basques and Catalans, the Canadians have been periodically threatened with Quebecois independence, and northern Italy has sometimes expressed a desire to break away from Italy’s south.
The point of all this is that states and their borders are not set in stone. Like any human social creation, they are mostly things of the imagination and function well only insofar as everyone agrees that the state as constituted rules according to some form of legitimate authority. In the past, that often meant by divine right or imperial might, but in today’s more democratic age, legitimacy of the state and the nation or nations it purports to represent and rule can only rest on the expressed consent of the governed. Without that and the corresponding notion that the people governed by a state share a common form of basic identity and so belong together, then any state, even powerful and well-governed ones, can fall apart in the blink of an eye if sub-national impulses are not constantly, adroitly and democratically managed.
This, in turn, should give us an insight into just how impossible it is now to turn Iraq as it’s currently constituted into anything approaching a workable, unified political entity at an acceptable cost to the U.S., let alone to the feuding Iraqis themselves. It could be done, of course, but only through a massive military campaign involving hundreds of thousands of troops that would succeed only by killing its way to a shaky, unloved, unstable political order that would have to be maintained by force for years and years on end. Without Saddam, in other words, America would have to either take his place as Iraq’s top killer or allow someone like him to take over — something we are not about to do for any number of reasons.
So, for all practical purposes, a partitioned Iraq seems to be the only outcome available to us, and it is likely for the best, since we can do so little to prevent it. A Mideast wag once said that except for Egypt, the Arab world mostly consisted of “tribes with flags” that had little loyalty to the states they were nominally part of. Now it looks like some of those tribes are finally getting the chance to break out from the geopolitical prisons they had so long been held in to make their own way in the world, for better or worse, on the territories their people actually live in and control. It’s painful to watch, to be sure, but as with any birth, it was always going to be bloody, dangerous and terrifying for all involved — which should not, under any circumstances, include us.