By Michael Shank

For all of Washington’s white papers on the war in Iraq, testimonies by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and wonkish retching over the war’s latest development – the recent routing of Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, for example – the cures counseled by Congress, the candidates, and the Administration continue to be nauseatingly simplistic: withdrawal or stay the course. The contrasting spectrum of solutions is stark – from immediate withdrawal to an unimaginable 100-year presence – and the criteria for success, or anything remotely close to a “win”, constantly shifting.

In the early years of the war, fingers pointed to virulent and violent Sunni-Shia sectarianism, which was nonexistent pre-invasion (intermarriages were frequent, integrated nonsectarian military common), as the prime obstacle to ultimate Iraq war victory. The number of times members of Congress used the word “sectarian” on the Senate and House floors to describe the impossibility of a stable Iraq was extraordinary. It was the buzz word to use. This preoccupation with sectarianism formed the foundation of a proposal posited later by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware), Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon, and others, that Iraq be split into three sections, along sectarian lines. Balkanize Iraq, they said, and sectarianism will be summarily silenced.

As Congress quieted on sectarian citations, Washington latched on, instead, to so-called benchmarks, coupled with the semi-absurd metaphoric call for Iraqis to stand up as Americans stood down. Assessing whether Baghdad met any of Washington’s 18 indicators for success, it quickly became clear that Iraq was nowhere near the mark. This public benchmarking faded fast as unmet expectations ultimately implicated the U.S. for inadequate capacity and institution-building of Iraq’s government.

Troop Surge
Attempting to bolster the besmirched benchmarks with brute force, and, concurrently, exemplify a renewed commitment to Iraq’s security, the White House moved decisively, and controversially, towards a military surge. Immediate results indicated a positive impact and as post-surge attacks diminished, Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledged – some reluctantly, some gleefully – that the surge was showing signs of success. This was irrespective of the fact that “there was no one left to kill,” to quote one reporter inside Iraq, since Baghdad was already subdivided into separate Sunni and Shia enclaves, encased by U.S.-built miles-long walls. Regardless, the troop surge substantially shifted American opinion. The majority opinion in 2007 favored a return of troops as soon as possible. It lost its majority in 2008. Conversely, those favoring a stay of US forces in Iraq until the country stabilized increased in number.

Anbar Province
Political gains were needed, however, to justify the new troop levels as concerns mounted regarding the infeasibility of a military-only approach. Surge-induced success was merely a management of violent conflict, not a transformation of it. Thus, Iraq’s Anbar Province became the poster child for success in a bizarre throwback to the Iran-Iraq War, a war in which both sides received strategic assistance from the Americans. Similarly, in Anbar, U.S. forces were funding former Sunni insurgents who detested, and were eager to kill, the very Shiite leaders the U.S. simultaneously supported. These “concerned local citizens” as they were so unsuitably named, or “awakening councils” provided the Pentagon, and even Washington’s war critics, with a compelling story: local Sunnis equipped and trained by U.S. forces, rising up in opposition to al Qaeda. In the global war on terrorism, this was showcase material and breathed new life into a formidable and flagging fight.

The sad reality in the entirety of Washington’s responses to Iraq – whether sectarian-related citations and strategies for subdivisions, benchmark boosterism, 30,000-strong surges or armored Anbar awakenings – is that none will work.

On sectarianism, the champions of a subdivided Iraq have, thankfully, lowered their campaign flags. Migrating Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites to their corresponding positions in northern, central and southern Iraq would, no doubt – much like the 1947 split of India into two states – cause countless casualties, further uproot the millions of Iraq’s internally displaced peoples, and eventually leave a lingering distaste for the “other” – much like the Balkanized Serbia and Kosovo continue to struggle with. Had the idea of a subdivided Iraq taken root, essentially the U.S. would have taken a united Iraq, wherein pre-invasion national identity trumped sectarian lines, and not only exacerbated ethnic and religious differences but corralled Iraqis into camps of perpetual non-coexistence, with the central-based Sunnis left to fight over the resource-rich north and south.

On benchmarks, to continue to call for accountability when Iraq’s governmental capacity is near nonexistent is naive. Many in the country think that an Iraq government fails to exist at all. Politicians positioned within the “Green Zone” have little power outside it. National infrastructure – the necessities of electricity, water, sanitation, schools, roads, hospitals – fails to function, forcing Iraqi citizens to look elsewhere for political representation and personal protection. Until priority is placed on these points, the Baghdad-based government will forever remain impotent as a political force, and benchmarks embarrassingly pointless.

On the 30,000-strong troop surge, one wonders what they are guarding, or conversely, if they will ever be able to leave. Baghdad is now a maze of walls and zones separating the increasing hatred between the now strikingly segregated Sunni and Shia communities. Furthermore, the “Green Zone” government is ineffective beyond its armed reach. If government services were functional, that might be cause for security concern. But with 70 percent of Iraqis lacking clean water, 80 percent without effective sanitation, 90 percent of hospitals with no medical and surgical supplies, and nearly half struggling in absolute poverty, one wonders what the surge is securing. If the surge intended to give reprieve to allow for further reconstruction, to address these basic needs, it might have merit. But the extra boots are bent on bolstering a more segregated society, not a lesser one. At some point, since indefinite financing of an essentially imprisoned Iraq is untenable given America’s recession, this will backfire mightily. Current ceasefires, which some in Washington think are harbingers of impending peace, are merely politicized pauses as militias wait out the surge, regroup and rethink strategies.

On Anbar awakenings, to further fund former Sunni insurgents – who up until recently fired freely on Americans – as they turn their sights instead on al Qaeda, both undermines the concept of a centralized Iraqi government in Baghdad and escalates Sunni-Shia violence. Once holding a privileged position in Saddam Hussein’s government, Sunnis got the boot when the U.S. arrived and have never fully reintegrated despite well-intentioned de-Baathification legislation. The Shia-led leadership in Baghdad wants nothing to do with anything Sunni and consequently, Sunnis are left to fend for their survival, leaving them ripe for the Pentagon picking.

It is the American Wild West all over again. Equipping local Sunnis with the money and munitions to manage their own affairs makes a Baghdad-based centralized government completely irrelevant. And while al Qaeda may get a thorough thrashing in Anbar, Iraq as a whole is worse off.

What now, then, if these approaches are ostensibly ineffective in establishing a stable Iraq? Before specific tactics are even mentionable, the modus operandi that landed America in this quagmire, and the one in Afghanistan, must first be questioned, before it is doomed to repeat itself in Iran or Pakistan by any of the three presidential candidates, all of whom seem poised to repeat the mistakes of the past. The prevailing notion that regime change is feasible via unilateral, military mechanisms that are socially, culturally and religiously ill-equipped to navigate the ground post-invasion must be upended. Moreover, to assume that security in any nation state is possible without sufficient attention paid to the political and economic needs of society as a whole is wholly unrealistic. Yet this thinking, which continues to characterize the current president’s policies, will hardly get the Washington regime change it needs in the November presidential elections. And until it does, the war in Iraq, and others like it, will continue to plague this country.

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