Three recent and well-studied American initiatives all had the potential to alter the equation in Iraq when they were introduced, but in unpredictable ways: the Iraqi elections, President George W. Bush's commitment to spreading democracy and the administration's handing over of more responsibility to Iraqis. In fact, these are all related, and with the fog lifting from their aftermath, it is increasingly possible to begin to predict their cumulative effects.
First, by embracing the strategy of “Iraqicization,” the Bush administration has finally matched its military objectives to the level of its forces on the ground. One reinforced corps of largely American troops was never going to be enough to stabilize a country as large, conflicted and heavily armed as Iraq. But that same force acting in support of the largest communal faction in Iraq, the Shiites, and the best armed, the Kurds, has every prospect of suppressing resistance based from within the third and weakest faction, the Sunnis.
The new military strategy, however, is dependent for success on a political gamble. As democratization has become the centerpiece of U.S. policy, other specific desirable goals — power sharing, regional stability, Iraqi territorial integrity — receive scant mention, presumably in the hope that these will flow from the unimpeded byplay of popular sovereignty. Likewise, the United States is betting that popular sovereignty will produce a stable Shiite/Kurdish regime, ideally one with meaningful Sunni participation, capable of raising, motivating and sustaining effective counterinsurgency forces.
The impact of the Iraqi elections has been to accelerate the transformation of a broadly based nationalist resistance to U.S. occupation into a more narrowly based Sunni resistance to Shiite domination. Violence in Iraq is increasingly breaking down along sectarian lines.
This mutation of a nationalist resistance movement into a Sunni insurgency has an obvious upside for U.S. policy. There is no doubt that a Sunni-based insurgency will ultimately be defeated by the combined weight of Shiite and Kurdish opposition, particularly when those two communities can count on the support of both the United States and Iran. What remains a bit less certain is whether Shiite and Kurdish weight will indeed be combined.
It is fair to say that Iraq is already in the midst of a kind of civil war, though — crucially — still an unconventional one. Just as there is no danger of the Sunni minority prevailing against the Shiite and Kurdish majority, so there is no danger of a Sunni insurgency escalating into conventional war. The only danger of a full-scale conventional civil war would arise from a falling out between the Kurdish and Shiite leadership over control of the oil fields and population centers of northern Iraq, or from violent divisions within the Shiite community itself.
Like most policy choices, Bush's shift of public focus to democratic reform was prompted by some combination of conviction and calculation. One need not doubt the sincerity of the president's commitment to democratic change to note that this theme represents the sole remaining justification for an increasingly expensive and unpopular war. Democratization also provides a rationale for U.S. policy toward the Middle East as a whole that his critics at home and abroad find relatively difficult to fault.
But Bush's apparently uncritical embrace of popular sovereignty could, nevertheless, complicate the administration's ability to promote the kind of power-sharing arrangements that will be necessary to hold Iraq together. This stance also limits America's ability to promote a regional consensus in favor of an emergent Iraqi regime. Power sharing is something that Tehran, Ankara, Amman and Riyadh understand and could conceivably agree upon. Democracy, particularly Iraqi democracy, is not.
At this point, one can see three possible futures for Iraq. The first, and most hopeful, is a gradual withering away of the insurgency as government police and military forces become more effective, the population more willing to collaborate with them and increasing numbers of Sunnis ready join the democratic process.
The second is a more violent but ultimately still successful suppression of the Sunni insurgency by Shiite and Kurdish forces, with U.S. and Iranian support. The third, least desirable, future is a civil war with Kurds in one corner, Sunnis in another and the Shiites fighting among themselves.
It is the recent progress toward formation of a broadly based, democratic Iraqi government that makes the first and best option a distinct possibility.
James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state and special envoy for Afghanistan, directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corp.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on May 7, 2005.