Lessons to Be Learned from Conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan


Jun 28, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in NPR on June 28, 2005.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: Commentator James Dobbins was a special envoy to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. In the second of two commentaries on Iraq, one year into sovereignty, James Dobbins says there are lessons to be learned from these earlier conflicts.

JAMES DOBBINS: Iraq's elections gave Shia and Kurdish leaders democratic legitimacy, but they further marginalized Sunnis. As a result, the still rising tide of violence in Iraq has taken on an increasingly sectarian character. The Shia and Kurdish communities can prevail in this conflict as long as they stick together. Between them, they represent three-quarters of Iraq's population. They also have the support of both the United States and Iran, but the Sunni minority is also receiving support from neighboring Sunni societies, like Saudi Arabia and Syria. This sort of externally sponsored competition is a formula for long, bloody civil war.

In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration recognized that Bosnia could not be put back together without the cooperation of Serbian President Milosevic and Croatian President Tudjman, two leaders personally responsible for the genocide we were trying to stop. After 9/11, the Bush administration saw that Afghanistan could not be stabilized without the support of the neighboring states that had been tearing it apart for 20 years. Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia, like Bosnia and Afghanistan before, Iraq's mounting civil war can be ended only by a peace process that brings together all its communities and has the support of all its neighbors. The administration needs to cool its democracy rhetoric. Instead, it needs to concentrate upon achieving a viable power-sharing arrangement among Iraq's main religious and ethnic communities. This will require engagement with Sunni leaders including those associated with the insurgency and with all the neighboring governments.

Peace, stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity are principles upon which all Iraqis and their neighbors can unite; unfettered democracy is not. For the Sunnis, unfettered democracy means permanent Shia hegemony. For many of Iraq's neighbors, unfettered democracy means regime change. In current circumstances, a precipitated American withdrawal would only embolden extremist elements. On the other hand, Iraqis and their neighbors would be reassured to hear from the United States that its ultimate goal is complete withdrawal and to hear that the United States has no intention of using Iraq as a launch point for other interventions or a base from which to destabilize other regimes. Democratizing the Middle East is a worthy long-term goal. Stabilizing Iraq is an immediate necessity.

MONTAGNE: Commentator James Dobbins directs the Rand Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center.

© 2005 NPR

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