The Magazine

How We'll Know When We've Won

A definition of success in Iraq.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Partition. Partitioning Iraq would generate enormous instability for the foreseeable future. Again, virtually no Arab Iraqis want to see the country partitioned; the Sunni, in particular, are bitterly opposed. But their desires aside, could a partitioned Iraq be stable? The Kurds, after all, already have their region. What would happen if the Shia got all nine provinces south of Baghdad, and the Sunni got Anbar, Salah-ad-Din, and whatever part of Ninewa the Kurds chose to give them? Well, there would be the problem of Baghdad and Diyala, the two mixed provinces, containing mixed cities. Despite the prevailing mythology, Baghdad has not been "cleansed" so as to produce stable sectarian borders. The largely Sunni west contains the Khadimiyah shrine, which the Shia will never abandon, while the largely Shia east contains the stubborn Sunni enclave in Adhamiya. The Sunni in Adhamiya have just gone through many months of hell to hang on to their traditional ground. And there are other enclaves on both sides of the river. Any "cleansing" of them would involve the death or forced migration of tens or possibly hundreds of thousands. Attempts to divide Diyala and even Ninewa would produce similar results. If ethno-sectarian conflict restarted in Iraq on a large scale, cleansing might make this solution more feasible, but at enormous human cost. In the current context, even to seriously propose it threatens Iraq's stability.

A state that controls its territory. We already have an example of a sovereign, quasi-stable state confronting terrorist foes that is theoretically allied to the United States but has no American troops and does not control all of its own territory. It is Pakistan, whose ungoverned territories in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Northwest Frontier Province have become safe havens for the leaders of the global al Qaeda network. If the United States abandoned Iraq before Iraq could control all of its territory with its own forces, we might make way for similar safe havens in the heart of the Middle East. It is clearly not in America's interests to create a Pakistan on the Euphrates.

A state oriented toward the West. It is also clearly against America's interests for Iraq to become an Iranian puppet. Some in the United States, however, see that development as inevitable; they point to geography and religious ties. Some even say that the United States should not only acquiesce in the inevitable but embrace it, reaching out to the Iranians for their assistance in smoothing our withdrawal as they establish their domination. But why? Iran has not dominated Iraq in centuries. True, the Sunni-Shia divide is profound, but so is the Arab-Persian divide. Iraq's Shia, remember, enthusiastically supported Saddam Hussein's war against their Iranian co-religionists in the 1980s--a sectarian "betrayal" for which the Iranians have never forgiven them. Again, American troops and civilians who live day to day with Iraqis throughout the country report a dramatic rise in anti-Persian sentiment, coincident with a rise in Iraqi Arab nationalism. But back in the United States, the debate over Iraq is scarcely tethered to reality on the ground. In the simple terms suitable to that debate, then, suffice it to say that neither shared Shia faith nor a shared border has historically led to Iranian domination of Iraq. There is no reason to assume it will do so now.

An ally in the struggle against militant Islamism. Whatever Saddam Hussein's ties were to al Qaeda before the invasion, the reality today is that an important al Qaeda franchise has established itself in Iraq. It initially had the support of a significant portion of Iraq's Sunni Arab community, but that community--with critical American support--has rejected al Qaeda and united with Iraq's Shia and Kurds to fight it.

As a result, there is no state in the world that is more committed than Iraq to defeating al Qaeda. None has mobilized more troops to fight al Qaeda or suffered more civilian casualties at the hands of al Qaeda--or, for that matter, taken more police and military casualties. Iraq is already America's best ally in the struggle against al Qaeda. Moreover, the recent decision of Iraq's government to go after illegal, Iranian-backed Shia militias and terror groups shows that even a Shia government in Baghdad can be a good partner in the struggle against Shia extremism as well.