The following was originally posted on the Military.com forums on 06 January 2007:
The critical issue the US is faced with is not in whether US domestic policy wishes to achieve "victory" in Iraq so much as what the Iraqis themselves want.
1. Iraqi leadership is flagging - Iraq Prime Minister Wishes He Could Quit- "I didn't want to take this position... I only agreed because I thought it would serve the national interest, and I will not accept it again."
2. Iraqi demands for autonomy increase - Iraqi Kurds Detail Demands for a Degree of Autonomy (18 Feb 2005), Unity Through Autonomy in Iraq (Joe Biden, 1 May 2006)
The Iraqi desire for separatism versus federalism is the key trend. Even if we stayed for a decade, what are the Iraqis themselves trending towards? Would would there be an "Iraq" to defend? One article that runs counter to the ideas of separatism struck some chords with me:
Iraq's partition fantasy (Reidar Visser, 19 May 2006)
Visser is pushing a book, Basra, and a thesis arguing Iraq is not like former Yugoslavia. Yet the issues are similar. Many people in Yugoslavia at first considered themselves "Yugoslav" versus "Croats," "Serbs," "Slovenes," "Bosniaks," "Albanians," "Kosovars," "Macedonians," etc. But that number faded as Tito's life ebbed away, and his legacy was lost in time. A decade after Tito's death showed a great difference. By the outbreak of the 1991-1995 wars, the vast majority abandoned the concept of a unified "Yugoslavia," and identified themselves primarily with their ethnicity. Is the same trend happening in Iraq? In other words, where is the sense of political "self" for the majority of the people in the nation?
Without a Saddam, is the concept of "Iraq" also faded? Would it take a decade? Should we look out 5-10 years to project the likelihood of breakdown of the government, or will matters be settled by then?
Iraqi Federalism vs. Separatists
As of September 2006, the belief that Iraq will stay together for five years is 72% versus 28% who believe it will divide. The strongest beliefs towards separate states are amongst Sunni (45%) and Kurd (35%), which means that it is the Shi'a who believe it will stay together. Of course, being the largest minority, they would benefit the most from it staying under their control. This is the key trend to watch in the coming years.
This comes from a poll called Majorities of All Iraqi Ethnic Groups Want Strong Central Government. The title of that report is somewhat misleading. Iraqi opinion is about evenly mixed as to whether the central government has too much or too little power. The Kurds think it has too little power. The Sunni think it has too much. The actual slimmest numbers are amongst those who think Iraq's central government's power is "About Right." Most think it has either too much or too little. Which means extremist views are more prevalent than views of moderates.
Fingers in the Dike
The US military itself is now split on the likelihood of success in Iraq. While most want more troops in Iraq, about 80% think it unlikely they can be replaced by Iraqi troops within two years.
There is some good news, statistically provable. Year-to-year US casualties are dropping. While deaths remained about the same from 2004 to 2006: 848 in 2004, 846 in 2005, dropping slightly to 824 in 2006, wounded have dropped considerably more: 8,001 in 2004, 5,947 in 2005, and 5,676 in 2006.
Total casualties over those years: 8,849, 6,793, 6,500. More than a 26% drop in total, though less than a 5% drop over the last year.
Thus the news is not good enough to satisfy the American people. 2006 also saw a sharp uptick in casualties towards the end, reversing the trend. We'd have to be in Iraq for the better part of a decade before they stopped attacking us. Unless a dramatic change occurs -- which does not seem likely -- staying in Iraq for the next 3 years means sustaining somewhere around 15,000 - 20,000 more wounded and dead. In other words, a full division taken as casualties. The key question is whether Iraq, as such, will be around to be defended.
One disaster averted in 2006 should be noted. The Iraqi government did close down the PKK office in September to show it was cracking down on the Kurdish separatists. That was to avert military intervention by Turkey, threatened since at least May 2006. We'll have to see whether more substantive changes occur over the next year.
Iraq is under pressure. My own view is that time is running out for federalism. Trading in a unified Iraq for multiple states will not make the problems go away, but it will move towards a permanent solution.