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What Do We Do When The Iraq Civil War Starts?

There was an important news story last weekend, but it got swallowed up by the Israeli/Lebanese/Hezbollah conflict and the Connecticut primary news. Newsweek broke the story that the White House is actually planning what to do if civil war breaks out in Iraq. This shouldn’t be stunning news, but with this White House it’s a bombshell. The main source for the story is attributed as “a senior Bush aide who declined to be named,” so make of that what you will.

This is important news—the White House is not blindly lapping up their own rosy neo-con PR spin, and are actually doing some contingency planning for a change. This will give our military some sort of “Plan B” for a likely aftermath that is appearing more and more possible (or even probable). William Patey, the outgoing British Ambassador to Iraq, recently sent the following as part of his last official cable to the British government (our staunchest ally in the Iraq venture):

“The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy. Even the lowered expectation of President Bush for Iraq—a government that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror—must remain in doubt.”

This has been the reason for the intense PR spin cycle from the Republicans over the usage of the term “civil war” when talking about Iraq—even though our own soldiers in Iraq are calling it that now. But Bush and the Republicans don’t want to consider the notion, since (as they see it) it is defeatist to even conceive of such a concept. If everyone starts calling Iraq a civil war, it will be proof that the U.S. has utterly failed in its mission to create a stable Iraqi democracy.

It would also be absolute refutation of the second Powell Doctrine—the “Pottery Barn Rule.” There’s no denying we “broke” Iraq, and if we leave with it in worse shape than when we entered, American influence in the rest of the world will be diminished enormously as a direct result.

But it’s surprising this news leaked out. Pulling out of Iraq as it descends into civil war would be seen by the entire planet as a massive failure of U.S. foreign policy. And this White House hasn’t exactly been eager to admit failures.

So how did it leak? Is it intentional? Or is someone going “off the reservation?” If intentional, to what purpose? Gary Hart wrote a piece last week for Huffington Post suggesting that this year’s October Surprise is going to be a magic Republican exit plan to get all our troops out of Iraq. If this has any truth to it, perhaps leaking contingency plans for a civil war is a way to gauge public support for such a plan? It would make sense that the administration would be looking for a way—any way—out of this mess, since public support for the venture remains at all-time lows. But that would require more foresight into actual reality than I would normally credit the Bush team having.

An example of why I doubt President Bush’s prescience was former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, who claims in a new book that two months before we invaded Iraq, Bush was unaware that there were two branches of Islam. When an attempt was made to explain this, Bush reportedly replied: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” If true, his lack of knowledge of the region is shocking, and partly explains why he may have believed the cheerful end-game scenarios presented to him before the war began.

But whoever leaked the civil war contingency plan—and for whatever reasons—the plan itself bears examination. From the Newsweek article:

“In fact, the U.S. military in Iraq has completed several elements of contingency planning in case of civil war, based on lessons learned from Bosnia and Kosovo. The military’s approach revolves around three principles. The first is to stop massacres by physically separating communities, moving minorities out of harm’s way if necessary. The second is to stop the flow of paramilitary gangs across the country. And the third is to halt any incitement to violence on Iraqi TV and radio. Baghdad would pose the biggest problem, requiring a strict curfew and a ban on road traffic. The security measures would include widespread checkpoints and a ban on carrying firearms or explosives.”

Let’s take these one at a time. Stop massacres. Physically separate communities and move minorities out of harm's way. This sounds like the U.S. military is going to be referee to ethnic cleansing. The only end game to a civil war is a partition of Iraq into three separate entities. You can call them states, countries, autonomous regions (or whatever); but it’s basically Yugoslavia all over again, with us in the middle. The desirability of such a split was recently debated on, and most of the experts were of the opinion that this wouldn’t be such a great idea.

But for sake of argument, let’s assume that it could be made to work—even though we’d be setting up Baghdad to be another Jerusalem (that bastion of factional calm and peace). It would still give American soldiers the mission of separating a populace along ethnic and religious lines. Not exactly recruiting-poster material. “Join the Army. Help Shi’ites evict Sunnis. Help Sunnis purify their villages and send Shi’ites and Kurds packing.” Inspirational, isn’t it?

The second and fourth objectives, stopping the flow of paramilitary gangs and clamping down curfews and traffic bans on Baghdad don’t exactly fill me with confidence. If it were that easy to crack down on paramilitary gangs and Baghdad, don’t you think we would have accomplished it by now? This sounds like sunny and unfounded “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” military optimism.

The third objective is just disgusting. Over 2,500 American soldiers died so we can censor Iraqi television? Something tells me American voters aren’t exactly going to rally around that campaign slogan. “We invaded Iraq so they could restrict freedom of the press!” So much for bringing “freedom” to the Iraqi people.

Another anonymous source from the Newsweek article, a “senior military official who has examined the scenarios and is not authorized to speak on the record,” warns of disastrous consequences of an Iraqi civil war: “All the neighboring powers would be drawn in. It would become a regional war.”

There are a number of ways such a wide-open civil war could start. The central government could collapse. The minority Kurds and Sunnis could just walk out and boycott any further central government. Or the government could stick together, but become an irrelevant debating society locked within the fortress of the Green Zone. The central government could lose control of the military and police to factional leaders. Muqtada al-Sadr could throw off all restraint and mobilize his Mahdi Army for the Shi’ite cause.

But whatever spark blows the situation into full-scale civil war, the reality is that supporting any of the three factions wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense for the U.S. military. The conflict could easily become a proxy war between the two major religious factional governments in the region—Iran (supplying the Shi’ites) and Saudi Arabia (supplying the Sunnis). The Kurds in the north would assumably be taking on all comers for control of the oil fields up there.

So we have a few options, all of them bad in one way or another:

(1) We can back the Shi’ites and become de facto allies of Iran—an Axis of Evil country.

(2) We can back the Sunnis, who are the same ex-Baathists and Saddamists we went in there to overthrow. Boy, that makes a lot of sense.

(3) We could back the Kurds, the friendliest faction to the U.S. and the West, but this has a problem, too. Turkey is massing troops on the border with Iraq, and if the Kurds make the slightest move towards declaring an independent Kurdistan, Turkey will most likely invade. So if we back the Kurds, for the first time two NATO countries will be fighting each other on different sides of the same battlefield.

(4) We could just get out of Dodge and pull out quickly, with no plan for what happens afterwards. This would lead directly to a bloodbath, but if the American journalists pulled out at the same time (the administration hopes), the American public would pay about as much attention as they’re paying now to Afghanistan.

(5) We could accept reality, draw up a map that divides Iraq into three divisions, and pull back to policing the lines between the divisions, in an honest effort to prevent a wider civil war. This is the best option, obviously, but it assumes that it would even be possible inside Baghdad.

Exit strategies, unless we’ve stomped the enemy flat (see: Germany, Japan, WWII), are never easy to think about or discuss. And I don’t really expect any sanity in the political discussion until after the dust settles from this fall’s congressional elections. But no matter who wins which house and no matter whose strategy for withdrawal we wind up going with, people need to think about the aftermath. I have to give that anonymous White House official credit for starting a discussion that has been dangerously neglected. I am glad that someone somewhere was actually thinking about what would happen after we pull out of Iraq. Because we’re going to need that plan soon.

I leave you with what Senator Chuck Hagel, (a Republican, mind you) had to say on CBS to Bob Schieffer, on this week’s Face The Nation:

Sen. HAGEL: I think where we go from here, with all the problems and inconsistencies, is a cold, hard assessment that Iraq is not going to turn out the way that we were promised it was, and that’s a fact, not because I say it, that’s where it’s going, just as the generals said it very honestly I think this week before the Congress. What you do, I think, because we don’t have many options—there’s no good options here, no good options. I would move toward a higher ground... I would get the first President Bush, President Clinton involved and try to impanel a regional security conference, a regional diplomatic conference. The UN can be part of that. Unless you come at it that way, we’re going to be leaving Iraq, and it is not going to be the way we intended to leave Iraq. Because that is the direction of where this is going. It is very wrong, Bob, to put American troops in a hopeless, winless situation, just keep feeding them in to what’s going on. That’s irresponsible and that is wrong.

SCHIEFFER: But if the United States leaves, won’t you somehow have a confederation of Iran and the government there with the Shi’ites that are in southern Iraq?

Sen. HAGEL: ...Bob, there are no good options here. That may well happen, I don’t know. But let me ask you the question, and I hope the president and his people are starting to ask themselves this question, that what is the alternative? Are we going to put our troops in the middle of a civil war? Who are they going to fight? This will be slaughter of immense proportions. The American people will not put up with it, the leadership in Congress will not put up with it. I hope this administration has got a way out of this, because yes that’s a tough question, Bob, but the fact is that may well be the way it turns out. But we cannot put American troops, and ask them to do the things that we’re asking them to do in the middle of a civil war, and that’s where it’s headed.”

—Published 8/9/06
Copyright © 2006, The Huffington Post
By Chris Weigant

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