Iraq is finished, an expiring, cancerous nation on life support. Pulling the plug might be merciful. It might be cruel. But either way, it’s time to accept the fact that this country is likely to die and that we’ll all be better off when it does.
The Kurds in the north, who make up roughly twenty percent of the population, want out. They never wished to be part of Iraq in the first place. To this day, they still call the bathroom the “Winston Churchill,” in sarcastic homage to the former British prime minister who shackled them to Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, they’ve had their own government and autonomous region in the northern three provinces, and they held a referendum in 2005 in which 98.7 percent voted to secede and declare independence. The only reason they haven’t finally pulled the trigger is because it hasn’t been safe; the Turks—who fear the contagion of Kurdish independence inside their own country—have threatened to invade if they did.
The Sunni Arabs in the west, who make up another rough twenty percent of Iraq, aren’t itching for independence necessarily, but they sure as hell aren’t willing to live under the thumb of Shiite-dominated Baghdad any longer. Millions of them live now under the brutal totalitarian rule of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has declared its own state not only in a huge swath of Iraq but also in much of northeastern Syria. ISIS either controls or has a large presence in more than fifty percent of Iraq at the time of this writing.
Iraq’s Shiite majority, meanwhile, is terrified of its Sunni minority, which oppressed them mercilessly during Saddam Hussein’s terrifying rule and which now flies the black flag of al-Qaeda and promises unending massacres.
President Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq. For years—and for perfectly understandable reasons—he was very reluctant to wade into that country’s eternally dysfunctional internal problems, but even he was persuaded to declare war against ISIS in the fall of 2014 when its fighters made a beeline for Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and the only stable and America-friendly place in the country.
But however engaged the US chooses to be, the current war in Iraq is likely to drag on for years. If Iraq somehow manages to survive its current conflict in one piece, another will almost certainly follow. Its instability is both devastating and chronic. Far better at this point if Iraq simply terminates itself as a state and lets its various constituent groups peaceably go their own way, as Yugoslavia did after its own catastrophic series of wars in the 1990s.
In his limited response to ISIS after its seizure of Mosul in early June, Obama called for, among other things, Iraq’s “territorial integrity” to be respected.
Obviously it would have been preferable had ISIS not invaded from Syria and conquered Iraqi territory, but generally speaking there is nothing holy about Iraq’s current borders. It has never been a coherent nation-state. Nor, for that matter, has Syria. Both are geographic abstractions that never would have existed had European colonial mapmakers not created them in the early twentieth century for their own self-interested reasons, now long obsolete and forgotten. Had Middle Easterners drawn their own borders, whether or not they did so peacefully, the map would be strikingly different—and more organic.
As Lebanon Renaissance Foundation co-founder Eli Khoury put it, “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron. It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.”
Theoretically, Iraqis and Syrians still could have forged collective identities and ideals of patriotic nationalism between the time of their nations’ founding and now, but that didn’t happen in their neighborhood any more than it did in the former Yugoslavia. The dictators of Syria, Iraq, and Yugoslavia all tried to paper over the disunity in their countries with a theoretically binding international ideology—Baathist Arab nationalism, communism—but totalitarian regimes always crash in the end, and their ideologies inevitably go down along with them.
In the absence of tolerant pluralism and democratic political liberalism, the basic incoherence of these states guaranteed one of two outcomes. They’ll either be governed by “centralized iron,” as Khoury put it, or they’ll come apart at the seams. Centralized iron only holds incoherent nations together so long. Removing Hussein blew Iraq apart, and Syria blew apart even without its tyrant Bashar al-Assad being forced into exile or dragged from his palace.
Iraq’s current troubles began just one day after the US finished withdrawing its forces, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of planning terrorist attacks against Shiite targets and of murdering Shiite officials. Hashimi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan before security forces could grab him and now lives in Turkey.
In 2012, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, along with his son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan.
Is he guilty? Did he do it? I have no idea. Iraq has no shortage of vicious individuals, inside and outside the government, willing to use deadly force both overtly and covertly against rivals. Some of Hashimi’s bodyguards confessed, but it’s entirely possible they were coerced or even tortured.
Whether or not Hashimi was guilty, Shiite militias carried out death squad attacks against Sunnis all over Baghdad both before and after this happened. Iraq’s sectarian violence never entirely dissipated during the American occupation, and after the withdrawal it rose again.
The following year, Maliki’s government accused Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi of the same thing Hashimi had been accused of. Some of his bodyguards were also arrested and charged with committing terrorist acts. But now the conspiracy theories were getting ridiculous. Issawi was and is known as a reasonable and peaceable man. Accusing him and his people of terrorism is like accusing Alan Greenspan of operating his own secret prison on the side when he was running the Fed.
Issawi convinced plenty of the implosive chaos at the heart of the Maliki government when he said, “The tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents.” If the finance minister, of all people, could be accused of something like this, any Sunni leader or even civilian could be rounded up and placed in front of a Stalinist show trial.
As spasmodic as his actions seemed, however, Maliki had his reasons. “When [he] looks at Iraq’s Sunni minority,” reporter Dexter Filkins told Frontline, “he sees al-Qaeda, he sees the Baathists, he sees military coups, he sees plots against him. He sees a population that despises him and wants to come back into power.”
He wasn’t entirely wrong. Remnants of Hussein’s old Baath regime really do still exist among the Sunnis. Support for al-Qaeda never entirely evaporated. Even moderate and reasonable Sunnis wanted Maliki out of power. But his panicky paranoia drove him to act in such a way that eventually guaranteed a much larger portion of Iraq’s Sunnis would be willing to do anything to remove him and the Shiite boot they felt pressing down on their necks.
Massive nonviolent protests erupted in Sunni cities in early 2013. Activists erected tent cities as Arab activists before them had in Beirut and Cairo. The BBC reported seeing a banner saying, “We warn the sectarian government against dragging the country into sectarian war.”
In theory, these tensions could have been resolved if Maliki were a civilized leader of a properly functioning democracy, but these protests never would have begun in the first place if he were a civilized leader of a properly functioning democracy.
While all this was happening, al-Qaeda in Iraq had moved into Syria after its decline as a mostly vanquished force hiding out in the middle of nowhere, all but destroyed by the United States, the Iraqi army, and Sunni militias. But the Syrian civil war gave the remnants of this shattered organization a place to go where there were no American soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, or Sunni militias willing to fight them. On the contrary, plenty of Syrian Sunnis, who had not gone through the Iraqis’ horrendous experience that led to the Anbar Awakening and an American-backed purge of terrorists from their midst, gleefully welcomed them as allies against the Assad regime.
Something was bound to fill the vacuum in Syria after Assad lost control of vast swaths of territory. The White House was spectacularly uninterested in backing even moderate rebels, but wealthy Gulf Arabs supported the more extreme elements with tremendous enthusiasm, so al-Qaeda mushroomed as the US did nothing. Soon its fighters no longer needed backing from outside. They captured Syrian oil fields and sold crude on the black market. They even robbed banks.
And they eventually changed their name from al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, partly because the al-Qaeda leadership elsewhere disavowed them in favor of the Nusra Front, but also because they decided that instead of being just a terrorist organization they would build an actual state. And their name had to reflect that.
Back in Iraq near the end of 2013, Maliki, more paranoid than ever, snapped and sent security forces to dismantle demonstrators’ tent cities outside Ramadi. He accused the demonstrators of harboring al-Qaeda terrorists. Maybe he was right and maybe he wasn’t. Either way, several people were killed. ISIS, still in the shadows, smiled and sensed an opening.
Just a few weeks later, in early 2014, with their numbers, arms, and coffers swollen, and detecting at least tacit support from Iraqi Sunnis fed up with Maliki, ISIS fighters exploded out of Syria and back into Iraq. They captured one city after another, starting with Fallujah, and massacred hundreds of people at a time, recording it all on video. In June, they even took Mosul, the second-largest city in the entire country. The Iraqi army, armed and trained by the US for years, dropped its weapons and ran. ISIS suddenly found itself in possession of American arms, including Abrams tanks and up-armored Humvees.
Since then, ISIS has “liberated” most of Anbar Province from Baghdad, but it created a vastly more oppressive “state” in its place. The Sunnis must now think they were out of their minds when they welcomed these guys into their territory. But their fear of the ancient Shiite foe—which they exaggerated beyond recognition even with Maliki’s depredations—led them to foolishly believe they’d be better off severely oppressed by their own than moderately oppressed by the other.
So Iraq has three governments now. The Kurdistan Regional Government rules the tranquil and functional north, the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government rules the center, east, and south, and the psychopaths of ISIS rule most of western Iraq’s vast Anbar Province and points beyond.
Perhaps it makes a twisted sort of sense that the Sunnis would fight ISIS under its previous name and later form an alliance with that very same enemy against Baghdad. They did the exact same thing with the US, first launching an insurgency against Americans and later forming an alliance with Americans when they discovered belatedly that ISIS (then al-Qaeda in Iraq) was immeasurably worse. If they believe today that their nominal Shiite countrymen are even more despicable than US occupation forces or ISIS, it’s unlikely that they will ever be able to live together in peace without a tyrant enforcing another cold and brutal peace of a military dictatorship. With so many Iraqis willing to pick up rifles and fight, what’s far more likely than another Hussein “fixing” the place is a state of endless war or permanent fracture.
Permanent fracture is the least of these evils.
The Kurds will be happy to go and will likely declare independence if the United States finally ceases championing “the territorial integrity of Iraq.” Washington should drop the phrase and at least quietly back the only true allies it has over there, and guarantee their safety from the Turks or anyone else who finds Kurdish independence inconvenient.
A free Kurdish state would be as reliable an American ally as Israel. It might also embolden the Kurds of Syria to declare their own state. Both could function as permanent buffers—and perhaps even beachheads—against the likes of ISIS, Assad, or any other bad actors whom we haven’t yet heard of in this region filled with aspirants.
If the Kurds go, the Sunnis may follow whether or not they are “governed” by ISIS. Everyone in what’s left of Iraq would benefit from that decision. The Sunnis would finally be able to govern themselves without fear of the Shiite oppressor. The Shiites could finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing al-Qaeda and the remnants of the old Baathist regime are finally and permanently on the other side of an international border. And the rest of us could rest easier knowing that the Sunnis would have no more reasons to tolerate fanatics like ISIS since they wouldn’t need protection from Baghdad.
The United States should not, however, go in there and redraw any borders. Let the Iraqis do it themselves, beginning with Kurdistan. We know the Kurds want out because they have been saying so longer than most of us have been alive.
Maybe the Sunnis and Shias will figure out a way to live together in peace. It seems unlikely at this point, but who knows? The Middle East is full of surprises. But if they want a divorce—for all of our sakes—let them have it.
The only real allies Americans have in Iraq are the Kurds. If we’re going to live by that famous foreign policy maxim, that you reward your friends and punish your enemies, then we are required to let the Kurds go and to let Iraq die.
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and the author of six books, including Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, published in November.