Plan Z for Iraq

Plan Z for Iraq

Mini Teaser: A community-based security approach for the land of the two rivers.

by Author(s): Amitai Etzioni

MOST DISCUSSIONS about newly liberated states, such as Iraq, Kosovo or Afghanistan, start with what outsiders consider a preferred end product-a multi-ethnic, united, democratic, rights-respecting nation-state and one that is receptive to U.S. security interests. The question is then asked: How can the United States and its allies bring about these desiderata in these countries? Often, despite considerable human and economic costs caused by such overly ambitious designs, foreign powers continue to persist in their pursuit of utopian goals.

Discourse on Iraq in particular tends to vastly overestimate what foreign powers can accomplish, even if there was better planning, more boots on the ground and so on. Furthermore, such discussions too often assume that the players involved are unitary, sovereign nations, when in reality they are increasingly non-state actors. The real power players are various ethnic militias, tribal organizations and religious sects-in short, communities.

Recent developments in Iraq (as well as those in Afghanistan) suggest that one must initially work with forces loyal to local ethnic and confessional communities rather than the nation-state. Indeed, it is useful to remember, as Peter Galbraith notes, that:

Iraq has never been a voluntary union of its peoples. Winston Churchill, as Britain's colonial secretary, created Iraq from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in 1921. . . .Churchill later described Iraq's forced unity as one of his biggest mistakes.

But because there is a compelling interest in maintaining the frame of an Iraqi state (not the least of which is to ensure the territorial integrity of all the neighboring states of the region), the disappearance outright of an entity called "Iraq" would not allow us to recover from the initial mistake of putting Iraq together in the first place.

We need an approach based in reality-one that tailors the institutions of the state to fit the sociological reality on the ground, rather than trying to force that reality into an imported, precut outfit. Unfortunately, a major example of this highly unrealistic approach is the continuous attempt to convert the Iraqi militias (or Afghanistan's warlord armies) into unified national forces. This is highlighted by the folly of deliberately positioning Iraqi Shi‘a militias as security units in Sunni areas and vice versa-ostensibly to build up their national identification and loyalty. The fact of the matter, though, is that the first and foremost loyalty of most Iraqis is to their ethno-religious community, not to their state.

A community-based security approach sets the conditions under which most of the work for formatting a new Iraq can be carried out by the major players in that nation-the three main ethno-religious communities. This idea was championed as early as 2003 by Leslie Gelb and recently by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE). It would reduce the incentive for sectarian armed conflicts, provide a setting for political give-and-take and greatly curtail the need for foreign troops. This approach seeks a middle way, avoiding the partition of Iraq, creating three states and instead allowing Iraqis to form several semi-autonomous regional entities, while maintaining some powers in the hands of the central government.


AS PART of letting Iraqis develop a state that suits their societal structure and commands their loyalty, Iraqis should be allowed a high degree of latitude in governing themselves in their respective provinces. Moreover, this could easily be done within the framework of the existing Iraqi constitution. 1

But having outsiders work out these details and the United States and its allies impose them is not a solution. The specific features of a loose federation in Iraq can be developed best by regional representatives-perhaps drawn from each of Iraq's provinces. (Most likely, several provinces would combine to form regional governments united by ethnicity or confessional links.) And while a new Iraqi Federation might follow the U.S. federal model for some matters, it would also quite likely have a number of features far beyond what even the most vocal proponents of "states' rights" find attractive in the American context. For instance, the bulk of tax revenues would probably be collected by local and provincial entities rather than the national government, and the bulk of Iraqi security affairs would be handled by territorial defense units drawn from the local population rather than by national forces.

There might also be stronger limits on freedom of movement for Iraqis. One idea gaining currency, especially given the current security situation in Iraq, builds on existing checkpoint systems and puts American and allied forces in charge of patrolling the borders between provinces. Thus, a person who lives in one region and seeks entrance to another territory could be subject to a higher level of scrutiny (or even denied entrance), at least in the near future.

Inter-regional matters, from the sharing of oil revenues to limited population exchanges, would be worked out through negotiation among the representatives of the various communities. However, intra-regional matters, from licenses for barbershops to the legality of liquor stores, would be worked out within each province or group of provinces and would not be subject to an overarching national policy.

Granted, a loose federal system where a great deal of power has been devolved from the central government is far from an ideal institutional format; moving in this direction entails some risks. However, given current conditions, it is the best option-and possibly the only viable one. Most importantly, it would shift the United States's role in Iraq to securing regional borders rather than maintaining security throughout each region.

The benefits to be reaped from this approach are made evident by the current security situation in Kurdistan. In a February 2007 interview, Major General Benjamin Mixon, the commanding officer of U.S. forces in northern Iraq and Kurdistan, told 60 Minutes that of 20,000 troops under his command, a mere sixty or seventy are stationed in Kurdistan. Because Kurdish areas are patrolled by Kurdish troops, "there's no need" for an American presence there.

This kind of self-governance can be achieved not merely in the relatively homogenous ethnic regions such as the Kurdish Dahuk or the Shi‘a Maysan provinces, but even in mixed cities, in which neighborhoods-such as the overwhelmingly Shi‘a Sadr City or the Sunni Adhamiya neighborhood in Baghdad-are relatively homogenous and becoming increasingly so. As much as 70 percent of Baghdad is already ethnically segregated.

Essay Types: Essay