A partition solution is being proposed for the Iraq conflict, based on the Bosnian experience. It won't work.
Thom Shanker in Sunday’s NYT presents a helpful summary, comparing Iraqi conditions for partition with those existing in Bosnia prior to Dayton. He lays out three fundamental differences that tend to invalidate the idea of repeating the experience in Iraq. I will first summarize his piece, then add a couple of comments and a very important fourth condition supporting the argument.
Shanker’s piece in summary, with my asides [in]:
First condition. Bosnia had already been carved up by war before diplomats inked it into a map.
Such a map is far from drawn in Iraq. Although two million Iraqis have fled the country and another two million are displaced within Iraq’s borders, up to five million more — 20 percent of the prewar population — would have to be moved to create an ethnically coherent place....
Stay with me...
The historically established political boundaries within Iraq do not lend themselves to ethnic partition. And the politically exacerbated religious tensions do not correspond to clearly defined and unified regions.
The second unmet condition is that by 1995 in Bosnia, all three sides had fought themselves to utter exhaustion. In Iraq today, polls show that average citizens are exhausted by the war, but militia-style fighters loyal to the three sectarian factions remain fully tooled for combat...
Shanker's third condition: at Dayton all the interested parties were brought to the table, including Muslims, outside strongmen Milosevic and Tudjman in person, and their Bosnian proxies, to ink in and legitimize the new boundaries. By contrast, (on top of the fact that in Iraq there are no major de facto boundaries to ratify), Bush has done nothing to bring the interested regional powers to work together toward any agreement whatsoever.
From this Shanker concludes that:
The three conditions that made Bosnia susceptible to peace under the Dayton accords simply do not exist for Iraq. That’s why you don’t hear American generals in Baghdad, many of whom earned patches as officers in the Balkans, talking about an achievable partition. They say no partition would be "soft." Rather, it would be repressive and murderous. And a huge setback for American foreign policy.
...senior military planners caution that should partition become American policy, withdrawal almost certainly wouldn’t. Partition would require a stabilization force — code for American military presence — of 75,000 to 100,000 troops for years to come. And Bosnia’s record of no soldier lost is hardly likely to be repeated in a post-partition Iraq.
First, a couple of comments on the argument from Shanker's piece, above:
-It’s also true that NATO played an important role in limiting the Bosnia destruction prior to Dayton.
-The lack of negotiation can and should be overcome with foresightful and patient diplomatic work. Certainly by a Democratic administration. However, diplomacy alone, in the conditions of Iraq, would not necessarily make it possible (or convenient) to redraw internal borders along ethnically polarized lines. For one thing, as I understand it, there is no call for partition among the Iraqi Arabs, Shia and Sunni, who make up the large majority. Also, the neighboring countries are perhaps not interested in secession; not Turkey, for sure.
Most important, there is another vital difference between Iraq and Bosnia, not mentioned in the Shanker piece: oil and its unequal geographical distribution. This may be the greatest difference of all, having existed all along, in no way conditioned by the events of recent decades. There was no internationally decisive export resource to fight over in Bosnia. As far as I know, natural resources, with perhaps the exception of the Dalmatian coast, are more or less evenly distributed over the geography of Bosnia and its environs, consisting mainly in land and fresh water.
Contrastingly, Iraq’s legendary oil reserves are largely absent from the lands where Sunnis are concentrated, or located in areas they dispute with the Kurds. No way will Sunnis accept a partition that might conceivably lead to their exclusion from the benefits of those resources, having long enjoyed social and military preeminence in Iraq, and counting, as they do, on financial and military support from neighboring Arab countries where Sunnis predominate.
Only a consolidated, legitimate, stable and sovereign Iraqi national government can guarantee Sunnis equal benefits and thereby assure a peace. [And such a government might well find the reinforcement of ethnic divisions to be counterproductive.]
No such Iraqi government exists at this time. No one will argue that.
Is "Soft Partition" by conquerors a road to such a government, in Iraq or anywhere else?
No. The slogan leads in precisely the wrong direction, toward Iraqi division and colonial subordination, away from Iraqi unity and sovereignty.
New administrative districting is a tool that can contribute to political solutions when it flows from a consolidated central government emerging from a political crisis (Nigeria after the defeat of the separatists in the civil war, for example). But successful redistricting is a consequence of unified, effective sovereign power, not a precondition or a step toward it.
For us to impose partition from our position as conquerors would be to promote division and to give Iraqi sectarian civil-war hawks a welcome focus and bone of contention.
An American partition project has very grave international implications for the long term. United States-sponsored redrawing of Iraqi internal political boundaries would commit us to making those boundaries work. It would involve an indefinite military commitment of large numbers of troops on the ground.
In practice, a partitioning occupation, to create stability, would have to continue for decades, probably a generation at least. [That, in the unlikely case that Iraqis didn’t force us out.] Long-term military occupation and reshaping of a formerly sovereign country has a name: recolonization.
IMO, such a project, presented openly, without weasel words, could not fly politically in Iraq, in America, or internationally.
[A private threat of partition might conceivably be someone’s ploy to pressure Middle East politicians, either to get real ("Those guys are just crazy enough to .............!"), or to provoke some nationalist spunk ("Unite against the Anti-Iraq Divisionist Colonial Project of the American Imperialists and their Treacherous Lackeys!").]
However, as a public message to the American and Iraqi peoples and to the international community, it stinks of dead empire and unending warfare.