The right time to go


Over the next 2 1/2 years, the United States is scheduled to withdraw all of its troops from Iraq. Americans, for the most part, are elated. The war in Iraq has been longer and costlier than almost anyone expected, and continued involvement seems unnecessary in the wake of the seemingly successful “surge.” Iraqis -- at least the Iraqi government and many Shiites -- are also delighted. The withdrawal of American forces means the removal of a large occupying army, and with that, the chance to govern themselves. If the transition goes smoothly, everyone wins.

On the surface, this optimism seems justified. The Iraqi civil war that reached its peak in 2006 appears almost over. Violence is down, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his Dawa Party are gaining in popularity, and Al Qaeda’s influence in the country has been marginalized. The Iraq of today is remarkably different from the Iraq of three years ago. Below the surface, however, is a different story.

Over the last 15 years, scholars have collected and analyzed data on the 125 or so civil wars that have taken place around the world since 1940. Two findings suggest that the outlook for Iraq is significantly more pessimistic than policymakers in the U.S. or Iraq would hope.


The first is what academics Paul Collier and Nicholas Sambanis call the conflict trap. A country that has experienced one civil war is much more likely to experience a second and third civil war.

That’s partly because violence tends to exacerbate the political, economic and social problems that caused war to break out in the first place. But it is also because the first civil war often ends with no clear victor and no enforceable peace settlement. As soon as the combatants have rested and resupplied, strong incentives exist to try to recapture the state.

This was the case, for example, in Angola during the 1980s and 1990s, when numerous peace settlements were attempted but never implemented. It was also the case more recently in Sudan, Colombia and Sri Lanka, where combatants returned to war even after fairly lengthy periods of peace.

The second finding is what I call the settlement dilemma. Combatants who end their civil war in a compromise settlement -- such as the agreement to share power in Iraq -- almost always return to war unless a third party is there to help them enforce the terms. That’s because agreements leave combatants, especially weaker combatants, vulnerable to exploitation once they disarm, demobilize and prepare for peace. In the absence of third-party enforcement, the weaker side is better off trying to fight for full control of the state now, rather than accepting an agreement that would leave it open to abuse in the future.

Iraq today faces both of these problems. No one group has been able to win a decisive military victory, even though violence is down from the high of 2006. Shiite groups continue to compete for power and influence, conflict continues among the Kurds and various factions over valuable oil fields in the north, and Al Qaeda remains ready to realign with the Sunnis should the opportunity arise. American soldiers have kept a lid on internecine fighting. But the recent increase in violence in some of Iraq’s cities reveals that different groups began jockeying for position as U.S. troops left the cities in the hands of Iraqi security forces in June and in anticipation of complete U.S. withdrawal.

Right now, U.S. forces serve two important purposes. First, they signal to Maliki and the dominant Shiite population that a decisive victory over the Sunnis and Kurds will not be possible. They also signal to the less-numerous Sunni and Kurdish populations that both of these groups will be protected from Shiite exploitation over time. Remove U.S. forces and U.S. involvement in Iraq and you simultaneously embolden the Shiites while telling the weaker groups they must fend for themselves.

So what should the U.S. do? President Obama has already said he plans to remove all combat troops by August 2010, with a remaining force of 35,000 to 50,000 “support troops” in place until the end of 2011. There is pressure to pull out all the troops on a faster schedule, but there is also talk of slowing the timetable for the removal of combat troops.

The U.S. needs to decide what outcome it is willing to live with in Iraq. It’s likely that if the U.S. withdraws all of its troops on schedule, the strategic balance will dramatically shift in favor of the Shiites, and they will press for full control over the state. This, in turn, will probably goad the Sunnis and Kurds back to war, likely ending in a brutal Shiite victory and the establishment of an authoritarian state.

If the U.S. wants to avert this scenario, it will need to create real incentives for Maliki and the Shiites to offer a fair deal that transfers real political power to the Sunnis and Kurds by the 2011 deadline, and then it needs to help them enforce it over time. This would require that those 50,000 “support troops” remain in Iraq until the new political institutions are firmly established, something most experts believe will take an additional five to 10 years.

One of the most robust findings in the civil war literature is the importance of active peacekeepers in helping to implement compromise settlements. Between 1940 and 2002, if peacekeepers were present on the ground, settlements were implemented and civil wars ended. If peacekeepers were not present, they were not.

Peace in Iraq is possible. But the U.S. shouldn’t fool itself into believing that it can get peace and stability in Iraq without committing significant military and nonmilitary resources to Iraq well beyond 2011.