The partition of Iraq has already taken place. Our choice now is simple: We can acknowledge this reality and try to make the best of a bad situation, or we can continue to resist it at the cost of American and Iraqi lives. This does not necessarily mean that Iraq will split into separate countries in the short term (although the eventual independence of Kurdistan appears inevitable). For now, it simply means accepting a very loose federal system in which Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis take almost complete control of their own affairs.
Iraqis themselves have clearly chosen disunity. In the December 2005 elections, Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds all voted by overwhelming margins for parties identified with their own communities. No Iraqi party received significant support from both Kurds and Arabs. Meanwhile, more than 98 percent of Kurdistan's voters chose full independence in a nonbinding referendum conducted eleven months earlier.
These divisions are reflected in Iraq's constitution, a document approved by nearly 80 percent of Iraqi voters. It recognizes Kurdistan as a de facto independent region within Iraq and allows other parts of the country to form their own such regions--which the Shia are now doing. Under the constitution, these regions may have their own armies and substantial control over oil resources in their territory. What's more, regional law in most cases overrides federal law.
On the ground, the Iraqi state has disintegrated. Kurdistan is, in almost all regards, an independent state. The Iraqi flag is banned and Kurdish law prohibits the Iraqi army from entering the region. Iraq's Shia south is governed by religious parties that enforce Islamic law. Large parts of the Sunni Triangle are controlled by insurgents and their sympathizers, while the rest of central Iraq is a battleground. In other words, the Iraqi central government is a fiction, since there is no place in the country where it actually governs. Hence the folly of a strategy based on having the Iraqi government meet certain benchmarks:Even if all factions represented in the government could agree on a program of action, the government has no power to make it happen.
The Bush administration's exit strategy--building up the Iraqi army and police so that Iraqis can eventually take responsibility for the country's security--is only making things worse. In circumstances of civil war, government security forces are partisans to a conflict, not unbiased guarantors of public safety. This is, of course, why administration officials go to such convoluted lengths to insist that Iraq is not in the midst of a civil war. But saying it isn't civil war doesn't make it so. And Iraq's security forces are, in fact, active combatants in the civil war. Shia police units are responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and execution of thousands of Sunnis; and the ranks of Sunni policemen include many insurgent sympathizers--or even insurgents. The army is also split along sectarian lines. Training and equipping Iraq's security forces, as the United States is doing, only produces more lethal combatants in the country's internecine conflict.
Holding together a nation that does not want to be held together is difficult and costly. And it is increasingly hard to argue that it is worth the effort. For the United States, there is only one good alternative: to accept the partition that Kurds and Shia have already set in motion and to start withdrawing U.S. troops from most of the country.
This is not to say partition would proceed peacefully. As Iraq divides, two major territorial disputes will likely arise--one over Kirkuk, the other over Baghdad.The Iraqi constitution provides for a referendum to resolve the status of Kirkuk and other areas contested between Kurds and Arabs. U.S. diplomacy, so far completely absent on this issue, could help entrench power-sharing among all of Kirkuk's communities prior to the vote so that the losers are more likely to accept the results. As for Baghdad, today we are bystanders as the city violently divides itself between the Sunni west and the Shia east, and, unless we are prepared to become the city's police, there is little we can do to stop the bloodshed.
The other major impediment to partition would come from the Sunnis. Even as Shia and Kurds have moved toward partition, Sunnis have resisted it, partially out of nostalgia for the days when they ran all of Iraq. But, because the Sunnis could have their own army in a Sunni region, partition actually provides them some protection against domination by the more numerous Shia. In the end, with Kurdistan already in place to the north and "Shiastan" quickly forming to the south, the Sunnis will have little choice but to create their own autonomous region in between.
Among its other virtues, partition could head off Al Qaeda from establishing a permanent base in the Sunni areas of Iraq. Clearly our current approach of using Shia troops--whom we call Iraqi but whom the Sunnis see as alien--to fight insurgents has not worked; but encouraging the Sunnis to establish their own autonomous region and to raise a Sunni army might. There are compelling economic and political reasons for the Sunnis to eliminate Al Qaeda once they, not the Shia, are the ones doing the fighting.
Of course, there is a risk that an autonomous Sunni region would not be willing or able to defeat the Al Qaeda elements of the insurgency, and, for this reason, the United States needs a residual force in Iraq. Kurdistan is the logical place to put it. It is adjacent to the Sunni areas, and its own army, the peshmerga, is the only reliably pro-American indigenous military force in the country. And the Kurds love President Bush. After all, he wrecked Iraq.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, is the author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.
This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.