Let Iraq - and any country - break apart

With Islamic militants on the march across Northwestern Iraq and Iraqi army units dropping their weapons and fleeing in disarray, the country is facing a de facto partition between the Kurdish North, the Sunni heartland and the Shiite-dominated South.  This sorry state of affairs has led many to ask; was Joe Biden right?


Biden, the current vice-president, and former chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was an early and strong strong proponent of partitioning Iraq. In 2006, at the height of the anti-U.S. insurgency, Biden co-authored a New York Times op-ed, along with Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in which the two argued that carving up the country into semi-autonomous regions in a federal system, along ethnic and religious lines, was the best way to reduce the violence and create a stable environment.


At the time, Biden was dismissed out of hand and his plan derided as out-of-touch, even goofy.  Now the vice-president may be having the last laugh.


The partition idea has come up again, this time driven mainly by events on the ground — the rapid territorial gains of the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also know as ISIS, and also the move of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters to seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  The Kurdish takeover came after the ISIS fighters easily seized the Northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, as the American-trained Iraqi regular army retreated without a fight.


On Wednesday, June 18, top scholars with the Council on Foreign Relations discussed the Iraq situation and options going forward in a conference calls for members, and they debated the merits of partition. And it seems people are now taking the idea seriously.


Council President Richard Haas asked the group, provocatively, “Should the U.S. accept the de facto breakup — and even embrace it.”  Such a scenario, he suggested, would allow the relatively peaceful Kurdish region to “break off and prosper.”


What was surprising was how seriously the analysts now consider the once unthinkable prospect.


“It may be desirable to keep Iraq together, but it may not be possible,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council and a Harvard professor.  She said it was essential we begin to imagine a breakaway Kurdish region, and an entirely new political structure for Iraq, “because to continue to say the territorial integrity of Iraq is our number one goal, without at least behind the scenes really thinking hard about how to manage the breakup of Iraq — we would be really remiss in our duty as policymakers.”


Max Boot, a Senior Fellow for national security studies at the Council, said he still believed a unified Iraq was in America’s best interests.  But he added, “Less important than how many states are in Iraq is the nature of those states.”


I tend to agree.  There is nothing sacrosanct about the borders of Iraq or any other nation-state whose lines were artificially drawn in a previous century by British and French colonialists  —and their main interest was location of oil wells, not people or natural geographic boundaries.


In Africa, at independence, the Organization of African Unity agreed to accept the old artificial colonial borders simply as a way to avoid chaos over ancient land disputes and the possible mass relocations of people.  But the result has been just as chaotic and violent — like the Hutu-Tutsi divide that saw the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago, or the ongoing war in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Congo. I covered a lot of conflicts in Africa that had their roots in tribal or ethnic tensions that were a result of those artificial, colonial boundaries.


One case in point is South Sudan.  The civil war between North and South likely dragged on longer than it needed to, for decades, because no one in the international community wanted to contemplate the breakup of Sudan into two independent countries — which in the end was the best outcome.


Likewise, in Southeast Asia, I covered the successful breakaway of East Timor from Indonesia, which seized Timor in a brutal invasion in 1975.  The main violence over the 1999 secession was perpetuated by the Indonesian military and its armed militias which saw the island’s independence as an assault on the unitary state.  Surely backing the Timorese people’s aspirations early on, instead of insisting on the “territorial integrity” of Indonesia, would have produced a better outcome, and may have saved some of the100,000 lives lost in civil war and starvation during the brutal quarter century of enforced rule from Jakarta.


How many people have been killed in the ongoing violence by Basque separatists advocating an independent Basque state spanning parts of Spain and Southern France?  Long ago, while reporting on the conflict from Paris and the Basque region in Spain, I asked the question; would a separate Basque state — with its own language, flag and anthem— be such a bad thing, considering it would still likely be closely integrated into the European Union?  At a time when nations are fusing together economically and politically, what difference would it really make if there were one more independent state, a Basque state, in Western Europe?


And Scotts will soon have to decide the same question, in an upcoming referendum.  But would the United Kingdom without Scotland really be diminished? Isn't a Scotland inside the EU just as good for the U.K.?


We like to support the territorial integrity of existing states within current borders because the alternative is unpredictable and difficult to contemplate. We support the status quo because, well, it’s the status quo. Iraq may be the case in point today.


If there is a future, peaceful Kurdistan, alongside a Sunni state and an Iraqi Shiite state — can that be any worse than the situation today?


Biden may be proven right.  And we can already see that one who seems proven wrong is former president George W.  Bush.  On March 7, 2003, right before he launched the invasion of Iraq, Bush told a pre-war press conference


"I'm convinced that a liberated Iraq will be - will be important for that troubled part of the world. The Iraqi people are plenty capable of governing themselves. Iraq is a sophisticated society. Iraq's got money. Iraq will provide a place where people can see that the Shia and the Sunni and the Kurds can get along in a federation.”

Biden must be smiling.

What do you think?



You may be right, de-facto partition may be the least bad option for Iraq, though people are right to be dismayed that tribalism and religious extremists will have prevailed if that happens.

You wrote:

"I covered a lot of conflicts in Africa that had their roots in tribal or ethnic tensions that were a result of those artificial, colonial boundaries. One case in point is South Sudan…”

Arbitrary and illogical as many colonial borders were, that was no different to the pre-colonial tribal territorial “borders”. Hutus and Tutsis (and Twa etc.) disputed territories in brutal conflicts, long before Europeans arrived. As you know, or should know, the Twa in the precolonial era were regarded as subhuman by Tutsis and Hutus and were slaughtered and lost territory to them as their populations grew.

Or take the large Masai/Kikuyu/Kalenjin territorial gains and losses in the 18th and 19th centuries. These tribes took and lost large swathes of territory at the expense and of other tribes. For petty tribalists (and there are lot of them) these territorial disputes still matter today within Kenya (land scarcity due to massive population increase, was largely behind the 2008 clashes). I.e. there are no colonial border issues that can be blamed for these “border" disputes.

Your example of the South v North Sudan conflict is actually not an example colonial borders, but pre-colonial territorial disputes. And the current civil war within newly formed South Sudan civil war is a reversion to ancient tribal emnity sadly.

Bizarre colonial lines on maps did not cause, but froze, existing border disputes.

In the immediate postcolonial era, there was in Africa (and within organisations like the OAU), there was the noble-minded idea that tribe and religion should not matter. That is one reason why borders were left as they were. It is a shame that egalitarian spirit did not last.

Tribal, religious, ethnic, nationalistic and political differences will alway arise unfortunately, even in a seemingly homogenous population. Look at Ukraine. There it isn’t tribe or religion. It is political differences as a result of the dire economic situation.

Anon, first, apologies for getting your comment posted so late -- I've been traveling. And second, you make good points, about how colonial borders really only froze pre-colonial disputes. I'll make sure to try to incorporate more history in future posts. cheers, Keith

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