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So much blood and treasure was wasted during the long occupation in Iraq that there was a sigh of relief across America when the troops finally left. Yet the end of the American presence has resulted in chaos. Islamist extremists in recent days have been making gains against the Iraqi military, seizing several towns, including the city of Mosul. The sheer rapidity of the collapse of law and order in Iraq led to a lot of hand-wringing in the White House. President Obama finally decided to send a few hundred troops to bolster the beleaguered regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This choice will only serve to further diminish the status of the United States in the region.
There is a better course of action: let Iraq break up. For nearly a decade the United States has been trying to keep the three distinct ethno-national groups in Iraq cooperating. This policy has failed disastrously, with Shi’ites and Sunnis still at each other’s throats and the Kurds finding their semi-autonomy threatened by the central government in Baghdad. The only way to salvage something from the wreckage of Iraq is to effectively strip it for parts.
Broken up along largely ethnic lines, the Shia region would be relatively safe, as the Sunni minority would not risk the ire of Iran, which has always seen itself as a guarantor of the Shia population. The problem of Islamic extremism could then be dealt with on a more targeted basis. It would also lend greater clarity to the growing cross-border threat in Syria.
What should America do? First, Obama should send representatives to the Kurdish regional government in Northern Iraq. To date, the United States has kept a lid on the clear desire of the Kurds to declare independence. Now they should help smooth the process out. Kurdistan would be a relatively free, stable, and potentially prosperous ally for the United States in a region that has soured of late to the Stars and Stripes.
Guaranteeing Kurdish political autonomy could also be made cost-neutral. The significant oil wealth recently discovered in Kurdish territory could easily fund the American military presence. This is an arrangement that could be worked out. The Kurdish leaders have proven very pragmatic in their outlook and could easily be prevailed upon to support a US military presence in the region to guarantee their security.
The result of this policy maneuver would be an Iraq region that is no longer riven with so much ethnic conflicts, though the threat of Islamist extremism would remain serious. It is a big ask for America to spend even more to prop up a teetering regime, and Americans have largely lost the stomach for prolonged conflicts. And rightly so. If the situation is to be salvaged, it must be faced in the knowledge that the sort of full-scale, boots on the ground, operation necessary to even temporarily resuscitate the central government and secure its borders is not going to happen.
The way forward is to take the least costly steps that will guarantee a modicum of stability, support peaceful and friendly governments, and secure the safety of Americans at home and abroad. A broken up Iraq and a free Kurdistan now seems to be the way to make the best of a dire situation.
It is time for the Obama administration to change its rhetoric from condemning pro-independence actions in Kurdistan to a policy of facilitating peaceful secession.