Oct. 31, 2006

Peter Galbraith

Peter Galbraith

The stated U.S. mission in Iraq — to achieve a unified and democratic country — is totally untenable, according to Peter Galbraith, author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. Galbraith, one of the first Americans to expose Saddam Hussein’s deliberate use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, shared his thoughts about the state of Iraq and the U.S. mission there when he spoke at the Law School on October 18, as a guest of the Program in Public Law.

More than three years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq has disintegrated, said Galbraith, the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia. Kurdistan, in the north, “is in all regards an independent state, except in international recognition.”  He called the predominantly Sunni center of the country a battleground between the Sunni insurgents, the coalition forces led by the United States, and an Iraqi army, “really a Shiite force of soldiers” which sometimes act as “death squads” targeting Sunni insurgents and civilians alike. Baghdad is the frontline of a civil war, he said, with Sunnis loyal to al Qaeda and its “imitators” controlling the western part of the city, and the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Saadr, controlling the west. Shiite religious parties also control the oil-rich southern part of the country, operating in “little fiefdoms” and maintaining strong ties to Iran, the primary victor of the U.S. invasion, according to Galbraith. “While there was no Tehran-Baghdad axis in 2002, there is, in 2006, a very close one.”

To unify Iraq, the United States would have to both dismantle the “Shiite theocracies” in the south — in effect “taking on as enemies” 60 percent of Iraq’s population - and end the civil war. “In a civil war, the army and police are not neutral,” he said. U.S. troops would have to become the police of Baghdad, requiring a greatly increased deployment, and risking many more American casualties. “I can promise you that the administration is not going to do that,” said Galbraith.

The U.S.-brokered constitution, adopted by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, effectively facilitates the break-up the country, Galbraith charged. “It creates a powerless central government and very strong regions.” The central government’s limited exclusive powers do not include power over oil or other natural resources, or taxation power, and where powers are shared, regional law prevails, he said. 

“The case for a different policy in Iraq is based on the fact that we are locked into a mission where we cannot succeed, where we’re not even serious about trying to succeed,” said Galbraith, calling for immediate withdrawal of coalition forces from the south and from the capital. “If we’re not going to promote democracy, disband militias or counter Iranian influence, why are we there? If we’re not going to stop the civil war [in Baghdad], why should we be there?”

Galbraith suggested encouraging Sunnis to form their own region, with their own army, in the hope that such an army might be able to provide security and bolster the command of moderate elements. While there is no guarantee that a Sunni army would be prepared to “take on” al Qaeda, the current strategy is not working and an alternative is justified, said Galbraith.

The United States should maintain an “over-the-horizon” force in the region, based in Kurdistan, where it remains popular, allowing it to move into the Sunni areas if needed to disrupt al Qaeda or attack al Qaeda bases, he said. 

“This alternative strategy does not produce an ideal solution, [but] it will get the United States out of most of Iraq and out of the fighting.” That is essential, said Galbraith, to allow the United States to address the critical threats to its national security posed by North Korea and Iran.