Senator Biden’s Plan for Iraq: Can it Work?


By: Greg C. Reeson

The midterm Congressional election results have been widely interpreted as a public rejection of the Bush Administration’s handling of the ongoing war in Iraq. Democrats swept to victory promising a change in course, although their “New Direction” has yet to reveal itself to the American people. Recommendations are expected next week from the Iraq Study Group (ISG), headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, and the Pentagon has commissioned its own panel to provide the President additional options in case he is unsatisfied with the ISG’s report.

While everyone is frantically trying to come up with recommendations for the White House, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden some time ago proposed a plan for Iraq that is quickly gaining lots of attention, from Democrats and Republicans alike. The question, though, is whether or not the plan has a realistic chance of succeeding. Each of the five parts of the plan, along with an assessment of each, is presented here.

Part One: Establish One Iraq, With Three Regions. Senator Biden’s plan calls for separate Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish autonomous regions with a strong but limited central government in Baghdad. The regional governments would be responsible for administering their own areas, while the government in Baghdad would be given responsibility for border defense, foreign policy, oil production, and oil revenues.

There has been a concerted effort recently, primarily by Shiites and Kurds, for separate autonomous regions in Iraq. In fact, the reality on the ground is that the Kurds already run their own governmental operations in the north while the Shiites control Iraq’s south. The problem, though, is the Sunnis. The only area left for this minority sect to inhabit as their autonomous region is economically stagnant, devoid of oil resources and without any real economic potential at all. Knowing that they cannot survive in such a region, the Sunnis have used a violent insurgency to force Shiites and Kurds to reach some sort of political accommodation that provides for Sunni inclusion in Iraq’s future. Unfortunately, neither the Shiites nor the Kurds have been willing thus far to deal with the Sunni minority that oppressed them for three decades under Saddam Hussein’s ruthless dictatorship. And there is not much chance that will change anytime soon.

Another factor that must be considered in any partition plan is the potential response of Iraq’s neighbors. None of the nations sharing borders with Iraq have expressed an interest in dividing the country into separate regions, and Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the region, is adamantly opposed to any division because of the potential for future demands for outright independence from the Kurds. Such a move would foment unrest among Turkey’s Kurdish population, a scenario Ankara is insistent upon avoiding.

So, while talk of partition continues in Baghdad and Washington, and while neighboring countries weigh in with their opinions, and while the Kurds and Shiites exert more and more autonomy, the violence continues to escalate. The problem of Sunni inclusion is too complex to be solved by a simple division of the country into largely autonomous regions with a central government in Baghdad. Mixed population cities will not suddenly become peaceful and security forces would likely be more loyal to regional governments than to the enforcement of any foreign or oil policies to emerge from Baghdad.

It is doubtful, to me at least, that Iraq can remain a unified country. Attempting to hold on to some sort of central government in Baghdad is likely to create more problems than it will solve. And, while regional and allied concerns must be considered, a more realistic scenario is the division of the country into two independent states, a Kurdish north and a Shiite south. Sunnis will have to recognize that they are a minority, and they will have to learn to live peacefully and productively in the societies in which they find themselves. The Kurds are not likely to give up control of their region, and the Shiites are not likely to give up control of theirs. The remaining Sunni area is not economically sustainable on its own. Of course, the answer is not as simple as this, as control of Baghdad and some other key areas will still have to be resolved, and the Sunnis will have to accept the fact that they will not be returning to minority rule. But given the other options put forth thus far, it is an idea worth considering.

Part Two: Share Oil Revenues. To address the problem of an economically depressed Sunni region, Senator Biden proposes guaranteeing Sunnis twenty percent of all present and future oil revenues, which would be roughly equivalent to their proportion of the Iraqi population. The central government in Baghdad would be empowered to set national oil policy and distribute all oil revenues.

While such an agreement would provide much needed capital for any autonomous Sunni region, the difficulty lies in securing the cooperation of all the parties involved. Sunnis are divided, with some opposing anything but a return to their minority rule, some backing the fledgling government in Baghdad, some joining forces with foreign jihadists, and some just looking for a piece of the Iraqi oil pie. The Shiites are similarly divided, with some favoring a unified Iraq, some pushing for a strong alliance with Iran, and some content to live in a Shiite region in the south, with responsibility for their own security and control of the southern oil fields. Each sect has its own militia and death squads are running rampant conducting sectarian killings with increasing savageness.

The point is that there is no single, unified leadership for either the Sunnis or the Shiites. A plan that may be accepted by some will be rejected by others. The central government would face tremendous difficulties in attempting to administer any type of central oil production and revenue distribution policy from Baghdad, and any real enforcement capability would likely be severely limited. I agree with Senator Biden that a unified oil production system for all of Iraq would attract more foreign investment, which is desperately needed for an aging and failing infrastructure. But the reality of differing sectarian goals and regional loyalties makes such an arrangement a distant dream at best.

Part Three: Convene International Conference, Enforce Regional Non-Aggression Pact. Senator Biden’s plan calls for the convening of a regional security conference, with the United Nations, where Iraq’s neighbors would pledge to support Iraq’s power sharing agreement and respect Iraq’s borders. The plan includes direct engagement with Iraq’s neighbors, presumably to include Syria and Iran. Additionally, this part of the plan calls for the creation of a standing contact group that would be charged with the enforcement of the commitments made by neighboring countries.

Diplomatic efforts are always worth the time and effort involved, but this is not a new approach. President Bush has repeatedly asked the United Nations and Iraq’s neighbors to take a more active role in stabilizing the situation there. Syria and Iran have repeatedly said they are doing all they can to prevent instability and claim to be taking all necessary actions to prevent the smuggling of weapons and fighters across their borders.

Of course, we know that Syria and Iran are actually contributing to the increasing levels of violence in Iraq and that the United Nations is still upset that it was bypassed by the Bush Administration when it would not agree to enforce its own resolutions on Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs. To expect a sudden reversal in attitude by Syria, Iran, or the United Nations is a bit idealistic to say the least.

Syria and Iran are both using the violence in Iraq as bargaining chips for their own national interests and their cooperation will likely come at an exorbitant price. Iran sees the United States as bogged down, and can offer help with the Shiites in exchange for concessions on its nuclear program. Syria, similarly, could do more to secure its border with Iraq, but will likely want concessions on its control of Lebanon. Direct engagement may lead to a reduction in Iraqi sectarian violence, but it will come at a price the United States is probably not willing to pay.

Finally, it will be extremely difficult to secure commitments for a contact group that may have to use force along Iraq’s borders or within Iraq itself. No new nations are likely to step forward, given the current level of violence in Iraq and the global distaste for the war, and many of the nations that are there now plan on withdrawing their troops sooner rather than later. Additional international cooperation is extremely unlikely, especially given the potential for increased violence in Iraq or a potential showdown with Iran or Syria.

Part Four: Responsibly Drawdown U.S. Troops. Senator Biden’s plan would direct U.S. military commanders to develop a plan to withdraw and redeploy almost all U.S. forces by the end of 2007. It would maintain in or near Iraq a small residual force (the plan says perhaps 20,000 troops) to take care of any concentration of terrorists, to help keep Iraq’s neighbors honest, and to train Iraqi security forces.

The problem here is that any withdrawal of U.S. troops must be conditions-based, and not time-based. The argument that Iraqis have had enough time to get their act together does not take into account the difficulties of transition from dictatorship to democracy, especially when that transition is occurring under fire.

Government security forces have to be trained to switch roles from protection of Saddam Hussein at any cost, including mass murder and terror, to serving the national interests of Iraq without regard to sectarian loyalties. That training is happening every day in Iraq, but it takes time. How much time? The answer to that question can only be answered by the commanders on the ground. We have trained them and placed them in leadership positions as subject matter experts on fighting and winning America’s wars. Do we not trust them to bring our sons and daughters home as quickly as possible, with the honor that comes from accomplishing their mission under the most difficult of circumstances?

The commanders in Iraq have told us that government security forces are making progress. Yes, they have been infiltrated by insurgents. Yes, they lack proper equipment and are not as skilled as their American trainers. But they are making progress. Despite daily roadside bombs and the constant threat of death at the hands of insurgents, Iraqis line up every day to join the Army and Police forces. Abandoning them now would be to leave them at the time of their greatest need.

The terrorist threat has not diminished. Syria and Iran continue to allow weapons and fighters to cross their borders into Iraq. If 140,000 troops are deemed insufficient to control the situation there, what good will 20,000 do? The answer may not be fewer troops, but more troops. Senator McCain has suggested an increase in forces. General Abizaid has said he doesn’t need them. Who do we listen to? Do we trust the Senator in Washington or the soldier in Iraq? Do we trust both? What General Abizaid has asked for is more time, not an increase or decrease in troop levels. Do we trust him as the subject matter expert that we trained him to be? Or do we not?

The point of all this is that we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of allowing Washington to make tactical decisions. The government gives our armed forces a mission based on national goals, resources them for that mission, and then assesses whether or not that mission is being accomplished. Military commanders are not, and should not be, free to do whatever they want, but their hands cannot be tied either. If confidence in them is lost, then the civilian leadership that is vital to our military system can take corrective action that it deems necessary. But we must, at a minimum, take into consideration what our military leaders are telling us.

Part Five: Increase Reconstruction Assistance and Create a Jobs Program.
Senator Biden proposes more reconstruction assistance that would be tied to the protection of minority and women’s rights and the establishment of a jobs program designed to provide opportunities for young Iraqis. The plan would also insist that other countries take the lead in funding Iraqi reconstruction, especially the countries in the Middle East.

Here Senator Biden and I agree. Any U.S. reconstruction aid must be conditional. The issuance of blank checks is foolish policy and the protection of minority and women’s rights will be crucial to Iraq’s future as a democratic state. And, Iraq’s neighbors should be the parties most interested in the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Stability in their backyard should be a national security concern for all Middle East nations, and the rebuilding of Iraqi infrastructure and the opportunity for economic advancement will go a long way toward providing that stability. The alternative is continued strife and a potential refugee problem as people look to escape destitute and violent areas.

While I don’t agree with all aspects of Senator Biden’s plan, it is a plan with some merit. There are both positive and negative aspects to what he proposes, and the plan at least puts forth some ideas. Where we go from here must begin with such proposals, no matter what they may entail. Intelligent men and women will debate the merits of the ideas and the country will move forward from there. So, while I don’t think the plan will work as written, it is a proposal at least worthy of our consideration. From it we may draw options for the President and the Congress to consider. And that at least gives us a place to start.

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