Was Biden right about Iraq?

Joe Biden’s 2006 plan for Iraq, calling for three autonomous regions for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, was derided at the time, but now his stance appears to be vindicated.

al-monitor US Vice President Joe Biden meets with then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (C) and Hoshyar Zebari (L) at the White House in Washington, July 24, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Molly Riley.

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sunnis, shiites, kurds, iraqi government, iraq war, iraq, biden

Aug 20, 2014

In 2006, US Vice President Joe Biden, then a Delaware senator, came out with a plan to keep Iraq together. The plan called for three autonomous regions for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

In The Washington Post in August 2006, Biden wrote that the violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq had created more bloodshed than that caused by foreign terrorist organizations. Therefore, he said, the only way to keep Iraq united, secure peace and bring US soldiers home was the creation of three autonomous regions. Biden said Iraq’s problems were much more complex than what the American soldiers could solve. Unemployment, sectarian clashes, paralysis of institutions were also kindling the tensions that the Americans could not cope with. Biden concluded by accusing the Bush administration of not having a comprehensive Iraqi strategy.

Many, including the Bush administration, criticized the Biden plan as aiming to divide Iraq. Some of that criticism was based on the false belief that the US military presence in Iraq could solve all its problems.

Today, the point Iraq has reached and the debate in Washington on Iraq have vindicated Biden. Just as Biden said, the basic issue of Iraq is not terror organizations but the sectarian conflict and consequent social, political and economic questions that make the country a fertile ground for terror organizations. These are not questions that can be solved by American soldiers and solely by the United States, as Biden said.

Eight years ago people did not understand Biden, but today in Washington, similar narratives are common place with criticism of Obama's policy of trying to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq. In many forums, including Congress, it's said that Iraq is already de facto divided, that at the core of the issue is the sectarian conflict incited by a Shiite prime minister trying to amass power and that Kurdish aspiration for independence should be backed. Obama’s decision to bypass Baghdad and arm the Iraqi Kurds did not attract any noise in a Washington that mercilessly criticizes all foreign policy moves of Obama.

This silence reflects finally understanding the difficulty of preserving territorial integrity of Iraq and that US military intervention had halted ISIS advances. But, as Biden said, it is not only an issue of terror and the US still doesn’t have a comprehensive Iraq strategy.

The real issue is to change social, political and economic factors that prepared the ground for the progress made by ISIS [Islamic State]. That above all requires the formation of a government that will represent the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad. The removal of Nouri al-Maliki as the prime minister is an important but not adequate step toward setting up such a government. These two processes of blocking ISIS advances and the formation of a representative government of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis should move forward simultaneously.

It's clear that meaningful steps to form a government is not easy when there is a security threat. The United States cannot by itself compel all groups to take joint action against the advances of radical organizations while speeding up the process of setting up a government. Iran's role, by mobilizing the Shiite militia around Baghdad, had a major role in halting the ISIS advances toward Baghdad. That shows that to have the Shiites fight against ISIS and constructively engage in a government formation process at the same time, the United States has to work with Iran. Likewise, to engage the Sunnis, the United States needs Sunni allies

Washington can persuade the Kurds. Keeping in mind the US intervention that defended Erbil against ISIS and arming of the Kurds by the CIA, Kurds emerge as the group that is most likely to heed Washington. Kurds will surely have a major say in which way Iraq goes.

In short, questions of Iraq are not the kind you can finish by bombing ISIS and arming the Kurds. It needs much wider and comprehensive engagement. The true issue is what Biden said in 2006: Washington does not have a comprehensive Iraq strategy. This time around, however, there is a factor different than 2006. The US government does not have the political will for such an engagement.

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