Senator Biden has been repeatedly criticized by Senator McCain for calling for the dismemberment of Iraq. McCain charged Biden with saying that “that Iraq had to be broken up into three different countries,” and called the plan “one of the more cockamamie ideas that I’ve heard in a long, long time.”
Actually, the most sensible policy that follows from Biden’s position is to recognize that Iraq is much more a tribal amalgam than a solid nation. Hence, the more each ethnic and confessional group is able and encouraged to govern itself, the closer we are to a stable Iraq. A federation with a high level of devolution to the various regions is the best model.
True, such an approach will leave some issues standing, especially those concerning the borders among the Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni parts of the country and maintaining law and order in the few remaining mixed parts. However, managing these problems would be much less taxing than imposing American ideas about nation building up and down the large country.
The same approach ought now to be applied in Afghanistan–and in the areas of Pakistan that border on Afghanistan. The United States and its allies best work with the tribes and their natural leaders, rather than try to subject them to an American composed and directed, very ineffectual, and increasingly corrupt national government. After all, the United States did not overthrow the Taliban or free Afghanistan; it merely helped a coalition of tribes called the Northern Alliance to achieve these goals. Since, the United States has tried to replace the tribal militias with a national army and police force, and substitute elected officials for tribal leaders. However, these attempts at nation building have met with very limited success. Here again the lessons of Iraq are relevant. The situation turned around in Iraq once the United States started working with the Sunnis–in the areas they controlled–rather than trying to suppress them, and when the US started working with their Sheiks rather than with Sunni hand-picked “representatives” in Baghdad. (For addition support on this topic, see the Washington Post article, “A New Breed Grabs Reins in Anbar: U.S.-Backed Sheiks Reshaping Own Areas and, Potentially, the Future of Iraq.”)
Finally, the same is true about the tribal parts of Pakistan. The United States can bomb them until the mules come home, and it can pray that the Pakistani army will take them on. However, the bombing kills women, children and other innocent civilians, which fuels the already strong anti-Americanism. And the Pakistani army, even more rigidly geared for conventional warfare than the US army, has a very hard time fighting in the tribal areas. The rough terrain only adds to the difficulties.
When I asked the CIA chief from the area whether all seven tribes that make Waziristan their home are of one kind and one mind, he allowed that they are not. Asked whether it might be possible for the United States and its allies to work with some of the tribes to hold at bay the others, he suggested that this is the only way the US may be able to stop the area from serving as a haven for Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
There is no way on earth to turn Afghanistan into a stable democracy in the foreseeable future. However, it can be helped to develop a stable regime, based on tribal forces and coalitions. These, in turn, could gradually evolve, as other tribal societies did, into national societies–and, over time, into some kind of democracy. Even so, the prevention of terrorism need not wait until all these complex and slow processes mature, as long as the United States works with the tribes, instead of against them in the name of a waning national government. Biden was right about the best ways to approach the reconstruction of Iraq, and his ideas can be made to work in other parts, too.
Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. For more discussion, see his book: Security First (Yale, 2007) or www.securityfirstbook.com email: email@example.com
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