Iraq is rapidly sliding into an all-out civil war that is likely to spill over into neighbouring countries, resulting in mass deaths and refugee flows, serious disruption of Gulf oil supplies and a drastic decline in US influence in the region.
This grim forecast is set out in Things Fall Apart, a 130-page report released today by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, which also recommends how the US might contain the disastrous consequences of “spillover”.
The Washington think-tank distils what it says are the lessons learned from other civil wars, laying out the case histories of Afghanistan, Congo, Lebanon, Somalia and Yugoslavia.
Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton administration official and CIA analyst who co-authored the report with Daniel Byman, told the Financial Times they were looking for a “Goldilocks solution” – somewhere between “stay the course” and “getting all out”.
“It was arrogance in the face of history that led us to blithely assume we could invade without preparing for an occupation, and we would do well to show greater humility when assimilating its lessons about what we fear will be the next step in Iraq’s tragic history,” the report says.
Brookings identifies six patterns from other civil wars that are already manifesting themselves in Iraq: large refugee flows, the breeding ground of new terrorist groups, radicalisation of neighbouring populations, the spread of secessionism, regional economic losses, and intervention by neighbours. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey are said to be “scrambling to catch up” with rival Iran.
Among the report’s recommendations are “don’t try to pick winners”, as proxies often fail or turn against their masters; avoid active support for partition; “don’t dump the problem on the United Nations”; pull back from Iraqi population centres despite the horrific consequences; bolster regional stability by revitalising the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; set up an international contact group including Syria and Iran; and consider setting up “safe havens” for refugees along Iraq’s borders.
Brookings estimates that 50,000 to 150,000 Iraqis have died already since the US invasion in 2003 and cites United Nations figures of 1m Iraqis who have subsequently fled their country.
Mr Pollack, who previously was an outspoken proponent of the invasion, says the lessons of past full-blown civil wars reveal nearly all efforts by states to minimise or contain spillover have failed.
The report will be read with deep concern by the US administration, which is projecting an increasingly discordant picture of how it evaluates Iraq, even while speaking of the serious consequences of failure. President George W. Bush calls it the “nightmare scenario”.
Analysts outside Brookings say officials are working on “what next?” strategies in the event that the 21,500 troop reinforcements announced this month fail to halt the sectarian chaos.
Mr Bush has conceded that the US is not winning the war. In contrast, Dick Cheney, his vice-president, asserted last week that the US had achieved “enormous successes” in Iraq. Both reject assertions that Iraq is in a state of civil war.
Mr Cheney told Newsweek that by sending a second aircraft carrier group to the Gulf, the US demonstrated to its allies it would stay in the region and had the capabilities, working with international organisations, “to deal with the Iranian threat”.
But Mr Pollack is concerned that the US is stoking a wider conflict and is “careening” into provoking a war with Iran. Even in his “best-case scenario” for Iraq, Mr Pollack fears hundreds of thousands of deaths.