Warning from Bosnia for Iraq

serbian-militiaBosnian Serb leaders have threatened to withdraw from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the decentralized entity created by the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended a brutal civil war in the Balkans that killed more than 100,000 people in the early 1990s. Under the accords, Bosnia-Herzegovina were partitioned into a confederation of the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

Critics have alleged that the confederation has reinforced ethno-sectarian divides rather than patching them up. Some are trying to change the Bosnian Constitution to strengthen the central government. The critics dream of a multi-ethnic nirvana where all ethno-sectarian identities are sublimated and everyone sings cum by yah.

Yet the ethno-sectarian divisions are real and virulent. The Bosnian Serbs would like independence or affiliation with Serbia; the Bosnian Croats have a similar affinity for Croatia. The Bosnian Muslims are the only group that desires a multi-ethnic state because they are the largest group in Bosnia. The only way the governmental arrangement has survived from 1995 until now without renewed civil conflict is because the system has a fairly weak central government with a shared leadership.

Demonstrating the fragility of the peace, even 13 years after the war ended, are the 2,000 European Union peacekeepers still remaining in Bosnia. Experts say that if the Bosnian Serbs declare their independence, war will again break out among the groups.

Some regard the threat of Bosnian Serb secession as a bluff, but it is a warning shot across the bow that should be taken seriously. The Bosnian Serbs are laying down a marker that they want self-determination and a referendum on independence.

Rather than strengthening the central government—which the various groups might have incentives to fight over, fearing one group could seize control of it and oppress the others—the only way for this artificial state to survive may be to further weaken the power of the confederation.

The same is true for Iraq. The U.S. politicians, media, and public were blindsided by the hurricane of violence in Iraq from 2003 until 2008. General David Petraeus, George W. Bush’s final commander in Iraq, managed to arm, train, and pay opposition Sunni insurgents to quit fighting the U.S. military, Kurdish and Shi’i militias, and the Iraq government (dominated by the Shi’a and Kurds) and instead to go after al Qaeda. By neutralizing the Sunni insurgency, Petraeus also quieted the Sunni-Shi’i sectarian conflict between the groups’ respective militias. But he made a future all-out civil war more likely by arming and training the only ethno-sectarian group in Iraq that the U.S. had not theretofore done so. All groups are now armed to the teeth and have more loyalty to their own tribe or ethno-sectarian group than to the weak Iraqi central government.

And now President Barack Obama is planning to withdraw all but 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. forces by August of 2010. His idea to withdraw from Iraq is the right one, but he may be going about it in the wrong manner. This remaining smaller force could be quite vulnerable if the civil war heats up again. As the Americans begin their drawdown, with the lingering memory of what Saddam Hussein’s central government did to groups not controlling that government, the ethno-sectarian groups and their militias will begin to get nervous about what the current central government will do to their fortunes. In his new book, The Gamble, Thomas E. Ricks, the Washington Post’s Senior Pentagon correspondent, concludes, after interviewing many U.S. military people in Iraq, that the worst of the ethno-sectarian fighting may not be over.

Iraq still has many issues that could cause a resumption of civil war. The Kurds, the Turkomen, and the Sunni Arabs all want the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and could fight over it; the world economic meltdown, and consequent dramatic drop in the price of oil, will likely hurt the fragile Iraqi economy badly; no agreement has been reached on sharing oil revenues, the mainstay of the economy; the Iraqi government is planning to let war refugees go back to ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, creating possible future ethno-sectarian violence; the Shi’i dominated government has been slow to reintegrate disgruntled Sunnis into the security forces; and the Iraqi government is letting many people who have committed violent acts out of jail. Any one of these developments could make renewed violence more likely.

To prevent the Iraqi civil war from reigniting and ensnaring the smaller, more vulnerable remaining U.S. force, which will probably not leave Iraq by 2011, Obama must threaten a complete and rapid U.S. pull out to shock the Iraqi groups into reaching an agreement to further decentralize the Iraq government. Like the decentralized government in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the somewhat devolved Iraqi government will likely need further decentralization to survive.

The threat of a complete and rapid U.S. troop withdrawal can act as a catalyst for further governmental decentralization in Iraq, but the Iraqis must draw the borders of the country’s subdivisions and mutually decide on the limits on the central government’s power. Given the depth of ethno-sectarian fissures and suspicions of the central government in Iraq, however, a viable Iraqi confederation could likely be responsible for only minimal functions, such as maintaining a free trade area within the old borders of Iraq and providing Iraqi diplomatic representation abroad. Local governments would have to be responsible for social policy, judicial functions, and security through local militias. Even the type of government might be different—for example, the Kurds might want a democracy, the Sunnis a secular autocracy, and the Shi’a Islamic rule.

by Ivan Eland David Petraeus implicitly recognized that a unified democratic Iraq was not possible, and his policies to quell the violence in the short term may have very well made, in the long term, civil war more likely and violent. To avert this outcome, Obama must not be lulled by the reduced violence in the eye of the hurricane and must expect Iraq to be ravaged by the other half of the storm, if a peacefully negotiated decentralization is not quickly negotiated before significant numbers of U.S. forces are withdrawn.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University.This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.

LA Progressive


  1. says

    We are having technical problems with the software we use to manage comments. The comments you have submitted are welcomed but the software is dropping comments. We will migrate to a different and hopefully better software package this weekend.

  2. says

    I hope this comment is allowed to stand. I am not sure why my original comment was deleted after having been originally passed by the moderators.

    I will keep it short this time–Mr. Eland's argument rests on faulty premises and incorrect information. I am not aware of any reasonable critics of the Dayton constitution for Bosnia who believe that doing so would create a "multi-ethnic nirvana" in Bosnia.

    Mr. Eland refers constantly to "the Bosnian Serbs" and "the Bosnian Muslims" (who are properly referred to as Bosniaks, a very well-documented fact any casual observer of the region would be aware of), NOT to the political elites in the respective entities. This suggests that his sympathies are with the nationalist elites who created and profit from the continued existence of the entities, which provide the institutional support for continued nationalist agitation.

    Furthermore, there is nothing "artificial" about Bosnia. It has a long history as a geopolitical unit, and Bosnian culture–while under attack from nationalists both Serb and Croat–is a reality Mr. Eland must ignore in order to justify his cavalier dismissal of the country which many Bosnians still care deeply for.

    Finally, Mr. Eland incorrectly asserts that Bosniaks (the Muslims) support the unity of Bosnia because they are the largest ethnic group within Bosnia (but not a majority). In order to come to this conclusion, he needed to ignore the actual answer contained within his own account! Nationalist Serbs desire union with Serbia, and nationalist Croats (who are not even close to representing the totality of Bosnian Croat opinion, despite Mr. Eland's assertion) desire union with Croatia; but the Bosniak plurality has no neighboring state to join with. Unity of Bosnia–in which they are an absolute minority–gives them the best chance for living in a viable state. The fate of Bosnia's 2 million Bosniaks seems to concern Mr. Eland none at all. Instead, he is most concerned about the right of a nationalist minority to take the homeland of an unjustly persecuted people away from them.

  3. says

    I see Mr. Eland is adept at battling strawmen; however, the premise of his article is both disingenuous and based on a dangerous presumption.

    I challenge Mr. Eland to find credible sources regarding the need for constitutional reform in Bosnia and a redress of the institutional shortcomings of the Dayton Agreement who have the stated intent of creating a “multi-ethnic nirvana where all ethno-sectarian identities are sublimated and everyone sings cum by yah.” Your decision to misrepresent critics of the existing constitutional order with such a laughable throwaway line serves only to suggest a lack of confidence in his own interpretation of the situation in Bosnia. I strongly suspect that Mr. Eland has a book to promote and a professional opinion to broadcast, and he deseperately needs to believe that reality fits his theory. Unfortunately, in the real world it is theory which should strive to reflect reality.

    The current ethnic partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina has mostly served to create an institutional basis for the continuation of the same extremist nationalist politics (and all too often, the same politicians) which tore the country apart in the previous decade. Eland acknowleges that this critique is at the heart of calls for constitutional reform, yet oddly fails to even address this criticism, even as Milorad Dodik continues to abuse his position as President of the Republika Srpska through inflammatory nationalist rhetoric.

    It is very telling that Mr. Eland refers only to ethnic groups, not to entity polticians or institutions; we are told what “The Bosnian Serbs” want, not what the governing institutions of Republika Srpska want. The assumption that the fear-mongering, corrupt, and strongly nationalist elites of an ethnically-based entity which owes its very existence to the genocidal campaign of the 1990s are automatically the voice of all Bosnian Serbs reveals much about Mr. Eland’s bias.

    It is also intersting that Mr. Eland manages to raise a very important point and then refute the obvious implication of his own observation, all in the same paragraph:

    “Yet the ethno-sectarian divisions are real and virulent. The Bosnian Serbs would like independence or affiliation with Serbia; the Bosnian Croats have a similar affinity for Croatia. The Bosnian Muslims are the only group that desires a multi-ethnic state because they are the largest group in Bosnia.”

    This can only be described as an amazing case of avoiding the obvious. The proximity of Serbia and Croatia to Bosnia has long been a challenge to the development of strong Bosnian national identity, and nationalists among Serbs and Croats (the desire for independence or union with Croatia among Bosnian Croats is nowhere near universal, especially outside of Herzegovina) push for closer ties with their ethnic ‘homelands’. However, this only emphasizes why Bosniaks (the preferred term for Bosnian Muslims) favor a unified Bosnia–indeed, why Yugoslavism had such strong support among Bosniaks. It is not, as Serb ultra-nationalists and their Western apologists like to claim, because Bosniaks seek to dominate Bosnia (they have a plurality, but not an absolute majority). The implication is often that these heavily secularized Muslims seek to impose an Islamic state upon the non-Muslim majority.

    Rather, the reason for Bosniak support for a unified Bosnia is implied in Mr. Eland’s own text–unlike ethnic Serbs and Croats they do NOT have an ethnic homeland to draw support from or to unite with. An ethnic partition of Bosnia would leave the largest ethnic group in Bosnia weak, stranded, and crowded into what would essentially be a West Bank or Gaza situation.

    Mr. Eland’s thesis regarding the necessity to partition Iraq deserve discussion on its own merits; however, considering how badly he understands the situation in Bosnia and how frankly callow he approaches the issue, I fear he may be all too willing to, shall we say, tailor the ‘facts’ to fit the conceptual framework.

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