Rosa Brooks / The Christian Science Monitor – 2008-01-03 09:05:32
(December 28, 2007) — From Baghdad to Tal Afar, our military has been busily constructing walls between and around Iraqi neighborhoods. In Baghdad, 12-foot-high walls now separate Sunni and Shiite communities. Broken by narrow checkpoints, the walls turn Baghdad into dozens of replica “green zones,” dividing neighbor from neighbor and choking off normal commerce and communications.
The military isn’t building walls as a training exercise, of course. The walls are meant to make it harder for militias, insurgents and death squads to coordinate and reach their intended victims. With enough troops and enough concrete, the theory goes, you can keep the bad guys from operating effectively and gradually reduce the sectarian violence that has been tearing Iraq apart.
So far, it looks as if the wall-building strategy is paying dividends. Civilian deaths in Iraq are down significantly. And although 2007 has been the deadliest year of the war for U.S. troops, attacks on them have dropped sharply in recent months. After so many years of escalating violence, it’s almost eerie.
How do Iraqis feel about the walls springing up around their neighborhoods? Mixed, not surprisingly: relieved by the lull in violence but dismayed by the cost. “Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison,” one Iraqi told the Christian Science Monitor.
It’s against this backdrop that we should evaluate the success of the Bush administration’s troop “surge” in Iraq. Yes, violence isdown. Some of that is because of the surge itself:
More soldiers — and smarter counterinsurgency tactics — have translated into a reduction in violence. But violence also is down because the process of “sectarian cleansing” is nearing completion: Sunnis have been driven out of Shiite neighborhoods, Shiites out of Sunni neighborhoods, the Kurds have retaken their own historic territories and smaller minorities have been shoved to the side.
Over the past year, sectarian cleansing often has occurred with reluctant American connivance. Our troops have watched helplessly as neighbors have driven out neighbors, and the walls that U.S. forces build help freeze the new sectarian boundaries in place. In Washington, the administration still speaks of a unified Iraqi central government and “national reconciliation,” but in practice, we’ve gained a respite from violence in part because we’ve given up on reconciliation and accepted sectarian segregation as the new status quo.
In other words, for all the early rhetoric about benchmarks,
“political progress” and reconciliation, the truth is that most Washington insiders accept that we’re heading toward a different and much grimmer version of Iraq. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group comments: “Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias. The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the green zone.”
We used to say we wanted freedom and democracy. But these days, we’ll settle for more warlords, more segregation and fewer bodies.
Sectarian segregation isn’t ideal, but it beats genocide.
The wall-building impulse – the impulse to separate groups that don’t get along – is a time-honored one, as familiar to grade-school teachers as it is to counterinsurgency experts. But it always has had a darker side. Historically, the same impulse brought us Indian reservations and apartheid-driven Bantustans. It gave us the Berlin Wall. At its most paranoid and extreme, it led to the Warsaw Ghetto and concentration camps.
Iraq today still moves in darkness. We should be glad of the lull in violence, but if stability in Iraq depends on miles of concrete walls and an indefinite U.S. occupation, that’s not “victory.” It’s defeat.
Rosa Brooks is a Los Angeles Times columnist.
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