When people say that they want to end the war in Iraq, I always want to ask them which war they mean. There are currently at least three wars, along with several subconflicts, being fought on Iraqi soil. The first, tragically, is the battle for mastery between Sunni and Shiite. The second is the campaign to isolate and defeat al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. The third is the struggle of Iraq's Kurdish minority to defend and consolidate its regional government in the north.
Taking these in reverse order, we can point to Kurdistan as the most outstanding success of the past four years, with its economically flourishing provinces run along broadly secular lines, and with the old Kurd-on-Kurd civil war now in real abeyance for almost a decade (which shows that people can and do come to their senses). The Kurds are also active in the center of the country; their ministers of foreign affairs and water are universally regarded as the most capable and intelligent, and they have also been secure enough to lend units of their own peshmerga forces to the coalition's efforts in Baghdad, Fallujah, and elsewhere. The forces of AQM do not care to tackle this real people's army, preferring to concentrate their attacks on the defenseless, and although there have been truck-bomb attacks in the Kurdish capital of Erbil and in the still-disputed city of Kirkuk, these are so far pinprick events. (Appalling to record, though, a recent and much-disputed incident near Erbil airport has led to a temporary suspension of some international flights to Kurdistan.)
On the second front, everything I hear by e-mail from soldiers in Anbar province and some well-attested other reports suggest (see my Slate column of Aug. 13) that the venomous rabble of foreign murderers and local psychopaths that goes to make up AQM has insanely overplayed its hand, lost all hope of local support, and is becoming even more vicious as its cadres are defeated. This means that there is also political separation and polarization within the Sunni Arab community. A recent wire-service report even suggested that the underground remnant of the Baath Party has broken off relations with AQM. It must say something when even Saddam's old goons find themselves repelled by anybody's tactics. One must not declare victory too soon, but if the United States has in fact succeeded in not only smashing but discrediting al-Qaida in a major Arab and Muslim country, that must count as a historic achievement.
The third area of combat is the most depressing. The Maliki government, in my opinion, showed its irredeemably sectarian character a long time ago by the dirty manner in which it carried out the execution of Saddam Hussein. Maliki himself has recently attacked the coalition forces for carrying out raids in Shiite districts of Baghdad. Perhaps he ought to be told that he is not being lent our armed forces for the purpose of installing Shiite power. The secular parties have walked out of his shaky Cabinet, and it is on these forces that our moral support should be concentrated. Let's put it like this: An American family that lost a son or a daughter in the defense of free Kurdistan or in the struggle against AQM could console itself that the death was in a worthwhile cause. The same could not be said for a soldier who fell in some murky street engagement, shot in the back by a uniformed policeman who was doing double duty as a member of a theocratic Shiite militia.
In Basra and elsewhere, these Shiite militias replicate the division among the Sunnis by fighting among themselves and by the degree to which they do or do not reflect the interference of Iran in Iraqi affairs. This subconflict—or these subconflicts—makes it hard to accept the proposal made by some U.S. politicians and pundits to the effect that the country should be partitioned along ethnic and religious lines. In that event, we would quite probably not end up with three neatly demarcated mini-states, one each in a three-way split among Sunni Arab, Shiite, and Kurd. Instead, there could be partitions within the partition, with Iran and Saudi Arabia becoming patrons of their favorite proxies and, in the meantime, a huge impetus given to the "cleansing" of hitherto-mixed cities and provinces. (This, by the way, as I never tire of saying, is what would have happened to Iraq when Saddam's regime collapsed and the country became prey to neighboring states and to the consequences of 30 years of "divide and rule" politics.)
The ability to distinguish among these different definitions of the "war" is what ought to define the difference between a serious politician and a political opportunist, both in Iraq and in America. The obliteration of political life and civil society by Saddam Hussein's fascism has meant that most of the successor political figures are paltry (and the Kurdish exception to this exactly proves the point: Kurdistan escaped from Baathist control a full decade before the rest of Iraq did). It will take a good while before any plausible nonsectarian figures can emerge from the wasteland and also brave the climate of murder and intimidation that the forces of the last dictatorship, and the would-be enforcers of an even worse future one, have created. Meanwhile, it is all very well for Sens. Clinton and Levin to denounce the Maliki government and to say that he and his Dawa Party colleagues are not worth fighting for. But what do they say about the other two wars? Sen. Clinton in particular has said several times in the past that we cannot, for example, abandon the Kurds as we once did before. Should she not be asked if this is still her view? And did I miss what Sen. Levin had to say about the battle against AQM? The next election is rightly going to be fought, to a considerable extent, over the question of Iraq. Answers to these questions about that question are a test of seriousness that all voters should be keeping in mind.