Two U.S. soldiers, members of the NATO mission to Bosnia, wait to board a helicopter, on February 14, 1999.
Two U.S. soldiers, members of the NATO mission to Bosnia, wait to board a helicopter, on February 14, 1999. // Amel Emric/AP

What Bosnia Can Tell Us About Iraq

In the fall of 1995 Bosnia was on the edge, forced into a ceasefire after 3 years of some of the most vicious and inhumane sectarian warfare in history. Hatred between the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats exceeded anything we’ve seen in Iraq or Afghanistan. United States officials warned Congress that any peace mission would likely cost thousands of American lives. Yet NATO’s stability operation in Bosnia succeeded. It ended the war, sustained long-term stability and did so with no casualties and a steady reduction in military forces.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2003 in Iraq. The country was at peace and many Iraqis – including Sunnis – were joyous that Saddam Hussein was gone. There was a sense of uncertainty, but also optimism. We had 150,000 American troops providing security, a number of Iraqis willing to work with us and we were preparing to spend billions to rebuild the place.

How did stability in Iraq breakdown into a spiral of escalating violence and insurgency? Why did the Sunni Awakening of 2007 reduce the violence, but only temporarily? And why did billions of American military assistance and years of training fail in Iraq, leading to the present civil war and the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL? What went wrong?

One reason we’ve done so poorly in Iraq is that we are focused on nation-building rather than political power sharing. Sectarian conflicts like Bosnia and Iraq are built on ancient intractable grievances. You don’t solve that by building a school and a factory. You don’t solve it at all. You manage it through a fragile political process.

In the Balkans, the focus was all about the politics and keeping all three ethnic groups in the Dayton process with intensive engagement on all sides and every piece of leverage we could muster. We maintained constant dialogue with Bosnian Serb military and political leaders under sealed indictment for war crimes; we worked with Bosnian Croat leaders with ties to the Croatian Mafia; and we worked with Bosniak leaders collaborating with Islamic extremists. In order to preserve the peace process, we needed all of them involved in the discourse. We believed by including them we could eventually marginalize their extremist or criminal elements opposed to peace.

Leverage was also essential. This included the threat or application of military force, conditional access to military and economic assistance, conditional participation in meetings and key decisions, handling of war crimes charges and multilateral cooperation to offer or deny access to regional security and economic opportunities.

In Iraq, our strategy focused too much on hunting bad guys or nation building, with too little leverage or progress on the political aspects. Nation building is both expensive and counter productive, often combining graft and unsustainability in breathtaking proportions.

Meanwhile, the lack of political inclusiveness drove sectarian groups toward extremism. A vulnerable minority group will not turn on its own extremists if sectarian tensions are high – they need these fighters in the sectarian fighting. Because both the U.S. and Iraqi governments have too often treated Sunnis as “the enemy,” we have fueled sectarian division and insecurity even as we poured money into the Iraqi Army.

We did have one political breakthrough in Iraq: the Sunni awakening. Disillusioned with al-Qaeda and seeing no hope for a military victory, Sunni tribal leaders offered to take U.S. arms and fight for the government. Violence plunged and Iraq looked briefly like it had a political future. However, American leadership missed the political dynamic. Instead, we credited our own surge of troops and counterinsurgency brilliance. We remained focused on capacity building and, in the years that followed, offered little objection when the Iraqi government isolated and persecuted Sunnis, broke faith with Sunni tribal militias, and built a Shia dominated government.

Instead of using the opportunity of the Sunni awakening to pivot to a political strategy, we continued our nation-building strategy of building the Shia-dominated government. This is why the Sunni tribes are now with ISIL. We created this enemy.

We must stop thinking about Iraq as we did from 2003 to 2010 and look at it as a sectarian conflict with limited U.S. interests. This is a bit like Bosnia in 1995. Nouri al-Maliki increasingly leans on Tehran and nationalism in fighting a civil war against the Sunni militants and ISIL is collaborating with the Sunni tribes, making another Sunni awakening less likely. As the Kurds demonstrated in Kirkuk, all sides are positioning for sectarian war. The American role in Iraq will be limited at best due to political will at home.

If the threat of ISIL justifies involving ourselves in the Iraqi civil war, we need more than a military response. We need a political strategy. Any military or intelligence support for Iraq at this point must come with clear concessions on the Iraqi side to change the political equation against sectarianism and extremism. A Bosnian example: demand that Maliki give up power in favor of a tripartite presidency with a Shia, Sunni and Kurdish representatives. A government that is guaranteed to include Sunni interests will help ensure the Iraqi government keeps its distance from Tehran and Damascus rather than becoming part of a new Shia axis.

Nick Dowling is president of IDS International and former director for European Affairs at the National Security Council where he worked on Bosnia and Kosovo policy.