Has Iraq broken up? That might seem like one of those questions where the answer is self-evident, but perhaps not. If the country has broken up for good, why do we still refer to it as one country? Long after the process of breaking up began, we still refer to Iraq as a single state. Why is that? Perhaps we regard the current civil war as a temporary condition, with restoration of Iraq’s former unity to follow after the parties make peace. Or, we might refer to Iraq as a sovereign nation long after it has ceased to be one, out of wishful thinking. That is, we want Iraq to exist, so we talk as if it does.
A third possibility is that we refer to Iraq as a single state out of habit. Plus we don’t have any other names to replace the former one. We can call the northwestern part of the territory Kurdistan if we like. What do we call the Shia part that lies under Iran’s influence? Even more problematic, what do we call the Sunni part that lies under the Islamic State’s influence, without recognizing with our language the existence of the Islamic State? Better to continue with the word – and concept – of Iraq, even if the word and concept do not refer to anything real.
An interesting comparison with the American Civil War exists. President Lincoln declined to refer to the confederacy as the Confederate States of America. In so doing he would have recognized, in language, the secession of the southern states. He referred instead to the rebellion that existed within the United States’ borders. The mission of the armies under his command was to extinguish the rebellion. He maintained this stance of non-recognition right through from Sumter to Appamattox.
No leader like Lincoln exists within Iraq’s former boundaries. No leader outside of Washington particularly wants to maintain a unified state. The current fights are for oil, and the wealth it brings when you sell it; personal self-protection and preservation; and some degree of security for large ethnic and religious groups in a region not known for stability or peace. No military or political organization in the regioin seeks reunification of the state. The United States seeks reunification, but it has demonstrated for a number of years now that it will not commit resources to that goal. Nor is it clear that it could advance that goal, no matter what resources it committed.
Militarily, the Islamic State cannot defeat Iran. No one believes Iran wants to defeat the Islamic State, though it certainly wants to contain it. Whether Saudi Arabia wants to contain the Islamic State is anybody’s guess. Turkey likewise has indicated it wants to stay out of the fight. That means the current balance between Shia and Sunni forces will probably continue for a long time. Each of the three forces – Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish – have a lot to protect. No one of them will risk a catastrophic defeat by going after relatively strong enemies. Neither will they risk catastrophic defeats by doing nothing.
So we have to ask, what do we mean now when we use the word Iraq in our analysis? Mostly, it’s a term of convenience, to carry forward into the present a concept that exists in our memories. With outcomes of current warfare indeterminate, what concepts or entities can replace the memory of a single state? We’ll have to wait until warfare stops before new names come into use, and new states develop more durable structures than exist now.