Divide and Quit

Drawing lines on a map is easy. Living with partition is not.

Like all Gaul, all Delaware is divided in three parts - with the counties of New Castle, Kent and Sussex splitting the state neatly into one northern, one central and one southern province. The fact that there is a notable absence of sectarian warfare between the nontribal peoples that inhabit these three parts of his home state may explain why Delaware's senator, Joe Biden, looking out at the world from his office in Wilmington, has devised a plan to end the civil war in Iraq by simply splitting the country into three separate, self-governing states - one in the north, for the Kurds; a second in the center, for the Sunnis; and a third in the south, for the Shia.

Then again, to give the senator and the coauthor of his plan, Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, slightly more credit, they may really have been inspired by the historical example they cite - the "soft" partition of Bosnia, at the end of the war there in 1995, into three regions: one run by Serbs, another by Croats and a third by Muslims. Whatever their inspiration, though, Biden and Gelb are essentially buying the argument for dividing Iraq that's been going around Washington think tanks since history books were cracked open in the Green Zone, just after the war's cakewalk stage came to an end - namely, that the country was an artificial construct in the first place, created by the British less than a century ago to ensure that the region's two biggest oil fields, near Mosul in the north and Basra in the south, would be under one easily controlled puppet government. They yoked together three provinces seized from the Turkish empire at the end of World War I, put a friend of Lawrence of Arabia's in charge, designed him a flag with three stripes and three stars on it, and, in a transparent marketing ploy, instructed him to call this new creation of theirs Iraq, which is Arabic for "a well-rooted country." So, the thinking goes, a partition of Iraq now would return these three diverse provinces to their historically separate conditions as neighbors, and end the ninety-year-long experiment of forcing them together into one multiethnic, multiconfessional country.

The problem with this plan, though, is that it ignores other, more pertinent, failed experiments in nation-building conducted by British colonial officers in the 20th century. Between about 1920 and 1950, as the British gradually and then suddenly decided that ruling vast chunks of the planet wasn't really worth the effort, they withdrew from one territory after another, often in a great hurry, simply drawing lines on the world map to divide such places as Ireland, Palestine and India into separate states in which ethno-religious groups would no longer have to cooperate or share power but could instead continue to hate each other and live side by side in armed camps for generations. In each case, partition, which looked good on paper and was accepted enthusiastically by extreme nationalist/segregationist leaders in each place, had the same result in practice: a spasm of violent sectarian cleansing and the destruction of the multiethnic societies that had existed in those territories for centuries.

One might think that the idea of partitioning a country along ethnic, or "ethno-religious," lines is a surprising concept for an Irish-American, like Joe Biden, to hit upon, given the decades of havoc caused by the line that has split Ireland in two since it was drawn on the world map by the British government in 1920. Then again, Joe Biden's mother's family, the Blewitts, left Ireland a long time ago, in the 19th century, when it was still in one piece, so perhaps the consequences of that partition are less obvious to him than to those of us born into families that left Ireland more recently. Since my mother was born in Northern Ireland - on the high street of the town of Omagh, which was later torn apart by a bomb planted by fanatical Catholic nationalists that killed and maimed civilians from both communities - I spent a lot of time as a child in the 1970s crossing back and forth across that line sketched out on a piece of paper by some forgotten British bureaucrat, stopping at heavily fortified British Army checkpoints, visiting an uncle and an aunt who lived just a few miles apart, but found themselves one day suddenly living in different countries.

As Christopher Hitchens has rightly pointed out in a series of articles over the last two decades railing against the idea that partition is ever a decent, or effective, solution to sectarian conflict, the main flaw of all partition plans is that those who draw them up implicitly accept the arguments of local segregationists, who claim that it is simply impossible for their people to live in peace with other ethnic or religious groups unless they have their own, separate states - while ignoring the fact that people in these parts of the world had previously been living in relative peace for centuries in multiethnic, often very close-knit communities. When partition is enacted, interwoven ethno-religious groups no longer have to find ways to share power and live together, but are instead invited to drive their neighbors from their homes with threats and violence.

Before the war began in 1992, very few people in Bosnia still defined themselves according to the religion of their forefathers - who were Muslim, Catholic (Croat), or Orthodox (Serb). After decades of communism, religious observance was casual at best and, for most people, what the three groups had in common, all being ethnic Slavs, was much more important than what distinguished them or their ancestors in the past. The population was so thoroughly mixed that on the eve of war, one-third of Bosnians had parents who were from two, rather than one, of the three groups and demographic maps showing which group was the largest in any one part of the country looked much more like Pollacks than Mondrians, with swirls of colors splattered across most of the territory and almost no part of it being purely Serb, Croat or Muslim. The country's cities in particular were so mixed that there was no way that any one of them could have been assigned to one group or the other before the fighting began. And this is the important point: the fighting itself was almost entirely dedicated to tearing apart those mixed communities, to make it possible to draw lines between them, and to fence off one community from the other.

At first this project was carried out only by ethnic nationalist warlords obsessed with refighting battles that were conducted centuries ago and presenting international mediators with maps from the Middle Ages to bolster the legitimacy of their claims. But a turning point was reached when those international mediators, acting on behalf of the United Nations and the European Union - two organizations you would think might be more on the side of union than division - accepted the logic of the extremists and started talking about a solution in which the territory would be divided along ethnic or religious lines, even issuing prospective maps for who might control what parts of the country claiming, seriously, that this would simply make Bosnia more like Switzerland. The effect of this was immediate and jarring - it worsened the violence, as each side tried to grab, and "cleanse," as much of the territory as possible, to make the redrawing of the demographic maps easier by forcibly undoing the mixing between the communities that had been in progress for centuries.

What followed the issuing of partition maps in Bosnia was exactly what followed the issuing of those maps in Ireland, Palestine and India (where one British colonial official opposed to partition called the policy "divide and quit")–and is exactly what will happen if a partition of Iraq, soft or otherwise, is adopted. First, the idea of partition as a way to stop or prevent civil war was endorsed by outsiders. Then, once the maps were redrawn, hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people discovered that they had been living, often for centuries, on land that would soon be part of a new country in which they would be unwelcome. Finally they were 'transferred,' often by force, to the 'correct' side of the new line dividing their country into two countries.

Time and again the plot has unfolded the same way. Here, for instance, is the encouraging view of the future for the Middle East that was offered to readers of the Guardian in July 1937: "Partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews and the termination of the mandate are recommended by the Royal Commission, whose unanimous report is published to-day. The British Government, in a statement of policy, also issued to-day, accepts the proposal. Partition on the general lines recommended 'represents,' it believes, 'the best and most hopeful solution of the deadlock.'" Seventy years later, we're still receiving regular updates on the progress toward this "two-state solution," in a territory now divided into three parts, with the two main ethno-religious groups literally fenced off from one another and the main sticking point in the negotiations still being the right of Arabs to return to the homes they fled or were driven from in the part of the territory assigned to the Jews by that Royal Commission, and then by the U.N., acting on its recommendation.

Ten years later, in May of 1947, the International Herald Tribune reported that "The British Cabinet approved the plan of Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, Viceroy of India, to partition India into Hindu and Moslem areas as a means of organizing the country for its independence by June, 1948." So the original idea was to spend 13 months figuring out how to divide a territory that had been one country for centuries. Then Louis Mountbatten got impatient and instructed Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer sent out from Britain to oversee the mapmaking that would split India into India and Pakistan, one state for Hindus and another for Muslims, to get a move on. Radcliffe was given just 36 days to come up with a map. Fortunately, since he was chosen precisely because he knew nothing at all about India - as W.H. Auden wrote in his poem "Partition," "Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,/ Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition/ Between two peoples fanatically at odds,/ With their different diets and incompatible gods" - Radcliffe wasn't bogged down by too much information about the towns and villages he separated, and he produced his new map in just 34 days, leaving for home two days early.

A recent BBC report on the anniversary of the partition of India explained what happened next, after the map was announced and Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, left for home: "Astrologers could not decide on an auspicious day for the independence of India so it fell at midnight between 14 and 15 August 1947. The British colony was divided along religious lines and two nations were born - the secular but Hindu-dominated India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan... As soon as the new borders were known some 10 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fled from their homes on one side of the newly demarcated borders to the other side. About one million people were killed during the exodus, and to this day many families are separated by the border." For an update on how close these two states are to annihilating one another in a nuclear war now, sixty years later, consult today's paper.

On the eve of the Iraq invasion, as Paul Wolfowitz responded to charges that the planned occupation force was much too small, he told Congress that Iraq was different from Bosnia because there was no tradition there of ethnic or sectarian warfare. And in a sense he was right. In Iraq, as in Bosnia, for hundreds of years communities of many ethnic groups and many religious sects had lived together in relative peace as citizens of the Ottoman Empire, in which Islam was the established religion, other religions were permitted and ethnic origin was considered unimportant. Which is perhaps one of the reasons that the population of Baghdad before this war was nearly as mixed, in ethnic and religious terms, as the population of Sarajevo in 1992. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi journalist who reports for the Guardian, pointed out in a recent discussion of the idea of partitioning Iraq that, just a few years ago, marriages between Sunni and Shia were much more common in Baghdad than anywhere else in the Muslim world.

In the end the rule for dividing countries is simple: the more mixed the population, the more bloody the process of tearing it apart. So, for the most part, the very north, the very south and the far west of Iraq could be sliced off from each other about as easily as the Czechs and the Slovaks split apart Czechoslovakia by mutual assent in the 1990s. But the center of Iraq, in particular the regions around Baghdad and close to the oil fields in the north, are as diverse as the center of Bosnia before four years of brutal ethnic cleansing made the redrawing of the demographic maps possible. If the U.S. eventually adopts the "divide and quit" solution to get out of Iraq, ignoring what happened before the 'soft' partition of Bosnia and after the much harder partitions of Ireland, Palestine and India, one thing is certain: the violence necessary to pull Iraq completely apart at the seams will eventually make the first four years of this war look like one big cakewalk.

About This Story


  • Contributor: Robert Mackey
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012
  • Print Publication Date: Jul 2008