Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War


"Iraq is rapidly descending into all-out civil war. Unfortunately, the United States probably will not be able to just walk away from the chaos. Even setting aside the humanitarian nightmare that will ensue, a full-scale civil war would likely consume more than Iraq: historically, such massive conflicts have often had highly deleterious effects on neighboring countries and other outside states. Spillover from an Iraq civil war could be disastrous."

Thus begins this sobering analysis of what the near future of ...

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"Iraq is rapidly descending into all-out civil war. Unfortunately, the United States probably will not be able to just walk away from the chaos. Even setting aside the humanitarian nightmare that will ensue, a full-scale civil war would likely consume more than Iraq: historically, such massive conflicts have often had highly deleterious effects on neighboring countries and other outside states. Spillover from an Iraq civil war could be disastrous."

Thus begins this sobering analysis of what the near future of Iraq could look like, and what America can do to reduce the threat of wider conflict. Preventing spillover of the Iraqi conflict into neighboring states must be a top priority. In explaining how that can be accomplished, Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack draw on their own considerable expertise as well as relevant precedents.

The authors scrutinize several recent civil wars, including Lebanon, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia. After synthesizing those experiences into lessons on how civil wars affect other nations, Byman and Pollack draw from them to produce recommendations for U.S. policy. Even while the Bush Administration attempts to prevent further deterioration of the situation in Iraq, it needs to be planning how to deal with a full-scale civil war if one develops.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a timely book that addresses an important issue with unmistakeable political and policy implications. Highly recommended." — CHOICE

"Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack should thus be commended for considering the nature and consequences of a full-scale civil war in Iraq. Although supporters and critics of the George W. Bush administration might find it hard to imagine a further deterioration of the situation in that war-torn country, Byman and Pollack lay out a doomsday scenario that could embroil the entire Middle East in war. Things Fall Apart does not predict that a full-blown civil war will erupt in Iraq, but by surveying conflicts in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Lebanon, Congo, and Afghanistan, it identifies policies that have tended to exacerbate past conflicts." —James J. Wirtz, Naval Postgraduate School, Political Science Quarterly

"Well-researched and written, Things Fall Apart is a useful exercise in thinking one step ahead.... [it] provides an invaluable framework from which policymakers across the political spectrum might begin to develop strategies to contain a collapsing Iraqi state." —Michael Rubin, Middle East Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815713791
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2007
  • Pages: 260
  • Sales rank: 972,376
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel L. Byman is a nonresident senior fellow with the Saban Center for Middle
East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He also directs the Security Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University's Edmund
A.Walsh School of Foreign Service. His books include Deadly Connections: States that
Sponsor Terrorism
(Cambridge, 2005). Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow in
Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, where he is research director for the Saban Center. He is author of The Persian Puzzle:The Conflict between Iran and
(Random House, 2004) and The Threatening Storm:The Case for Invading Iraq
(Random House, 2002).

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Read an Excerpt

Things Fall Apart

Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War
By Daniel L. Byman Kenneth M. Pollack

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2007 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-1379-1

Chapter One


Iraq is rapidly descending into all-out civil war. Unfortunately, the United States probably will not be able to just walk away from the chaos. Even setting aside the humanitarian nightmare that will ensue, a full-scale civil war would likely consume more than Iraq: historically, such massive conflicts have often had highly deleterious effects on neighboring countries and other outside states. Spillover from an Iraqi civil war could be disastrous. America has too many strategic interests at stake in the Middle East to ignore the consequences. Thus, it is imperative that the United States develop a plan for containing an all-out Iraqi civil war.

As part of a containment approach, our new priority would have to become preventing the Iraqi conflict from spilling over and destabilizing neighboring states, an approach that requires deterring neighboring states from intervening, helping mitigate the risks associated with refugees, striking terrorist havens, and otherwise changing our policy to reflect the painful reality that the U.S. effort to bring peace and stability to Iraq has failed. Not planning now for containing the Iraqi civil war could lead its devastation to become even greater, engulfing not only Iraq but also much of the surrounding region and gravely threatening U.S. interests.

To that end, this study draws on the history of recent civil wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Congo, Croatia, Georgia, Kosovo, Lebanon, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Somalia, and Tajikistan. It employs lessons derived from these cases regarding the impact of full-scale civil wars on the security, prosperity, and national interests of other states to derive recommendations for the United States as it confronts the possibility of a similar conflict in Iraq.

Patterns of Spillover

The United States will confront a range of problems stemming from the collapse of Iraq into all-out civil war. These will likely include the humanitarian tragedy of hundreds of thousands (or more) of Iraqis killed along with several times that number maimed and millions of refugees. American influence in the Middle East will be drastically diminished, as will our ability to promote economic and political reform there. The loss of Iraqi oil production could have a significant impact on global oil prices, and supply disruptions elsewhere in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia, could be particularly devastating.

However, the greatest problems that the United States must be prepared to confront are the patterns of "spillover," by which civil wars in one state can deleteriously affect another, or in some cases destabilize a region or create global threats. Spillover is the tendency of civil wars to impose burdens, create instability, and even trigger civil wars in other, usually neighboring countries. In some cases, spillover can be as relatively mild as the economic hardships and the limited numbers of refugees that Hungary and Romania coped with during the various Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s. At the other end of the spectrum, spillover can turn civil war into regional war-as Lebanon did in the 1970s and 1980s-and can cause other civil wars in neighboring countries-just as the civil war in Rwanda triggered the catastrophic civil war in next-door Congo. Unfortunately, Iraq appears to possess most, if not all, of the factors that would make spillover worse rather than better.

Historically, six patterns of spillover have been the most harmful in other cases of all-out civil war:


In addition to the humanitarian considerations for innocent civilians fleeing civil war, refugees can create strategic problems. They represent large groupings of embittered people who serve as a ready recruiting pool for armed groups still waging the civil war. As a result, they frequently involve foreign countries in the civil war as the neighboring government attempts to prevent the refugee-based militias from attacking their country of origin, and/or the neighboring government must protect the refugees from attack by their civil war enemies. Moreover, large refugee flows can overstrain the economies and even change the demographic balances of small or weak neighboring states.


Terrorists often find a home in states in civil war, as al-Qa'ida did in Afghanistan. However, the civil wars themselves also frequently breed new terrorist groups-Hizballah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas, the Groupe Islamique Armé (Armed Islamic Group) of Algeria, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were all born of civil wars. Many of these groups start by focusing on local targets but then shift to international attacks-usually against those they believe are aiding their enemies in the civil war.

Radicalization of Neighboring Populations

Neighboring populations often become highly agitated and mobilized by developments in the civil war next door. Groups in one state may identify with co-religionists, co-ethnics, or other groups with similar identities in a state embroiled in civil war. A civil war may also encourage groups in neighboring states to demand, or even fight, for a reordering of their domestic political arrangements. Examples of this radicalization phenomenon include the anger felt by ethnic Albanians in the Balkans at the treatment of Kosovar Albanians by the Serbian regime during the Kosovo war-which might very well have pushed the Albanian government to intervene had NATO not done so instead-as well as the decision by Syria's Sunni Muslim Brotherhood to rise up against the 'Alawi regime, which led to a Syrian civil war from 1976 to 1982.

Secession Breeds Secessionism

Some civil wars are caused by one group within a country seeking its independence, while in other cases the civil war leads one group or another to seek its independence as the solution to its problems. Frequently, other groups in similar circumstances (either in the country in civil war or in neighboring countries) may follow suit if the first group appears to have achieved some degree of success. Thus, Slovenia's secession from Yugoslavia started the first of those civil wars, but it also provoked Croatia to declare its independence, which forced Bosnia to follow suit, which later convinced Kosovar Albanian nationalists to try for the same, and eventually provoked a secessionist movement among Albanians in Macedonia.

Economic Losses

Civil wars can be costly to other countries, particularly neighbors. First, there are the direct costs of caring for refugees, fighting terrorism, and mounting major interventions, whether covert or overt. Beyond that, civil wars tend to scare off investment, impose security and insurance costs on trade, disrupt transportation networks and supplier arrangements, and increase a state's health care burden, to name but a few.

Neighborly Interventions

The problems created by these other forms of spillover often provoke neighboring states to intervene-to stop terrorism as Israel tried repeatedly in Lebanon, to halt the flow of refugees as the Europeans tried in Yugoslavia, or to end (or respond to) the radicalization of their own population as Syria did in Lebanon. These interventions usually end badly for all involved. Local groups typically turn out to be poor proxies and are often unable or unwilling to accomplish the objectives of their backers. This often provokes the intervening state to use its own military forces to do the job itself. The result is that many civil wars become regional wars because once one country invades, other states often do the same, if only to prevent the initial invader from conquering the state in civil war.

Iraq is already manifesting all of these patterns of spillover. This suggests that these factors may intensify as the civil war worsens, and argues that the United States should be bracing itself for particularly severe manifestations of spillover throughout the Persian Gulf region.

Options for Containing Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War

The historical record of states that attempted to minimize or contain spillover from all-out civil wars is poor. Nearly all of them failed to do so. Those that "succeeded" often paid such a high cost as to render their victories pyrrhic. In many cases, states failed so miserably to prevent spillover that they were eventually forced to mount massive invasions to attempt to end the civil war instead. Successful efforts to end civil wars generally required a peace agreement to bring the war to closure and then an international security intervention with a personnel-to-population ratio of 20 per thousand (or higher) to keep the peace, combined with a major injection of international resources. In Iraq (excluding Kurdistan), such a security deployment could equate to a deployment of roughly 450,000 troops.

Despite these odds, if Iraq does descend into an all-out civil war, the United States probably will have no choice but to try to contain it. Drawing on the patterns of spillover described above, we developed a baker's dozen of possible tactics that the United States might use, alone or in combination:

1. Don't try to pick winners

There will be an enormous temptation for the United States to aid one Iraqi faction against another in an effort to manage the Iraqi civil war from within. In theory, the United States could choose proxies and use them to secure its interests. However, proxies often fail in their assigned tasks or turn against their masters. As a result, such efforts rarely succeed, and in the specific circumstances of Iraq, such an effort appears particularly dubious.

It is extremely difficult to know which group will be able to prevail in a civil war. Civil wars are highly susceptible to the emergence of skillful military leaders who tend to start the war as unknowns and gain power only by proving their skills in battle, such as Afghanistan's Ahmed Shah Massoud. Numbers alone rarely prove decisive-Lebanon's Druze were a major force in their civil war despite the small size of their community, whereas Lebanon's Sunnis rarely wielded power commensurate with their demographic weight. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to know which group could benefit from external assistance, and history is rife with states that poured arms and money into a civil war to back a faction that could not make use of it.

Moreover, Iraq is badly fragmented-especially within its ethnic and religious communities-making this approach even more difficult. There is no single "Shi'i" or "Sunni" faction to back. There are only dozens of small to medium-size militias, most of which hate one another with equal intensity regardless of ethnic or religious differences or similarities. Moreover, there is no manageable way for the United States to back one faction or another from a diplomatic and logistical perspective. The Shi'i groups are all tied in some way to Iran, and would have to be supplied through Iran because Iraq's other neighbors (except Syria, which has no border with Iraq's Shi'i Arab areas) are Sunni-dominated and would never allow American support to flow to Shi'i militias. The Kurds would be happy to have American assistance, but it is equally unlikely that we could convince any of Iraq's neighbors to support a Kurdish takeover of the country. Washington could certainly find regional support for backing the Sunnis, but most of their armed groups all seem to be closely tied to al-Qa'ida and other salafi jihadists (holy warriors), and their community represents only 18 to 20 percent of the population, making this a very difficult proposition. Indeed, the only Sunni warlord who effectively governed Iraq was Saddam Hussein, who had to build one of the worst totalitarian states in history to do so. Finally, as was the case in Lebanon, American backing of one side in the conflict could cause other states, particularly Iran, to ramp up their own interventions, rather than end them.

2. Avoid active support for partition ... for now

Eventually, after years of bloody civil war, Iraq may be ready for a stable partition. However, a major U.S. effort to enact secession or partition today would be likely to trigger even more massacres and ethnic cleansing. Other than the Kurds, few Iraqis want their country divided, nor do they want to leave their homes. While many are doing so out of necessity, and some are even moving pre-emptively, this is not diminishing the impetus toward warfare. For the most part it is doing the opposite, causing many of those fleeing their homes to join vicious sectarian militias like Muqtada as-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi (Army of the Mahdi) in hope of regaining their property or at least exacting revenge on whoever drove them out. Other than the Kurds, few of Iraq's leaders favor partition, instead wanting to control as much (or all) of it as they can. Nor is it clear that a move to partition would result in a neat division of Iraq into three smaller states. As noted above, the Sunnis and the Shi'ah are badly fragmented among dozens of different militias of widely varying sizes, but none of them are large enough to quickly or easily unite their community. Thus, far more likely than creating a new Sunni state and a new Shi'i state, Mesopotamian Iraq would splinter into chaotic warfare and warlordism.

Partition would be practical only if there were a political agreement to do so that was then enforced by adequate numbers of foreign forces. This would likely require at least 450,000 troops, the same concentration as was needed to enforce the Dayton Accords in Bosnia. Moreover, the situation would be worse in the near term because the Iraqis will see the United States as imposing a highly unpopular partition on them, as opposed to Dayton where the key parties accepted the peace agreement. In short, trying to partition Iraq as a way of containing or ending a civil war is unlikely to succeed absent years of slaughter, a peace agreement among the parties, and a much greater American military commitment.

3. Don't dump the problem on the United Nations

The United Nations can play a valuable role in helping legitimate international action in Iraq and providing technical expertise in certain humanitarian areas. The United States should seek UN assistance to provide aid, police camps, and otherwise help contain spillover. However, the United Nations suffers from numerous bureaucratic limits and should not be expected to provide security. In particular, Washington should not expect, or ask, the United Nations to police refugee camps, dissuade foreign intervention, or otherwise handle difficult security tasks for which it is ill-equipped. Likewise, UN administrative capacity is limited. Although the World Food Programme and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have many highly skilled professionals, the institutions as a whole move slowly in times of crisis. They often take months to fully establish themselves-months in which tens of thousands may die.

4. Pull back from Iraqi population centers

An all-out civil war in Iraq will be a humanitarian catastrophe, and there will be a strong humanitarian impulse to maintain American forces in Iraq's population centers to try to minimize the extent of the violence. Historically, the only solutions to this situation are either to prevent the outbreak of violence in the first place or to intervene decisively with the forces to end the war altogether-which in the case of Iraq would require the same commitment of roughly 450,000 troops. Half-hearted humanitarian interventions to diminish the violence tend to backfire badly, as the Multi-National Force in Lebanon in the 1980s and the misguided UN safe haven effort in Bosnia in the 1990s demonstrated.

While safe havens may prove to be an important element of a new American policy to deal with Iraq in civil war (see below), we should not assume that they can be easily created in the center of the country, in the midst of the combat, to protect Iraqi population centers. Limited forays are likely to do little more than cause American casualties and embroil the United States more deeply in the conflict while courting humiliating defeat. Consequently, when the United States decides that reconstruction has failed and that all-out civil war in Iraq has broken out, the only rational course of action, horrific though it will be, is to abandon Iraq's population centers and refocus American efforts from preventing civil war to containing it.


Excerpted from Things Fall Apart by Daniel L. Byman Kenneth M. Pollack Copyright © 2007 by Brookings Institution Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface     vii
Acknowledgments     xi
Abbreviations     xiii
Introduction     1
Patterns of Civil Wars and Policy Options
Civil Wars and Spillover     17
Policy Options for Containing Spillover     60
Civil War Case Studies
Afghanistan     101
Congo     120
Lebanon     134
Somalia     165
Yugoslavia     177
Notes     203
About the Authors     227
Index     229
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