Iraq in ’09

Eric Martin over at American Footprints has a good piece on recent goings on in Iraq and the broader question of Maliki and his view of power.

It has been asserted by some of the brighter lights in the progressive foreign policy firmament that, due to this dynamic [ed: unconditional troop presence], the US must begin to remove forces (and threaten, credibly, a complete withdrawal) in order to focus the mind of Iraq’s leadership on addressing grievances of minority groups that it could previously afford to ignore – by virute of the presence of those US forces.  However, Reidar Visser argues that The Surge may have rendered even this bit of hoped-for leverage impotent.  Maliki might not view the threat of withdrawal with the same sense of urgency that he would have at some point in the past…

Indeed I think Visser is quite accurate.  To answer David Petraeus’ question way back when “How does this end?” only one of three ways:

1. A new dictator/strongman (call that The Maliki Option)
2. The Lebanonization of Iraq.
3. Federalization/Full Partition of the Country (The Yugoslavization of Iraq)

#3 is already partially the case with the Kurdistan as a separate country de facto (not de jure at this point).

So any discussion of the future of Iraq is always already a discussion of the non-Kurdish parts of Iraq. i.e. Even if Maliki becomes dictator it’s only of the non-Kurdish parts of Iraq.

Martin (via Visser) is discussing the possibility of number 1.  [Martin quoting Visser discusses some potential manuevers to stop this reality none of which I think would work–but give them a look you might find them possibly effective].

#2 involves the US leaving and the civil war re-ignitng but this time–unlike in #3 or the First Iraqi Civil War from 2004 to 2006–there are cross-ethnic/cross-sectarian alliances a la the Lebanese Civil War.  The Mahdi Army folks could hook up potentially against with the Sunni Tribesmen in an alliance of convenience against the Iraqi Army/Badrists.  Or the Kurds could be fighting Sunnis one day (on the Kirkuk side) while fighting the Shia government the next (potential flashpoints on the more eastern flank of the country).  Alliances woud shift, be temporary, and it would be hard to figure who is fighting who, good guys and bad guys and all the rest.  The net result of which would be a hollowed out state and the proliferation of militias (a la Hezbollah) that become de facto states-within-states with a weak central government, though the country still formally holds together, and is played by the neighboring powers (Iran as Syria in this analogy and the Saudis as well the Saudis in this analogy) in their quest for regional dominance.

Number three would be more like what we saw in the first phase of the Iraqi Civil War prior to the Surge.  Ethinc cleansing of the Sunni from Baghdad, refugees, and the Shia controllling the country.

But I see no way that the proposals of holding the country together as a democratic state make any sense in this regard.  There is no way these populations can be held together under the current circumstances under democratic rule.  Maliki could become a strongman who allows a more open economic situation–if he can get a handle on the violence–bring in foreign investment etc and try to make Iraq a kind of Malaysia/Singapore of the Middle East.

My general sense is that #2 and/or #3 is more likely.  But Maliki got more time with how the Surge has gone than I thought he would.  But the Tribesmen at the end of the day want a Sunni government and it ain’t gonna happen.  Maliki, Sistani, the Iranians their entire plan is based on one aim and one aim only–to keep the Shia in power.  No pressure from the US is going to change those aims.  Those aims are in direct conflict.  Not to mention Sadr and his aims (which are of a different sort still).

At the end of the day, I just don’t see a way in which Maliki’s future is tied to a deal with the Sunni.  Now that the Tribesmen are armed, seems to me he will have to defeat them before any such peace could be gained.

Is the democratic process going to continue after the US leaves?  Interestingly the only one who seems to be putting his chips in that pot is Sadr.  He could run a nationalist, pro-democratic, Hezbollah-like campaign in the event of a Lebanon-like reality in Iraq.

Published in: on November 7, 2008 at 8:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Surge Redux

As a follow up to my previous post about winning/losing & the surge, I thought this was interesting (h/t A.Sullivan):

By tracking the amount of light emitted by Baghdad neighborhoods at night, a team of UCLA geographers has uncovered fresh evidence that last year’s U.S. troop surge in Iraq may not have been as effective at improving security as some U.S. officials have maintained.

Night light in neighborhoods populated primarily by embattled Sunni residents declined dramatically just before the February 2007 surge and never returned, suggesting that ethnic cleansing by rival Shiites may have been largely responsible for the decrease in violence for which the U.S. military has claimed credit, the team reports in a new study based on publicly available satellite imagery.

“Essentially, our interpretation is that violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning,” said lead author John Agnew, a UCLA professor of geography and authority on ethnic conflict. “By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left.”

The surge as John Robb long ago pointed out was not winning but rather acceding to the reality of militia control of Iraq.  [Really that started with the Anbar Awakening which contra McCain preceded the Surge but whatever…]

The issue as I tried to make clear in the previous post (one among many) is the centrality of the political.  The surge can not succeed (or frankly fail) when it is hooked to a unreachable political  goal with an overall strategy (national reconciliation) which itself can never be achieved because it is a strategy attempting to reach an unreachable point (goal of democratic, unified Iraq). 

Particularly when the surge follows on the reality of ethnic cleansing because the cleansing is at heart political:  namely the fight over who gets to control the corpse of what used to be the Iraqi state.  The “failure” goes back to the inabiilty to “mind the gap” created in the wake of the destruction of the Baath police state in 2003-2004!!!!  The peace was already lost (i.e. two years+ prior to the surge).  Once it became clear that the US was not going to fill the vacuum, and that everything was returning to a Hobbesian state (weirdly with a Leviathan there but not a backup to deal with state formation)–i.e. the war of all against all–the Shia and Sunni got on doing what they had to do in that situation….a civil war. 

The Surge following upon all that could not and did not reverse that reality. How could it?  How could in a post-ethnic cleansing situation could anyone ever seriously ask about winning or success?  When hundreds of thousands are dead and millions more are refugees? 

What the Surge did do was prevent the vacuum from being filled–hence the anger of Maliki at the US for financing the Sunni Awakening Councils which he correctly perceives as a threat and not getting out fast enough.  He wants to fill that vacuum.   We will see whether the Surge has allowed groups to re-arm providing them the (false imo) hope of an attempt to recolonize and undo the ethnic cleansing.  If so, it is going to be scary violent. 



Response to Reihan Re: Iraq

Andrew Sullivan highlights this (concluding) graf from Reihan’s new Current piece on Iraq:

Advocates of a continued American presence have much to answer for as well. Why is it that Maliki hasn’t made the necessary concessions? What can the U.S. do to encourage reconciliation that hasn’t been done? Has the economic strategy of the Iraqi government been adequate to the task of rebuilding the country? It was fair and reasonable to neglect these considerations during the struggle to bring Iraq back from the brink. But that neglect has proved very costly indeed.

Let’s go one at a time on this:

1)Why hasn’t Maliki made the necessary concessions?

–Because in his world, there are no concessions to be made.  The notion that he has to make “necessary concessions” is predicated on a certain view dictated by the United States as to what Iraq should look like.  This is the central flaw of the entire war, surge or no surge.  Maliki spent years in hiding from Saddam’s assassination forces and by all accounts is a quasi-paranoid individual (as would be normal under those circumstances I imagine).  He is a member of the Dawa Party who sees it role as defending the Shia in Iraq.  That is his job.  And he is doing it.  In Maliki’s world, either the Shia will run Iraq or the Sunni will take back over and return the Shia to the position of the powerless.

2)What can the US do to encourage reconciliation?

–Nothing. Neither staying (Salam) nor half-drawing down (Colin Kahl).  Nothing in my opinion.  See #1.  There is no encouragement because there is no desire for a deal.  If the US abandons the Shia in Iraq, they know Iran will have their back and Iran isn’t supporting some mass integration of the Sunni militias into the Iraqi security forces.

3)Has the economic strategy been adequate to the task of rebuilding the country?

–Again this assumes our understanding of what the country should be.  The economic policy, such as it is, has been correctly predicated on lining the pockets of the Shia elites to buy leverage so they can control power.  Because the Tribesmen want to fight the Shia gov’t.  The Shia mass underclass tends more to support Sadr.  In other words, they aren’t thinking about rebuilding the country.  They are thinking about ruling what’s left of it.

Reihan almost answers his own questions here, but I think backs away from the edge at the last second:

The trouble with Maliki’s vision is that it leaves no room for the Sunni Awakening. One increasingly gets the sense that Maliki sees the Sons of Iraq, one of many names for the various Sunni militias that have turned against the insurgency, as a threat. Which is entirely understandable — a proper state possesses a monopoly on legitimate force, and it makes perfect sense that he would eventually disband irregular militias. But the Sons of Iraq have no confidence that there will be adequate representation of Sunni interests in the new Iraqi state, and Maliki hasn’t exactly helped in this regard.

I don’t think it’s correct to say the Sons of Iraq turned against the insurgency.  They are the insurgency.  This has big implications.  Because what happened of course then was the US paid off these guys to stop fighting us and paid them to kill some jihadis, mostly foreign.  This necessary act undermined however the goal and strategy of the entire operation:  namely the creation of a centralized pan-ethnic government.  The fact that they were paid off by the US (against Maliki’s wishes) means that underneath they are still the insurgency against the Shia.  Against the government.  Just waiting for their moment.

Maliki knows this and that is why he is trying to preemptively neuter them.

While it’s true as Reihan states that Maliki distrusts the Sons of Iraq because any legitimate state in a Weberian sense wants a monopoly on force. But Reihan is missing a key point here.  The specific reason he distrusts this specific non-state militia is that leaders within the movement have professed that once they finish off al-Qaeda their next target is the Shia government.

In sum, the only (given the history, culture, ethno-religious makeup) way Iraq stays together with a strong central government is under a dictatorship–see Maliki’s recent heavy handedness not only with the Sunni but now with the Kurds.  The notion of a national reconciliation/strong central gov’t, constitutional democracy is not in the cards.  And still too many are thinking in terms of the US imposing its will–either through force or persuasion.  It ain’t happenin’.  It hasn’t happened in nigh on six years.  And it ain’t startin’ anytime soon.

Published in: on September 11, 2008 at 9:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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VDH at it Again

I really don’t know where to begin with this Victor Davis Hanson piece. It is contains so many errors, breezy unsubstantiated assertions, and relatively minor truths conflated into enormous macro-changing realities as to be almost impossible to criticize. But I’ll see what I can do.

The first thing to say is watch this discussion with Nir Rosen and Michael Ware the two Western journalists with the contact on the ground in Iraq (the third would be Counterpunch’s Patrick Cockburn). Rosen an Arabic speaking American has been the only Western journalist to really break through to the local Iraqi level. Ware has more contacts with the US military.

The picture they paint is one of reduced violence yes but largely due to 1) the American military undertaking a shift in realizing the basic fragmentation of the country and the recognition of the militias (The Awakening for the Sunnis, the freeze with the Mahdi Army, and the Badr Brigade and Peshmerga dominance of the ISF) and 2)the ethnic cleansing essentially completed in 2006/7.

What both make clear–contrary the entire premise of VDH’s piece–is that it is just a matter of time before these guys go at it again after the US leaves. The Awakening Sunnis see their enemy–and tell anyone who asks (e.g. Ware and Rosen)–as the Shia government which for them is an Iranian transplant. (more…)

Huh Quote of the Day

Courtesy Sabrina Tavernise in the NyTimes (my emphasis):

The shift, if it holds, would solidify a transfer of power from Mr. Sadr, who had lorded his once broad political support over the government, to Mr. Maliki, who is increasingly seen as a true national leader.

Huh? The rest of the article outlines how the recent putsch against the Mahdi Army has made Maliki more popular among the Shia and has clearly been a move to undercut the political power of the Sadrist movement. But no mention of either the Kurds (who are cheesed off over the election law) and the Sunnis who either still participating in an insurgency against the government or via the Awakening Councils arming themselves for a future second round against the Shia. How national is that?

Update I: It also occurs to me that in a sorta Hegelian fashion if Sadr has died, Sadr has lived through the new Maliki. iow, Sadr’s movement has been the one to push Maliki-Hakim to push the US for withdrawal. Whether or not Maliki secretly believes what John McCain says he does (which is he wants the US troops in there longer) now that he has publicly stated his opposition, his own timetable, in a foreign press, he (Maliki) can not go back on it domestically or his precarious new found pseudo-support will erode faster than you can say inshallah. Sadr has quasi-died and risen as Maliki 2.0. [Of course I still think Sadr is the cagiest of them all and I wouldn’t underestimate his ability to have 16 lives and come back from the dead as himself yet again].

As Good as Post on Iraq as You’ll Read

From Dr. I-Rack at Abu Muqawama. He details good news, lingering bad news, and potential deal breakers.

On the positive side violence against US forces is down to 2004 levels however:

1. The right metric for violence? Attack levels are now down to March 2004 levels, but overall Iraqi civilian casualty numbers over the past few months (perhaps a better gauge of stability) are still at late 2005/early 2006 levels. That is a big improvement over late 2006/early 2007, but Iraq remains a very dangerous place.

Maliki has won some short term tactical victories against Sadr (it would appear) and according to the good Dr. may have a moment’s opening with the Sunnis. But Maliki is not interested in dealing with the Sunnis, integrating the Awakening Sons of Iraq into the army or any such thing. Maliki sees his role as the protection of the Shia particularly the traditional Shia order. Down the road the question is how long can the ISCI (which wants federal Shia regionalization in the South) and Maliki (who wants to become a strongman dictator) link up last? Seems to me some potential tension points there.

As with other operations, some networks of the Mahdi Army clearly have been hit, but also some have not. Plenty have escaped, the balloon was squeezed and people went elsewhere. Sadr is moving towards revolution from below via the poor outreach social organization of the movement.

And more importantly the tactical wins to the degree they happened were dependent (as Dr. points out) due to US airstrikes and logistics.

To invoke Biden for a second, this still does not get at the heart of the lack of a political deal. Just seems like different militias (some the government, some not) moving pieces on a chessboard and some short term reduction in violence (though again far too high for civilians).

To wit:

3. Electing to fight. There is a real danger of violent intra-sectarian competition in the lead-up to, or immediate aftermath of, the provincial elections. For obvious reasons, considerable attention has been paid to intra-Shia fights in recent months between Dawa/ISCI and OMS/JAM, and this could generate more strife as the ascendant but still unpopular Dawa/ISCI compete with OMS/JAM’s residual “street” power. Less noted in the media is the risk for intra-Sunni clashes between tribal and Awakening forces and “Green Zone” Sunni groups (Tawafoq/IIP) in the lead up to elections or in their aftermath if either side feels like they were cheated out of their rightful share of power.

So to bring this back to US political discourse, when Andrew Sullivan (and a reader who sends in the comment he responds to) says that McCain was as right in 2007 as Obama was in 2002, this doesn’t quite work.

Because this is still conflating correctness relative to military tactics (McCain) with overall strategic correctness (Obama). I could even quibble with the McCain was right tactically given the real reductions had to do with the flipping of the Sunni tribes (which started before the surge and is not tied to the surge), the separation of the populations/ethnic cleansing of Baghdad (again prior the surge), etc, but I’ll just give him that for the purposes of the argument.

The reader’s comment states:

The fact remains: he [McCain] was right about the surge. Not necessarily about what to do next, or what our long-term goals in Iraq should be, but about the need to reduce violence and reach a minimum level of stability before we could expect any political progress.

Everything following the but seems on the surface to make logical sense. But I think what Iraq has shown overall is that the US has no influence over the politics and the assumption that the US working to create some local deals, reduce violence, security does not translate (at least hasn’t yet) into political progress. I actually think it won’t and is structurally set up not to. In a weird way (and disturbing because obviously I don’t want this) I actually think there won’t be political “progress” or rather end-game status/new equilibrium until there is more violence. Horrifically much more violence.

The only other option being that Maliki does in fact become a dictator in which case we’ve changed a Sunni dictator for perhaps a slightly less villainous Shia one. Though by most accounts Maliki would give Hussein a good run for his money on levels of paranoia. [Though in the Iraqi context, what I would label paranoia might from that vantage point be better termed intelligence].

I should put my cards out on the table and state that I think the country known as Iraq is gone and is not coming back. All Petraeus’ horses and all his men are not putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

In that sense, McCain and his support of the surge may not have been right nor wrong but merely sideways to the central issue: there’s no endgame. The reader admits nearly as much but I don’t think takes that insight to its conclusion. Namely if there is no sense of where to go next and any ability to influence such a plan, how then does reduction in violence lead to a place no one really has any idea about? Made worse insofar as McCain publicly upholds the idea of a unified pan-ethnic state that is an ally in the war on terror.

[And this is not to downplay the reduction in violence, though if the gains in violence reduction are more to with the US army, then obviously withdrawing troops a la Baker-Hamilton would have reduced probably more violence against US soldiers as there would be a lot less of them].

Iraq Update

About that success/turning the corner/victory within reach, a little snag (or two):

BAGHDAD, June 13 — The Bush administration’s Iraq policy suffered two major setbacks Friday when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly rejected key U.S. terms for an ongoing military presence and anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a new militia offensive against U.S. forces.

Power and credibility is gained in Iraq through opposing the US.  Maliki’s pro-US position was untenable once it was clear Bush was trying to ram through a long term base.  This will likely push Maliki even closer to Iran as Iran will be the one propping this government up.

The moves by two of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders underscore how the presence of U.S. troops has become a central issue for Iraqi politicians as they position themselves for provincial elections later this year. Iraqis across the political spectrum have grown intolerant of the U.S. presence, but the dominant Shiite parties — including Maliki’s Dawa party — are especially fearful of an electoral challenge from new, grass-roots groups.

Hey they are starting to look like a sovereign entity after all (Victory Achieved!!!).

And this fascinating tid bit:

Salah al-Obaidi, Sadr’s chief spokesman, said the order was essentially a full-scale reorganization of the Mahdi Army, transforming it from a militia into a permanent peaceful organization with a small armed wing of several hundred or so members. He said the cease-fire for the rest of the movement would remain in force.

As always sadr seems to be ahead of everybody else.

Published in: on June 14, 2008 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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