The Course(s) of Iraq

Sully writes the following in the wake of the recent horrific bombing in Iraq:

But the surge failed in its core task: to create an environment in which the three major sects in Iraq could form a national government, a national army, and a stable balance between the three major centrifugal forces in the country and in Baghdad. Maliki’s bid for a post-sectarian polity rests fundamentally on his claim to have restored some semblance of security. But how easy it will be for that semblance to be wiped out by violence of the kind demonstrated today.

And how tempting it will be, after the Americans leave, for the largely Shiite Baghdad government to resort to force against largely Sunni insurgents. From there … a short road back to 2006. Maybe the population is exhausted by civil war and will restrain these forces; maybe these blasts are the exceptions that prove the rule of growing normalcy. Or maybe they are warnings that violent forces of sectarianism remain at large, that they are close to impossible to stop, and that the lull is just that: a lull until the invading army leaves and the civil war can resume unimpeded.

There’s a lot to digest here; let me take it point by point.

That first sentence is undoubtedly right.  Though I think it is fair to say that the blame lies not at the feet of the surge but at our strategic design.  What chance was there of the three major sects forming a national government?  It was at the very least a political vision-strategy that had no historical precedent in the context of Iraqi history.  In short, I think the surge had no chance of ever succeeding at that strategic level.

On to the second sentence:  I’m not really sure how much of a post-sectarian polity Maliki has ever really represented.  He plays a nationalist card when the situation calls for it–e.g. Maliki can claim he is the man who signed the deal that will get the US out.  He plays the Shia card when he needs to, and most importantly when he apportions roles of influence.  He is, after all, a member of the Dawa Party.  And he can play the Arab card (for Sunni-Shia unity) against the Kurds when the moment calls for it, though his government is seen as a Shia-run operation.

Still, Andrew is right to say that Maliki has portrayed himself as a guarantor of security and attacks like these certainly hurt that image.  Given the nature of the attacks, it is also very likely that they were perpetrated by members of what has usually been called the Sunni insurgency.

But I have some questions about this line, specifically the last part:

And how tempting it will be, after the Americans leave, for the largely Shiite Baghdad government to resort to force against largely Sunni insurgents. From there … a short road back to 2006.

The road to 2006 means of course a renewed, all-out civil war.  While this is not totally impossible (nothing ever is, particularly in such a fragile place), I think it’s highly unlikely.  The civil war phase from the initial post-invasion to 2006 represented a concerted effort by the insurgency to prevent the Shia from taking over the Iraqi state in the wake of de-Baathification, the disbanding of the army/police, etc.  In other words, the civil war was fought over the de-Sunnization and the Shia-ization of the Iraqi state.

That battle is already over.  The Shia won.  They won it by late 2006, early 2007.  Groups like the Mahdi Army and The Badr Corps ethnically cleansed Baghdad.  The Army and Police are dominated by the Shia (with the Kurds preserving their own paramilitary force). If anything, all the surge did was cement a Shia victory:  e.g. accelerated army and police training largely benefited the Shia.

The fact that the Shia won the Civil War is also why there wasn’t an opportunity — surge or no surge — for political reconciliation.

The space the surge created was not taken up for political reconciliation but rather to fight the political battles that needed fighting (instead of US pipe dreams of reconciliation).  Maliki, you may recall, used the period since the surge to attack the Mahdi Army and also the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council at points.

So given what has happened since 2006 with the splintering of the Shia coalition–if there were to be a renewed civil war (and I don’t think that’s the real danger) it would probably not be a Sunni v. Shia one as we say in 2006.  It would very likely go the way of a Lebanese Civil War with various cross-ethnic factions aligning with each other in temporary truces.  i.e. A descent into total anarchy.

But I don’t find that Lebanonization of Iraq very likely.  In fact, I think it is a pretty remote possibility at this point.  The political game that drives insurgency is really over for the Sunni.  There are enough remnants left to launch brutal attacks, and I think such a situation of lower level violence, quasi-controllable, shaky, but nonetheless awful, will likely continue in Iraq for an indefinite period. 

The existence or non-existence of US troops isn’t going to matter in that situation.  The US troops are already out of the cities, so in effect (where it matters), they are in a sense already not there.  Attacks like these are essentially a sign (I think) of the ghettoization of the Sunni in Iraq. There’s a kind of nihilism to it, in that the violence really can’t achieve any political goals.  It just destroys.

I think the two higher probability potential conflicts than Civil War 2.0 in Iraq are:

1. An Arab-Kurdish war.  This could technically be described as a civil war as Kurdistan is officially a region of Iraq.  But more practically if would be two de facto independent states at war with one another.  This is a very dangerous situation for the US as the Turks would also likely involve themselves (a NATO member).  The US would see three of its allies at war with each other simultaneously.

2. (Not as strong as #1 imo) from Juan Cole:

The second is that Nuri al-Maliki will attempt to deflect any blame for the blasts onto Syria, which he views as harboring Baathist elements who plan these attacks out. Shaky revolutionary regimes like that of Baghdad often go to war to shore themselves up, and Iraq-Syria border clashes are not impossible.

Cole also mentions that the attacks will likely be used by right-wing US hawks as an argument to slow down the rate of US troop withdrawal.  Andrew’s point that these attacks undermine the hawkish line that the surge won is true, but assumes hawks operate via fair play and logic.  Likely they will just square the circle by saying “the surge won and Obama is going to lose the victory by withdrawing.”  Of course George Bush signed the SOFA agreement not Barack Obama, but that won’t matter.  We don’t want our facts getting in the way of our talking points now do we?  It is weird to think however that Sunni insurgent attacks have the possibility of shoring up the US occupation of the country.

That aside, I see potential number one of an Iraqi-Kurd war as very real and very dangerous.  That potential lies there related to but effectively separate from what I think will be a degree of insurgent (i.e. Sunni) violence against the (Shia) government for some time to come.  Though I don’t think that violence will reignite a full scale 2006-esque Iraqi Civil War (contra Andrew).

As Juan Cole has it today reviewing Arabic press reports on various responses from Iraqi politicians to the attacks:

I was struck by how they for the most part responded technocratically, by pledging a review and an improvement of security procedures.

That to me sounds like a state apparatus that is reasonably assured of its position.  They don’t see (as they would have in 2006) the insurgents as any existential threat to the state as a whole.

Whereas a (Shia) Iraqi state versus Kurdish war in the north has the potential for serious destabilization.  If a Kurdish-Arab (Shia) Iraqi war were to occur, Sunni insurgents could potentially use such a situation to launch more attacks.  In that situation, hypothetically thinking this through, I could see how such a situation might give them some possible room for political gain.  Maybe.  But if the current (albeit tenuous and strained) Shia-Kurd arrangement holds, then the Sunnis I think are forever on the outside looking in, attacks or no attacks, which means there won’t be an all out Civil War.  Rather a low-grade level of sectarian-fueled conflict.

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2 thoughts on “The Course(s) of Iraq

  1. If ever there was a case to be made against nationbuilding, Iraq is it.
    How have we gotten to the point where America’s security and defense depends of people we cannot possibly control?
    The theory goes that we cannot besecure unless Iraq (and Afghanistan and Pakistan ) are crumbling into anarchy, so therefore we must create a 1. stable 2. friendly 3. democratic government there.
    Not only is it mad hubris to think we can do this, but look at the dominos; how many places on Earth can “harbor terrorists”?
    Are we then going to be engaged for all eternity in creating and maintaining democracies worldwide?
    I wish that sounded like hyperbole, but it sounds pretty much what the neocons are advocating.

    Social engineering in Boston via busing created outrage among conservatives as being impossible governmental hubris; but social engineering and mediating between Shia and Sunni in Baghdad is America’s most urgent goal?

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