Of Elections and Insurgencies

Stephen Lee Myers in the New York Times:

Defying a sustained barrage of mortars and rockets in Baghdad and other cities, Iraqis went to the polls in strength on Sunday to choose a new Parliament meant to outlast the American military presence here.

Insurgents here vowed to disrupt the election, and the concerted wave of attacks — as many as 100 thunderous blasts in the capital alone starting just before the polls opened — did frighten voters away, but only initially.

The shrugging response of voters could signal a fundamental weakening of the insurgency’s potency. At least 38 people were killed in Baghdad. But by day’s end, turnout was higher than expected, and certainly higher than in the last parliamentary election in 2005, marred by a similar level of violence.

Overall, the election has looked like a real achievement–we’ll have to see how it plays out but it looks as if the results will be publicly accepted (given some likely back room dealing), the elections were generally free and fair, and the races fairly competitive.

All of which is to the good.  I wish the Iraqi people (after so many decades of horror), some bright spots going forward.

That said, this frame concerning the “fundamental weakening of the insurgency” either needs some serious contextualization or is flat out misleading.

Minus a real hardcore element (the so-called irreconcilables in COIN language), an insurgency uses violence to achieve political ends.  The Iraqi insurgency from the get go was dominated by Sunni Iraqis–particularly after the insurgency became the Iraqi Civil War (reaching a climactic moment at the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque).  This point was entirely missed in the US press during the time (and still today), which referred to said events primarily through the lens of an “insurgency”– but the Sunni were only fighting the US so long as the US was aligned with the Shia.

Once the Shia won the Civil War (2004-2007), the Sunni-dominated insurgency as such lost its rationale.  The Sunni insurgency was at that point bought off by the American government, i.e. during the so-called Anbar Awakening.  But the only real “awakening” was the dawning realization on the part of Sunni tribal sheiks that they would have to accept Shia dominance going forward and they might as well get the US to give them something in return for that recognition.

At this point, the insurgency dies down* because it has no political endpoint, no political or social legs.  By participating en mass in the parliamentary election, Sunnis are signaling they see their political future tied to the current Iraqi government.  This happened long before any election, which if anything has only rubber-stamped (or rather finger-inked) an existing state of affairs.

In that sense, this election only “signals” a weakening of the insurgency in the US media, with its over-reliance on elections (which again, as I said above, should still be applauded).

I believe the only remaining possibilities of large scale violence in Iraq are:

1. A war between the Arab Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government, potentially pulling in Turkey.

2. The Sunnis (predominantly) reject the outcome of this election, feel cheated, betrayed, etc and give up on the parliamentary political process.

I think the chance of #2 happening is fairly low, while #1 still strikes as very possible (and chilling, though the tensions seemed to have simmered down of late on that front).

This is not to say that small/medium scale violence will not (sadly) remain the order of the day.  The “insurgents” will likely become the next generation of criminals in Iraq.  The line between funding an insurgency through kidnappings and black market dealings in oil and guns and mafia-like enterprises like gun-running, money laundering, political bribery, kidnapping and the like is quite thin.

* There are still remnants of the jihadist crew in Iraq, usually called Al Qaeda in Iraq.  There are also some smallish radical Shia jihadis getting support from the Iranian regime. In COIN speak, both groups constitute the “irreconcilables”.  But neither poses any existential threat to the governing order in Iraq.  They can, however (as politically utopian nihilists), cause plenty of death and destruction.   The key point is neither set of groups has any viable political praxis and therefore can only attempt to impede the current political trajectory of the Iraqi state.

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11 thoughts on “Of Elections and Insurgencies

      • This is one of the argument forms that irritates me.

        “Statement that contains truth (or a blunt assessment of situation based on more than merely partisan inclination).”
        “Response criticizing manners.”

        Once upon a time, Republicans/The Right was good at saying “look, I appreciate that you have feelings but we’re talking about political realities.”

        What’s next, Deco?

        Will you start keening and asking us why we don’t care about The Children in Iraq? FOR GOD’S SAKE WHY WON’T ANYONE THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN???

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    • I’ll cop a guilty plea to that charge Art.
      I’m guessing you feel that thousands of American service members lives and a trillion dollars was worth it so that Iraq could have a democratic government? If so we have a lot more countries to go. I’m sure we could throw together a list. Wait weren’t we supposed to get a side of Weapons of Mass Destruction with our Kill Saddam/Democratize Iraq happy meal?
      That said I’m glad the Iraqi’s are pulling it off. Good for them, power to em and all that. My indictments would be against certain former administrations in this country, not against the courageous peeps of Iraq.

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      • I have no strong opinion on what would be ‘worth it’ or not in the abstract. I am not an adept of philosophy. I do think decisions are made prospectively and that assessing the future course of the political life of any given society is likely to be an error laden process (something the opinionated Mr. Dierkes might consider).

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  1. I’d feel a lot better about it if there was the prospect of a truly majority government which could make some claims to being representative of the majority of the people, and which truly recognized minority rights, if but tacitly. I have never had much faith-actually I’ve never had any faith-in cobbled together governments made up of disparate entities with conflicting general aims. It’s a recipe for even greater corruption and in all too many cases, eventual coming apart at the seams. It would be good to see some kind of run-off system between the two major parties, but on the other hand that might just make matters worse.

    People criticize the US two-party system not without some merit, as well as the electoral college process, for in my opinion nowhere near as valid reasoning, but by and large, its the major reason we’ve only had one civil war, in my opinion.

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    • Donald Horowitz has written on the alternate vote (ordinal balloting in single-member constituencies) as an optimal system for divided societies; others have criticized his thesis, maintaining that the dispositions of electorates can frustrate the salutary features of ‘vote pooling’. IIRC, the use of proportional representation with national lists for Iraq was favored for logistical reasons.

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  2. We didn’t invade so that Iraq could have elections until we left at which point they’d finally have that civil war that Saddam was keeping a lid on.

    We still hold a wolf by the ears.

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    • I’m glad things are going reasonably well in Iraq (as I would be about any other place in the world), but I’m not getting excited until the conclusion is “So we can go home now.”

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  3. “2. The Sunnis (predominantly) reject the outcome of this election, feel cheated, betrayed, etc and give up on the parliamentary political process.”

    I couldn’t find the link in a limited amount of time, but there was a newspaper article (NYT?) very recently which mentioned government arrests of many Sunnis involved in the Awakening. I’d place your #2 as a dead certainty, with the only unknowns being the actual body count and effects.

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