Iraq June 30th

Tomorrow is the deadline for the exit of US Forces from the cities in Iraq, as per the details of the Status of Forces Agreement between the (then) Bush and Maliki governments.

Peter Feaver, writing in the Shadow Cabinet at Foreign Policy (h/t Andrew Sullivan), opines:

Starting this week, the parade of critical junctures in Iraq will accelerate. If the Iraqis go ahead with plans to put the SoFA to a national referendum, the parade could become a stampede. When even skeptical war critics like Fareed Zakaria are penning articles about “Victory in Iraq” that read almost like a Bush valedictory speech on the topic, the opportunity for a decent outcome in Iraq seems tantalizingly close. I hope we are not jeopardizing that outcome with a premature withdrawal.

I hate to sound like a broken record on this one, but here goes.  There is no “tantalizing close”-ness to victory (“decent outcome”)  because what victory would be in this situation is not properly understood.  In contemporary warfare, there are (at least) two phases:  war and peace.  They are not perfectly separable in any specific moment but over the long term they clearly are recognizable.

The War phase is what the US wins.  It goes into Afghanistan in late 2001 and expels the Taliban/Al-Qaeda.  It goes into Iraq in 2003 and very quickly defeats the Iraq Army and overthrows the Baath regime.

The Peace (or Reconstruction/Stabilization) phase is much harder.  It is built primarily around the ability to create 1. economic opportunity and 2. legitimate political deals.

This second phase at minimum takes about 10 years.  Thomas Ricks, Feaver’s colleague, has said repeatedly that he thinks Iraq will be a 15-20 year commitment.  In Ricks’ analogy we are only entering Act IV of this V act tragedy.  Act I: The Invasion  Act II: The Rise of the Insurgency and the failure of the US to win the peace phase  3.  The Counterinsurgency (“Surge”)   4. What is about to happen now that the US pulls down and 5. Presumably some new state going forward

The (second) Iraq War started in 2003.  So 10 years (the minimum) is already 2013, four years away.  So no we are not tantalizingly close to four years from now.  And the decisions to pull out of the cities is part of a long term drawdown/exit from the country.  To think that victory (cough cough, decent outcome) is tantalizingly close or whatever linguistic expression one prefers (“victory is within reach”, is “around the corner”, etc) is to still think in terms of War.

Wars are won–in the old days anyway–with surrender treaties signed on battleships or in courthouses.  The Peace is not like that.  It’s a process.  It’s never finished.  Whatever else it is, The Peace, is not close (nor really faraway).  The Peace is either in a state of being realized or it is in a state of not being realized (and hence disintegrating with the social space being filled by criminal insurgent mafia-like elements).

What is the alternative really?  Keep 130,000 troops occupying a country for another 4 years or so?  Of course, to be the cynic for a moment, the reason the drawdown is happening is to lengthen the overall timeframe of participating in this conflict.  To use the lingo, to make it sustainable.  At the end of the day, if Americans aren’t dying in large numbers, then frankly the US citizenry doesn’t really care about the troops (and neither do the politicians) and there will be no great impetus to end logistics, consultation, air support, and the rest in Iraq.  Those efforts may poll badly, but there won’t be an organized large-scale political resistance to it either.

Andrew responds to Feaver this way:

After three years of total fiasco, there has been a competent counter-insurgency operation with 130,000 foreign troops. In that time, the critical political deals that were the criteria for the surge’s alleged success were not made. Now, Maliki is bragging about throwing the Americans out, and looks as if he’s slowly acquiring the trappings of a Shiite tough guy. The Sunni resistance – not integrated into the security forces – will no doubt respond. The neocons will blame Obama; and he will either have to hunker down and face betrayal of the core reason for his candidacy or get out and watch the place explode again.

The competent counter-insurgency campaign such as it was had much more to do with buying off Sunni insurgent (then called tribesmen) and not the extra troops (aka “The Surge”).  But Andrew is right that’s largely academic at this point as the important piece (see above) the political, was never made.  Unlike Andrew, I don’t think the place is likely to explode again.

Here’s why. And this gets to why I think analyses like Feaver’s are so weak.  Those types of analysis are so focused on the US side of it to the exclusion of the locas themselves; there is no agency from the Iraqis.  Everything is determined simply by what the US does (or doesn’t do as the argument may be).  This is the neocon arrogance of American Hyperpower:  America has Hyperpower in winning wars, not in winning the peace.*  In this telling Iraqis are just passive receipients–or at “best” only exist to blow things up and subvert the US process towards peace and prosperity.  Andrew is certainly right that neocons will blame Obama no matter what, but that only proves (in my mind) that the neocon focus has always been on the wrong actors.

In the absence of the US filling the void left in the wake of the destruction of the Baath dictatorship, civil war raged.  That civil war was a political war–though it included ethnic (Arab v. Kurd) and religious elements (Shia v. Sunni).  But nature abhors a vacuum.  That vacuum was filled by the ensuing conflagration, which was purely predictable given sufficient knowledge of how these things play out–the Iraqi local circumstances filled in the details of that otherwise recognizable general pattern.

And that Civil War was won by the Shia.  Definitively.  Sunni insurgents will, going forward, continue to be able to land terrible attacks (including most likely the most recent ones), but it won’t change the political calculus.  They’ve lost.  Politically. They’ve lost the peace.

In fact the Sunnis realized precisely this point back in 2006–that they had lost–and therefore sided with the US as an attempt to force some kinds of deals to throw them a bone or two.  Those bones were mostly not tossed over by Maliki & Crew and some undoubtedly will return to violence but overall I don’t think it will be as bad as it was during the truly apocalyptic years of 2004-2006.  Then the Sunnis were fighting for their political life and had some (albeit small) hope of winning.  There is no such hope now. Some will fight I imagine and some last attempt to force some meager political concession from Maliki via bloodshed, but Maliki’s MO is mostly to harden/crackdown on such attempts.

Politically, Iraq post-Saddam only ever had one of two options:  break up into various component pieces (maybe 3 or four regions or separate countries) OR return to a dictatorship, this time under a Shi’i strongman.

If the Counterinsurgency did anything it likely shifted the balance towards Shia strongman. And that scenario of course raises the specter of Arab versus Kurdish violence–a thing we have seen in some spates here and there but largely obscured by the larger Shia-Kurd alliance from 2003 on.  The Kurds however have tasted freedom and self-governance over the past years and they will not roll over.

I’ve always believed the Iraqis themselves have driven events in that country–starting after the fall of Saddam. The US invasion catalyzed, if you like the elements, but the experiment is now running on its own.  The US military/political establishment–for all of the chatter in the US-centric American mediasphere–has really been on the sidelines for a long time now.  This deadline just makes more explicit what was pretty much already the case to begin with for some time.

Is a Shia strongman authoritarian state a decent outcome?  That’s the question to be asking because that at this point is probably the path of least violence.  It’s not politically savory in the US but tribes inevitably evolve to hierarchical states.  Somehow figuring out a way to prevent Arab (mostly Shia Arab at this point) versus Kurd violence I think is what the US can be doing–given that it is a strong ally of both regimes.  [For the purposes of this I think it’s fair to assume the Kurdish regional government is a de facto separate state/government if not a de jure one].

I’m not sure you could call that a decent outcome–not especially if you are a Sunni Iraqi.  Or say a Christian Iraqi.

But whatever the judgment on that question, the reality is the reality and Obama (and the US military) are not in the driver’s seat.  Best to recognize our very limited influence/staying power in the country and use it for some one or two important things (like I said defusing any possible Shia versus Kurdish conflict).

* Arguably the only place the US (and allies) won a peace in recent memory would be in the interventions in the Balkans Conflicts of the 90s.  Shaky to be sure, but so far it’s held.  Lost peaces include Haiti, Somalia, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.

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0 thoughts on “Iraq June 30th

  1. Clear and informative as ever, Chris. Thanks. I think you cut to the heart of what bothers me about so much of the analysis surrounding Iraq:

    Those types of analysis are so focused on the US side of it to the exclusion of the locas themselves; there is no agency from the Iraqis. Everything is determined simply by what the US does (or doesn’t do as the argument may be).

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  2. The “facts on the ground” were that Sadaam was the leader of an oppressive minority, not unlike the whites in South Africa. Any step towards democracy was going to result in a Shia led government. To the extent that a government that could only rule by oppression, i.e. force, has been replaced by one that has general support, then what America has done is a step in the right direction.

    By “general support,” I do not mean to imply that everyone agrees with Maliki, et al., but rather that there is the glimmer of the concept of a loyal opposition, at least among the Shia who do not support him. The Sunni can choose to stand aloof, but that won’t get them anywhere. In the long run, they will have to reconcile themselves to being deal making players. Likewise, the Kurds are, essentially, allied with the Shia at the moment, even if only to continue an implied federal government. (Remember that a provincial government beholden to the local people, rather than the government in Baghdad, is still a strange concept in Iraq.)

    The real key is whether Maliki will pass power to someone else when he loses popular support, or whether he will try to retain power by force, a la Iran. Americans have a tendency to love the ‘man on a horse’ in other countries, if only because it is so easy to deal with one guy who can make a decision, rather than having to mess around with all kinds of legislators, etc. We have this puritanical history of not wanting to simply buy off the legislators, the way the foreigners buy American congressmen and women.

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    • Definitely as soon as democracy was going to be introduced, then the Shia (by dint of numbers) win out. I still don’t really think much will happen in the way of integration of Sunni whether or not they stand on the sidelines or not. Pretty zero-sum in my estimation.

      But that’s a good point you raise about whether Maliki will stay on past his best by date. Or whether down the road there is ever peaceful transfer of power. I could see the country not going as far down that road as say Egypt or now Iran appears to.

      What I do think is the Sunni are basically out of power and are going to be left to criminality, joblessness, anger, frustration, and lack of political voice for a long time to come.

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    • You’re right that Saddam was responsible for the state terror against Shi’a that kept him in power. Unfortunately, because of our actions we now are partly responsible for the retributory social violence against Sunnis that followed, as well as that which was used to combat the insurgency and ultimately ethnically cleanse large parts of Baghdad and other cities.

      At the end of twenty years in country, it will be a moral abnegation of the first order on our part if the dominant historical analysis of our involvement in Iraq is limited to a simple comparison of two states of affairs there: pre-invasion — Saddam in power, butchering, representing an ethnic minority, violently oppressing the majority; and post-involvement (best-case scenario) — permanent “non-combat” U.S. presence securing natural resources and supporting Iraqi security forces, absurdly corrupt but nominally representative Shi’a-dominated parliamentary government in power, Sunnis legally and electorally oppressed. If what we are doing as citizen observers when or if such a rosy scenario as the second of these unfolds is sitting back and congratulating ourselves for a job well done without taking into account the carnage that we unilaterally (ie without the consent of Iraqis) unleashed on the country in the making of the new reality there, we will be putting on a breathtaking display of historical amnesia and moral arrogance.

      Ours is not to decide when the political order in foreign countries have run their course and to go in and use our obscene level of hard-power advantage to bring about, at whatever cost to those directly affected, new political orders conceived in ignorance of the societies to which we are attempting to apply them. Historical change is lethal. It astounds me to see the level of appetite that still remains among many Americans to see the U.S. continue to attempt to play that role in the world.

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      • I didn’t support the invasion, so I’m with you on that.

        I don’t think the Shia-stan Iraq or whatever you call it will turn out as well as quickly as Kurdistan. I see Kurdistan heading in a kind of Singapore-esque direction. But as long as Iraq doesn’t go totally Egypt it will be a helluva lot better than the surrounding neighborhood (minus Turkey). I still opposed the thing and certainly opposed so stupidly allowing a giant vacuum to be created. I generally favored something more like a de-centralization or even a separation into different countries (a la VP Biden), if chosen by the people and not imperially done by the West of course. Still I expect Sunni-stan to have a very bad time going forward. Hope I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s where it’s headed.

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        • I’m definitely not responding directly to you on this (see below), but rather to the generic sense that we must have been right to invade since now the majority rules Iraq, as if the costs to along the way to Iraqis and the question of whether establishing that political order was our decision to make were irrelevant.

          And yeah, my rosy scenario is very rosy by design.

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  3. Chris,

    Another truly remarkable post on war and politics. I do greatly appreciate your pushback against the notion that we are close to any kind of conclusion in Iraq. If we listened to the likes of Peter Feaver, we’ve been at that point since, oh, May 2003.

    In that context, my quibble is very minor, but nevertheless here goes. In regards to your (I guess really Ricks’) five Acts, I think the division points you give make sense, but i wish there were some way to give a better sense of the true reality encompassed within each. Ideally it would be quantitative as well as qualitative, including for example the start and end dates and the number of American and Iraqi casualties incurred in each (completed) Act, as well as a conceptual description of what as going on in the country during each. If it did, I think we would see that the description given for Act II rather grossly understates the magnitude of what went on during those years (which given the scope of this post is perfectly understandable; that’s why I wanted to amend this comment). As just one example of what we don’t see reflected in the phrase ” The Rise of the Insurgency and the failure of the US to win the peace phase” as the Act II subtitle is the civil war that occurred. (You do mention it elsewhere in the post.)

    Perhaps in lieu of attempting more technically accurate descriptors for Act titles, we could simply opt ofr more evocative language, for example: Act I: Blind into Baghdad (following Fallows); Act II: Iraq’s Long, Dark Night in Hell; Act III: U.S. Doubles Down Irrelevantly As Iraq’s New Strongman Emerges; Act IV Maliki Consolidates Shi’a Dominance, U.S. “Leaves”; Act V: Shi’a Dominance Further Facilitates Rise of newly Authoritarian Iran, “Non-Combat” U.S. Soldiers Remain Indefinitely To Ensure Natural Resource Security.

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    • Michael,

      I like your version of the Five Acts. At some points, I’ve wondered, but never really followed up on it, whether extending the metaphor we could have Scenes.

      Like Act II, as you point out, is of a magnitude far greater than what came before or after.

      Act II Scene i: Bremer’s Viceroyalty. (disbanding of army, de-baathification, de-unionization)
      Act II Scene ii: Rise of Insurgency (failure to take note by Americans)
      Act II Scene iii: Bombing of Samarra Mosque turns Moqtada al Sadr & Shia death squads against the Sunni as the Civil War takes on a new bloodier phase
      Act II Scene iv: Ethnic Cleansing of Baghdad by Shia & increased casualties on American side.
      Act III Scene v: The Elections

      Something like that maybe?

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      • You are on to something. Act II is certainly epic in and of itself. Some analysts might see Act II as emblematic and typical of the entire effort writ large, but others might see it as representative of the central tactical and moral struggle (ie victory) that lay at the heart of the effort all along. There will be a battle of worldviews-cum-souls about which is the proper way to view the events of 2005-08, on which much future U.S.-foreign-policy direction will rest.

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