Thoughts on the Renewed Violence in Iraq

Steve Hynd over at Newshoggers has a very sharp post comparing aspects of the Afghanistan and Iraqi missions. Worth the read.

I’m not quite sure about this:

But whatever the root causes, the Iraqi false peace is falling apart. I expect it to accelerate as we head towards the Iraqi referendum on the SOFA, and for the Very Serious people in the D.C. village to ally with the Petraeus/Odierno military axis to use that violence as an excuse to demand that the U.S. walk back it’s agreements with the Iraqi government.

I definitely imagine the Very Serious People using violence in Iraq as an excuse to call for “re-negotiating” our deal with the Iraqi people.

On the other hand, the referendum may never take place. It’s been postponed and it looks like Maliki is  just in stalling mode.

Also, I’m skeptical of the false peace of Iraq falling apart.  Steve is a smart guy and he knows that the violence in Iraq is a means to try to achieve political goals.  That principle applies whoever is doing the violence–whether it’s Saudis helping to fund the Sunni insurgency, the Iraqi gov’t bought and paid for by the Iranian regime, etc.

Since the US Army is clearly in winding down mode, there will be some vacuum left the wake of its departure.  Though it’s worth pointing out that the US has always vastly overestimated its gravitational weight in Iraq. Seems to me from the beginning at most the US has had negative power in Iraq–they may stop for awhile somethings from occurring but have never really positively moved things forward.

Which is exactly why at this point violence is going to come back into the fray because the political fight is back on.  It’s hard to imagine though that the violence will return to the apocalyptic horror levels of 2006 for political reasons.  Namely the Shia already won the civil war.

The Iraqi Sunnis are forever on the outside.  The most they can do and I think certain elements of that population will do, is unleash some low grade destruction/terrorism going forward.

But I don’t think it’s going to unravel the Shia government and bring the country back to full-scale civil war.

The only scenario whereby I could see that happening is the following.  The much larger danger going forward for Iraq is not continued Sunni militant bombings–however horrible those most certainly will be/are–but a fight over the Blue Line between the Iraqi Shia government and the Kurdish regional government in the North.

That is a very worrisome possibility.

A Shia-Kurd war would not be the unraveling of the fragile peace.  The fragile peace was always a factor of the US backing the Sunni Awakening in order to give space to Maliki to liquidate his Shia rivals and allow various Sunni groups to fight each other over US scraps from the table and take their attention off the Shia gov’t.  For a time.  Of course they were just gearing back up for a fight with the Shia in that US-sponsored meantime.  In the meantime however allowed Maliki to consolidate quite a bit of power, significantly reducing the realistic political aims of taking up arms against his regime, except for the most hardline Sunni militants.  That of course and criminal elements who use violence to make money and fund their operations–they aren’t going anyway of course but everybody’s got that problem.

A Shia-Kurd war is the dangerous and perhaps inevitable trajectory of the country consolidating under a strongman–a Shia Saddam. Saddam terrorized the Kurds as we all know.  Politically–either Iraq breaks completely apart into (at least 3) various sect-based regions/countries or it returns to its strongman authoritarian past.

My sense is that it’s the latter of those two possibilities but with some serious qualifications this time.  One, there will always be a well trained/armed Sunni minority resistance that will cause violence.  Two, the Kurds are too strong and have tasted too much freedom to back down against the Shia strongman.

Those qualifications led me to think the country will always stay in a weakened though not totally crumbling state of affairs.

The only nightmare scenario left for Iraq I can imagine (minus Maliki being assassinated) is if  the Shia-Kurd war does occur and the Sunni use the Shia distraction of fighting the Kurds to launch a really all out insurgency terror campaign. While there’s meddling from various regional actors  in the country to date (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey) and it’s in their interest to keep Iraq in a weakened stalemate, a real breakdown of Iraq is not in the interests at all. But just because it’s not in their interests doesn’t mean they may not commit stupid actions to accelerate the breakdown of the state.

The tactics of such a campaign would need to unite all the various anti-Maliki groupings (i.e. a return of the Mahdi Army-Sunni insurgency alliance as happened very briefly in 2004?) instead of focusing on blood and guts terrorism aimed to out of date ethnic ideology.  In that case, I think over the long term, with US assistance, Maliki’s war machine will crush the Sunni.

If the Shia and Kurds go to war, I think both lose.

Who knows.  Iraq could go any number of ways. But since I think the primary fear is of a Kurd-Shia gov’t war, then whatever pull the US has left (with the Kurds it’s a lot) is to be  put into ending that tension.

The Shia-Sunni conflict is far more intractable I believe and will last a long time with the Sunni territories reduced increasingly to failed state status–a kind of ghetto existence of glorified young violent death, high unemployment, and constant armed occupation/presence.

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Renewed Violence in Iraq

  1. I just hope Obama has the steel to adhere rigidly to the previously agreed time table. Yes Bush made this mess the way it is now by knocking down Saddam but it was like this all along. Saddam was just keeping it tamped down with strongman brutality. Sucky as it is I suspect that they may have to fight it our among themselves.

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  2. “Also, I’m skeptical of the false peace of Iraq falling apart. Steve is a smart guy and he knows that the violence in Iraq is a means to try to achieve political goals.”

    Van Crevald wrote:

    “Ironic thought the fact may be, it is when the stakes are highest and a community strains every sinew in a life-and-death struggle that the ordinary strategic terminology fails. Under such circumstances, to say that war is an “instrument” serving the “policy” of the community that “wages” it is to stretch all three terms to the point of meaninglessness. Where the distinction between ends and means breaks down, even the idea of war fought “for” something is only barely applicable. The difficulty consists precisely in that a war of this type does not constitute a continuation of policy by other means. Instead, it would be more correct to say….that it merges with policy, becomes policy, is policy. Such a war cannot be “used” for this purpose or that, not does it “serve” anything. On the contrary, the outburst of violence is best understood as the supreme manifestation of existence as well as a celebration of it.”

    Kalevi Holsti wrote:

    “American planners during the Vietnam War, as well as their British, French, Israeli, and Soviet counterparts in Cyprus, Algeria, Indochina, the occupied territories, Afghanistan, and dozens of other locales, could never win the “wars” precisely becaue they operated under a Clausewitzian calculus. Americans asked what possible purpose could the killing of 45,000 fellow citizens serve in terms of United States interest? This is not a question the Afghans, Algerians, Karens, or Tamils have asked. No government which is merely pursuing traditional-style interests could possibly mobilze a whole society in conduct of the peoples’ war for thirty or more years.”

    We don’t yet understand the third way of war.

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    • Mike,

      Those are some deep quotations (particularly van Crev., he’s one of the best). But the cases outlined above are Western powers trying to stamp down a local insurgency. The Iraq case 2004-2007 certainly fits that profile.

      What’s not clear is an intra-country insurgency. I don’t think the Shia side will ever be able to eradicate the Sunni insurgency–short of essentially eradicating the entire population. The only counterinsurgency “winners” are the Russians in Chechnya and the Sinhalese against the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Both were mass killing of the population. I have a hard time seeing that in Iraq. Both of the previous two cases were in out of the way places, isolated, that no one had any interest in.

      Iraq is in the heart of the Middle East and there is lots of oil laying in the ground, plus strongly weaponized neighbors in all directions who are aligned with various factions within Iraq. So I can’t see the Russian-Sinhalese model taking place there.

      What I can see, is the kind of scenario I laid out in the post. Something like Mexico, Colombia, or ghetto US with the war on drugs. An ugly outcome to be sure but not the same as the breakdown of the state.

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  3. Chris, I worry about recent reports about the factionalisation of the ISF, where individual divisions, brigades and officers are beholden to political parties – militiamen who donned the Iraqi uniform as camouflage.

    I don’t think the Shias have finally sorted out their pecking order yet and I don’t think the Sistani truce between the greedy warlords of DAWA, SIIC and others is going to hold. I think their greed will top their obedience to the ayatollah. I don’t see the breakdown as being purely ethnic, but rather multi-factional along deep fractured within ethnic and religious communities. Sadrist v SIIC is an obvious one, as is Awakening v Sunni Accordists. Less obvious, but just as likely given recent discord is Dawa v SIIC. That’s alongside Kurd v Arab, Shia v Sunni and Insurgent v US Military.

    My friend Eric Martin recently had a great post on the intricacies of the SOFA waltz, with Maliki now pushing the referendum he’d previously not cared about.

    Regards, Steve

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    • Steve,

      Thanks for the response. I did at one point theorize about a Lebanonization scenario for Iraq and what you describe maybe could lay potential groundwork for that series of events.

      Eric’s idea that Maliki might be using the referendum as a tool against Odierno is a very intriguing one. We’ll see.

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  4. The internal conflicts will have to be worked out after we leave. The question is will we maintain a restricted presence, to be drawn back in time and again. The point is that our efforts are futile when we think and act in terms of political objectives — theirs or ours. The conflict for them is not to achieve a specific political goal, conflict is their way of life. So far there is no evidence of an industry based society who will join the global economy. There will be continuing struggles based on values we can’t understand. If an alternative to oil was discovered tomorrow, they would collapse into chaos in no time short. I’m not sure the elite elements who want to join modernity and the global economy are strong enough to resist the majority who seem satisfied with their way of life, which is foreign to ours.

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