Thursday, May 17, 2007

Oh, THAT Civil War

By Cernig

Two different European think tanks today told the world that the current counterinsurgency effort in Iraq - based upon a surge of troops to establish security and a political surge of pressure on the Maliki government to push forward political reforms - is doomed to failure.

First, the highly respected Chatham House, one of the world's pre-eminent foreign affairs groups, said today that Iraq's government has lost control of vast areas to powerful local factions and the country is on the verge of collapse and fragmentation.
Chatham House also said there was not one civil war in Iraq, but "several civil wars" between rival communities, and accused Iraq's main neighbours -- Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- of having reasons "for seeing the instability there continue".

"It can be argued that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation," it said in a report.

"The Iraqi government is not able to exert authority evenly or effectively over the country. Across huge swathes of territory, it is largely irrelevant in terms of ordering social, economic and political life."

The report also said that a U.S.-backed security crackdown in Baghdad launched in February has failed to reduce overall violence across the country, as insurgent groups have just shifted their activities outside the capital.

While cautioning that Iraq might not ultimately exist as a united entity, the 12-page report said a draft law to distribute Iraq's oil wealth equitably among Sunni Arabs, Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds was "the key to ensuring Iraq's survival".

...Rather that one civil war pitting majority Shi'ites against Sunnis nationwide, the paper said Iraq's "cross-cutting conflicts" were driven by power struggles between sectarian, ethnic and tribal groups with differing regional, political and ideological goals as they compete for the country's resources.

The author of the report, Middle East expert Gareth Stansfield, said instability in Iraq was "not necessarily contrary to the interests" of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Progressive Insight has the links to the actual Chatham House press release and pdf.

Then Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the American Acedemy In berlin established by Henry Kissinger and Robert Holbrooke, told Germany's Der Spiegel newspaper that the Bush administration's strategy, having always been based on the idea that the U.S. is fighting a classic insurgency, has always been wrong.
A classical ideological insurgency is a war of ideas in which a sub-national group is challenging the ideas by which the government runs the country. In this kind of war of ideas, you can in principle win by changing people's ideas. Given that, the classical strategy for waging counter insurgency is oriented around winning hearts and minds. You engage in a process of political reform in which you introduce democracy to make the government's ideas legitimate. You engage in a campaign of economic development assistance. And you try and train an indigenous military to wage the war. All those strategies are what the Bush Administration's approach to Iraq has been. They make some sense, if the problem you are trying to solve is a classical ideological insurgency. Except, Iraq is not.

...It's a communal civil war in which the war is not fought over a set of ideas. Rather, it is about the survival and self interest of communal groups within the nominal state. Sunnis are not fighting for an idea of what's best for all Iraqis; they are not trying to persuade Shiites that a Sunni government would be good for them. They are fighting for the self interest of Sunnis against the self interest of Shiites -- and vice versa. Because it is not a war of ideas you cannot expect to win it by changing people's minds. It's a war of identity. Identities can't change in the way minds can.

...It's a complex conflict. As far as al-Qaida in Iraq is concerned I think they are a symptom rather than a cause. If Iraqi Sunnis at large decided tomorrow that al-Qaida is contrary to their interests, they would cease to offer to al-Qaida the safe houses, the infrastructure and the financial support that al-Qaida needs.

...The American occupation is widely resented. On the other hand, for many years, the only people who were shooting occupiers were Sunnis, and the only places they were doing it were in mixed and Sunni sections of Iraq. In the Kurdish north and the Shiite south no-one was shooting occupiers. The Sunnis were shooting occupiers not because they are occupiers but because the Americans were enabling what they fear to be Shiite oppression.
Biddle, who has been in Iraq at the invite of Gen. Petreaus, goes on to explain that a civil war is only ended when a compromise is agreed.
The standard playbook for terminating a communal civil war has two pieces to it. The first is to negotiate a power-sharing deal between the sides that leads to a cease-fire. The second is to bring in outsiders to police this agreement. You cannot rely on indigenous military forces because the locals don't trust each other. We've got problems with both pieces.
He says that, at present, the leverage for a compromise simply doesn't exist and that even if it did the only current candidate for policing the agreement is the U.S. military. This is why the "surge" cannot ever work as advertised.
If you argue, as the administration is now doing, that it is terribly important we succeed in Iraq, but that we will bring home everyone as soon as that is accomplished, you're guaranteeing that everything you accomplish will fail within month of departure...By relying on the National Iraqi Army, all you do is provide one of the two sides with a massive casus belli. The Sunnis will take up arms the minute you depart. We think the Iraqi Army is a neutral institution that defends all Iraqis equally. Sunnis think it is a Shiite militia on steroids.
I honestly think Biddle has a point here - but I think he under-estimates the hurt that the U.S. military has done to its own image as a neutral party. It invaded to destroy a Sunni regime and ever since, in many Sunni eyes, has backed the Shiites and looked the other way while they worked to destroy the Sunni minority. I think many Sunnis see the U.S. military as an existential threat and an extension of Shiite oppression just as much as they see the Iraqi Army being such - and it's probably too late to change that perception. I also think he's under-estimating nationalist fervor among Shiite groups like the Sadrists - there's definitely an insurgency element to the fighting in Iraq, even if it's secondary to the faction-fighting.

All of which suggests to me that more leverage in the way of real aid and reconstruction and a concerted effort to find so-far uninvolved third parties willing to police Iraq after the U.S. leaves would be a really good idea. I wonder, though, if that's even possible by now.

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