Friday, September 10, 2004

The Chatham House Report

Last week, the Chatham House (part of the Royal Institute of International Affairs), a well respected non-partisan foreign policy think tank, released a report on the state of affairs in Iraq entitled, Iraq In Transition: Vortex or Catalyst?. The Chatham House report analyzes three potential outcomes in Iraq that it adduced as possible futures based on the current trajectory of events in Iraq, and in particular the occupation. The three scenarios are Fragmentation, Holding Together, and Regional Remake, and two out of the three are disastrous. Here is a summation as provided by the report:

The Fragmentation Scenario represents what will happen if competing elements and interests in Iraq fail to cohere under the new interim government and the combined efforts of the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG), the US forces and UN personnel prove powerless to reverse the trend. Indeed, the continued US presence could contribute to fragmentation in the near term, if it is seen to be the power behind the new interim government, variously ignoring it or pulling the strings.

Essentially this is the default scenario, in the sense that it best describes the tendencies at work which have to be overcome in order to avoid fragmentation. Under this scenario Kurdish separatism and Shi'a assertiveness work against a smooth transition to elections, while the Sunni Arab minority remains on the defensive and engaged in resistance. Antipathy to the US presence grows, not so much in a unified Iraqi nationalist backlash, but rather in a fragmented manner that could presage civil war if the US cuts and runs. Even if US forces try to hold out and prop up the central authority it may still lose control. At the end of his fact-finding trip to Iraq in February 2004, UN Representative Lakhdar Brahimi warned that the ingredients for civil war were apparent. His warnings should be heeded.

The 'Holding Together' Scenario represents what will happen if the interim government proves inclusive and effective enough to keep the Shi'a majority, the Sunni Arab minority, secular nationalists, tribal elders and the Kurdish leaders more or less on board. A critical mass of people prepared to work with the interim government for the sake of avoiding fragmentation is secured. No one will be very happy, but no one will monopolize power either.

Essentially this scenario represents the best the United States can hope for, and will require a trade-off between the level of control that the US is able to exercise in Iraq, the powers of the IIG and the involvement of the wider international community. The UN will manage preparations for elections and US influence behind the scenes will be kept to a minimum. US forces will remain in strength but will avoid heavy-handed operations inside the main cities. The Iraqi militias and newly trained and formed units will be grouped in a national security structure, managed from the centre but deployed to reflect local sensitivities around the country (following the Fallujah and Najaf models).

The Regional Remake Scenario could take over from either of the other two if the regional dynamics unleashed by intervention in Iraq overtake not just Iraq but the regional state system. Newly assertive Shi'a consciousness in Iraq triggers repercussions among Shi'a communities around the region and thence a Sunni backlash. The Shi'a who predominate in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (where the bulk of Saudi oil reserves are located) look to the pre-eminent Marja' (religious leader), Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in Iraq for spiritual leadership and demand more rights within the Kingdom. Iranian Shi'a increasingly infiltrate the social welfare system and factional politics around the mosques in Iraqi Shi'a communities. Tehran maintains channels to all significant Shi'a and Kurdish leaders in Iraq. Radical Salafi Sunni Islamists fighting the Al Saud operate out of Iraq and assist tribal elements in the Iraqi resistance. Syria exports its unwanted nationalist and Islamist activists across the border into Iraq. A wild card within this frame would be the unravelling of Saudi Arabia, but at the very least it will remain a dangerous environment for foreigners over the coming months.

Ethnic tensions spill over between Arabs and Kurds in Kirkuk. The Kurdish leadership falls out with other members of the IIG and separates. Kurds from neighbouring countries either flee to Iraqi Kurdistan or try to emulate their assertiveness. Turkey intervenes. This scenario is the most transformative and beyond US or multinational control.
Having laid out the framework for discussion, the Chatham House report offers a comprehensive accounting of the likelihood of each outcome, complete with the numerous factors that contribute to the probability of each, as well as a detailed treatment of the ramifications that would follow.

As has become all too common with any objective appraisal of Iraq, this report describes what really represent a labyrinth of Catch-22's, where each new turn in search of resolution runs into a dead end, or worse yet, some hidden danger. A balanced and fair template for going forward will need to be implemented with the skill, nuance and subtlety of Theseus in order to bring about the second scenario, Holding Together, while avoiding the first and the third. Although the overall tone of the report remains fairly neutral through much of the analysis, the Fragmentation scenario, replete with ethnic violence, internal strife, and full blown civil war, emerges as the most likely outcome.

The fragmentation scenario goes to the very core of the identity debate within Iraq, and is related closely to the issue of 'who rules' the country in the future. It is, sadly, a not unlikely scenario. Conscious of the long, the UN is apparently seeking a compromise formula. If it succeeds, fragmentation could be averted in the near term and the society will hold together at least through the prospective elections. [emphasis added]
That is not encouraging language. The report suggest that short term fixes are possible, but long term, the problems are more likely than not insurmountable. Most of these intransigent obstacles are rooted in the tangled web of the competing goals of the various ethnic groups clamoring for their slice of power in post-Saddam Iraq.

The Shiites are intent on finally exerting their control over a country in which they have occupied the majority, population wise, for decades yet have been permanently disempowered by the rule of the predominately Sunni Baath Party headed by Saddam and his predecessors. Through their de facto leader, Sistani, the Shiites are essentially biding their time until elections, which they see as a legitimate way to reap the democratic rewards of majority status. The problem is, if Sistani gets what he wants, the Kurds won't, and neither will the Sunnis, the latter likely to bristle at their newly marginal share of the power they once enjoyed in totality.

In the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), a quick fix the CPA resorted to in order to speed up the hand over to the IIG and the formation of a permanent constitution, which Sistani begrudgingly signed off on in an effort to keep the process moving along, the Kurds are granted veto power over the final constitution (the exact wording allows for veto of any measure by a two-thirds majority of three of Iraq's provinces, with the Kurds enjoying a comfortable majority in three such States). Immediately after the TAL was passed, however, Sistani and other Shiite leaders criticized this provision and signaled that they would not support its inclusion in the process for drafting the final version to be conducted at a later date.

The Kurds, having prospered under the protection of the no-fly zone enforced by U.S. and British air power, are already a functioning para-state, complete with a robust economy, relatively well developed political institutions and a sizable militia (armed, trained and supported by Israel in an effort to counterbalance the Iranians' influence over the Shiites in the South). The Kurds will resist the powerful urge to secede and form their own nation only if they get assurances that this long suffering minority will not be victimized again by the government in Baghdad. Without this veto power that the Shiites seem unwilling to grant, they will, as they have professed on numerous occasions, secede which in turn could very well lead to a broader regional conflict, or Regional Remake, drawing in Syria, Iran and Turkey on the one side and Kurdistan and possibly Israel on the other.

As for the Sunni's role in this imbroglio, the report describes it thusly:

The Sunnis cannot be expected to peacefully concede their own demotion from a position of dominance at the centre of the Iraqi state. They could mobilize politically and militarily in order to capture governing institutions at one level or another, with the Kurds and the Shi'a then facing a weakening of their political bases of support. To date, the Sunni insurgency is considerable in both geographic reach and intensity of action and should be seen as the most representative manifestation of Sunni Arab solidarity, rather than as the actions of a few radical individuals.
Given that "Sunni political groupings are still reeling from the disbanding of the Ba'ath Party and the branding by association of Sunni Arabs with the regime of Saddam Hussein," the vacuum of power in the Sunnis community has been filled with radical Islamist movements, rather than moderate voices. This does not bode well for the eventual Sunni involvement in the negotiation process that will establish the power sharing arrangement in the final constitution. That process will require compromise and an open-minded fairness that extremists rarely, if ever, possess.

Which brings the discussion to the best possible outcome described by the Chatham report as "Holding Together":

In the 'muddle through' scenario, called here 'Holding Together', the country and society are prevented from falling apart in the transitional period. To avoid fragmentation, a great deal of diplomacy and compromise will be necessary between Iraq's component groups, the United States (and UK) and the UN. In other words, it requires power-sharing, whereby the United States no longer asserts overriding control, but operates instead in partnership with the transitional governments, the nascent Iraqi security forces, the UN electoral commission and other relevant bodies. The result will not be a neat and tidy chain of command and there will still be violence and opposition, but a heavy-handed US response to continuing resistance would only recruit more opponents.
The Chatham House takes the position that in order for this process to succeed, the US must decide on two courses of action that the Bush administration has hitherto shown at least some reluctance to follow. First, the US must fade into the background somewhat and become one voice among many, the others being the UN and the IIG and any other Iraqi governing body that emerges. Second, the US military must show discipline and restraint in applying force when necessary, in order to avoid losing the hearts and minds of the population.

By allowing the UN to have significant input and the Iraqi governing bodies to assume more sovereignty, the hope is that the process will gain more legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi population, a development that is absolutely necessary to avert an all out rejection of US military presence, which is still needed to maintain peace and defuse potential civil conflicts. Similarly, the US military must avoid the use of disproportionate and indiscriminate force likely to affect innocent civilians and augment the popularity, support and ranks of the insurgency. As in the case of the sieges of Fallujah and Najaf, this is easier said than done.

Although the military eventually backed off from all-out confrontation in those two cities, there were still tactical decisions that inflamed passions in the populations across the region. As a testament to the almost unwinnable nature of this predicament, despite the anger inspired the military wasn't even successful in disarming Sadr's militia in Najaf, nor in securing Fallujah and expelling the insurgents who have taken over there and in other locales in the Sunni triangle.

In essence, for this to work, the US must cede power and control to the Iraqis, and to international bodies such as the UN, which is anathema to the neoconservative philosophy which has been guiding the Bush foreign policy apparatus. In addition, the military must accomplish the near impossible task of quelling uprisings, while narrowly tailoring the military tactics to avoid angering the local populations. History is not replete with examples of such military successes.

The third scenario, the Regional Remake, is by far the worst case scenario, and once set in motion, it is the one in which the US and other interdictory forces will have the least chance of affecting. The problem is that this future, although thankfully the least likely outcome, could result from either option one or two as described above. If the country fragments, it is quite likely that Turkey will intervene in the North (something they have promised to do) in order to suppress the formation of an independent Kurdistan, out of concern for the separatist passions that eventuality would stir in Turkey's sizable Kurdish minority. Similarly, in the fragmentation model, Syria and Iran would have an incentive to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan out of concern for their own respective Kurdish populations.

The Holding Together outcome has its own inherent perils. Under the holding together model, the likely government will be some form of Shiia dominated body, even if compromises are in place to assure minority rights and protections for the Sunnis, Kurds and others. There is a fear that this Shiia ascendancy so close to Eastern Saudi Arabia (home to a sizable Shiia minority - and the majority of Saudi Arabia's oil fields), could inspire separatist and ethnic tensions in the Kingdom, possibly destabilizing the government and its oil production, leading to a messy internal conflict that could spill across the border into Iraq.

The report goes on to describe the influence of radical Islam on the likelihoods of the three possible outcomes. Groups like al-Zarqawi's and al-Qaeda are actively pursuing their own agendas which mostly center around American defeat, retreat and repudiation, which also have the effect of bringing Iraq closer to fragmentation or regional conflict. In some cases, these predominately Sunni radical elements have been trying to bait ethnic strife through the targeting of non-Sunni groups and religious institutions. In the lawless Iraq, they have been operating with near impunity and their continued presence has undermined the effort to hold together the country and secure stability. Unfortunately, there is no way to effectively curtail their activity until Iraqi security forces can stand on their own given the porous borders and limited number of US military personnel. Yet another testament to the shockingly incompetent post-war planning by Rumsfeld and his team in the Pentagon.

This report is not a sanguine appraisal, but rather an honest assessment of the grim realities. Unfortunately for the region, the future of Iraq resides on a precipice, with many powerful forces pulling like gravity in the direction of the abyss. The hope is that briefing papers such as this can provide sage advice to policy makers who can admit their numerous and repeated mistakes and correct their folly in time to derail the oncoming disaster. Maybe it is too late for that though. After reading this report I am reminded of this passage from a Seymour Hersh article:
Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister, who supported the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq, took it upon himself at this point to privately warn Vice-President Dick Cheney that America had lost in Iraq; according to an American close to Barak, he said that Israel "had learned that there's no way to win an occupation." The only issue, Barak told Cheney, "was choosing the size of your humiliation." Cheney did not respond to Barak's assessment. [emphasis added]

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