Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sowing The Seeds

Back in October, I wrote a post (cross-posted on Belgravia Dispatch) that discussed the various issues confronting the United States and Iraq in their effort to create an Iraqi military that is: (a) capable of defeating the insurgency; (b) capable of defending the nation from foreign incursions; (c) primarily loyal to the nation of Iraq and not to any one ethnic/sectarian group or militia; and (d) diverse, proportionate and representative of the ethnic/sectarian makeup of the Iraqi population writ large.

In that post, I provided a more detailed argument regarding the importance of achieving those goals, and the progress, or lack thereof, that was being made. Without attaining sufficient success with respect to the above listed criteria beforehand, withdrawing US forces pursuant to the "as they stand up, we stand down" model could actually undermine our effort to stave off the eruption of a full blown civil war. If the Iraqi army we are training is predominately Shiite and Kurdish, and those forces are first and foremost loyal to their ethnic/sectarian groups, then the hope of including the Sunni population in a new and peaceful Iraqi society will be greatly lessened. The likelihood of heavy handedness and large scale reprisals would be too great. For a unified Iraq to succeed, the Iraqi Army must transcend the politics of identification and must include enough Sunnis so as to prevent it from becoming an ethnic/sectarian vehicle.

A recent article appearing in the New York Times highlights the frustrating lack of progress on this front. According to the Times' story, the results of voting trends from the Iraqi security forces illustrate the lack of balance in the composition of those forces. The Sunni population is, predictably, underrepresented:

But on that score there still appears to be a way to go, according to the numbers from the special election tally. In that category, 45 percent of votes were cast for the main Kurdish slate of candidates, compared with the combined total of just 7 percent for the three main Sunni Arab political parties. The principal Shiite political alliance received 30 percent of the votes in the category.

The heavily disproportionate votes for the Kurds and the slight showing for the Sunnis primarily reflected their relative numbers in the security forces, election officials here said.

By contrast, while final election results will not be available for another week, Iraqi news reports have estimated that Kurds and Sunni Arabs each received perhaps 20 percent of the overall national vote for seats in Parliament. The main Shiite political alliance is expected to take slightly less than 50 percent of the seats. Those estimates more closely follow Iraq's demographic makeup.
It should go without mention that it is not as if US forces could just wave a wand and create an integrated army that accurately reflects the contours of the Iraqi population. Such a goal will require years of patience and painstaking safeguards to effect. Nevertheless, getting the army right is crucial to the long term prospects of a peaceful and stable Iraq. I'm not going to rehash the full breadth of my previous discussion, so for those looking for a more thorough analysis of this topic, and why it so important, please see my earlier post.

But I do want to add one additional point that I might not have sufficiently discussed in that first post. Aside from the obvious interest in avoiding a large scale civil war (that could morph into a regional conflict) in the center of the Middle East, there are larger implications in the battle for hearts and minds between the US and al-Qaeda and their fellow jihadists. If in our zeal to stand up an army and beat a hasty retreat from Iraq we end up creating, arming and assisting a military composed primarily of Kurdish and Shiite forces, and that military becomes the fighting force in an eventual civil war, can you imagine the propaganda field-day Osama would have?

The United States (already viewed with suspicion, cynicism and mistrust) will have, in effect, armed, trained and possibly provided air support and other tactical assistance to one side (the Shiites) in a clash of religious sects within the Muslim world. The Sunni population in other Muslim nations (a majority in almost all save Iran), which would no doubt be treated to images of Sunni civilians caught in the grisly cross-fire (and/or intentionally targeted in some circumstances), would be radicalized, horrified, enraged, humiliated and desperate to strike back at the "imperialist crusader" that many would no doubt blame for the carnage - probably inordinately so, but that is to be expected.

How do you think such a dynamic would interact with our effort to curb the appeal and support for extremist jihadists and other groups looking to do harm to American interests? Not well in my estimation - a glaring understatement. If we are perceived as the facilitator and actor in such a sectarian clash, we will undoubtedly come out losers regardless of the outcome. The consequences could be severe and destructive in the short term and provide an indelible blemish on our image in the region in the long term.

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