Monday, March 06, 2006

Please Return To Your Seats

As far back as October, I focused on some of the potential problems with the "as they stand up, we'll stand down" formulation of our disengagement strategy in Iraq. At the time, I warned about the perils of too rapid a build up of an Iraqi military/police force, which included the fears that: (i) we could be attracting soldiers with dubious motivations (some solely seeking the paycheck or equipment they could sell on the black market, others being insurgent infiltrators, still others generally lacking in motivation if and when heavy fighting was required); and/or (ii) we could be - in our haste - relying too heavily on those Iraqis most willing and inclined to join the army (the Shiites and Kurds) thus arming two factions in a potential/ongoing tripartite ethnic/sectarian war. The main thrust of my argument was to urge vigilance on the part of US policy makers to insure that the Iraqi army attract quality recruits and accurately reflect - proportionally - the various components of Iraqi society.

In an article in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs (flagged by the Chef in the sidebar), Stephen Biddle argues that my admonition might not address the real nature of the problem - and following my advice could lead to negative, even counterproductive, consequences. Biddle contends, among other things, that even a proportionally representative army - if formed under the current political climate in Iraq - could actually make matters worse in terms of stabilizing the ongoing conflict. According to the author, the problem with the "Iraqization" approach of fielding a native army to handle security is that it is too closely patterned after the "Vietnamization model" - yet the underlying conflicts are fundamentally different [emphasis mine throughout].

Unfortunately, the parallel does not hold. A Maoist people's war is, at bottom, a struggle for good governance between a class-based insurgency claiming to represent the interests of the oppressed public and a ruling regime portrayed by the insurgents as defending entrenched privilege. Using a mix of coercion and inducements, the insurgents and the regime compete for the allegiance of a common pool of citizens, who could, in principle, take either side. A key requirement for the insurgents' success, arguably, is an ideological program -- people's wars are wars of ideas as much as they are killing competitions -- and nationalism is often at the heart of this program. Insurgents frame their resistance as an expression of the people's sovereign will to overthrow an illegitimate regime that represents only narrow class interests or is backed by a foreign government.

Communal civil wars, in contrast, feature opposing subnational groups divided along ethnic or sectarian lines; they are not about universal class interests or nationalist passions. In such situations, even the government is typically an instrument of one communal group, and its opponents champion the rights of their subgroup over those of others. These conflicts do not revolve around ideas, because no pool of uncommitted citizens is waiting to be swayed by ideology. (Albanian Kosovars, Bosnian Muslims, and Rwandan Tutsis knew whose side they were on.) The fight is about group survival, not about the superiority of one party's ideology or one side's ability to deliver better governance.

The underlying dynamic of many communal wars is a security problem driven by mutual fear. Especially in states lacking strong central governments, communal groups worry that other groups with historical grievances will try to settle scores. The stakes can be existential, and genocide is a real possibility.
While Biddle acknowledges that there are certain overlaps and outliers (Shiites under al-Sadr touting nationalism and, on occasion, sparring with occupying powers as "insurgents"), his sketch of the contours of the ethnic/sectarian nature of the conflict is mostly correct. He also provides an intriguing analysis of how the same strategy employed in both settings can frustrate the stated aims.

The problem with recycling the Vietnam playbook in Iraq is that the strategies devised to win a people's war are either useless or counterproductive in a communal one. Winning hearts and minds, for example, is crucial to defeating a people's rebellion that promises good governance, but in a communal civil war such as that in Iraq, it is a lost cause. Communities in Iraq are increasingly polarized and fear mass violence at one another's hands. Some Sunnis hunger for a return to dominance; many others fear violent Shiite-Kurdish retribution for Saddam's Sunni-dominated tyranny. Some Shiites and Kurds want revenge; others fear they will face mass killings in the event of a Sunni restoration. Economic aid or reconstruction assistance cannot fix the problem: Would Sunnis really get over their fear of Shiite domination if only the sewers were fixed and the electricity kept working? This is not to say that Washington should not provide reconstruction assistance or economic aid...economic growth could ease communal tensions at the margins and so promote peace in the long term. But in the near term, survival trumps prosperity, and most Iraqis depend on communal solidarity for their survival.

Rapid democratization, meanwhile, could be positively harmful in Iraq. In a Maoist people's war, empowering the population via the ballot box undermines the insurgents' case that the regime is illegitimate and facilitates nonviolent resolution of the inequalities that fuel the conflict. In a communal civil war, however, rapid democratization can further polarize already antagonistic sectarian groups. In an immature polity with little history of compromise, demonizing traditional enemies is an easy -- and dangerous -- way to mobilize support from frightened voters. And as the political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder have shown, although mature democracies rarely go to war with other democracies, emerging democracies are unusually bellicose [ed note: Mansfield and Snyder discussed at greater length here]. Political reform is critical to resolving communal wars, but only if it comes at the right time, after some sort of stable communal compromise has begun to take root.

The biggest problem with treating Iraq like Vietnam is Iraqization -- the main component of the current U.S. military strategy. In a people's war, handing the fighting off to local forces makes sense because it undermines the nationalist component of insurgent resistance, improves the quality of local intelligence, and boosts troop strength. But in a communal civil war, it throws gasoline on the fire. Iraq's Sunnis perceive the "national" army and police force as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids. And they have a point: in a communal conflict, the only effective units are the ones that do not intermingle communal enemies. (Because the U.S. military does not keep data on the ethnic makeup of the Iraqi forces, the number of Sunnis in these organizations is unknown and the effectiveness of mixed units cannot be established conclusively....) Sunni populations are unlikely to welcome protection provided by their ethnic or sectarian rivals; to them, the defense forces look like agents of a hostile occupation. And the more threatened the Sunnis feel, the more likely they are to fight back even harder. The bigger, stronger, better trained, and better equipped the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get.
As alluded to in the above paragraphs, Biddle's thesis is that a political compromise creating a balance of power between the various groups sufficient to assuage fears of reprisal killings and assure each group of a share in the new political power structure/economic system should ideally precede the formation of an indigenous army - as well as the advancement of the democratization process. In a related sense, he contends that a prematurely deployed army would weaken our ability to muster such a political accord.

The creation of powerful Shiite-Kurdish security forces will also reduce the chances of reaching the only serious long-term solution to the country's communal conflict: a compromise based on a constitutional deal with ironclad power-sharing arrangements protecting all parties. A national army that effectively excluded Sunnis would make any such constitutional deal irrelevant, because the Shiite-Kurdish alliance would hold the real power regardless of what the constitution said. Increasing evidence that Iraq's military and police have already committed atrocities against Sunnis only confirms the dangers of transferring responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces before an acceptable ethnic compromise has been brokered.

On the other hand, the harder the United States works to integrate Sunnis into the security forces, the less effective those forces are likely to become. The inclusion of Sunnis will inevitably entail penetration by insurgents, and it will be difficult to establish trust between members of mixed units whose respective ethnic groups are at one another's throats. Segregating Sunnis in their own battalions is no solution either. Doing so would merely strengthen all sides simultaneously by providing each with direct U.S. assistance and could trigger an unstable, unofficial partition of the country into separate Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish enclaves, each defended by its own military force.
Although I tend to agree with his prescription for "success," that doesn't make it any easier to achieve. For one it requires an extended deployment of US forces at or around their current levels - problematic to say the least. But aside from domestic political pressures, substantial strains on our all-volunteer armed forces, economic drains, diplomatic costs and myriad other logistical and tactical hindrances associated with our prolonged involvement in Iraq at current levels, the achievement of the elusive political compromise sought is dependent on the cooperation of the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds - and at the present, none appear willing to cede any ground. Perhaps less so after the recent uptick in violence (though there are indications that the Sunnis could be moving to a more US-friendly footing - more below).

It should also be noted that the Iraqis themselves (recent Sunni revelations notwithstanding) might not be receptive to our long term involvement even if we recalibrated our strategy in such a way. Most problematic, each group (and many sub-groups) has militias to fall back on, and as recently sounded warnings by Sistani of all people indicate, if the Iraqi military cannot prevent mass violence, and if the Americans themselves are ineffectual in this regard (perhaps moreso because of reduced numbers), then the militias will see an increased role - and their numbers will likely proliferate. Nevertheless, Biddle offers his recipe for a solution as follows:

The case for withdrawing U.S. troops is no stronger, largely because the war does not hinge on the United States' winning -- or losing -- Iraqi hearts and minds...The presence of U.S. troops is essential to Washington's bargaining position in these negotiations. To withdraw them now, or to start withdrawing them according to a rigid timetable, would undermine the prospect of forging a lasting peace.

But critical departures from the current strategy are also necessary. First, Washington must slow down the expansion of the Iraqi national military and police. Iraq will eventually need capable indigenous security forces, but their buildup must follow a broad communal compromise, not the other way around....

Second, the United States must bring more pressure to bear on the parties in the constitutional negotiations. And the strongest pressure available is military: the United States must threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate. Washington should use the prospect of a U.S.-trained and U.S.-supported Shiite-Kurdish force to compel the Sunnis to come to the negotiating table. At the same time, in order to get the Shiites and the Kurds to negotiate too, it should threaten either to withdraw prematurely, a move that would throw the country into disarray, or to back the Sunnis.

If Washington fails to implement this plan, it will continue to have only limited leverage over the parties, each of which sees compromise as risky. The groups fear that if their rivals gain control of the government, they will face oppression, impoverishment, or mass violence. Compromising means ceding some power to rivals, and a miscalculation that cedes too much power could result in the enemy's seizing the rest later, with catastrophic results. In contrast, an ongoing low-intensity war does not look so bad: as long as U.S. forces patrol Iraq, the country will not break up and the conflict will not descend into all-out chaos. The parties' refusal to compromise may be an obstacle to real peace, but it is also a way to avert mass violence.

The only way to break the logjam is to change the parties' relative comfort with the status quo by drastically raising the costs of their failure to negotiate. The U.S. presence now caps the war's intensity, and U.S. aid could give any side an enormous military advantage. Thus Washington should threaten to use its influence to alter the balance of power depending on the parties' behavior. By doing so, it could make stubbornness look worse than cooperation and compel all sides to compromise.
I think to some extent, Khalilzad is doing his best to wield the "scare tactics" approach of incentivizing negotiation in earnest. As Swopa has been suggesting for some time, Zal has been using the threat of withholding aid to compel compromise on the part of the Shiites. There have also been some curiously timed - and publicized - outreaches to Sunni insurgent elements. Perhaps a military adjunct to Zal's economic warning shots. Also of interest (as noted by Swopa and flagged by prak in the sidebar), the Sunnis themselves seem to be coming around to the understanding that we might be a useful buffer between themselves and the suddenly well armed/organized Shiites should civil war continue/escalate.

This might increase our ability to compel the Sunnis to cooperate on the "political solution" front - through the cessation of violence - and convince them of the wisdom of our prolonged presence, but ultimately it is the Shiites who are holding the reins of power and who must offer the political/economic concessions necessary to allay Sunni fears of exclusion/retribution. We could try to leverage this new found mutual admiration with the Sunnis in order to threaten the Shiites, but we risk alienating the majority of Iraqis should we move to hard in that direction. The balance is remarkably delicate, and the ability of Sistani and Sadr to mobilize their constituents could be an effective countermeasure to any such attempt at intimidation. As Swopa mentioned, with a dose of snark: "...the Shiite factions are dangerously close to saying, 'So long, American suckers, we'll take it from here.'"

Against the background of this dynamic, the clock is ticking - in all of the ways I listed above - and the respective populaces in Iraq and the US are losing patience. President Bush seems committed to the plan of fielding an Iraqi army as soon as possible to ease demands on US military personnel, and we will likely see some form of US troop drawdown over the next 12 months. As I stated above, any attempt to freeze the number of Iraqi police/military would likely be met with an increase in the size and influence of the militias - and this is especially true if US forces are reduced at the same time. The militias are poised to enter any vacuum, and are doing their best to secure a foothold as is. Replacing Iraqi military forces with militias would not address Biddle's concerns - and would actually make matters worse according to the issues he highlighted. But Biddle never really addresses the highly problematic militia phenomenon along these lines.

In the end, I found Biddle does a better job of identifying flaws in our approach, and the intrinsic and inevitable obstacles that we must grapple with, than in formulating a realistic and probable solution. In fairness to him, he's working with the same mediocre hole cards as Khalilzad. Hopefully Zal's got a good poker face though, because the stakes are getting pretty high at that table, and he's got to pull off one monster of a bluff.

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