Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Grand Don't Come for Free, Part I

Colin Kahl has a guest post over at Chez Aardvark that raises some interesting points regarding the trajectory of "national reconciliation" in Iraq, as well as the rationale for a continued US presence in that country. In this first part, I'll comment on Kahl's assessment of the brave new reconciliation:

Iraq is moving in the direction of a highly decentralized state. It will not be a neat three-way division as soft partition proponents envision. Rather, "all politics is becoming local," in the sense of some relatively homogenous provinces, and others with pockets of homogenous and mixed communities, all attempting to provide for their own security and governance.

This is an apt description of the current dynamic in many respects. The next part gets a little tricky, though:

In this emerging context, I don't think that the emergence of a stable security equilibrium in Iraq necessarily involves some huge grand bargain inside the central government that addresses every Sunni grievance and fully includes them in the national political process. That was the old notion of national reconciliation -- and, as [Marc Lynch's] recent commentary on Maliki points out, it is not likely to materialize anytime soon.

Even trickier still, it depends what type of accord we can reasonably expect to emerge that would fall short of a "huge grand bargain," yet still satisfy the various warring factions. Kahl's thesis:

A minimalist notion of national accommodation, in contrast, would focus on two and only two political compromises at the center: an oil deal and provincial powers/elections. In conjunction with bottom-up security mobilization and efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army, this could "potentially" lead to a stable equilibrium...

To which I am tempted to respond: Oh, is that all? For my money (counted in dinar), finding a formula for the equitable distribution of oil revenue is the grandest bargain that the central government would make pursuant to the maximalist notion of national reconciliation. Knocking that one out - while also integrating Sunni militias into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and forging a secular, professional Iraqi Army (Kahl's other two prerequisites for equilibrium) - would satisfy the most important components of the full-throated version of that elusive national reconciliation. So, yeah, if the Iraqis can hammer those deals out, then there might be some form of equilibrium established without an accommodation made for all Sunni grievances.

Easier said than done of course, which Kahl himself concedes, admitting that "the probabilities are difficult to assess and are probably not particularly high." There are many reasons why those probabilities are so low (I would put them in the single digits). One important reason is that Kahl's model suffers from a serious structural flaw, namely that these accords will have to be implemented by the national government despite the fact that the Sunnis will not be "fully include[d] the national political process."

Along those lines, it is hard to imagine how an increasingly decentralized state consisting, primarily, of localized power interests will manage to impose - and more importantly enforce - a national oil revenue sharing scheme. Especially when considering that the oil revenue plan would need to be operated with relative impartiality and fairness from a centralized government that doesn't fully include Sunni elements. The two concepts don't seem to be particularly compatible.

Similarly, there is a tension between Kahl's prescription for integrating Sunni militia into the ISF, while also forging "a relatively neutral, professional Iraqi Army." In Kahl's defense, he seems to conceive of the Sunni militias as local "defensive" forces, which would remain separate from the central Iraqi Army. Unfortunately, having so many armed factions sprinkled throughout the country doesn't bode well for the longevity of peaceful equilibriums (even with the restrictions to "defensive" weapons provided to the Sunni elements). Even then, though, we encounter the same tensions as with the oil compact: somehow, a central government that does not fully integrate Sunni elements will, nevertheless, maintain a national Army that would not show sectarian biases.

Let's not forget, either, who it is that is heading up that central government and who, given demographic realities (and lack of viable alternatives), will likely continue to do so for years to come: the Shiite UIA bloc, in concert with a largely disinterested Kurdish bloc. Maliki's recent declaration of mission accomplished with respect to national reconciliation is more than just premature or propagandistic, it is indicative of the underlying sectarian mindset of the ruling Shiite bloc. The UIA considers reconciliation a dead letter and it shows no intention of agreeing to share the political power and economic resources necessary to revive it. Kahl's delicate formula, though, depends on the notion that the UIA bloc will suddenly change its tune on such impactful issues as sharing oil revenues and correcting sectarian leanings in the Iraqi armed forces, and carry out those imperatives with the impartiality and enlightened dedication to fairness required to see them through.

So how do you square that circle?

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