Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Grand Don't Come for Free, Part IV

Civil or Union?

Colin Kahl is at least partially correct to note that:

A key divide between Katulis and me is [our respective positions on] whether there is anything that the U.S. can do inside Iraq that can shape and shove the system into a stable decentralized equilibrium that is sustainable once we inevitably begin to leave. [emphasis added]

It's not entirely accurate to present it in such stark terms, however. Katulis would concede that the US can do something to move the system closer to equilibrium - actually, the Katulis plan outlines several such measures. The better question is, can we do enough to bring about the desired result by maintaining troops in Iraq for years, if not decades, to come (and even then, at acceptable costs)?

While "equilibrium" is a pleasant enough euphemism, the crux of the debate centers around finding a means to forestall a continuation, or exacerbation, of the various civil wars/conflicts plaguing Iraq. By his own admission, Kahl's plan does nothing to address the intra-Shiite civil wars percolating in the south, nor does it address the tinderbox that is Kirkuk and its environs in the north. In Kahl's defense, Katulis' plan doesn't necessarily offer real solutions in this regard either - as Kahl himself points out.

What of the Sunni-Shiite civil wars then? From Kahl:

Katulis frets that bottom-up engagements with Sunni tribes and former insurgents will derail any prospects for national reconciliation by increasing Shia anxieties...this is a genuine concern...But let’s not push the argument too far. Katulis argues: “The evidence demonstrates that these decentralized security efforts could actually make the chances of national accommodation and a sustainable security arrangement LESS likely, rather than more likely.” I would ask, less likely than what? It is not as if the Maliki government was keen on reconciliation before the bottom-up movement began.

This point is not without merit, but in making it, Kahl hints at the great weakness of his proposal: How does Kahl's plan change the calculus of Maliki and the rest of the UIA such that these Shiite leaders would be willing to make major concessions? The answer, from Kahl at least, requires a few leaps of faith, and the cultivation of a delicate military balance that is likely too fragile to perservere.

Moreover, the solution to the danger of magnifying Shia parnoia is not to give up on the bottom-up process, but rather to take steps to address Shia anxieties...By calibrating Sunni defensive capabilities in the way I suggest; by working hard to vet the huge influx of Sunni volunteers; by using the biometric information collected on volunteers to keep them in line; by integrating them at least loosely into the ISF so that the Shia-government is aware of their activities; and by making Sunni groups financially dependent on the central government (as opposed to U.S. payments) so that they are deterred from turning against the Shia government and the government, in turn, has confidence that they have some leverage over these groups.

This is another case of easier said than done. Sure, if all of those feats could be achieved, then we might be able to assuage Shiite fears. Even then, would establishing the financial dependence of armed Sunni groups satisfy the Shiites? Coups and power grabs have been perpetrated repeatedly throughout history (including in Iraq) by military forces that were, at the time, financially dependent on the target/toppled government. Furthermore, as the Washington Post reports, there are logistical obstacles to US forces applying the necessary controls:

The U.S. effort to organize nearly 70,000 local fighters to solidify security gains in Iraq is facing severe political and logistical challenges as U.S.-led forces struggle to manage the recruits and the central government resists incorporating them into the Iraqi police and army, according to senior military officials.

...the volunteers pour in by the hundreds every week, forming a massive but cumbersome force lacking common guidelines, status, pay or uniforms....

"To give you a sense of the bureaucratic challenge here, the entire British army is just under 100,000," said Maj. Gen. Paul Newton..."What we've seen in this campaign is already therefore three-quarters of the size of the British army, without any kind of human resource management structure to recruit it, train it, vet it," Newton [said]...

Unsurprisingly, the same article shows that even with the prospect of maintaining financial leverage, the Shiite government is not exactly eager to allow the process to continue:

The Iraqi government so far has balked at permanently hiring large numbers of the volunteers, resisting pressure from U.S. commanders to lift caps on the number of police in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Only about 1,600 of the volunteers have been trained and sworn in to the Iraqi security forces, primarily with the police.

As Juan Cole observes, there are even more troubling signs:

Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that PM al-Maliki has taken the controversial decision to recruit 18,000 members of Shiite militias into the Iraqi government security forces (In fact, the Iraqi military has de facto been recruiting a lot of Shiite militiamen anyway).

You have to wonder if this step is intended to offset the American military's pressure to recruit Sunni tribesmen and neighborhood volunteers into the security forces.

Kahl could argue that these are temporary setbacks, and that progress, while possible, won't be quick or easy. So how to push these policies further, and motivate Shiites to make the deals that Kahl says are necessary?

Katulis wonders how my suggestions would motivate Sunni-Shia accommodation. To understand how it might, we should start with the recognition that many in the Maliki government (and major Shia parties) do not seek accommodation; rather, they seek to run the government solely on their terms. In the face of a weakened Sunni community, they have few incentives to compromise because the costs of ignoring the Sunnis are low. Sunni tribal engagement and other bottom-up efforts address this issue. At the same time, the events of 2006-2007 have probably convinced Sunnis that they cannot win the civil war.

This is, unfortunately, too optimistic a reading of the calculations made by competing Sunni and Shiite power centers. Far too many Sunnis have not been convinced, as Kahl suggests, that they cannot win a civil war - or that there aren't territorial gains to be made absent a victory that would return Sunnis to their position of control of all of Iraq. Marc Lynch's periodic updates on the discourse amongst Sunni insurgent groups provides near daily reminders of these hardened attitudes. Rather, some elements of the Sunni insurgencies have decided that it makes more sense in the short term to play ball with the Americans in order to halt US attacks, eliminate a common enemy (al-Qaeda in Iraq) and receive coveted arms, money and the official Iraqi government imprimatur.

In response to this read of motivations, Kahl asserts that, "these groups could probably get money and weapons elsewhere (e.g., from Saudi Arabia, through criminal activities, etc.)", and thus courting the Americans for these resources is unnecssary. The problem is, though, that Kahl then claims that cutting off the funds/arms/support from US forces flowing to these Sunni groups would make them vulnerable to al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as Shiite elements. There is something of a contradiction in the value that Kahl ascribes to our provision of arms and financial support. If the loss of our support would make these insurgent groups vulnerable, then attaining our aid surely makes them stronger.

A recent piece on Abu Abed (a former Sunni insurgent leader recruited to rid the Ameriya neighborhood of al-Qaeda in Iraq with his "Ameriya Knights" militia) in the Guardian highlights some of the advantages that American support can bestow:

A senior Sunni sheikh, whose tribe is joining the new alliance with the Americans against al-Qaida, told me in Beirut that it was a simple equation for him. "It's just a way to get arms, and to be a legalised security force to be able to stand against Shia militias and to prevent the Iraqi army and police from entering their areas," he said. [...]

The only vehicles in the streets belonged to our screeching convoy...Ameriya is a closed zone, surrounded by high concrete walls. Only pedestrians are allowed through the two Iraqi army checkpoints out of the suburb. The "knights" are the only authority inside.

Even if these insurgent groups could acquire arms and money from alternative sources, they could not command authority openly - without being targeted by Americans - absent such accommodation. While the US press focues on the falling US death toll, Sunni insurgent groups are also experiencing a welcomed respite from mounting casualty counts. This does not mean, however, that they have given up fighting the Shiites, nor concluded that civil war is categorically unwinnable. As Abu Abed suggests:

"Ameriya is just the beginning. After we finish with al-Qaida here, we will turn toward our main enemy, the Shia militias. I will liberate Jihad [a Sunni area next to Ameriya taken over by the Mahdi army] then Saidiya and the whole of west Baghdad."

Kahl's proposal to create equilibrium involves strengthening the Sunni militants to the point that the Shiites view them as a credible threat (which they do already, as Maliki's countermeasures illustrate), but not enough to embolden Sunni militants to seek to retake territory seized by Shiite forces (a highly unlikely forbearance given the passions and motivations fueling the violence).

Added to this already volatile situation, are questions related to the return of over 4 million internally displaced and foreign-based refugees. Will these refugees be able to move back into their seized homes and neighborhoods? If not, will they buy in to equilibrium?

I admire Kahl's effort to find some less bad outcome to the truly horrific situation that we have, in large part, helped to create. However, the magnitude and depth of the hostility and competition for power, and the extremely low probability of finessing the intricate military balancing act required, renders Kahl's admirable attempt to mitigate the damage an enormously costly, yet doomed, gambit.

We've had too many of those already.

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