Thursday, February 28, 2008

Crossed in Translation

Jim Henley's post provides me with a segue to finally link to, and highly recommend, the Nir Rosen piece that Henley discusses. Rosen's reporting (aided by his knowledge of Arabic - a novelty of sorts for Americans in Iraq) provides a ground-level view of the incoherence underlying the strategic shift toward arming and funding the localized militias formed by ex-Sunni insurgents and tribal elements (CLC's and Awakenings, respectively, though "Awakenings" is often used as shorthand to refer to both, or "sawha" in Arabic).

Rosen exposes the fact that we are frequently left at the whim of groups that, while paying us lip service and offering some level of cooperation (mostly a cessation of anti-coalition attacks), pursue an ulterior and divergent agenda. Their goals (usurpation of the Iraqi government, accumulation of power) are not our goals, though linguistic and cultural ignorance force our troops into a position of near-blind reliance and trust. In what has become a familiar dynamic in Iraq, in certain respects we have become our proxies' proxy.

Brian Katulis goes into greater detail in this insightful report - highlighting both the splintering within the Sunni community, and the inter-sectarian fissures, that have each been exacerbated by the sawha tilt:

What’s worse, current U.S. policy in Iraq does not take into account how the sahwa movements have further fractured and fragmented Iraqi politics, making it more difficult to achieve progress in striking the power-sharing deals necessary to stabilize their country.

With intra-Sunni tensions and violence rising, continued sectarian divisions between Shi’a and Sunnis, and ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs plaguing Iraq, the country is no closer to a sustainable security framework than it was at the start of 2007. In many ways, the situation in Iraq is beginning to look increasingly like what has recently transpired in Lebanon, with the emergence and strengthening of smaller political factions, each with its own armed militia asserting its influence in different parts of the country.

The full report is highly recommended.

Henley does take issue with one aspect of Rosen's article, though:

The puzzling thing about the piece is what we might call Rosen’s "Paul Wolfowitz moment," when he recounts his conversation with a secular-Shiite National-Police commander:

"Before the war, it was just one party," Arkan tells me. "Now we have 100,000 parties. I have Sunni officer friends, but nobody lets them get back into service. First they take money, then they ask if you are Sunni or Shiite. If you are Shiite, good." He dreams of returning to the days when the Iraqi army served the entire country. "In Saddam’s time, nobody knew what is Sunni and what is Shiite," he says. The Bush administration based its strategy in Iraq on the mistaken notion that, under Saddam, the Sunni minority ruled the Shiite majority. In fact, Iraq had no history of serious sectarian violence or civil war between the two groups until the Americans invaded. Most Iraqis viewed themselves as Iraqis first, with their religious sects having only personal importance. Intermarriage was widespread, and many Iraqi tribes included both Sunnis and Shiites. Under Saddam, both the ruling Baath Party and the Iraqi army were majority Shiite.

This seems rosy.

Indeed, I had the same reaction when reading that particular portion. This topic is a bit tricky in that the pendulum frequently swings between two exaggerated interpretations: that sectarianism wasn't an issue at all in pre-invasion Iraq (at one end), and on the other end, that sectarian divides were so pervasive and determinant that a large sectarian-based conflict was inevitable regardless of whether or not we invaded (and irrespective of the policies that we implemented post-invasion). The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and itself has been a fluid an evolving phenomenon.

Certainly, post-invasion, people have fallen back on communal impulses out of fear, desperation and anxiety. Likewise, there was also much more harmony and less communal identification when Iraqi society wasn't under siege. But in the years prior to the invasion, sectarian identification was trending upward. I have linked to this post by the Non-Arab Arab more than once, but I offer it again as a concise accounting of some of the ways in which Iraqi internal (and external) politics contributed to the growth of the sectarian mindset amongst its population throughout the past thirty years.

So for the third and final time in this post, I say, highly recommended.

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