Monday, October 31, 2005

Not Your Father's Blowback

Readers of this site will be familiar with my contention that Iraq has, in many ways, replaced Afghanistan as the central hub of international jihadism. Iraq is today what Afghanistan was in the 1980s in terms of providing a locus for training, equipping, indoctrinating and a network of contacts for aspiring and accomplished jihadis. It is what Swopa frequently calls, "The world's most expensive school for terrorism." Expensive for us that is. For the participants, the tuition is rather affordable.

In a recent article appearing in Foreign Affairs, terrorism expert Peter Bergen and a co-author Alec Reynolds discuss the ramifications from the roiling conflict in Iraq in terms of the next generation of international terrorists. This group is what some call the "Class of 2005" - though there is an unfortunate likelihood that there will be an annual graduating class for the foreseeable future. First, some background from the authors:

When the United States started sending guns and money to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, it had a clearly defined Cold War purpose: helping expel the Soviet army, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. And so it made sense that once the Afghan jihad forced a Soviet withdrawal a decade later, Washington would lose interest in the rebels. For the international mujahideen drawn to the Afghan conflict, however, the fight was just beginning. They opened new fronts in the name of global jihad and became the spearhead of Islamist terrorism. The seriousness of the blowback became clear to the United States with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center: all of the attack's participants either had served in Afghanistan or were linked to a Brooklyn-based fund-raising organ for the Afghan jihad that was later revealed to be al Qaeda's de facto U.S. headquarters. The blowback, evident in other countries as well, continued to increase in intensity throughout the rest of the decade, culminating on September 11, 2001.
But that is only part of the story. According to Bergen and Reynolds, the conflict in Iraq creates the likelihood of a more prolonged, capable and determined "blowback." As with so many of our other vital foreign policy concerns (counter-proliferation, campaign for hearts and minds, North Korea, etc.), Iraq is actually sucking the life out of the effort to contain the blowback, somewhat ironically, from Iraq.

The current war in Iraq will generate a ferocious blowback of its own, which -- as a recent classified CIA assessment predicts -- could be longer and more powerful than that from Afghanistan. Foreign volunteers fighting U.S. troops in Iraq today will find new targets around the world after the war ends. Yet the Bush administration, consumed with managing countless crises in Iraq, has devoted little time to preparing for such long-term consequences. Lieutenant General James Conway, the director of operations on the Joint Staff, admitted as much when he said in June that blowback "is a concern, but there's not much we can do about it at this point in time." Judging from the experience of Afghanistan, such thinking is both mistaken and dangerously complacent.
One of the more problematic aspects of the seemingly inevitable blowback from Iraq is that our ultimate "success" in terms of creating a peaceful, stable, unified democratic nation will not mean that the blowback threat will be eliminated, or even significantly reduced. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the Sunnis decide en masse to renounce the use of violence and support for the insurgency in favor of the political process in December, and support for foreign jihadists, and the genesis of the domestic version, dries up. The problem is that even in this outlandish best case scenario, the jihadists who have already attained a degree from Baghdad's Terrorism University will then return home with the training, indoctrination and contacts they acquired in school. As with the Afghan conflict, these veterans will not be integrated back into their countries of origin, and will instead destabilize those nations and target American interests at home and abroad. Some such veterans have already returned home or traveled to other conflict regions to ply their newfound skills.

On the other hand, if the Iraq conflict lingers for years to come (the more likely scenario at this juncture), and the central Sunni region continues to be a hotbed for violence, insurgent activity and jihadist training, there will be subsequent classes of terrorists that will eventually depart to wreak havoc in other locales. In other words, this aspect of the campaign is a lose-lose scenario. This is one of the central fallacies of the "flypaper theory." The flies don't stay stuck forever, and the ones that depart are stronger and more capable than before.

The foreign volunteers in Afghanistan saw the Soviet defeat as a victory for Islam against a superpower that had invaded a Muslim country. Estimates of the number of foreign fighters who fought in Afghanistan begin in the low thousands; some spent years in combat, while others came only for what amounted to a jihad vacation. The jihadists gained legitimacy and prestige from their triumph both within the militant community and among ordinary Muslims, as well as the confidence to carry their jihad to other countries where they believed Muslims required assistance. When veterans of the guerrilla campaign returned home with their experience, ideology, and weapons, they destabilized once-tranquil countries and inflamed already unstable ones. [...]

The Afghan experience was important for the foreign "holy warriors" for several reasons. First, they gained battlefield experience. Second, they rubbed shoulders with like-minded militants from around the Muslim world, creating a truly global network. Third, as the Soviet war wound down, they established a myriad of new jihadist organizations, from al Qaeda to the Algerian GIA to the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf.
As alluded to above, Bergen and Reynolds make a compelling case that we can actually expect worse from this new generation of Iraq-spawned terrorists than their Afghan-trained predecessors. This is not your father's blowback.

Several factors could make blowback from the Iraq war even more dangerous than the fallout from Afghanistan. Foreign fighters started to arrive in Iraq even before Saddam's regime fell. They have conducted most of the suicide bombings -- including some that have delivered strategic successes such as the withdrawal of the UN and most international aid organizations -- and the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, another alumnus of the Afghan war, is perhaps the most effective insurgent commander in the field. Fighters in Iraq are more battle hardened than the Afghan Arabs, who fought demoralized Soviet army conscripts. They are testing themselves against arguably the best army in history, acquiring skills in their battles against coalition forces that will be far more useful for future terrorist operations than those their counterparts learned during the 1980s. Mastering how to make improvised explosive devices or how to conduct suicide operations is more relevant to urban terrorism than the conventional guerrilla tactics used against the Red Army. U.S. military commanders say that techniques perfected in Iraq have been adopted by militants in Afghanistan.

Finally, foreign involvement in the Iraqi conflict will likely lead some Iraqi nationals to become international terrorists. The Afghans were glad to have Arab money but were culturally, religiously, and psychologically removed from the Afghan Arabs; they neither joined al Qaeda nor identified with the Arabs' radical theology. Iraqis, however, are closer culturally to the foreigners fighting in Iraq, and many will volunteer to continue other jihads even after U.S. troops depart.
As I have mentioned before, we are actually producing Iraqi terrorists where there were none before. As Marc Sageman and others have chronicled, Iraqi citizens had, prior to the invasion, eschewed participation in foreign jihads, and virtually no Iraqis could be found amongst the ranks of the Salafist jihadist terrorist organizations. As a result of this invasion, and the associated radicalizing effects, that will change.

President George W. Bush and others have suggested that it is better for the United States to fight the terrorists in Baghdad than in Boston. It is a comforting notion, but it is wrong on two counts. First, it posits a finite number of terrorists who can be lured to one place and killed. But the Iraq war has expanded the terrorists' ranks: the year 2003 saw the highest incidence of significant terrorist attacks in two decades, and then, in 2004, astonishingly, that number tripled. (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously complained in October 2003 that "we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror." An exponentially rising number of terrorist attacks is one metric that seems relevant.) Second, the Bush administration has not addressed the question of what the foreign fighters will do when the war in Iraq ends. It would be naive to expect them to return to civilian life in their home countries. More likely, they will become the new shock troops of the international jihadist movement.
There is no way around the fact that there are already jihadists who have received training and expertise in Iraq, and that many of these veterans will disperse to sow destruction elsewhere. But the authors do focus on ways to mitigate the blowback, and staunch the bleeding going forward. The solutions take the form of a multi-pronged strategy: political progress/marginalization, border security, neighborhood cooperation and intelligence leg work.

American success in Iraq would deny today's jihadists the symbolic victory that they seek. But with that outcome so uncertain, U.S. policymakers must focus on dealing with the jihadists in Iraq now -- by limiting the numbers entering the fight and breaking the mechanism that would otherwise generate blowback after the war.

The foreign jihadists in Iraq need to be separated from the local insurgents through the political process. Success in that mission will require Iraq's Sunni Arabs to remain consistently engaged in the political process. Shiite and Kurdish leaders will have to back down from their efforts to create semiautonomous states in the north and the south. But the prospects for these developments appear dim at the moment, and reaching a durable agreement may increasingly be beyond U.S. influence.

To raise the odds of success, the United States must deliver more security to central Iraq. This means securing Iraq's borders, especially with Syria, to block the flow of foreign fighters into the country. The repeated U.S. military operations in western Iraq since May have shown that at present there are insufficient forces to disrupt insurgent supply lines running along the Euphrates River to the Syrian border. Accomplishing this objective would require either more U.S. troops or a much larger force of well-trained Iraqi troops. For the moment, neither of those options seems viable, and so additional U.S. soldiers should be rotated out of Iraq's cities and into the western deserts and border towns, transitioning the control of certain urban areas to the Iraqi military and police.

Foreign governments must also silence calls to jihad and deny radicals sanctuary once this war ends. After the Soviet defeat, jihadists too often found refuge in places as varied as Brooklyn and Khartoum, where radical clerics offered religious justifications for continuing jihad. To date, some governments have not taken the necessary steps to clamp down on the new generation of jihadists. Although the Saudis largely silenced their radical clerics following the terrorist attacks in Riyadh in May 2003, 26 clerics were still permitted late in 2004 to call for jihad against U.S. troops in Iraq. The United States must press the Saudi government to end these appeals and restrict its nationals from entering Iraq. In the long run, measures against radical preaching are in Riyadh's best interest, too, since the blowback from Iraq is likely to be as painful for Saudi Arabia as the blowback from Afghanistan was for Egypt and Algeria during the 1990s.

Finally, the U.S. intelligence community, in conjunction with foreign intelligence services, should work on creating a database that identifies and tracks foreign fighters, their known associates, and their spiritual mentors. If such a database had been created during the Afghan war, the United States would have been far better prepared for al Qaeda's subsequent terror campaign.
Some of these options, such as the political/marginlization strategy, are tactically sound though highly difficult to execute. Others, such as shifting military assets from cities to border regions, I think are compelling, and the lack of adequate troop strength is very real, but moving troops out of urban areas will carry its own costs. Maybe the best of bad options. Either way, we must heed the authors' advice and realize that the risks of highly lethal and pervasive blowback are very real and have to enter into our overall plans going forward. Without such planning, the swarm of flies will be even more lethal. Flypaper indeed.

Friday, October 28, 2005

There And Back Again

My guest spot over at Belgravia Dispatch is winding down, so I'm back here on a permanent basis for the foreseeable future (other than Liberals Against Terrorism of course). Writing to Greg's audience, which trends farther Right than TIA's, was an interesting experience to say the least. I'd like to think that the arguments I made were not altered in any material respect, but I definitely was conscious of being less snarky, not editorializing as much based on speculation, and taking care to present both sides of issues - with a mention of best case scenario outcomes and optimistic takes. To some extent, that is my natural style I think, but it was perhaps more pronounced in my Belgravia-designed posts.

Still, some of the reactions from commenters were curious. At one point I was called a "neo-con moron" and another frequent commenter labeled me a "wingnut" (which was later clarified to a "wingnut with regard to the Iraq war"). Perhaps that is more telling of how prejudice can color observations than any actual shift in my position. Amusing nonetheless. For a brief moment, I entertained visions of my very own Golden Winger.

Ultimately, I found it rewarding to test my beliefs and ideas with a new audience, one less inclined to by sympathetic to such arguments. There is great value in such endeavors. Here is how I summed it up in my farewell blog-speech to the Belgravians:

As I've mentioned previously, I am a big fan of Belgravia Dispatch - but not necessarily because I agree with everything Greg writes. Obviously I don’t, but it is exactly because we disagree that this site has a special value to me. Far too often people tend to cluster in enclaves of groupthink, be it in political circles, artistic, cultural, ethnic, religious, etc. But without a robust contrast of perspectives, absent some semblance of dialectic, ideas and movements tend to lose balance and become self-reinforced extremes that fail to accurately describe reality or formulate solutions.

Unfortunately, opportunities for dialogue can be drowned out and lost amid so much rancor and shouting demagoguery. Luckily, there are sites such as [Belgravia Dispatch] that can pose intelligent, coherent and thought provoking challenges to my thinking on certain issues. My frequent cross-blog conversations with Dan Darling have also been fruitful along these lines. Hopefully, in some small way, I was able to provide a reasonable contrasting voice for some of you.
And so on.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

On Democratic Peace and Vectors

For those that are interested, Dan Darling has a post critiquing certain aspects of my post challenging the democratic peace theory. I respond here.

Also, more vector watching (via Nadezhda) as the Iraqi political process grinds on. A mixed bag of results, though so far it looks like there will be less in the way of cross-sectarian/ethnic alliances than I would have hoped for. I find this not altogether encouraging.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A Lasting Peace?

As I have mentioned in prior posts, there is little empirical evidence to support the claim that democracy eradicates terrorism. In fact, the overwhelming heft of the evidence indicates that terrorism can thrive in liberal democracies - even mature ones - and in nascent democracies terrorism can operate at the highest levels of freedom of movement and impunity. Then, there is the truism that democracies do not attack other democracies and, in a related sense, democracies are generally speaking more peaceful than other types of regimes.

Although this second rationale, the peaceful democracies justification, might have been one of the lesser stated goals for invading Iraq, I find it ultimately less than compelling. For one, it ignores, or only tangentially addresses, the terrorist threat that we have been encountering for the past decade-plus. Our adversaries, al-Qaeda and similar Salafist jihadist groups, are not state actors and thus the peaceful characteristics of democratic states are less crucial to the defeat or containment of the Salafists. The state actor paradigm is better suited for Cold War calculations. Especially because, as noted above, terrorists can operate, generate support and find motivations while living in democracies. Thus, even if we create democratic states that are less bellicose, our terrorist threat will remain ever-present.

A review of the book, Electing to fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, by Edward D. Mansfield And Jack Snyder, appearing in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, takes a closer look at the underlying assumptions behind certain aspects of the peaceful democracies theory and the results are somewhat counterintuitive. From the review penned by John M. Owen IV:

In Electing to fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, the veteran political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder make two critical points. Not only is turning authoritarian countries into democracies extremely difficult, much more so than the administration seems to have anticipated. The Middle East could also become a much more dangerous place if Washington and the rest of the world settle for a merely semidemocratic regime in Baghdad. Such an Iraq, Mansfield and Snyder imply, would be uncommonly likely to start wars -- a bull in the Middle Eastern china shop. Unfortunately, such an Iraq may also be just what we are likely to end up with. [...]

Their thesis, first published in 1995, is that although mature democracies do not fight one another, democratizing states -- those in transition from authoritarianism to democracy -- do, and are even more prone to war than authoritarian regimes. Now, in Electing to fight, the authors have refined their argument. As they outline in the book, not only are "incomplete democratizing" states -- those that develop democratic institutions in the wrong order -- unlikely ever to complete the transition to democracy; they are also especially bellicose. [emphasis added]
The reviewer provides excerpts of the evidentiary basis relied on by the authors:

Mansfield and Snyder present both quantitative and case-study support for their theory. Using rigorous statistical methods, the authors show that since 1815, democratizing states have indeed been more prone to start wars than either democracies or authoritarian regimes. Categorizing transitions according to whether they ended in full democracies (as in the U.S. case) or in partial ones (as in Germany in 1871-1918 or Pakistan throughout its history), the authors find that in the early years of democratic transitions, partial democracies -- especially those that get their institutions in the wrong order -- are indeed significantly more likely to initiate wars. Mansfield and Snyder then provide several succinct stories of democratizing states that did in fact go to war, such as the France of Napoleon III (1852-70), Serbia between 1877 and 1914, Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998 and 2000, and Pakistan from 1947 to the present. In most of these cases, the authors find what they expect: in these democratizing states, domestic political competition was intense. Politicians, vying for power, appeased domestic hard-liners by resorting to nationalistic appeals that vilified foreigners, and these policies often led to wars that were not in the countries' strategic interests.
The environment that allows for these developments, according to the authors, seems to have some connection to chronology: putting the "electoral" cart before the "institutional" horse.

According to Mansfield and Snyder, in countries that have recently started to hold free elections but that lack the proper mechanisms for accountability (institutions such as an independent judiciary, civilian control of the military, and protections for opposition parties and the press), politicians have incentives to pursue policies that make it more likely that their countries will start wars. In such places, politicians know they can mobilize support by demanding territory or other spoils from foreign countries and by nurturing grievances against outsiders. As a result, they push for extraordinarily belligerent policies. Even states that develop democratic institutions in the right order -- adopting the rule of law before holding elections -- are very aggressive in the early years of their transitions, although they are less so than the first group and more likely to eventually turn into full democracies.

Of course, politicians in mature democracies are also often tempted to use nationalism and xenophobic rhetoric to buttress their domestic power. In such cases, however, they are usually restrained by institutionalized mechanisms of accountability. Knowing that if they lead the country into a military defeat or quagmire they may be punished at the next election, politicians in such states are less likely to advocate a risky war. In democratizing states, by contrast, politicians know that they are insulated from the impact of bad policies: if a war goes badly, for example, they can declare a state of emergency, suspend elections, censor the press, and so on. Politicians in such states also tend to fear their militaries, which often crave foreign enemies and will overthrow civilian governments that do not share their goals. Combined, these factors can make the temptation to attack another state irresistible.
Unfortunately in Iraq, our chronology has been less than ideal. As admirable as the exercise has been, the occurence of elections and referendums have vastly outpaced the establishment of the institutional checks and balances that the authors suggest are needed to restrain the urge to use war as a means of garnering and/or maintaining electoral dominance. Majoritarianism is more appreciated by certain factions than other necessary components such as dissent, minority rights and sharing of power. In present day Iraq, the temptation to use war as a unifying force may be even greater given the internal divisions that need to be broached.

As bellicose and reckless as Saddam's regime was, there remains the possibility that subsequent incarnations of the Iraq state will do no better in terms of providing peace and stability to the region - if not by its internal implosion, then by its excursions targeting neighbors, territory and/or perceived threats. There has already been an uncomfortable level of cross-border sniping between the various factions and their perceived backers or enemies - from Iran and Syria to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. No doubt Israel is no more popular now than it had been prior to the invasion.

But this thesis has broader implications as well. It should be considered by those that favor the promotion of democratic reform, such as myself, in terms of informing the ideal mixture of methods, means and priorities associated with such endeavors. Sometimes, there is a great value in allowing and encouraging gradual change from the inside-out, grassroots-up. As the reviewer notes:
The authors' conclusions for foreign policy are straightforward. The United States and other international actors should continue to promote democracy, but they must strive to help democratizing states implement reforms in the correct order. In particular, popular elections ought not to precede the building of institutions that will check the baleful incentives for politicians to call for war.
As I have harped on in the past, democracy is a fragile edifice that relies on an institutional support structure that is complex, intricate and takes time to develop. Sometimes we might want to consider saying: Slower, please.

(Cross-posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Fitzmas Eve

This from Steve Clemons:

An uber-insider source has just reported the following to TWN:

1. 1-5 indictments are being issued. The source feels that it will be towards the higher end.

2. The targets of indictment have already received their letters.

3. The indictments will be sealed indictments and "filed" tomorrow.

4. A press conference is being scheduled for Thursday.

The shoe is dropping.

More soon.

Twas the night before Fitzmas, and all through the White House the Libbys were stirring and the Cheneys did grouse....

See Dick Squirm

This is, er, sort of big.

Lawyers in the case said Mr. Libby testified to the grand jury that he had first heard from journalists that Ms. Wilson may have had a role in dispatching her husband on a C.I.A.-sponsored mission to Africa in 2002 in search of evidence that Iraq had acquired nuclear material there for its weapons program.

But the notes, now in Mr. Fitzgerald's possession, also indicate that Mr. Libby first heard about Ms. Wilson - who is also known by her maiden name, Valerie Plame - from Mr. Cheney. That apparent discrepancy in his testimony suggests why prosecutors are weighing false statement charges against him in what they interpret as an effort by Mr. Libby to protect Mr. Cheney from scrutiny, the lawyers said.

It is not clear why Mr. Libby would have suggested to the grand jury that he might have learned about Ms. Wilson from journalists if he was aware that Mr. Fitzgerald had obtained the notes of the conversation with Mr. Cheney or might do so. [emphasis added]
As I surmised before, someone high up in the Bush Administration has been flipped. Maybe more than one such official. It now looks like "Scooter" might be throwing his boss on the fire in an effort to avoid a date with a shiny orange jump suit. Don't know if this means Cheney will be indicted for sure, but it doesn't exactly look good for Dick. The plot, it thickens.

Still, before you hit a heightened state of schadenfreude-uphoria, Fubar warns that all that glitters may not be gold. In other words, if Cheney exits stage left, Bush might pick a legitimate contender for 2008 - whereas Cheney has no such designs. This potential new pick would have the advantage of vice-incumbency.

As a rebuttal to Fubar's thesis, I say good luck to anyone running on the record of this Administration. It might actually be a disadvantage to be so closely associated with team Bush. Especially when more of the chickens come home to roost. If you don't believe me, just get a hold of the video of staunch Bush supporter William Kristol trying to defend the record of the Bush Administration on the Daily Show last night. Poor Mr. Kristol had the nervous look, and uncertain voice, of someone who doesn't believe their own spin. His iteration of the "accomplishments" of the Bush administration was decidedly underwhelming. It was the limp-wristed handshake of endorsements, and Jon Stewart was merciless with poor Billy. So before the post-holiday hangover kicks in, enjoy the mirth of Fitzmas.

[UPDATE: Jane Hamsher connects some dots on Dick:

Here is the key paragraph:

Mr. Cheney was interviewed under oath by Mr. Fitzgerald last year. It is not known what the vice president told Mr. Fitzgerald about the conversation with Mr. Libby or when Mr. Fitzgerald first learned of it.
Cheney was interviewed by Fitzgerald last year under oath. That would make it perjury to tell a lie. Although Republican logic tells us that perjury is only a crime if you're getting a blow job in the bargain, a legitimate US attorney might not see it that way.

What indication do we have that Cheney lied? Well, if Cheney he had [sic] told the truth when he was interviewed last year, i.e., that he was Scooter Libby's source, Fitzgerald would not have needed to threaten Judy Miller and Matt Cooper with jail in order to counter Scooter Libby's testimony that he first heard about Valerie Plame's identity from journalists.
Very interesting.]

Monday, October 24, 2005

Vector Watch

In an earlier post I discussed the possibility, and desirability, of the emergence of political movements and parties that can appeal to Iraqis across ethnic/sectarian divisions. This, I argued, would help to dissipate power that might otherwise concentrate in ethnic/sectarian groups in ways that can choke off the liberal tendencies of democracies, regardless of what are serious underlying political divisions. The success of such a trend relies, in part, on the expectation that the UIA ticket of Shiite parties will not be able to hold together for the December elections, or that their influence will be somewhat lessened - perhaps stemming from a cool reception by Sistani, or a backlash from secular leaning Iraqis or those fed up with the UIA performance in power. In furtherance of this discussion, Juan Cole offers some relevant observations from a translation of a story, in Arabic, from the newspaper Al-Hayat:

Al-Hayat [Arabic] is reporting that Iraqi political parties are scrambling to put together joint lists again. It says that the fundamentalist Shiite Dawa Party has decided to run again with the fundamentalist Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Fadilah (Virtue) Party may join that list, as well. But SCIRI is trying to attract some secular and Sunni candidates so as to combat the impression that its United Iraqi Alliance is a Shiite cat's paw of Iran. Al-Hayat says that the Kurdistan Alliance is exploring a coalition with religious Sunni parties. Several groups are negotiating to join the secular list of Iyad Allawi. For a while it seemed that the Iraqi Islamic Party (mildly fundamentalist Sunnis) might join Allawi, but it has decided to run alone. One subtext of the article is that both the Kurds and Allawi are trying to find ways to attract votes from the vast number of voters who used to support the secular Arab nationalist Baath Party.
From this there are encouraging signs, and others that are somewhat disappointing. First, the not so good news: if this article is correct, SCIRI and Da'wa will remain together which makes them, once again, a formidable electoral bloc. If this coalition receives Sistani's support, even tacit, it's quite possible that most Shiites will feel compelled to, or be persuaded to, disregard other political leanings in favor of confessional identification. This would negatively impact voter fluidity.

On the positive side, the flurry of activity and attempts at cross-ethnic/sectarian coalition building could be indicative of new Iraqi-styled vectors. Particularly encouraging is the effort by many groups to make inroads with former Baath Party voters and other Sunni groups. Bringing Sunnis into the political process is about as close to an unmitigated positive as you can find in Iraq at the moment. Also of note, early indications are that Allawi's more secular leaning slate (or Chalabi's?) has a significant level of popularity - at least at this stage. An invigorated secular movement could do much to counter what could otherwise be theocratic tendencies of the powerful Islamist/fundamentalist parties. Keep an eye on these movements, maneuvers and machinations.

(cross-posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Getting To Know You

Out of One, Many

Rory Stewart, a member the British government, served with the Coalition Provisional Authority as deputy governor of the Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces in southern Iraq from August 2003 until June 2004. He has recently written an article (hat tip to reader WAB) that provides an interesting, and balanced, first hand account of events in that region of Iraq, informed by what he has witnessed since his return in March of 2005. The interval and passage of time between stints in-country has allowed for certain insights gained through a study of contrasts.

His recounting of events is, as is so typical with respect to Iraq, a mixed bag of progress and setbacks, optimism and pessimism, promise and disappointment, and underneath it all: coming to grips with unintended consequences. These paragraphs set the tone:

Is southern Iraq only hell with flies? September's image of a British soldier bathed in flames as he tumbled from his tank seemed to symbolise a state of anarchy, spawned by the coalition and dominated by Iranian-funded terrorist militias. The reality is less bleak, but still unsettling. Southern Iraq is under coalition occupation but not coalition control; an elected government that is not quite a democracy uses a secular constitution to impose Islamist codes; Iraqi nationalists funded by Iran employ illegal groups to enforce the law. [...]

The new order in southern Iraq is, in short, hard to define. It is an improvement on the political exclusion and sadistic inhumanity of Saddam and has a great deal to teach the Sunni areas about prosperity, security and politics. But it is also reactionary, violent, intolerant towards women and religious minorities and uncooperative with the coalition. The new leaders have dark histories and dubious allies; they enforce a narrow social code and ignore the rural areas.
But before delving into some of the more substantive observations, a background of the tripartite of players involved in the Shiite dominated region: SCIRI, the Sadrists and Da'wa. The history:

All three groups descend from a single party—the Da'wa (Islamic Call) party of the 1960s and 1970s — and their view of political Islam is defined by Da'wa's founder, a cleric, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr (sometimes called Sadr I) who was opposed to Iraqi communism and to western "economic and cultural colonialism." Formed by clerics, developed in the ancient medieval theological seminaries of Najaf and shaped by grand ayatollahs, who as mirja (sources of emulation) had unique authority among the Shia, the party had a fundamentally theological character.

In 1970, the recently victorious Ba'ath party declared Da'wa illegal. For the next 33 years, political Islam in Iraq survived only in exile or in secret cell networks. It moved from public politics to something resembling a revolutionary terrorist organisation. On 8th April 1980, the government announced that it was a capital offence to belong to Da'wa. Tens of thousands were arrested and the party's founder, Sadr I, was executed the next day. Much of the leadership went into exile in Iran. This was the point at which the Da'wa movement began to fragment into rival factions whose leaders changed allies, national patrons and ideological positions with startling rapidity.

The first and perhaps most famous of the Islamic groups is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its Badr brigade. In last January's election, it took the governorships in the pro-vinces of Dhi Qar and Muthanna as well as half the seats on the provincial council in Basra. The leadership of SCIRI/Badr was in exile in Iran and has the closest relationship with the Iranian state, whereas many of the Da'wa leaders chose Britain for their exile and the Sadrists mostly remained in Iraq. The founding leader of SCIRI, Muhammed Bakr al-Hakim, an Iraqi cleric, campaigned for a theocracy in which the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini would become the supreme leader of a Shia superstate embracing Iran and Iraq. Under his umbrella came the Badr brigade, a paramilitary unit of Iraqi exiles commanded by the Iranian revolutionary guard who had fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war.

Many of the leaders of this group still have family in Iran. They are all religiously conservative and committed to the establishment of an Islamic government. Their leadership has long-term connections with the Iranian revolutionary guard and intelligence services. Thousands of their followers receive salaries from Iran, but they would not consider themselves agents of Iran. Many claim to have been humiliated while in Iran and to be committed Iraqi nationalists. Immediately after the allied invasion, al-Hakim recommended compromise with the coalition, no longer calling for an Iranian theocracy but instead for "a democratic free Iraq that reflects the interests of its people." He was assassinated and his group is now run by his less charismatic brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is one of the most important figures in the national government in Baghdad.
The Sadrists:

The Sadrists are the second group that dominates southern politics. They tend not to have been in exile, see themselves as nationalists, perceive the coalition as a colonial occupation, and are worried about threats from Iran. Their leader was Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (a relative of Da'wa's founder), an inspirational teacher who preached on the evils of western decadence and talked often of the coming of the Shia messiah, the "hidden imam." His populist conservative message attracted many young clerics in the 1990s. Because "Sadr II" was resolutely nationalist and anti-Iranian and called al-Hakim a traitor and a spy, he was initially supported by Saddam. But by 1998, his criticism of corruption, secularism and decadence seemed increasingly dangerous.

Sadr II reached out to the poor with a charity supported by pious Iraqis. Tens of thousands of young men, often from poor homes, began to attend the mosques where his young disciples preached. The most senior leader of the Iraqi Shia was (and is) Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a much more learned scholar. But Sistani was born in Iran and did not give public sermons—some said because he did not want people to hear him speak Arabic with a Persian accent. Young men sometimes mocked him in private, calling him the "silent leader" and gave their hearts to the unimpeachably Arab Iraqi nationalist, Sadr II.

In 1999, Sadr II was assassinated by Saddam. This martyrdom turned a growing movement into perhaps the most powerful popular religious movement in Iraq. Sadr II's legacy was continued through his grassroots network of social foundations and the young preachers, led by his chief of staff and surviving son, Muqtada, a cleric in his late twenties. After the invasion, almost anything in a Shia district that had been called "Saddam" was renamed "Sadr" (hence Baghdad's Sadr City, a poor suburb of 2.5m people). Posters of Sadr II appeared throughout the south. Whereas Saddam was depicted in suits, sheikhly costume or military uniform and holding rosary beads, a Cuban cigar or a hunting rifle, Sadr was depicted in his black robes, preaching.

The party of his son Muqtada — the Office of the Martyr Sadr — is emotional in appeal, exploiting Shia themes of martyrdom and messianic beliefs about the coming redeemer. It is anti-coalition—Muqtada led an uprising against the "occupation" for much of last year in which thousands died. It is also popular. In Maysan, a proxy of Muqtada's party took three times as many votes as the next party, and the head of the Sadr office in a provincial city became governor of Maysan. The group has a militia called the "army of the Mahdi imam."
Now here's something I didn't know:

The Sadrist groups called Fadhile and Fudhala, led by the former chief of staff of Muqtada's late father, share the same theological views and Iraqi nationalism as Muqtada but are more moderate in their politics. Their supporters are often urban professionals whereas Muqtada's are from the urban poor. The governor of Basra is from Fadhile.
Finally, Da'wa:

The third of the three Shia religious parties is still called Da'wa. It was involved in terrorist operations in Kuwait and against Saddam (its Lebanese faction became Hizbullah with Iranian support). But it also established a more moderate branch in London, which rejected Iran and further subdivided. One branch, with the closest links to Iran, became Iraqi Da'wa, whose leader Abu Akil I met in March. Another became the Islamic Da'wa party whose de facto leader is the new Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari.
Despite the fact that these three groups descended from a common political/religious ancestor, they are by no means a cohesive and unitary bloc. Although they are lumped together in the Sistani endorsed UIA, which controls the central government with help from the Kurdish faction, there are signs of unrest. As I suggested in a previous post, the unified UIA ticket might very well splinter into competing factions in the near future, as each appears discontented to stay in its current subservient role. This friction will, hopefully, create room for a real differentiation of political platform that would have the ability to appeal to Iraqis across confessional lines. By the flipside of the same token, however, the tensions between these three factions could erupt into large scale power struggle that has the potential for massive bloodshed.

Meet The New Boss

As Stewart notes, the UIA still has to cooperate with their Kurdish coalition partners in the federal government, but in the south, the three factions enjoy total control of their respective fiefdoms. The results have been, as mentioned above, mixed. On the one hand, law and order has been restored (more on this below), but on the other, there has been a resurgence of religious dogmatism backed up by well-armed extra-governmental militias.

Although they now hold all of the senior elected positions in the provincial government and have thousands of followers in the police and the ministries, the groups continue to rely on their militias. They use them to enforce religious practices: firebombing internet cafes, alcohol and music shops, and attacking unveiled women. Many from minority religious groups, such as the Christians, have fled to Baghdad, preferring the terror in the Sunni triangle to threats from the Shia parties. In March, the Sadr militia in Basra attacked a group of engineering students from the local university who were having a picnic. Apparently angry that men and women were sitting together, that some of the Christian women were unveiled and that some of the Christians were carrying alcohol (none of which was illegal), the Sadrists kidnapped some of them and shot dead a female student for wearing jeans. Basra's new governor, a Fadhile Sadrist from the movement's more moderate wing, defended the actions of the Sadr Office.[...]

Meanwhile, the new politicians use their militias to enforce their will whenever they are frustrated by the new constitution. If SCIRI or the Sadrists are unable to fire a provincial minister through the formal channels, they send the Badr brigades or the Mahdi army to knock on his door. The Islamist politicians are urban and anti-tribal and do not try to work with or around the sheikhs in order to extend government into the rural areas where perhaps half of southern Iraqis live. And the Sadrist movement in particular is reluctant to co-operate directly with an "infidel, colonial" coalition. The Sadrist governor of Maysan has instructed Iraqi police units to cease joint patrols with the coalition. In Dhi Qar, the Fadhile faction in the council has suggested rejecting all development assistance from the coalition. In Basra, the governor has supported the arrest of coalition soldiers. Furthermore, the militias continue to mount terrorist attacks against the coalition, most recently killing soldiers and embassy guards with shaped explosive charges, designed in Iran.
Although it comes at a price, the heavy handedness of the Islamist groups could provoke something of a backlash in subsequent elections. Especially if the UIA splinters, and there are viable secular parties that emerge in its wake. To the extent possible, our efforts should be to assist a more tolerant political manifestation that could encompass those who would turn away from this style of governance. The Christians mentioned above would be one such disaffected group ripe for the picking. And there are more.

Partly because of such incidents, educated middle-class Iraqis are often horrified by their new leaders. Even if they did vote for the "Sistani list" that now governs Iraq, they do not want to be ruled by men who have spent 20 years as Iranian secret agents or who have no education outside a theological seminary. Some are so afraid that they are leaving Iraq.
It should also be mentioned that, though unpopular to certain groups, these three parties have delivered in some key areas of governance. Most importantly, they have restored security which in today's Iraq is highly valued, to say the least.

Nevertheless, southern Iraq is in a better condition now than it was last year. For much of 2004, the southern provinces were caught up in a full-blown insurgency. In Maysan, in October 2003, the police chief was assassinated on the steps of a Sadrist mosque and in May 2004, the governor shot dead another police chief (with Iranian connections) in a hospital morgue. In the neighbouring province of Dhi Qar, the police were powerless, officials corrupt, beatings and rape commonplace and services faltering. When I left Iraq in June 2004, a civil war seemed almost inevitable—not between grand factions but between small local groups that were simultaneously mafia, tribes and political parties. Neither the police nor the coalition were in a position to control them.

But when I returned to Iraq this year, scores of Iraqis told me that security was much better in the south. This improvement was, of course, relative: my friend Sheikh al-Ibadi praised the security improvements, but did so while breathing heavily because he had just been shot three times in the chest in an assassination attempt. The political militias still kill people and collect "contributions" by threat; diesel smuggling rackets are booming and there were 60 murders in Basra in July alone.

But the rackets in carjacking, kidnapping and archaeological theft which dominated the south a year ago have largely been beaten. The highways are safer. Businesses in Basra are not forced to pay protection money to gangsters. There are still attacks on the coalition but the Sadrists stopped their full-scale armed resistance in September 2004 and have since allowed some of their supporters to join the government....The Islamist militias hate each other, but apart from an incident in September they have avoided large-scale battles. Nor have they become full-time gangsters: they have rarely, for example, involved themselves in the huge black market in diesel. Moreover, although many politicians have been killed in Baghdad and elsewhere, I am not aware of a single provincial governor or member of a provincial council in the four southern provinces who has been killed since Saddam's fall.
Stewart identifies some other sources for the Shiite good governance, as well as their heretofore remarkable self restraint in the face of a brutal insurgency.

Despite their intolerance and violent methods, the new politicians are often young technocrats with a confident and articulate programme of anti-corruption and economic development. Their religious beliefs can be an important moderating influence in Shia society. So too are wider mechanisms of social control, confidence and moral concern. Thousands of Shia have been killed by Sunni terrorists in Iraq but the Shia community has generally refused to retaliate. Restraint has been shown not only by Sistani but also by political leaders at a district level. The leaders I met on my last visit had stopped complaining that they were the victims of a Zionist plot and seemed realistic, tolerant and humorous about progress. They had begun to find the capacity to co-operate with each other and lay the foundations for government and security.
Since I have already borrowed so liberally from Mssr. Stewart, I will allow him to conclude this piece with his analysis of what is a messy entanglement of pluses and minuses, the what if's and what will never be's - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Southern Iraq is a democracy but we should not assume that this or any of the other terms which we deploy frequently about Iraq — insurgency, civil society, civil war, police force or even political party — mean what they do in Britain. There have been elections, but the government is not responsive to or respectful of human rights. In many ways it resembles Iran, but it is not governed by clerics. Its militias are not infiltrators, they are an integral element of the elected parties. The new government is oppressive, but has a popular mandate; it is supported by illegal militias, but it has improved security.

This is not the kind of state the coalition had hoped to create. During 14 months of direct rule, until the middle of last year, we tried to prevent it from emerging. We refused to allow Shari'a law to be "the source of legislation" in the constitution. We invested in religious minorities and women's centres; supported rural areas and tribal groups; funded NGOs and created "representative bodies" that were intended to reflect a vision of Iraq as a tolerant, modern society. We hoped that we had created the opportunity for civil society to flourish. This was a dream we shared with many Iraqis. We refused to deal with the Sadr militia and fought a long counter- insurgency campaign against them. Then we left, an election was held and the dream collapsed—the Islamist parties took almost all the seats provincially and nationally. The rural sheikhs, the "liberal" middle classes and the religious minorities mostly vanished from the government.

Some observers suggest that people voted for Islamist parties out of ignorance or poverty. But most people in the south share the parties' vision of a more religious, moral and traditional society, as well as their suspicion of non-Muslims and "western decadence and colonialism." They are proud of being Iraqis and Shia Muslims. They may dislike the brutality of their new leaders and be suspicious of their connections to Iran, but they prefer them to the coalition.

Most people in the south tolerate the coalition only because they believe the presence of the troops in bases may deter civil war. Iraqis are reluctant to trust us or work with us. Because of this lack of co-operation, it has been difficult for the coalition to achieve as much as it had hoped with its billions of dollars in development aid, and it has received almost no credit for its efforts. The Shia are grateful that the coalition toppled Saddam but for little else. Despite thousands of troops and tens of millions invested in essential services, despite a number of impressive reconstruction projects, despite ambitious programmes in police training and in developing "good governance and civil society," the coalition has had only a minimal political impact in southern Iraq.

The British soldier engulfed by flames and his colleagues who were kidnapped were not simply victims of mob violence, or even of an illegal militia. They were confronting the authorities of an independent state. In place of last year's insurgency, there is now an increasingly confident governing apparatus in the south, which extends from governors and provincial councillors to the militias, police and ministries. The leaders of these groups have a distinctive Islamist ideology and complex history. This new Islamist state is elected, it functions and it is relatively popular. We may not like it, but we can only try to understand it and acknowledge that there is now little we can do to influence it. [emphasis added throughout]
(Cross-posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Did I Say Texas Mafia?

All I'm going to say is go read this short post from Josh Marshall. I'll wait for you to get through it. Done? Good. Now go read this second post from Josh.

WOW. This is getting verrrrrry interesting. Karl's in trouble. And Bush obviously lied, big time, about his intention to hold anyone involved accountable. Unless there is some other definition of accountable out there, and some other standard for knowing about involvement.

Note also from the DeFrank article cited by Josh Marshall (as well as other recent disclosures): there are some very senior White House officials coming clean for the first time in years. The discipline, the secrecy, the veil - all are disintegrating at once. What will this sudden burst of sunlight reveal when all is told? I've got a couple of guesses.

Quote of the Day - Tony Soprano Approved

Gene Lyons commenting on the White House's outing of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame:

In the [New York] Times' front-page account of Miller's off-again, on-again refusal to testify before Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury, editor Bill Keller admits some embarrassment.

"I wish it had been a clear-cut whistleblower case," he said.

I wonder what they’re putting in the water coolers up on West 43 rd Street. It wasn't a whistleblower case at all. It was the exact opposite: the most powerful people in the United States using the press to damage a whistleblower by endangering his wife, something even the Mob won't do. [emphasis added]
Wrong again Mr. Lyons. That's something the Italian Mafia wouldn't do. This is the Texas Mafia. Sheesh.

Shining A Spotlight In Dark Places

Through one of its founders, the bi-partisan Coalition for Darfur, of which TIA is a member, is hosting a Spotlight On Darfur forum over at this site. There is a compilation of interesting articles and pieces, and a compilation of worthwhile information and links (even a post by yours truly). Go check it out, and give Eddie a shout in the comments section. His work on this is truly admirable.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Stand Up, Sit Down

The Few, The Proud

Most discussions about Iraq, and our eventual ability to withdraw troops from the area, center around the achievement of certain milestones. The elections last January were one such benchmark, the constitutional referendum another, and in December there will be a second round of elections which hold the promise of actual Sunni involvement. While each of these steps forward are encouraging on their own, and hopefully each is contributing to an overall positive momentum, the most important indicia of our ability to withdraw substantial numbers of troops in good conscience remains the stability of the nation of Iraq and that country's ability to quell the various insurgencies and form a cohesive and inclusive state.

Despite increasing calls by politicians on both sides of the aisle, I do not believe we should withdraw our troops until it is clear (as close as possible) that a full blown civil war will not erupt in our absence, that the nation of Iraq will not fragment into sub-states (possibly failed states) and/or that the country will not be overrun by foreign elements. It is our ability to forestall such a large scale civil war and breaking up of the country that is the most compelling argument for the continued presence of our armed forces - en masse. This rationale does not necessarily subside because a constitution has been approved or an elected assembly is sworn in. In too many ways, they are not as dependent on each other as we would like.

One of the factors often referred to as helping to create the environment of stability needed is the formation of an Iraqi Army. As Bush is fond of saying, "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But if our interest is truly staving off a larger civil war, and preventing the fragmentation of the nation, then we should reconsider what lies behind that simple edict. It is not enough to "stand up" an Iraqi army. We must pay attention to the kind of Iraqi army we are helping to form or we might in fact be engaging in a counterproductive exercise - in the process, we could be unwittingly helping to bring about the very scenarios we hope most to avoid. Allow me to explain.

First of all, we need to be careful of the quality and type of soldiers we recruit (an obvious statement, but easier said than done). Dr. Morton Halperin, writing at Democracy Arsenal, discusses some of the historic lessons from Vietnam and how they relate to our current efforts in Iraq. According to Halperin, the process of forming the South Vietnamese army was plagued by three slightly different phenomena (familiar to our current predicament). First:

In Vietnam we learned after it was over that about one third of those we armed and trained were actually in the Viet Cong Army. This meant surprise operations were impossible and a significant part of our force was actually on the other side. There is every reason to believe that this is true now in Iraq.

In Vietnam, another roughly one third of the trainees in the Republic of Vietnam's army (ARVN) would quickly take the weapons they were given and sell them on the black market. In Iraq we again see signs of the same thing with large desertion levels and US weapons showing up in insurgency hands.
And third:

The remaining ARVN troops, neither secretly the enemy or ready to desert and sell what they had been given, were in it for the pay and for the prestige and the opportunity to plunder. It was no wonder that despite years of training and the provision of equipment far superior to the enemy the ARVN was never capable of winning either the guerrilla war or the full scale battles that marked the final stages of the conflict. This was not for lack of training but for lack of commitment.
As Halperin points out, the Iraqis don't necessarily need training as much as motivation and loyalty. The various militias, for example, fight quite well without deserting even though they lack the advantage of superior equipment and advanced tactical instruction. What they do have is commitment and loyalty in spades. The task, and it's a daunting one, is to field an Iraqi army made up of soldiers that are highly motivated, committed to the larger purpose (not just looking for a paycheck), and that owe their allegiance first and foremost to the Iraqi nation - and not to one or more ethnic, sectarian or tribal groups. Given these lofty standards (made less accessible by the polarizing effect of sectarian/ethnic violence), it is easy to understand how the number of stand alone battalions has gone from three to one. This article on the state of the recruitment and training of Iraq's police forces, written by a captain in the US Army, highlights many of the same impediments flagged by Halperin vis a vis the army.

You and Whose Army?

The other big concern in administering this process is that the eventual army be composed of more than just Shiites and Kurds. As mentioned above, conflicting loyalties being what they are, if there is not enough of a Sunni presence in the new Iraqi army it becomes more likely that the institution will become a vehicle of certain factions to the exclusion and detriment of others. Garrisoning Shiites and Kurds in Sunni regions is likely to escalate, not defuse, tensions. Put simply, we could be funding, training and equipping one or two parts of a three way civil war and making that outcome more likely by putting sparks nearer the tinderbox. Tom Lasseter, writing for Knight Ridder, offers an invaluable look at just how problematic the issue of split loyalties in the new Iraqi army really is.
The Bush administration's exit strategy for Iraq rests on two pillars: an inclusive, democratic political process that includes all major ethnic groups and a well-trained Iraqi national army. But a week spent eating, sleeping and going on patrol with a crack unit of the Iraqi army - the 4,500-member 1st Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Division - suggests that the strategy is in serious trouble. Instead of rising above the ethnic tension that's tearing their nation apart, the mostly Shiite troops are preparing for, if not already fighting, a civil war against the minority Sunni population.
Lasseter moves from the general to the specific, discussing the case of Swadi Ghilan whose two sons and daughter were brutally gunned down in broad daylight by what were most likely Sunni insurgents.
Ghilan is a major in the Iraqi army and a Shiite Muslim, the sect that makes up some 60 percent of Iraq's population. Now, more than ever, the grieving father says he wants to hunt down and kill not only Sunni guerrilla fighters but also Sunnis who give those fighters shelter and support. By that, he means killing most Sunnis in Iraq.

"There are two Iraqs; it's something that we can no longer deny," Ghilan said. "The army should execute the Sunnis in their neighborhoods so that all of them can see what happens, so that all of them learn their lesson."

Ghilan's army unit is responsible for security in western Baghdad, where many Sunnis live. But the soldiers are overwhelmingly Shiite, and, like Ghilan, they're seeking revenge against the Sunnis who oppressed them during Saddam Hussein's rule.
In defense of Ghilan, and his comrades, the Shiites have undoubtedly suffered much in the past at the hands of Saddam's regime and continue to suffer to this day as the insurgencies rage. But if civil war is to be averted, we must find some means of controlling these all-too-human impulses. Creating mixed units would, hopefully, be one way to achieve this. If not, Shiite units could run roughshod over Sunni regions driving more and more into the ranks of the insurgencies (thus creating a downward spiral of violence). Unfortunately, recruiting Sunnis has been difficult, despite the laudable intentions of the American forces.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad familiar with Iraqi army operations said American officers are concerned about the lack of Sunnis in the Iraqi forces and have started a massive recruiting campaign. In the past three months, some 4,000 Sunnis have been recruited and are undergoing training, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

"We never intended to create a Shiite army," the official said. "Clearly, one of our number one concerns going forward ... is sectarianism ... that revenge mentality."
Nevertheless, as Lasseter points out, "American commanders often refer to the 1st Brigade as a template for the future of Iraq's military," further, "It's one of the rare Iraqi units with a command competent at the brigade level, instead of just smaller company or battalion-based units." This is troubling because, upon closer inspection, this is not exactly the type of unit that would embody the spirit of loyalty to a larger Iraq and ability to transcend the ethnic/sectarian divides needed to head off the potential disaster looming on the horizon. In fact, there is an unsettling relationship between non-governmental religious figures and military personnel - an unhinging of civilian, governmental control of the armed forces which is a linchpin of most successful democracies.
The Iraqi troops consult with American advisers daily. On big raids in dangerous areas, the Americans often take the lead with their superior firepower.

But day to day, the Iraqi officers mostly run their own show, carrying out most of the patrols and running checkpoints without help. Increasingly, however, they look and operate less like an Iraqi national army unit and more like a Shiite militia.

Shwail, the 1st brigade's top officer, regularly reviews important decisions, including troop distribution, with a prominent local Shiite cleric who's closely aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious figure in Iraq.

The brigade and its sectarian leanings has alarmed not only Sunnis in the area but also other Iraqi military commanders.

They said they worry that a mostly Shiite military unit will follow religious clerics before national leaders, risking a breakdown in the army along sectarian lines.

"It is a mistake," said Col. Fadhil al-Barawary, the Kurdish commander of the Iraqi army's commando battalion, housed on the same base with the 1st Brigade. "The danger is that when there is strife between Sunnis and Shiites in the neighborhoods it creates problems" with loyalties.

Barawary continued: "It's a total mistake to have soldiers taking orders from the marja'iya. It puts us all in danger." Barawary was referring to the ruling council of Shiite clerics, whose word is law for most Shiites in Iraq.
Predictably, this brigade, comprised of Shiites taking cues from religious leaders, is prone to view the current struggle in sectarian terms (rightly or wrongly), which doesn't bode well for those that insist that as we fill in the ranks of an Iraqi army, we can withdraw from the region. An army like this might actually increase the chances of civil war, rather than provide stability and a sense of nationalism.
The brigade last week raided the home of Saleh al-Mutlak, one of the most prominent Sunni politicians in the country, a day after an Iraqi soldier was shot and killed in the neighborhood. Soldiers said some gunfire had come from the direction of Mutlak's house during the raid on his neighborhood.

Arab satellite news stations carried images of a car with its windows smashed in Mutlak's driveway, and Mutlak held a news conference, saying that the soldiers who came into his home were thugs.

Sgt. Maj. Asad al-Zubaidi said Mutlak was lucky he wasn't shot.

"When we are in charge of security the people will follow a law that says you will be sentenced to prison if you speak against the government, and for people like Saleh Mutlak there will be execution," Zubaidi said. "Thousands of people are being killed by Saleh Mutlak and these dogs."
Other soldiers from the brigade reacted to the shooting of one from their ranks in a Sunni neighborhood:
"Even if you people, you Sunnis, roll tanks on our heads we will not give this country back to you," Mousawi said. "It's ours now."

Two days after the shooting, Sgt. Ahmed Sabri stood outside the Umm al Qura mosque, home to the militant Sunni Muslim Scholars Association. The mosque is just down the road from where Jabar was shot.

"Every man we've had killed and wounded is because of that mosque. Thousands and thousands of Shiites are being killed, which is why they're joining the army," Sabri said. "Just let us have our constitution and elections in December and then we will do what Saddam did - start with five people from each neighborhood and kill them in the streets and then go from there."

Asked if he worried about possible fighting between his men and the Sunnis at Umm al Qura, the brigade's command sergeant major, Hassan Kadhum, smiled.

"Your country had to have a civil war," he said. "It will be the same here. Everything in this world has its price. In Iraq the price for peace will be blood."

Kadhum thought the matter over for a few more moments.

"There will be a day when we take that mosque and make it an army headquarters," Kadhum said.
Adding another layer to this conundrum, some of the troops in this brigade even indicated a willingness, if not latent desire, to turn on American forces if and when their religious leaders so instruct them:
Some Iraqi troops went a step further, saying they were only awaiting word from the marja'iya before turning on American forces. Although many Shiites are grateful for the overthrow of Saddam, they also are suspicious of U.S. motives. Those suspicions partly stem from the failure of the first Bush administration to support a U.S.-encouraged Shiite uprising against Saddam in 1991. Saddam suppressed it and slaughtered thousands.

"In Amariyah last week, a car bomb hit a U.S. Humvee and their soldiers began to shoot randomly. They killed a lot of innocent civilians. I was there; I saw it," said Sgt. Fadhal Yahan. "This happens all the time. If they keep doing this, the people will attack them. And we are part of the people."

Sgt. Jawad Majid chimed in: "We have our marja'iya and we are waiting for them to decide when the time to fight (the Americans) is, when it is no longer time to be silent." [emphasis added throughout]
It should go without saying that there are no easy solutions to this and so many of the other problems hampering our efforts in Iraq. Forging an army that represents all factions in Iraq (consisting of well-intentioned and motivated recruits) and one capable of rising above the continuous violence perpetrated primarily by certain sectarian factions (the Sunnis overwhelmingly initially, but that is changing) in order to maintain a sense of duty and loyalty to the larger nation will be enormously difficult. Frequent setbacks and recalibrations should be expected.

But much hangs in the balance, so getting this right is worth the political capital, wherewithal, time, resources and effort necessary to see it through. If the interest of creating an Iraqi army and police force as a fig leaf for our exit supersedes the interest of establishing a functional and representative version of each, we may be doing worse than wasting our time. We could be actively working against our stated goals. That is no way to avoid a wide ranging civil war that could easily morph into regional war.

(Cross-posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Forest, Not The Trees

Back in July, I linked to an informative Larry Johnson post discussing Valerie Plame's status as a "NOC" (a non-official cover officer) in the CIA. In Johnson's words:

A few of my classmates, and Valerie was one of these, became a non-official cover officer. That meant she agreed to operate overseas without the protection of a diplomatic passport. If caught in that status she would have been executed. [emphasis added]
Despite this reality, which is known to many inside the beltway types, there are still examples of craven dishonesty from this crowd like Richard Cohen's recent column pleading with Patrick Fitzgerald to pack up his tent and leave town. No crime was committed, says Cohen (he knows how?), or if one was, well nobody meant anything by it (he knows how?). But by God's good grace, don't indict anybody! That would be a travesty of justice. I guess.

Johnson is worth turning to again to remind us of one of the crucial facets of this case that can sometimes get lost behind the backstory of hyped up intelligence and deception about WMD used to goad a nation into a strategically disastrous war; the intrigue of Judith Miller's predicament and her six degrees of separation
connection to so much scandal; the schadenfraude-rich decline of Karl Rove; the off-putting incongruity of such rank tactics with people named "Scooter" - which just oozes David Lynchian themes ("something-dark-lurks-beneath-the-veneer-of-suburban-preppyism").

The whole point of this, the backbone of this story, is that national security was compromised for the sake of petty political vengeance. People's lives were put in danger. Despite the lies of some shameless partisan hacks, Valerie Plame was outed.
Larry Johnson reminds us of what this means:

Other mental midgets like Cohen, such as Victoria Toensing, continue to insist that no crime could have been committed because Valerie Plame, "worked at a desk job". Newsflash for these so-called Washington insiders who have proven they know nothing about the intelligence community--at least 40% of the people working at CIA Headquarters are working undercover. Just because they may physically go to the CIA building in McLean, Virginia everyday does not mean that their relationship with the CIA is acknowledged.

During my four years of sitting at a desk at CIA I was undercover. My position with the CIA was not even known by my own parents. Only my wife was privy to that secret. Many of the undercover folks still working at CIA are at headquarters on a temporary basis. Some travel overseas on temporary assignments that last less than a month. Others await a semi-permanent posting for a two or three year stint overseas.

The point that Cohen and the other White House hacks have missed is that protecting the identities of intelligence officers, whether they are working under official or non-official cover, is part of national defense. To compromise these identities is to commit an act of treason.

Patrick Fitzgerald understands that he must prosecute within the confines of the law. However, he also understands that what was done to the wife of Ambassador Joe Wilson was more than a rough game of inside the beltway hardball. Karl Rove told Chris Matthews that "Wilson's wife is fair game". Not only was she an unfair target, but in going after her the White House political crew unwittingly exposed several intelligence assets and caused the loss of intelligence assets overseas.

Richard Cohen is dead wrong to argue that the best thing Patrick Fitzgerald can do is leave town. To the contrary, the best thing Patrick Fitzgerald can do is
send a clear message to politicians in both parties that when it comes to political hardball intelligence assets must be kept out of the game. At the end of the day our nation's security is no game, it is a matter of life and death.
As I've said before, priorities people. Priorities. I mean, clearly the Democrats don't appreciate the importance of national security. Er...right? Mark Kleiman offers a personal account consistent with Johnson's description of NOC status.

Several aeons ago, when I was young and irresponsible and worked on drug policy at the Justice Department, I saw some work product from a first-rate analyst at the CIA and had a number of telephone conversations with him from his office in the CIA's counternarcotics center at Langley.

I noticed that the name he used on the phone -- let's say "Jim Smith" -- wasn't the name on the work product, which I knew from the restricted-distribution list attached to it was circulating to the very highest levels. I assumed that someone up his chain of command had stolen credit for the analysis, and commiserated with him about it. "Jim" delicately pointed out that people in his line of work used more than one name. Ooops!

One day I called his office and someone else answered the phone. "Jim" wasn't there, I was told. I asked if I could leave a message. No, "Jim" was out of the country and wouldn't be back for some time. "Where can I reach him?" I asked stupidly. The frozen silence on the other end of the line informed me of my error; I never saw or heard of "Jim" again.

So "driving to a desk job at Langley" and "being a NOC" are not inconsistent facts.
All partisanship aside, how can anyone defend this type of action? How can anyone justify the fact that Karl Rove, KARL ROVE, is still the President's closest advisor? And good ol' Scooter Libby - he still paces the corridors of power. What spectacular demands Bush makes of his supporters. You are forced to rationalize this destructiveness; defend crimes that probably make your skin crawl. I can say with all sincerity, I don't envy you for that.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Absolute Zero?

Last week I noted that Bush's approval rating in New York State had dipped to a frosty 29%. But that was Blue State bastion New York, not exactly indicative of the nation's political leanings.

Or so I thought. In the most recent national poll conducted by NBC/Wall Street Journal, Bush's approval ratings across the nation have plumetted to 39% (the lowest of his Presidency as recorded by NBC/WSJ). 39% is not 29%, but its pretty bad.

But wait, it gets worse. According to the same poll, only 2% of African Americans approve of Bush's performance. 2%. Two measly little percents. What exactly is two percent in poll-speak? You could probably get more Americans to say the Earth was flat, that Santa Claus was real or that the moon was made of cheese if you polled it. In other words, operation big tent isn't exactly working.


(h/t to Andrew Sullivan)

Intrigue, Vectors and a Mosaic of Fault Lines

Vector Vexation

Since the punditocracy has shown a predilection for making comparisons between Iraq's struggle to forge a constitution with our own in the late 18th Century, I thought it would be worthwhile to inject the philosophical thesis of one of the framers, James Madison, into the mix. The always recommended Publius from Legal Fiction provides an insightful backdrop:

When Madison and others were arguing in favor of the large democratic republic now known as the U.S. of A., the conventional wisdom was not on their side. The prevailing view was that, in order to succeed, a republic had to be small and largely homogenous because "factions" would inevitably develop. The fear was either that diverse factions in a large republic would make it unstable, or that one faction would seize power and oppress the minority (or even the majority). The larger the republic became, the more likely it would be that these problems would arise - or so everyone thought.

In the Federalist Papers (#10), Madison - developing an idea of empiricist David Hume (one of my heroes) - turned that wisdom on its head. He argued that the best way to preserve stability and prevent tyranny of a majority or minority faction was to increase the size of the republic. This is an important contribution to political thought....Madison's argument was that by increasing the size of the country, you increase the diversity of interests and factions, which in turn makes it much more difficult for any one faction to seize power or act against the public interest. In other words, the bigger your group gets, the harder it becomes for any one faction to control it - and given the history of mankind, that's a good thing. Here's Madison in his own words:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
What's really cool is that you can clearly see the influence of Newtonian physics (and Enlightenment rationalism more generally) at play in Federalist #10. The various factions are like vectors that will cancel each other out or push the governmental body towards the common good (or at least away from corruption and tyranny). It's all very logical.
One can immediately see how such a theory is relevant to the current dynamic in Iraq, with the various competing ethnic and religious factions, but Publius saves us some of the work by connecting the dots in a subsequent post.

The vectors are really the key to the theory of the big republic. The idea is that they become so diverse and overlapping in a large republic that they result in fluid coalitions that vary by issue. Because it's hard for any one faction (or interest group) to hold together on all issues, it's harder for that faction to maintain the power necessary to undermine the government.

At first glance, you would think that the theory of the big republic should give us hope for Iraq's future. After all, the great fear is that ethnic factionalism will rip the country apart - or that one faction will come to dominate the others. However, by creating a national republic of elected representatives, the factions would be multiplied. For instance, urban Shi'a would have common cause with urban Sunni on certain issues, and so on. The idea would be to drown the ethnic factions within a sea of Newtonian vectors and shifting coalitions.

It sounds nice, but I don't think it will work in Iraq. And here's why. I think the ethnic tensions run so deep and are so bitter that they will prevent new vectors from forming. In a sense, the tensions have formed impenetrable floodwalls around each ethnic group that prevent other common interests from "leaking through" to forge the shifting coalitions so essential to Madison's theory. Fellow urban-dwellers from rival ethnic camps who might otherwise have a common interest won't be able to get past the ethnic hatred. This centuries-old hatred will prevent the new urban coalition from forming.
Pat Lang offers a similar, though somewhat different, perspective (via praktike):

The Sunni Arabs are supporting the insurgencies because they are unwilling to accept the radical re-distribution of power and wealth on the basis of "one man, one vote" that we are sponsoring. Why are we doing that? It is because we believe, deeply, that justice in voting rights for INDIVIDUALS produces government that embodies a "National Compact" that is accepted by all. The Middle East is not like that. In the Middle East people self-identify in a number of ways, only one of which is at the level of the individual. More importantly, people there predominately see themselves as members of COMMUNITIES of various kinds whether they be ethno-religious, tribal, clan, regional or just plain family. A system that strips an individual's community of power and wealth is inevitably going to be seen as HOSTILE and to be defeated.
Despite the pessimism, I believe Publius (and maybe Lang as well) would agree that the value of Zal Khalilzad's nominal breakthrough with respect to the constitution was that it might buy time for the formation of cross-sectarian/ethnic "vectors" or "non-communitarian" enclaves. If the agreement to re-form a constitutional panel after the December elections can sap some of the support for, and participation in, the various insurgencies, then Zal will have created the requisite space to allow for the softening of ethnic/sectarian boundaries. Put off the inevitable day of reckoning as long as possible and hope that a renewed national entity can supersede the more communal impulses. Even if it is only enough to forestall the commencement of an all-out civil war, it might carve out the breathing room necessary to allow Iraqis to begin identifying along less rigid lines and to act on what are, underneath it all, vastly differing goals, aspirations and conceptions of what life should look like in the new Iraq that don't necessarily neatly form along strict ethnic/sectarian lines. Without the emergence of non-communal based vectors, Iraq's future is bleak.

Fault Lines and Tectonic Shifts

There is evidence that the political situation may, in fact, be more fluid than some have warned. The cross-ethnic alliance between the Kurds and Shiites is showing signs of fraying. Recently, there appeared to be a rift forming within this marriage of convenience, with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (a Kurdish leader) calling on Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (a Shiite and leader of the UIA) to resign his post over issues related to power sharing and the resettlement of the hotly contested city of Kirkuk. If the Kurds bolted the coalition, the UIA would have to look for another partner in order to maintain a majority in the assembly - no easy task in the current state of affairs. Of course, this could have been just one more example of Kurdish brinkmanship in order to get a better deal, and faster, on Kirkuk. Nevertheless, it is an indication of how fragile at least this alliance is.

Beyond the Kurdish/Shiite sniping, there is an increased interest in the future of the UIA - which is by no means a settled question. Many are speculating that the UIA will splinter into several groups each with differing agendas, ahead of the December elections. The grand coalition of Shiite parties has, after all, always been a somewhat heterodox conglomeration of characters that are not all natural political allies outside of their common religious affiliation.

One of the main irritants in the UIA universe has always been the brash, though cunning, Moqtada al-Sadr. Throughout the occupation, Sadr has, with surprising skill, been cultivating a political niche for his faction, casting himself as the independent voice of the downtrodden (a natural fit for the heir to Sadr City), in opposition to the Americans and those that work with or for them. Rhetorically, he often heaps dispersions on the UIA leadership calling them corrupt, obsequious to the CPA and unable to deliver basic services to the people (thus capitalizing on what are grim realities of electricity shortages, unemployment, and other infrastructural decay). Sadr's independent streak even went as far as to lead him to take a hostile stance to the draft constitution - before he watered down his opposition in the face of mounting pressure.

There are indications that Sistani is taking this posturing by Sadr seriously by proceeding to distance himself from the current Iraqi government that has proven to be less than effective, and not entirely popular even amongst Iraq's Shiites. Just last week there was this statement from Sistani (via Swopa):
Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has told his closest followers not to run in December elections or support any candidates, aides said, suggesting no party stands to win his backing.

That could spell difficulties for the parties in the already much criticised government coalition, who profited in January's poll from a wide perception that they had Sistani's blessing.[...]

A statement from Sistani's office said any official of his clerical organisation who runs on a party list or openly supports candidates will "lose his status as a representative".

"Sayyid Sistani bans his representatives from nominating themselves in the next election after they proposed to run," said the statement.
In addition to Sistani cutting ties with the UIA to counter Sadr's advances, SCIRI's Badr Corp has had more than a few run-ins with Sadr's Mahdi militia . In other words, this is not one big happy family and each player is intent on jockeying for its own larger share of power. If the UIA dissolves, for lack of Sistani's blessing or otherwise, I predict we will see Iyad Allawi make a comeback for the December elections (to be held whether or not there is a "yes" or "no" vote on the constitutional referendum) in an effort to cobble together pieces of the various factions into something of a fourth way - distinct from ethnic/sectarian identification (in fact, Allawi will probably be on the scene in December regardless of the UIA's demise or continued existence - despite the fact that some 20 members of his cabinet were just indicted on corruption charges).

Allawi, or a politician in the same vein (the unsinkable Ahmed Chalabi?), will try to lure the more secular and/or disillusioned Shiites from the UIA bloc as well as Kurdish and Sunni groups willing to coalesce around a common political purpose. There certainly are numerous Sunni factions from which Allawi could seek to forge alliances, and the Sunnis are far from monolithic in their outlook for the future. Much will depend on the tack taken by Sunni voters in the December elections, and the extent to which the politicians they elect will feel constrained by communal demands ala Pat Lang above.

Similarly, the Kurds (though acting as one) are actually, at the very least, two competing groups so a fourth faction might be able to lure a few outliers away from the fold (though I imagine, as always, the level of autonomy and the status of Kirkuk will be the guiding principles of any Kurdish politician). The question remains, though, will Sistani give a group of secularists his blessing? Without it, could this fourth faction really garner enough electoral support to supplant the more religious parties, or even become a player in a future coalition? I think there is at least a possibility of the latter occuring. If successful, this could be the fruition of the Madisonian call for the formation of "vectors" - especially if it forces other groups to react in kind by reaching out across ethnic/sectarian lines. It will test whether there are indeed impenetrable boundaries around each faction that prevents inter-factional cooperation. Unfortunately, both Allawi and Chalabi are less than ideal choices to be the uniting force behind the movement to broach these divides. Each has more than enough baggage, dubious ethical character and a historical closeness to the Americans that will not help in establishing their legitimacy or appeal.

My guess is that Zal Khalilzad has been working to bolster the fourth faction (regardless of its figurehead) behind the scenes, while trying to plant the seeds of dissension amongst the competing members of the UIA - the better to counter the prospect of Iranian influence over Iraq should a unified UIA continue to dominate the Iraqi political landscape. But any attempt to encourage intra-communal fragmentation bears its own risks. As Anthony Shadid noted, there is a dark side to the stoking of internecine hostilities:
This question of civil war is really pressing, and I think it is actually important to say whether one is under way or not. I believe it is, but maybe not in the way we've fashioned it in the past: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. When I think of the civil war in Iraq, I'm struck by the fault lines that are getting less attention. There is the sometimes explosive rivalry between Hakim's Badr militia and the Sadr forces. We've seen time and again the flaring of differences in western Iraq between insurgent groups. (As far back as last year, I heard an Iraqi guerrilla from Fallujah, of the nationalist variety, vowing to shoot any Arab expat trying to give him orders.) We should be careful in not minimizing differences between the two Kurdish parties. Understandably our attention is focused on Zarqawi's threats to wage an unrelenting campaign against Shiites. But in the long run, it's the intra-communal battles that I think are more decisive and worrisome.
In Iraq, the political game is afoot. That in itself is worth noting. The stakes are monumental, and the question remains: will the intrigue end in tragedy, or are these just the growing pains of a society learning to adjust to the parameters of a Madisonian "big republic." The prospects for success are not aided by the fact that there are so many armed groups involved, and the associated violence that continues to ravage the nation. I'm not overly optimistic, but time will hopefully prove me wrong.

(cross posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

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