January 30, 2005

Iraq: Elections, the Sunnis and the Insurgency

Iraqis went to the polls on Sunday, January 30. By most measures, it was a success, despite the death of several dozen people. Initial estimates of participation range around 60 percent. This marks the country's first free elections in almost five decades. Note the term "free." There have been referenda in Iraq before, even under Saddam Husayn, although these have always been sham exercises.

It will take a week to 10 days to tally the votes, but the conventional wisdom is that the United Iraqi Coalition (ballot choice 169) will emerge as the winner. This is the platform supported by Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani and headed by the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hakim. Although there was some concern on the part of the United States about the emergence of an Islamic government along the lines of the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran, both Sistani and Hakim have made it clear that they have no intention of creating an Islamic state, and are committed to allow all religious groups in the country the freedom to worship as they please. The new government will almost certainly be Islamic in character and based on Islamic values, but it will not implement Islamic law. Of course, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stated on more than one occasion that the United States would not tolerate the establishment of another Islamic Republic like Iran in the Persian Gulf. As long as there are nearly 150,000 American troops in the ground in Iraq, his statements do carry some weight.

What's next?

After the votes are counted, the winning coalitions/parties/slates will be told how many of the 275 national assembly seats they will receive. Once seated, the assembly will then elect a president, two vice presidents, then select a prime minister who will form a government. This is somewhat similar to the electoral system in Israel, except Israel now directly elects its prime minster. One of the key duties of this new government will be to provide for the drafting of a Constitution and the preparations for permanent elections in December 2005.

Will the government be considered legitimate?

I don't think there is any question of legitimacy in the eyes of the Shi'a and Kurds. Both groups enjoyed large turnouts for the election. The Sunni turnout was understandably lower - either because of the boycott called for by many Sunni clerics, or because of intimidation by the insurgents (most notably the Al-Qa'idah in Iraq group under Abu Musa'ib Az-Zarqawi). However, given the overall turnout, most of the Sunnis will likely accept the government as legitimate. On the other side, the Shi'a and Kurds will almost certainly include Sunni groups. They realize that any attempt to exclude or marginalize the Sunnis will result in continued or increased animosity between the Sunnis and majority Shi'a. For their part, the Sunnis will likely respond favorably to offers of participation in the new government, in other words, having it both ways. It reminds of me of California deputy governor Cruz Bustamante's "No on the recall, yes to Bustamante" position....

What does this mean for the insurgency?

At this point, it is difficult to estimate the effect the election results will have on the insurgency. There are two major factions of what we commonly call the Iraqi insurgency. These are the Az-Zarqawi group composed of mostly foreigners and possibly some Iraqi fundamentalist Islamists (or jihadis) on one hand, and disaffected former regime members (sometimes called the Ba'this) on the other. While there is a very slight chance that the former regime members might be convinced to quit the insurgency and become part of the new Iraq, I think it safe to assume that any effort to reach out to the Al-Qa'idah faction would certainly fail. The insurgents must be hunted down and either killed or captured. The key to this is actionable intelligence. That intelligence can only be supplied by the population of the areas in which the insurgents operate - primarily the Sunni triangle. When the Iraqi people are ready to commit themselves to the new government - and only then, will the insurgency be defeated.

What does this mean for American forces in Iraq?

In the near term, troop levels will likely remain at current levels or decrease slightly as the two battalions of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division's "ready brigade" return to standby duty at Fort Bragg. These battalions were sent to augment American troops providing election security. Once additional Iraqi units are trained, or the level of violence decreases (for example, if the Sunnis commit to the new government), the process of withdrawing the coalition forces from Iraq can begin.

The US government has stated that it will honor any Iraqi government request to remove American forces from the country. The chances of that request at this time is almost nil. Anyone in power in Iraq realizes that until Iraq's security forces are more capable, American troops remain the final guarantor of Iraqi security.

January 21, 2005

It all comes down to oil....

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor highlighted a key concern for the United States in the coming years - the ballooning Chinese demand for oil. Oil, the primary American national interest in the Middle East, and our reliance on it, will continue to dominate our foreign policy untiil we adopt a coherent energy policy.

This is one of the key challenges facing not only us, but the entire industrialized world in the coming years. While oil production and delivery are peaking and will eventually level, demand is going to increase exponentially as not only China and India develop, but the emerging nations of South America and Southeast Asia. I agree, though, that China and India with their huge populations will be the major players. Wait until every Chinese family has one or two cars.

"Oil is a fungible commodity..." is a common theme in my Middle East presentations. Although we only import about 15 percent of our oil from the region, the fact that oil is a fungible commodity makes that number irrelevant. All that matters is how much is available on the market on any given day. If there is a disruption in the flow of Middle East/Persian Gulf oil, those countries that are the main consumers of that oil will then be vying with us to buy oil from our traditional sources - Venezuela, Mexico, Norway, Nigeria, etc.

It was Jimmy Carter who first stated that we would use military force to guarantee that Persian Gulf oil flows. Until the United States creates and implements a coherent energy policy, we will have American forces deployed to protect that oil supply (mainly Saudi Arabia) and the sea lanes of communications (currently the Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea SLOCs). It doesn't matter so much what the policy is, let's just have one! If the policy is to import and use foreign oil, fine, let's say so and accept the fact that we will have to commit our military resources to making sure that flow continues. If it is to drill in our own environmentally sensitive areas, fine, let's say so and get on with it. If it's to rethink nuclear power generation, fine, let's say so and seek some better technology. But let's not continue on our rudderless journey into greater reliance on imported oil.
Falling off my soapbox now.

January 12, 2005

Disbanding the Iraqi Army - A Mistake

In a January 12, 2005 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Paul "Jerry" Bremer, former administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, defended his decision to disband the Iraqi army shortly after the fall of Saddam Husayn in 2003. Although I agree with his decision that disbanded the Ba'th Party and the civilian internal security organizations, disbanding the Iraqi armed forces was a mistake.

Bremer's defense of his decision includes the usual litany of how the army was used as an instrument of Saddam's tyranny and repression of his own people. No doubt, the army was involved in the regime's atrocities, but not everyone in the army. He claims that the army "disbanded itself." Many of the soldiers, including the noncommissioned officers and officers, fled in the face of the advancing American forces, refusing to fight for the regime. Many of these units had been contacted by U.S. intelligence prior to the war and had agreed to not fight. There was an expectation in these units that they would make up the army of a post-Saddam Iraq.

There were many senior officers in the Iraqi army that needed to be dismissed, some even deserved to be prosecuted for war crimes. That does not translate into the need to disband the entire institution of the Iraqi army. Having to recreate an entire military structure from scratch has led to the abysmal security situation we find in Iraq today. He states that the creation of a "well-equipped, professional army cannot be done overnight." Absolutely correct, which is why completely eliminating the existing infrastructure was ill advised.

Bremer's assertion that "more than three quarters of the enlisted men in the New Army and virtually all he officers and NCOs served in the old army" is a bit misleading. The actual numbers of former soldiers in the new army are not significant, it is the lack of coherent, cohesive units capable of conducting effective operations.

The effects of disbanding the armed forces were immediate and widespread. Rather than having an existing security force of native Iraqis patrolling the streets, the disbanding created a power vacuum that led to chaos and widespread looting and violent crime. It also instantly created massive unemployment, putting over 300,000 armed men out of work. In fact, the newly unemployed soldiers may have taken part in the looting and violence. Many have probably found their way into the insurgency.

The bulk of Iraqi security duties now falls on the shoulders of American and coalition troops. They are resented by the Iraqis, who consider them an occupation force, regardless of whether or not there is a sovereign Iraqi government. It didn't have to be that way.

January 11, 2005

Iraq: Scowcraft Speaks Out

Lt Gen Brent Scowcroft, USAF (Ret)

In a recent Washington Post article, former national security advisor Brent Scowcraft spoke out against American policy in Iraq. Although he served as an advisor to the former President Bush, he has been critical of the current president's actions in Iraq.

General Scowcraft is highly regarded, but I do not think he is assessing the situation correctly. As cited in the Post article:

"The Iraqi elections, rather than turning out to be a promising turning point, have the great potential for deepening the conflict," Scowcroft said. He said he expects increased divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims after the Jan. 30 elections….

The Sunnis believe that they are about to loose their long hold on the reins of power in Iraq. Actually, they have already lost it. The establishment of any form of representative government - call it democracy or whatever - validates and codifies that loss. They are acting to prevent that. Chaos, failure to hold elections, civil war - all these are good news for them. It is for this reason that I believe that anyone who thinks the elections will lessen the violence may be mistaken. In this, General Scowcroft is correct. The insurgents, be they Iraqi Sunnis and/or Ba'this, and especially the Al-Qa'idah affliated Az-Zarqawi group, will continue the fight. The solution to the insurgency is not elections, it is to hunt the insurgents/terrorists down and kill them.

That said, those who against the new government are already supporting the insurgency - I don't see an elected government, Shi'a-dominated or not, swelling the ranks of the insurgents.

Scowcroft predicted "an incipient civil war" would grip Iraq and said the best hope for pulling the country from chaos would be to turn the U.S. operation over to NATO or the United Nations -- which, he said, would not be so hostilely viewed by Iraqis.

NATO will not much more palatable to the Iraqis than the United Nations or us. In any case, NATO has already said they aren't interested. Of the three, I think NATO would be the least objectionable, but the United Nations would really inflame the Iraqis. As we know, the Iraqis are the most xenophobic people in the region, and they suffered under the United Nations sanctions.

Scowcroft also said the continued U.S. presence in Iraq is inflaming the Middle East, hurting the U.S. war on terrorism.

He may be right on this one, but he offers no realistic solution. After publication of the article, it was suggested that the general was hoping to convince the Europeans to be part of the effort, positing the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal and all that would entail. Maybe.

Others were quoted in the Post article. Most state the obvious problems, but only one offers a solution. Here is an example of stating the obvious with no realistic solution:

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser: "I do not think we can stay in Iraq in the fashion we're in now," Brzezinski said. "If it cannot be changed drastically, it should be terminated."

Does he really think that is an option? Then there will not be an "incipient civil war" as Scowcroft warns - there will be a full-blown meltdown, one which will be disastrous.

The best excerpt, as I see it, is from Tony Cordesman. At least he implies a solution (with which I agree):

". . . Our success more and more depends on, not on our skill at war, but whether the Iraqis as political leaders can lead and govern, whether Iraqi security and military forces can take up the burden of the counterinsurgency battle and whether Iraqis can form a state. If they fail politically or fail to govern or fail to provide adequate military or security forces, nothing we do military or politically or with our allies is going to matter."

I don't think the question is "can" the Iraqis lead and govern, it is "how" they will lead and govern. I believe that leading Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Al-Sistani has already figured this out and is waiting for the results of the election, which, unless we are all mistaken, will usher in a Shi'a-dominated government. The question is, how will that new government, probably led by Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) chief 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hakim, will do to restore security. The security problem is localized in the Sunni area of the country, as well as parts of Baghdad. If the Shi'a-dominated government is viewed by the Kurds and Sunnis as theocratic, then it will look like a civil war.

It may not be important what it looks like as long as the Kurds and Shi'a cooperate and focus on the Sunni insurgents, and allow the rest of the Sunnis to go about their lives. I wouldn't hold my breath for this to happen, but it is probably the only way the insurgency will end. The average Iraqis, be they Sunni, Shi'a, Kurd, Chaldean, Assyrian, Turkoman, etc, have to commit to the new government - that means accepting it as legitimate and cooperating against the insurgency.

I would have to say that we won't know until the Iraqis have a real opportunity to participate in their government. What stops them? In the Kurdish north, nothing. They have had basically a functioning democracy for well over a decade. In the Arab portions of the country, several reasons, the most obvious of which is the security situation. However, it goes further than that. The Shi'a, and even the Sunnis to some extent, are heavily influenced by their religious leadership. It is almost akin to clan or tribal loyalty. I think they will vote how their local mosque tells them to. How do we get beyond that? I don't know that we ever will unless there is a return to a secular society, such as the Ba'this, and that was maintained only by force of arms.

Let's be clear. We are not going to see, nor should we push for, a Jeffersonian democracy to emerge. There will be some form of representative government - let them figure out what they want, what works for them. The bottom line remains that we have to eliminate the insurgency. Actually, THEY have to eliminate the insurgency.