Friday, June 20, 2014

Part One: The Road Back to Baghdad

Three years after the American withdrawal from Iraq, the broken country we left behind has reared its ugly head and threatens to descend into sectarian civil war. In many ways, the United States is reaping the seeds it sowed in the manner of its exit from Iraq as well as our nearly total non-involvement in Syria’s civil war next door. The road back to Baghdad has been coming for the US ever since we withdrew from the country in 2011 (and, arguable, ever since we waged an uncoordinated mess of an invasion and occupation in 2003). 

Part one of this essay delves into what many have taken to calling “The Iraq We Left Behind,” and possible US strategies to address some of these issues. Part two will discuss the interconnected Syrian conflict’s ramifications in Iraq, and address the question of whether or not Iraq (or any of Syria’s neighbors) will find stability if civil war continues to rage next door. Part three will discuss the US opportunities to eek some good out of this international and regional disaster, especially with longtime adversary Iran.

 Part One: The Road Back to Baghdad

Central in the story of Iraq’s re-descent into civil war (if, arguably, it ever left it), Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki looms as both villain and longtime partner. Allegedly selected for the Prime Minister post in a shadowy dealing between a CIA officer and the US Ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, Maliki went from being a relatively unknown but zealous activist in the pro-Shi’ite movement to Prime Minister of Iraq in three months’ time in 2006. Having fled Iraq after his political activities on behalf of the Shi’ite Dawa Party (now his political party) threatened to get him killed, Maliki directed anti-Saddam operations from abroad until the US invaded in 2003. According to Khalilzad in an article by Dexter Filkins, the US only exerted its influence in Iraq to help the election come to the result it wanted. Although American officials had been assured Maliki was "independent" from Iran, it became apparent that he was closer to the Islamic Republic than informants had admitted, and it is now rumored he was hand-picked by the Iranian Al Quds commander Qassem Suleimani. Yet from sideline supporter, America's relationship with Maliki grew in the coming years until the US openly supported Maliki in the subsequent 2010 elections against his secular opponent, Ayad Allawi.

Yet Maliki was not so beloved by all of his people. He had acted as many democratically elected leaders who are autocrats at heart are wont to do: he consolidated his power not by building broad partnerships and working to create consensus among parties and regions, but by extending his grip to every security apparatus within the Iraqi government; he stocked ministries and the military with allies and purged Sunnis from important positions; he favored Shi'ite areas and neglected Sunni (and not to mention Kurdish) ones; and, perhaps worst of all, he let loose a fireball of repression in the face of all those who would seek to disagree with them. Arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial executions, coupled with an enfeebled and dependent judiciary, became the law of the land.

Despite these warning signs, post-Iraq planning in the last years of the Bush administration and during Obama’s first term was focused less on the democratic prospects for Iraq’s future, and more with securing the relationship with Maliki, since he now controlled both armed forces and government and we would need all of his resources to allow for a less-than-disastrous withdrawal in 2011. While at the time, American ground forces had stifled the bloodshed that had welled up in the aftermath of the 2006-2007 civil war, their withdrawal under such circumstances was predicted by many to simply set the scene for another conflict. And many have been proved right over the last few weeks and days as 300 American military advisers and Secretary of State John Kerry head to Baghdad.

The Road Back?

Yet rather than lamenting the woeful mistake of initial invasion, the subsequent mishandling of the occupation, and the poorly planned (or rather, misguided) withdrawal in 2011, none of which policymakers can now take back, how does America act in the face of another Iraqi civil war? A civil war that, if lost, could at best lead to the world’s newest failed state and at worst provide a safe-haven for extremist groups?

Many are disheartened by the political field the US must work with, both in the Iraqi government and in the opposition; after all, if we cannot find partners, how do we act? As Ned Parker points out in a prescient, now-haunting April 2012 Foreign Affairs article titled “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State”:

"All of Iraq's political leaders seem to live by the maxim that no enemy can become a partner, just a temporary ally; betrayal lurks around every corner…Maliki's opponents, including his secular rival Ayad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya Party, have given no indication they would act any differently. 

It is better to ask: if all the leaders are likely to act much as Maliki did, what safeguards can be put into place to keep them in check? A negotiated political agreement between not only Iraq’s political leaders but also its tribal ones would by necessity need to include at minimum: more checks on the power of the executive branch, institutionalized power-sharing, electoral rules that make diverse coalition governments necessary, consensus-building institutions and ministries with meritocratic hiring and promotion practices, a reformed and independent judiciary, and, very likely, a federalized system of governance of Iraq’s provinces. Without these safeguards, even if the Iraqi and US forces (if America chooses limited intervention, but more on that next time) succeed and Maliki is replaced with another opponent, the practices of Iraq’s fledgling democracy – those of corruption, violence, and repression – are unlikely to change.

A limited military intervention, not only in Iraq but in neighboring Syria, cannot be successful without the engagement and willingness to compromise of Iraq’s political factions – full stop. As observed by the prolific (and oft-maligned) Middle East expert Thomas Friedman:

Finally, while none of the main actors in Iraq, other than Kurds, are fighting for our values, is anyone there even fighting for our interests: a minimally stable Iraq that doesn't threaten us? And whom we can realistically help?

The answers still aren't clear to me, and, until they are, I'd be very wary about intervening.

Without guarantees of “no victor, no vanquish” reached by all sides, according to Friedman, the same tribal, regional, and sectarian divisions will only wait to rear their ugly heads once again, in what would be a continual rather than momentary conflict. The warning again rings true: Iraq could be the world’s next Somalia.

Yet if such agreements are reached by Iraq’s political (and regional, tribal, and religious leaders), they will likely do so by first ousting Prime Minister Maliki. He seems to have lost even US support, with Pres. Obama hinting in a statement yesterday that Maliki should step down as he announced a US contingent of 300 military advisors to assist the beleaguered Iraqi government. Maliki lost another crucial supporter from within the Shi’ite community when Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani seemingly disavowed his government and called for a more “effective” one today.

At the present moment, Pres. Obama and Sec. Kerry appear to be pursuing just these strategies. They are also likely keeping the military on full alert in case more intervention is agreed upon and, presumably, approved by Congress. It is impossible to know what is going on behind closed doors, however, and whether or not Sec. Kerry is pursuing a consensus-centric, governance-focused settlement will not be apparent for some time. In the coming days, we will all wait and see if Obama’s strategies can overcome Maliki’s intransigence and desire to hold on to power, as well as bring key players to the negotiation table. None will wait with more baited breath than the Iraqi people.


We hate to say we told you so.... who are we kidding, we love being so damn right all the time:

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