Monday, February 4, 2008

What about Iraq?

Just a few months ago, and during the three preceding years, Iraq was the hot-button issue in America, cutting a swath between Americans of all ages and backgrounds. It seemed that each day Iraq updates made the top stories of nearly every major news corporation. Not since Vietnam did a war influence an election as much as Iraq did the 2006 elections. The war infiltrated the halls of Congress, causing much debate and setting off a showdown between the Democratic majority in Congress and the embattled President and his supporters. Politicians from every corner of the land did their best to avoid scrutiny from their positions on Iraq.

Then, the surge was instituted and soon started boasting a stark reduction of violence in Iraq and a growing sense of security in the minds of Iraqis. As a result, Iraq has rather suddenly disappeared from the limelight. Recent attacks and their body counts no longer litter the front pages of the news. As the 2008 elections loom, the economy has displaced Iraq as the most important issue for voters. Congress now predominantly buzzes with other topics, and people whose support of the war had just a few months earlier made them tread lightly are now trumpeting the success of the surge. The surge’s acclaim has particularly helped the revival of Senator John McCain’s Presidential chances.

Doubtlessly, conditions in Iraq have improved somewhat over the last few months, but don’t be fooled by the so-called “success” of the surge. The improvements that the surge has supposedly brought have been dramatically exaggerated.

Supporters of the surge claim that the influx of troops has sizably decreased the violence in Iraq. While it is true that combat deaths have gone down since the surge, conditions in Iraq remain anything but peaceful. Soldiers continue to die at a troubling rate: over 30 U.S. troops died this past month, back to the same level they were during the height of summer 2006. Despite the recent “stemming” of violence, Iraqi security forces and citizens are still dying in the hundreds and thousands every month. These are hardly the characteristics of a peaceful nation. Those Iraqis lucky enough to survive continue to suffer greatly in Iraq: many are still without basic utilities, services, good nutrition, or good sanitation.

Worse yet, the regional, ethnic, and religious divisions that are the source of the violence tearing apart Iraq have not been reconciled during this slight dip in bloodshed. The fervent inter-Muslim Sunni-Shiite rivalry persists and continues to be a source of division and instability in Iraq. Indeed, this religious rift has increasingly come to define the nature of the insurgent in-fighting in Iraq, with Sunni and Shiite factions battling each other, the Iraqi government, and the U.S. military to try to gain the upper hand. The differences between the Arabs and the Kurds constitute a slightly different animosity. The Kurds, who have lived in Northern Iraq for centuries more than the Arabs have in the South, have a different ethnicity and culture from their Arab counterparts. Rarely have ethnic differences been a unifying factor, and Iraq is no exception.

These tensions, formidable enough by their very nature, have been magnified even more by the historical winner-take-all nature of the Iraqi political system. From Saddam Hussein and his predecessors to the current Iraqi parliament, the Iraq government has favored the faction in power at the expense of the others. Hussein in particular benefited his Sunni kinsman even as he ruthlessly repressed and murdered many Shiites and the Kurds, even forcibly resettling Kurdish villages with Arabs. Unfortunately, this trend was not reversed after Hussein’s regime was toppled by the U.S. led coalition forces in 2003: the current Constitution does little to thwart majority rule or protect the rights of the minority. As a result, the Shiite majority in parliament has been able to favor the Shiites over their rivals. In fact, an interim Congressional report on Iraq in July 2007 admitted that there was sectarian Shiite bias in the appointment of military commanders and with regards to military and police intelligence. While not as skewed or as ruthless as Hussein, these measures have nevertheless been enough to convince the Iraqi factions that any government, whether democratic or authoritarian, that is not headed by them will make life hard for them. The accumulative effect of these high political stakes and the existing religious and ethnic tensions has caused the Iraqi factions to plunge the country into civil war as they fight for supremacy – for control of the country after the inevitable day that the U.S. military withdraws.

The best possible chance for the U.S. military to avert this impending civil war is to somehow change the nature of Iraqi politics. For U.S. forces, this recent dip in violence is as good a chance as they will ever get to initiate some sort of political reconciliation to lower the high political stakes. But no adequate political reconciliation has taken place during the surge. The closest thing to reconciliation has been a law allowing former Baath party members to apply for their former minor government posts. With Iraq in chaos, the potential practical significance of such a measure has been greatly reduced: getting a boost to the administration of Iraq would have been useful after the overthrow of Hussein’s regime, but at this point it is too little too late. No other Congressional benchmark has been met, nor any other form of political reconciliation been reached. If the Iraqi parliament manages to agree on some checks on government power and some minority rights, perhaps the Iraqi factions would be willing to give this government a chance. But, as of now, the different Iraqi groups have not been willing to risk compromising their interests by adequately supporting any of these measures. In doing so, they doom themselves to a constant struggle for total power where in the long run, nobody truly wins.

Even as the surge fruitlessly tries to unify the country and bring about stability, some of its methods do exactly the opposite. In an attempt to bring about greater security in the wide-open areas of Iraq, particularly Anbar province, the U.S. military armed and supported several local militias to fight Al Qaeda militants and keep order. While this strategy has reduced Al Qaeda activity and has brought about more peace in some regions, it has also had some unintended consequences. By arming and supporting local militias, the U.S. military has increased the power of such militias and warlords and has actively encouraged the formation of new militias. In doing so, the U.S. military has effectively undermined the Iraqi security forces that it has placed such an emphasis on training and bolstering. Moreover, by increasing the power of local militias and warlords, the U.S. military has deepened the regional divides in Iraq that may soon cause it to erupt in full-fledged civil war.

It is true that conditions in Iraq have improved, if ever so slightly, since the surge. Unfortunately for Iraq, none of the critical elements plaguing Iraq were dealt with during the slight window of opportunity afforded by the surge. As troop levels start dropping to pre-surge levels, the tensions that were to some degree held in suspended animation will be in full violent swing once again. What little improvement the surge has brought will be undone by these forces consuming Iraq. Such is the destiny of any benefits that U.S. military might could bring to Iraq. As long as the Iraqis are unable to reconcile their differences, the divisions will remain strong, leading to violence or dictatorship. As violence reemerges, Iraq will reemerge on the front pages of the news, and it will be a long time before Iraq is absent from them again.

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