Transition to What in Iraq?
Talk to the Stanford Institute for International Studies, May 11, 2004
I want to talk to you today about what lies ahead in Iraq. Of course, no one can predict what will happen in Iraq. The country has been full of surprises—largely negative and even tragic ones—since the war ended, and we should not dismiss the possibility that some time down the road, there will be some more positive surprises, too. But if we weigh the agreed procedures and deadlines for political transition in Iraq against the realities as they have been unfolding on the ground, we can come up with a limited, and on balance fairly grim, range of prospects.
I will suggest here today that the scope for a good outcome has been greatly reduced as a result of the two insurgencies that we now confront in Iraq. One of these, in the Sunni heartland, has been festering since the end of the war, but has picked up deadly momentum in recent months and then took on a new ferocity with the grisly murder of the four American contractors in Fallujah on March 31. The other, in the Shiite heartland, broke out shortly thereafter when the radical young Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, launched a violent uprising after the Americans badly bungled the long-delayed imperative of confronting his violent network. Add to this the awful news of grotesque humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by our own forces, and you have a profoundly deteriorating and potentially disastrous situation for the United States.
I will not dwell long on how we got to this perilous point, but a few observations are necessary. In any situation of occupation or imperial dominion, there is always a tension between control and legitimacy. The less control you have or can impose as an occupying power, the more you need legitimacy and voluntary cooperation. In many parts of its colonial empire, Britain addressed this challenge through the system of “indirect rule,” which used local rulers to maintain control and gradually devolved more power through elections and local self-rule. As a result of this, Britain needed less troops relative to population than other colonial powers. United Nations peace implementation missions have addressed this problem in part through the mobilization of international legitimacy, via UN Security Council resolutions, and in part by developing explicit and transparent timetables for the transfer of power back to the people through elections. But even in these UN or other international trustee missions, success has depended in part on the presence of a sufficiently large and robust international force to keep (and in some instances impose) peace.
In Iraq, we have had too little legitimacy, but also in some ways to little control as well. We insisted on maintaining full political control from the start, but we did not have sufficient control on the ground, through adequate military force, to make our political and administrative control effective. Thus we could not meet popular expectations for the restoration of security and basic services like water and electricity (though progress we did make on all of those fronts). Because we did not deliver rapidly enough (and it could never truly have been rapidly enough to meet the inflated public expectations), because it was always an American administrator out in front decreeing and explaining, and because the Iraqi people did not see new Iraqi political leaders exercising much effective responsibility, the American-led occupation quickly developed a serious and growing legitimacy deficit.
Many things could have relieved this deficit. For example, if we had pushed more reconstruction funding out to local military commanders, through the rather effective CERF (Commanders’ Emergency Reconstruction Funds) channel, and if we had given some real authority and funding to the local and provincial councils we were establishing around the country, Iraqis might have seen more progress and found emerging new forms of Iraqi authority with which they could identify. We might have also made more progress by organizing actual elections, however imperfect, at the local level where the people were ready for it and the ration-card system provided a crude system for identifying voters. In the few places where this mechanism was employed, it worked acceptably well—before CPA ordered that no more direct elections be held (for fear of giving the impression that it would be possible to hold national elections soon—which it would not have been). Even so, the local governance teams did a pretty good job in many cases of finding ways to choose, and then later “refresh”, the provincial and local councils. Sadly, the CERF funding was terminated prematurely, and the Local Government Order, defining the powers of provincial and local governments, sat around at CPA for months in various states of development and imminent release, while the local councils dawdled and dithered without much of anything to do, and ominously in some cases, without getting paid for months at a time. Within the CPA itself, I think historians will find that there was an obsession with centralized control, at the cost of the flexibility and devolution that might have gotten things done more quickly and built up more legitimacy.
So we had serious problems of security, reconstruction delivery, and legitimacy. We failed to ameliorate these by putting enough resources in (particularly enough troops) and by giving Iraqis early on more control over their own affairs. Now we are transferring control soon to Iraqis, and that is truly the only hope for rescuing a rapidly deteriorating situation. But in transitional politics, as in all other politics, timing is crucial, and what could be achieved by a certain initiative at one moment in time may no longer be possible months or years later, when the parameters have shifted and the scope for building a moderate center may have been lost.
One thing that does lie ahead imminently in Iraq is a formal end to at least the political aspect of occupation. The November 15 plan called for a transfer of authority to an Iraqi government, and the termination of the occupation authority, the CPA (or Coalition Provisional Authority) by June 30. Despite all the violence and turmoil—which the Baathist spoilers, external jihadists, and Islamist extremists have always intended to escalate in the run-up to the transition—that transfer is going to happen on schedule. A United Nations team, led by special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, is in Iraq now for a third visit, completing work to select the members of the Iraqi Interim Government. As the interim constitution (called the Transitional Administrative Law) provides for, the government will be led by a prime minister and cabinet, with some oversight and symbolic authority being exercised by a presidency council of a president and two vice-presidents. But there will be no law-making parliament until elections are held, by the end of next January, for a transitional government. Rather, Mr. Brahimi plans to return again to help mediate the selection after June 30, through indirect means, of a widely representative national conference of some 1000 to 1500 delegates, which will discuss national problems and select a smaller consultative assembly to advise the cabinet.
This plan is not without some serious problems. It is easy for Iraqis to agree in principle on elections to choose a transitional government, even if many parties plan to try to rig or mutilate those elections in practice. But having the United Nations select the interim government, even a so-called “technocratic” government of non-partisan officials, risks a whole new set of legitimacy problems. Everyone who loses out in the bid for interim power will complain bitterly that the selections were illegitimate. The problem is that the method that some of us within CPA preferred—having Iraqis select the national conference delegates before June 30, and having that body then choose an assembly which would choose the prime minister and presidency council—is just not feasible given the pressure of time and the deterioration in the security situation since the end of March. Thus, many key members of the twenty-five-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which has exercised some advisory authority alongside the CPA Administrator, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, since last July, are denouncing the plan and calling for the IGC to continue, perhaps in expanded form, as a kind of senate or consultative body with some authority. As I will explain, some of the political parties on the IGC that are pushing this line are powerful players because, independent of whatever popular support they command, they have large, armed militias whose cooperation, or at least forbearance, the Coalition needs now more than ever if it is to survive this treacherous period. We should therefore not be surprised to see Brahimi’s plan modified so that they are given some role.
The next step in the timetable will be the organization of elections by January 31 of 2005. To do this, Iraq will need an independent electoral commission, a law to define and structure that body’s authority, and a law to define the electoral system for choosing members of parliament. A separate UN team, led by the head of the UN electoral assistance division, Carina Perelli, has been in Iraq working on all these issues. Its work has been slowed by the upsurge in violence, and by the group’s decision to invite any and all Iraqis to apply in writing for one of the seven Iraqi slots on the commission. In the current chaos, it is going to be a real challenge to appoint and train an electoral commission with sufficient credibility, independence, and competence to organize decent elections by the January deadline. Fortunately, they will have considerable assistance from the UN. But if the violence is not brought under control, they will not even be able to move around the country to set up local and regional offices, much less prepare for the crucial tasks of registering voters and parties. Even if the violence subsides to a degree that permits the administrative work to proceed, the Electoral Commission will need to tackle the question of how to level the political playing field, which will otherwise be dominated by political parties that are already ruling (in Kurdistan) or that have been receiving huge amounts of money and other assistance from Iran. Leveling the political playing field will require the creation of a sizeable fund, perhaps initially ten to twenty million dollars, to fund political parties that can establish some minimum basis of demonstrated support. But it will also require that the armed militias of the principal parties be disarmed, as I will explain.
The Interim Government’s structure, powers, and functions are to be spelled out in an Annex to the Transitional Law. This Annex will be written through negotiations this month. During my final weeks in Iraq, I encountered in speeches and meetings around the country some vigorous and frequent objections to specific provisions of the Law, particularly article 61 C, which gives any three provinces (and there are three predominantly Kurdish provinces) the ability to veto the final constitution in the referendum. Many Arab Iraqis are in fact quite upset about this and other provisions, which they feel give too much veto power to the Kurds. These Iraqis object as well to other features of the Law, and to the lack of public discussion over its final provisions before it was adopted (unanimously) by the Governing Council. If we did not have the crisis of mounting violence in the country, and now the new crisis over the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, we would probably be dealing with a crisis over the Transitional Law. Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most important Shiite religious and moral leader in the country, and some of his key followers have been quite outspoken in rejecting the Law and demanding changes. Indeed, Muqtada Sadr’s remarkable success in mobilizing many thousands of supporters in March-April-May is the direct result of the crisis between the CPA and the Governing Council on the one hand and Sistani (and the Hawzah, or senior Shiite clergy) on the other. At long last the isolated Muqtada could claim, as he indeed did, that he was “Sistani’s Striking Arm.” This way one crisis led directly to the other.
Here is another manifestation, in sharp relief, of the legitimacy problem. The negotiations over the Annex provide a new opportunity to address this problem, and given the high threshold for amending the Law once it comes into effect, perhaps the last realistic opportunity in the transitional period. We should seize this opportunity as part of a broader strategy of building up the more moderate Shiite political and religious establishment as a counterweight to Muqtada al-Sadr.
Five weeks ago, at a conference at the Hoover Institution shortly after I returned from my last trip to Iraq, I gave a speech in which I said that “things are slipping badly fast,” and that if we did not contain and defeat the armed militias, beginning with the forces of Muqtada Sadr, and commit all the resources necessary to restore order in Iraq, we would fail. A strategy of robust military engagement to control privatized violence and construct a rule of law in Iraq had to be combined, I argued, with a political strategy to demobilize most of the militias peacefully and to stand up a legitimate Iraqi interim government by June 30.
Many people in the audience that day were somewhat taken aback by my pessimism and my candor, but in fact my analysis was not entirely pessimistic. I said that in the next few months, we could lose the new war for Iraq that was already unfolding, but that we still had a chance to get to reasonably free and fair elections for a transitional government next January, and in doing so, at least to put Iraq on a viable path to democracy.
I think by any reckoning, we are in much worse shape in Iraq now than we were five weeks ago. The problem is not purely a military one. It never is in situations of insurgency, which is what we confront now. All counter-insurgency efforts ultimately depend on winning the larger political and symbolic struggle for “hearts and minds.” There is no way that Muqtada Sadr—a fascist thug with only the thinnest Islamist religious credentials, who is reviled by much of the Shiite population and religious establishment—can win the broad bulk of Iraqi “hearts and minds,” even in the Shiite south. Neither can the diehard Baathist remnants of Saddam’s regime, who, in connivance with external jihadists such as Al-Qaeda, have been driving the insurgency in the Sunni center of the country. Indeed, one of the fascinating, potentially destructive, but also potentially positive elements in the fluid political situation we confront is that there is no coherent political and military force in Iraq that is capable of rallying, and for any meaningful period of time, sustaining, broad popular support.
No single force can win in Iraq, but the United States could lose, and very soon. Even before the outbreak of the scandal over US forces’ degrading, disgraceful abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, Iraqi patience with the American occupation was dwindling rapidly. More and more Iraqis have been coming around to the view that if we cannot give them security, jobs, and electricity, why should they continue to suffer the general humiliation and countless specific indignities of American forces occupying their land?
What seemed possible five weeks ago, and certainly ten weeks ago, is not necessarily feasible today. Clearly, the option of sending in a significantly more troops to combat the insurgency and defeat the diehard and spoiler elements is dead. It is now clear that the Bush Administration—which has never been honest with itself or the American people about what would be needed to succeed in Iraq—is not going to up the ante for the United States in that kind of way in an election year. Moreover, even introducing two more divisions—which would still leave our overall troop strength far below the 250,000 or so that many military experts believed was the minimum necessary to bring and maintain order in post-war Iraq—would so strain the capacity of our armed forces that it would require drastic measures. With the election less than six months away, President Bush is not going to call up substantially more reserves, or dramatically alter our force structure worldwide.
So we are stuck in Iraq for the moment with too few troops to defeat the insurgency and way too many for a growing segment of deeply disaffected Iraqi public opinion. Thus we have basically opted to live with the city of Fallujah under the control of insurgents, hoping the Iraqi force we have quickly stood up there will at least contain and dampen down the problem. And we are slowly trying to take back some of the facilities and installations that Muqtada Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army has seized in the past few weeks and months, while so far avoiding a decisive confrontation with Muqtada himself (so as not to inflict civilian casualties or damage the religious shrines). If there is any chance of decent governance emerging in Iraq in the near to medium term, I believe we are going to have to defeat the insurgency of the Mahdi army and put it out of business. But we can only do so if we work with Iraqi Shiites of at least somewhat more moderate and pragmatic political orientations, and most of all with Ayatollah Sistani. No Iraqi commands a wider following of respect and consideration, and has more capacity to steer political developments away from violence and extremism, than Sistani. Whether or not he is really a democrat—and certainly he is not a liberal in the Western sense—he does reject the Iranian-style system of “the rule of the jurist” (Wilayat Al-Faqih), and insists on free elections as the basis of political legitimacy.
In fact, there are many Iraqi forces with whom we can work. But the tragedy is that the most democratic among them do not have sizable armed militias at their command, and for the most part, have not had the money, time, training, and skill to build up broad bases of support. At least four political parties represented on the Governing Council do have some basis of support in the country. The problem is that two of these are the ruling parties of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the KDP (the Democratic Party of Kurdistan), and their influence largely ends at the borders of that region, while the other two forces, SCIRI and Da’wa, are backed in various ways by the Iranian regime and, despite the moderation they have evinced in Baghdad, appear to favor one or another form of Islamic fundamentalist regime. Each of these four parties has its own militia with probably at least 10,000 fighters, and in the case of the two Kurdish Peshmerga forces, maybe each several times that number.
If Iraq has elections with these forces, and many other private armed forces, controlling various strongholds, and without a superior neutral force on the ground to rein them in, the elections are not going to be free and fair. There will be a war for dominance along the margins of different strongholds, opposing candidates will be assassinated, electoral officials will be intimidated, ballot boxes will be stolen—it will be a nasty business. Beyond this, there is the danger that if the militias are not demobilized before the Americans withdraw, other political forces would arm in self-defense, or more precisely—if you consider that in many parts of rural Iraq, every male over 14 already has a Kalishnikov (or at least older) rifle—they will acquire heavy weapons, in preparation for the coming war for Iraq. Then you would have a truly awful mess, in which different parties, tribes, and alliances would have their own armies contesting violently for local, regional, and perhaps ultimately national dominance, with every neighboring country in the region intervening on behalf of its favored group or groups. This would be what my friend Tom Friedman calls “Lebanon on steroids”—a hellish (and possibly like Lebanon, protracted) civil war in which no central government could exert coherent authority.
Such a scenario could spawn disastrous humanitarian and political consequences. There would be thousands, possibly tens or even hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi casualties. In the chaos, terrorism and organized crime would thrive. Anti-Americanism, which is already gaining momentum in Iraq, would take on an entirely new breadth and intensity. We would be blamed for this, even if the instigators were more properly located in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and most of all Iran.
I would still very much like to see a decent, pluralistic, and constitutional political system—as democratic as possible—emerge in Iraq. And in fact, the only alternative to civil war or another truly brutal and total dictatorship is a political system based on some kind of constitutional, consensual power-sharing bargain. Any plan to break up the country, explicitly or implicitly, into its constituent ethnic or religious pieces will inevitably bring massive bloodshed, much of it regionally driven. And any effort to simply hand power over to a reconstructed Baathist dictatorship would be violently, and I am sure successfully, resisted by both the Kurds and the Shia. Any scenario that is even vaguely positive—that avoids the disaster of total war or total dictatorship—must involve key elements of democracy: negotiations, mutual concessions and compromise, delineation of individual and group rights, sharing and limiting of power, and elections in which different political parties and independents contest to determine who will exercise power.
However, elements of democracy do not necessarily add up to democracy, and the situation has deteriorated to the point that we need a strong dose of realism about what is possible. The two best-organized parties in the Shiite South, SCIRI and Da’wa, are not democratic political parties. That is why they have heavily armed militias that are already flexing their muscles. That is why they are being backed by hardline conservative elements in the Iranian regimes. And doubts are even raised about whether the two Kurdish parties, who fought a war for political control in Kurdistan during the 1990s, will tolerate electoral competitors. In the last few months, their militia forces have been involved in acts of ethnic cleansing to push out from Kirkuk Arabs who were settled there by Saddam Hussein in his campaign of “Arabization.” This violent preemption of the intended process of peaceful, judicial dispute resolution is hardly a reassuring sign.
Much of the country’s politics remains, literally, tribal. Particularly in the rural areas, loyalties are mobilized and delivered by tribal sheikhs, and alliances are built on these foundations. So can blood debts be incurred and avenged deep into the future as a result of violence against a member of the tribe. Inevitably in emergent democratic politics, important political formations will be constituted from among Iraq’s many tribes. In fact, one of the potentially more moderate and democratic political party formations—the Iraqi Democratic Gathering, based largely in the Shiite south—has its base among a vast network of tribes that do not want to see Iraq or any part of it dominated by Iran or forces loyal to the Iranian regime. If other parties play by the rules of the democratic game, so will this one. If elections are to be fought by more violent methods, I do not expect that these tribes, which are already heavily armed, will sit on their hands and wait to be bullied and shot.
The establishment of the Fallujah Brigade as a solution to the insurgency there was probably the least bad option, but it comes at a price. In effect, we created (or fully legitimized) a new sectarian militia, small for now, but probably the best trained of them all. Similarly, by encouraging SCIRI’s militia, the Badr Brigade, and the Da’wa militia to attack Muqtada’s Mahdi Army in Najaf and Karbala (again, probably a necessarily evil), we will also pay a heavy price. To the extent they do our bidding, we will owe them something.
I am suggesting, then, two points. First, the chance for any kind of decent, peaceful, constitutional order heavily depends on what happens to the militias. Unless they are to some considerable extent demobilized and replaced by the armed forces of a new and legitimate Iraqi state, the near-term political future will be very rough. But the militias that would need to be demobilized for this to happen have in fact been strengthened enormously in their bargaining leverage vis-à-vis the United States as a result of the disintegration of recent weeks. Now, we need them, and their cooperation and assistance, more than ever. So we are in less of a position to ask of them painful concessions—not to mention compelling those concessions by force.
Since the beginning of the year, we have been negotiating with the principal militias a comprehensive DDR plan for “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration” of their fighters into the new Iraqi police and armed forces and the civilian economy. To succeed, any DDR plan has to rely heavily on positive incentives (jobs, pensions, status in the new armed forces) for those militias that agree to cooperate, and force to demobilize those militias that will never cooperate. The Mahdi Army clearly falls into the latter category, which is why it is so important that it be defeated now. But it was always questionable whether the other four largest militias would really fully demobilize and disarm, rather than warehouse their heavy weapons while taking up positions, temporarily, in the new armed forces. With the country in the state it is and our leverage so much reduced, demobilization—if it happens at all—is likely to be much more superficial, and even to concede to the integration of whole militia units into the police and armed forces, with their command structures more or less intact. In that case, the new and truly independent Iraqi state that is so desperately needed will not emerge. Rather, it will parceled out among and become a captive of these preexisting armed groups. Probably the big winner then, at least initially, will be Iran, which has seeded the whole Shiite south with arms, weapons, propaganda, and thousands (by one estimate, 14,000) intelligence agents.
I am not sure, at this point, that there is any way to prevent a scenario something like this. To do so would require a sizable and credible international—which is to say, largely American—force on the ground in Iraq for some time to come. And the way things are going, we are likely to find ourselves in something of a race to see who demands the withdrawal of American forces first, the Iraqi public or the American public. Even if American troops are able to stay for another year or two to help provide security, I doubt they are going to be given the authority, or that they would be able to muster the legitimacy within Iraq, to really confront these other militias—even assuming that the Sadr insurgency is somehow defeated, and that the Fallujah insurgency is at least contained.
No one is willing to recognize out loud that we are in an utterly Hobbesian situation, as we always are in such post-conflict settings, in which the balance of force will shape all the other political parameters. If we do not succeed in standing up Iraqi police and military forces that are loyal to the state of Iraq, and not to this or that party, militia, or warlord, there will be no hope for even a semi-democratic political system. But creating any kind of coherent Iraqi armed forces will take years (by some estimates, two to five years), and the prospect is rising that an Iraqi government will demand (possibly under popular pressure) that American forces be withdrawn well before that. Then (absent a new international force that is nowhere on the horizon), the only force that Iraq could fall back on to maintain order would be the major party militias, and the only question would be whether they could work out among themselves some modus vivendi that gives each a relative monopoly of power within some region or locality, while sharing power at the center. That would be better than all-out civil war, but lacking any roots or constraints in a rule of law, it would be highly susceptible to descent into civil war if the elite bargains were to shatter. And it would still be very bad for most of the Iraqi democrats we have sought to help in politics and civil society—decent people, with ideas and ideals, who placed their faith in our own professed commitment to stay the course to help build a democracy in Iraq.
One silver lining in this mess is that the overall national situation is highly unlikely to revert to the kind of coherent, total dictatorship that the country has suffered under the Baathists in particular. There will be a profusion of power centers. Even if these are not democratic in themselves, the interaction among them will provide some pluralism, some space for democratic discourse and action—if the country does not drown in bloodshed, and if some kind of self-sustaining constitutional bargain can be struck among them. That is risky, but not impossible.
As someone who worked for a short while to advance a process of democratic development in Iraq, and who believes that democracy is in principle possible everywhere (though not at every moment), I hate to admit it. But if the occupation forces cannot regain their moral authority and capacity for decisive action and sustained state-building in Iraq, then the only option we may have left will be to cut some very unpalatable deals with the Iraqi forces on the ground that are willing to work with us to stabilize the country and receive power. It is depressing to think that our staggeringly costly intervention in Iraq would come to that, but it would be more depressing still to see a continuing hemorrhage of American lives and treasure, only to see Iraq descend into protracted civil war or another bloody dictatorship once we are forced to leave.