The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Peter Galbraith on Iraq

July 23, 2005

From the New York Review of Books:

There is, in fact, no Iraqi insurgency. There is a Sunni Arab insurgency. And it cannot win. Neither the al-Qaeda terrorists nor the former Baathists can win. Even if the US withdrew tomorrow, neither insurgents nor terrorists would be knocking down the gates to Iraq’s Presidential Palace in Baghdad.

Basically, the military equation in Iraq comes down to demographics. Sunni Arabs are no more than 20 percent of Iraq’s population. Even in Baghdad—once the seat of Sunni Arab power—Sunni Arabs are a minority. To succeed, the insurgency would have to win support from Iraq’s other major communities—the Kurds at 20 percent and the Shiites at between 55 and 60 percent. This cannot happen.

While the Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims, they have a history of repression at the hands of Sunni Arabs. A few dozen Kurds have been involved in terrorist acts, but al-Qaeda and its allies have no support in the Kurdistan population, which is one reason Kurdistan has largely been spared the violence that has wracked Arab Iraq.

The Shiites are completely immune to any appeal by insurgents. Sunni fundamentalists consider Shiites as apostates, and possibly a more dangerous enemy than even the Americans. (The Americans, they know, will leave. The apostates want to rule.) For the last two years, Sunni Arab insurgents have targeted Shiite mosques, clerics, religious celebrations, and pilgrims—with a toll in the thousands. The insurgent goal is to provoke sectarian war, and they seem to be succeeding. In spite of calls for restraint by Shiite leaders, there are growing numbers of retaliatory killings of Sunni Arabs by Shiites.

But while the insurgents cannot win, neither can they be defeated.

For most of his thirty-five-year rule Saddam Hussein faced guerrilla warfare from Kurds or Shiites—and sometimes both. Even the most brutal of tactics could not pacify communities that did not accept Sunni Arab rule. Today Sunni Arabs reject rule by Iraq’s Shiite majority. It is unrealistic to think the American military—operating with a fraction of the intelligence of the Saddam Hussein regime and with much less brutality (Abu Ghraib notwithstanding)—can quell a Sunni Arab resistance that is no longer solely anti-American but also anti-Shiite.

The basic thrust of the article is that divisions between the three main ethnic groups are getting worse, Iranian influence is expanding, and, as the title suggests, Iraq is in real danger of becoming an “Islamic Republic.”

I am never entirely sure what to make of the differing analysis very smart people are producing on Iraq. I suspect this reflects not simply my own limited knowledge, but the great uncertainties of the situation there.

If Galbaith is right, part of the Bush administration’s problem is that it just doesn’t fully understand the two most important dynamics of imperial rule:[fn1] the various complications of “divide and rule” and the tradeoffs of allowing local rulers more or less autonomy.

Let’s start with the second. Galbraith argues that the main Shiite religious parties are seeking to undermine the liberal Transnational Administrative Law (TAL):

SCIRI and Dawa want Iraq to be an Islamic state. They propose to make Islam the principal source of law, which most immediately would affect the status of women. For Muslim women, religious law—rather than Iraq’s relatively progressive civil code—would govern personal status, including matters relating to marriage, divorce, property, and child custody. A Dawa draft for the Iraqi constitution would limit religious freedom for non-Muslims, and apparently deny such freedom altogether to peoples not “of the book,” such as the Yezidis (a significant minority in Kurdistan), Zoroastrians, and Bahais.

This program is not just theoretical. Since Saddam’s fall, Shiite religious parties have had de facto control over Iraq’s southern cities. There Iranian-style religious police enforce a conservative Islamic code, including dress codes and bans on alcohol and other non-Islamic behavior. In most cases, the religious authorities govern—and legislate—without authority from Baghdad, and certainly without any reference to the freedoms incorporated in Iraq’s American-written interim constitution—the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL).

Indeed, one of Galbraith’s main points is basically this: the US has a principal-agent problem in dealing with the Shiites. Both the major Shiite parties have divergent interests from the US, and there’s no clear way for the US to keep them in line.

For example, the two main Shiite religious parties clearly benefit from the US occupation – after all, that’s how they’re in power – but, Galbraith argues, they’re real interests lie in alignment with the Iranians.

Dawa and SCIRI are not just promoting an Iranian-style political system —they are also directly promoting Iranian interests. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the SCIRI leader, has advocated paying Iran billions in reparations for damage done in the Iran–Iraq war, even as the Bush administration has been working to win forgiveness for Iraq’s Saddam-era debt. Iraq’s Shiite oil minister is promoting construction of an export pipeline for petroleum from Basra to the Iranian port city of Abadan, creating an economic and strategic link between the two historic adversaries that would have been unthinkable until now. Iraq’s Shiite government has acknowledged Iraq’s responsibility for starting the Iran–Iraq war, and apologized. It is an acknowledgment probably justified by the historical record, but one that has infuriated Iraq’s Sunni Arabs.

Through its spies, infiltrators, and sympathizers, Iran has a presence i Iraq’s security forces and military. It is virtually certain that Iran has access t any intelligence that the Iraqis have. Not only does Iran have an opportunity t insert its people into the Iraqi apparatus, it also has many Iraqi allies willing to do its bidding. When I asked an Iraqi with major intelligence responsibilitie about foreign infiltration into Iraq, he dismissed the influx from Syria (the focus of the Bush administration’s attention) and said the real problem was from Iran When I asked how the infiltration took place, he said simply, “But Iran is already in Baghdad.”

What about the Kurds? In many ways, American interests and Kurdish interests align better. The Kurds don’t want an Islamic Republic, either within Kurdistan or or in Iraq as a whole. On the other hands, the Kurds want more autonomy than the US would like them to have. Yet even the present “equilbrium” is in trouble; the Kurds don’t believe that Shiite commitments to Kurd confederal autonomy are credible, and they’re probably right.

While the Shiite religious parties accepted the TAL when it was promulgated in 2004, the Kurds now believe they don’t mean it. When he swore in his cabinet on May 3, 2005, Shiite Prime Minister Jaafari eliminated the reference to a “federal Iraq” from the statutory oath of office; this so angered Barzani that he forced a second swearing-in ceremony. Some Shiite drafts for Iraq’s permanent constitution would sharply restrict Kurdistan’s autonomy and demote Kurdish from its current status at the federal level as an official language equal with Arabic. The Kurdish leaders also worry that the Shiites will try to eliminate Kurdistan’s current ability to modify the application of national law in Kurdistan; they fear that the Shiites will, at least, stop secular Kurdistan from rejecting the imposition of Islamic law.

It didn’t take long after the war for US policy in Iraq to become increasingly dependent upon local Kurds and Shiites; after all, these groups had little to lose and everything to gain from the US invasion, while many Sunnis understood that regime change would mean a loss of influence and power. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of “divide-and-rule” strategy: it is what empires often do. But an occupying power can’t make increasingly clear commitments to some groups without guaranteeing the alienation of others. The US has been trying to have it both ways for some time; as Galbraith notes, this isn’t working all that well:

A few months after the Iraqi elections, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to warn the new Shiite-led government not to purge Sunni Arabs from the police and military. He got a promise, but the government has no intention of keeping on people associated with Saddam’s regime. Too many of them have the blood of Shiites or Kurds on their hands, and neither group is in a forgiving mood. But the Americans, with little comprehension of Iraq’s recent history, seem not to understand. Recently, the Kurds identified the retired Iraqi officer who personally carried out the 1983 execution of more than five thousand members of the tribe of the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. The killer’s son holds a senior security position in Iraq, appointed by the American occupation authorities.

In theory, a more flexible strategy of “pivoting” between various groups in Iraq might have worked better; regardless, US policy goals are fractured between trying to “unite and rule” in Iraq while pursuing practical policies of “divide and rule.”

The US can’t credibly threaten to abandon the Shiite parties; it has no clear alternatives since the Sunnis are busy fighting against the occupation and the Kurds are primarily interested in autonomy. The election, from the position of occupation policy, had the perverse effect of ensuring that Iraq’s leadership has both a power base independent from the US and a mandate on its own terms. Thus, is it surprising that the US can’t exercise the level of control it would like to and this kind of thing happens:

On July 7, the Iranian and Iraqi defense ministers signed an agreement on military cooperation that would have Iranians train the Iraqi military. The Iraqi defense minister made a point of saying American views would not count: “Nobody can dictate to Iraq its relations with other countries.” However, even if the training is deferred or derailed, it is only the visible—and very much smaller—component of a stealth Iranian encroachment into Iraq’s national institutions and security services.

Galbraith ultimately argues for an abandonment of “unite and rule.” His prognosis for current policy is not comforting:

There are two central problems in today’s Iraq: the first is the insurgency and the second is an Iranian takeover. The insurgency, for all its violence, is a finite problem. The insurgents may not be defeated but they cannot win. This, of course, raises a question about what a prolonged US military presence in Iraq can accomplish, since there is no military solution to the problem of Sunni Arab rejection of Shiite rule, which is now integral to the insurgency.

Iraq’s Shiites endured decades of brutal repression, to which the United States was mostly indifferent. Iran, by contrast, was a good friend and committed supporter of the Shiites. By bringing freedom to Iraq, the Bush administration has allowed Iraq’s Shiites to vote for pro-Iranian religious parties that seek to create—and are creating —an Islamic state. This is not ideal but it is the result of a democratic process.

The Bush administration should, however, draw the line at allowing a Shiite theocracy to establish control over all of Iraq. This requires a drastic change of strategy. Building powerful national institutions in Iraq serves the interest of one group—today it is the Shiites—at the expense of the others, and inevitably produces conflict and instability. Instead, the administration should concentrate on political arrangements that match the reality in Iraq. This means a loose confederation in which each of Iraq’s communities governs itself, and is capable of defending itself. It may not be possible to accomplish this in a constitution, since the very process of writing a constitution forces these communities to confront issues—religion, women’s rights, ownership of oil, regional militaries— that are hard to resolve ideologically.

Many of these issues, however, could conceivably be worked out practically. For example, the Iraqi Ministry of Oil and the Kurdistan government are currently cooperating on fulfilling oil contracts made by the Kurdistan government, without having to face the constitutional issue of who owns the resources. Without having to make a constitutional decision on religion, the Shiite south can apply Islamic law as it now does and Kurdistan can remain secular.

War always has unintended consequences. Currently we are pursuing a strategy that will not end the insurgency but that plays directly into the hands of Iran. No wonder Agha Panayi, the Iranian intelligence official, was smiling.


1We need to recognize that even if though US has no intention of establishing a permanent “informal” empire in Iraq, the fact of occupation places the US in an imperial relationship with the Iraqis.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.