The Duck of Minerva

Political judgment: Iraq edition

10 December 2007

In January, I was skeptical about the prospects for the new Iraq strategy, commonly called “the surge.”

As everyone knows, the strategy was built around securing Baghdad:

The Bush administration asserts that the violence in Iraq, “particularly in Baghdad,” has reversed the political gains that were reflected in the 2005 elections. By stabilizing the situation in and around the capital, they assert, the U.S. can help the current government control Iraq — and then presumably prepare to bring American troops home.

Here’s what I wrote about the prospects for that strategy:

In my view, it means the U.S. will at best replicate the initial “success” widely acknowledged in Afghanistan. If Hamid Karzai was only “Mayor of Kabul” long after the fall of the Taliban, then it would seem that the Bush administration plans only to make Jalal Talabani Mayor of Baghdad in 2007.

…Iraq January 2008 will probably look a great deal like Afghanistan, October 2006.

Obviously, I was too cynical and thus was proved wrong about that specific prediction.

While Jalal Talabani remains President of Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is actually the mayor of Baghdad. I thought he might have lost power by now.

Otherwise, the latest news indicates that my prediction is accurate. From the LA Times, December 10:

“Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, a highly decentralized situation — totally unplanned, of course — with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone.”

The Times reporter, Ned Parker, provides much more detail about the outlying areas:

The U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was meant to freeze the country’s civil war so political leaders could rebuild their fractured nation. Ten months later, the country’s bloodshed has dropped, but the military strategy has failed to reverse Iraq’s disintegration into areas dominated by militias, tribes and parties, with a weak central government struggling to assert its influence.

In the south, Shiite Muslim militias are at war over the lucrative oil resources in the Basra region. To the west, in Anbar province, Sunni Arab tribes that once fought U.S. forces now help police the streets and control the highways to Jordan and Syria. In the north, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are locked in a battle for the regions around Kirkuk and Mosul. In Baghdad, blast walls partition neighborhoods policed by Sunni paramilitary groups and Shiite militias.

This is not an isolated report by one reporter.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur, December 10, via Monsters and Critics

Hamid Fadil, a professor of political science at Baghdad University …is among Iraqi analysts who say that, underneath the veneer of improved security, they see their country turning into a cellular nation divided into rival constituencies, and failing to achieve compromise on key issues.

Among such issues are the much-needed consensus on 20 vital legislations, such as the oil and gas law and the return of thousands of Baath Party members from the Saddam Hussein era to government jobs.

So far the national government has been held together by a shaky coalition of Shiite and Kurdish parties. However, the withdrawal of many ministers belonging to the Shiite Sadr Bloc, the Sunni Iraqi National Accord and the secular Iraqi List has brought the cabinet nearer to collapse.

This development is further exacerbated by the provinces which are increasingly involved in power struggles and often see the central government as irrelevant.

The article discusses ongoing violent conflicts in Kurdistan and Basra. It also references the Iraq NIE, which “warned that US support for them [Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere] could strengthen the provinces and weaken efforts to impose Baghdad’s central authority.”

Sam Dagher reports in the December 10 Christian Science Monitor that even Baghdad’s residents do not yet enjoy the good life:

While many here are grateful for the newfound calm, they say the price is an increasingly segregated city that is starting to feel like a collective cage. In many cases, the US military is keeping tabs on male residents by collecting fingerprints and retinal scans.

“One road in and one road out, that’s it,” says Ghazaliya resident Muhammad Rajab. “Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison,” he adds wryly.

Maybe I should have predicted that al-Malaki would be Warden of Baghdad?