The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

10 Years On in Iraq: the Chance We Missed

March 21, 2013


The debate is indeed on, and the Duck is paddling rapidly on this one with excellent posts from Robert, Jon, and Dan.  I take/took a slightly different tack.  I opposed the war at the time and like everyone else watched how President Bush–whose job ratings were so low on 9-10 that he was rapidly on his way to being a one-term president–relied on Karl Rove to use 9-11 to his supreme political advantage.  A la Jon’s post, it took the American people six more years to wake up to the (inter)national disaster that had been wrought.

But remember Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule?  Taking that as a departing premise at the time, I wrote a piece that analyzed what could realistically have been achieved long after the Bremer decisions that the Neocons are now blaming for their ill-conceived adventurism.  This piece was about Iraq, but in the present context its frame could be applied to Libya and Syria.  For example, if Assad were to use chemical weapons and force the West’s military hand in the process, pretty soon the assembled coalition would be in the position it was in prior to the surge in Iraq:  it would be an occupying force.  Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, but if it does…

Authors: Stacey, Jeffrey

 National Interest, Jul/Aug2007, Issue 90, p58-64.

Abstract: The author comments on the status of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. The problems with the U.S. strategy in the Iraq War are outlined. He criticizes several proposed strategies for the Iraq War, including phased withdrawal, partitioning of Iraq and diplomacy with Iraq’s neighboring countries. He argues that the U.S. government needs to commit to withdraw its forces in Iraq or to make the occupation succeed.

 Re-Occupy Iraq?

THE U.S. occupation of Iraq has reached a dramatic turning point: The costs to America in blood and treasure dictate that a new president from either party will have to take the United States in a dramatically different direction. Admitting privately that there is no Plan B, the current administration appears to have put all its eggs in one basket. U.S. armed forces are implementing a surge of 20,000 in the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. While it could be a step in the right direction, even this “surge and hope” strategy will likely falter soon, as U.S. forces will be unable to clear and hold Baghdad neighborhoods until Iraq’s militias are dealt with in a dramatically different way.

But earlier phases of the war bode ill for the current strategy. Tens of billions have already been spent in reconstruction aid, the Maliki government has previously resisted benchmarks and timelines, and similar troop surges have failed in each of the last three years. Furthermore, the condition of Iraqi forces’ is grim: They cannot be trained more quickly, retain their sectarian loyalties and have proved unreliable in battle. In fact, American commanders have privately concluded that Iraqi troops will not ever be battle-ready in sufficient numbers (though apparently they have not determined that a permanent U.S. troop presence in Iraq will be necessary). Yet in terms of prospects for coalition-force success, it is a formidable challenge to implement counterinsurgency stratagems once an insurgency has fully taken hold; moreover, a cohesive, legitimate government is required for them to succeed. This patently is not the case.

At this stage with de facto partition in the form of ethnic cleansing already fairly advanced, untamed and amorphous militias meting out substantial destruction and power grabs by the political factions taking the form of a feeding frenzy–the way forward is perilous.

With a variety of alternative strategies on the table, the administration’s choice of “surge and hope” will be debated by historians for years to come. Democrats have unveiled a plan for phased withdrawal; Senator Joseph R. Biden (D-DE) and others suggest partitioning Iraq; the International Crisis Group advocates a conference of all international and national political actors; and the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group focuses on diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors.

The problem with these alternatives, however, is clear. With regard to the Baker-Hamilton report, what is most surprising is how unimaginative and unvaried the recommendations were. The sole novel element involved a suggestion to reach out diplomatically to Iran and Syria. However, Iran is riding high in the region and has no incentive to help rein in Shi’a militias; it would demand that the West desist from its pressure over Iran’s nuclear development. Syria would seek a voice in Lebanon again–possibly via Hizballah’s presence in government there–and might even demand the return of the Golan Heights.

The other recommendations–train Iraqi forces faster, reposition U.S. forces as soon as possible and begin transferring them home in the near future–remind us of President Bush’s devastating retort to Senator John Kerry (D-MA) when the latter unveiled his much-anticipated four-point plan during the presidential debates: “We’re already doing that.”

In fact, recent talk in the administration about a “post-surge” strategy–what could become an actual Plan B–relates to Baker-Hamilton. In a more fleshed-out form it apparently would incorporate regional diplomacy and benchmarks, along with the additional brigades in and around Baghdad. However, were it to come to fruition its prospect for success is nil–primarily because the emphasis would be again on training Iraqi troops faster to enable the United States to withdraw sooner rather than later.

Alternatively, Democrats in Congress have called for a phased withdrawal. But even with U.S. troops on the ground, the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigades and others–not to mention Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia–are preventing Iraq’s government and parliament from governing at the most basic level, let alone implementing laws and policies. In fact, there really is no distinct national government; it is fused with the factions and their militias, and will be feckless until they are disbanded. How could such a nominal government fare better?

Perhaps the thinking is that a U.S. withdrawal would allow Iraqis to settle their scores rapidly. Just before the surge strategy was announced, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his aides were pressing U.S. commanders to withdraw U.S. forces to the perimeter of Baghdad in order to allow the nominally Iraqi forces–in fact, largely Shi’a partisan ones–to assail predominantly Sunni neighborhoods. This amounts to the most ominous sign to date of the coming all-out civil war were coalition forces to withdraw from the country.

The only other serious plan involves a quasi-partition of the country with Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’a each running most of their own affairs and sharing oil revenues. The plan presented in these pages by Senator Biden( n1) rests on the flawed assumption that each ethnic group will be peaceful and united within its own region, which isn’t going to happen.

Economic assets have already been regionalized; even those retained by the central government are being divvied up by the factions, allotted on the basis of ethnic-sectarian criteria. As such, despite all the trumpeting by the administration, the oil law recently passed in the Iraqi Parliament will fail to be implemented. More importantly, the factions–political parties combined with their respective militias will continue to wreak havoc. In each region or new state, minority rights will continue to be trampled and the conflagration merely delayed. Moreover, the Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish groups have fully 33 sub-ethnic groups between them; each contain endemic tribal, religious and class divisions–many infused with more vitriol than the divisions we see played out today on the evening news.

For examples of decentralization’s consequences, we need only review recent Kurdish history. The two main Kurdish factions–the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)–have charmed the West into ignoring internal divisions and buying into the myth that an autonomous Kurdistan is some sort of halcyon democratic haven. In fact, the Kurds are serially divided, having used their pre-war Western no-fly-zone freedom to engage in a bitter civil war that has only been put on hold until they can acquire key northern oilfields. Shi’a politicians (Hakim versus Sadr, inter alia) and their Sunni counterparts (Ba’ath Party members versus the rest) seem to be following the Kurdish model–only without the constraints imposed on the Kurds, who are temporarily united in their drive for Kirkuk.

As things stand, each of the alternative plans on the table in Washington will sooner or later falter.

IT IS TOO early to hail the surge as a success, with the Mahdi Army hunkering down in villages north of Baghdad to assess the new force posture of United States and Iraqi forces now deployed in violence-wracked neighborhoods like Sadr City. Each household in Sadr City was given an AK-47 before the Mahdi fighters melted away, and the small ramshackle outposts representing the forward positions of U.S. forces are already rendering them sitting ducks.

More than likely, simply leavening the mix with an additional 20,000 or so American soldiers in Baghdad is not a solution–that is, not unless the militias are politically defanged first. But it is of critical importance for the United States and our allies, as well as the Iraqi people (several hundred thousand of whom have paid with their lives, along with 3,000-plus Americans), to come up with a viable strategy.

Without a strategy that permits the stable reconstruction of the country–and this means coming to terms with the militias–the seemingly inevitable result will be a serious conflagration that could well end with over 600,000 additional Iraqi civilian deaths, a permanently exiled Iraqi middle class, continuing separatist politics in the north and south (with central Iraq as an actual sanctuary for terrorists) and Iran emboldened as the strongest state in the Gulf. The chaos in Iraq will also prompt further Islamization of regional politics, engendering violently contested sectarian disputes involving not only Lebanon, but four U.S. allies as well–Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It bears repeating the obvious that this scenario is not in the national-security interests of the United States.

Despite all the justified pessimism, there is a faint yet realistic hope if the United States truly desires to achieve all of its stated objectives concerning Iraq: starting over.

A longer and far more comprehensive occupation–rebuilding Iraq from the ground up–has a better chance of succeeding than all the other plans rolled into one. The only way to escape what is eerily similar to Joseph Heller’s original Catch-22 is to adopt a strategy to change Iraq’s political culture over the long term, starting with altering the political dynamics for rampaging militias in the short term.

It is a terrible myth that the U.S. occupation has been comprehensive. We all know about how the fewer than 150,000 troops forces have been unable to eliminate the insurgents, and how many Americans and Iraqis have died in re-fighting battles in places like Fallujah, Tal Afar and Baghdad. What we don’t know is how light the civilian occupation has been. The occupation authority and subsequent U.S. advisors have so far failed to prevent the myriad of civilian decisions in which one Iraqi group’s leader has ridden roughshod over their sectarian opponents.

The eternal rules of the Iraqi political game remain unchanged. These compel the factional leaders, each tied to militias and dressed up as ministers, to grab maximum power by dominating any opposition–with violence if necessary. It doesn’t matter which particular social, economic or political aspect of Iraqi civil society is involved–be it a gas station, a union, a school, a newspaper or the parliament itself–the factions do not stop competing or fighting until one gains control and immediately thereafter operates in a winner-take-all fashion, providing all the jobs or money or positions to individuals of the same sectarian group. In the worst scenarios, deaths for members of minority groups have been the tragic result. The on-the-ground reality in Iraq belies the myth that the government is anything but a slim façade of infighting.

Violent clashes to gain control of the Iraqi health ministry earlier this year, for example, should have struck American commanders and political leaders as not only telling but also alarmingly ominous. The government ministries of Iraq have all been divvied up by faction, with the health ministry landing in the hands of Moqtada Sadr’s faction. Widely suspected of being turned into a Mahdi Army fief–from the storage of weapons and their transport by ambulances to the planning of attacks and the channeling of millions of dollars to the militia–Sunni insurgents attacked the building in November; the result of which was a huge gun battle that coalition forces eventually responded to after the attack had largely been repelled. In February, U.S. and Iraqi units raided the building to arrest the deputy health minister, a Sadr loyalist suspected not only of large-scale embezzlement but also planning the killings of a series of health-ministry officials.

The war is replete with examples of the carving up not only of the Iraqi government, but every other sector of society as well. To mention a few of the many examples, all non-members of the KDP and PUK have been purged from top administrative positions in universities throughout the northern Kurdish region; Sadr’s Trend movement–inseparable from the Mahdi Army–controls all the production and revenue of liquid propane gas in central Iraq; in a dramatic showdown, the Shi’a faction’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) took over control of the Basra port facility earlier in the occupation. Likewise, Sunni tribal factions gained control of all the contracts for guarding Iraq’s oil pipelines; faction militias at different universities in Baghdad intermittently prevent students from different sects from taking their final exams; and journalists viewed as writing something critical about the sect in control of the board, editor or publisher positions get routinely threatened.

For the most part, local U.S. decision-makers, from L. Paul Bremer through Ambassador Khalilzad, along with Generals Sanchez and Casey, have watched these trends without directly intervening to thwart them. Their goals have been stability and at least a low threshold of governance, at the direct cost of creating a viable civil society in Iraq–in other words, at the cost of a foundation for actual democracy. Allowing the carving up of Iraq has not always been palatable to these officials, but in practical terms they have found no other model for achieving their immediate aims. It is tantamount to Mayor Bloomberg’s allowing mafia families to control the provision of a range of city services in pursuit of predictable outcomes rather than effective governance. As one local Iraqi has observed, taking note of the ten major factions competing for influence today: “This is the way Saddam did it–you’ve created ten little Saddams.”

Related to this scenario is a phenomenon occurring lately in southern Shi’a-dominated Iraq. Competition rages not only across sectarian divisions in Iraq, but also among them. Kurdish factions may have temporarily ceased killing each other, but Sunni Al-Qaeda regularly targets rival Sunni insurgent groups. For example, the reported May death of Al-Qaeda leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri apparently came at the hands of a rival Sunni tribal militia. And in the south, with a much higher death toll, the Shi’a Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades: have been violently clashing. Their affiliated political parties–Sadr’s Trend and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s SCIRI, as well as Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki’s Dawa party–have been fiercely competing in the political arena at all levels of government, particularly in towns like Diwaniyah, Samawah, Nasiriyah and Basra. The intensity of this competition has been matched only by the violence of their affiliated militias, with average Shi’a, as well as Sunnis, often caught in the crossfire. Some of the most intense fighting took plaice in April between the Mahdi Army and Fadhila, another Shi’a party with its own well-organized militia, in Basra; and also between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades in May in the town of Diwaniyah.

The way to change this seemingly endemic Iraqi political culture is to actively monitor and pressure civilian decision-making, by force if necessary, until faction leaders prove their concern for the national interest and minority tights. Iraqi people and associational groups–particularly the factions–need, quite simply, to learn how to behave in a democratic manner, not because Iraqis can’t handle democracy but precisely because historically all they have ever known is varying degrees of autocracy. Changing this “normal” dynamic will take not months but years, and U.S. forces will have to work hand-in-hand with civilian specialists to accomplish what is indeed a daunting task.

American leaders and observers fail to see this phenomenon for what it is, naively believing that once a constitution is in place and elections have occurred that Iraqis will behave like Westerners and all will be well, not recognizing that average Americans and Europeans grew up accustomed to peace and democracy amid thriving civil-society networks. Both our president and the average person in the street are inclined to view elections as a panacea–whether in Afghanistan or Iraq. But in both places, intractable problems with deep historical roots exist amid a marked absence of civil society, hugely complicating the task of nation-building. It is time to take off the rose-tinted glasses.

Indeed, the Panglossian Western belief that Iraqi factions are heeding electoral mandates to serve others, not themselves, has taken a serious toll. It has signaled to all Iraqi factions that American actions are all aimed at securing a rapid U.S. withdrawal. Therefore, fomenting violence is akin to making a “can’t lose” bet. While average Americans have grown tired of heating the president talk about “staying the course”, ill-fated U.S. efforts all along have been aimed at getting out of Dodge. In straightforward bargaining terms it is totally rational for insurgents and militias to wreak havoc simply because high U.S. casualties and a low-grade civil war in Iraq puts major pressure on the United States to withdraw, thereby achieving their ultimate goal. Continually ceding more authority to the highly partisan Iraqi government–instead of working to forge a real representative central government–sends a strong signal to the factions that if they continue down their blood-soaked path, they will succeed. As things stand, they are already fairly convinced of this.

The crux of all this for the American administration is that it has to commit either to getting out of Iraq or to making the occupation work. However, if the United States truly values achieving a lasting, stable democracy, it has to make a series of sobering commitments instead of continually pretending that such a grand project can be accomplished on the cheap. Making this level of commitment will change the overall political dynamic in Iraq and very well may be the only hope the United States has of even achieving a Pyrrhic victory.

For Iraqis to have a viable chance at success, they need a lasting power-sharing agreement. The essential way to achieve this is literally for the United States to retake previously transferred power whenever factions defect from the national interest and harm minority groups. This needs to happen without exception in tit-for-tat fashion. For example, the government needs to understand that hanging Saddam in defiance of a U.S. dictum will cost the government a piece of its sovereignty–starting with loss of control over the Iraqi armed forces. It could proceed, if necessary, all the way to the dissolution of the current Iraqi government, bringing back the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Ultimately this power would be re-transferred, but in the short to medium term there appears no other way of changing the behavior of the militias.

In order to change their behavior, the United States needs to send a completely different signal: If you don’t suspend violence and visibly disarm your militias, then you won’t get the control you seek. This will be made credible precisely by taking power back. While not a foolproof solution–and certainly an unpalatable path for democratic purists–reconstituting the CPA is not only necessary but crucial for achieving the administration’s and Congress’s benchmarks, in particular the ultimate measure of success: a stable, lasting democracy marked by the regular non-violent handover of power. Crucially, genuine ideological-sectarian divisions would be marked by nonviolent resolution of conflict.

The basic question is this: How do you gain the loyalty of average Iraqis? The answer patently does not involve building them a new bridge or soccer field, or even decreasing power outages. Average Iraqis will be wooed away from supporting the current set of parties or joining their militias when corruption is tackled directly (i.e. the practice of allowing a single faction to gain total control of a particular asset or organization and handing all the spoils exclusively to its loyalists). Thus, a reconstituted CPA will need to give positions to unaffiliated technocrats–possibly Ba’ath Party members given a second chance–and contracts to factions only with a strict set of guidelines that will be regularly assessed with absolute consistency of penalties when the guidelines are breached.

This solution will not require the 400,000 to 600,000 troops that various observers have called for, comparing Iraq to places like Bosnia, for example. The emphasis in this effort will be civilian rather than military, although coalition forces will need to enforce the determinations of civilian-run accountability review processes for the awarding of government contracts. Where did all the people go that worked for the CPA? Some went to work for contractors, some remain and many of the foreign-service officers from the State Department are back in the United States. They all need to be recalled, and rapid recruitment of an additional 500 civilian experts will be necessary.

This CPA civilian force will need a sizable military contingent to work solely on the political, economic and social enforcement tasks of the CPA, and these forces can come from the remainder of the yet-to-arrive Baghdad surge–between 10,000 and 12,000 soldiers, roughly three brigades, are still due in the capital in coming months, according to military commanders. With multiple neighborhoods in Baghdad experiencing newfound stability and’ security due to the surge, one of the yet-to-be-deployed brigades can be used to help cement these conditions by working directly on civil-society-building tasks hand-in-hand with the CPA civilian force, with individual companies–roughly one hundred or so soldiers–assigned to different divisions of the CPA force, but obviously still coordinating with the fighting forces commanded by General Odierno. This entity will exercise the re-taken power, with a plan to achieve initial success in the capital. Once a series of benchmarks have been met in Baghdad, the forces will “take the show on the road”, first to Basra and at a later stage to Kirkuk.

Once the militias begin to respond to changes in their incentive structure, violence will start to ebb. Then, months in the future the best way to follow up a stable cessation in violence is to pursue a Dayton Accords-style process, whereby every single significant factional leader is cajoled to attend a conference outside of Iraq, where the leaders will be required to negotiate a lasting political settlement, tearing up the new constitution if necessary.

Even the half-baked surge-and-hope strategy will cost the United States dearly in the short and medium term; thus, it should require little hand-wringing for the administration to commit to a different approach that is not only superior strategically but also unlikely to break the bank beyond the current outsized spending. Only half-implemented, the current strategy has achieved a modicum of stability in several of Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods. But this has occurred at immense cost to U.S. soldiers, with monthly casualty counts the highest in 2007 and among the highest in the war so far (improvement in overall attack numbers is too small to be meaningful). Forward-deployed U.S. and Iraqi forces are unfortunately proving highly vulnerable, and lethal attacks inside the Green Zone have spiked dramatically. Moreover, indications are that after April’s massive anti-U.S. protest by Sadr supporters, along with increased intra-Shi’a violence in the south, the Mahdi Army is again targeting U.S. troops. Prima facie evidence furthermore indicates that Al-Qaeda has implemented a surge of its own.

Reflecting the bleak state of affairs in Iraq, here at home the budding number of Vietnam analogies recall a renowned philosopher’s aphorism: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” It is imperative to adopt a change in strategy this summer, for an immense amount is riding on the approaching outcome–not least the basic welfare of Iraqi citizens and the long-term national security of the United States. The president, Congress and the presidential candidates need to take a long, hard look at a downward-spiraling Iraq and join hands to implement a strategy with the best prospects for success: one that targets the militias both militarily and politically. If not, U.S. troops should be withdrawn forthwith, and American political leaders held directly accountable for all the costly damage to ensue.



(n1) See Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Breathing Room”, The National Interest, No. 85 (Sept./Oct. 2006).

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Four more years?


By Jeffrey Stacey


Jeffrey Stacey is a professor of political science and international relations at Tulane University.

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Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is currently Managing Partner of Geopolicity USA, an overseas development firm. Formerly he was Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, before which he served in the Obama Administration as a State Department official specializing in NATO and EU relations at the Bureau for Conflict Stabilization Operations. At State he founded and managed the International Stabilization and Peacebuilding Initiative (ISPI), which has over 20 government and international organization partners.

Dr. Stacey is the author of "Integrating Europe" by Oxford University Press and is currently working on a follow-up book entitled "End of the West, Rise of the East?" He has been a guest blogger at The Washington Note and Democracy Arsenal, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Tulane University and Fordham University, a consultant at the Open Society Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace, and a visiting scholar at George Washington, Georgetown, and the University of California. He received his PhD from Columbia University.