Friday, October 29, 2010

Lessons Learned from Iraq or Lessons Learned From Afghanistan?

Many analysts have discussed the “lessons learned” for Afghanistan based on the US’ experience in Iraq. Little has been done to analyze what might be learned for Iraq from the US experience in Afghanistan. Perhaps the first lesson is “never take anything for granted.” After its rout of the Taliban in 2001, the US felt it could largely ignore Afghanistan despite Bush administration’s promises of a “Marshal Plan for Afghanistan” and numerous pledges of economic and social reconstruction aid from a large number of Western countries. When the promised aid was not forthcoming, the results were disastrous. Exploiting the corruption of the current regime of Hamid Karzai, the Taliban have slowly been able to reestablish themselves as a military and political force in Afghanistan. This turn of events required the US and the West to, in effect, create a brand new policy, resulting in considerable loss of life, both Afghan and Western, and the expenditure of huge amounts of money. If the US and its Western allies had consolidated their gains following 2001, starting all over again would not have been necessary.

In Iraq, the Obama administration does not seem to have any comprehensive plan for consolidating what gains have already been made in Iraq. Certainly, Iraq is still experiencing a political gridlock and has yet to form a new government following the March 2010 elections. Corruption is endemic and social services are lacking in much of the country. Ethnic mistrust is still a part of the political and social landscape.

Nevertheless, Iraq has a rudimentary democracy. The March elections were fair by all accounts. There is a vigorous civil society at work. The Iraqi Communist Party recently challenged the inactivity of the Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) and was successful in obtain a court ruling forcing the chamber to begin to meet and conduct the business for which its members were elected last march. Provincial councils have begun to insert themselves into both local and national affairs. For example, the al-Najaf City Council recently voted that the province be allowed to open offices in Iraqi diplomatic missions around the world to promote its economic and touristic interest. This in tunr has caused a broad national debate about whether such offices are legal under Iraq’s constitution, another indicator of a growing national civic engagement.

In Iraq, as in many countries of the Middle East, youth constitute a large segment of the populace. The so-called “youth bulge” is evident in Iraq as well where 65% of the population is under the age of 25. Research that I have been conducting with Iraqi youth from ages 14 through 30 is indicative of how Iraq might potentially develop in the near future. On the one hand, the positive news is that the overwhelming number of youth I have been able to interview are not sectarian in orientation and intuitively understand, as do their elders, that sectarian politics is neither good for Iraq or the type of behavior that bodes well for their future (unless perhaps they are drawn into sectarian criminal organizations). On the other hand, much of what these youth see in the political realm does not convey positive ideas about politics, much less attract many to run for public office. If the type of nepotistic and corrupt elite based politics continues in Iraq, then my data indicate that many youth who have the skills may seek to leave the country and pursue careers abroad rather than in Iraq.

What do these developments in Iraq imply for Afghanistan? Iraq is at a crossroads. It lives in a “rough neighborhood.” With the exception of Turkey, none of its neighbors want to see a democratic, ethnically and religiously pluralistic, and politically stable nation-states consolidate itself in their midst. For Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Syria, such a development is a disturbing prospect because of the reformist implications for their own political systems and societies.

Yet the Obama administration has not proposed any innovative policies that would help Iraq continue to consolidate the fragile gains it has made thus far politically, socially and economically. It has not, for example, developed a program that will replace its successful Provincial Reconstruction Teams, even if these were to be largely populated by Iraqis rather than Americans. To be sure, the Iraqis are a tenacious people whose progress since 2003 is remarkable in light of 35 years of highly repressive Ba'thist rule and numerous blunders on the part of the US occupation authority in 2003 and 2004, such as dissolving the Iraqi conscript army, cutting off funds to the state public sector, and pressuring the Iraqis to complete a new constitution in too short a time resulting in a flawed document.

The US should not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs. However, Iraq continues to seek American technology and technical assistance. Iraqis want our help in the education, health care and the municipal services fields. The Iraqi higher education system desires collaboration with the West. The Iraqi government continues to send many of its university students to study in the United States. The US continues to play a key role in helping Iraq improve its court system and consolidate the rule of law.

In the international arena, the US has played an important role in helping Iraq seek debt forgiveness from loans and reparations that go back to the Gulf War of 1991. The US is one of Iraq’s key allies in major international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. And let’s not forget the critical role that the US plays in Iraq’s efforts tor rebuild its security forces after 2003. The supplying of equipment and training is key to efforts to develop an army that can defend the country and police its long borders and local police forces that can assure citizens’ safety and security.

As with any friendship, this is always a quid pro quo. In exchange for its support, the US can ask of the Iraqi government that is begin to seriously confront corruption, that is follow the constitution and that it more vigorously implement the rule of law. Such behavior will further consolidate democracy and prevent the types of problems that we see with the highly corrupt and personalistic rule of Hamid Karzai in Kabul. Karzai’s behavior represents a perfect foil for the Taliban who can use his administration to justify their own efforts to seize power.

If the response to the arguments presented here is that the US is suffering a major fiscal crisis that has created huge budget deficits, perhaps the Obama administration should make Iraq part of its Stimulus Program. Numerous professionals who have lost their jobs in the US could find work in Iraq under the types of programs I am suggesting. This includes professionals, construction workers, teachers and academics, just to mention a few employment opportunities.

To offset its economic constraints, US policy in Iraq should increasingly assume an international dimension. Our oil rich allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait should be pressured to contribute funds to help develop Iraq. While a democratic Iraq might be threatening, a destabilized Iraq, in which the current Iranian regime, along with its Revolutionary Guards, extends its influence, is one of their worst nightmares.

The US needs to learn from Afghanistan that it ignores Iraq at its own peril.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What has Iraq's elite learned from the current political crisis?

The inability of Iraq's political elite to agree upon forming a new government does not bode well for the process of democratization following the highly successful March 2010 Council of Representatives (national parliament) elections. Still, the efforts of the major political actors and parties to form a new government has taught Iraq's politcial elite some important lessons .

First, it is clear ethnic and confessional identities alone carry relatively little weight in helping candidates achieve their goals. The best evidence of this is the intense competition that has been ongoing within the main Shi'i political parties, the State of Law Coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance and the Sadrist Trend. When Iran recently pressured Muqtada al-Sadr to throw the support of the his 40 seats the Sadrists won to al-Maliki, despite his hostility towards al-Maliki for suppressing his Mahdi Army militia in 2008, the other main party in the Iraqi National Alliance - the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (ISCI) - immediately began negotiations with al-Maliki's main competitor, Ayad Allawi, head of the secular al-Iraqiya List, which won the most seats in the March election. This development, along with al-Maliki subsequently distancing himself from Sadrist support after they demanded military and security portfolios in exchange for their support, clearly indicate that the unity that the Shi'i parties demonstrated in the December 2005 parliamentary elections through the United Iraqi Alliance was a temporary phenomenon and has now dissipated.

Second, the inability of ethnoconfessional groups to create cohesive alliances is actually beneficial for Iraq's political system It undermines the possibility of a confessional system on the Lebanon model from being established in Iraq. The inability of the large Shi'a parties to coalesce in a unified bloc has worked to inadvertently undermine sectarianism. At the time of this writing, ISCI's head, Ammar al-Hakim, is visiting the two most important Sunni states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where he is attempting to drum up support for Ayad Allawi's efforts to impose conditions on all the major political parties that will prevent any of them from being excluded from receiving major portfolios in any government that is formed (al-Hayat, Oct, 12). Thus al-Maliki's efforts to relegate al-Iraqiya to a marginal role in the next government seems doomed to fail. That al-Hakim, the leader of what once was Iraq;s most sectarian party, is now cooperating with Allawi, Iraq's most secular political leader, is clear evidence that the desire for power and influence is cross-cutting ethnoconfessional identities.

Even the Kurds, who have maintained a unified bloc, still have to cope with the new Gorran (Change) Movement which won 8 seats in the March elections and continues to challenge the authority of the two main parties nthat control the KRG, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Clearly, the KDP and PUK no longer exercise the power and influence in Baghdad that they did in 2005.

While their 57 seats give them the possibility of playing a kingmaker role in the formation of the national government, namely allowing an Arab coalition to reach the 163 votes needed to form a government, the Kurdish parties, like their Arab counterparts, also realize that they will need to become more creative than simply throwing their votes to any coalition that promises to meet their demands, such as holding a referendum on the disputed city of Kirkuk. As their power wanes on the national scene, they will need to develop closer ties to those Arab parties with whom they share broad interests that affect all of Iraq if they are not to become further marginalized in the future.

Third, one of the most striking aspects of the post-election maneuvering has been the rapid shift in alliances - sometimes from one day to the next - as the major political actors and parties try and calculate what moves will best enhance their ability to maximize their power in the new government. As parties shift their contacts from one party to another, we see that all the major players have entered into dialogue with each other at one point or another.

This process has demonstrated the importance of negotiations to all the political parties, something unheard of in Iraq since the parliamentary elections of the 1950s, prior to the toppling of the Hashimite monarchy in 1958. While these negotiations have not brought about a new government, they have demonstrated two things: that no one ethnoconfessional group can now or in the foreseeable future dominate Iraqi politics, and that developing an inclusive political coalition represent s the best path to power. In short, there are some pistive lessons to be learned from the current political stalemate in Iraq

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The US and the International Community Should Support Gorran

One issue that has bedeviled US foreign policy in the Middle East is the support for authoritarian regimes. All too often, short term stability has trumped support for long term reforms, especially reforms that promote democratic governance. This process is occurring again in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Kurdish leadership is becoming increasingly authoritarian and repressive. Fortunately, there is a breath of fresh air in Iraqi Kurdistan in the form of the Gorran (Change) Movement. Before discussing Gorran's contribution to democracy, we need to understand the context in which it was established

As a strong ally, the US should continue to maintain close ties with the Kurds and the Regional Government (KRG) which rules Iraqi Kurdistan. However, by supporting the current Kurdish political elite which does not reflect the interests of the populace at large, the US is once again making a serious mistake. It is trading short term stability for potential instability in the long term as it becomes identified with a repressive and unpopular elite whose legitimacy is on the decline due to corruption, nepotism and authoritarian rule. In neighboring Iran, support for the repressive and highly unpopular Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi produced the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 and the disastrous regime that continues to haunt the US and the Middle East to this day.

The two political,parties that control the KRG, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), claim that the Iraq's Kurds have enjoyed democratic freedoms under their rule since the region acquired semi-autonomous status following the Gulf War of January 1991. There was some progress towards democratization when the US imposed a "no-fly zone" after the war ended which allowed the KRG to break away from the Arab south. However, the KDP and PUK have dominated the political system, judiciary, the military and intelligence services and the economy, which has allowed for systematic abuses. As the dominant employer in the KRG, the KDP and PUK have been able to use the threat of dismissing Kurds from their jobs as an effective form of social control.

The reality is that the KRG government is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Attacks on the non-party press have intensified. Newspapers and journals that dare to criticize government corruption are subject to onerous lawsuits that impose heavy fines. At least two young journalists, Soran Mam Hama and Zardasht Osman have been killed for criticizing the KRG leadership.

The KRG has established an amalgam of courts, all of which are populated by judges sympathetic to the two major parties. Thus it is impossible to obtain a fair trial when political issues are involved. Many of the courts are extra-judicial because they were established by either the KDP or PUK and thus have no legal standing. In some instances, Ba'thist era criminal statutes laws are used to prosecute those who criticize the KRG such as the 1969 Iraqi penal code that allows prison terms for journalists
editors, writers, and publishers on defamation and other offenses

It is within this context of corruption, nepotism and authoritarian rule that a new political movement has appeared on the Kurdish political scene. The Gorran (Change) Movement was formed in the spring of 2009 by a reform group within the PUK, led by one of the party's founding members, Nawshirwan Mustafa. Gorran has grown quickly, beyond the dissidents who joined Nawshiran Mustafa in leaving the PUK. It enjoys widespread support in Iraqi Kurdistan among intellectuals, professionals and the educated middle classes, but increasingly among the broad swath of the Kurdiosh populace that is suffering from lack of jobs and access to education and other public services. Gorran has also received strong support from the Kurdish Diaspora in Europe and the United States.

Gorran was most successful,in the July 2009 KRG parliamentary elections. Of the chamber's 100 elected seats (an additional 1o appointed seats are reserved by the KRG for minorities and are delegated by the KRG president), Gorran won 25 seats. With the 15 seats won by the Services and Reform List, a coalition of Islamist and socialist parties, 40 of the parliament's 110 members are now part of the opposition.

Although the KRG leadership has refused to respond to questions posed by the Gorran and other opposition members about the use of public funds, the July 2009 elections have encouraged more Kurds to question how the KRG is being run. More and more Kurds seem inclined to vote for Gorran, especially in the Suleimaniya area which traditionally has been the PUK voting strength. Even though much of Gorran's initial strength came from PUK dissidents, now support for the party has spread to Arbil, Kirkuk and other Kurdish majority regions and towns.

As Gorran has generated more support, the KDP and faltering PUK have ratcheted up their efforts to suppress the party. During the March 2010 parliamentary elections, members of the peshmerga - the KRG militia - and police and intelligence officers were warned that, if they were suspected of having voted for Gorran, they would be required to swear on a Qur'an that they did not so. If they were found to have lied, their wives would be forced to divorce them for dishonesty. Despite efforts such as these to intimidate voters, Gorran still managed to gain 8 seats in parliament.

While it is still unclear where Gorran is headed, clearly it speaks to the disaffection of large segments of the Kurdish community in Iraq. As Gorran calls for laws to protect the media, an independent judicial system, and oversight of huge government revenues derived from oil production, more and more Kurds see the party that might deliver them from the lack of jobs amidst plenty and create a political culture in whjich freedom of expression acquires rel meaning.

Will the US support this expression of the Kurd's desire for democracy, and put pressure on the KRG leadership to "walk the walk" and not just "talk the talk" of democracy? Or will it drop the ball, thereby becoming identified with suipportiung a stolid and repressive regime? The risks of the continued status quo are the possible rise of radicalism in the KRG alomh islamist lines. To assure that Iraq's Kurds live in a stable and truly democratic state, the US and other nations committed t democracy need to move from spectators on the sidelines to active participants in helping the Kurds acquire and exercise the rights that so many of us in the West take for granted

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Eid al-Fitr, Sectarian Identities and Iraq's Political Elite

It is commonplace to argue that Iraq is an "artificial society" because its main ethnic groups, the Sunni Arabs, Shi'i Arabs and the Kurds can't get along. The logical implications of this model, one of a society rent by ethnic and confessional cleavages, is that political stability, much less democratization, are not in the realm of the possible.

If Iraq's ethnic groups can't get along, one has a hard time explaining two developments that occurred at the end of Ramadan in September. While not earthshaking events, they still provide a window on ethnoconfessional relations in Iraq and belie the argument of Iraq as a society suffering from "ancient hatreds," to use a term favored by some students of ethnic conflicts.

Large numbers of Arabs traveled from the south and north central regions of Iraq to celebrate the end of Ramadan in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the semi-autonomous region of three Kurdish provinces in north eastern Iraq. Reports in the Iraqi press and al-Hayat describe a situation in whch there were so many Arab visitors that it was virtually impossible to find a hotel. In the market (bazar), Arabic was heard everywhere and Kurdish merchants were enjoying brisk sales. If Kurds and Arabs really despised one another, why did so many Arabs feel that the best place to celebrate Eid al-Fitr would be in the KRG?

Obviously, security was one concern since the KRG is largely devoid of the violence that still plagues areas of Arab Iraq. However, what we are seeing is the return to historic patterns in which large numbers of Arabs visited the north on a regular basis.

In describing the flood of Arabs visiting the KRG during Eid al-Fitr, newspaper articles conducted interviews with tourism officials who speak of large projects designed to accommodate much higher levels of domestic and foreign tourism. If ever larger numbers of Arabs do visit the north, this will be one opportunity for Iraq's Arabs and Kurds to establish better relations which were cut off after the 1991 Gulf War.

Indeed, Arabs always traveled to the north during the hot summer months. The difference now is that the KRG is in charge of tourist accommodations, not the central government, which will provide more employment for Kurds and promote the development of more small enterprises. While there is extensive government corruption in the north (as there is in Baghdad), revenues from tourism will help the populace at large which is not benefiting as much as it should due to the KRG's political elite appropriating much of the region's oil revenues for themselves ad their retainers

In the south, it is notable that many Sunni and Shi'i clerics celebrated Eid al-Fitr together to celebrate the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq. This recalls the June 1920 Revolution when Sunnis and Shi'is prayed in each mosques and celebrated each others' religious rituals to protest the British occupation of Iraq. After the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari mosque in the ethnically mixed north central city of Samarra, a mosque particularly important to devout Shi'a because it is site where the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into occulatation in 874 CE, both Sunni and Shi'i clerics called upon their respective confessionalists to pray in the other sect's mosque as a demonstration of national and religious unity.

What these considerations point to is that the problems facing Iraq are not so much rooted in the populace at large but in its political elite. Much of this elite was not in Iraq during Ba'thist rule. Still weak and fragmented, many of its members constantly play the sectarian card. These sectarian entrepreneurs, who Iraqis historically have referred to as the tujjar al-siiyasa (merchants of politics) should not be confused with the Iraqi populace which demonstrated through the national parliament elections that were held this past March that they are fed up with sectarian appeals and want the government to focus on providing security and services instead.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Moving beyond Iraq's Impasse: Iran and the Return of Shiite Militias

Although there is definite movement towards finally forming a new Iraqi government, there are a number of disturbing developments as well. The return of Shiite militias as a force to be reckoned with in south central and southern Iraq is a disturbing new element in Iraq's current political impasses following the March 2010 Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) elections. Before turning to these militias, what led up to their reentry into the current political equation?

When Nuri al-Maliki became Iraqi Prime Minister in 2006, he was seen as weak and lacked popularity. That all changed in March 2008 when he ordered an offensive against the Mahdi Army (JAM) and other militias in Basra who were terrorizing the population. While many considered the offensive an ill-advised and dangerous gamble, the Iraqi Army, with US logistical and air support, successfully completed its mission. Subsequently, it entered Revolution (Sadr) City in Baghdad where it subdued the JAM before moving on to the border city of Amara, a critical entry point for weapons and drugs from Iran. In interviews in the Arabic press in the spring of 2008, formerly scornful Basrawis now had pictures of Maliki in their cell phones and referred to him as a strong leader.

Many Iraqis breathed a sigh of relief when the JAM was effectively eliminated as a major military force. This was especially true of middle class Shiites in Baghdad and elsewhere whose automobiles, homes and other property had been confiscated by the JAM in neighborhoods that it controlled (NY Times, July 27, 2008).

Not all Mahdi Army militiamen were willing to follow the lead of Muqtada al-Sadr who has focused on the electoral route to gaining power since 2008. The Sadrist Trend (al-tayyar al-sadri) won 40 seats in the March 2010 Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) elections. Due to the stalemate in forming a new government, the Sadrist bloc of seats is crucial to whoever tries to become the next Iraqi prime minister, whether Maliki, Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi, a vice-president from the Iraqi National Alliance or (the least likely) Iyad 'Allawi, head of al-'Iraqiya.

While the focus in the post-election gridlock has been on the struggle between the two main coalitions - the Iraqiya List, which won 91 seats, and Maliki's State of Law Coalition, which won 89 seats, al-Hayat reported in September that a deal was in the works in which Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi would become prime minister, Ayad 'Allawi would be given the presidency, and the Kurds would take over the position of speaker of the parliament.

Iran, which has developed a close relationship with Nuri al-Maliki, did not find this deal acceptable and has been, according to the Arab press, behind the reemergence of a number of Shi'i militias, all of which are either splinters of the Mahdi Army or have ties to Muqtada al-Sadr. While Maliki is anathema to Sadr for his 2008 attack on the JAM, and Sadr has steadfastly refused since March to support him for another term as prime minister, he apparently has now relented under Iranian pressure and concessions from al-Maliki. Those concessions will undoubtedly give Sadr access once again to ministries that will allow him to control the distribution of social benefits such as he did when part of the government in 2006. More disturbing are rumors that Sadr may be offered positions that have to do with national security and/or the military.

Beyond the pressure currently being exerted by Iran, Both Sadr and Maliki have strong incentives to come to terms. First, Sadr does not want to see armed groups that have splintered from the JAM gain power at his expense. These militias have engaged in violence with Iranian support. Two of them, the League of the People of Righteousness (asa'ib ahl al-haqq), and the Hizballah Brigades (kata'ib hizb allah) broke with Sadr after 2008 when he opted for a political strategy. Another group, the Promised Day Brigades (alawiat al-yawm al-maw'ud) has close ties to al-Sadr and seems to represent a new incarnation of the Mahdi Army.

Following the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, these militias became more active in Iraq's south central and southern regions, with the League engaged in operations in Dhi Qar, Misan and al-Basra provinces while Hizballah claimed responsibility for explosions in Karbala', al-Najaf and Baghdad. With the continued political crisis, and a smaller US military presence, these groups feel encouraged to try and exploit the growing power vacuum.

Second, al-Maliki knows that time is not on his side. Already strong support has developed for appointing 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi as prime minister due to al-Maliki's struggle with Iyad 'Allawi and the subsequent gridlock it produced. There is considerable resentment at Maliki's efforts to expand the power of the post of prime minister, such as creating military and intelligence units that only report to him. Removing Maliki from office would prevent him from further institutionalizing his power in ways that many politicians, even Shi'is in the Iraqi National Alliance, find disturbing.

What do these developments suggest? First, they show that Iraq's Shi'i political elite is by no means unified. Second, Iran seems to have been able, for the moment, to use its influence to forge a new government in Iraq. However, it is doubtful that it will be able to sustain this level of influence as Iraq's elite hydrocarbon industry continues to grow, political processes become more institutionalized and Iraq's political elite becomes more self-confidant.

Third, ongoing developments leave open the question of where the Sunni Arab community fits into the new political landscape that is taking shape. While Maliki proclaims that no victorious party (meaning al-'Iraqiya) will be excluded from the new government, Iyad 'Allawi insists that al-'Iraqiya will not join any government headed by Maliki.

Finally and more disturbing is the increased power and influence of Shi's militias that are JAM wannabes. They underscore the fact that Iraq's poor have not seen much benefit in economic developments and state benefits since 2003. Unless the new Iraqi government begins to get serious about poverty, employment, health care, education and municipal services for the poor and dispossessed, radical groups such League of the People of Righteousness, the Hizballah Brigades and the Promised Day Brigades will continue to proliferate and threaten Iraq's political stability and efforts at democratization. These cxonditions will continue to provide fertile soil for Iran's Revolutionary Guards and other disruptive foreign elements to detabilize Iraqi politics.