COIN to Nowhere? Lessons from Iraq, Questions for Afghanistan
Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 1 December 2009 13:13
As the Obama administration moves closer to announcing its new Afghanistan policy – widely expected to involve a substantial infusion of thousands of additional US troops – competing interpretations of the effect of a similar policy in Iraq between 2007 and 2009 continue to abound.
According to the optimistic Iraq narrative, the “surge” of US troops that was implemented in Iraq from 2007 onwards created the right environment for political progress in the country. That progress was allegedly reflected in more mature forms of voter behaviour in the January 2009 local elections in Iraq, and further gains are expected in the parliamentary elections next year in the shape of political development towards a form of politics that is issue-based rather than ethno-sectarian in character.
However, a more sceptical interpretation is also possible. It can be argued that the optimistic narrative on the “surge” exaggerates not only the permanence and irreversibility of the assumed changes in the political situation in Iraq in the period between 2007 and 2009, but also the degree of American agency in bringing about what limited progress was achieved. The criticism is not that the US soldiers did not do their job of creating a more permissive environment; rather the argument is that the political and diplomatic effort failed.
Some of the points that form the basis of this second and more sceptical interpretation have already been rehearsed many times with regard to the situation in the Anbar governorate and need not be repeated here. Chiefly, they focus on both the chronology of events (the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda antedated the “surge”) as well as the absence of permanent political progress (the Anbar-centric part of the story emphasises the lack of post-awakening integration of the sahwa into the Iraqi government security forces). However, when it comes to developments in both Mosul and the capital Baghdad – arguably areas that are more important to the country as a whole – the true chart of the highs and lows of political progress following the “surge” has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Indeed, there is reason to ask whether the United States government ever understood the nature and the timing of the limited and temporary progress that did in fact take place.
A good starting point for this discussion is the January 2009 local elections, where Maliki’s performance is routinely overrated in US diplomatic circles. All too often overlooked is the fact that Maliki’s State of Law coalition at that point remained Daawa-dominated and that it performed dismally in Sunni-dominated areas outside Baghdad. Instead, Maliki’s finest moment actually came in the two first months subsequent to the announcement of the results. During this period he took meaningful steps towards building local alliances across Iraq where he did indeed transcend his traditional Shiite Islamist base, reaching out to Sunni and nationalist forces such as Iraqiyya, Hiwar and the sahwa in places like Anbar and Diyala (forming the opposition in the latter place). There even seemed to be good relations with local politicians in Nineveh, the most populous of Iraq’s Sunni-majority governorates but also an area which for a long time seemed to receive less attention from Washington than Anbar.
Importantly, Maliki had a brave ideological message ready at hand to accompany these overtures: For the first time since 2003, an Iraqi Shiite politician publicly said there were problems with the 2005 constitution and the way it was adopted, that there had to be limits to federalism and decentralisation and concessions to the Kurds more generally, and that an exaggerated focus on ethno-sectarian consensus (tawafuqiyya) could bring politics in Iraq to complete paralysis. These were themes Maliki had been floating since late 2008 (many of them originated with the 22 July front of opposition parties that secured a timeline for the local elections but generally was cold-shouldered by Washington), but this was the first time he actually moved to create political alliances to back them up. In this way, meaningful pacts were forged between Shiite politicians and secularists and Sunni leaders who had greater popular backing than the Tawafuq affiliates that had served as “Sunni” figureheads in Maliki’s government since 2006. It should be stressed that this progress had nothing whatsoever to do with the message that Washington had been hammering on with relentlessly for the past six years about a “deal” that should be struck “between Sunnis and Shiites” to settle “fundamental” issues such as those relating to “oil revenue”. Rather, the liberating effect was created by ideas of Iraqi origin and a political atmosphere when Iraqis for a moment forgot about these categories altogether and focused on being Iraqis first. Subsequently, a number of scenarios of promising alliances for the next parliamentary elections were discussed: Maliki-Mutlak, Maliki-Allawi, Maliki-Bulani, Maliki-Abu Risha, Maliki-Nujayfi and even Maliki-Mashhadani/Jabiri. However, no institutional change could be achieved at this point since Iraq was still hostage to the anachronistically composed parliament that had been elected in a very sectarian atmosphere back in 2005.
Alas, this progress proved short-lived and was reversed only one month later. Maliki’s downturn began in April, when he came under double pressure from parliament (which pressed ahead with electing Ayad al-Samarraie as speaker), and, apparently, from Iran (which seems to have played a role in pressing for a stronger role in ISCI in the local councils south of Baghdad than was strictly speaking necessary based on the election results alone). ISCI, for its part, turned up pressure on Maliki by attacking his tentative alliances with Sunnis and secularists as a “dangerous return of the Baath”, and a number of unexplained explosions – partly in areas considered as Shiite heartland and therefore out of reach to Sunni insurgents – added to Maliki’s burdens. The prospect of a Mutlak-Maliki alliance was one early casualty of these developments.
For a while Maliki resisted pressure from Iran and ISCI to join an all-Shiite alliance for the next parliamentary elections, even as efforts in this direction intensified in late July and August. The Shiite alliance was declared in late August without Maliki on board; on 1 October Maliki announced his own alliance, separate from the other Shiites. However, the nature of the new alliance, while clearly superior to the ISCI-led project in terms of genuine cross-sectarian coalition-building, was but a pale shadow of the powerful alliances that had been foreshadowed only six months earlier, with none of the leading Sunni or nationalist politicians aboard. Whereas Maliki had managed to maintain his independence from ISCI throughout this difficult period, it was becoming increasingly clear that the pressure was intensifying and was taking its toll. After the first ministry bombings on 19 August, just days before the planned announcement of the Shiite alliance, Maliki’s public statements grew increasingly hostile to neighbouring Arab states, and more and more paranoid with respect to the “danger” of a return of the Baath (with respect to this latter issue he actually fast became more ISCI than ISCI itself). And whereas media outlets close to Maliki continued to produce materials bitterly critical of ISCI and even Iran for some weeks, this tendency seemed to be reversed quite markedly after the second ministry bombings on 25 October (over the past few weeks, some of the materials critical of Iran have simply been deleted from pro-Maliki websites and the campaign against the Buratha news agency and Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, the ISCI preacher, has receded). Lately, talk of a future coalition with the Shiite alliance and the Kurds has once more come to the forefront (inevitably all the unwed brides of the aborted coalition projects involving Maliki are now looking somewhat more sectarian as well), and with the recent fudge on Kirkuk and the subsequent parliamentary dispute over the exiled vote in the election law, the alliance structure of Iraqi politics suddenly looks remarkably similar to the situation in 2005, leaving profound questions as to whether the “surge” had any lasting effect in terms of political maturation at all.
For a long time, analysts were in the dark as to what exactly constituted US policy in Iraq in this critical period, which coincided with the first months of the Obama presidency. We now know. Thanks to a long interview with Vice-President Joe Biden in the New York Times, the rationale behind his two missions to Iraq in July and September as well as the general outline of US policy on Iraq over the past six months are becoming a lot clearer. In essence, the aims have been to keep the parliamentary election schedule on track as well as dealing with the “danger of Arab–Kurdish confrontation”, which became a hot topic in Washington think-tank circles last winter. With respect to the latter, in theory, at least, the Kurds were supposed to back down from their maximalist demands on issues like Kirkuk and disputed territories more generally; Maliki, for his part, was gently encouraged to visit Kurdistan and meet with Kurdish leaders in order to create rapprochement and a semblance of normalcy.
This new information should enable us to summarise the US political and diplomatic input in the window of real political progress that existed in the first half of 2009. In general, while the focus on the upcoming elections is obviously laudable as such, the attempts to intervene in the internal Iraqi power struggle do not seem to have produced results that are consonant with the declared ideal of generating political maturation. In fact, far from supporting a trend towards greater degree of cross-sectarian politics (i.e. in the sense of transcending ethno-sectarian identities), the net contribution by the Americans has been to enable a tentative restoration of an old alliance explicitly defined in ethno-sectarian terms between Kurds and Shiite Islamists, with or without Tawafuq as a pliant “Sunni” appendage – in other words, a set-up that will serve to freeze those identity categories instead. Back in April, Washington applauded the blow to Maliki that was brought about by the election of Ayad al-Samarraie as parliamentary speaker, apparently fearing any other outcome would create too much concentration of power in Maliki’s own hands. Similarly, whereas his tendency of challenging ISCI’s concessions to the Kurds had won him important new friends outside his core constituency of Shiite Islamists, we now understand that American pressure played a role in Maliki’s choice to dampen down his erstwhile criticism of Kurdish policies during last summer – a tendency which effectively deprived him of support in key Sunni areas like Mosul, where critical questions were asked after Maliki’s visit to Kurdistan and his lack of a clear position on the idea of joint patrols in the so-called “disputed territories”, and where the promising prospect of an alliance with Hadba leaders probably died out as a consequence. For the past months, criticism of Kurdish maximalism from people close to Maliki has been mostly limited to Hussein al-Shahristani and Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani (related to the oil sector) and Abbas al-Bayati (in the context of Kirkuk).
The Kurds, for their part – at least according to American theories – were supposed to modify their demands. On this, the US goals were indeed clear and progressive in the sense that they seemed aimed at a meaningful compromise: According to the NYT interview, “Biden told me that the Kurds were not yet prepared to make the concessions over Kirkuk that they would have to make…The United States would not support Barzani if he insisted on a referendum either on Article 140 or on the Kurdish Constitution [emphasis added].” In practice, though, the impact of this kind of pressure on the Kurds appears to have been minimal. In fact, Biden also said in the interview that he “understood” why Barzani could not make the required concessions! Accordingly, the Kurds stuck to their position quite relentlessly during the drafting of the first iteration of the election law and only changed their mind when the “special status” accorded to Kirkuk was so convoluted that it verged on meaninglessness; they subsequently felt no inhibitions in pressing for further privileges when the Hashemi veto came up for debate. Barzani has been his usual self throughout, with recent calls for a separate Kurdish army and independent Kurdish oil exports circumventing Baghdad entirely. Only Maliki has been a lot quieter than normal, apparently sticking to his part in the Biden script.
Similarly, at the diplomatic level in the wider region, Washington seems to have done little to induce neighbouring states to support genuine cross-sectarian coalition-building in Iraq. The obvious Iranian role in shaping the new Shiite-led alliance intensified during the summer, but few effective counter-measures appear to have been taken. Instead, rumours had it that there was a Saudi role involved in botching the last remaining promising alliance options in September and October (i.e. between Maliki and Bulani/Abu Risha). And instead of building on the obvious leverage that exists in relation to the Iraqi wish for cancellation of debt to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Washington has passively seen Saudi foreign policy deteriorate into a partly imagined surrogate fight with Iran in Yemen at a time when it could instead have been focused on Iraq and conducting tough diplomacy to stem a far more palpable Iranian challenge. For their part, the smaller Gulf emirates have been most prominent in pumping money into the nascent Kurdish economy including the oil sector, thereby effectively providing Arbil with extra leverage vis-à-vis Baghdad. Lately, a Ras al-Khaima-based company that also includes Saudi owners alongside Emiratis has come to the fore through its investments in foreign oil companies operating in Kurdistan. The EU countries have generally followed suit, with active bilateral policies towards the Kurdish regional authorities also involving the opening of consulates and high-level visits.
What this all suggests is that the main problem in the Iraq “surge” was never related to military hardware at all but rather to deep epistemological issues. Through insisting on dealing with Iraq through ethno-sectarian lenses instead of adopting a genuinely post-sectarian approach, Washington has contributed to reifying those very political cleavages that the “surge” was supposed to transcend. Through focusing on the formalities of getting an election law passed without causing too much Iraqi nationalist excitement over Kirkuk, the Obama administration does not appear to have realised how much momentum related to political development and maturation was lost during the Iraq policy vacuum in the first part of 2009. In Washington, Iraqi nationalism is ignored at best and seen as harmful by some; as a consequence what is coming to the forefront in Iraq has the appearance of a Turco-Kurdish-Iranian project far more than an American-Iraqi one. While this may seem consonant with earlier ideas articulated by Biden about “regionalising” the conflict, it remains in stark contrast to the declared intention of the Obama administration to focus on Iraqi territorial integrity and unity. Unless Maliki wakes up and realises that he may end up being marginalised entirely by the other Shiite Islamists and the Kurds (who have always been sceptical about him and his centralism), it is hard to see how this trend can be reversed.
The obvious question as far as Afghanistan is concerned is whether the outlook there is any better. Does it matter whether the added troops are 10,000 or 30,000 if the US is incapable of comprehending the basic political dynamics in the country? Anecdotal and superficial evidence may tentatively suggest that a centralised form of government could be as inappropriate in Afghanistan as symmetrical federalism is in Iraq. What about the ethnic and religious groups – are they truly seeking the kind of “compact” defined in ethno-sectarian terms that Washington for six years straight has tried to enforce on unwilling Iraqis who by and large want to transcend these categories instead? And there is of course the question of the regional environment, where the irony in Iraq was that Iraqi nationalism among the Shiites at the popular level was marginalised by US insistence on working with and empowering the most pro-Iranian groups among the Iraqi political elite.
No attempt will be made to answer these complicated questions here. Rather, that is something that should be left for true Afghanistan experts who know the languages, the religions and the history of the country. The question today is whether such experts were ever consulted before President Barack Obama made his decision on strategy. What the Iraq case shows is that Joe Biden has a past record of consistently asking the right questions and providing the wrong answers. As has Peter Galbraith, who should be applauded for asking critical questions about the virtues of COIN in Afghanistan in a context when you do not know what sort of regime or system you are sponsoring, but who also is in a similar position to Biden as far as answers are concerned: these people cannot know what is right for Afghanistan because they lack a profound cultural understanding of those countries. In that respect, the NYT interview with Biden (parts of which are unashamedly hagiographic) is chilling for what it says about continued tendencies of condescension towards the rest of the world inside the Obama administration. Not only are we told that Obama, on the advice of his chief of staff, Emmanuel Rahm, made Biden responsible for Iraq with the words “you do Iraq”. We are also treated to the following little gem: “One of the chief reasons that Obama has sought Biden’s advice on a range of pressing foreign-policy questions – most notably, in recent months, on policy in Afghanistan – is that Biden has a deep knowledge of, and an intuitive feel for, people and places still new to the president. He appears to have judged right on Iraq, where the coming elections should constitute a major success both for the Iraqis and for the Obama administration.”
More realistically speaking, with regard to Iraq it seems that there is now intellectual resignation and a feeling that time is running out in Washington, with a concomitant emphasis on simply spinning the US mission there as a success rather than getting it right. In Afghanistan, there may be more time available, but unless there is a serious and informed debate about the suitability of the state structures that were created with US sponsorship in the post-2001 period, no amount of carefully planned counter-insurgency can save the situation and create stability in the long term.
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