December 03, 2003

Iraq Narratives Dan Drezner has

Iraq Narratives

Dan Drezner has an interesting post up where he makes the point that there is still no "coherent narrative about the future of Iraq". In another post, Dan drives in the same point: "A lot of stuff is happening, and I doubt any single narrative will be able to explain it."

All this seems very obvious, but it's worth stressing and keeping tabs on. I'd like to try to sketch out the key narratives, at least as the situation stands today, in terms of ensuring that the U.S. led intervention in Iraq ultimately proves successful, ie. that we leave behind, within a relatively short time frame of several years, a viable, unitary, and democratic Iraqi polity. Here are the key narratives we likely need to keep an eye on.

1) The Kurdish Angle: While developments in the northern Kurdish regions of the country appear to provide the best narrative to date--there are still very real concerns that merit close monitoring of the situation. For one, this kind of elite opinion is likely spooking the Turks a bit. The last thing they want is an independent Kurdistan. And they will likely cross the Turkish-Iraqi border in good number, even if U.S. forces attempt to dissuade them, to prevent that from occuring.

Relatedly, I've had some concern that the Istanbul bombings would be, perhaps, laid at the feet of the PKK (rather than al-Qaeda) as a means of perhaps providing an additional reason for the Turkish Army to flex its muscles a bit more near Iraq (as a recent oped in the WSJ suggested, link not available). So far, however, the Turks seem to be continuing to focus speculation on al-Qaeda as the culprits .

Finally, it's also worth closely keeping tabs on the prospects for inter-communitarian violence in large cities like Kirkuk where the Turkomen minority could agitate should a deeper Kurdish autonomy take root and foreign (ie, American) troops leave. This could be yet another trigger for Turkish intervention.

My point? It seems to be going pretty well right now in the Kurdish zone. But we shouldn't get complacent.

2) The Sunni Triangle: This is clearly the narrative that gets the most attention. We all know the main story lines. The insurgency has become more sophisticated. U.S. casualty numbers have been increasingly painful in the last month. U.S. forces have recently ratcheted up counterinsurgency efforts. Results are mixed. Some McCainites want more troops in theater. Others think no more are needed. People worry about "hearts and minds" in the face of more robust counterinsurgency operations.

This excellent piece details some of the key issues I think U.S. war planners may be missing:

"Here, the localization of an insurgency becomes both its tactical strength and its strategic weakness. In the short term, it is obviously easier to win hearts and minds in some places (e.g. Kurdistan) than in others (e.g. the Sunni Triangle). In the face of a hostile or apathetic population, counterinsurgency is almost certain to be--in Secretary Rumsfeld's words--a long, hard slog. But localization also means that U.S. troops, once they have pacified a friendly town or region, can leverage the political institutions and elites established there against more recalcitrant areas. At the same time, conventional forces can be funneled away from self-governing regions into hot spots, gradually ratcheting up the pressure against the insurgents." [emphasis added]

Are we involved in doing enough of this "leveraging"? I'm not sure we are. The recent ambush in Samarra where we loudly proclaimed 46 (or was it 54?) Iraqi insurgents killed is too reminiscent of Vietnam era hit ratio talk. Tell me more, instead, about how a village that was previously guerrilla infested is now run by a coalition-friendly (though not quisling) local elite. This would make me feel that this narrative is heading in rosier directions.

Another key point that Donnelly makes as he looks at the Philippines precedent:

"Yet even after the elimination of top rebel commanders, guerrilla infrastructure in southwestern Luzon proved sufficiently localized, personalized, and informal for small bands of the most ideologically driven partisans to persevere. For such dead-enders, it was America's "civilizing mission that inspired much of the viciousness of the war: the Army's mission of making the Filipinos passively accept United States authority ran directly counter to the revolutionaries' determination that the people should actively support independence."

Translation: Capturing Saddam and other senior leaders will be helpful--but not a panacea. Especially if we are not doing enough of the aforementioned leveraging.

3) All Quiet On the Shi'a Front? So far, this narrative has been going pretty well. But lately Grand Ayatollah Sistani has been showing increasing signs of discontent with CPA plans for nation-wide caucuses rather than direct elections. Of course, direct elections increase fears (particularly among the Sunni) of the emergence of a somewhat brutish Shi'a majoritarianism.

The latest news on this, reportedely coming after some pretty intense lobbying from Jerry Bremer, is that a majority of the Governing Council (meaning there were some Shi'a defections) are supporting the CPA caucus approach to elections.

That said, the obvious fear remains-- that the election modality issue degenerates into a real show-down and spells an end to the relative honeymoon the coalition has enjoyed to date with the Shi'a.

Ultimately, a WaPo masthead gets it about right:

"The United States can join Mr. Sistani in embracing as much democracy, and as soon, as is logistically possible. But the administration also must make clear to the Shiite leadership that ballots will not be allowed to serve as an instrument for undermining the liberal political system Mr. Bush has promised for Iraq."

On this last point, go the bottom of this post to get a sense of the nub of the problem.

These are the complex tensions we are navigating at the current hour. Phrased more simply, the question is, would one man one vote lead to an Islamic Republic in Iraq? If so, how can we attempt to stop that from happening while still convincingly representing ourselves, to the entire world, as bringing democracy into Iraq.

I'm not an expert on Iraqi Shi'aism and what it portends for gauging the relative chances of fostering a cohabitation between a modern, secular democracy that, at the same time, respects certain key Islamic tenets--as opposed to a full-blown Shari'ah jurisprudence taking root (if per a distinctly Iraqi model rather than an Iranian one).

But some observers in the region that I've spoken to recently (more on them below) view it as almost inevitable that an Islamic Republic will take root in Iraq. I'm not so sure, but I certainly don't dismiss the possibility amidst the somewhat delusional "democracy, whiskey, sexy" chants seen too often in the blogosphere.

Would that each and every Iraqi solely wanted a picture-perfect (and CPA-compliant) Philadelphia Convention, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, and a night with Gisele Bundchen. But somehow, I think a lot of the rank and file folks we see in the camera footage coming from places like Najaf don't really care for any of those things--as much as we might pretty much view such things as part and parcel of what democracy is all about.

The Regional Narrative

Recently I had drinks with an older Syrian couple that I've known for a good while. They are old-school Christians from a prominent family in Allepo. They make it their business to get to know Western diplomats who pass through Damascus and are highly Westernized. And what they told me worried me a good deal.

A few months back on this blog, I had somewhat poo-pooed a NYT piece that spoke of a significant Islamic resurgence in Syria.

But this informed couple (if perhaps a bit prone to hyperbolic fear given their Christian minority status) told me that the mosques are increasingly very, very full of worshippers (and they claimed there are now some 620 mosques in Aleppo alone) and that many more women were wearing veils in the streets. The man told me, "they [the mosques] used to be like our Churches. Somewhat empty. Now they are full and people listen to the sermons from outside as there is no more room indoors."

Why, I asked?

Anger and humiliation borne of helpelessness they replied. Anger at America, of course, being channeled into the perceived solace of religiosity. Humilation born of attacks on Syrian border guards, the Syria sanctions legislation on the Hill, tough talk from Rummy, what is seen as unvarnished support for Sharon and no appreciation for what some Syrians view as a young, secular, Western-leaning ruler sitting in Damascus.

In short, Syrians feel beat up, under-appreciated for their post-9/11 intelligence cooperation with the U.S. on al-Q, and surrounded by an American army to their East, unfriendly Turks to the North, and Israelis across the Golan.

I still think that some of this talk of an Islamic resurgence in Syria may be overblown. Bashar Assad inherits a brutal special police that knows how to let the street seethe a bit but then clamp down to preserve the Alawite regime's primacy in a majority Sunni country.

But still. One increasingly gets the feeling that we are at a real crossroads in the Middle East. So many narratives to grapple with. And how many of our policymakers are really following all of them with close attention and have the requisite regional expertise to make informed judgments?

This may surprise some, but I think Wolfowitz might be one of our better hopes on all this. How else to explain his willingness to pursue this meeting given the Likudnik appeaser reputation his attackers so often lob at him? (Hat tip: Josh Marshall).

He's one of the few individuals in the Beltway who understands how big the stakes have gotten, and how we need to improve regional dynamics and the image of the U.S. through the region or risk losing the war on terror. (Recall too he served as U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, which further deepened his interest in America's relations with the Islamic world.)

It all gets back to Rummy's leaked memo about whether we are winning or losing the war on terror. If people continue to feel so much humiliation and hate, they will turn to the comfort of madrasas and theocratic fervor. And they will continue to try to kill us whenever and however possible. Hit ratios, chest beating, and statues being pulled down won't do the trick.

Intelligent counter-insurgency operations, innovative bridging proposals forged with Sistani and fostering of more moderate Iraqi Shi'a voices (that nevertheless have grass roots street cred), and attention to regional issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might.

Well, as they say, developing....

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