December 18, 2004

The Impending Iraqi Elections: A "Jungle of Ambiguity"

John Burns on the impending Iraqi elections.

With the candidates' lists closed and Iraq seemingly set on an irreversible course toward elections on Jan. 30, a senior Western official with decades of Middle East experience cast about Friday for the kind of optimistic forecast that the United States and its allies have offered at every important juncture in 20 turbulent months since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

The election, the official said, was the most ambitious democratic exercise ever attempted in an Arab country, one in which 14 million eligible Iraqis will choose from more than 7,700 candidates seeking seats in a provisional national assembly, 18 provincial councils and a regional Kurdish parliament. He invited comparisons with a clumsily rigged referendum two years ago, when Mr. Hussein declared himself re-elected president with 100 percent of his countrymen's 12 million votes.

Later, the official, guarded by the anonymity commonly demanded when reporters are briefed in the Green Zone command compound here, slipped momentarily into a more candid assessment of the prospects for conducting a successful vote in a country beset by an increasingly brutal war and deep sectarian, religious and regional rivalries.

The election, he said, was a "jungle of ambiguity" where hopes ride on a sea of uncertainties, not the least of them the degree of violence the voting will provoke.

Many of those most closely involved in organizing the elections, including Iraqis, Americans and officials in a small United Nations election team, agree that the elections amount to a high-stakes gamble: one that could end the bitter reverses that have followed last year's invasion, but that could just as easily spiral into chaos, with widespread insurgent attacks on candidates and polling stations, or end in a lopsided victory by Iranian-backed Shiite religious groups that the ethnic and religious minorities, especially Sunnis and Kurds, refuse to accept.

Don't miss this part either:

But the largest unknown is the effect insurgents will have on voting. After a protracted debate, American officials have ruled that security at the 9,000 polling stations will be provided by Iraq's 120,000-strong security forces, with units of the 150,000 American troops deployed across the country by the end of January "over the horizon," out of sight but close enough to intervene.

The decision has been contested by some American commanders, who have said privately that their experience, particularly in Sunni-majority areas, is that people have scant confidence in Iraqi police and guardsmen, and have said that they would be more likely to vote if American troops formed an inner cordon.

Another option, staggering the voting over a period of days or weeks to allow troops and police to be concentrated at polling stations, was also rejected after Iraqi and American officials, with support from United Nations election advisers, concluded that it would cause more problems than it would solve.

For one thing, these officials said, moving troops around the country would present major security problems, given the frequency of insurgent attacks on the country's highways, as well as giving the insurgents more time to choose their targets, and more opportunities to attack ballot boxes stored while awaiting a nationwide count.

Over 2,000 Iraqi police and security forces have been slaughtered in Iraq by the insurgents. It's little wonder that the populace often has little fate in their ability to withstand attacks by insurgents. Will having U.S. forces 'over the horizon' be enough come polling day? I don't know, but it's certainly not ideal. And it's quite revealing that an option under discussion involved staggering the voting so that requisite forces could be concentrated at various polling stations. Doesn't this all smell of (sorry to keep hammering in on it) too few troops in theater? Look, I'm not, via Laphamization or such, prejudging what's going to happen on election day. And, even if we had 500,000 guys on the ground, certain polling stations would doubtless get hit. But I'm concerned that some commanders on the ground are expressing concern about having Iraqis guard the polling stations. Doubtless part of the issue was also that Negroponte and Co. didn't think having U.S. troops manning polling stations created the right 'image' regarding Iraq's sovereignty during this historic democratic exercise. But, all told, having some discreet outer cordon (why inner, per the article?) manned by Americans (with an inner Iraqi cordon) might have struck the right balance between ensuring better security but not having American forces millling about the polls with Allawi placards or such. I'm open to other views on this (it's a tough call between ensuring security and allowing the voting to appear an unfettered Iraqi exercise sans Americans); but I'm quite concerned.

MORE: If you're coming from Glenn, go to the final update of this (quite long) post for an explanation of why I have felt we always needed more troops in theater. Hint: it's not because I believe that each and every of the 9,000 polling stations need to be protected. It's more about having the requisite resources on the ground to better mount an overpowering counter-insurgency campaign. Thanks to Glenn for posting a clarification (he didn't need to necessarily) on his main page for all those who don't click-thru.

Posted by Gregory at December 18, 2004 11:07 PM

So at best there could be maybe nine or ten US troops at each polling place - and that's assuming every able body is out of the rack and at station (remember, of the 150,000 most are not combat troops/infantry/security, etc. Most are logistics and support and they have duties in the rear with the gear, albeit critical duties that cannot be abandoned).

Really, we're talking at best of 4 or 5 US troops per polling station and maybe 4 or 5 Iraqi troops. What can they do against a car bomb or a massed assault?

My prediction, election day will be a slaughterhouse of Iraqi civilians and a disaster in general.

Greg, you seem to recognize this potential, but you level your criticism as an indictment of Rumsfeld.

I would go further and see your points as an indictment of the whole bloody notion of forcing democratic regime change on a country that did not ask for it themselves.

Just where do you suppose sufficient troops would come from? How many makes sufficient. 100 per poll station? 500 hundred.....? How could they possibly keep a crowd of Iraqi civilians safe at the polls.

Crowd+roof top sniper+car bomb+mortar fire=human tragedy and spoiled election. Very simple formula. I'm sure the insurgents have figured it out.

Posted by: avedis at December 19, 2004 03:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I would go further and see your points as an indictment of the whole bloody notion of forcing democratic regime change on a country that did not ask for it themselves.

I fail to see why. (What about Afghanistan?) The people who are attempting to sabotage this election are a minority of the Iraqis.

By the way, I agree that this election can go wrong in a lot of ways. More troops would have made a difference. Let's cross our fingers.


Posted by: Guy at December 19, 2004 04:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"....I fail to see why. (What about Afghanistan?) The people who are attempting to sabotage this election are a minority of the Iraqis."

My point - admittedly poorly expressed - is that if a sizable portion of the indigenous population is opposed to the democratization efort, then they can thwart it.

Revolutions, insurgencies, even political movements, do not need a majority to upset an existing structure or impose a new one. I believe that the American revolution was supported by approx. a third of the colonists.

So when you say the insurgents are a minority, that is a fairly meaningless statement. If they are a minority with a great enough strength, they can at least totally disrupt the population and the emerging political processes of Iraq.

After a certain minimum strength requirement is met, it is more a matter of will as to who ultimately succeeds. And then there is the matter of how much blood and treasure the victory will cost.

Of course, you can argue that my statement cuts both ways. And I'd agree. Again, it's a matter of will. In Vietnam we lost because the Vietnamese people (RVN) were not as dedicated to their cause as the Communist. Many Iraqi forces are acting just like the ARVN when the stuff hits the fan. The insurgents, however, fight to the death when ordered.

Another related point I wanted to make is that I would feel much more encouraged if the Iraqi people had asked us to engage in this whole nation building process on their behalf. That would have demonstrated some will.

Other than the self-serving Chalabi I don't know that the Iraqis did ask. Yes there was a revolt after GW 1, but I don't know that that was a segment of the Iraqi population attempting to establish a democracy. It was more of the Southern Iraqi folks trying to throw off the yoke of the Northern Sunnis. In all likelyhood they would have opted for a theocracy resembly Iran.

As for Afghanistan as an example of positive outcome potential, I'm more skeptical. Outside of the capital is much lawlessness, much kowtowing to drug lords. I don't think life would be much different there than it has been for the past thousand years if not for the American presence. Once the Americans are gone anything is possible. Time will tell.

Essentially, I'd say the same for Iraq. Ironically, the major candidates are all running on a platform that involves the expulsion of America after the elections. I'd say the power players are biding their time and jockeying for position.

At bottom, the probabilities are stacked much more heavily towards the less desirable outcomes in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Would more troops make a difference? Not really. Certainly it would be possible to prevent some of the bloodshed of innocents that is likely to occur on election day. But an election a democracy does not make. A democracy involves so very much more. It is, also, a system constantly evolving and constantly tested. Again, the will of the people must be there and there cannot be a significant insurgency.

Posted by: avedis at December 19, 2004 05:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In addition to the comments about the number of troops available per polling place - you simply can't put enough people in the country to adequately guard everything - I do think we need to consider the symbolism of the process.

Consider the reaction to a terrorist crashing a car bomb into a polling place surrounded by American forces - killing Americans the Iraqis they are there to protect.

And then consider the reaction to a terrorist attack on a polling place with no Americans present - thereby killing only Iraqis peacefully engaed in the political process.

If we assume the terrorists WILL attack, and in all probability WILL be successful on some front, then we create real problems for them by stepping out of the process and exposing their motives for the world to see.

If we are serious about the Iraqi security forces taking over for the US military, then what event creates the largest emotional reason for them to be on station and performing admirably?

And what amount of Iraqi national pride would be created by having Iraqi security forces protecting their civilain population during this historical time - without Americans being on the scene?

As counterintuitive as this seems, it makes a lot of sense.

Posted by: Kevin at December 19, 2004 11:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

How many deaths at the hands of the terrorists would you consider a success for them against the popular drive toward democracy in Iraq?

This question has two major parts. First, as you've discussed, attacks are likely -- but quantify and qualify the overall offense that would be considered so devestating as to undermine the legitimacy of the election -- and of the democratization of Iraq.

The second part, voter turnout. Even if attacks occur, how would you quantify and qualify a turnout that would demonstrate the will to democratize society?

On both parts there is no doubt something to debate about how the two parts combine to establish the threshold at which we can agree that Iraq both wants to democratize and has the will to stand against the terrorists.

And I would not throw all Sunnis, even a majority, in with the cause of the terrorists. Not yet. And probably not after elections.

I've been pondering this from the opposite approach: what will consistute a defeat of the terrorists -- both in their attacks and in their offence against democratization of the country. And in pondering I'm neither pessimistic nor optimistic.

Posted by: Chairm at December 20, 2004 02:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"In all likelyhood they would have opted for a theocracy resembly Iran."

Why, when its clear that NOW they want a democracy, and NOT an Iranian style theocracy?

85% of Iraqis intend to vote. Far less than a third oppose the vote (BTW, IIUC, the Adams quote was taken out of context)

Yes there are 9000 polling stations. And 20,000 insurgents, using figures from BEFORE the assault on Fallujah. Thats 2 per polling station. And THEY cant all be frontline attackers either, right? They have an infrastrucure of bombbuilders, messengers, etc. How many will they throw at each polling station? Assuming they have to rely on gunmen, due to shortage of Carbombs (and thats limited by their ability to build them) they probably want at least 10 to 20 per polling station. Assuming that they use half of the 20,000 (accounting for logistical tail, reserves, etc) they can go after something over a tenth of the polling stations. They can probably suppress turnout very significantly by doing that, but at the cost of destroying their forces, in giant, one day, TeT.

Which is not to say we dont need MORE US troops, and better equipped.

Posted by: liberalhawk at December 20, 2004 10:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

'A close reading, however, of Adams' letter indicates just the opposite. The "well-known" letter of Adams was to James Lloyd, dated January, 1813. Written so many years after the American Revolution, it becomes clear that Adams was actually discussing American opinion about England and the French Revolution during his presidency, 1797-1801:

"The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were [sic] rather lukewarm both to England and France...."'

Posted by: liberalhawk at December 20, 2004 10:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Your nitpicking, LH.

If you knew that bombings and other murderous terrorist assaults were going to occur with a high degree of probability at multiple polls around your home state, would you go out and vote?

Do you think most people would?

Even if your 20,000 insurgent number is correct, that could easily represent 100 car bombs.

So a 1 in 9 chance of being at a poll that is attacked.

Still going out to vote?

And attacks could be far more complicated.

Posted by: avedis at December 21, 2004 05:21 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Liberalhawk, why do you assume 20,000 insurgents? The number is surely way out of date. They've lost well over 20,000 casualties and they seem to be going stronger than before.

Posted by: J Thomas at December 21, 2004 05:22 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

O ye of little faith:

If you knew that bombings and other murderous terrorist assaults were going to occur with a high degree of probability at multiple polls around your home state, would you go out and vote?

Do you think most people would?

First of all, it is only the press that see "a high degree of probability".

And as to voters turning out....

Well, they did in Afghanistan.

And in San Salvador, when conditions were FAR worse:

Conditions were horrible when Salvadorans went to the polls on March 28, 1982. The country was in the midst of a civil war that would take 75,000 lives. An insurgent army controlled about a third of the nation's territory. Just before election day, the insurgents stepped up their terror campaign. They attacked the National Palace, staged highway assaults that cut the nation in two and blew up schools that were to be polling places.

Yet voters came out in the hundreds of thousands. In some towns, they had to duck beneath sniper fire to get to the polls. In San Salvador, a bomb went off near a line of people waiting outside a polling station. The people scattered, then the line reformed. "This nation may be falling apart," one voter told The Christian Science Monitor, "but by voting we may help to hold it together."

Conditions were scarcely better in 1984, when Salvadorans got to vote again. Nearly a fifth of the municipalities were not able to participate in the elections because they were under guerrilla control. The insurgents mined the roads to cut off bus service to 40 percent of the country. Twenty bombs were planted around the town of San Miguel. Once again, people voted with the sound of howitzers in the background.

Yet these elections proved how resilient democracy is, how even in the most chaotic circumstances, meaningful elections can be held.

They produced a National Assembly, and a president, José Napoleón Duarte. They gave the decent majority a chance to display their own courage and dignity. War, tyranny and occupation sap dignity, but voting restores it.

If you're interested in reading the rest:

The critics were predicting widespread panic and bombings in Afghanistan. None of that materialized, but in the wake of success, the press is oddly silent -- they don't know how to handle being wrong.

History has a way of repeating itself. This could still go wrong, but let's not throw in the towel just yet.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 21, 2004 11:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Nothing you've shown suggests that the intensity of the Salvadoran bombings on election day was anywhere near what we'll see on (and leading up to) Iraqi election day. Given what we've seen the insurgents do over the past few days, I expect hundreds of deaths.

Of course, we don't really have any other options.

Posted by: Guy at December 22, 2004 07:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

1. What would consistute a defeat of the terrorists?

2. What would it take for the Iraqis to confound the pessimists during this election? Field how many candidates? Cast how many votes. Stand against how many attacks? Withstand how many casualties in the democratization of their country?

If people here are predicting failure -- or at least staking their claim on the probability of failure -- please quantify and qualify your view of that future. What has convinced you -- what would it take to convince you otherwise?

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