August 21, 2005

"The Law Now, It's the Big Fish Eats the Small Fish"

From today's Wash Post:

Shiite and Kurdish militias, often operating as part of Iraqi government security forces, have carried out a wave of abductions, assassinations and other acts of intimidation, consolidating their control over territory across northern and southern Iraq and deepening the country's divide along ethnic and sectarian lines, according to political leaders, families of the victims, human rights activists and Iraqi officials.

While Iraqi representatives wrangle over the drafting of a constitution in Baghdad, the militias, and the Shiite and Kurdish parties that control them, are creating their own institutions of authority, unaccountable to elected governments, the activists and officials said. In Basra in the south, dominated by the Shiites, and Mosul in the north, ruled by the Kurds, as well as cities and villages around them, many residents have said they are powerless before the growing sway of the militias, which instill a climate of fear that many see as redolent of the era of former president Saddam Hussein.

The parties and their armed wings sometimes operate independently, and other times as part of Iraqi army and police units trained and equipped by the United States and Britain and controlled by the central government. Their growing authority has enabled them to control territory, confront their perceived enemies and provide patronage to their followers. Their ascendance has come about because of a power vacuum in Baghdad and their own success in the January parliamentary elections.

Since the formation of a government this spring, Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, has witnessed dozens of assassinations, which claimed members of the former ruling Baath Party, Sunni political leaders and officials of competing Shiite parties. Many have been carried out by uniformed men in police vehicles, according to political leaders and families of the victims, with some of the bullet-riddled bodies dumped at night in a trash-strewn parcel known as The Lot. The province's governor said in an interview that Shiite militias have penetrated the police force; an Iraqi official estimated that as many as 90 percent of officers were loyal to religious parties.

Across northern Iraq, Kurdish parties have employed a previously undisclosed network of at least five detention facilities to incarcerate hundreds of Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and other minorities abducted and secretly transferred from Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and from territories stretching to the Iranian border, according to political leaders and detainees' families. Nominally under the authority of the U.S.-backed Iraqi army, the militias have beaten up and threatened government officials and political leaders deemed to be working against Kurdish interests; one bloodied official was paraded through a town in a pickup truck, witnesses said....

...Toma said the tactics were eroding what remained of U.S. credibility as the militias operate under what many Iraqis view as the blessing of American and British forces. "Nobody wants anything to do with the Americans anymore," she said. "Why? Because they gave the power to the Kurds and to the Shiites. No one else has any rights."

"Here's the problem," said Majid Sari, an adviser in the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Basra, who travels with a security detail of 25 handpicked Iraqi soldiers. Referring to the militias, he said, "They're taking money from the state, they're taking clothes from the state, they're taking vehicles from the state, but their loyalty is to the parties." Whoever disagrees, he said, "the next day you'll find them dead in the street..."

...One of the most powerful militias in southern Iraq, the Badr Organization, which is blamed for many of the assassinations, denied any role in the killings. The head of the group in Basra, Ghanim Mayahi, said his organization was only providing "support and assistance" to the police through lightly armed militiamen. "There is no law, there is no order, and the police are scared of the tribes. Badr is not afraid, and it can face those threats," he said.

In the north, Kurdish officials acknowledged that people they deem terrorism suspects from across the region have been taken to several Kurdish-run detention facilities, but they said the practice was initiated by the Iraqi government with the blessing of the U.S. military. "It's a question of space; they have no place to put them and here it is safe," said Karim Sinjari, the minister of interior for the Kurdistan Regional Government and a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Asked about the U.S. role, Sinjari added, "I think that they are supporting us. And we are supporting them. We look at them as freedom forces. If there's a problem you can ask them. We have no problem from our side."

U.S. officials in Baghdad declined several interview requests this week to discuss the growing number of complaints about people missing in northern Iraq who reportedly had been spirited to Kurdistan.

In June, U.S. officials denied any role and called for an end to the "extra-judicial detentions." A State Department memo at the time warned that abductions in the contested northern city of Kirkuk had "greatly exacerbated tensions along purely ethnic lines" and threatened U.S. standing.

In both northern and southern Iraq, the parties and their militias have defended their tactics as a way of ensuring security in an increasingly lawless atmosphere. In part, they have said, their power reflects their success in January's national and local elections, in which the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, along with the Shiite-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and other Islamic parties, won overwhelmingly in their respective regions.

But critics have charged that they are wresting control over security forces to claim de facto territory and authority, effectively partitioning Iraq even as representatives in Baghdad struggle to negotiate a permanent constitution... [emphasis added]

Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru have written an important article, and I use that word very purposefully, because I've seen little reporting of this caliber of late. You should really read the whole thing. Their piece rings quite true to me on many levels. Having spent time in war-time Bosnia and Croatia, my gut tells me the power vacuums resulting from constitutional dead-lock (which deadlock may very well be broken, but will the forced back-room deals being cut in the Green Zone materially impact the militiazation of Iraq's provinces on the ground?) and, more important, the abysmal lack of centralized security--such large vacuums are being filled very much as they sketch out. That is to say, by local militias in the main--even when they are ostensibly coalition trained/equipped Iraqi 'national' forces.

And, of course, yesterday's oppressed quickly become tomorrow's oppressors (as we witnessed in Kosovo, say). Don't miss this part of the piece, on this score:

In addition to providing security in Mosul, the militiamen have helped the Kurds take control of much of the Nineveh Plain, a barren flatland of hundreds of towns and villages that includes Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Turkmens and a little-known sect of Shiite Muslims called the Shabak.

On the sleeves of their Iraqi army uniforms, many Kurdish soldiers wear patches featuring the red, white and green national flag of Kurdistan, with its golden sun emblem. Along the highway toward Mosul, Iraqi army checkpoints openly fly the Kurdish flag.

Qaraqosh, a town of 25,000 people about 20 miles southeast of Mosul, demonstrates how the Kurds apply their expanding power in the north. Kurds, by all accounts, make up no more than 1 percent of the population. But Kurdish political leaders have not concealed their intention to dominate: "Under the parliament and government of the Kurdistan region, the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Turkmens will enjoy their rights," reads a banner outside the Kurdistan Democratic Party headquarters.

Luqman Mohammed Rashid Wardak, a senior member of the party's local committee who has the Kurdish sun emblem tattooed on the back of his right hand, said he hoped Qaraqosh would be ceded to the Kurds after the area "becomes normalized." In the meantime, he said, "we are presenting our political ideas to the people." Wardak said the Kurdish Regional Government has already distributed $6,000 to poor families. "Because this area does not officially belong to the Kurdistan region," he said, the money "goes to the party and the party pays them." The party has set up a 700-man "protection force," paying the guards' $150 monthly salaries.

But when largess doesn't work, the party uses force. On Dec. 5, local party officials ordered the director of a regional land office, Bahnam Habeeb, to disobey a central government edict to distribute parcels of land to former Iraqi army officers and soldiers.

Habeeb, who decline to comment, told the party that he could halt the distribution only if he received an order from "a higher authority" --either the provincial government in Mosul or the central government in Baghdad.

Fifteen minutes later, five pickup trucks filled with militiamen pulled up, according to witnesses. The fighters dragged the paunchy, 53-year-old Habeeb from his chair and beat him with their fists and rifle butts, the witnesses said. The soldiers placed him facedown in the bed of a pickup, pushed their boots into his back and legs and drove him around "to show everybody what they had done," said a witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

Sinjari said the Kurds had objected to the land distribution, but he was unaware of the incident.

"There is an absence of law," said a 40-year-old Transportation Ministry official who was detained for five days in Dahuk last month. The official said a Kurdish officer had accused him of "writing against the Kurds on the Internet."

"'Freedom' and 'liberty' are only words in ink on a piece of paper," he said. "The law now, it's the big fish eats the small fish."

The law of diffuse (rather than centralized as under Saddam) brute force reigns in large part of Iraq today. This is largely a result of American failings, but the intent of this post is not to ascribe blame, engage in polemics, or call for Don Rumsfeld's head. Rather, we must look forward and attempt to sketch out a convincing path to success. What can one conclude from reports like these? One thing, of course, is clear. If we do as Andrew Bacevich advises in today's WaPo and just 'call it a day' (Bacevich: "While avoiding the appearance of an ignominious dash for the exits, but with all due speed, the United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement. We've done all that we can do"), we will only leave behind the brute rule of the barrel of the gun in Iraq. Still, articles like Shadid's make me wonder--do we (by "we" I mean all of us, really, our leaders and policymakers and commentariat and informed public and so on), do we have the staying power and the skill and the fortitude and, yes, the nuance--to navigate and comprehend and intelligently act given the immensely volatile and complex maze that is post-Saddam Iraq? I'm increasingly unsure. And another question: are 'stay the course' people like B.D. becoming something akin to naive American Pyles, hoping against hope that we can get a credible central government afoot, in the face of voluminous evidence to the contrary? Or are we instead right that, with progress on the constitutional front (still very much possible), and a major American presence in theater, and continued oversight of the nation-building effort (make no mistake, that's what we're doing--while prosecuting a fierce insurgency)--we can still see a unitary, viable democratic Iraqi state through? These are not easy questions, and there are really no easy answers. The most that can be hoped for is that each of us try to be as honest as possible with ourselves as we try to comb through the proverbial fog of war and reconstruction and post-conflict recriminations and so on that is contemporary Iraq. To be very frank, when I read dispatches like Shadid's I wonder whether maybe Les Gelb isn't right, and that we must be mostly thinking instead how best to cobble together a loose confederation. But for the many reasons I've discussed, I still think the better option is to keep on keeping on towards a unitary state. And on this score, Bill Kristol is worthing reading again here.

Now, it is probably the case that a couple of years from now we will be able responsibly to reduce the number of American forces in Iraq. But the "stand up/stand down" formulation goes beyond that. It suggests--and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has repeatedly elaborated on this thought--that as Iraqi soldiers get trained, they will replace Americans, apparently regardless of our progress toward victory in the war.

But this formulation--and this policy, if it becomes policy--is, to quote the president, "a terrible signal" to send to the enemy. The enemy should confront the unpleasant prospect of soon facing the current level of American forces supplemented by an ever-growing number of Iraqi fighters. Our enemies should not have the impression that, by continuing the terror, they can secure the reward of facing (inevitably) less-able Iraqi forces in place of American troops.

This formulation, and this policy, is also a terrible signal to send to our friends. It suggests we want to get out more than we want to win. Such a suggestion will itself make winning more difficult--for who will risk committing to a side that seems uncertain about its own commitment, and that seems to be seeking an exit from the struggle?

The right formulation, and the right policy, would be this: As Iraqis stand up, we will stand with them. This formulation is consistent with the Bush administration's general approach to the war on terror. And, as Frederick W. Kagan pointed out last week in the Washington Post, the policy implied by such a commitment--supplementing the current American forces with a couple hundred thousand Iraqi light infantry--would point the way to victory.

I see no other better options now, and believe we can maintain this operational tempo for another three years at least yet. To precipitously withdraw would be to invite utter chaos. To preside over confederation would be to use American forces to help organize ethnic transfers--a sort of corrupting Milosevization of our Wilsonian/Reaganite traditions--with chaos still very likely in large, critical population centers like Kirkuk, Mosul and, not least, Baghdad. Therefore, as trite as this may sound to many, our default orientation must continue to be to 'see the effort through.' For I am not persuaded that postponing our exit is merely postponing the inevitable partitioning of Iraq, or civil war, or some other inglorious outcome. I still believe this project can be made roughly right. Putting it differently, I guess what I'm saying is that I don't believe we are simply creating more Cindy Sheehan's for no reason but empty sloganeering or nostrums about national prestige and such shouted breezily from the roof-tops of AEI or the White House. Iraq is still at a tipping-point, it is not yet a hopeless cause. Our continued presence there, our hand-holding of the parties on constitutional compromise (and on the inevitable, post-constitutional myriad haggles over interpretation of said document), our continued lead role in quashing a vicious insurgency (with more and more Iraqi forces participating alongside), our methodical, sober and non-rushed parceling out of equipment and training only to forces that will increasingly align themselves with a central government rather than local militias--all these imperatives argue for a major continued American presence. The stakes are higher than Vietnam, and so on realist grounds we owe it to ourselves to see this war and tremendously compex nation-building effort through. And, on moral grounds, we owe it to those who have died to date to fight this right and smart and make a success of it. Yes, those like B.D. arguing that we stay the course will face the reality that, not least because of Administration incompetence, we may still slog it out for two or so more years and end up still failing. With that many more dead. But I think we have turned the corner, perhaps, on the train and equip effort (after many false starts), that a prospectively viable constitution could be in the offing, that the insurgency can be defeated if we don't stand down prematurely. But all this requires a massive continuing American effort, on a variety of different levels (military, diplomatic, humanitarian and more), for a very significant period yet.


Posted by Gregory at August 21, 2005 04:31 PM | TrackBack (0)
Comments

That was another pretty meaty post, but I still don't understand how you see this playing out under the best of circumstances. From the comments on your 8-19 post.

Greg,

Let's say a national army can be built approximately in the fashion you have in mind. Let's also say the US will be able to nurse the political process along until ethnic, religious, secular, etc. elements can form a government of national unity. One aspect of the plan that escapes me is how you ultimately put them together into something resembling a functioning democracy. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to think of examples where such an outcome has been successfully engineered by an external power in a country in which none of the diverse and competing indigenous groups views itself as having been militarily defeated.

An army of the type you envision, absent a mature political culture, could be more loyal to US interests, the interests of internal elites, or a doctrine of stability at the cost of civilian rule. Can a government, even if comprised of constituencies that generally agree on a loose form of federalism at the outset, collectively trust the army to serve its interests and continue to hold together? Could the US sufficiently trust such a government to serve its interests (as you have defined them) to relinquish control of the army?

Do you envision military order preceding or succeeding political order, or alternatively, running roughly in parallel? Given this ordering, what do you see as the most important prerequisites to ensure a healthy integration?

Posted by: Anodyne at August 21, 2005 06:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg does not, I believe, take into account a large and probably essential element in the growth of militias: the insurgency itself.

Sunni Arab insurgents started targeting Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis a good long time ago. This is the reaction -- not, mind you, that there were not, in 2003, factional tendencies and militias in being among the Shia, or a Kurdish proto-state anxious to preserve its pre-war autonomy. But violence, most of it flowing in one direction from Sunni Arabs toward the other ethnic groups, inspires people to protect themselves in the most expeditious way they can; violence against civilians does not encourage their families, neighbors and friends to insist that retaliation be conducted only under lawful rules.

Did American (and, around Basra, British) decisions contribute to this situation? That's the way it looks to me. The problem is that the decisions that contributed most were all made two years ago, and much water has since passed under the bridge. Now, I don't disagree with Greg about sticking with the constitutional process, since it's the best chance we've got to get a political modus vivendi worked out and exploit the exhaustion that many Iraqis must be feeling at this point. Exhaustion, as much as any one factor, was what brought the Balkan wars to an end or at least a general truce, and that same factor is in play here.

Where Greg and I disagree -- and we have gone round the track on this subject more than once here -- is on two points. First, I don't think he takes sufficiently into account the enormous difficulty in establishing a liberal democracy in any Arab country, and particularly this one. Like him I think the administration has made many lamentable political, military and other mistakes; unlike him I felt from the start that this objective was poorly chosen because even if everything was done right the odds of failure were still very high. In general I think poorly of making vast commitments that can only work out well if someone else does things they have never done before.

The other disagreement is about the length of the commitment. Could we maintain operational tempo in Iraq for another three years? Perhaps. But at what cost to our military, to our other commitments, and to commitments that might arise during that time? At what cost to the federal budget? Very, very large costs in all these areas, I'm afraid. We need to be clear that while a failed Iraq, however it might manifest itself, would be a bad thing, a successful Iraq -- at any rate an Iraq as successful as it can be -- doesn't help us all that much, certainly outside of a region that is less important to the United States than Latin America, East Asia, South Asia, or Europe. We are where we are right now in large measure because costs were not counted before the commitment was made. Persisting in that error is not a sign of resolve, honor or wisdom.

Posted by: JEB at August 21, 2005 07:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What about the 14 permanent bases? What about the grand strategic plan?

Given that today we learned that Iraq will essentially be an Islamic state can anyone give me a list of countries that have recently changed from hardline Islam to democracy (apart from maybe Algeria where the eledtion was cancelled when the Islamic party won)?

There is no way America can 'win'... the Iraqi's aren't going anywhere and you ccan't afford to keep your army there...

Yoy have to admit though the Iraqis are seriously good at this insurgency game. Much better than the warmongers predicted.

Posted by: Jeremy at August 21, 2005 09:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

****
see no other better options now, and believe we can maintain this operational tempo for another three years at least yet.
****

3 years X 12 months/year X $4 billion/month = $144 billion.
Maybe we can sell some war bonds to the Chinese...

Posted by: Mike at August 21, 2005 10:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In the words of one State Dept. lifer (of course now he has retired and written a book) we have "loosened all the bolts" with our precipitous actions in the Iraq. It is to be expected that the militias are going to now flex their muscles now that Saddam is gone. The prospect of civil war is now very real. THe Sunni rejectionists and the foriegn fighters do indeed have a lot to fear from the Shiite and Kurd militias. The hope is that the more these militias are successful in their fight against the insurgents, the bigger their place at the table will be in the Iraqi political scene. For now they will be tolerated, just as the warlords are tolerated in Karzai's Afghanistan. Sadly there is no other way.

I still think it is preferable to what an Uday or Kusay regime would have been like. If a future Baathist dictatorship would have been toppled, a bloody civil war and a resulting failed state a la Somalia or Ethiopia would have been guaranteed. With Americans on the ground there, at least there is more of a chance that a consensual government can still be created.

Posted by: Chuck Betz at August 22, 2005 06:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

To put it somewhat glibly, the market for organised violence in today's Iraq is shared between four groups of fanatics: the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Shia militias, the Sunni insurgency and the United States Marine Corps. Their common attribute is the moral ethos of fighting for a cause they strongly believe in.

The nascent national Iraqi military and police forces are supposed to establish a monopoly on organised violence within Iraq's borders. But today, they are only bit players in a market dominated by others, not because they are corrupt or incompetent (although some surely are), but simply because they are not fanatic nationalists. Running towards gunfire is not merely a matter of training -- it also requires a moral conviction.

I think it is fair to doubt whether the coalition is willing (ability disregarded) to create a fanatically nationalist Iraqi government with the military and police forces necessary do dominate the country. Doing so would certainly be a huge gamble: this government could turn out to be hostile not only to democracy and pluralism, but America and even the West at large.

But in absence of such a dominating central government or an overwhelming American military presence, Iraq will be dominated by local militias. Any political compromise will require the recognition that political power in Iraq comes today not from the ballot box, but from the barrel of a gun. The disproportionate accommodation of Sunni demands in Iraqi parliamentary politics today is a good example. Sunni politicians bought this influence by their links to the insurgency and their supposed ability to make it draw down its violence.

The trouble, of course, is that there is no guarantee that the politicians can actually control the militants. This is most obvious when it comes to the fractured Sunni insurgency, but any power brokering in Iraq requires careful attention of the relationships between the men of the ballot boxes and the men with the guns. If Kurdish politicians make a deal on Mosul that the Peshmerga will not accept, there is no deal.

The questions, to me, is not whether Iraq can train the military and police to replace the coalition forces, and how just the national laws of Iraq will be. Rather, the questions are whether a stable accomodation can be made between the groups who are willing and able to enforce at least local monopolies on violence, and how just their treatment of their shares of the population -- in particular local minorities -- will be.

(The text above started out as a reply, but also turned into a blog post...)

"The stakes are higher than Vietnam ..."

The stakes in Iraq are different than they were in Vietnam, and there is much more to gain. But Vietnam took place during the cold war, and the stakes -- nuclear annihilation -- were much higher than they will ever be in any anti-terrorist campaign. The cold war and its subconflicts were always high stakes and high odds, while the "war on terror" is precisely the opposite -- the terrorists are physically unable to do damage at all comparable to the cold war potentials, but there is also little or nothing to deter them from carrying out attacks.

Posted by: Anders Widebrant at August 22, 2005 09:15 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

i wonder if the WaPo writers made a mistake in conflating two very different kinds of problems, Basra and the north.

Basra really IS a problem of militias and local politicos run amok. It really does speak to the kinds of things Greg has been talking about, and the need for US troops to remain to insure that Iraq remains a real democracy.

The north sounds different. I dont think any serious Kurdish leader expects the Kurds to keep Mosul, or the adjacent rural areas. It would be just the kind of demographic nightmare the Israelis are running from in Gaza. Rather, it sounds like a natural attempt of those with organized forces to fill in a vacuum, and to extract what they can for the duration of that vacuum. less like Kosovo, and more like Northern Alliance warlords in Afghanistan.

Greg, note that in Afghanistan many pointed to Northern alliance strength as evidence of policy failure, of likely renewed civil war, and of inadequate american forces. It turned out that patience with gradual strengthening of the central govt, was the best weapon for avoiding long term militia rule in Afghanistan. I realize Iraq is not Afghanistan, but I wonder if in the north, at least, the Afghan transition is not the most likely.

Posted by: liberalhawk at August 22, 2005 03:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

There are some very intelligent comments here so far (waiting for the usual suspects to arrive).

One quibble with one above. To say what is happening now is better than what would have happened under an Uday/Qusay regime is a false dichotomy, albeit one that is not heard infrequently as support for or justification of the US invasion.

The fact is that an Uday succession was not a given. With Saddam's departure there most likely would have been a power grab. There is much in the history of Iraq to suggest that successions are machievelian at best. I think there was a high level of probability that upon Saddam's death or removal a situation much like the one we have today would have rapidly evolved. And Saddam was getting old.

Such a time would have been far more appropriate for us to intercede in Iraqi politics and we probably could have done it at much less cost in American blood and treasure. Also with a far less obvious US presence. The down side wouldn't be any less than what we have now.

Posted by: avedis at August 23, 2005 02:02 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Perhaps now might be the time for Bush, Rumsfeld, Blair and Co to admit that this has been a clusterf*ck of an operation, and ask Europe for some assistance. There will undoubtedly be a great deal of "I told you so" and possibly some unpleasant concessions to be made, but the longer this continues the more its apparent that the best way to resolve this is to massively increase the Western Military presence, shut down the insurgency and hold it down until the Political situation is resolved, AND an Iraqi national military/police force can be well established to maintain order.

The current military situation is barely tenable, and it seems to me the current troop levels are not sufficient to roll back the insurgency, and the possibility of a genuine non ethnically divided Iraqi military/security force still seems very much like a pipe-dream.

Thats said unfortunately its likely Europe would turn its back - to their own detriment I believe (both from an economic and security perspective). In addition the devide between the US/UK and Europe is very much playing into Iran's hands - who in my opinion are undoubtedly fueling the insurgency, and potentially into NoKo and AQ who no doubt see the rift as a great opportunity, which I feel will make them feel more comfortable engaging in terror rather than less.

Which poses the following question: If Bush and Blair admit its Iraq has been an error of judgment in prosecuting the WOT, and Europe turns it back, are they really any worse off than they are now??

There must be unity between Europe and the US or things will likely get worse. If that means some egg on the face and a great deal of jeering, then so be it. Even if Europe says no, I (rightly or wrongly) feel that it can't make things worse than they are now.

*waits to get flamed*

Posted by: Aran Brown at August 25, 2005 06:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Posted by: Aran Brown at August 25, 2005 06:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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