October 17, 2005

Thoughts on the constitution referendum

The referendum on the Iraqi constitution is over and, by all accounts, went rather swimmingly under circumstances. My colleague Bill Roggio takes a pretty good look at the situation and concludes that the end-result is net victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq. I concur with this assessment, but it is worth noting this passage from Anthony Cordesman's definitive Iraq's Evolving Insurgency in which he states several times:

There also will almost certainly be at least another year of intensive fighting against Islamist and extremist elements that will reject inclusion in the political process almost regardless of what political system emerges during the coming elections. There are only three ways to deal with Iraq’s most hard-line elements: Kill them, imprison them, or drive them out of the country. There is a very real war to fight, and it is still unclear when or if Iraqi forces will really be ready to fight it with anything like the total numbers required.

This is a key realization that needs to be understood alongside any celebration of the very real success achieved yesterday with respect to the constitutional referendum. However, the realization that Zarqawi does not have a significant popular support base inside Iraq was one of the major events that came out of the January 30 elections, as was the fact that he is extremely limited with regard to carrying out attacks outside his geographic base in the Sunni Triangle. Both of these realizations were extremely important developments, as they were both extremely unclear prior January 30, but it is nice to see that both have withheld the test of time with respect to the current referendum.

That said, Zarqawi does not require the support of all or even most Iraqi Sunnis to continue his terror campaign. Without getting very far into the numbers game, if only has a core of 5,000 fighters about 50,000 supporters, that should be more than enough to sustain al-Qaeda in Iraq and its allies like Ansar al-Sunnah for the time being. Note that this doesn't even begin to address those insurgent groups that are participating in political discussions through their various proxies like the Association of Muslim Scholars or similar organizations.

Now please don't get me wrong, it's certainly wonderful to note that so many Iraqis aren't buying what Zarqawi is selling or that his operational reach is limited. These are all extremely good things and should be recognized as such by everyone, as I'm sure my colleague Eric will agree. There are now a serious questions, however, as far as what happens next.

As it now stands, the constitution looks almost assured of passage despite the strong Sunni efforts to defeat it. The big issue now, though, is what comes next for the Sunnis. Do they return to the insurgency in earnest, do they wholeheartedly embrace the political game, or some combination of the two? Or will their efforts as a community splinter, with various groups going one way and others going another?

Eric expressed much the same concerns in this comment:

Will this vote convince the insurgencies to stop? Will it drain support from the Sunni regions? Will it help to bridge the divides between Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites? Will even the Shiites and Kurds continue to work together now that the document they wanted is enshrined? What exactly about this vote will translate into any of those positive outcomes? What is the mechanism?

I honestly don't know the answers to those questions one way or another, but my guess is that we'll all find out pretty soon. One thing to keep in mind though is that earlier quote from Cordesman that even if everything goes absolutely wonderful as far as the political process is concerned, the Iraqis are still going to have a major fight on their hands against Zarqawi and his allies. Depending on how the Sunnis choose to approach the political process from this point forward could either accelerate or draw out that fight, but either way it's one that's going to happen sooner or later.

One final point that I once made to my good friend Aziz some time ago on the issue of what it means to have a real democracy in Iraq is for both sides to accept the results of the popular will without resorting to violence. In this way, I actually thought that it was something of a positive development for Allawi to lose the January 30 elections and then give up power voluntarily without going underground or declaring some kind of a permanent state of emergency to keep the United Iraqi Alliance from taking charge of the parliament. In a similar way, if Iraq is going to be a successful democracy, particularly once US troops are withdrawn, the Sunnis are going to have to accept the results of the constitutional referendum without going underground and launching a campaign to bring down the government. Same thing goes for both sides with respect to the December elections and so on and I think that ultimately that's going to be the biggest challenge for all quarters to accept given that much of Iraqi politics prior to this point have more or less been a zero-sum game.

Posted by at October 17, 2005 02:44 AM | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Well, if all the responsibility for peace and comity are on the Arab Sunnis in Iraq with none on the Shiites or Kurds, why don't we just start the ethnic cleansing or chattel slavery and be done with it?

Posted by: bob mcmanus at October 17, 2005 04:22 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

An odd comment above, but no doubt if the bulk of the Sunni community works toward domination of the Kurds/Shias and no peaceful solution is possible then a solution based war will be chosen.
What nation will allow a sector of its population to murder children, and unarmed civilians without putting an end to it?
But on another topic, BD has for some months been very skeptical of the progress in Iraq. I believe that both Belmont Club and billroggio.com have been called out as overly optimistic. Yet the news seems pretty clear that
a) the population wants to vote not shoot
b) the Iraqi army/police are steadily gaining
c) the insurgency shows diminishing power
d) the Sunni community is split
e) the Syrian sanctuary is starting to be endangered
Certainly death and violence will continue. One can argue that the US, the coalition and the Iraqi people are winning "ugly". But is there serious argument that the corner has NOT been turned? How will the terrorists turn things around?

Posted by: Jim, Mtn View, CA at October 17, 2005 06:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well keep in mind that BD prior to a couple months ago was just Greg, rather than its current writers Eric and myself.

As for the other points, the main issue is whether or not the Sunnis are going to lose gracefully or start the insurgency back up again now that it appears they've lost their bid to defeat the constitution. If they now start campaigning in full for the December elections rather than going back to the insurgency, then we'll know that we've won a major victory in separating the domestic insurgents from the foreign-led types like Zarqawi. That still doesn't end the latter's ability to carry out a terror campaign though, which is something we need to be conscious of even if everything goes wonderful with respect to the political process.

Posted by: Dan Darling at October 17, 2005 06:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

why would one assume that the objective of the insurgency was to stop the constitution or impede democracy or had as its focus to thwart provisional american intentions? There's no evidence of this: for all anyone really knows chaos is or was it's aim and even that only as part of some larger goal that views nascent democracy as irrelevant. Of course you assume impeding constitutional goals as its goal because when the preordained inevitable happens you can then paint it as success the way you do. but-

the constitution is meaningless beyond how it serves the interests of the shia and the kurds independent of some unifying democract nonsense and at the expense of the sunni - and where that fact will end up taking the country will have very little to do with Bush et al democracy rhetoric. I don't really know what the intentions or long term plans of the insurgency are but I assume [unless they're idiots, whcih they don't seem to be] they have something do do with that. I'm not saying they'll be successful [hard to do since don't really know what they're thinking] but I do sense or guess at least they've figured out what you and many americans haven't -Bush and his boys are up the Tigris without a god damn paddle.

Posted by: saintsimon at October 17, 2005 01:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

why would one assume that the objective of the insurgency was to stop the constitution or impede democracy or had as its focus to thwart provisional american intentions? There's no evidence of this: for all anyone really knows chaos is or was it's aim and even that only as part of some larger goal that views nascent democracy as irrelevant. Of course you assume impeding constitutional goals as its goal because when the preordained inevitable happens you can then paint it as success the way you do. but-

the constitution is meaningless beyond how it serves the interests of the shia and the kurds independent of some unifying democract nonsense and at the expense of the sunni - and where that fact will end up taking the country will have very little to do with Bush et al democracy rhetoric. I don't really know what the intentions or long term plans of the insurgency are but I assume [unless they're idiots, whcih they don't seem to be] they have something do do with that. I'm not saying they'll be successful [hard to do since don't really know what they're thinking] but I do sense or guess at least they've figured out what you and many americans haven't -Bush and his boys are up the Tigris without a god damn paddle.

Posted by: saintsimon at October 17, 2005 01:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

why would one assume that the objective of the insurgency was to stop the constitution or impede democracy or had as its focus to thwart provisional american intentions? There's no evidence of this: for all anyone really knows chaos is or was it's aim and even that only as part of some larger goal that views nascent democracy as irrelevant. Of course you assume impeding constitutional goals as its goal because when the preordained inevitable happens you can then paint it as success the way you do. but-

the constitution is meaningless beyond how it serves the interests of the shia and the kurds independent of some unifying democract nonsense and at the expense of the sunni - and where that fact will end up taking the country will have very little to do with Bush et al democracy rhetoric. I don't really know what the intentions or long term plans of the insurgency are but I assume [unless they're idiots, whcih they don't seem to be] they have something do do with that. I'm not saying they'll be successful [hard to do since don't really know what they're thinking] but I do sense or guess at least they've figured out what you and many americans haven't -Bush and his boys are up the Tigris without a god damn paddle.

Posted by: saintsimon at October 17, 2005 01:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If you would like an example of a relatively stable, non-violent situation where the majority rule, I would show you Alabama, circa 1840.

The three factions self-identify along the most obvious lines, Sunni, Shia, Kurds, and are strongly encouraged to do so by their leadership. Sistani managed to get Sadr into line. The Arab Sunnis will not be able to form any coalitions at twenty per cent, and the amendment process will be a joke.

I really don't see that the Arab Sunni have any real stake in the current system surviving, and they enthusiastically demonstrated their discontent yesterday in their vote. Further violence was guaranteed.

Read Juan Cole.

Posted by: bob mcmanus at October 17, 2005 02:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If you would like an example of a relatively stable, non-violent situation where the majority rule, I would show you Alabama, circa 1840.

The three factions self-identify along the most obvious lines, Sunni, Shia, Kurds, and are strongly encouraged to do so by their leadership. Sistani managed to get Sadr into line. The Arab Sunnis will not be able to form any coalitions at twenty per cent, and the amendment process will be a joke.

I really don't see that the Arab Sunni have any real stake in the current system surviving, and they enthusiastically demonstrated their discontent yesterday in their vote. Further violence was guaranteed.

Posted by: bob mcmanus at October 17, 2005 02:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You know, when the Sunni's who did decide to endorse the constitution fail to get what they want from the post-ratification revisions process, they can go right back to passive support of the insurgents. Indeed, they never have to give up passive support of the insurgents, because that's what gives them -- minority of a minority that they are -- any leverage at all to get revisions.

You can call the ratification a victory, but, it seems to me, only by exaggerating the potential for 'defeat.' I think the chances of AQ governance of any more than a suburb (or smaller city) of Iraq are nearly nil, and would put the chances of neo-Baath rule at only a little higher. That we are avoiding either, then, is better then the alternative, but not much to write home about.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at October 17, 2005 09:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think we can also gather that Zarqawi is limited in his methods for attacking. Vehicle traffic was forbidden, and VBIED have been a primary Zarqawi weapon's platform.

It is not possible to hault every car in the country, but it is something of a positive to freeze an enemy's weapon's delivery system so thoroughly.

Posted by: Chris at October 17, 2005 10:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

is anyone the least bit surprised that Iraq is turning into Florida?

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/18/international/middleeast/18iraq.html?hp&ex=1129608000&en=a675e2137010ac4f&ei=5094&partner=homepage

Posted by: p.lukasiak at October 18, 2005 03:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Is anyone the least surprised that Luka has focussed on something negative related to this latest encouraging news from Iraq

Its really hilarious the way he accuses others of being "ideologically blinded to having one view only" and yet demonstrates constantly that he has only one view of Iraq - all negative all the time

Here's looking forward to Iraq in 10 years when Luka will be focussed on the high smog emissions in Basra as why Iraq is a failure : )

Posted by: Pogue Mahone at October 18, 2005 03:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I really don't see that the Arab Sunni have any real stake in the current system surviving, and they enthusiastically demonstrated their discontent yesterday in their vote. Further violence was guaranteed.

Who cares? They dominated the majority through violence in ethnic extreme, ethnic cleansing, and tyranny for decades. The argument, and juan coles really nonsensical piece come down to choosing appeasing the elements within the sunni that are nostalgic for their tyranny over the natural assertion of rights of majorities long denied. the right being asserted is at the heart of democracy. Jaun doesnt even know he is parroting the argument for opposing the democratization of South Africa!

If you would like an example of a relatively stable, non-violent situation where the majority rule, I would show you Alabama, circa 1840.

here we get to the argument at its most cynical. and I will show you the EU.


Posted by: Frank Knox at October 19, 2005 04:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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