September 14, 2004

More on Iraq

As we are all painfully aware, it has been an exceptionally bloody period of late in Iraq. And, of course, we are in the middle of the political silly season--so very few people are addressing the massive challenges facing us there head-on. As Jim Hoagland put it:

It is especially hard for spies, generals and policymakers to reexamine, recognize and correct mistakes and assumptions as the U.S. presidential campaign roars into full fury: The incumbent is unable to allow himself to consider -- much less admit -- error. The challenger is unable to see anything but error on his foe's part. September's final small cruelty is to lock the candidates and those who work for them into imaginary omniscience until Nov. 2.

That said, between Coleian doom and gloom and unmitigated Panglossian sunshine ( Chrenkoffian, I might say in the blogosphere!) there is still some room for cautious and limited optimism.

For one thing, Iraq isn't Vietnam (yet).

Fareed Zakaria:

But for all its resilience, the insurgency has not spread across the country, nor is it likely to. Its appeal has clear limits. While it has drawn some support from all Iraqis because of its anti-American character, the insurgency is essentially a Sunni movement, fueled by the anger of Iraq's once-dominant community, which now fears the future. It is not supported by the Shiites or the Kurds. (The Shiite radical Sadr has been careful not to align himself too closely with the insurgency, for fear of losing support among the Shiites.) This is what still makes me believe that Iraq is not Vietnam. There, the Viet Cong and their northern sponsors both appealed to a broad nationalism that much of the country shared.

That's exactly right. Read all of Zakaria's piece, by the way. He's rightly concerned that policymakers, throwing their arms up in frustration given going-ons in the environs of Fallujah, will pursue a so-called Shi'a strategy:

Such an approach would view the Sunni areas in Iraq as hopeless until an Iraqi army could go in and establish control. It would ensure that the Shiite community, as well as the Kurds, remained supportive of Allawi's government and of the upcoming elections. It would attempt to hold elections everywhere -- but if they could not be held in the Sunni areas, elections would go forward anyway. That would isolate the Sunni problem and leave it to be dealt with when [Iraqi] forces become available.

Tempting, of course, but not good policy. We need to start thinking (comments welcome) on innovative formulas to have nation-wide elections take place on schedule (ie, January) despite the existence of pockets of insurgent controlled enclaves:

Another ominous sign is the growing number of towns that U.S. troops simply avoid. A senior Defense official objects to calling them "no-go areas." "We could go into them any time we wanted," he argues. The preferred term is "insurgent enclaves." They're spreading. Counterinsurgency experts call it the "inkblot strategy": take control of several towns or villages and expand outward until the areas merge. The first city lost to the insurgents was Fallujah, in April. Now the list includes the Sunni Triangle cities of Ar Ramadi, Baqubah and Samarra, where power shifted back and forth between the insurgents and American-backed leaders last week. "There is no security force there [in Fallujah], no local government," says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. "We would get attacked constantly. Forget about it."

So, and before January, we need to focus on a) getting that inkblot smaller and (perhaps more important especially if "a" continues to prove so difficult) b) figuring out innovative ways to delay and/or hold election in such places in a manner that makes non-radicalized Sunnis not feel they are getting the heave-ho. Policymakers should be focusing on that right now (as mentioned above, thoughts on that would be most welcome). One thought might be to have remote balloting done in a manner insurgents wouldn't know who had voted at, say, a polling station smack dab in the center of Fallujah--particularly given that many residents would likely be too scared to vote fearing death at the hands of insurgents for "collaboration". Said ballots could be matched against population registries to ensure they were not fraudulent or duplicative. Another thought is to have phased elections in problematic Sunni areas. Perhaps municipal elections could take place first--showcasing how the electioneering process is not prima facie nefarious. But these are just random thoughts that may nor may not make any sense in terms of the real situation on the ground.

Regardless of all this, State has decided (note, not the Pentagon, which is losing influence on Iraq policy) to move more money into the security budget right now. That's smart and good--but isn't going to be enough to solve our Fallujah/Samarra/Baqubah problem by January. Negroponte and Grossman therefore also need to be thinking hard about innovative election modalities too in case our counter-insurgency efforts don't have us back in control of major Sunni population centers by the elections.

Anyone out there have some smart ideas?

MORE: Thanks for all the excellent feedback. In particular, don't miss Point 2 of this comment, why successful elections in Iraq aren't necessarily a panacea, an argument countering that last fear, and a reminder about the nature of some of our enemies in Iraq.

Appreciate it, folks--I'm blessed with smart commenters (perhaps I should turn over the keys to them!) Still, I think we need to push further and more 'out of the box' on elections related ideas. I'll be giving it more thought when time allows--as well as trying to address developments in Russia, Turkey (vis-a-vis their Iraq policy) and, er, the Balkans (remember them?).

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at September 14, 2004 10:39 PM
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