Monday, August 4, 2008

Sunday Times soundoff

The New York Times' Magazine's cover story this weekend looked at what they call "The Last Battle" in Iraq, which offers an account of the challenges the military faces in choosing which group of Shiites in the country's south they want to sponsor. If we leave aside the questionable choice of a title (did we not learn our lesson about calling the end in Iraq with "Mission Accomplished" in 2003?) then the article is an interesting up-close narrative of the initial enthusiasm for and subsequent abandonment of the Shiite Awakening movement in Qadisiya province. It helpfully follows the accounts of three Marines, Moulton, Lemons and Gildroy, and one Iraqi, Maj. Gen. Othman Farhood, the commander of Iraq's Eighth Army division. Moulton, Lemons and Gildroy are the on-the-ground champions of the agrarian Shias in Iraq (Diwaniya), and their work in 2007 was to assist in the mobilization of that group using a model similar to the fashion in which the Sahwa in Anbar province mobilized.

Long story short, Moulton, Lemons and Gildroy worked very hard in concert with Farhood to accomplish this mobilization, and it was ultimately disbanded because the Maliki government did not want the United States "creating political movements to challenge him". The article frames this conflict of interest on the part of the U.S. in the following terms:

“The most prominent dividing line in Iraqi politics now is between the ‘powers that be’ and the ‘powers that aren’t,’ ” Sam Parker, an Arabic speaker who works for the United States Institute of Peace, a policy center in Washington, told me recently. “The ‘powers that be’ spent much of the 1980s and 1990s in open opposition to Saddam. Nearly all of these leaders spent substantial time outside of Iraq. They have well-organized parties but lack a strong social base and have an outsize degree of influence in the national and provincial governments. Because of their disproportionate dominance of the political process, they only stand to lose by any movement toward political openness.

“The ‘powers that aren’t,’ ” Parker added, “are fragmented and weak. What they want is in.”

Where does the U.S. stand? “They seem to be working hard for provincial elections,” Parker said, “which would make the system more inclusive and give the ‘powers that aren’t’ and the popular forces they represent an opportunity for a share of the power. But at the same time, the United States’ main priority appears to be buttressing the state security apparatus that belongs to the ‘powers that be.’ ”

In an ideal world the two policy imperatives would be balanced. The politics of inclusiveness would lay the foundation for the long-term stability of the country, while improvements in Maliki’s capacity to govern would lead to a state that could supplant the Hobbesian state of nature that has typified Iraq — and make it easier for the United States to reduce forces. Iraq, however, is far from an ideal world, and Maliki’s growing confidence in his own power leaves the U.S. steadily less able to shape events.

Based on the almost word-for-word reproduction of language from this anonymous guest post at Abu Aardvark, I am going to venture a guess that "Back from Baghdad" is Sam Parker - the guest post offers a lengthier explanation of who the Powers that Be (PTB) and the Powers that Aren't (PTA), are. The post includes a Sunni group - the Iraqi Islamic Party, or IIP - in the PTB, a complexity that the article doesn't explore. It isn't really relevant to the story of the Qadasiya awakening, but it does throw something of a wrench in the Shiite-on-Shiite framing of the title.

Of course, anything about the war in Iraq always raises more questions than answers. But the most pressing ones, for me, are the following:

How did the PTB became the PTB given their characteristics? Back from Baghdad/Sam Parker says:

"ISCI/Da'wa and the IIP lack a real social base and enjoy a level of control at the central government level far out of proportion to their level of support. The Kurds, though they do have local support in their region (or deeply rooted authoritarian control over the populace, take your pick), are dramatically over-represented at the national level, as well as in the provinces not part of the KRG--Mosul (where they hold 30 out of 41 seats!), Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, Diyala."

I am fairly certain that the PTB became the PTB because of U.S. support, at least in part if not exclusively.

So, second, why does neither Parker nor Gordon confront the fact that the United States created this conundrum themselves? Gordon alludes to it when he quotes Gildroy here:

“The system in Qadisiya was not an inclusive democracy,” Gildroy told me. “The Supreme Council controlled the governorship. The tribal movement was a way to break the incumbent parties’ monopoly on power. If our end goal is democracy, this is a pretty big deal. The southern provincial governors that I dealt with would not shake my hand. They do not believe in secular government. They do not believe in a government that is not controlled by religion. The fact that every other man will shake my hand except for the power brokers says that we are backing a very extremist regime.”

Including this quote certainly raises that question, but beyond that Gordon doesn't explore that fact explicitly. (It's possible that he thinks it's too obvious to point out).

And finally, what is the United States going to do now that they have chosen to anoint a political coalition that is characterized by its absence of popular support? They (we) seem to be charting a middle course by lobbying for the provincial elections while at the same time shoring up Maliki's legitimacy, ultimately making their support for the current coalition government a self-fulfilling prophecy. The provincial elections have been the source of much debate in the Iraqi parliament of late, and the resolution of the debate is elusive.

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