Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, September 24, 2004
So what is the war in Iraq about now, anyway?

First, let me float the happiest possibility: that both PM Allawi and what you read in the papers are both accurate. Most Iraqis actually want Allawi's government to succeed and want America to help it do so; most Iraqis are more grateful to America than hateful towards us. But, at the same time, the country is wracked by enormous, mass-casualty violence, which the Iraqis are incapable of bringing under control, and which threatens the viability of any regime.

Could this be true? (We'll return to whether I think it is true later on.) Yes. For this to be true, all we have to believe is that *most Iraqis are focused on keeping their heads down.* If you have a population that is mostly apathetic, and just wants to avoid getting killed, then it doesn't take too many bad actors to make the country a mess.

Should that be encouraging to us? Not especially, because if the Iraqis are sufficiently apathetic that a small number of bad actors can throw their whole country into chaos, then they are sufficiently apathetic to acquiesce when one of the bad actors seizes power. This is, nonetheless, the most optimistic scenario, because it suggests that all we have to do is kill the bad guys to bring a reasonable degree of peace and stability to Iraq. This rosy scenario appears to be the way the Administration looks at the situation.

The second possibility: Iraq is Algeria. Not Algeria under the French; Algeria under Bouteflika. Algeria, remember, was almost taken over by radical Islamists in an election over 10 years ago. The military junta that had run Algeria, horrified by the prospective results, cancelled the election, thus commencing a brutal civil war that killed over 100,000 Algerians. But note one key fact: the Algerian Islamists lost the civil war.

Why did they lose? Because they did not win - meaning, they could not militarily defeat the government. And in the process of fighting, they escalated their attacks on ordinary Algerians to such a level of ferocity that they lost their base of popular support. Indeed, the level of violence that the Algerian Islamists resorted to was inversely proportional to their degree of popular support - as they lost support, they got more violent, and as they got more violent, they lost support.

The terrorist insurgents in Iraq certainly are very violent. And they have been indiscriminate in applying that violence to ordinary Iraqis as well as to foreign occupiers. Does that mean they will lose popular support? I think the key to that question is another question: do they appear to be losing? The Algerian Islamists, as the war wore on, spent increasing energy bombing and shooting backsliders rather than focusing on the government. The Iraqi insurgency doesn't seem to be moving in that direction, at least not yet. If it does, that'll be lousy news for the ordinary Iraqis targeted, but good news for the overall progress of the war.

The third possibility: Iraq is Lebanon. That is to say, the country is fracturing into a multi-sided civil war between ethnic/religious groups.

Thinking about Iraq as a civil war, there are at least 5 wars going on. The first is a civil war in the Sunni heartland between Allawi and those clans that would replace him. People talk about Baathist "dead-enders" but who actually believes in Baathism as an *ideology* anymore? I doubt anyone does. Rather, I assume what's primarily driving the insurgency in the Sunni triangle is a struggle for dominance between those clans who were on top under Saddam and those with the strongest ties to Allawi.

So that's war #1: war within the Sunni triangle. War #2 is the struggle between the Sunni and Shiite Arabs for control of the country. The Shiites know they have the numbers to prevail if Iraq moves to a system of proportional representation or some other pure majoritarian electoral system. So that's the direction Sistani is pushing. Al-Sadr, the young hothead, is pushing in the same direction, violently. The Shiites themselves are hobbled on the one hand by their (entirely realistic) fears of being abandoned yet again and the endemic ridiculousness of their politics, infected as it is by the legalism and clericalism that makes Shiism so familiar to observers of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. The Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, know they don't have the numbers in-country. But they have most of the technocrats, most of the old officer corps of the army, and the support of the wider Arab world.

To date, war #2 has not been much in the headlines. But that's because it's being fought by proxy. Allawi, in fact, is partly trying to win war #1 by winning war #2 - which, in turn, he's trying to win by intervening in war #3.

What's war #3? War #3 is between al-Sadr and the older Shiite leadership typified by Sistani. Sistani understands that America is both a dangerous enemy and a dangerous friend. He wants to avoid antagonizing us *and* to get us out of there as soon as he can. He treats the Iranians and the Sunni Arabs of Iraq the same way. Sistani knows that the Shiite Arabs have gotten the shaft all through history in Iraq; historically, their only choices have been subjugation to Sunni Arabs and subjugation to Shiite Persians. But precisely because he knows how weak and vulnerable his community is, he's playing a relatively patient, careful game.

But a hothead is just naturally going to appear to more young people. Taking on America and the Sunni Arabs at once is a good way to make a name for yourself among angry young Shiites. And there's a big youth bulge demographically in Iraq. We killed a lot of al-Sadr partisans in the battle for Najaf, and war #3 appears to be quiescent right now. But the long-term prospects for a reasonably peaceful Iraq depend upon Sistani's approach dominating the Shiite south.

So: why do I say Allawi is trying to win war #1 by winning war #2 through intervening in war #3? Allawi is the one who effectively ordered American troops into Najaf. He did that to force a confrontation with al-Sadr, a confrontation he knew could end one of two ways: with a face-saving climb-down negotiated by Sistani (which would be a victory for Sistani in war #3) or with violent defeat of the al-Sadr folks at the hands of the Americans (which would be a victory for the Sunni Arabs in war #2). Either outcome would demonstrate that Allawi was in charge, which is important in the struggle for power in war #1.

War #4 is the war in the north. The Kurds are busy consolidating their territory, driving out Arabs and Turkmen - and the Americans are helping them. Right now, we think the Kurds can be kept nominally in a territorially unified Iraq if they get substantial autonomy, control over their oil revenues, and if they become kind of the equivalent of the Sikhs for Americans in Iraq (i.e., the ethnic group not party to the dominant split in the country - Hindu/Muslim in India, Sunni/Shiite Arab in Iraq) that gets used as auxiliary troops by the imperial power. Right now, there's remarkable unity *among* the Kurds, which was not the case in the mid-1990s, which suggests that on the Kurdish front at least our bargain is working. But it runs the risk of sparking a full-scale civil war between Kurds and Arabs (and Turkmen) over Kurdish ethnic cleansing.

War #5 isn't really a separate war, but rather my catchall for the interests of neighboring powers who are intervening actively in Iraq. Iran is backing al-Sadr; their objective is victory for the radicals in war #3. Whether Iraq collapses into chaos or becomes an Iranian strapy is secondary. Iran's rivals enemies in the region are Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Saudi Arabia is a rival for Islamic leadership; Turkey is a rival for ethnic dominance throughout Central Asia. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been moving officially in a more friendly direction vis a vis Iran, a trend that began before the Iraq war. The Iraq war has accelerated that trend to the extent that both countries have pulled away from America, but the underlying reasons for the rivalry remain and Iraq could just as easily provoke conflict between these powers as unite them. Turkey is already getting very agitated about Kurdish activities in Iraq; all it would take is one massacre of Turkmen or, worse, one incursion by Kurds across the border into Turkey and we could see a Turkish intervention in northern Iraq. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, doesn't really have a functional foreign policy at this point. But the thing that unites conservatives and radicals in Saudi Arabia with respect to Iraq is: a Shiite-dominated government must not emerge there. So to the extent they have the power to affect the outcome, they will endeavor to prevent that.

(I deliberately leave out one power who looms large in the neocon imagination: Syria. That's because I believe we're potentially on the brink of real news in Syria. Yes, that country has disappointed over and over again. But there are indications that Bashar Assad has broken free of Sheikh Nasrullah's spell and is actually considering a settlement with Israel and a withdrawal from Lebanon in exchange for American aid and welcome back into the family of nations - a Libya deal, in other words. This would be very good news. Why do I say this is possible? Well, there have been troop movements reported in Lebanon that are consistent with a withdrawal of at least some forces from the country, and the Israeli press is reporting more serious talk of a deal on the Golan. If Syria *did* make a Libya-type deal, that would be very good news for the region and for America, but it would not end the terrorist threat to Israel or Iraq from Hezbollah, which is an authentic popular movement. The neocon assumption that groups like Hezbollah would not exist but for Syrian and Iranian sponsorship is not really true; Hezbollah benefits clearly from that sponsorship, but they will not go away if that sponsorship is withdrawn because they have developed a life of their own. Al-Qaeda is the same. This is the big flaw in the whole neocon approach to the war: the assumption that state actors are the dominant factors, when in some cases they really are not. We're learning that the hard way in Iraq. Our biggest risk is state *capture* by terrorists - which is what happened in Afghanistan, and could happen in Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or, it appeared at one time, Algeria.)

All these wars interact. And there's no contradiction between saying that most Iraqis are apathetic and just want to avoid getting killed *and* that there's an Islamist insurgency of ferocious violence but low popular support causing chaos in the country *and* that there is a multi-sided civil war brewing. Indeed, the complexity of the situation is what is making it so hard for the Americans to make any real progress; fighting on one front may help on others or may make others even worse. (We saw both effects when we intervened in Najaf, and we are seeing both effects from our use of the Kurds.)

One thing's for sure: we're learning a lot about the Middle East. Expensive education, though.