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Strategy versus Tactics? - Paradigm Shifts in Iraq
Praise God, praise God for the return of the train. I was a bit afraid at first, but now I call on everyone to use it.

15 April   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

According to Reuters Alert, this is the jubilant comment made by a man calling himself Mehdi who travelled with his family on the train between Baghdad and Basra. The Iraqi General Railways Company resumed earlier this year its 11-hour 40-stop diesel-powered train service at subsidised fares between Iraq’s two largest cities after it was halted in 2006 following the intensification of killings, bombings and kidnappings in the infamous “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad.

The resumption of such rail services is good news as Iraq struggles to prove that a combination of political resolve and the US surge have together installed a sense of security, calm and normality in the country. After all, this train ride becomes a metaphor for Iraq today trying to heal its wounds. But were it only so simple: I am afraid that this is not the sole answer.

Over the past fortnight, I made some time in order to catch up on the latest developments in Iraq. One important dossier I read consisted of the testimony on 9th April by Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at International Crisis Group, to the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington DC. Unlike many other self-styled analysts, his sitrep was based on the longstanding fieldwork performed by the ICG field workers and consultants in Iraq - both inside and outside the Green Zone - with officials, militiamen, insurgents and ordinary citizens.

In his testimony, Malley examined the situation in Iraq on the fifth anniversary of its occupation and came up with a number of observations that also highlighted the unhealthy mesh between tactics and strategy when dealing with Iraq. He scrutinised the recent achievements of the surge and wondered whether they would usher in national well-being and regional stability, or whether they are simply postponing a likely scenario for Iraq’s collapse into a failed and fragmented state, with protracted and multi-layered violence and foreign meddling that together risk metastasising the situation into a broader proxy war. His testimony homed in on the need for “an overarching strategy” for Iraq as well as “a new broad and national compact” amongst the myriad Iraqi political factions. In the absence of a basic political consensus over the nature of the state and distribution of power and resources, he added, the mere passing of ambiguous legislation will not in itself postpone the battle over the future of Iraq. Malley also advocated a US withdrawal from Iraq (unlike what General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified in front of the US Senate last week) “if the Iraqi political class fails to make rapid, substantive progress toward political accommodation and establishment of non-partisan, non-sectarian state institutions.”

Another equally challenging - alarming would be more appropriate in this context - piece of reading for me was a new book published jointly by Nobel Prize winner economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes. Entitled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, it is a sobering analysis of the real cost of the war let alone a pointed indictment of the policies of the Bush administration. It claims that the Iraq war was one of choice, not necessity, visited upon Americans and the world through self-deception as much as deception of Americans by their own president. The book projects that this figure of three thousand billion dollars includes the estimated $600 billion cash cost of the troops on the ground, alongside the costs of disability and compensation for the war veterans, replenishment of the military to its usual standards and repayment of the debt (with interest) that was borrowed to pay for the war.

In one of his candid interviews, Joseph Stiglitz mentioned that the number of American fatalities and casualties is deemed so secret in US political circles that it took the invocation of the Freedom of Information Act to enable him to retrieve this data. [For the information of the reader, 1.7 million troops have been deployed in Iraq to date, with 70,000 wounded or diseased and 120,000 having already sought mental health care]. In another satellite interview on BBC2 Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, Stiglitz also pegged the total cost of operations till early 2008 at $646 billion, and surmised that the economic vagaries being felt today are largely the consequence of this conflagration. Sadly enough, his heavy words reminded me of the poet Sir Walter Scott when he wrote in Marmion, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”

Today, those political realities have been exacerbated further on the ground by the pitched battles between American and Iraqi troops on the one hand and sectarian ‘militias’ on the other. Although the Iraqi government of PM Nouri al-Malki suggests that all militias should be disarmed and disbanded in order for them to participate in the political process, it is clear to most pundits that the battles taking place over the past few weeks have been focusing quite narrowly on the Sadrist militias. For instance, militants linked to the Fadhila party have been untouched, despite years of flouting the law, and nothing was done to the Badr organisation, ISCI’s militia arm, either. It seems that the Sadrist militias are ostensibly being targeted in this campaign in part to downsize their relevance in advance of the provincial elections scheduled for 1st October. The killing in Najaf last week of Riad Nouri, a close adviser to Muqtada al-Sadr, also contributes toward this disempowerment. However, as Refugees International pointed out in a report earlier this week, the irony is that the Sadrist organisation is the one that is providing the best humanitarian assistance to the needy classes in Iraq - no doubt a pointer as to why it manages to maintain its grassroots popularity across the country.

Difficult choices loom ahead for Iraq and the world. Indeed, whoever wins the presidential elections in the USA later this year, whether Clinton, Obama or even McCain, and irrespective of the statements issued by different politicians, I remain persuaded that the US simply cannot maintain an open-ended presence in Iraq. Yet, given the amount of human, financial and political resources that have already been funnelled into its war over the past five years, it is not sensible to expect the US to “pack it in” overnight either. It is therefore necessary to coerce the current Iraqi political establishment into reaching and implementing a national compact amongst the different parties for the purposes of national reconciliation. If such a compact is not reached, or is resisted in some quarters for ideological and sectarian let alone power-based considerations, the US should make it clear to the Iraqi government that it would withdraw from the country - and as such help force the hand of the government to face up to its responsibilities or else land in total chaos and the concomitant loss of power.

Hand-in-hand with this serious ultimatum to Iraq should also emerge a credible multi-lateral strategy that includes engagement with Iran (and Syria) in order to ward off greater regional instability and polarisation. But this can happen through serious bargaining, not military threats alone, and it preoccupies me that the dual diplomatic tool of the carrot and the stick has been sorely absent from US policy-making in the past few years. After all, alliances come and go in the country, and much as the sahwat movement or the Sons of Iraq are now cooperating with the US against Al-Qaeda and also against other non-Sunni elements in Iraq, it is not inconceivable that they could change their political tactics again on the basis of self-interest or even be manipulated to sabotage any US initiative by pursuing their own sectarian agendas.

Within this overall context, with hopes for peace countered by evidence of violence, one cannot overlook the future of Iraqi Kurdistan either. Although this region retains much of its autonomy within a federal Iraq, it still remains volatile and the political identity of Iraqi Kurds remains fluid. The recent incursions by Turkish troops in pursuit of PKK elements underlines how instability could easily be imported into the Iraqi Kurdish territories as well. Only this week, the Turkish fighters bombarded what it claimed were PKK pockets in the mountainous Avasin-Basyan region. Consequently, “the Kurdish problem” must be addressed through a clear accommodation with Turkey within the framework of the NATO alliance.

The sad irony of Iraq is that its oil-rich resources are matched by poor human resources. In fact, much of the Muslim middle class, alongside large swathes of minority communities, have fled the country as a result of its physical perils, blunt threats and economic ills. To date, the five-year Iraqi war has produced 4.5 million refugees and internally displaced people, with roughly 1.5 million in neighbouring Syria, and hundreds of thousands relocated to Jordan and Lebanon. Given such a dysfunctional society, due as much to the rampant and ill-studied de-ba’athification process after the invasion to the gradual evisceration of civil-society, is it not high time to remedy the situation in Iraq before it truly becomes too late?

The Hollywood actress and human rights activist Angelina Jolie, UN goodwill ambassador since 2001, visited Iraq recently and urged the international community to make a priority the education of Iraqi children. Whilst I humbly endorse her calls for such a necessary educational campaign that is incidentally also an obligation under International law, I also strongly urge the parallel education of Iraqi politicians and key decision-makers so they too learn to overstep their own self-serving or factional interests for the sake of the greater good of a crippled country. At the end of the day, in order to salvage Iraq from unravelling further through gruesome bloodbaths and wanton destruction, it is central to institute at long last a series of coherent paradigm shifts whereby short-term tactics would be replaced by a healthier and longer-term strategy.

But are Iraqis willing and capable to institute such a change for the sake of their country - five years after an occupation? And will its neighbours facilitate or impede such irenic efforts?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   15 April


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