The Wheel's Still in Spin
The best way to read the Brookings Iraq trip report of Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack is not to see which political position it supports (i.e. whether is the Surge working or not) but simply to understand what it says. It plainly says that the question of whether American policy will be successful or not cannot yet be determined -- and then goes on to describe what seems to be working and what seems to be broken. "There is a great deal going well in Iraq but, unfortunately, also a great deal going badly." It is the best of times and the worst of times. How it will all end depends: on what factors exactly we will attempt to discover by a close reading.
What works in Iraq is the American military and, to a certain extent, the Iraqi Army. What doesn't work -- and may in fact be actively working against the US -- is the Iraqi national political system and the national police (NP).
U.S. military forces performing superbly in counterinsurgency/stability role ... In contrast to many critics who believed that the U.S. military (and particularly the Army) would take years to adapt proper counterinsurgency (COIN) and stabilization techniques, American forces appear to have embraced them in just a matter of months. ...
The Iraqi Army is slowly becoming a helpful partner to U.S. Forces ... Possibly the most important development of all those we saw in Iraq is the slow but tangible progress of Iraqi security forces. ... The Iraqi Army 3rd Infantry Division, for example, started out overwhelmingly Kurdish in 2005. Today, it is 45 percent Shi’ah, 28 percent Kurdish, and 27 percent Sunni Arab. We noted that its American advisers boasted that it was the best division in the Iraqi Army, something we heard from U.S. officers about several Iraqi divisions. In the past, it was unimaginable to have American officers bragging about the Iraqi units they were working with. ... In only a few sectors did we find American commanders complaining that their Iraqi formations were useless—something that was the rule, not the exception, in late 2005.
The growing effectiveness of the Iraqi Army essentially means that the total force available to the Coalition is growing because IA units can now replace US units in a growing number of cases.
Mosul—Iraq’s third largest city—and neighboring TalAfar were previously two of Iraq’s most unstable cities and together required a commitment of roughly one-quarter of all American forces in Iraq simply to keep them from imploding. Today, the presence of two competent and reliable Iraqi Army divisions and a competent and reliable Iraqi National Police (NP) division and a NP brigade have allowed MNF-I to reduce American forces within each city proper to just a few hundred men who serve as advisory teams and fire support teams to the Iraqis. The troops freed up have been redeployed to Diyala and al-Anbar to take advantage of the opportunities there. While this is only a first step, it is a very significant first step toward freeing up additional American formations both to pacify more parts of Iraq (spreading the oil stain) and eventually allowing them to depart Iraq altogether.
But while these positive developments have dealt heavy blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency they have done little to prevent the rise of Shi'ite forces bent on gaining total dominance over the Sunnis. The dreams of sectarian domination within Iraq have not ended. Sectarian Shi'ites have entrenched themselves in the Ministry of the Interior and the National Police inside the government and in militias outside the government in order to carry it out.
The NP and its parent Ministry of Interior (MOI) remain completely dominated by unreconstructed Shi’i chauvinists. The senior leadership is dominated by the worst elements of the Badr Organization while its rank-and-file remains infested with members of Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM). As best we could tell, a great many average Iraqis continued to see NP personnel as an object of fear, not safety. ...
The difference between the NP and the Army points to the considerable mistake the United States made in not maintaining the U.S. military as the principal partner for the NP, and not retaining large numbers of American military personnel within the MOI structure as was done in the MOD.
The continuing sectarian struggle to control Iraq is reflected in the politics of Baghdad which exists in a world of its own and ignores any signals which interfere with their partisan agenda. "Such measures may get 'passed' by the Iraqi Council of Representatives under tremendous pressure from the United States, but at this point it seems most likely that any measures that are passed will be ignored by the major parties."
At the top of Iraqi politics, the situation is awful. It is worse than stalemate; it is closer to open animosity and mistrust among leaders of different sectarian groups. ... Paranoia and backstabbing predominate among the various sects and even among the parties within them. A common perception among Shi’ah is that many Sunnis are unreformed or latent Baathists, waiting for an opportunity to try to regain power. The common perception among Sunnis is that the Shi’i government is in open collaboration with extremist militias, most notably that of Muqtada as-Sadr and known as Jaysh al-Mahdi (or JAM), which engages in Balkans-style sectarian killing as well as run-of-the-mill hooliganism.
The political situation is jammed so tight that the US military is simply constructing a parallel police force to outflank the Ministry of the Interior and the NP, an unsatisfactory expedient whose only virtue is that there is no other alternative.
One solution increasingly being embraced across central, northern, and western Iraq is to try to stand up local police forces (called Iraqi Police, IPs) instead of relying on the NPs. In many sectors, this has been a very effective solution because the IPs are made up of people from the town or neighborhood, who know the people and the streets and are committed to working with the Americans and the Iraqi Army to provide security for their people. However, the MOI and the OCinC have tried hard to prevent Sunni neighborhoods from doing so, and tried to ensure that IP units created in Shi’i areas were controlled by officers loyal to their cause. They have denied authority to create the units, denied them pay, denied them equipment, and denied them leaders, to try to control the IP units. In response, some American formations have taken to forming neighborhood watch associations, called Iraqi Provinical Volunteers (IPVs), instead (U.S. policy precludes arming them, and of course the United States cannot itself hire them as Iraqi police, but it can organize them and offer them reward money for providing intelligence tips and the like). However, this is not as effective as creating IP units and the process is under attack by the MOI, which wants to control them as well.
Indeed a considerable part of the US effort seems devoted to simply finding ways to devolve solutions to localities in order to avoid the central systems altogether.
The informal electricity sector has picked up greatly; Baghdad residents may only get a couple or few hours of grid electricity a day, but many neighborhoods are aglow at night, as entrepreneurs sell power via jury-rigged distribution systems. American military and civilian officials are contributing to this trend. They have recognized that improving the national power grid is a decade-long project at least (further complicated and slowed by insurgent attacks), and so they have focused on setting up local generators instead.
One of the most striking recommendations of the Brookings trip report is to give up on the national politicians altogether in favor of a strategy of working directly with the grassroots and creating a fait accompli. [emphasis is mine]
The success of the PRTs and ePRTs in fashioning local economic and political solutions, the greater success of the Iraqi police and Iraqi provincial volunteers over the national police in the security sector, the progress made in al-Anbar, and the emphasis on local generators rather than fixing and protecting the national power grid all point to a critical reality in Iraq: progress is being made at local levels and is not being made at the national level. Consequently, it is a mistake for the United States to be focusing its main efforts and resources on the national government in Baghdad. It is badly deadlocked and the U.S. strategy should be to try to minimize the central government’s influence and meddling throughout the country. The U.S. government must make a maximal effort to push resources and authority out or away from the central government in Baghdad and out to provincial and local level governments where smart, flexible American military and civilian personnel are generally able to identify competent Iraqi partners and fashion specific responses to local needs.
If we are able to stabilize Iraq, that will require a highly decentralized federal system. (Note: we are not presupposing soft partition of Iraq into three regions. Although O’Hanlon favors such a plan, it depends on an Iraqi acquiescence which is very unlikely. But decentralization with greater focus on the existing provinces is appropriate regardless.) Second, as noted, only local solutions are working at this point in time and therefore it is essential that we “reinforce success, not failure.” We should concentrate on what is working, not the black hole of Baghdad—which in so doing threatens to undermine the entire effort.
In my opinion, the need to succeed in Iraq from the "bottom up" is the fundamental reason why schemes which emphasize a rapid withdrawal of US forces and a reliance on high-level diplomatic solutions or UN involvement are likely to fail. Strategies which principally rely on convening Iraq's neighbors as guarantors to internal stability in Iraq; which principally utilize diplomats and consist of frameworks of agreements, aid and training packages not only work from the national capital downwards but across national boundaries downwards. If O'Hanlon and Pollack are correct, then a top-down approach would focus efforts on the parts of the system that are least susceptible to change. Instead of 'reinforcing success, not failure', a top-down approach would do the exact opposite. It would reinforce the most failed parts of the system while a rapid withdrawal would undermine the parts of the system that worked.
Inevitably the Brookings trip report concludes that it might be best to knock the props from underneath the politicians in Baghdad after giving them enough rope to hang themselves. They cite evidence that the Shi'ite militias are wearing out their welcome as surely as al-Qaeda wore out theirs. US forces have learned how to tap into this disillusionment and turn it to their advantage.
In addition, a few towns and neighborhoods in Baghdad are reportedly tiring of JAM in a fashion similar to what happened with the Sunnis of al-Anbar and AQI. JAM (or elements of it) can also be a fundamentalist-leaning organization that attempts to impose a harsh brand of shari’a law on the neighborhoods it controls, and also like AQI is largely made up of angry, dispossed, and unemployed young men, who create trouble wherever they are. Both of these features have apparently soured at least some Shi’i neighborhoods on JAM. JAM focuses its resourceson the “frontline” neighborhoods, making sure that those leaning in JAM’s direction or who just joined the fold receive electricity, sanitation services, medical care, food, and other basic services. They appear to do so, at least to some extent, at the expense of other neighborhoods which they consider more unequivocally in their camp. The result, according to U.S. and Iraqi military personnel is that some of these neighborhoods are beginning to put out feelers to the Coalition.
And having tilled the soil at the grassroots and harnessed the disillusion with the politicians, the way would be open to projecting the political power of these new institutions into the capital. Two things would be necessary to accomplish this: a change in the voting system and new elections.
The current Iraqi electoral system is a disaster. Proportional representation is particularly wrong for Iraq because it excessively rewards party loyalty, virtually eliminates the responsiveness of parliamentarians to their constituencies, empowers fringe movements, and leads to badly fragmented parliaments that can only create weak coalitions. For this reason alone, new national elections with a new electoral system would be highly desirable because they almost certainly would return a very different cast of characters ... and who might very well have much greater incentive to make the compromises ...
The weakness and defections from the Maliki government could create the perfect opportunity to press him to call for new elections (especially, if as seems likely, the Iraqi government is unable to do much on the Congressionally mandated benchmarks). The United States could very plausibly point out that he now lacks a ruling coalition and the current parliament is unlikely to furnish him or anyone else with one, circumstances which demand new elections. The threat of new elections might be sufficient to galvanize this group to start cutting deals.
Having completed the tour of the report one can return to the question posed in the opening paragraph. What will happen next? How it will all end? From the trip report it seems to depend principally on whether the positive forces in Iraq can be safeguarded against the undefeated negative tendencies. Unless the positive trends can be put on an unshakeable footing, sectarian tendencies, like a fire that has been partly suppressed but is still smoldering beneath the floorboards, will simply flare up again.
If sectarian conditions remain as they are, we risk losing the gains made so far. For instance, if sectarian conflict heats up again, Sunni tribal shaykhs might once again find it necessary to make amends with al-Qa’ida and other Salafi groups because they will want ruthless allies against JAM and the Iranians. Ethnic/sectarian cleansing would likely resume in mixed neighborhoods if Washington tried to draw down American forces. Shi’ah-dominated security forces will probably overlook militia violence on the streets and could actively aid it. Sunnis may be tempted to try to retake the country, or at least strategic chunks of it, if they think they can. Perhaps such violence can be controlled. But it could also lead to mass sectarian violence, and in a worst case Iraq could splinter or the conflict there could spark regional conflict. ...
Success is not guaranteed, and some measure of failure is still quite possible if not likely. Consequently, the United States government should be examining fallback options—“Plan Bs”—for Iraq in the event that the current progress falters and Iraq resumes its slide into all-out civil war. It is equally important to explore how the United States might fall back from the current strategy in more limited ways, for example allowing ethnic consolidation and displacement in some zones that are hard to preserve in their current multiethnic form while preventing that process from escalating. Unfortunately, such alternatives are hard to devise and harder to implement. But hard as they are, they are necessary given the seriousness of the situation in Iraq and notwithstanding the early, important progress made so far.