Monday, January 31, 2005

Iraqi Elections: What Comes Next?

With the election returns in Iraq sent to the counting house, it is time to speculate about what the outcome might mean. Certainly, the Administration’s Pollyanna assertion that that the election heralds a new day for Iraq is puerile, as is today’s propaganda from Allawi’s Administration that American troops will be able to pull out in 18 months.

Elections don’t make a democracy. Iraqi factions participated in this election, to the extent that they did, because 17 billion a year in patronage is up for grabs with control of the Iraqi parliament. Also, the framing of the new Iraqi Constitution will be in the hands of the parliament. Those two incentives are too rich to pass up, but that doesn’t mean that the road to a stable or peaceful Iraq is straight and clear.

The problems that Iraq face are grave and will only reveal themselves over time. Those problems include the continuing violent insurrection of Sunnis in the heart of Iraq, which is only going to be accelerated by their electoral disenfranchisement in today’s vote. Turnout in Sunni areas will prove to have been radically lower than the strong turnout in Kurdish and Shiite areas. The Sunni city of Samarra had only 1400 votes cast out of a population of 200,000. Tikriti polling stations were deserted. As Iraq’s future is determined without Sunni interests strongly represented, the resistance will become a separatist movement. The political dynamic this election has set up will exacerbate the factional centripetal forces already tearing Iraq apart. In creating the conditions for a ‘withdrawal with honor’, the Bush Administration has also set the stage for civil war. The Shiites will come ever more into the orbit of Iran, and the Kurds will alienate everyone by their revanchist insistence on self-rule and control over the Kirkuk oil fields.

The formation of a civil society in Iraq able to negotiate a long-term compromise on which to build a new Iraqi state never had a chance to get rolling. The Bush Administration has bred corruption and dependence into the bones of the occupation government. The use of oil revenues, foreign aid, and reconstruction funds has been shielded behind a wall of unaccountability. Bush murdered the habit of honest and effective administration in the cradle when he called off early provincial elections. He has left the settlement of equitable oil revenue sharing and distribution unsettled like a multi-billion dollar football loose in the middle of a scrimmage. Iraqi democracy, having had just one election in the midst of a low-intensity war, lacks the maturity and respect for the rule of law to make the struggle to control that ball anything other than a melee without any rules or standards. Throw into this mix a likely long-term American military presence and a diplomatic mission bent on controlling Iraqi policy with largess, and this is a recipe for political chaos and rampant corruption.

I have little doubt that regardless of conditions in Iraq, Bush will very soon begin to feel serious pressure to withdraw at least some troops from Iraq. The Administration will of course characterize this as a product of a successful transition of primary security responsibilities to the Iraqi government. Nothing will be further from the truth, however.

The violence and conflict will certainly continue, or even intensify, but the Administration will simply attempt to divert the attention of the media and public elsewhere. After all, if American troops aren’t dying, who cares? We will move into an enclave strategy, minimizing the exposure of our forces and pulling out as many personnel as possible. We will only perform standoff and highly asymmetrical combat operations, such as aerial bombing (which we are already deeply engaged in), drone missions, and coordinated air-ground operations against forces the native troops can’t handle. Bush may be able to pull out as many as 100,000 troops in this way. That would leave roughly 50,000 in theatre with an undisclosed (US law does not require it) number of Special Forces (some estimates of current Special Forces deployed in Iraq at over 40,000).

With the casualty rate so reduced, Bush probably thinks he has well into his second term before more substantial reductions are demanded by an increasingly restive American electorate. Sadly, his calculations of the political risks and rewards of an aggressive war in Iraq haven’t been far off thus far and the Iraqi people continue to pay the price for our self-involved complacence and compromise with the war crimes committed in our names.


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