Colin Kahl, an assistant professor at Georgetown and one of the sharpest Iraq analysts I know, sent in the following comment on Maliki and the prospects for national reconciliation - pushing forward exactly the kind of debate we should be having, even if (as you'll see) he disagrees with me on key points. Consider this a guest post. My comments will follow later today:
*** begin guest post ***
Iraq is moving in the direction of a highly decentralized state. It will not be a neat three-way division as soft partition proponents envision. Rather, "all politics is becoming local," in the sense of some relatively homogenous provinces, and others with pockets of homogenous and mixed communities, all attempting to provide for their own security and governance. In this emerging context, I don't think that the emergence of a stable security equilibrium in Iraq necessarily involves some huge grand bargain inside the central government that addresses every Sunni grievance and fully includes them in the national political process. That was the old notion of national reconciliation -- and, as your recent commentary on Maliki points out, it is not likely to materialize anytime soon. A minimalist notion of national accommodation, in contrast, would focus on two and only two political compromises at the center: an oil deal and provincial powers/elections. In conjunction with bottom-up security mobilization and efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army, this could *potentially* lead to a stable equilibrium in the following ways:
1. Fair oil revenue distribution may make Sunni areas economically viable, reducing incentives for them to seize the central government (and, because of this, hopefully reducing Shia fears that they will try).
2. Better local representation (via new provincial elections) and enhanced powers for provincial councils may help ensure that local Sunni elites have economic and political security, patronage resources, etc. -- again reducing their incentives to attack the center.
3. The creation of viable local security forces with *defensive* capabilities (as opposed to heavy weapons that provide them with the offensive capacity to topple the government) may reduce the fear Sunnis have of being exterminated (thereby reducing their incentives to engage in violence) while deterring Shia offensive actions. In other words, if the system is defense-dominant, it helps alleviate the sectarian security dilemma.
4. The notional integration of local security forces into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) (in the sense of transparency regarding group membership and an arrangement whereby local security forces receive their funding from the central government instead of us) may create disincentives for Sunni groups to attack the center and create a sense among the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that they have oversight and leverage over these groups, eventually reducing their own fears.
5. Continued efforts to forge a relatively neutral, professional Iraqi Army may create a force that is capable of policing the sectarian seams as we cut ourselves out of the population security loop.
This could work *in theory* -- although the probabilities are difficult to assess and are probably not particularly high. But the probability of a stable equilibrium if we leave now and cut off support for the ISF (e.g., recent suggestions from the Center for American Progress) before we pull off this delicate balancing act is certainly *much* lower. As the two 2007 NIEs on Iraq concluded, a rapid decline in American support would most likely splinter the ISF along sectarian lines and worsen the sectarian bloodshed.
I also don't buy the fact, as some have asserted, that in taking steps to help organize local security forces, we are necessarily making the civil war *worse* through these efforts. It is conceivable that we are, because we are helping to fund and recruit Sunni groups, but many were *already* organized (e.g., former insurgents that have now joined "concerned local citizens" groups), those that weren't could organize without us (and likely would if they were left to fend for themselves in the face of a possible Shia onslaught), and these groups could probably get money and weapons elsewhere (e.g., from Saudi Arabia, through criminal activities, etc.).
Finally, if our *only* goal is to end the civil war and one judged that our actions are, at best, only delaying the inevitable here and have no prospect for creating a stable equilibrium, then maybe we should stand aside, let nature run its course, and let the conflict "burn itself out." But ending the civil war is not our only interest. It matters to our interests very much *how* the civil war is ended. We want to avoid genocide if possible (so allowing the conflict to "burn itself out" is not a good idea -- since the mechanism for this happening could be the slaughter of many tens of thousands of people), we want to degrade al Qaeda in Iraq (so leaving the Sunnis on their own is a bad idea because it re-incentivizes them to make common cause with AQI against the Shia), and we want to maintain some influence in Iraq to limit Iranian gains and prevent a wider regional conflict (which argues for having some presence *inside* Iraq).
*** End Guest Post ***
UPDATE: since he's too polite to link it himself in his comment below, let me point out Eric Martin's thoughtful response to Kahl's guest post. Snippet:
For my money (counted in dinar), finding a formula for the equitable distribution of oil revenue is the grandest bargain that the central government would make pursuant to the maximalist notion of national reconciliation. Knocking that one out - while also integrating Sunni militias into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and forging a secular, professional Iraqi Army (Kahl's other two prerequisites for equilibrium) - would satisfy the most important components of the full-throated version of that elusive national reconciliation. So, yeah, if the Iraqis can hammer those deals out, then there might be some form of equilibrium established without an accommodation made for all Sunni grievances.
Easier said than done of course, which Kahl himself concedes, admitting that "the probabilities are difficult to assess and are probably not particularly high." There are many reasons why those probabilities are so low (I would put them in the single digits). One important reason is that Kahl's model suffers from a serious structural flaw, namely that these accords will have to be implemented by the national government despite the fact that the Sunnis will not be "fully include[d]...in the national political process."
Other responses coming soon, I believe.