The debate between Colin Kahl and Brian Katulis (here, here, here and outside commentary here and here and here) has been fascinating and important, and a great response to my calls for serious thinking about strategy rather than tactics in Iraq. Now I'd like to offer my own reflections on the issues in play. I come down much closer to Katulis than Kahl, which isn't surprising since that's where I started. But that doesn't mean that the debate hasn't been extremely productive - if for no other reason than to demonstrate that liberal foreign policy analysts are thinking seriously about Iraq strategy. Kahl lays out his side of the argument better than almost anyone else I've seen, but ultimately I'm not persuaded.
Before getting into the points of disagreement between Kahl and Katulis, it's important to see how much agreement there really is. Their understanding of the situation mirrors my experience at the DACOR conference last month: we all basically agree on where Iraq is heading - a highly decentralized state, without a formal or even semi-formal partition. where governance and security is increasingly devolving to localities. Whether this is “federalism” or a “warlord state” is what is in question; a strong central democratic state rooted in a general consensus on political identity and norms is off the table. Whether we state it or not, we all seem to expect that the formal Iraqi state will likely remain governed by the existing political rules, meaning a monopoly of the major Shia parties supported by a deal to leave the Kurds alone in exchange for their votes. We all agree that the situation in the Shia areas is beyond American control and likely to remain violent, fragmented and unstable. And none of us think that there will be any national level political accomodation. Never mind that the situation just described used to be defined as “failure” – the important issue here now, as Kahl and Katulis agree, is how to respond to this lousy scenario to best protect American (and Iraqi?) interests.
Another point of consensus, though one which doesn't come up as much in the actual debate as it should: none of us expect a serious return of refugees or displaced persons to their old neighborhoods. As I’ve argued repeatedly, and as numerous commenters point out, this is not an incidental point. One of the explanations for the recent reduction of violence is almost certainly that sectarian cleansing has succeeded in so many formerly mixed areas. No plan can succeed if it fails to take into account the bitter, angry, fearful displaced communities - both inside and outside of Iraq's borders. These refugees and internally displaced persons contitute not simply a humanitarian disaster, but also a constituency for radicalism and irredentism which will weigh heavily over all local-level politics or future democratic elections. The narratives and symbolic politics carried by these communities, to say nothing of their sheer numbers and material interests, are likely to have a powerful impact on any future Iraq. I suspect that few of them are going to easily reconcile to a "local-level dominant" Iraq in which they are permanent outsiders and have little hope of gaining satisfaction at the national level.
The biggest point of disagreement is whether local-level deals can be self-sustaining in the absence of a national agreement, and the contribution of American military forces to that process. I disagree with Kahl on this major point. Unless the local-level deals are consolidated into a national arrangement, the security gains will easily be blown away like so much tumbleweed when the atmosphere goes sour. Maliki now describes those calling for national reconciliation as conspirators and as selfish politicians making unreasonable demands for their own self-interest. Backers of the bottom-up approach increasingly seem to be accepting this convenient frame, since it justifies ignoring the point of greatest failure. After all those months where Maliki was vilified for refusing to move on national reconciliation, he now finds Americans far more receptive to essentially the same arguments: don't worry about the "failure" of national reconciliation since it isn't important or desirable. And so he is moving ahead without the troublesome Sunni politicians, taking advantage of the space created by a moment of relative security to...further marginalize his Sunni "partners."
Kahl suggests that a
"grand bargain inside the central government that addresses every Sunni
grievance and fully includes them in the national political process" is
neither necessary nor likely. Obviously, I agree that it is not likely. But it really is necessary. Of course the Sunnis won't get everything that they want
- that sets the bar far too high, and most Sunni politicians probably understand this (although many do continue to have a greater sense of their own power and population size than is warranted). Every negotiation involves opening
bids and real bottom lines, and there's no reason to think that this is
any different. Kahl is really saying that among the
variety of things Sunnis demand, their real bottom line is fair sharing
of oil and provincial elections. But I don't see this as a formula for even minimal agreement. Maliki clearly sees no reason to make compromises on oil, and provincial elections are fairly marginal to Sunni demands.
Kahl is right to place the oil issue at the center of any achievable national reconciliation. But while this isn't an issue I follow especially closely, it appears that the oil negotiations are deeply deadlocked. The stakes are huge, and the Shia demands for federalism do not seem particularly sensitive to Sunni interests (look at that inflammatory map which was circulating on the internet a few weeks ago). What's more, there's little reason for the Shia to believe that funneling more oil revenues to the Sunni areas won't simply help finance their military capabilities for the coming civil war. With a wider political settlement, oil revenue sharing creates positively reinforcing incentives. Without that grand bargain, oil revenue sharing could cut either direction - which is one of the reasons that a deal has been so difficult to strike.
As for provincial elections, they matter more to bottom-up reconciliators than they do to most Sunnis. I haven't seen any major demand for them, at any rate, compared to the headline issues like prisoners and amnesty and oil and the rampant sectarianism in state agencies. On the contrary, Sunnis seem deeply opposed to anything resembling a move towards federalism or partition, and would probably feel more threatened than reassured by heavily-promoted provincial elections. There seems to be more interest in change at the national level, actually. Tareq al-Hashemi and other national leaders have called for Maliki to be replaced by a technocratic government, and there seems to be renewed interest in new national (not provincial) elections - both of which, by the way, are also demands made by leading Sadrist figures, by the Allawi list, and by others. It isn't clear that new national elections under the same electoral law would solve any problems (and it's clear that Maliki has no interest in such a move), but that's more on the agenda right now than provincial elections.
The focus on the provincial elections really seems to be driven by the hope of creating what Kahl calls “better local representation (via new provincial elections) and enhanced powers for provincial councils." But I think it's worth calling this what it is: an attempt to empower an alternative, more compliant local-level leadership in the place of the factions which have claimed to represent the Sunnis by virtue of their armed struggle. Certainly, that's how Maliki is treating it (I'm thinking here of the frequent reports that he is trying to get tribal shaykhs from the Awakenings to take the place of elected Sunni politicians in his government). This is not a technocratic question of improving services, it's about power.
The promotion of alternative elites is always a risky business, one which sets up all kinds of problems down the road - think back to various Israeli efforts over the years to promote local leadership in the West Bank and Gaza (or Mohammed Dahlan for that matter), or South African efforts to promote alternatives to the ANC back in the Apartheid era. The current leadership of the various US-aligned councils isn't democratically elected, nor does it particularly want to be. Abundant evidence suggests that the power of these new elites derives largely from American cash. That's not a stable basis for political order. The Salvation Council spokesmen have recently suggested that Anbar deserves and needs billions of dollars in compensation for damage done during the war and reconstruction assistance. In today’s political climate, massive new reconstruction funds for Iraq are unlikely to materialize – which means that in the not-distant future, these leaders are going to face a serious challenge due to their likely failure to deliver a better life.
These US-backed tribal entities challenge the authority of the insurgency factions, who feel that they've earned the right to lead the Sunni community through their armed resistance resistance, and the elected Iraqi politicians. The insurgency factions may be battling al-Qaeda and at times tactically cooperating with the US, but that doesn't mean that they have foregone an interest in power. Quite the contrary, at least judging by their own political statements and rhetoric. They believe that they are the authentic, legitimate representatives of the Sunni community – earned by force of arms and by their roots in that community. Relations with the United States remain deeply controversial, which makes the standing of alternative elites whose claim to power rests on their ties to the US somewhat tenuous. The steady campaign of assassinations of Salvation Council members, of which Abu Risha was only the most prominent, can’t be definitively attributed to al-Qaeda (even if they are happy to take credit, as always): there are many Sunnis able and keen to resist the attempt to establish a new elite which is not them.
The fragmentation of the communities at the local level simultaneously makes a national bargain more important and less likely. For a deal to stick, it needs to be negotiated with interlocutors capable of delivering on the bargain. In that regard, it's interesting that there has been some consolidation taking place, slowly and haphazardly, in the ranks of the insurgency factions which remain outside the process. The Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance, the latest move by the Reform and Jihad Front and others, is aimed at creating a political front capable of negotiating with the Americans on the terms of their withdrawal (it was reportedly welcomed by Tareq al-Hashemi in a statement dated October 21). It is somewhat heartening that this grouping is evidently being recognized and courted behind the scenes by Americans (at the secretive Dead Sea reconciliation track 2 meeting, for instance). But it isn't clear that those talks are going anywhere, and even if they do this isn't going to be easily integrated with the currently evolving power structure.
What about the original “bottom-up reconciliation” argument, that the integration of Sunnis into the police forces and military will give them a stake in the central government while preventing the emergence of militias. The Washington Post's recent reporting casts serious doubt that this is happening. The Post reports that "about 37,000 are being paid about $300 a month through contracts funded by the U.S.-led military coalition." They are paid by Petraeus and owe loyalty to him, not to Maliki - hardly support for national institutions. As for the idea that the volunteer forces are being integrated into the institutions of the state: “Only about 1,600 of the volunteers have been trained and sworn in to the Iraqi security forces, primarily with the police.” That’s the number which matters in terms of linking up the local forces to the national level (and avoiding the militia problem) – and in those terms, 1600 might as well be 0.
The last four years have left me deeply skeptical of any argument which requires either a high degree of sophisticated American micromanagement or a large number of things which have to go right. Kahl advocates a version of Stephen Biddle's notion of manipulating the sectarian balance of power: “Sunnis must have enough capabilities to defend their local interests, but not enough to take-over the government.” But think about the degree of precision necessary here – in an environment where we hardly seem to know where the guns are going or who our allies are. I am skeptical about the applicability of offensive- defensive distinctions ("The creation of viable local security forces with *defensive* capabilities) - any weapon that you can use to fight against al-Qaeda can also be used against a Shia militia (or family). I don't see how this alleviates the sectarian security dilemma. The only thing which would do that would be the tight integration of military capability into an institutionalized, centralized security force - the whole "monopoly on the legitimate use of violence" thing which goes into being a state. Finally, US power is a wasting asset – everyone knows the US is running out of time and patience and that US forces will soon be drawn down, whether by Bush or by his successor. Everyone is gaming that reality, taking what they want from Americans while ignoring American demands or advice.
Where does this leave us? Kahl argues that as long as there is a chance greater than zero that the current American approach can salvage something from the wreckage of Iraq, then the stakes dictate that we try. I disagree with Kahl’s framing of the choice on two grounds. First, I disagree that the "strategic reset" alternative holds out no hope of success. Kahl fails to grapple with the moral hazard problem which the United States has created, where Iraqi politicians are shielded from the negative consequences of their risky decisions. As long as Americans provide his security, Maliki simply has no reason to make political concessions to people who he sees as political conspirators and sectarian troublemakers. As long as Americans protect their interests, the Kurdish parties see no reason to move away from their unconditional support for Maliki's government. Finally, many of the Sunni insurgency factions described above have repeatedly and publicly stated that their participation in the political process is contingent upon an American commitment to withdrawal from Iraq. An impending American withdrawal will change those calculations in fundamental ways, giving the Shia and the Kurds reason to make more serious concessions and the Sunni groups the political cover they need to strike the deal.
Second, Kahl suggests that if we think the chance of success is low but not zero, the stakes dictate that we give it a shot. But that really depends on how close to zero it is, right? If it’s 2%, then that would be an absolutely insane gamble. If it’s 48%, then maybe. But Kahl presents it as unlikely, as low probability, as very difficult – suggesting he’s closer to 2% than 48%. In my opinion, saying that the current tactical approach has a, let’s say 4%, chance of leading to strategic success is functionally equivalent to saying that it has no chance. If the probability is really that low, then supporting this policy seems literally insane. Since Kahl is not insane, I have to assume that he thinks the prospects for success (as he's defined it) is considerably higher than he intimates. So how high is it? What are the grounds for that assessment?
Thanks to all who have participated in this debate. I'm expecting one more contribution from Katulis, hopefully, and then I'll write up some brief concluding remarks and then collect the contributions into an easily downloadable PDF file for those who might want such a document.