Here is a very long guest post about the situation in Iraq. Most be will below the fold:
What is Going on in Iraq- Adam L. Silverman, PhD*
John asked yesterday “what is going on in Iraq?” After communicating with him offline, he asked if I would do a guest post with my answer. What we are seeing in Iraq is that the Iraqis are reorganizing, or attempting to reorganize, themselves. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al Qaeda affiliate in the Levant, which is fighting against the Iraqi government and the Shi’a, is basically capitalizing on Sunni discontent and disenfranchisement. This looks like, and at one level is, settling scores. It is true that the Sunnis are outnumbered and I have had conversations with informed observers who argue the Iraqi Sunnis know they cannot win, unfortunately no one seems to have told the Iraqi Sunnis that!
Iraqi Sunnis have been telling us, explicitly, since as far back as 2007 when we started partnering with the Anbar Awakenings guys that as soon as they had a chance – read as soon as we were gone and conditions were right – they were going to go after the Shi’a. They are specifically and especially interested in going after the expatriate Shi’a that we had empowered and put in charge: Maliki and his Dawa Party and the Hakim’s and their ISCI Party and its Badr Corps militia. The Sadrists are not too high on their list of favorites either. By not actually listening, and by listening I mean hearing what they said and observing their behavior in order to get a fuller understanding of their messaging, we have helped to make this worse.
First we seem to have, as policy and strategy, defaulted to and decided that democracy was really just voting and that majority rule was great, so what if it created majoritarianism. We compounded our problems from not actually understanding the message from the Awakenings and Sons of Iraq folks, by empowering the expatriate Shi’a. These Shi’a, PM Maliki and his Dawa Party and Ayutalluh Uzma Hakim and his ISCI Party and Badr Corps, where established in Iran as opposition to Saddam Hussein and are still closely tied to Iran. An important secondary effect that we do not like to think about is that when we brought the Badr Corps personnel into the Iraqi Army we were rebuilding, we did not let their ties to Iran stop us from including them. And I cannot emphasize enough about distrust of Iran among both Sunni and Shi’a Iraqis. Iran is like the black helicopter idea for Iraqis! During my first in depth interview with a Shi’a sheikh who was also an Imam, he told me that the Dawa and ISCI folks were not really Iraqis and that they were not even really Muslims, let alone Shi’a. He told me they were Zoroastrians – adherents to the ancient Persian monotheistic religion. I heard variations of this over and over again from Iraqi elites and notables, and not so elites and notables, who could not have coordinated their messages to me.
Another self-inflicted wound was how we handled the Sons of Iraq handoff in 2008 when the Maliki government decided it was going to take over administration of the program from Coalition Forces. I was in regular contact with a number of the most influential Sons of Iraq and Awakening leaders in my brigades Operational Environment (OE) as part of my cultural engagement work for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division as a lot of these leaders were also the tribal, community, and/or religious leaders in the OE. No one was happy with how they were being treated, and this went beyond the usual complaining about losing control and prestige, let alone money, in the handoff. Rather, this was an honor and pride issue. I listened to an influential local Shi’a leader, who had joined the Awakenings movement assert that the Maliki government was going to turn his Sons of Iraq personnel into walid shab chai (the boy that brings the tea). It is the Iraqi’s country, and their government made a legitimate request, but we had ample reason to recognize that PM Maliki’s government was planning on targeting the Awakenings and Sons of Iraq, which should have influenced how we did the handover. At the time that we turned over administration, PM Maliki was already rolling up Awakenings and Sons of Iraq leaders in Wassit and Diyala Provinces in advance of the 2009 provincial elections in order to neutralize opposition and coup proof himself. In the most recent national elections he did the same thing with members of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya List. He was able to arrest or force into hiding enough Iraqiyya List members to reduce Allawi’s plurality and overturn its constitutional right to attempt to form a governing coalition.**
The Iraqis rolled us in the 2008 Status of Forces negotiations and the deliberations on establishing the provincial and then national election processes. Once they realized they could run out the clock on us, they did. As a result we are no longer there to play referee and other events have diverted our attention. That is why now is a good time to settle scores. Syria is stuck in a Civil War, which provided the Levantine al Qaeda affiliate a way back into Iraq. They have capitalized on the dashed hopes and angers of a lot of Iraqis and scores are now being settled. Some of this is just vengeance, but some of it is also the process of state and societal formation, regardless of whether we like the potential outcome of that process. For all that we do not like to think about these things, state and societal formation, or reformation, is usually violent. It is often serially violent as well. There will be periods of violence – challenges to the established order or by the order to consolidate power, as well as to determine who gets to be included within society and who is to be partially or fully excluded. These periods will be interspersed with periods of calm. It is not, however, a quick or even easy process. The US has gone through this, though we like to ignore or forget it unless we have no other choice. For everyone who knows Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion and the War of the Rebellion (now doing business as the Civil War) there have been well over a hundred smaller and localized rebellions, violent challenges to state and society, etc.
State and societal formation and consolidation is a long process. It is often ugly and violent and it is what we are witnessing in Iraq. Right now the Iraqis are working out just who gets to be considered an Iraqi, as well as who gets to be in control and how state and society are going to be organized. And when this wave passes, eventually there will be another one. Expectations will have been raised, but whoever emerges will not be able to meet them, until one day they finally are able to do so and things will settle down. We have been watching this in Egypt for almost three years now.
And this does not even account for what the Kurds may do. I fully expect the Kurds to declare independence as soon as they think everyone is sufficiently diverted with the Sunni versus Shi’a Arab violence in Iraq, the Civil War in Syria, and other events in the region that they can create a fait accompli on the ground. Given that Turkey’s governing party is increasingly divided and internally conflicted, the time may be ripe for independence from a Kurdish perspective.
* Adam L. Silverman is the Cultural Advisor at the US Army War College. He served in Iraq in 2008 as the Cultural Advisor to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division as the Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 Field Social Scientist and Team Lead. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College and/or the US Army.
** For full disclosure: I know two of the Iraqiyya List members that PM Maliki targeted to flip the elections. One was the acting mayor of Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The other is a retired Iraqi Army brigadier general who helped to form the Awakening movement and Sons of Iraq in our Operating Environment. Both of them, as is the case with most Iraqis, come from mixed kinship and tribal affiliations. They were Shi’a and Sunni respectively, but both had close familial relatives, as well as extended tribal kin in other parts of Iraq that were from the other sect. The real fight in Iraq, while now galvanized around Sunni versus Shi’a, has always been about resources and who gets to control. The extremists utilize sectarian religious differences to capitalize on these resource disputes and turn them into an existential religious fight.