Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Nail in the Terrorist Coffin: the Importance of Achieving National Reconciliation in Iraq

Shica and Sunna
 pray in Musa al-Kadhim Mosque
As social, political and economic conditions continue to deteriorate throughout the Middle East, the need for national reconciliation is ever more apparent.  While much attention has been paid to the civil strife engulfing the MENA region, and the military requirements to defeat terrorist groups, especially the so-called Islamic State (Da’ish), much less has been given to solving the problems underlying this violence.

Perhaps in no other country of the Middle East has the issue of national reconciliation (Arabic: al-musaliha al-wataniya; Kurdish: asht boonaway nishtimani) been so central to the national political discourse as in Iraq.  A true policy of national reconciliation would constitute an important nail in the terrorist coffin. Offering all Iraq's religious sects and ethniocities a place in the political system  would be a sure bet to promote stability and undercut the allure of terrorist groups.

Why, then, has national reconciliation been so elusive in Iraq when virtually all analysts - Arab, Kurdish and Western – realize that it constitutes the key to ending sectarian-based violence and bringing political stability to the country?
Bomb blast kills 66 in Baghdad - the cost of lack of national reconciliation
Part 1 of this post analyzes the factors which have prevented national reconciliation from playing a key role in Iraq’s national politics.  It also examines why national reconciliation may become a more salient issue given the current financial crisis and military campaign currently engulfing the Iraqi state as it struggles to reclaim land from the so-called Islamic State. 

Part 2 (to follow) will analyze the elements which are needed to jump start the process of developing a national reconciliation strategy in Iraq.  This post will not only examine possible changes in the future dynamics of Iraqi politics but suggest elements of a national reconciliation policy which might actually lead to meaningful political change.

To begin, why has there been no serious effort at national reconciliation?  The answer which is often given is the lack of trust among the politicians who comprise Iraq’s admittedly dysfunctional political elite.  That lack of trust, it is argued, is ingrained in Iraqi political culture as a result of 35 years of Bacth Party rule (1968-2003).
The logic of this argument implies that considerable time must past before the different sects and ethnic groups, which comprise the factions of Iraq’s political class, can come together and settle their differences.  What this argument accomplishes is to take politicians “off the hook,” namely it provides an excuse as to why they don’t need to address this critical issue.  National reconciliation is not on the agenda because everyone must wait many years, if not generations, until the trust required to implement it is established.

Barzani meets Saddam in Baghdad
This argument belies the cynicism and instrumental mentality which characterize Iraq’s political elite, both Arab and Kurdish.  The “trust” argument is highly specious as a few recent historical examples make clear.  During the Kurdish civil war of 1994-1997, there was no lack of trust between Arabs and Kurds when Masoud Barzani , the current president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), asked Saddam Husayn to send his tanks to Arbil in  August,1996.

Fearing that his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and its Pesh Merga militia would be defeated by the Pesh forces of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the Kurdish Civil War, Barzani had no compunction in calling Saddam to come his rescue.  A result of Saddam's sending Republican Guard units to defend the KDP was the capture and execution of 700 PUK pesh merga and over 200 members of the opposition to the Bacthist regime and the arrest of 2500 more.

Barzani meeting Saddam's intelligence chief in Arbil, Aug 1996
The rescue of the KDP in 1996 was by the same Saddam Husayn who had used the so-called 1986-1989 Anfal campaign to eradicate 4500 Kurdish and 31 Assyrian villages in northern Iraq, killing thousands of Kurdish males between the ages of 15 and 55, and who bombed the Kurdish city of Hallabja in 1988 with chemical weapons, killing an estimated 5 000 of the city’s inhabitants.
Saddam 's Republican Guards in front of Kurdish parliament, 1996
Nor did Saddam and Masoud demonstrate any lack of trust during the period of the severe UN sanctions regime which was imposed after the 1991 Gulf War as both worked together to smuggle oil out of Iraq in contravention of the sanctions.  In these two instances, power and financial incentives clearly trumped ethnic distrust.
Victims of Halabja, Mar 1988

In explaining why there has been no national reconciliation in Iraq – more than 13 years after the toppling of Saddam – a much more cogent argument is not that politicians don’t trust one another.  Rather the key driver or independent variable is the desire of political elites to accumulate power and wealth.

The lack of trust is not what prevents the Iraqi political class from coming to terms with national reconciliation.  While Nuri al-Maliki was prime minister, from 2006 t0 2014, he was often asked about national reconciliation and why it wasn’t a policy priority.  He consistently replied that what Iraq needed was the “rule of law” (siyadat al-qanun), not national reconciliation.  In other words, in his view national reconciliation was unimportant.  What Iraqis really needed was security. Of course, while Maliki was prime minister, Iraq neither achieved the rule of law nor national reconciliation.

Almost the entire Iraqi political elite is focused on narrow political goals related their own self-interest.  Of course, self-interest is a core motivation of all politicians. However, we can cite the exceptions of morally motivated actors such as Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandala and the Dali Lama, just to offer a few prominent examples. 

But all politicians, if they are not to bring devastation and destruction to their respective nation-states, and are to maintain at least a modicum of legitimacy in the eyes of their constituents, must incorporate some civic virtue into their political behavior.  In other words, they must at least give lip service to civic virtue and engage in a limited number of acts which they can point to as indicating a larger commitment to their community.

In Iraq, there is a core contradiction between two centrifugal forces, which have produced both a cooperative sum and zero sum game simultaneously.  On the one hand, the political class wants to control Iraq’s core asset, namely its oil wealth.  This interest encourages the main Shici Arab and Kurdish political elites to strive to maintain cooperative relations in an effort to work out a mutually advantageous agreement on the production and distribution of oil and the wealth from its sale in the world market.

On the other hand, the two elites which have dominated post-2003 Iraqi politics, the main Arab Shica parties – the Dacwa Party, the Iraqi National Alliance and the Sadrists - and the two dominant Kurdish parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - are most concerned to control their own respective spheres of influence which are territorially based.  

For the Shici political elite, this area encompasses Baghdad, south central and southern Iraq, while for the Kurdish political elite, it includes the 3 Kurdish majority provinces which comprise the KRG.
The tension between an instrumental support for federalism and a desire to retreat into a “political comfort zone” produces an emphasis on vertical sociopolitical identities and an extreme aversion to horizontal identities.  This explains why political elites are so hostile to civil society organizations, youth groups, women’s organizations, professional associations and labor unions, all of which seek to transcend ethno-sectarian boundaries. 
It also explains why the Iraqi political elite's desire to maximize power and wealth through the exploitation of sectarian identities produces an inherently authoritarian politics.  Sectarian entrepreneurship is incompatible with values of tolerance, political pluralism, and cultural diversity, let alone expansive political participation

As the struggle of power between Arab and Kurdish elites has intensified, each wing of Iraq’s political elite has decided to up the political ante.  Here the cooperative sum game, based primarily on mutually benefiting from oil wealth, competes with a zero-sum game where for one faction to win, the other must lose. This move was primarily motivated by the inability of each elite to cover the massive corruption required to keep their “political machines” functional. 

The seizure of Mosul in 2014 raised the costs of military intervention against Da’ish for both elites, but especially the Kurds who faced a frontal attack on Arbil in July 2014,  The fierce attack was only thwarted through intensive US air strikes.  The drop in oil prices has further undermined the ability of either political elite to sustain the massive corruption upon which it depends to retain the allegiance of countless minions and to purchase the loyalty of its supporters. Indeed, when I was last in Iraq, I was told that as much as 80% of the national budget goes to the support corruption.

In Arab Iraq, but especially in the KRG, the displacement of large numbers of Syrians and Iraqis has created additional logistical and economic problems.  The KRG’s population has risen by 30% since the Da’ish seized Mosul while its ability to physically accommodate this increased population, and economically support it, has decreased dramatically with the steep drop in the price of oil.

Iraq Army 42nd Infantry Division
Another destabilizing factor in the effort to promote a national reconciliation agenda in Iraq is, ironically, the contraction of the so-called Islamic State which has lost 30% of the territory which it controls in Iraq during the last 9 months.  The recapture of Tikrit and, more recently Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar Province, by Federal Army and Shici militia forces, and the seizure of Sinjar and areas north of Mosul by KRG pesh merga, not only entails costs for caring for the local inhabitants now liberated from the Da’ish, but involves the enormous task reintegrating areas inhabited by large numbers of Sunni Muslims into the Iraqi political system and rebuilding their destroyed communities.

In the short term, the key question raised by the liberation of areas formerly held by the Da'ish in northwestern Iraq is rebuilding and caring for displaced persons.  In the long term, the critical question which must be answered is who will rule the liberated areas.  Will it be Sunni Arab residents, and residents of other ethnic groups, through their locally elected representatives, or will forces from outside these regions, seek to remain in control.

In summary, the effort to avoid implementing national reconciliation policies represents a threat to both wings of the Iraqi political elite, (Shici) Arab and Kurdish.  Their interest is not in promoting  national reconciliation but in maintaining asnd institutionalizing an “ethno-sectarian equilibrium.” However, the conquest of Sunni Arab areas creates tensions because Kurdish forces have attempted to claim parts of these areas to be integrated into the KRG (the so-called “disputed areas”).

At the same time, the collapse of oil prices, and the consequent reduced access to large sums of money to “grease the wheels” of the massive patronage systems in Baghdad and Arbil, has presented who Sarah Chayes calls the “thieves of state” with a huge problem.  The promotion of sectarian identities b y the Iraqi political elite in an effort to solidify vertical political identities increasingly faces serious challenges.

Iraqi workers and CSOs demonstrate for better wages and state services
One of these challenges is the exposure of the Arab and Kurdish political elites diverting large sums of money to their respective political machines by ongoing demonstrations in the streets.  These demonstrations,  which began with the lack of electricity during Iraq’s exceptionally hot 2015 summer of 2015, began largely with youth but have broadened to include different civic, professional and women's youth groups and labor unions in both Arab Iraq and in the KRG.  The most prominent demonstrations are held each week in Baghdad's Liberation Square (Sahat al-Tahrir) after the Friday prayer.

Ironically, the seizure of Mosul was not greeted with as much concern as would have been expected by sectarian Shici parties in Baghdad.  For Nuri al-Maliki and his cronies, the absence of Mosul and much of al-Anbar and Ninawa provinces from Iraqi politics meant that Iraq’s Arab Sunni elite was now without a social base and thus had lost much of its power. 

Had the Da’ish not attempted to press its luck with an attack on Arbil, in which KDP Pesh Merga forces performed very poorly and were only rescued by US air attacks, an equilibrium might have become institutionalized, with the Da’ish being allowed to exist by both wings of the Iraqi political elite as long as it kept the threat level low and did not seek to move to the south towards Baghdad or to the northeast towards Arbil and the KRG.

However, the near bankruptcy of the KRG and the refusal of Masoud Barzani to relinquish the presidency of the KRG, despite having exceeded his constitutionally defined term limit, has led for calls for Arab politicians to act as intermediaries among the competing political factions in the KRG, namely the KDP, PUK, the reformist Gorran (Change) Party and the Islamists.  Once again, the issue of trust falls by the wayside, and does not preclude inter-elite cooperation, when serious power or economic interests are at stake.

There are at present a number of incentives to modify, if not eliminate, the “political economy of corruption” in Iraq.  First, a meaningful national reconciliation program would incentivize Iraq’s Sunni Arab community to rejoin the political game and de-incentivize them to turn to the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups to meet their social and economic needs.

Greater cooperation between Iraq’s Shica and Sunni Arab communities would diminish the number of bombings and terrorist attacks in Baghdad and Diyala Province which increased after the Da’ish was defeated and lost the city of Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar Province.  Further, the costs of supplying Iraq’s armed forces would decline as would the power of the Shica militias – the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashid al-Shacbi) - which present a threat to the power of the Baghdad Shica elite.
Kurdish women who suffered from Anfal campaign visit Basra
National reconciliation, to the extent that it created greater trust between Baghdad and the Sunni Arab populations of al-Anbar, Salahidin, Ninawa and Diyala provinces, would lower the economic costs, and associated political transaction costs more broadly, not only of armed conflict but of displaced persons because this number would decline as the military balance of power shifted in favor of the central government.

National reconciliation would thus meet the economic needs of both the Arab and Kurdish wings of Iraq’s political elite by reducing the costs to each in an economy which is experiencing serious downturns which, in turn, threatens new forms of unrest, namely unrest based in economic discontent.
Former PM Nuri al-Maliki
However rational the Iraqi political elite views its behavior in promoting vertical sociopolitical identities, how long can they juggle an economic downturn with such behavior?  Once these identities begin to rupture, and groups with horizontally based interests begin to acquire more power – a natural by-product of the national reconciliation process, the political elite - both Arab and Kurdish - will find its ability to maintain its iron grip of politics ever more difficult.

The ability of the Iraqi political elite to initiate a comprehensive national reconciliation process would sound the death knell for terrorism in Iraq.  Terrorist organizations like Abu Muscab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qacida in the Land of the Two Rivers, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called Islamic State would find little support in Iraq if all political factions, sects and ethnic groups felt that had a seat at the national political table.

How the US and exogenous forces might help promote national reconciliation in Iraq is the topic of my next post

No comments: