Iraq: Troubles ahead, troubles behind

Okay, so readers might have noticed that I’ve been Iraq focused lately. The reason: I’ve just started major-in-depth-mondo reporting on a story about the war that will, enshallah, keep me plenty busy for the next few months or so. 

Today, just wanted to direct your attention to a new paper from the Washington Insititue (hat tip, Tom Ricks.) Released in advance of Prime Minister Maliki’s visit to DC tomorrow, it lays out the problems ahead for Iraq’s reconciliation, noting that “nearly half of all countries emerging from civil war suffer a relapse within five years.”

It also lists a few countries where reconciliation has been sucessful, and explains what they did to get there.

Successful reconciliation efforts, such as those in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Mozambique, South Africa, and Uruguay, require courageous and visionary leadership, and often involve the following elements:

  • Truth telling, which permits victims to share traumas and perpetrators to acknowledge guilt
  • Redefining social identities by portraying both victims and perpetrators as fellow citizens
  • Partial justice, where victims are compensated and at least some of the perpetrators are punished
  • Public events that promote forgiveness and new beginnings

Most of these aspects, however, are missing from Iraq’s flawed reconciliation process, which encompasses a diverse array of activities involving a broad array of actors — the Iraqi and U.S. governments, nongovernmental and international organizations (NGOs and IOs), and neighboring states. These activities are often based on divergent assumptions about the nature of reconciliation and the means to achieving it.

Reading this paper reminded me of a conversation I had with a very well respected American diplomat, way back in 2005. This diplomat had talked to an Iraqi leader who offered up plea, or a warning: “Don’t Lebanon-ize us.”  Meaning: don’t leave behind a country that is split, politically( and often violently) along ethnosectarian lines.


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6 Responses to Iraq: Troubles ahead, troubles behind

  1. Eileen White Read says:

    Lebanon a good example of the 5-year maxim. Sudan another one. Keep writing about Iraq. Good to have reporters deeply focused on one country. We used to call that “a beat.”

  2. Michael Peck says:

    The Washington Institute paper suffers from flawed analogies. From what I know of Argentina, El Salvador, etc., the conflict was political and ideological. I’m not so sure that ethnic-religious reconciliation will be so easy. South Africa might be an example, but the violence there was nothing like Iraq. Can you imagine Bosnia and Kosovo confederating with Serbia again?

    The other question the paper doesn’t answer is: What is the incentive for reconciliation? One reason for Lebanon being the way it is, is that the political system is designed so that every group gets its share of the pie. Will Iraqi Shia leaders win more support from their people by embracing reconciliation, or by making sure that Shias get a share (maybe the biggest share) of the pie?

    One final thought. Would Lebanonization be so bad for Iraq? It’s not an ideal system, but with the exception of the civil war (which had a lot to do with outside forces), Lebanon seems a better place than most of its Arab neighbors.

    • The problem with the “Lebanonization”of Iraq is oil. All of the oil in Iraq is either in less populated regions of Kurdistan or in the Shia South while the large majority of Iraqis of all communities and almost all Sunni Arabs are to be found in the oil deficient central region around Baghdad (i.e. the “Sunni Triangle”). It is conflicting political interests around the control of oil and government (the two being tightly connected) that is the source of conflicting politics in Iraq. Civil war would just be the violent continuation of those politics. Political division along geographical / ethnosectarian lines would just be the starting signal for that war.

  3. Von Clausewitz correctly notes that “War is the continuation of policy by other means” which applies as much to civil war as any other. The problems of Iraq rests with the politics (or policies in Karl’s terminology) of the conflicting sectors of Iraqi society. The only question is will those conflicting policies be resolved violently (i.e. civil war) or non-violently.

    Democracy and reconciliation are what happen with the realization that your enemies cannot all be killed or enslaved, one is just going to have to live with them. Put a different way, non-violent compromise in government is the result of failed violence.

    Part of the problem in Iraq is that their civil war was put on hold by the United States government. George Bush’s “surge” consisted of buying the Sunni insurgency while alternately intimidating and rewarding the Shia based parties and militias into a temporary silence. Each of these parties still thinks that they can “win” (each with a different vision of what winning means) once the US armed forces get out of their way.

    Lebanon’s fragile peace and democracy happened when the Sunni, Shia, Druze, Palestinian, and various Christian communities realized that could not achieve hegemony and would have to reach some compromise. That has not yet happened in Iraq.

  4. Michael Hastings says:

    Eileen, thanks very much for stopping by. Yes, I’m back on the Iraq beat!

    Michael, good point, if Iraq turns out like Lebanon, you’re right, that’s a country we could live with. I’m also a bit skeptical of the success stories–mainly, I think what’s gone in Iraq is in many ways radically different from what we’ve seen in other post-conflict situations.

    David, thanks for the thoughts. The question, I wonder, is what shape and intensity a round two of the civil war would. In other words, will the level of violence be “manageable” or, make the whole country unravel again.

    • “[W]hat shape and intensity a round two of the civil war would. In other words, will the level of violence be ‘manageable’ or, make the whole country unravel again.”

      It does not seem to me that that sort of detail is knowable in advance. One variable is that over the last several years there has been a process of “ethnic cleansing” where Arabs are being driven out of Kurdish lands, Shia from Sunni neighborhoods, &c which was a source of a lot of the violence seen over the previous years. In pre-war Iraq, there had been many neighborhoods and regions of mixed populations but these are largely gone now which was achieved through violence. The process of ethnic cleansing and is now largely complete so it does not seem likely that the violence associated with that process will be repeated.

      Part of the answer depends on what is meant by “manageable”. I would suspect that at least part of the threshold for what is “manageable” is whether the violence interferes with oil production and export. In the past, oil facilities were frequent targets of violence sort of holding the oil hostage.

      The role of Iran will be critical. Most Shia based forces are aligned with Iran to one degree or another and Iran has a lot more influence then they did in the past. The Shia based militia’s (like Sadr’s) seem to have backed down and will not challenge the Iraqi Army. This may reflect the desire of Iran to minimize intra-Shia violence and perhaps violence in general.

      Al-Qaeda in Iraq will probably have a harder time recruiting foreign fighters now that the US forces are pulling back and George Bush is no longer president. Those were their biggest recruiting tools.

      Someone noted that during last round of violence, there were many small, overlapping civil wars. Perhaps, if violence flairs again, there will be a single civil war, or perhaps two, Sunni vs. Shia and / or Kurd vs. Arab.

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