Some unsolicited advice for the United Iraqi Alliance

by John Quiggin on January 30, 2005

The Iraqi elections seem to have been about as successful as could have been hoped, and may represent the last real chance to prevent a full-scale civil war. The pre-election analysis suggests that the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite coalition, will get the biggest share of the votes, but probably not an absolute majority. If so, their leaders will face two immediate choices.

The first is what to do about forming a government. The obvious choice is a coalition with Allawi. Given the power of incumbency and the fact that there was no real campaign in many areas, his group is bound to get a fair number of votes, even though it’s clearly unpopular. There’s even talk that he could re-emerge as PM

The second choice is what to do about the Americans[1]. Until a couple of days ago, the UAI platform called for a timetable for US withdrawal, but this was apparently changed at the last minute Meanwhile the Pentagon has been talking about continuing full-scale occupation for at least two years. In view of the security situation and the obvious pressure from the Bush administration, the obvious course of action is to defer any talk of withdrawal to the indefinite future.

In my view, the obvious choices would be disastrous in both cases, and for much the same reason. Holding elections is great, but the point of democracy is that they should make a difference and that governments should act in accordance with the wishes of voters. If the election leaves Allawi in office (even as a coalition partner) and the Americans in charge, it will be soon come to be seen as a pointless farce. And unless the government makes early US withdrawal a central demand, it will inevitably end up being seen, at best as a client and at worst a creature, of the Americans. The Sunnis won’t be slow to point this out, and neither will the Sadrists, who have played a cautious game that has given them some representation in the new assembly while maintaining a public boycott of the election.

Of course, there are good reasons to be fearful about the consequences of a US withdrawal. But this is the same kind of reasoning that led to the elections being delayed until now, when they could have been held under far more favorable conditions a year ago. What reason is there to believe that another two years of occupation will leave Iraq more capable of managing its own security? And if the Iraqi government doesn’t grasp the nettle itself, there’s always the risk that the Americans will make a unilateral decision to cut and run at the worst possible moment.

fn1. Officially of course, it’s the multinational coalition. But with Poland and the Ukraine about to withdraw, and Blair talking about an indicative timetable for withdrawal, there’s not much left of this figleaf.

{ 16 comments }

1

Guy 01.30.05 at 9:14 pm

John,

I’m not convinced by your argument in the following paragraph:

Of course, there are good reasons to be fearful about the consequences of a US withdrawal. But this is the same kind of reasoning that led to the elections being delayed until now, when they could have been held under far more favorable conditions a year ago. What reason is there to believe that another two years of occupation will leave Iraq more capable of managing its own security?

The reasoning given for delaying elections (rather than doing them now) was that it would be better to improve on the flaws of the current election rather than an imperfect one. The reasoning given for delaying a US withdrawal (rather than an immediate one) is that it will be better to have a real Iraqi security force in a few years rather than leaving the Iraqi state virtually defenseless against a Ba’ath coup. (It’d be great if you addressed this Juan Cole piece, by the way.)

In other words, I think the benefit/cost ledger on the “delaying elections” vs. “delaying withdrawal” ends up in very different places.

2

abb1 01.30.05 at 9:14 pm

Of course, there are good reasons to be fearful about the consequences of a US withdrawal.

What are these good reasons?

3

Brendan 01.30.05 at 9:37 pm

With Iraq shattering and breaking, there is a real threat that if the United States stays for another two years, there will be no ‘Iraq’ to leave from.

In any case, the real significance of the Afghanistan election was missed by almost everyone…and it is a grim precedent for Iraq. In Afghanistan the elections were held a President was elected….BUT THE AMERICANS DIDN’T LEAVE. Nor did they even talk about leaving.

There is a staggering lack of imagination in the pro-war side, such that their blogs will one day be rich pickings for sociologists and psychologists studying the psychology of self-delusion. The fact is that even now they are talking about the Americans leaving ‘in a few years’ or ‘in ten years’ or something. But if the Americans and British do not begin to leave sooon (and by soon i mean in the next few weeks) why should they ever leave? This is the best chance they will ever get. The fact that if the Coalition do not leave the balance of probabilities must be that the Coalition are planning a PERMANENT occupation (as in the dictionary definition of that word, meaning, forever, until the end of time) and that, therefore the insurgency will get worse and worse as more and more Iraqis join it in the years and decades ahead.

What is also clear is that, if the Coalition stay, Iraq will explode. And it is likely to explode outwards.

4

Brendan 01.30.05 at 9:39 pm

With Iraq shattering and breaking, there is a real threat that if the United States stays for another two years, there will be no ‘Iraq’ to leave from.

In any case, the real significance of the Afghanistan election was missed by almost everyone…and it is a grim precedent for Iraq. In Afghanistan the elections were held a President was elected….BUT THE AMERICANS DIDN’T LEAVE. Nor did they even talk about leaving.

There is a staggering lack of imagination in the pro-war side, such that their blogs will one day be rich pickings for sociologists and psychologists studying the psychology of self-delusion. The fact is that even now they are talking about the Americans leaving ‘in a few years’ or ‘in ten years’ or something. But if the Americans and British do not begin to leave sooon (and by soon i mean in the next few weeks) why should they ever leave? This is the best chance they will ever get. The fact that if the Coalition do not leave the balance of probabilities must be that the Coalition are planning a PERMANENT occupation (as in the dictionary definition of that word, meaning, forever, until the end of time) and that, therefore the insurgency will get worse and worse as more and more Iraqis join it in the years and decades ahead.

What is also clear is that, if the Coalition stay, Iraq will explode. And it is likely to explode outwards.

5

Brendan 01.30.05 at 9:56 pm

With Iraq shattering and breaking, there is a real threat that if the United States stays for another two years, there will be no ‘Iraq’ to leave from.

In any case, the real significance of the Afghanistan election was missed by almost everyone…and it is a grim precedent for Iraq. In Afghanistan the elections were held a President was elected….BUT THE AMERICANS DIDN’T LEAVE. Nor did they even talk about leaving.

There is a staggering lack of imagination in the pro-war side, such that their blogs will one day be rich pickings for sociologists and psychologists studying the psychology of self-delusion. The fact is that even now they are talking about the Americans leaving ‘in a few years’ or ‘in ten years’ or something. But if the Americans and British do not begin to leave sooon (and by soon i mean in the next few weeks) why should they ever leave? This is the best chance they will ever get. The fact that if the Coalition do not leave the balance of probabilities must be that the Coalition are planning a PERMANENT occupation (as in the dictionary definition of that word, meaning, forever, until the end of time) and that, therefore the insurgency will get worse and worse as more and more Iraqis join it in the years and decades ahead.

What is also clear is that, if the Coalition stay, Iraq will explode. And it is likely to explode outwards.

6

Andrew Reeves 01.30.05 at 10:19 pm

I’m sure that someone in Washington or Baghdad has thought of this already, but why not start moving to pull completely out of southern Iraq and concentrate on Samarra, Mosul, Ramadi, Baquba, and Haifa Street? It’s those particular areas that need to be cleaned out, and the shiny and visible withdrawal of U.S. troops from some parts of Iraq will look nice for the camera while also enabling more concentration in the trouble spots.

That, and they really need to do a better job of training Iraqi security forces.

7

John Quiggin 01.30.05 at 10:22 pm

Guy, I’m aware that Juan Cole takes a different view on this, but I’m not convinced by the threat of a Baathist coup. A coup implies a takeover from within, and, while I’m sure there are quite a few Baathists in the military and elsewhere, I doubt they are numerous or organised enough to stage a coup against a government which takes the obvious precautions of putting its own people in enough key positions.

A continued insurgency is a more plausible way for the Baathists to regain power. My point is that the use of US troops to repress the insurgency has been worse than useless – the insurgents have gained in strength rather than losing it.

8

Duke of DeLand 01.30.05 at 10:23 pm

“brendan”, if nothing else, is full of words…..however, his understanding of actual events is sadly lacking!

With Iraq shattering and breaking, there is a real threat that if the United States stays for another two years, there will be no ‘Iraq’ to leave from.

Iraq shattering?????

Where’d you obtain the data, fella?

According to the FBI’s nationstatistics (2003, last year available) 1.3 more persons were murdered in the USA on Iraq’s election day (45.3) than were killed in Iraq (44)….including in Iraq 8 of the 44 were “insurgents” (read terrorists). YES, we have a much higher population….However, we are NOT at WAR, and we are not “shattering & breaking”.

Nuff said!

Duke of DeLand
http://pekinprattles.blogspot.com

9

bob mcmanus 01.30.05 at 11:50 pm

“Duke of DeLand
http://pekinprattles.blogspot.com

The trolls look active and organized on Iraq election day. This phenomena is not studied enough. I think there is DC leadership.

10

Giles 01.30.05 at 11:56 pm

“which takes the obvious precautions of putting its own people in enough key positions.”

But without protection sees them killed. I dont have any doubt that the Bathist could stage a coup if the Americans left. They have after all the only really trained troops in the country. More improtantly their support is in the centre, near the seat of government. I think the only real question is whether Iran would then support a counter coup?

11

Sebastian Holsclaw 01.31.05 at 3:31 am

If the election leaves Allawi in office (even as a coalition partner) and the Americans in charge, it will be soon come to be seen as a pointless farce. And unless the government makes early US withdrawal a central demand, it will inevitably end up being seen, at best as a client and at worst a creature, of the Americans.

Are you presuming that the elections ought to be read as a demand by the Iraqi people that the US Forces leave immediately?

12

abb1 01.31.05 at 6:10 pm

My point is that the use of US troops to repress the insurgency has been worse than useless – the insurgents have gained in strength rather than losing it.

Exactly. Why, then, do you say that “Of course, there are good reasons to be fearful about the consequences of a US withdrawal.”? Are you talking about the risk of an outside (Iranian?) invasion or something?

13

John Quiggin 01.31.05 at 8:45 pm

abb1, a withdrawal of US troops could lead to an outbreak of open civil war (with various possible lineups on different sides). My point is that, if so, it seems likely that this will happen whenever the US leaves, and that the longer this is delayed, the stronger the insurgents will be.

14

Uncle Kvetch 01.31.05 at 9:26 pm

abb1, a withdrawal of US troops could lead to an outbreak of open civil war (with various possible lineups on different sides)

John, do you think the possibility of “open civil war” is eliminated by virtue of the US forces being on the ground? I mean that in all seriousness. I understand the fears surrounding an abrupt pull-out–but I don’t hear the people expressing those fears considering that we could end up with “open civil war,” plus a foreign occupation force attempting to act as referee. An even uglier scenario, in my opinion–all the Vietnam comparisons will be fully realized. This is why I’m for pulling out as the least awful option–I think you’d agree with me that there are no “good” options at this point.

15

abb1 01.31.05 at 10:11 pm

I don’t I understand what exactly this ‘civil war’ thing would mean under the current conditions. There is no army, no airforce, no tanks, pretty much nothing but a bunch of local militias with small arms. True, things sometimes do to turn ugly even with small arms, but I don’t see baathists invading the South or the Kurdish region, for example. They would probably have no choice but to find a compromise of some kind, because there is no side that’s overwhelmingly more powerful. Just a hunch.

16

John Quiggin 01.31.05 at 10:55 pm

Uncle K, I agree. If the US stays long enough and continues past behavior, it may end up on one side of a civil war and quite possibly the losing one.

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