Assorted Iraq pre-elections talking points

As a service to my friends in the journalistic community, a selection of half-baked ideas that could probably be spun out to half an opinion column. If you steal one, send me an email. Posted here rather than on Crooked Timber because I have a cold and can’t be bothered writing it properly.

Four days ahead of the elections, there is decent reason for optimism from the Oxford Research International poll of Iraqi opinion. I’m sure that much will be made of the fact that the poll was nearly called off because of security problems, but I don’t think this is a valid criticism to make of the survey � the fact that it was difficult to do doesn’t change its findings and ORI are too reputable to put their name to a poll if the security problems had seriously compromised its validity. And the results are not too bad; Iraq is still not a place where I personally would choose to live but 76% of Iraqis expect a stable government to arise from the elections 57% are broadly in favour of democratic government and a bare majority (53%) are “confident” in the existing national government. This isn’t the sort of thing you’d expect from a country heading for meltdown and thus it is my opinion that Iraq won’t. Below, a few comments on my interpretation of what this might mean for the future, and for an assessment of the costs and benefits of the whole exercise. They don’t appear to have published the full poll results yet, so these numbers are scrounged together from newspaper reports.

It is a bit worrying that so many Iraqis want a “strong leader”, because a military coup d’etat (de jure or de facto) is always a risk in an unstable country. I’ve always said that the real problem for the coalition forces in training the army is that it needs to be strong enough to do its job, but not strong enough to be a political power and there is a risk that this balance won’t have been achieved. The Army has 67% confidence versus 53% for the government, although I doubt that one would get a particularly different figure for the USA.

The Kurds are the big beneficiaries of the invasion. They have a pretty good position in the federal government, as shown by the fact that in the regional breakdowns, the region “North” is the most optimistic of the lot about everything. On the possibility of seccession, reality has begun to strike home with regard to the possibility of their being allowed to ethnically cleanse the Sunnis out of Kirkuk. In any case, the idea of creating an independent Kurdistan out of Northern Iraq is unlikely to seem attractive unless Turkey could be induced to give up some of its Kurdish areas and it can’t. So the status quo is going to seem like the best alternative, with (by and large) the PUK in government and (by and large) the PKK continuing low-level terrorist activity.

It seems pretty clear that the centre of Iraq – the belt across Anbar and Salah-ed-Din governorates containing Fallujah, Samarra and Ramadi � is bandit country. The Iraqi government has far, far less effective control over this part of the country than the UK government had over South Armagh in the 1970s and 1980s, and as a result it will continue to be a hideout and training ground for local terrorists and visiting Al-Quaeda jihadis. Note that the Northern Ireland analogy suggests that whatever success or failure the Iraqi “security forces” have it is unlikely to make a difference to the hospitality of Anbar to terrorists. Even if the Iraqi government manage to train up their security forces to the standards of the Special Air Service, see how much good that did the UK in Northern Ireland. So one key rationale for invading � that the bringing of democracy to Iraq would make us safer � appears to have been falsified. In order to bring democracy to Iraq, we first had to turn it into a completely failed state, and a consequence of that is that we have created a terrorist heartland which is no less convenient to jihadis than Taliban-era Afghanistan and which it will be very politically difficult for us to bomb because to do so would be to admit that the Iraqi government is not actually in control of its territory[1]. I would surmise that the big divide that the survey found between Shia and Sunni views of life in Iraq is being driven to a great degree by Anbar governorate � apparently, although a majority of Iraqis (53%) think that the invasion was “not a good thing for Iraq”, this rises to 99% in Anbar province. If we’re hoping to build on our one per cent support there, by the way, we’ve got an uphill struggle; confidence in the occupying troops is zero per cent in Anbar.

The overall optimism of the Iraqis and their trust in the government as an institution (although not its politicians) is a good thing. It suggests that there isn’t very much genuine support for the insurgents. Obviously the insurgents must have some popular support because otherwise they wouldn’t operate, but if the bulk of the Iraqi population isn’t on their side even now, with widely disliked foreign troops on the ground, their support will most likely melt away once the troops leave. In particular, it seems unlikely to me that the insurgents will be able to carry out carbombings and suicide bombings in and around Baghdad; I would guess that the hard-core jihadis will retreat to Anbar and Salah-ed-Din to help train foreigners for terrorist attacks outside Iraq, while the criminal element will hang around kidnapping people for money on the Colombian model, and most likely sending some of the proceeds to fund the terrorists.

It also looks very much as if Basrah, Missan and Dhi Quar governorates (the “Shia South”) are being effectively Finlandised by Iran. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the net result of coalition policy in these regions has been to make Iraq safe for burqas and stonings. I don’t believe that these regions are going to fall directly under the sway of Iran in the same way that Lebanon was occupied by Syria, because there is too much of a nationalist element to the Sadrist movement. But they are unlikely to agree to anything which interferes with the ability of the Shia militias to enforce sharia law (with or without the help of the legal system), and they are likely to be partisans of Iranian influence in the Iraqi government because anything which works for a strong Iran, in the near term at least, is good for them.

On the other hand, for the population of the remainder of Iraq (which includes Baghdad so it’s not at all insignificant), there is some prospect of real democracy, which should not be ignored (like the real improvements that there have been in Afghanistan). They will have the opportunity to take part in something approaching normal political life, and the electrical shortages, raised infant death rates and other factors which are currently causing them to say that life is worse than it was under Saddam (which I don’t actually believe) will pass. There doesn’t look like being enough genuine ethnic tension to fuel a civil war (caveat; there never does �), so my guess is that withdrawing the troops soonish would be a net benefit rather than a net cost.

So, it looks like the end result of our invasion will be; we have brought freedom to about a third of the Iraqi population, at ludicrous cost in terms of money and innocent lives. We have liberated the Kurds (the Iraqi Kurds that is) and created a near-permanent training camp for terrorists. We have made ourselves much less safe and increased the number of people in the world who live under sharia law. The Henry Jackson Society apparently believe that we will make ourselves safe in the global war on Islamic totalitarianism by carrying out similar escapades all over the Middle East; I have to say that currently my question to them is What do you think of the show so far?

[1] I suppose we could engineer it so that they “requested” our support in bombing terrorist bases, but this itself is hardly likely to be completely straightforward and risk-free.


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