Iraqi Kurdistan: Democratic or Democratic Enough?

Posted July 7, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Iraq War, western ideology

In a recent Op-Ed, Thomas Friedman proposed that if we lose out on all our other dreams in Iraq, we should at least make sure that we preserve Iraq’s Kurdistan as a bastion of democracy. He and others admit that it is not perfect, referring to its well-known high level of corruption.

I am afraid that corruption is only one of the failings of this enclave that is often pictured as a shining exception. Politically, the area is two areas, ruled for years by strong tribal leaders exercising what is essentially dictatorial powers. Half is run by the KDP under the Barzanis, the other half by the PUK under the Talabanis (Talibani is also the current President of Iraq — “President” being a largely ceremonial post). PUK and the KDP are actually modern versions of long-standing tribal alliances, alliances that have often fought each other as much as the outside world. Barzani even invited Saddam in to help him with one of these contests in the 1990s. Later, the two groups “made up”, at least temporarily, forming an alliance that is still maintained

The elections that have been held recently reflect absolute internal control within the subregions. As one reporter recently wrote here : “These areas should not be confused with democracies. They are one-party statelets little different from places like Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, both secular U.S.-aligned dictatorships run by and for a clique of clans unafraid to maintain their rule through force.”

I agree with Friedman that we should help preserve the level of security and welfare and progress that the Kurds have achieved. But we should be preserving it not so much as a example of our success in bringing democracy to the Middle East, but as an example of the level of achievement that it is rational at this point in the political development of the area to aspire to. Our mistake in Iraq was to imagine that the Iraqis wished to and could establish thriving democratic institutions. We might have done better to have helped Baath civilian and military leaders form a government based on Iraqi values and abilities, a government that we could have turned over the country to long before now. In accepting and defending the emerging Kurdish state or “autonomous province” in the old Soviet terminology, we would be demonstrating that we can work with partial solutions to the problem of governance, solutions that are more democratic than exist now in most of the area and yet fall short of, and will for many years continue to fall short of Western ideals.


Gaza, Hamas, West Bank, and Fatah

Posted June 22, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Uncategorized

It may just be that the West Bank is in a better position to work toward agreement than it could ever be when combined with Hamas and Gaza. However, the quick approval by the United States, Europe, and Israel of the West Bank alternative government can not help the image of the group with many Palestinians, or in the wider Muslim world.

The fighting between the two factions, and even within these factions, unfortunately reminds many of the internecine bloodshed that consumes Iraq and seems to be a precursor of the kind of factional infighting that may ravage Iraq if and when the Americans finally leave.

Torture as American Policy

Posted June 22, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Afghanistan War, Blogroll, Iraq War, Terrorism

Seymour Hersh has long been the conscience of America’s foreign and military policy. It has not earned him much credit with our military. Nor is his reporting always above reproach. But he has played a necessary, perhaps ever more necessary role.

In the June 25 New Yorker, Hersh zeroes in on the efforts of General Taguba to look into and report fairly on the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and, by extension, at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Taguba had been asked by the Pentagon to investigate what went on in Abu Ghraib, and who knew what when.

Taguba’s conclusions were that events at Abu Ghraib were well known all along. In fact, they had brought an expert from Guantanamo to introduce some of the measures used at Abu Ghraib. There were copious photos available for people at many levels to see and they had been ignored or dismissed. His conclusion was that what went on at Abu Ghraib was part of a pattern and not an isolated aberration by underlings.

However, on repeated occasions, before committees of Congress and elsewhere, Taguba was contradicted, put down, and dismissed. The brass above him simply lied about what they knew and what had come up to their level months before it all became public. In spite of the fact Taguba had done exactly the job he was asked to do, he was sidelined for the next two years and asked to resign early. They do shoot the messenger.

But it is more than that. Top persons in the government, presumably including the President and the Vice-President, although Taguba’s research did not actually go to these levels, appear to have concluded early on that “do whatever you have to do” was to be the guiding principal behind interrogations. What we saw in the pictures was, at least in part, the result of an deliberate policy of getting the military police and jail keepers to “soften up” prisoners so that information could be more readily extracted from them. There was, incidentally, little or no attempt to investigate whether the individual prisoners softened up were at all likely to have the information that was to be extracted from them.

Our campaign against al-Qaeda and the Islamists has been seriously compromised by our treatment of prisoners in the eyes of much of the world. This is not to say, that extreme situations do not require extreme solutions. It is to say that we must take much more seriously than we have the establishment and adherence to acceptable limits on the way in which we treat those who comes into our control.

Counterinsurgency and Airplanes

Posted June 22, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Afghanistan War, Blogroll, Iraq War, Terrorism

We hear once again of a “mistake” in Afghanistan. In the midst of a battle against the Taliban in an Afghan village, planes were called in. They destroyed the target. Unfortunately, there were children in the target. This has happened again and again in Afghanistan. It happens frequently in Iraq. The American or NATO troops are few in relation to the size of the country and the dimensions of the insurgencies. Air power is one way in which our side is clearly superior. When our forces are pinned down, there is an irresistible impulse to follow conventional battlefield doctrine and bring in the planes for close ground support. Battles are won.

Yet the local people have long memories, and even those who were not against us before, may now take up arms to avenge their new enemies who come by air.

My advice would be to simply exclude the use of air power to support troops in populated areas. I realize that in the short run, this would be counterproductive. It would be like tying the hands of the troops behind their backs. Yet in the long run, in winning the support of the people without which there is no victory in these contests, it might pay off. At least it should be looked into.

I realize that there would still be unwanted civilian casualties. But I believe they would be greatly reduced. The soldiers on the ground would be much more able to react to signs that the targets were not what they thought they were.

It is argued that al-Qaeda and Taliban deliberately mix civilians in with their militias, sometimes using compulsion. We cannot avoid this. But we can strive harder to avoid falling into the moral traps they set.

Arming Militias

Posted June 12, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, Iraq War

The last two days bring us reports of the American military in Iraq starting to arm groups of Sunnis to fight other Sunni groups, particularly al-Qaeda in Iraq. Such programs actually started some months ago in Anbar Province. Their success in Anbar has led to them being introduced in other highly contested provinces.

The American military claims that it will not give arms to any group that has fought against Americans. But this is nonsense. The main groups selected are largely made up of former Baath party members who have long campaigned against us. They have also been consistently opposed to the killing of Iraqis, particularly civilians. Aside from such ideological differences, it is possible that they have simply concluded that without American help they will eventually be wiped out. Some American commanders justify the approach because “nothing else has worked” (suggesting lack of faith in the “surge” on the ground).

Certainly, this initiative offers more possibility of “turning a corner” than anything else being tried. It is pointed out that the approach has numerous pitfalls, and it does. I have read that the extensive arms caches that sustained the insurgency for so long have just about been used up.  Appearing to ally with the Americans could be a ploy that allows these groups to rearm before having another go at insurgency. There is also a strong chance that the American arms will be used against the Shi’a militias or the Iraqi government, two groups that many Sunnis see as practically identical.

Nevertheless, “arming the enemy” makes sense as a means of gradually extricating our forces from the mess. We have always thought of turning over the battle to Iraqi forces, by which we meant government forces. But the government forces have not measured up–military and police service seems to be mostly a job opportunity for the unemployed. Perhaps the Sunni militias are more dedicated. We have always worked with the Kurdish Pesh Murga militias, even bringing them to other parts of the country to fight with us.

We have not worked (at least publicly) with Shi’a militias, although we have been glad on occasion to see them fighting al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Perhaps it is time to consider such alliances, even with the Mahdi Army where appropriate. Except  for the most hardened Islamists, no group in Iraq should be considered eternal enemies. We should sound out all armed groups, and see how we might work together. After all, in Afghanistan we supplied arms to for years to the forerunners of the Taliban in their struggle to drive out the Soviets. The Iranians are now helping to arm Shi’a militias in Iraq (although I do not necessarily accept some of the anti-Iranian propaganda in this regard). Is it not possible that these militias are accepting this assistance partially because no other supplier has stepped up? It is well known that even some of the militias linked to Iran do not want the Iranians to control the country. They would like a means of avoiding being beholden to this foreign power just as they do not want to be subservient to the United States.

All possibilities should be explored.

Iraq: Where Are We?

Posted June 12, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, Iraq War

Despair continues to be the most popular response to the Iraq War. The latest accounting
(June 10) for where we are by a reliable Brookings Institute team that has been offering a summary regularly in the New York Times finds a few bright spots, especially in Baghdad and Anbar province. Yet it points out that overall levels of violence remain very high and the political and economic systems show little if any sign of progress.  Among the utilities, only the increase in telephone subscribers shows steady growth, something that has been sustained since 2003. Other reports, as we have noted, point to the continual drain of the best and the brightest. One survey of university graduates (they do still have them) reports that nearly all of them intend to get out of the country as fast as they can.

But one cannot help but admire the courage (or stubbornness) of the thousands of teachers and doctors that continue to do their jobs as best they can.

The papers have been full of discussions lately of where we go from here. The Republican candidates, other than McCain, do not want to even mention Iraq. The Democratic candidates clearly have little to offer. They differ mostly on how stridently they demand we get out now, and how much equivocation they can sneak in under the cover of stridency. The U.S. military appears to believe that we are going to have a permanent presence for a long time. The analogy being accepted by some now is Korea, where we have remained since the fifties. The position of the leading Iraqis is not too different from the Democrats: “out (but)”.

Blood in the Sand

Posted June 5, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Iraq War, Terrorism, western ideology

The more we learn about Iraq, the less we seem to know. Americans try to get between the killers and their prey while many Iraqis want to kill Americans so that they can go back to killing one another. Of course, all Iraqis are not like this. But many of those who are not are long gone from the country, leaving behind an ever more warped populace.

In Sunday’s NYT “Week in Review” section, the reporter Edward Wong tells us that Iraqis have long been famous in the region for desiring a particular outcome in their conflicts, an outcome that is described by the word “sahel”. Sahel means the absolute destruction of opponents, followed by the complete destruction and humiliation of their bodies. The hanging of Americans in Falluja was by no means a fluke. It was SOP.

Wong’s conversations with Iraqis suggest that many feel this way about their enemies. They do not intend to rest until they have completely destroyed them. Even if they belong to a minority like the Sunnis, they feel that their honor demands that they strive persistently and unwaveringly toward destroying their foes. The Sunnis are convinced that they are meant to rule, and the Shi’a are trash from which the country must be cleansed. The Shi’as see themselves as humiliated and violated for centuries. It is past time for them to wreak their vengeance. Both groups see Kurds as unimportant people meant to be ruled. The Kurds, on the other hand, have their own grievances and unsatisfiable aspirations.

In this context, the American hope that the factions will tire of the conflict seems unlikely to be realized. All sides see death as strengthening their cause, either the death of their own or of the enemy. And the more horrible the deaths on either side, the more they fire the desires, self-righteousness and hatred of those still alive.

We should add to this the general Iraqi view that Americans are weak and unreliable. They are unreliable because they do not have the depth of feeling of the Iraqis. Whatever schedule we might have for leaving, we will leave, so many Iraqis feel they can just wait us out. But the last few days suggest that they are not willing to wait bloodlessly. They want to kill us to encourage our departure, but also because they just like to kill whomever they have defined as the enemy. And they want to kill one another to position themselves for the real struggle that will follow.

One should add that the Shi’a mistrust the coalition because outsiders have always abandoned them, and they see our real allegiance to be to the Sunni countries of the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Sunnis mistrust us because our supposed dedication to “democracy” produces a system that favors the Shi’a. Neither side has any concept of sharing or compromise. The Kurds mistrust us because we have repeatedly abandoned them after encouraging their efforts, and because they feel our stronger tie is to the Turks in NATO who want nothing to do with an independent Kurdistan.

(In making this summary of Wong, I am leaving aside the much more complex texture of the society in which hatreds and killings often reflect, and reflect intensely, animosities that exist within each of the broad groupings with which we must deal.)

Wong’s analysis does not provide the analytical basis with which analysts generally like to approach conflict. But the continued inability of American forces to reduce the killing of either Iraqis or Americans in the current “surge” must be confounding to the generals. This inability cries out for an analysis that admits we are lost in the bloody sand and don’t know what to do next. Ultimately, the key failure in Iraq has more to do with being there at all and less with failures of strategy, tactics, equipment, or an inadequate number of boots on the ground.