Bombings, politics, and the long view in Iraq


AFP photo.

In light of the recent terrible spasm of violence in Iraq, I recommend Tom Friedman’s latest column for its broad view. His metaphor for Iraqi politics is particularly appropriate:

Six years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq continues to unnerve and tantalize. Watching Iraqi politics is like watching a tightrope artist crossing a dangerous cavern. At every step it looks as though he is going to fall into the abyss, and yet, somehow, he continues to wobble forward. Nothing is easy when trying to transform a country brutalized by three decades of cruel dictatorship. It is one step, one election, one new law, at a time. Each is a struggle. Each is crucial.

It is indeed a high wire act. Every time I write about some stage in Iraq’s development, whether it’s a snapshot of politics, the state of the police, or Surge-abetted improvements in security, there is always the temptation to use the words “crossroads” or “turning point.” And yet Iraq’s government moves forward amidst the disappointments and horrific events, and glimmers of hope persist, like support for open list elections, avoidance of reinvigorated sectarian conflict after specific provocations, Maliki making noises about raising money primarily through political donations, and Iraqis generally turning away from sectarian politics.

But though there exists the possibility that Iraq might, just might, become a better example of democracy than the other failed, shadow versions in the region, problems like corruption still gnaw at the government from within, and spectacular attacks persist against it. Analysts inevitably focus on the latter. For example, here’s Andrew Sullivan, describing the latest mass casualty as a “Reality Check”:

The Beltway’s conventional wisdom has long been that the war in Iraq is over. According to the partisan GOP blogs, Bush won the war last year. And yet, for all the many reports of a new calm in Iraq, and on the day that Tom Friedman buys into Maliki’s hope that a new non-sectarian future is imminent, two massive car bombs reveal that security still needs a city divided by huge, concrete barriers, and American troops for investigation and clean-up. It’s worth recalling that this is still happening even as over 120,000 US troops remain in the country. If this can happen when they are there in such vast numbers, what are the odds that Iraq will remain half-way peaceful and unified when/if the US leaves?

First, it’s important to note that I don’t think Friedman endorsed non-sectarianism as “imminent.” There is a possibility that sectarianism will remain diminished, however, if a combination of international involvement, homegrown political progress, and good fortune allow the current will of the electorate to accurately manifest itself in Iraq’s politics.

But more importantly, massive car bombs will always be possible, and in fact were possible when Baghdad was blanketed by blast walls and American-Iraqi Joint Security Stations. Predicating “success” on the complete elimination of spectacular attacks is a fool’s errand, especially as election season heats up and Americans move into the background on security. In addition, the latest attack actually tracks with recent trends in violence and showcases a diminished insurgency, as argued by Joel Wing:

The ebb and flow of violence shows the relative weakness of militants. They are only able to launch large attacks every other month. This month does show their increasing ability to carry out headline grabbing bombings however, in their attempt to destabilize the government, just as they did in August when they bombed the Finance and Foreign Ministries. That incident along with today’s undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s claim that he has brought security to Iraq, which might hurt his re-election campaign in the 2010 vote.

It’s also important to remember not to track overall security in Iraq based upon such bombings. There is no direct correlation between such attacks and overall security incidents in Iraq or casualties. In June 2009 for instance, there were 14 mass casualty bombings resulting in 174 deaths. For July there were 35 such attacks and 180 casualties, yet June had more deaths overall than July. According to the latest statistics released by the U.S. military, the number of overall security incidents in Iraq has also stayed pretty much steady since March 2009 at just about 200 per week. Overall, casualties in Iraq are still at unacceptable levels, but they are nowhere near as bad as they were during the sectarian war.

In a similar vein, here’s Anthony Cordesman:

The human costs of violence in Iraq are all too high, but they are symptoms and not the disease. There is still a serious enough AQI and other Sunni insurgent presence in areas like Ninewa and Mosul to pose major challenges. “Terrorist attacks” are not signs of desperation, but a well calculated strategy to attack Iraq at its weakest points: its sectarian and ethnic fracture lines, the gaps in its developing security forces, and divided and uncertain support for Prime minister Maliki and its central government. At the same time, they are ways to limit a foreign presence and investment, attack key government ministries and offices, do lasting damage to highly visible symbols like bridges, and attack Iraqi forces and local officials. They allow severely weakened insurgent movements to claim “victories” that attract global media attention, and raise funds. They demonstrate all too clearly that violent elements like AQI/ISI, FREs, Special Groups and other threats will continue to pose a challenge at some level even after the US withdraws its forces in 2011.

Violence has been sharply reduced in spite of such attacks – which to some extent exploit the fact that maintaining a security net to protect government and civil centers is almost impossible in a country as large and diverse as Iraq, and where society must be able to move with considerable freedom simply to function. It is a way for insurgents to wage asymmetric warfare with inferior forces and in spite of serious losses to both its leadership cadres and its forces in the field. Mass casualties and body counts can be inflicted sporadically with a few large bombing incidents – which can be timed and clustered to have maximum impact with minimum risk of failure — and still capture the attention of both the Iraqi public and the world.

The fact that this bombing was probably specifically designed to weaken Maliki’s security platform expands the suspect list considerably beyond “former Baathists” or “al Qaeda.” Anthony Shadid in the Post:

Unlike the carnage unleashed by attacks in crowded mosques, restaurants and markets, aimed at igniting sectarian strife, these blasts appeared to rely on a distinctly political logic. In elections scheduled for January to choose a new parliament, Maliki has staked his future on having restored a semblance of security to the war-wrecked country. In the street Sunday, where blood and ashen detritus mixed with water surging from broken mains, that claim seemed as tattered as the forlorn facades of the targeted buildings.

Iraq’s citizenry is enamored with conspiracy theories, with the local irony being that a portion of such wild talk is actually correct. It remains to be seen whether voters grant Maliki leeway in light of “plots by foreigners or traitors trying to destroy Iraq,” or whether they decide to throw him from office for failing to provide security that lives up to his inflated promises.

What Sullivan and other casual analysts tend to miss in the glare of mass casualty headlines is the remarkable breadth of events taking place. The marginalization of the Sadrists and ISCI. The broad political engagement of Sunni society. The active wheeling and dealing across sectarian lines within the new democratic framework. Yes, there are also factors that can inhibit or stall Iraq’s progress toward something that the West and most Iraqis can be satisfied with. I am not naively sanguine about the future, and the recent carnage might represent a “reality check” for those who think Iraq is out of the woods. But it is wrong to base analysis of Iraq’s overall progress or even security itself on spectacular attacks.

Friedman’s concluding paragraphs are particularly prescient in identifying the real and eventual test for Iraqi democracy (emphasis mine):

If this election comes off, it will still be held with U.S. combat troops on hand. The even bigger prize and test will be four years hence, if Iraq can hold an election in which multiethnic coalitions based on differing ideas of governance – not sectarianism – vie for power, and the reins are passed from one government to another without any U.S. military involvement. That would be the first time in modern Arab history where true multisectarian coalitions contest power, and cede power, without foreign interference. That would shake up the whole region.

A peaceful transfer of power without American training wheels will tell us whether Iraq becomes the real deal or we’re merely observing the development of another regional sham. 2014 is a long way off, and Sullivan, Cordesman, et al are right about the fact that this struggle is not over. Friedman’s last sentence pins down America’s responsibility in the interim:

Yes, let’s figure out Afghanistan. But let’s not forget that something very important – but so fragile and tentative – is still playing out in Iraq, and we and our allies still need to help bring it to fruition.

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  • Tjg says:

    All this talk about the short of the long view, progress (or lack of) and walking the tight rope, it’s all crap to the men and women having to work and live, make choices in the daily fog. Come on, US bases and well as lavish Arab hotels are built and serviced on the backs of those struggling to survive. Greed, Abuse and slavery is rampant. Both societies are in the process of death, neither have redeeming values or justice. Brave, virtuous men, women and children struggle for families far and near. No one wants to talk about the Saudi Royal Family or all the other Royal jerk families running around the region. Could this be a source of the problem? This is a root of the injustice and nobody talks about the evolution (removal) of these types of societies. Mr. friedman once wrote about the ackwardness of the Saud system. Why don’t you include this in your “long view”. Seems the view forward is clouded in fear. Power to all human individuals struggling daily.

  • Spooky says:

    That may be true, but the perception (which, in politics, is more important and effective than the truth unfortunately) would be that it was able to happen only because of the American presence and that had anything not “gone America’s way”, they would have pressured for a recount (and this would come from how the Afghan election went and the perception that Karzai is a puppet).
    So the election would be great for the Iraqi government and a good addition to their growth of democratic traditions, but the middle east would discount it as a fluke.
    That said, it should occur and should be done right so as to activate the process of self-rule without assistance. Maybe by some miracle the Iraqis will stick with it.

  • Alex Mayer says:

    Bill — Great post, and I totally concur with your analysis. These bombings were a jarring wake-up call for Maliki and the Iraqi parliament (which, as a result, seems to have been finally motivated to move forward on the new election law). It also puts an exclamation point on the recommendations for improving Iraq’s security planning and intelligence coordination from the reviews that the Iraqi authorities have conducted in the wake of the August bombings.
    These bombings should cause some serious concern for Iraqis and American commanders. But it’s also important to keep some perspective, and remember that every spectacular bombing Al Qaeda or other militant Sunni insurgent groups manage to pull off is not a harbinger of Iraq’s imminent collapse.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Tjg – My long view is specific to Iraq. A regional long view (mentioned obliquely by Friedman) could argue that the institution of an actually accountable government might spur changes that resemble the “redeeming values or justice” you mention. We’ll see. But let’s hope Iraq can get the basics right, to begin with.
    Spooky – while perceptions of American (and generally foreign) string-pulling are rampant, Iraqis have also taken to their new political process. I believe some can/will complain about US meddling while overall recognizing their process as legitimate. It’s a head scratcher, but there it is. Iraq is full of such rhetorical contradictions.
    Alex – agreed, of course, and thanks.


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