Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Iraq and Al-Qaeda After Zarqawi

We had an event today at the Nixon Center on the topic, "Iraq and Al-Qaeda After Zarqawi", with Alexis Debat, Flynt Leverett and Geoff Kemp.

Some of the points that Flynt raised:

Zarqawi's death does little to alter the basic trend of elevated violence in Iraq, increasingly along ethnic and sectarian lines, and if Iraq is not yet in a civil war (is it a Sunni insurgency combined with a failed state, or a low-intensity intercommunal conflict), it could very well end up being in one. (On a related note, I'd recommend Ian Bremmer's piece in the Summer 2006 issue on whether a civil war in Iraq really poses a major security threat (as opposed to a humanitarian crisis) to U.S. interests.)

The Bush Administration is pursuing a strategy of Iraqization on the security front and capacity building for governance; both of which are likely to make things worse rather than better. We are training single-sect security units, not a national army; capacity building cannot substitute for the lack of a firm political agreement on how to govern the country. Leverett cited the recent visit of a delegation from the Iraqi Oil Ministry; competent individuals, to be sure, but unable to address or give definitive answers on questions ranging from investment guarantees to the status of exploration licenses issued by the Kurdish regional government.

Iraq needs power-sharing arrangements grounded in a regional process, as happened in Afghanistan (and something Senator Hagel notes in his remarks in the Summer 2006 TNI). The U.S. overestimates its ability to influence the Shi'a and the Kurds, relating an anecdote that when Iraqi president Talabani visited Washington and was asked whether he was proud to see the Iraqi flag flying over Blair House, allegedly responded that the next time he visited, it would be a Kurdish flag.

Yes, there is symbolic value to Zarqawi's death; there may be symbolic drawdowns and redeployment of U.S. forces, but otherwise there is no effctive strategy for Iraq, and Zarqawi's death doesn't change this.

Some of Alexis' points:

It is too early to draw conclusions but Zarqawi's death is significant. The question of succession is important. He emphasized a lack of intelligence on the new head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Will the "Egyptian element" in Al-Qaeda in Iraq be in the ascendancy? Zarqawi tried to hold together the different factions that comprise Al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as lead the Sunni insurgency. However, his tactics--particularly targeting other Muslims rather than coalition forces and Iraqis in the security infrasructure--were drawing criticism.

Zarqawi benefited from the U.S. overpersonalizing the conflict in giving him stature; this is a mistake not likely to be repeated with his successor.

The U.S. needs to recognize that "violence is the political process"--Zarqawi and others successfully convinced the Sunni community that violence was their trump card (Shia and Kurds had oil and U.S. support) in vying for influence in Iraq. We are entering a warlord situation in Iraq, with groups being able to use violence as a way to exert political pressure, pointing out that upsurges in violence in Iraq were now coinciding with major political developments (such as elections).

Peace and democracy, he noted, are born out of a military stalemate, as happened in Bosnia--something he noted he had witnessed first-hand. This means that the U.S. needs to pick the factions in each community it can work with and enable them to prevail; this means Washington has to be ready to get its hands dirty.

Some of Geoff's comments:

The Bush Administration and the new Iraqi government do receive a short-term boost from the death of a psychopathic killer--but the long term problems remain unsolved.

We should not be lulled into complacency by reports that 14 of Iraq's provinces are "quiet." Within the four troubled provinces live the bulk of Iraq's population; 25 percent of the country's population is in the Baghdad area.

We have failed in Iraq if our intent was to establish a secular, pro-Western democracy that would have good relations with Israel. At best we may end up with a loose confederation of semi-autonomous regions with the south dominated by a theocracy.

The concern in the region now is what are the U.S. long-term intentions. Iran, certainly, would want the U.S. to leave (but after stabilizing a strong Shia dominated government in Iraq). The Gulf states are concerned that failure in Iraq may cause the U.S. to leave the region altogether. In Israel, the combination of America's Iraq and democratization policies are not going down well.


My overall conclusion: the death of Zarqawi is a positive development but my opinion of all three presentations is that it does not single-handedly change the trend lines in Iraq or the region and does not make up for deficiencies in U.S. policies.

Sounds somewhat pessimistic. Sure killing Zarqawi doesn't end the organization but it dents it, the new guy will have to demonstrate he can hold factions together and keep things moving along. It could give us some breathing room.
Over at The Washington Note Steve Clemons has a post about how the death of Zarqawi is being worked into talking points and to be cited as a turning point in the "war on terror".
Why do you careso much about ecular? NAZIs were secular.

An Islamic republic might fit the Iraqi polity much better than a Western model that-even in its birth place-had caused interminable wars (30-year War, WWI, WWII).
THe question is what sort of Islamic republic--I think if you could get the type of Islamic republic Ray Takeyh described in Foreign Policy a few years back that works.

This also comes back to the larger question that more democratic states in the region aren't likely to endorse the US security agenda.
Did anyone address the question as to whether the death of Zarqawi increases the chance of bringing the Sunni insurgency to the bargaining table? I see that Alexis Debat raised the point about the violence being political.
To answer the question raised above by "anonymous", I personally believe that both the circumstances surrounding the death of Zarqawi (likely betrayal from Al Qai’da in Iraq’s tribal elements) and the organizational shift that seems to have started within the organization indicate that at least some significant and powerful elements within the Sunni community might have drawn the lessons of the past three years in a way that emphasizes the failure of the “terrorist option” to bring them enough political leverage in Baghdad (although there are strong indications that al Anbar has significant deposits of oil). That said, as I stated yesterday during the presentation, the Sunnis have very little assets to rely on to pressure the Shi’a government. As you can see, I am really conflicted about this issue, which is tremendously complicated and involves the kind of forensic and real-time insight into developments from within the Sunni community that I currently lack. But we will soon see what the death of Zarqawi means for sectarian tensions.

Thank you for your excellent comments.

all the best,

Thanks, Alexis. Also appreciate your recognition that these are complex questions, not simple problems with cut and dry solutions applied.

My sense is that to take advantage of any opening within the Sunni community would require not only political initiative from the Shi'ite leadership but also the US stepping back and not interfering.
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