Thursday, December 23, 2004

Whither Iraq

We have now passed the midpoint between our own elections here in the U.S. and the elections scheduled in Iraq for January 30, 2005. After securing a second mandate the Bush administration predictably launched offensive operations in the Sunni triangle that, though they cost lives of American soldiers, dislodged insurgents from their bases in and around Falluja. The strategic impact of these operations needed a space of time to assess. Tuesday's tragic attack in Mosul would seem to suggest that, howevermuch U.S. offensives have operationally retarded the Iraqi insurgency it remains very much a going concern.

At this juncture it seems appropriate to take stock of the situation in Iraq and reflect on where it might be heading. History is not a predictive science, and it is always presumptious of historians to claim possession of a crystal ball. But from a historian's perspective certain outcomes can be judged as more or less likely.

In this sense, two modular outcomes seem symetrically improbable. One is the future widely broadcast by the Bush administration and its surrogates, in which a robust and independent Iraqi state takes charge of the counterinsurgency with the use of its own armed forces. In this vision U.S. efforts at nation-building would meet the same kind of success achieved in 20th century Japan, South Korea, or West Germany. Even if such success were provisional as in the case of Korea, requiring a continued U.S. military presence of 30,000 or so soldiers, such an outcome would wildly outstrip the rather pessimistic expectations prevalent at this current moment.

Though this rosy future is not likely to mature, its converse- a "Saigon 1975" type cataclysm- must be judged equally improbable. Events in Iraq may well reach some new homeostasis in the next two years, but when that sea-shift does come it is most likely to be with a whimper rather than a bang. No images as dramatic as the refugee-laden choppers lifting off from the U.S. embassy in Saigon are likely to punctuate this current crisis.

The reason why both these outcomes may be discounted is the same. A robust and independent Iraqi state is unlikely because Iraqi society has little or no history of robust state institutions. Since its inception in 1920 Iraq has never achieved anything approaching true "nationhood." Its most successful experience of state unity was achieved through adherence to an absurdist ideology, reliance on atavistic forces of kinship and tribalism, and the grotesque application of brutality and terror. Coalition officials are betting that the legitimating power of democratic elections can fight the entropic tide of Iraqi history. The sad fact is that even a completely successfully and unimpeachably elected government would face almost insurmountable challenges in the regional, ethnic, sectarian, and economic divisions that tear at Iraqi society. In the current conditions the government which emerges from the January 30 election is likely to have only a provisional mandate, making the task of nation-building that much less likely to succeed.

Until a robust and legitimate Iraqi government is constituted there is no hope of creating an Iraqi army competent to manage the counterinsurgency, and since such a government will not likely emerge the counterinsurgency will remain dependent upon the U.S. military indefinitely. While this is true, it must also be noted that the insurgency itself is not likely to cohere into a force capable of producing a "Saigon 1975" type outcome, for reasons that are historically transparent. The same forces which hinder the formation of a state also hinder the creation of a "counter-state." The insurgency (or rather, any group among the diverse insurgencies) is not likely to produce a vision of a new Iraq coherent or compelling enough to serve as the matrix of a sophisticated and effective opposition. While the insurgency feeds on powerfully entropic forces capable of producing unlimited mayhem, it will probably never be able to force a scene quite as definitive as that signal moment in 1975.

Where then goes Iraq? If my assessment is correct, the current situation is not likely to change over the course of the next year. The presence of 150,000 U.S. troops will remain capable of staving off total anarchy, but will fail to end (or significantly slow) the insurgency. If I am reading the signals coming out of the Bush adminstration and the international diplomatic community correctly, a staged withdrawal of U.S. forces is likely to begin some time in late 2006. As U.S. forces are removed the state of insurgency will transition naturally to a state of civil war. Who might win such a civil conflict (if indeed there could be a long-term victor) I would not venture to predict. Conditions on the ground at the time will determine the long-term outcome of that new dynamic.