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Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy
Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy

Against the odds, the U.S. military surge contributed to a significant reduction in violence. Its achievements should not be understated. But in the absence of the fundamental political changes in Iraq the surge was meant to facilitate, its successes will remain insufficient, fragile and reversible.

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Executive Summary

This is the second of two companion reports on Iraq after the Surge, which Crisis Group is publishing simultaneously, with identical Executive Summaries and policy Recommendations. Part I analyses changes in the Sunni landscape. Part II analyses the state of political progress.

Against the odds, the U.S. military surge contributed to a significant reduction in violence. Its achievements should not be understated. But in the absence of the fundamental political changes in Iraq the surge was meant to facilitate, its successes will remain insufficient, fragile and reversible. The ever-more relative lull is an opportunity for the U.S. to focus on two missing ingredients: pressuring the Iraqi government to take long overdue steps toward political compromise and altering the regional climate so that Iraq’s neighbours use their leverage to encourage that compromise and make it stick. As shown in these two companion reports, this entails ceasing to provide the Iraqi government with unconditional military support; reaching out to what remains of the insurgency; using its leverage to encourage free and fair provincial elections and progress toward a broad national dialogue and compact; and engaging in real diplomacy with all Iraq’s neighbours, Iran and Syria included.

Many factors account for the reduction in violence: the surge in some cases benefited from, in others encouraged, and in the remainder produced, a series of politico-military shifts affecting the Sunni and Shiite communities. But there is little doubt that U.S. field commanders displayed sophistication and knowledge of local dynamics without precedent during a conflict characterised from the outset by U.S. policy misguided in its assumptions and flawed in its execution. A conceptual revolution within the military leadership gave U.S. forces the ability to carry out new policies and take advantage of new dynamics. Had they remained mired in past conceptions, propitious evolutions on the ground notwithstanding, the situation today would be far bleaker.

One of the more remarkable changes has been the realignment of tribal elements in Anbar, known as the sahwat, and of former insurgents, collectively known as the “Sons of Iraq”. This was largely due to increased friction over al-Qaeda in Iraq’s brutal tactics, proclamation of an Islamic state and escalating assaults on ordinary citizens. But the tribal and insurgent decisions also were aided by enhanced military pressure on the jihadi movement resulting from augmented U.S. troops: in both instances U.S. forces demonstrated more subtle understanding of existing tensions and intra-Sunni fault lines. Overall, the military campaign calmed areas that had become particularly violent and inaccessible, such as Anbar and several Baghdad neighbourhoods, and essentially halted sectarian warfare.

But on their own, without an overarching strategy for Iraq and the region, these tactical victories cannot turn into lasting success. The mood among Sunnis could alter. The turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq is not necessarily the end of the story. While some tribal chiefs, left in the cold after Saddam’s fall, found in the U.S. a new patron ready and able to provide resources, this hardly equates with a genuine, durable trend toward Sunni Arab acceptance of the political process. For these chiefs, as for the former insurgents, it mainly is a tactical alliance, forged to confront an immediate enemy (al-Qaeda in Iraq) or the central one (Iran). Any accommodation has been with the U.S., not between them and their government. It risks unravelling if the ruling parties do not agree to greater power sharing and if Sunni Arabs become convinced the U.S. is not prepared to side with them against Iran or its perceived proxies; at that point, confronting the greater foe (Shiite militias or the Shiite-dominated government) once again will take precedence.

Forces combating the U.S. have been weakened but not vanquished. The insurgency has been cut down to more manageable size and, after believing victory was within reach, now appears eager for negotiations with the U.S. Still, what remains is an enduring source of violence and instability that could be revived should political progress lag or the Sons of Iraq experiment falter. Even al-Qaeda in Iraq cannot be decisively defeated through U.S. military means alone. While the organisation has been significantly weakened and its operational capacity severely degraded, its deep pockets, fluid structure and ideological appeal to many young Iraqis mean it will not be irrevocably vanquished. The only lasting solution is a state that extends its intelligence and coercive apparatus throughout its territory, while offering credible alternatives and socio-economic opportunities to younger generations.

The U.S. approach suffers from another drawback. It is bolstering a set of local actors operating beyond the state’s realm or the rule of law and who impose their authority by force of arms. The sahwat in particular has generated new divisions in an already divided society and new potential sources of violence in an already multilayered conflict. Some tribes have benefited heavily from U.S. assistance, others less so. This redistribution of power almost certainly will engender instability and rivalry, which in turn could trigger intense feuds – an outcome on which still-active insurgent groups are banking. None of this constitutes progress toward consolidation of the central government or institutions; all of it could amount to little more than the U.S. boosting specific actors in an increasingly fragmented civil war and unbridled scramble for power and resources. Short-term achievement could threaten long-term stability.

By President Bush’s own standards, the military surge was useful primarily insofar as it led the Iraqi government to forge a national consensus, recalibrate power relations and provide Sunni Arabs in particular with a sense their future was secure. Observers may legitimately differ over how many of the administration’s so-called benchmarks have been met. None could reasonably dispute that the government’s performance has been utterly lacking. Its absence of capacity cannot conceal or excuse its absence of will. True to its sectarian nature and loath to share power, the ruling coalition has actively resisted compromise. Why not? It has no reason to alienate its constituency, jeopardise its political makeup or relinquish its perks and privileges when inaction has no consequence and the U.S. will always back it.

The surge is the latest instalment in a stop-and-start project to build a functioning state and legitimate institutions. All along, the fundamental challenge has been to settle major disputes and end a chaotic scramble for power, positions and resources in a society that, after a reign of terror, finds itself without accepted rules of the game or means to enforce them. Politically, this conflict has expressed itself in disputes, both violent and non-violent, over the structure of the state system (federalism/regionalisation and the degree of power devolution); ownership, management and distribution of oil and gas wealth (a hydrocarbons law); internal boundaries (particularly of the Kurdistan region); mechanisms for settling relations between post-Saddam “winners” and “losers” (for example, de-Baathification, amnesty, reintegration); and the way in which groups gain power (elections vs. force).

A small number of agreements have been reached and are regularly trumpeted. But they have made virtually no difference. Without basic political consensus over the nature of the state and the distribution of power and resources, passage of legislation is only the first step, and often the least meaningful one. Most of these laws are ambiguous enough to ensure that implementation is postponed, or that the battle over substance becomes a struggle over interpretation. Moreover, in the absence of legitimate and effective state and local institutions, implementation by definition will be partisan and politicised. What matters is not principally whether a law is passed in the Green Zone. It is how the law is carried out in the Red Zone.

Three things are becoming increasingly clear: First, the issues at the heart of the political struggle cannot be solved individually or sequentially. Secondly, the current governing structure does not want, nor is it able, to take advantage of the surge to produce agreement on fundamentals. Thirdly, without cooperation from regional actors, progress will be unsustainable, with dissatisfied groups seeking help from neighbouring states to promote their interests. All this suggests that the current piecemeal approach toward deal making should be replaced with efforts to bring about a broad agreement that deals with federalism, oil and internal boundaries; encourages reconciliation/accommodation; and ensures provincial and national elections as a means of renewing and expanding the political class. It also suggests yet again the need for the U.S. to engage in both genuine negotiations with the insurgency and for vigorous regional diplomacy to achieve agreement on rules of the game for outside actors in Iraq.

In the U.S., much of the debate has focused on whether to maintain or withdraw troops. But this puts the question the wrong way, and spawns misguided answers. The issue, rather, should be whether the U.S. is pursuing a policy that, by laying the foundations of legitimate, functional institutions and rules of the game, will minimise the costs to itself, the Iraqi people and regional stability of a withdrawal that sooner or later must occur – or whether it is simply postponing a scenario of Iraq’s collapse into a failed and fragmented state, protracted and multilayered violence, as well as increased foreign meddling.

The surge clearly has contributed to a series of notable successes. But the question is: Now what? What higher purpose will they serve? For the first four years of the war, the U.S. administration pursued a lofty strategy – the spread of democracy; Iraq as a regional model – detached from any realistic tactics. The risk today is that, having finally adopted a set of smart, pragmatic tactics, it finds itself devoid of any overarching strategy.

Baghdad/Istanbul/Damascus/Brussels, 30 April 2008

Iraqi demonstrators gather during an anti-government protests against unemployment, corruption in Baghdad, Iraq on 7 October 2019. AFP via Anadolu Agency/Murtadha Sudani

Widespread Protests Point to Iraq’s Cycle of Social Crisis

A surge in street protests in Iraq has left some 110 people dead and exposed a rift between the government and a population frustrated by poor governance, inadequate services and miserable living conditions. To avert further violence, the authorities and protesters should open dialogue channels.

Street protests have engulfed Baghdad and southern cities such as Nasiriya and Diwaniya since 1 October, causing a staggering death toll of at least 110 victims in seven days. This deadliest outburst of violence from popular protests since the 2003 U.S. invasion has shaken the foundations of the already fragile government led by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The prime minister is on thin ice. In the aftermath of the May 2018 elections, a drawn-out tug of war over government formation produced broadly acceptable but politically weak office holders. Neither the prime minister nor any of his cabinet members belong to the main parliamentary blocs (al-Fatah, a Shiite Islamist coalition with links to paramilitary groups and Iran, and Sairoun, an alliance between followers of populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and the Communist Party). None enjoys significant support within his or her own party. Furthermore, Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and Tehran’s response are putting a severe strain on this government, a partner to both. Already squeezed by Iran and the U.S., the prime minister now also faces pressure from parliament and the street for not delivering the reforms that a significant part of the population has been demanding for some time.

Iraq’s government and protesters need a framework for negotiating reforms and a common vision for the country’s future.

In order to break out of this dangerous dynamic, Iraq’s government and protesters need a framework for negotiating reforms and a common vision for the country’s future.

Viral Anger Fuels a Protest Wave

Street protests have erupted on a regular basis since 2015, in most cases motivated by manifest failures of governance, lack of services and miserable living conditions. This time around, what helped the protests gain strength was Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi’s decision at the end of September to demote a popular senior commander of the war with ISIS, General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), who had become a national icon for his heroism and integrity. Anger greeted the decision on social media, with many interpreting it as yet another expression of the prime minister’s feebleness in standing up to corruption in the security forces. The CTS is in competition with al-Hashd al-Shaabi, an array of paramilitary groups, the most powerful of which are linked to Iran. Those critical of Iran’s role in Iraq additionally saw the prime minister as giving in to the Hashd by demoting the general.

The affair quickly blossomed into something broader. As anger over the prime minister’s decision went viral online, social media influencers, largely Facebook users, encouraged people to join protests. On 1 October, protesters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in cities across the south, and security forces opened fire to disperse them. The next day, security agencies banned access to social media. The heavy-handed response caused the first casualties, adding to popular fury. On 3 October, early in the morning, the authorities imposed a curfew in Baghdad and southern cities, blocked access to major street intersections and government buildings, and shut down the internet. Fear of repression acted as a disincentive in some areas, including in Basra, which had been a protest hub during previous rounds.

Tensions increased further over the weekend of 4-5 October. Protesters torched the offices of leading Shiite Islamist parties in Nasiriya (including Daawa, Hikma and Asaeb Ahl al-Haq) and paramilitary groups, and masked men in civilian clothing attacked media outlets in Baghdad. The number of victims grew quickly, mostly on the protesters’ side but also among the security forces.

Protests, Politics and Participation

For a growing part of the population, resorting to street action has become the only meaningful form of participation in politics. Recurrent failure of governance and blatant incompetence and corruption, manifested most glaringly in the army’s humiliating collapse in the face of the ISIS onslaught in 2014, have left most Iraqis deeply disillusioned about politicians of all stripes, and disdainful of the notion that voting in elections can deliver change. By contrast, many see street protests as a more effective way to force politicians’ collective hand, as evidenced by government efforts to improve the water supply in the south after riots in the summer of 2018 over the lack of clean water.

The large majority of protesters are millennials under 30, an age group that makes up 67 per cent of the population.

This trend is amplified by a generational factor. The large majority of protesters are millennials under 30, an age group that makes up 67 per cent of the population. They came of age seeing the same faces taking turns and failing at governance. They did not experience the Saddam Hussein regime’s repression. Nor are they inclined to give much credit to current leaders for the roles they claim to have played in resisting that regime, regardless of how accurate those claims may be.

But though many come from the same age bracket, the protesters otherwise represent a cross-section of society that spans both sectarian and class differences. They include lower middle-class youths with no access to quality education or state employment as well as well-educated, English-speaking, upper middle-class individuals involved in private-sector initiatives and civic organisations. They share the experience of growing up in a political system dominated by a narrow elite that has failed to create prospects for a liveable future, despite the country’s enormous resources; they distrust formal politics and its democratic mechanisms such as elections, which they see as directly manipulated by those in power. Street protests are their effort at advancing a political agenda by other means.

Whether they can succeed is another question. Thus far, protests are proving to be an effective means of challenging the political system and leadership, but it is less clear how they can advance the radical change for which protesters are calling. They present the government with a mission impossible: delivering immediate solutions to problems that require long-term strategies, whether for improving governance, bettering service provision or reforming the entire political system.

Protests [...] present the government with a mission impossible: delivering immediate solutions to problems that require long-term strategies.

Against this backdrop, Baghdad has tended to focus on ad hoc, short-term fixes. On 6 October, for example, the prime minister gathered his cabinet for an emergency meeting and adopted a seventeen-point plan that included housing programs for low-income families and monthly stipends for the unemployed. The government does not, however, appear to have a strategy for coming together with the protest movement around a shared vision for the country’s future.

Protesters, for their part, lack an intermediary who can bring concrete proposals to the government. Their interest in maintaining their autonomy from a political system they oppose has kept their movement leaderless. As the government fails to address the protesters’ real concerns and the security forces move to suppress the protests, killing scores, protesters’ rejection of any sort of engagement with the government only hardens, and the movement begins to respond to violence with violence.

For the time being, the country is caught up in a destructive blame game. Protesters blame the leadership for the repression. Security officials blame the protesters for resorting to violence. Political and religious leaders blame each other for the crisis without themselves taking responsibility. On 4 October, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ paramount religious leader, denounced the largest political blocs and the government for failing to deliver long-promised reforms. On the same day, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who leads the biggest parliamentary bloc, Sairoun, called on the prime minister to resign and for new elections to be held under international supervision; he also instructed his party’s lawmakers to boycott the next parliamentary session.

Manoeuvring Between Tehran and Washington

If the prime minister manages to survive politically, he will be even weaker and more vulnerable to pressure from the largest political blocs. The fallout from the protests will further complicate his efforts to pursue a foreign policy aimed at insulating the country from the unfolding U.S.-Iran competition, as well as his attempts to carry out political reforms. If he loses his post and the government collapses, instability will almost certainly grow. The challenge would then be to form a new government with a prime minister sufficiently neutral to be acceptable to both pro-U.S. and pro-Iranian political forces.

Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos.

Neither the U.S. nor Iran would like to see the situation spin out of control. Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos. Iraq’s stability is key for Tehran to continue trading with its neighbour, a lifeline in the face of U.S. economic sanctions. Tehran has invested in forging relations with all Iraqi political forces represented in parliament, and strategically resorts to these allies (al-Fatah in particular) to exert pressure on the U.S. in order to remove or reduce the influence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Street protests introduce an element of uncertainty that worries Tehran. This may explain why its affiliated paramilitaries have taken repressive steps to contain this risk and reportedly participated in the crackdown. The fact that some protesters may be motivated by anti-Iranian animus – several have chanted anti-Iranian slogans – is of further concern to Tehran, whose influence in Iraq could be at stake. Many Iraqi Shiites look at the paramilitaries, the Shiite political parties and Iran as complicit in the country’s governance failure and corruption.

That said, the protests could also turn in Iran’s favour. If the Sadrists carry out their threat to boycott parliament or stage a no-confidence vote, the prime minister will be increasingly dependent on Iran’s ally al-Fatah, which has stood by his side during the crisis.

Pushing for a change in government could be like opening a Pandora’s box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government.

As for the U.S., it has every reason to want Iraq to remain stable. Its military presence helps prevent the resurgence of ISIS, whose fighters for now are lying low. It also counts on political forces in the country to stand as a counterweight to Iranian influence. But herein lies risk as well. Some in the Trump administration see protesters’ anti-Iran slogans, together with popular expressions of support for General al-Saadi, as an expression of mounting anti-Iranian sentiments. U.S. officials who deem Abdul Mahdi indecisive and powerless may push to replace him with someone more dedicated to reforms and, just as importantly, to signing contracts with U.S. companies that would decrease Iraq’s energy dependency on Iran. Yet pushing for a change in government could be like opening a Pandora’s box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government.

Ultimately, any attempt by either Iran or the U.S. to manipulate the protest movement could further destabilise an extremely fragile situation and make Iraq’s teetering leadership less able to sustain the delicate balancing act between the country’s two powerful backers.

The Way Forward

Past attempts to change Iraqi governance from within have foundered on the resistance of a political class that has high stakes in its continuation. As things stand, it is unlikely that the prime minister will be able to deliver reforms, especially now that his already limited parliamentary support may crumble under the protests’ weight. Likewise, calls for change from outside the realm of formal politics, such as through street protests, have failed to compel the government to commit to concrete remedial action beyond applying band-aids. More dangerously, they are now leading to violent clashes with the security forces. The government and countries that have supported Iraq in the fight against ISIS (the U.S., EU member states and Iran) and care about its stability have reason for concern that this situation will lead to recurrent flare-ups and crises.

The present crisis once again has illustrated that Iraq’s leadership cannot continue to buy social peace with a mix of oil-generated income distribution and repression.

To address the current crisis, the government should order the security forces to exercise maximum restraint in confronting the protests, ban paramilitary groups from policing the protests and launch an investigation into the excessive use of force, focusing in particular on snipers who reportedly targeted both protesters and members of the security forces. The larger parliamentary blocs also should shoulder their responsibility in defusing the crisis. Instead of calling on the prime minister to resign, Sairoun and Fatah should jointly press the government to prepare reform bills aimed at making the bureaucracy more agile in Baghdad and the provinces, bolstering accountability mechanisms to combat corruption, and encouraging government cooperation with the private sector and civic organisations.

Finding a long-term fix will be more difficult. The present crisis once again has illustrated that Iraq’s leadership cannot continue to buy social peace with a mix of oil-generated income distribution and repression. To break the crisis cycle, the government and the protest movement need to develop channels for dialogue and cooperation. Civic organisations, some of which are organised under the umbrella of the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative, as well as private-sector figures, should better organise the protest movement and operate as intermediaries to formulate a set of coherent proposals as a basis for discussions with the government. The government should take such an initiative seriously as a way to reach out to the protesters and prevent another (possibly violent) cycle of mass mobilisation. And Iraq’s international donors should help facilitate a dialogue to arrive at a common vision for the country’s future and then provide the necessary capacity and funding to carry it out.