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The Iraqi Elections: A Way Out of the Morass?
The Iraqi Elections: A Way Out of the Morass?
As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist
As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist
Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate with Iraqi flags and a picture of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr after results of Iraq's parliamentary election were announced, in Najaf, Iraq 15 May, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

The Iraqi Elections: A Way Out of the Morass?

The results of Iraq’s 12 May parliamentary contests are not yet final, but the broad contours are apparent. Efforts to fashion a coalition government will likely involve lengthy bargaining. Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann offers a preliminary analysis.

At first blush, what do these preliminary results amount to? Any surprises? Any dramatic change in the way Iraq will be governed?

There is less surprise in the victory of a component of the Shiite Islamist political firmament than in the nature of that component: the Sadrists, long demonised in the West and not particularly liked in Tehran. They won in alliance with the Communists, also vilified by the West and Iran alike, but in a much earlier era. But the antipathy of external powers is not all the Sadrists, followers of the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Communists have in common. What brought these two apparently disparate forces together on the Sairoun (On the Move) list is their deep disgust with entrenched corruption and joint past activism for institutional reform; their opposition to foreign intervention and recognition of the need to balance outside forces (whether Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or the United States) against one another; and their publicly expressed non-sectarian approach to state building.

There is an indirect link between the fact that an anti-corruption coalition won and the low participation rate: voter turnout is estimated at just under 45 per cent. Many people stayed away because they reckoned that their votes would not produce the kind of change they seek, namely a dramatic overhaul of a political system that thrives on nepotism, party-based patronage and outright graft. It may well be that if the Sairoun list succeeds in forming a governing coalition of which it constitutes the core, it can pursue a reform agenda with the support not only of its own base but also of many of those who declined to vote, because they share the same goal - at least, if popular revulsion at the system does not overtake that system’s ability to govern altogether.

What Iraq needs is a visionary leadership.

Whether they will succeed is a different question altogether. The Sadrists and Communists may end up forming a governing coalition. But the inevitable return of some of the “old guard” politicians will entail compromises that will limit any reform effort, not only because these politicians have other priorities, but also because they have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption. Moreover, in a country reliant for its income almost entirely on oil exports, and with corruption rampant ever since the UN imposed comprehensive sanctions in 1990, then magnified by huge and unchecked infusions of U.S. cash after 2003, it is hard to see how the new government can immunise itself from the same disease. Iraq will also need to tackle the challenge posed by paramilitary groups that act autonomously from the state and pose a long-term threat to its integrity and effectiveness.

What Iraq needs is a visionary leadership strong enough to diversify the economy away from its dangerous dependence on oil and fully integrate paramilitary groups into state institutions and formal security forces. It needs a central government willing and able to strike a historic compromise with the Kurdish regional government over power sharing in disputed territories and a fair distribution of oil income derived from these areas. It is doubtful that a narrow coalition government can deliver such critical results.

Is Sairoun’s victory a setback for Iran?

There is no love lost between Iran and this alliance of Sadrists and Communists. Yet I suspect that Tehran can live with a government of which this alliance would form the strongest component. In the past, Iranian leaders have indicated no strong preference as to who governs Iraq, as long as Shiite Islamists remain in power overall, even if partnered with Sunni Arabs, Kurds or – heaven forbid – Communists (though in this case have-been Communists). For Iranian leaders, it is not about individuals but about having in place a coalition government that will not harm Iran’s strategic interests. Iran does not want to be attacked by its neighbour, as it was in 1980, and it sees the best defence to be a relatively weak Iraq under a government that doesn’t necessarily do Tehran’s bidding but can be safely expected not to cross any of its red lines. The fact is that no post-2003 Iraqi government has done so. Indeed, each has carefully balanced Iranian versus U.S. interests, and we can expect continuity in that respect even with the Sadrists and Communists in the lead.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was amenable to dropping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014, just after he had won parliamentary elections that year and could easily have extended his tenure for a third four-year term. In their eyes, Maliki had failed: failed in pursuing a policy that would have prevented the Islamic State from seizing one third of the country by feeding on Sunni Arab discontent, which the prime minister had fuelled through harsh repressive practices, and failed therefore in not harming Iran’s interests. Tehran was open as well to accepting Haider al-Abadi, a relative unknown from Maliki’s Daawa party who was supported by the U.S., as the new premier. In the end, Iran also is aware of its own limits in Iraq; it knows it must heed the pronouncements of the Shiites’ foremost religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, or alienate itself even further from an Iraqi population that is historically suspicious of Iranian designs. Despite being of Iranian birth, Sistani stands for Iraqi-ness in the eyes of many Iraqis across the ethno-sectarian board.

The Iraqi media are playing up the existence of what Iraqis see as two broad coalitions. They term one the “Iranian coalition”, comprising the Fatah (Conquest) coalition, which came in second, and Maliki’s State of Law list, which came in fourth. The other, comprising the winners and Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) list, they have dubbed the “American coalition”. It’s quite amusing – though perhaps not to Americans – that in this perception the Sadrists are squarely placed within the “American” coalition. It looks like they have come a long way! The reason for this sharp breakdown is that Iraqis see their various predicaments as part of a larger tug of war between Iran and the U.S. They place the Fatah and State of Law lists, with their associated paramilitary groups, in the Iranian camp, though we should be careful not to assume that everyone who voted for these two lists feels a particular affinity for Iran. The other camp is glibly referred to as “American”, but it would be more accurate to say that it is anti-Iranian, or more pronouncedly patriotic: its agenda is not diluted by a concern for needing to serve some specific Iranian interest in addition to general Iraqi ones.

Who has the best chance of becoming prime minister? Muqtada al-Sadr?

While we should be careful not to dismiss Sadr’s victory as a one-off fluke, an aberration due to low turnout, we can safely discount the possibility that he will become prime minister. That’s not the game he plays, and the premiership is not a position to which he aspires. You have to remember that he is the last recognisable representative of the famed Sadr family from Najaf. His father, Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was a prominent Shiite religious leader, who was assassinated by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1999, along with two other sons. His father-in-law (his father’s cousin), Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was possibly even more famous as a religious leader and ideological founder of the Daawa party; he was executed along with his sister Bint al-Huda by the regime in 1980.

In short, Muqtada is the surviving offspring of legendary martyrs, which goes a long way in explaining his popularity and legitimacy with his base, especially in Baghdad’s immense Shiite slum Revolution City, which was promptly renamed Sadr City after 2003. A man of his standing, even if he lacks formal schooling or a particularly high level of religious education – or perhaps because of that – prefers to stay behind the curtain when it comes to the exercise of formal power; he leaves that to others, while he pulls the strings.

You also need to keep in mind that in Iraq’s fragmented post-2003 political landscape, the prime minister has often come from neither of the two strongest Shiite blocs but from the weak middle. In 2005, Ibrahim Jaafari became prime minister as a compromise between the two strongest parties to emerge from the elections: the Sadrists (even then, but politically inexperienced and incapable of governing) and the Supreme Council of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim (who comes from the second prominent religious family in Najaf). Jaafari belonged to the Daawa party, which is Iraq’s original Shiite Islamist party, established after the fall of the monarchy in 1958, whose leadership and ranks were decimated by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. In 2003, the party was extremely weak, but retained its standing among Shiites. Jaafari therefore was a safe choice for the election winners in 2005, as well as for Tehran (even though Jaafari had been in exile in the UK, not Iran).

A year later, when the transitional government came to an end, the Supreme Council and the Sadrists again emerged strongest in the polls, and this time they picked Maliki, also a Daawa member, as prime minister, after the Kurds vetoed Jaafari; at that time, the Kurds were still strong in Baghdad. Maliki rebuilt Daawa, using oil money to buy support and entrench his – more than his party’s – power. Then he overreached, became spoiled goods and was forced to cede his position to Abadi in 2014.

So what about Abadi now? He came in third, but I wouldn’t count him out as a candidate for prime minister. The two strongest blocs this time are the Sadrists and the Fatah list (in some ways a continuation of the Supreme Council), which came in second. Sadr has already indicated that he is willing to engage in all sorts of alliances but not with Fatah or State of Law. In the 329-seat parliament, he will therefore need to reach the 165-seat threshold by bringing in smaller groups. If he can strike a deal with Abadi’s Nasr, Ammar al-Hakim’s Hikma, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the two main Sunni Arab lists Wataniya and Qarar, then he’s there. That’s a tall order, but not taller than that faced by his adversaries.

In such an arrangement, the Sadrists may well reach out to a person such as Abadi, because the current prime minister has built up a good reputation over the past four years and is weak enough to be controlled. Then I would expect some compromise political choices for what in the Arab world are referred to as the “sovereign” ministries: interior, defence, finance, foreign affairs and, in Iraq’s case, perhaps oil. But the service ministries – such as health, education, transport and planning – may well be staffed by technocrats, consistent with Sadr’s, and the Communists’, strong desire to address governance issues and institute reform.

It sounds mainly like continuity with a possibility of change….

Exactly. With one notable point. Sairoun’s victory marks the first time that Iraqi leaders who are not former exiles have won an election. We should not underestimate the importance of this precedent. Remember that ordinary Iraqis, who survived decades of dictatorship, always viewed the returning exiles with great suspicion after 2003, believing they were intent on grabbing power and Iraq’s resources. They were not wrong in the majority of cases. The former exiles established a kleptocracy that squandered oil income and plucked the country bare. Iraq’s youth have little to aspire to beyond finding a government job through partisan patronage, joining the army or a paramilitary or insurgent group, or making the emigration gamble. It is not an attractive palette of options, and also not a way for a country to rebuild itself.

Iraq may have rid itself of the scourge of the Islamic State, but the state apparatus is rotten to its core and the society bedridden partly as a result. Can Iraqi politicians who never left Iraq and survived the old regime, with all the legitimacy this confers, do a better job? There is reason to be sceptical. Regardless of local perceptions, corruption came with the sanctions and then the institutional breakdown precipitated by a series of U.S. blunders from 2003 onward, which reduced regulation and oversight, more than with the returning exiles per se. Add to that the distribution of public-sector positions according to party membership, which allowed political parties to turn the ministries they controlled into fiefdoms that could dole out fat contracts to relatives and loyalists.

Iraq may have rid itself of the scourge of the Islamic State, but the state apparatus is rotten to its core and the society bedridden partly as a result.

Iraq will need more, therefore, than just remedial measures by the next government, or the one after that, to emerge successfully from four decades of war, sanctions, occupation and civil war. We should see it as a generational endeavour. And it can succeed only if the regional environment remains stable. With the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and resulting rising Middle East tensions, such a scenario is now very much in doubt. All we can hope for is that the U.S. and Iran continue to see that despite their major differences in the region, in Iraq their converging interests, evident since 2003, are paramount and worth preserving. It is clear from the election results that, for their part, Iraqis are ready to continue to balance the two sides for their own wellbeing and the betterment of their country.

Afghan residents walk near destroyed houses after a Taliban attack in Ghazni on 16 August 2018. AFP/Zakeria Hashimi
Commentary / Asia

As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist

The new U.S. adviser on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has a tough assignment: fostering peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Crisis Group’s Borhan Osman says that recent violence has soured the public mood, but that leaders on all sides still appear committed – at least rhetorically – to peace talks.

On 4 September 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad would join the State Department as an adviser on Afghanistan. Khalilzad will, in the Secretary of State’s words, “assist in the reconciliation effort”; his appointment is a welcome signal of Washington’s renewed intent to find a negotiated settlement to the war pitting the Afghan government and its international allies against the Taliban insurgency. For now, a formal peace process still seems some way off. Indeed, Khalilzad’s appointment comes as optimism that swept the country during an unexpected ceasefire in early June has withered, as levels of bloodshed again soar. But confidence-building steps between the parties that reduce the war’s horrific civilian toll, could be within reach and are worth Ambassador Khalilzad pursuing with insurgent leaders.

I saw the shift in mood first hand during two trips to Ghazni, a city 140km southwest of the capital Kabul. Visiting on 21 August, at the beginning of the religious holiday, Eid al-Adha, I witnessed turbaned men weeping with grief after prayers in the busiest mosque in the city. The men hugged each other, sobbing as they exchanged greetings. The religious holiday is usually a time of celebration, but the mood in Ghazni was sombre. The men finished their prayers and walked home past bullet-riddled walls and burned buildings. They saw none of the usual Eid festivities: no hollering youths, no children wearing new clothes, no folk dances to the sound of drums. Hundreds of bodies had been recovered from the streets only a week earlier, after one of the largest Taliban offensives in recent years saw insurgents occupy much of the city and engage in fierce street battles with Afghan security forces. Ghazni mourned.

The Taliban mounted the attack on 10 August, taking most of the city. Fighting engulfed all neighbourhoods, as the insurgents also had dismantled the government’s remaining presence in nearby towns, allowing them to surround the city and enter from four directions at once. The Taliban’s operations also involved a five-day siege of the city, cutting off the city’s electricity and telecommunications. Most civilians were trapped amid shortages of clean water and food. Taliban fighters used homes and markets as fighting positions, presumably leading to many civilian deaths. For their part, government forces were accused by residents of indiscriminate shelling. Airstrikes by U.S. and Afghan warplanes forced the insurgents to retreat, but further contributed to the destruction of the city and loss of life. “Everybody stuck in the city during the fight experienced a death”, said one resident, recalling how his neighbour’s three children were killed in an airstrike. “They were the darkest days of my life”, said another resident. “It was like a doomsday”. A former teacher who had fought the Soviets in Ghazni in the 1980s told me that the latest fighting was more intense than the battles of any previous war.

The change of public mood over a period of two months indicates how quickly hope can thrive, then fade away.

The sadness that marked Ghazni at the start of Eid al-Adha stood in sharp contrast to the scenes I had witnessed in the city only two months earlier, when worshippers had shed tears of joy following an historic ceasefire. The previous Eid holiday – Eid al-Fitr in June – had been a moment of wild celebration. In Ghazni, as across much of the country, Taliban and Afghan government forces had laughed and joked together, performing traditional dances to the beat of patriotic songs. Afghan special forces had posed for selfies with Taliban fighters. Many believed then that peace was imminent.

These days, Afghans wonder in despair if the war will ever end. The change of public mood over a period of two months indicates how quickly hope can thrive, then fade away. A majority of people do not remember peace and easily lose sight of prospects for ending the seventeen-year war between the Afghan government and international forces, on one hand, and the Taliban insurgency, on the other.

The disappointment sharpened when the government failed to start another truce at the end of August. Building on the June ceasefire and subsequent Taliban-U.S. talks, President Ashraf Ghani sought a three-month halt to fighting that would have started on 21 August. His government reached out to the Taliban in hopes of reaching a bilateral cessation of hostilities, but the insurgent movement ramped up its attacks instead, with Crisis Group estimating (based on a tally from officials and journalists in major hotspots) the dead on all sides at more than 1,000 combatants and civilians in the second week of August.

The most brazen offensive was the Ghazni onslaught in mid-August, contributing to half of the deaths nationwide that week. For the Taliban, this escalation of violence seems to reflect the group’s intent to respond with military pressure of its own to counter the government and U.S. forces’ ramped-up military efforts. The Taliban appears bent on hitting the government hard and expanding the territory under its control, to show strength and demoralise its enemy. The insurgents are conducting a war of attrition, chipping away at government enclaves and inflicting unsustainable casualties among pro-government forces.

The escalation in violence has raised questions about whether the Taliban are genuinely interested in peace. An insurgent commander I met outside Ghazni, who led a company-size group during the attack on the city, felt differently. He framed the recent offensives as part of the Taliban’s effort to accelerate “the broader plan” for ending the war. His remarks in some ways mirrored those of the outgoing senior U.S. commander, General John Nicholson, who in his final statement to the media on 22 August said that U.S. military efforts have resulted in “progress” toward a political settlement. In other words, both sides of the war believe that pressure on the battlefield has helped make their opponents more willing to negotiate.

Yet this “fight and talk” strategy carries serious risks. The successful June ceasefire was seen by many as a potential game changer, paving the way for U.S. officials to sit down with Taliban representatives for two full days in late July. But a widening trust gap emerged in subsequent weeks, with missteps by all parties: the Taliban, the U.S. and the Afghan government. The Taliban, arguably first and foremost, spoiled the mood by escalating attacks at precisely the time when others were working toward a renewed ceasefire. This decision was the most significant contribution to the reversal of momentum toward a peace process. An increase in insurgent attacks lead to an uptick in civilian harm, particularly in densely populated urban areas. The movement’s major attacks against Afghan forces in the north, west and south of the country in August came only a month and half after it had scaled down its campaign following the June ceasefire. It would have been ideal to extend the détente into the summer fighting season to allow the diplomatic process to get started. 

The leaderships of all sides still appear committed to – or at least show rhetorical support for – peace talks

For its part, the U.S. continued its escalating campaign of airstrikes, which have more than doubled since last year. The growing air campaign contributed to a 52 per cent increase in civilian casualties from airstrikes this year, according to the UN, though the biggest cause of civilian harm remains insurgent attacks. The airstrikes could make it hard for the Taliban to justify peace talks with the U.S. when bombs are falling among its grassroots supporters. Furthermore, assertions by U.S. officials that military pressure on the Taliban made the insurgents more receptive to talks have added to the atmosphere of mistrust. Conversations I had in Ghazni and elsewhere suggested that Taliban military planners might have ordered the August offensive at least in part to push back against any impression that U.S. military action was forcing them into negotiations, and to demonstrate that they can outdo the Americans in exerting pressure on the battlefield.

There were missteps by the Afghan government, too. In early August, the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, rescued around 250 self-declared Islamic State fighters from imminent death or capture by the Taliban in the northern Jawzjan province. The Taliban’s elite forces were pushing to eliminate the small pocket of militants nominally fighting under the black flag of the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP). Taliban leaders were angry and suspicious when the government thwarted their offensive, whisking away IS-KP cadres in helicopters and sheltering them in government guest houses. The Taliban saw this operation as evidence that the Afghan government, and by extension the U.S., were using the terrorist group to undermine the Taliban at any cost rather than making genuine peace. This misperception was strengthened by the U.S. bombing of Taliban fighters engaged in the subsequent offensives against IS-KP elsewhere in the country. In reality, the U.S. military and Afghan forces have engaged in determined efforts to decapitate IS-KP and reduce its strength. An airstrike against the IS-KP leadership on 25 August reportedly killed one of the group’s top commanders.

It now appears that the three-month ceasefire on which President Ghani was banking will not materialise. It will now be harder to hold the parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 October and – given that insecurity is often linked to disenfranchisement or fraud – raise the risk of a contested vote.

Still, it is too early to write off the peace process. The leaderships of all sides still appear committed to – or at least show rhetorical support for – peace talks. President Ghani’s ceasefire offer despite the recent carnage showed political bravery; on 21 August, he reiterated his call for peace, his speech not faltering even as mortars started falling nearby, punctuating his words with explosions. From the U.S. side, Ambassador Khalilzad’s appointment signals the U.S.’s intent regarding peace talks. As for the Taliban, it issued a statement in the name of its leader just before Eid al-Adha committing themselves to “bringing peace and security”, insisting on the importance of direct talks with the U.S. and paying more attention to peace than any similar statements from the insurgent leadership in the past. Despite the Taliban’s escalation, the belief direct talks can deliver apparently remains high within different Taliban quarters. Formal peace negotiations remain a distant prospect, but leaders on all sides of the conflict have rarely devoted so much attention to peacemaking.

That the Taliban appears intent to continue fighting even while talking with the U.S. does not necessarily mean those talks are futile

What does not appear likely, however, is a major military de-escalation between the parties. The U.S. and Afghan governments are seeking respite from a barrage of Taliban attacks this year, but that aim may be too ambitious for now.

The Taliban commander I met outside Ghazni, who was well informed about the peace talks with the Americans, told me he saw nothing wrong with escalating attacks. I asked him if the Taliban should halt or reduce violence to signal good faith in negotiations.

“No”, he answered. “A ceasefire or stopping attacks on government centres [cities] would be premature before a peace deal”.

“But what happens to peace talks then?” I asked.

“Those in charge of talks [from the Taliban] will talk while we do the fighting. As the last ceasefire showed, when our leader instructs us to halt fighting, everybody will immediately obey. We will become brothers with the government soldiers”.

“Does that mean you seek military victory?”

“No. There has not been a political solution so far because our enemies wanted to eliminate us. They wanted a military solution. I am 100 per cent sure that when there are direct talks with the Americans, we would certainly reach a political solution if they are honest”.

This and other conversations I have had in recent months with Taliban interlocutors suggest that it will be hard to reach agreement on de-escalation between military forces in the short term. Warfare has long been the Taliban’s defining characteristic and the movement is unlikely to scale back operations until a political deal is reached. The Taliban are thus likely to confound U.S. and Afghan governments expectations that peace talks will come after incremental reductions in violence. The Taliban view such proposals with suspicion, saying their enemies are not interested ending the war but in “peeling off” elements of their movement to weaken them.

That the Taliban appears intent to continue fighting even while talking with the U.S. does not necessarily mean those talks are futile, but it undoubtedly complicates efforts for peace. Negotiations under current conditions will almost certainly involve setbacks of the kind witnessed in recent weeks. They will test the patience of the Afghan public, fuelling the scepticism of some members of the political opposition about a peace process. Small demonstrations have already occurred as young protesters demand an end to what they call the government’s “appeasement policy”.

But even if a de-escalation is not possible, shifts in tactics by both sides that reduce civilian casualties might be a realistic confidence-building measure.

But even if a de-escalation is not possible, shifts in tactics by both sides that reduce civilian casualties might be a realistic confidence-building measure. Crisis Group’s interlocutors among the Taliban claim that the insurgents have adopted more cautious rules of engagement since they detonated an ambulance packed with explosives on a busy street in Kabul in January. The attack, a clear violation of the laws of war, killed more than 100 people, provoked widespread outrage and brought condemnation from the UN and other quarters. In the following months the Taliban appear to have reduced suicide attacks within cities, particularly truck bombs, making IS-KP the largest contributor to civilian casualties in suicide and complex attacks thus far in 2018.

Still, there is far more the Taliban can and should do. They continue attempting to encroach on urban areas, where the risk of civilian casualties is often highest. In the early weeks of his diplomacy, Ambassador Khalilzad could seek confidence building steps involving the Taliban avoiding such attacks, in return for the U.S. tamping down airstrikes and the Afghan forces refraining from shelling villages. Measures along these lines could significantly reduce the scale of carnage, even if only among civilians. If those steps are not feasible, at a minimum the Taliban may be willing to engage in three-way discussions with the U.S. and Afghan governments about alternatives for mitigating civilian harm and about improving access for the delivery of basic services in areas contested or controlled by the insurgency. Even those steps could help create a better atmosphere for talks.

The Ghazni bloodshed will not be the final setback, the last horrific spate of violence that Afghanistan will suffer on its long road toward a negotiated end to the conflict. But all stakeholders in Afghanistan should try to keep faith that peace remains possible. That means continuing to talk even as fighting persists.

This text was corrected on 6 September 2018. An earlier version incorrectly stated that the Taliban issued a statement at the end of August, when in fact it was issued just before Eid al-Adha in mid-August.