Sunday, October 28, 2007

Iraq: We Won, Now What? (In Iraq)

News coming back from Iraq has been encouraging lately. Casualties (military and civilian) are down for the second month in a row. This is especially significant because violence usually peaks in the fall. Suicide bombing are becoming rarer and less deadly. Fewer corpses are showing up on the streets of Bagdad. Some members of the military are going so far as to declare Al-Qaeda in Iraq to be defeated. Assuming that AQI has been defeated, the next question is, now what? That question applies both to Iraq and to the US.

The defeat of AQI is an excellent development for Iraqis of all factions. Though all participants in Iraq's civil war have atrocities to account for, only AQI followed a program of pure nihilism, with an agenda of nothing but kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. But the defeat of AQI is not the same as the return of peace. There are still rival armed factions out there with a lot of grudges against each other. Since the leaders of these factions show now inclination to resolve their differences, the US Army is instead pursuing a policy of "reconciliation from the bottom up." I see three possible outcomes from the attempt:

(1) Reconciliation from the bottom up works. The factions settle down into an uneasy truce that gradually becomes stronger as reconciliation works its way up.

(2) Reconciliation from the bottom up fails. Sunnis rebel against the Shiite dominated government when it refuses to share power. Or, the Shiite dominated government sets out to crush the strengthened Sunni militias by force. Sectarian war continues (with power struggles and internal wars within each side).

(3) Reconciliation from the bottom up stagnates. Rival factions stop shooting each other, but do not reconcile. Instead, Iraq devolves into a highly fragmented society with different factions controlling different regions or even neighborhoods, in a more-or-less stable equilibrium, but with minimal central authority. This will almost certainly be the case in the short run. Although Iraq is theoretically experiencing a sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite, both sides are extremely fragmented. The question is what direction the factions will move in. The goal of reconciliation from the ground up, presumably, is to work a reconciliation first between local warlords, then between factions within each side, and finally between the recognized "sides" in the civil war. In other words, moving from patchwork of warlords to "soft" partition to central state. Failure could mean either fragmentation worsening into complete anarchy, or reconciliation within the Sunnis or Shiites so they can more effectively pursue sectarian war.

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