Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kenneth Pollack: Too Soon To Wave Victory Flag

Kenneth Pollack is an Iraq analyst and senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. At the beginning of December 2008 he was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman from the Council on Foreign Relations. Pollack voiced his concerns over the future of Iraq, and U.S. policy. With a financial crisis hitting the United States and violence down in Iraq, he was afraid that the American government and public would forget about Iraq, and walk away when there was still much work to be done.

Pollack started his conversation with Gwertzman by expressing his concerns about America’s wherewithal in Iraq. Pollack said he was worried that the American public and its leaders thought the U.S. had achieved victory in Iraq. He believes that the country is still not stable, and that there are still major problems to be overcome. Some of these have the potential to bring Iraq back to the brink. This was happening at a time when the U.S. was reducing its role in the country, and has agreed to a 2011 deadline for combat troops to be out of the country under the Status of Forces Agreement. America has also been hit by a growing recession that will distract the public’s attention away from foreign affairs to domestic ones. It will also mean there are less resources available for Iraq. All together, Pollack was worried that the result would be America forgetting about what they started in the country.

In Iraq, the major problem that Pollack focused upon was the development of its political system. He warned that its government, parties, and institutions are still immature, and that there is an on-going struggle for power within the ruling coalition. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for example, is centralizing authority in his office. Pollack doesn’t believe he has the ability to become a dictator, but his moves are worrying his partners, the Kurds and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. This has the potential to topple the government if one decides to have a no confidence vote in Maliki.

Another potential threat to stability is the growing strength of the Iraqi security forces. The Army is growing in capabilities and self-assuredness. With weak politicians, they could launch a military coup. Pollack first mentioned this possibility after a trip to Iraq back in May 2008. This may or may not have just happened with the arrests of several officers in the Interior Ministry recently.

The third problem Pollack mentioned is the continued division and marginalization of the country’s Sunnis. The Sunnis as a group are still not unified. The Sunni Accordance Front is the largest Sunni coalition, but they are widely unpopular, and one of its members, the Iraqi Islamic Party of Vice President Tariq Hashemi will probably lose power in Anbar to the Awakening movement. Many tribes have also joined the Sons of Iraq program and hope to capitalize on that to run in the upcoming provincial elections. The problem is that they are not political parties or politicians who are organized to run campaigns, garner votes, or work the system. That means many may not be successful in the polling. More importantly, the state of disarray amongst them means that the Shiites and Kurds continue to exclude them from power.

Pollack finished his interview by urging America to stay focused and working on Iraq. He said that the U.S. needed to keep pressure on the Iraqi government, so that it makes the necessary compromises for national reconciliation. This is a paradox however, because the U.S.’s influence is declining, when it needs it to ensure a stable Iraq. Pollack has expressed similar opinions before in journal pieces, and is part of a larger group of Iraq analysts that believe America needs to stay in Iraq for the long haul until the country has overcome most of its problems.

Pollack is right, Iraq still has many issues that need to be resolved, but Americans probably won’t fix them. One major issue with Pollack’s argument is that the ruling parties may not want the same thing as Pollack and other Americans. For example, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said on several occasions that there has already been reconciliation in Iraq. The Accordance Front is part of the government, the parliament has passed the Amnesty Act and the Accountability and Justice Law to replace the old Debaathification process, as well as agreed to pay for and integrate the Sons of Iraq. Maliki therefore doesn’t see any reason to make any more compromises with the Sunnis. Not only that, but with the Sunnis divided, and their political parties weak, that gives more opportunities for the Shiites to gain power in central and northern Iraq. Lastly, why would Maliki give up centralizing authority around him? What kind of pressure could the Americans bring to bear, that would stop him? While he doesn’t have the ability to become a dictator, he could very well become more autocratic. His moves have upset his coalition so much, that there are already rumors that they may force him out of office. That leads to the last criticism. Pollack is calling for an open-ended commitment to Iraq, a country that may never turn out how he or other Americans want. If recent events point to anything, it’s that Iraqis will determine their own future, not the U.S.

SOURCES

Aswat al-Iraq, “National reconciliation behind security improvement – PM,” 12/4/08

Biddle, Stephen, Nasr, Vali, Nash, William, “Political and Security Developments in Iraq and the Region,” Council on Foreign Relations, 6/12/08

Biddle, Stephen, O’Hanlon, Michael, and Pollack, Kenneth, “How to Leave a Stable Iraq, Building on Progress in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2008

Gwertzman, Bernard, “Despite Security Improvements, Iraq Remains ‘Very Troubled Country,’” Council on Foreign Relations, 12/10/08

Robertson, Campbell and Maher, Tareq, “An Inquiry in Baghdad Is Clouded by Politics,” New York Times, 12/18/08

Salman, Raheem and Parker, Ned, “Iraq detains police officials, including Interior Ministry generals,” Los Angeles Times, 12/18/08

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