Sunday, January 10, 2010

Theories On Violence In Iraq

In November 2009 Toby Dodge from the Queen Mary University of London and member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report for the Chilcot Inquiry that is looking into England’s involvement in the Iraq war. His paper, “What were the causes and consequences of Iraq’s descent into violence after the initial invasion?” covered three theories about the violence in Iraq. These were: 1) that Iraq is hopelessly divided between ethnosectarian groups, 2) that the U.S. presence led to resistance, and 3) that the toppling of Saddam led to a security and political vacuum as the state collapsed.

Ethnosectarianism is based upon a primordial concept of Iraq that sees it divided between three distinct, homogenous groups, the Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. Each has its own geographic region, the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the west, and Shiites in the south, and a never-ending animosity towards the others. The Sunni Arabs dominated the government since the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, keeping the other two groups oppressed. Saddam Hussein was the last of these rulers, so his overthrow was going to unleash the decades of resentment by the Shiites and Kurds. Believers in this idea then, saw the chaos and civil war that erupted after the U.S. invasion as the natural and inevitable result of these deep seeded differences amongst Iraq’s people.

Both Iraqi parties and American notables promoted an ethnosectarianism view of Iraq. The two ruling Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) suffered under Saddam’s Arabization and Anfal campaigns that killed and displaced tens of thousands of their people. The Kurds' experience created a great mistrust towards Arabs and their support of a strong central government and Iraqi nationalism, both of which had been used to subjugate the Kurds in the past. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) used sectarianism to organize Shiites behind them for the 2005 elections, and to argue for a Shiite autonomous zone in southern Iraq.  Americans such as Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, adviser to the Kurds and former U.S. ambassador Peter Galbraith, and current Vice President Joe Biden also took up this theory.

If one believes that ethnicity and sect hopelessly split Iraq than three policies have been advocated. One is to divide the country up into three homogenous regions in a federal system with a weak central government or to break Iraq up into three separate countries, the north for the Kurds, the west for the Sunnis, and the south for the Shiites, something that Gelb, Galbraith, and Biden have promoted. The third is to have some sort of grand bargain between the three major groups, which is what the U.S. government has backed under both the Bush and Obama administrations. For example, this was the basis of the 18 benchmarks promoted by President Bush when he announced the Surge in January 2007 that included moves such as deBaathification, a new oil law, and allow for autonomous regions. President Obama and Vice president Biden have also called for a power sharing agreement amongst the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.

The problem with this theory is that it is not very popular with Iraqis. First, as Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs has pointed out, before Saddam’s era there were only three periods of deep ethnosectarian divisions in 1508, 1623, and 1801. He argues that the policies of Saddam and the civil war that broke out in 2005 were exceptions, not the rule to Iraqi history. Iraqi opinion polls from 2004-2009 have shown little support for this idea as well, with 58%-79% being for a unified Iraq with a strong central government. The idea of a southern Shiite region also appears dead. In January 2009, politicians in the southern province of Basra tried to get a referendum to make it an autonomous region, but only garnered less than 2% of the voting population’s backing. After the SIIC’s sweeping defeat in the January 2009 provincial elections it also sidelined its call for a southern Shiite zone. Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds also did not live in homogenous areas. For example, central and northern Iraq had large Sunni populations in Diyala, Ninewa, Salahaddin, Baghdad, and Babil, as well as a community in Basra, not just western Anbar.

The second theory about violence in Iraq blames the U.S. presence. The belief is that the U.S. stayed too long, and that naturally led to resistance. U.S. military policy, such as mass arrests they carried out against Sunni men early on in the war, aggravated the situation, and led to the growth of the insurgency. The policy recommendation that results from this idea is withdrawal. This was actually U.S. policy until the Surge began in 2007. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was always for pulling out U.S. troops as soon as possible. President Bush’s June 2005 speech where he declared that the U.S. would stand down as Iraqis stood up was actually a plan to transfer security responsibilities as quickly as possible to the Iraqi forces so that the U.S. could leave. General George Casey followed this plan when he was commanding general in Iraq from June 2004 to February 2007 by transferring most U.S. troops to large bases, while the Iraqi police and army were given more and more responsibility.

The difficulty with this second idea is determining when the U.S. should have left to stem the violence. Immediately after the overthrow of Saddam, there was chaos throughout Iraq as the government collapsed. Looting occurred in most major cities such as Baghdad, individuals began asserting that they were in control of local governments, communities started creating their own militias because of the complete lack of law and order, shootings and deaths were occurring throughout the capital, crime sky-rocketed, and there were already random attacks on Americans. With no functioning government, and the United Nations shut out of the situation by the Bush administration, withdrawing immediately after the invasion as was the original plan would’ve left anarchy as no one, not even the Americans, were in control of the situation. In June 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) turned over authority to an interim government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The Iraqi security forces were just beginning to be put back together then, and were just as likely to run as to turn on the United States in a fight. When the U.S. did try to withdraw from 2005-2006, Iraqi forces were not ready yet, and that helped lead to the civil war as people turned to insurgents and militias to protect them, which is a common occurrence when the central government no longer has a monopoly on force and can’t fulfill its duties. In mid-2007, the British pulled out of Basra, cutting a deal with the local Shiite militias telling them that they would not interfere in the city as long as their troops were not attacked, but that only led to more lawlessness as the competing political parties, gunmen, and gangs were free to battle it out for control of Basra’s ports and lucrative oil industry. If the point of a U.S. withdrawal was to stop the violence, there didn’t appear to be a good time to do that early on.

The final theory, that the violence was caused by the collapse of the Iraqi state, is the position of the author of the report, Toby Dodge. He argues that the state fell apart due to U.S. and British policies, and their inability to control the country. First, neither members of the Coalition adequately planned for post-war Iraq. The Bush administration for one, believed that Iraqis would greet American forces as liberators, that the government would be up and running the day after Saddam’s fall, and that everything would take care of itself with minimum U.S. involvement. All of these proved false assumptions. When looting and violence broke out after the fall of Saddam, and none of the ministries were working, the Coalition had neither the troops to restore order or the personnel to get the government running again. The CPA made the situation worse in mid-2003 when it implemented its deBaathification policy and disbanded the Iraqi military, which created thousands of angry Iraqis who were opposed to the new order. U.S. and British forces never increased enough in those early years to provide adequate security, and the Iraqi army and police weren’t competent enough until 2008 to carry out their own operations. The 2005 elections led to a Sunni boycott, and the rise to power of the SIIC and Kurds who were more interested in their own ethnosectarian agendas than building up Iraqi institutions. Criminal gangs, insurgents, and militias were also thriving, which undermined the legitimacy of the new Iraq even more. By 2005 the civil war had started, Iraq became a failed state, and deaths and violence skyrocketed.

There are of course problems with this third theory as well. One is that some argue that the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad during the civil war rather than the return of the Iraqi state or the Surge was the major reason for violence decreasing. Another is that a stronger government has not ended the violence. In 2009 Iraq still suffered from more terrorism than any other country in the world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Icasualties for instance, counted 3,119 Iraqis killed in 2009 compared to 837 Afghans. Casualties are at their lowest level since 2003, but they have not ended.

Each one of these theories has its merits, but the failed state one is the most convincing. Ethnosectarian differences exist in Iraq, but dividing the country up based upon it has never been popular. U.S. troops, and especially the early punitive policies against Sunnis, definitely created resistance, but if the U.S. had withdrawn anytime from 2003-2008 there’s no telling whether that would have made the security situation better or worse. The reason why the collapsed state concept holds the most weight, is that it includes the best elements of the first two, while adding new ideas as well, making it the most comprehensive. Looking back using this idea shows that Iraq might have followed a different path if the Coalition had adequately planned for contingencies following the invasion, providing enough troops to provide security, and the money and infrastructure to get the government working after it collapsed. There might have been too many structural barriers within the Bush administration to accomplish that however. Going ahead, the re-birth of the Iraqi state is still a work in progress. Its inability to handle major political differences, and the continued problems with services, and the economy mean that there are still plenty of disaffected Iraqis to be recruited by militants. The question now is whether the government can keep up its current trajectory and bring about further improvements in security, or whether things have reached a plateau at a still unacceptable level of violence.


Anderson, Jon Lee, “The Collapse,” New Yorker, 4/21/03

Bennett, Brian and Weisskopf, Michael, “A Journey to the Dark Side of Baghdad,” Time, 5/26/03

Brown, David, “Britain negotiated Basra ceasefire with al-Mahdi Army, Iraq inquiry hears,” Times of London, 1/7/10

Byman, Daniel, “An Autopsy of the Iraq Debacle: Policy Failure or Bridge Too Far?” Security Studies, October 2008

Danner, Mark, “Iraq: How to Not Win a War,” New York Review of Books, 9/25/03

Dodge, Dr. Toby, “What were the causes and consequences of Iraq’s descent into violence after the initial invasion?” Chilcot Inquiry, 11/10/09

Elliott, Michael, “Occupation Hazards,” Time, 6/9/03

Guler, Claudio, “Baghdad Divided,” International Relations and Security Network, 11/9/09

Hendren, John, “More GIs needed in Iraq, says general,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4/13/04


Iraq Body Count, “Civilian deaths from violence in 2009,” 12/31/09

Katzman, Kenneth, “Iraq: Politics, Elections, and Benchmarks,” Congressional Research Service, 4/22/09

McGeary, Johanna, “Danger Around Every Corner,” Time, 10/27/03

Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, “More than “Shiites” and “Sunnis,” How a Post-Sectarian Strategy Can Change the Logic and Facilitate Sustainable Reform in Iraq,” February 2009

Reidar, Visser, “Biden, US Policy in Iraq and the Concept of Muhasasa,”, 7/6/09

Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09

Strauss, Valerie, “Pentagon: Ex-Iraqi Leader Aziz Is in Custody,” Washington Post, 4/24/03

Tyler, Patrick, “A Nation At War: Combat; Allies Widen Hold on Iraq; Civil Strife on Rise,” New York Times, 4/11/03

Walker, David, “Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq Iraqi Government Has Not Met Most Legislative, Security, and Economic Benchmarks. Testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate,” Government Accountability Office, 9/4/07

Washington Post, “Obama’s Plan for Iraq,” 3/1/09
- “U.S. changes tactics in Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4/24/04

Wilkinson, Tracy, “U.S. overseer tours Baghdad,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4/22/03


Don Cox said...

I think people underestimate the size of the army of jailers, torturers and secret police that Saddam employed. All of these lost their jobs and their reason for existence. I think these were the core of the resistance, aided by a vast number of unemployed lads who didn't care much about Americans one way or another but were happy to plant a bomb for cash.

It was not a failed state: it was a smashed tyranny, and the fragments reacted like dragon's teeth.

Joel Wing said...

I think that was part of the failed state. The day after Saddam's fail there was no government. All but one of the ministries' buildings were destroyed, there was looting in most major cities throughout the country, not just Baghdad. There were no police, etc. There was no one to handle these ex-regime people.

Things didn't get much better in the following years, and when the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence and control than the public will turn to whatever else appears to offer them protection, and that turned out to be the insurgents and militias, which added to the state failure.

There were also plenty of regular soldiers that were the basis of the insurgency as well, which was a result of Bremer disbanding the military.

AndrewSshi said...

I think that a much more succinct explanation for post-invasion violence (at least in the central part of the country) is that the Tikriti Ba'athists had been planning an insurgency for a while leading up to 2003. Pretty much post-1991, Hussein and al-Douri had a sense that they were on borrowed time and so planned accordingly.

There was, I think, another big break (for Hussein) in that the initial insurgency was organized by personal connections of Tikritis, while the U.S. was expecting organization to follow the structure of the state (ISTR that this is why that deck of cards was probably somewhat wrong-headed).

Joel Wing said...

That was a popular theory that the Baathists were planning for an insurgency after the invasion. From what I've read they were planning for paramilitary attacks during the invasion, but not afterward. The insurgency pretty much started as spontaneous attacks by small groups of disaffected Iraqis, some were Baathists, some were ex-army, some were just regular civilians.

AndrewSshi said...

Joel, I wasn't aware of an analysis that the insurgency began more spontaneously. Is it mentioned in the studies that you linked to (but I didn't get around to reading) or elsewhere?

Joel Wing said...


I've been going through my early files and there are a couple reports about the spontaneous nature of the insurgency. There was a series in the SF Chronicle for example, by Anna Badkhen who talked with early insurgents that gave that impression. Two are:

Badkhen, Anna, “On The Frontlines Core of resistance,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/5/03

Badkhen, Anna, “Bitter Iraqi vents anger by killing U.S. troops,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/7/03

Also there was this study based upon captured documents and interviews with former regime members that found that there were no plans by Saddam to carry out an insurgency after the invasion.

Woods, Kevin, “A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership,” Iraqi Perspectives Project, 3/24/06
- “Since the end of the war one question that has come up regularly is whether the regime
had made plans to continue the conflict through the insurgency the United States is currently combating. As far as can be determined through interviews conducted for this book, and the tens of thousands of records reviewed so far, there were no national plans to transition to a guerrilla war in the event of military defeat. Nor, as their world crumbled around them, did the regime appear to cobble together such plans.”

AndrewSshi said...

As always, thanks for the references!

And seriously, why aren't you working in a DC think tank? I hope your students know how lucky they are to have you as their teacher as opposed to a coach teaching out of the book.

Joel Wing said...

Thanks Andrew. I appreciate your comments too as you were probably the first person to consistently make them on the blog.

Also forget to say what wasn't spontaneous was Zarqawi and his terrorism. He went to Iraq before the invasion to set up sleeper cells so that he could attack U.S. forces.

Again, just read this as I was going through my old files:
Associated Press, “Zarqawi set up Iraqi sleeper cells: U.K. report,” 7/15/04

Review Unrevealed Milestones in the Iraqi National Nuclear Program 1981-991

Selbi, Dhafir, Al-Chalabi, Zuhair, Co-authored and edited by Dr. Khadduri, Imad, Unrevealed Milestones in the Iraqi National Nuclear Program...