So here we are on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and some sort of assessment seems almost mandatory. It doesn’t start off with good news. The tenuous cease fire with the Iranian-backed Mahdi Militia broke down this week, leading to a new outbreak of violence in southern Iraq and some areas of Baghdad. the US death count in Iraq topped 4000 on Tuesday. But maybe we didn’t notice, because the news media and the public seem to have lost interest and coverage of the war has been eclipsed by the economy and the election to the point that it’s down to about 4% of what’s mentioned in the news.
So the questions are where do we stand and have we made progress and will the war ever end? The answer isn’t going to be terribly satisfying for those who support or those who oppose the war, because the basic assessment of the situation in Iraq is that we’ve achieved a level of managed chaos which could literally go on forever, or which could be ended through means which one or the other side finds absolutely unacceptable.
As demonstrated by recent events, the major downside of the situation in Iraq is that violence continues, although at a substantially lower level than in the past. Violence has become part of every day life in Iraq, but it is at a lower level and it is no longer pervasive. Businesses are operating and people are going to work in most of the country. But the threat of violence remains present and people have just learned to live with it and accept it as inevitable. This balance of ongoing violence with some level of normality in life is relatively stable and could continue for a very long time. So long as American soldiers remain there they will suffer some casualties. So long as no absolute resolution of the various volatile issues in the country is found, civilians will continue to suffer and life will continue to be harsh and dangerous.
While the continuing violence makes Iraq a highly dysfunctional nation, at the same time there are some remarkable successes, especially on the economic front. The Iraqi economy can only be described as vibrant. Their banks are doing brisk business, their stock market is active and investment in business is booming. The oil industry is back on its feet, they just reopened their largest refinery and they are exporting oil at pre-war levels again. That is producing a lot of revenue for the government to throw at other problem areas like rebuilding infrastructure. They’re even predicting massive budget surpluses, something cash strapped American leaders might be jealous of. Small businesses are open again, including markets, cafes and even liquor stores (despite Islamic prohibitions on alcohol).
Iraq is chimerical. A few areas are still plagued by violence, but at this point about two-thirds of the country is fairly peaceful. Kurdistan has been peaceful and prosperous since soon after the invasion. Anbar province has been a great success since Sunni tribal leaders allied with former insurgents to restore order. And with the introduction of more troops and new strategies, sectarian violence has largely stopped in Baghdad and life is slowly returning to normal. Violence remains strongest in the areas where the Iranians have the most influence through the Shiite militias, like the area around Basra. Things are going well enough that in a recent survey Iraq was rated more stable than 21 other countries, a number of which aren’t generally considered hotspots of violence. In fact, the murder rate in New Orleans is higher than the US casualty rate in Iraq, and overall there are more violent deaths in Mexico on a per capita basis than there are in Iraq. Yet Mexico remains a tourist destination, while Iraq is a source of horror stories. Of course, in Mexico just as in Iraq there are areas you’d be taking your life in your hands to visit and others which are stable and quite pleasant.
The odd thing about Iraq five years after the invasion is that it appears to be a country which is both extremely violent, but also economically productive and sort of functional in the same way that Pakistan and Nigeria and other violent but viable nations seem to be. Chaos has become a way of life, and one which is quite profitable for the leadership of the nation. It is the ongoing violence which brings foreign aid money and military backing, all with very limited oversight. And the economy is doing well, so that’s even more money in the government coffers for bribes and skimming and fattening of purses. It is a situation where the leadership has no real motivation to make things signficantly better because a state of chaos serves them quite well.
However, this situation of controlled chaos is decidedly not good for the United States. We could stay there forever at the same level of military deployment and do nothing but maintain a status quo which is unacceptable on humanitarian grounds and unendurable in terms of expense in money and the lives of our soldiers. The truth is that there is no military solution to the situation in Iraq. It is now absolutely clear as it should have been from the beginning that the only solutions to the situation in Iraq are political and diplomatic. Our military and our money may have a valuable function in preserving the acceptably violent status quo, but they will never be sufficient to push the country forward towards something better.
With the successes of the surge including the pacification of Baghdad, the buy-off of Sunni insurgents in much of the country and the large scale destruction of al Qaeda in Iraq, the question is what can be done to finish the job and make it possible for the US to withdraw without leaving a disaster behind. We’ve gone about as far as we can militarily, especially if this week sees the expected crushing of the Mahdi army in Basra. That leaves us with a couple of political and diplomatic solutions to finish the job.
One would be the replacement of the current kleptocracy of corrupt faction leaders who call their themselves a government with some individual of greater personal authority and somewhat less greed and incompetence – a beneficent dictator or nicer version of Saddam, if you will. This could happen in the next Iraqi election, but given the government which resulted from the last election it seems like a long-shot. The government lacks the respect of the people, but there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. No single figure stands out as a rallying point for the popular support needed to establish a more centralized and effective government. So long as the government remains weak their ability and motivation to handle intense problems on their own is pretty limited.
Another solution would be a diplomatically negotiated settlement with Iran to get them to stop providing weapons, money and even manpower to the Sadrists and other Shiite militias which are the most serious remaining source of violence and destabilization. The militias are out of power and do not expect to be asked to share power and can only get it through violence, and it is in Iran’s interest to keep Iraq weak by encouraging them. Finding a way to pressure or persuade Iran to reduce their participation would cut the legs out from under the Shiite militias and finish them off once and for all, creating a situation which even the relatively weak Maliki government could get under control.
We have paid a higher price than we should have to get to where we are today in Iraq, but the irony of the situation is that painful, expensive and marred by incompetence though it has been, the administration’s current approach to Iraq may be the only one which will work in the long term, and the next administration may have no choice but to continue it, regardless of their campaign promises. We aren’t doomed to John McCain’s hyperbolic hundred-year occupation, but continuing the very slow march towards stability is going to take at least a couple of years of ongoing commitment, probably including a gradual draw-down of forces. The next administration may well get largely undeserved credit for solving the Iraq problem just by following the course Bush has laid out, which may offset the blame they get for economic problems they are also likely to inherit.