Of Elections and Insurgencies
Stephen Lee Myers in the New York Times:
Defying a sustained barrage of mortars and rockets in Baghdad and other cities, Iraqis went to the polls in strength on Sunday to choose a new Parliament meant to outlast the American military presence here.
Insurgents here vowed to disrupt the election, and the concerted wave of attacks — as many as 100 thunderous blasts in the capital alone starting just before the polls opened — did frighten voters away, but only initially.
The shrugging response of voters could signal a fundamental weakening of the insurgency’s potency. At least 38 people were killed in Baghdad. But by day’s end, turnout was higher than expected, and certainly higher than in the last parliamentary election in 2005, marred by a similar level of violence.
Overall, the election has looked like a real achievement–we’ll have to see how it plays out but it looks as if the results will be publicly accepted (given some likely back room dealing), the elections were generally free and fair, and the races fairly competitive.
All of which is to the good. I wish the Iraqi people (after so many decades of horror), some bright spots going forward.
That said, this frame concerning the “fundamental weakening of the insurgency” either needs some serious contextualization or is flat out misleading.
Minus a real hardcore element (the so-called irreconcilables in COIN language), an insurgency uses violence to achieve political ends. The Iraqi insurgency from the get go was dominated by Sunni Iraqis–particularly after the insurgency became the Iraqi Civil War (reaching a climactic moment at the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque). This point was entirely missed in the US press during the time (and still today), which referred to said events primarily through the lens of an “insurgency”– but the Sunni were only fighting the US so long as the US was aligned with the Shia.
Once the Shia won the Civil War (2004-2007), the Sunni-dominated insurgency as such lost its rationale. The Sunni insurgency was at that point bought off by the American government, i.e. during the so-called Anbar Awakening. But the only real “awakening” was the dawning realization on the part of Sunni tribal sheiks that they would have to accept Shia dominance going forward and they might as well get the US to give them something in return for that recognition.
At this point, the insurgency dies down* because it has no political endpoint, no political or social legs. By participating en mass in the parliamentary election, Sunnis are signaling they see their political future tied to the current Iraqi government. This happened long before any election, which if anything has only rubber-stamped (or rather finger-inked) an existing state of affairs.
In that sense, this election only “signals” a weakening of the insurgency in the US media, with its over-reliance on elections (which again, as I said above, should still be applauded).
I believe the only remaining possibilities of large scale violence in Iraq are:
1. A war between the Arab Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government, potentially pulling in Turkey.
2. The Sunnis (predominantly) reject the outcome of this election, feel cheated, betrayed, etc and give up on the parliamentary political process.
I think the chance of #2 happening is fairly low, while #1 still strikes as very possible (and chilling, though the tensions seemed to have simmered down of late on that front).
This is not to say that small/medium scale violence will not (sadly) remain the order of the day. The “insurgents” will likely become the next generation of criminals in Iraq. The line between funding an insurgency through kidnappings and black market dealings in oil and guns and mafia-like enterprises like gun-running, money laundering, political bribery, kidnapping and the like is quite thin.
* There are still remnants of the jihadist crew in Iraq, usually called Al Qaeda in Iraq. There are also some smallish radical Shia jihadis getting support from the Iranian regime. In COIN speak, both groups constitute the “irreconcilables”. But neither poses any existential threat to the governing order in Iraq. They can, however (as politically utopian nihilists), cause plenty of death and destruction. The key point is neither set of groups has any viable political praxis and therefore can only attempt to impede the current political trajectory of the Iraqi state.