President Obama’s appointment of Gen. David Petraeus to succeed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of US forces in Afghanistan signaled a continued commitment by the White House to a large-scale counter-insurgency campaign involving taking large swathes of territory, clearing it of insurgents, holding it in the medium term, and building up local government and social services.
It is frequently asserted that Gen. Petraeus “succeeded” in Iraq via a troop escalation or “surge” of 30,000 extra US troops that he dedicated to counter-insurgency purposes in al-Anbar and Baghdad Provinces.
But it would be a huge mistake to see Iraq either as a success story or as stable. It is the scene of an ongoing civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that is killing roughly 300 civilians a month. It can’t form a government months after the March 7 elections, even though the outcomes are known, having a permanently hung parliament, wherein the four major parties find it difficult to agree on a prime minister. The political vacuum has proved an opening for Sunni Arab insurgents, who have mounted effective bombing campaigns and more recently are targeting the banks. And now the caretaker government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is being shaken by a wave of violent mass protests even in Shiite cities that voted for him, against his government’s failure to provide key services, especially electricity in the midst of a sweltering summer heat wave. On Saturday, a big protest rally denouncing the lack of electricity turned violent, and police shot dead two protesters. In some parts of Iraq temperatures reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and few places have electricity more than 6 or 7 hours a day. The minister of electricity has been forced to resign. On Thursday, the headline in al-Zaman, the Times of Baghdad, read “Electricity Uprisings Break out in Hilla and Diyala under the Banner of Ousting al-Maliki.” If the caretaker government falls in the face of this popular pressure before parliament can agree on a new prime minister, there would be a dreadful security vacuum and a constitutional crisis.
Going back 3 1/2 years, Gen. Petraeus did what he could to end the Sunni-Shiite Civil War of 2006-2007, which helped produce the nearly 4 million Iraqi displaced (most of whom are still homeless) and likely killed tens of thousands. He put blast walls up to separate Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods; he put in checkpoints to keep out car and truck bombs; he made some markets pedestrian-only to stop them being blown up; he established Sunni Arab pro-American militias, the “Sons of Iraq,” to fight the fundamentalist vigilantes, both Sunni and Shiite; and he systematically tracked down and had killed the leadership of the insurgent cells.
I mean to take nothing away from the significant and important efforts of the US military in 2007 when I say that they did not all by themselves end the Sunni-Shiite civil war. In some ways, they inadvertently hastened a Shiite victory. Gen. Casey had been convinced to begin his plan of disarming the Iraqis in Baghdad with the Sunni Arabs by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The US military stuck to this bargain. But it turns out that if you disarmed the Sunni Arabs, then the Shiite militias came at night to chase them away. As I argued a couple of summers ago, working in part from the intrepid journalism of Karen DeYoung at WaPo, the main reason for decrease in the virulence of the Civil War (it is not over) was that the Shiites succeeded in ethnically cleansing the Sunnis from Baghdad. Based on US military and NGO statistics, on patterns of ambient light from West Baghdad visible by satellite, on the on-the-ground investigations of journalists like AP’s Hamza Hendawi, and on subsequent voting patterns, I don’t think Baghdad is now more than 10-15% Sunni, whereas it was probably about half and half Sunni and Shiite at the time of Bush’s invasion in 2003.
Obviously, when formerly mixed neighborhoods gradually no longer had Sunnis living in them, the ethnic violence declined (militant Shiites would have had to drive for an hour to find a Sunni to ethnically cleanse). My own field research among Iraqi refugees in Jordan in August of 2008 revealed to me the mechanisms by which the Sunnis were chased out. Many had been explicitly threatened by name, receiving death threats in their mail boxes. In addition, one fourth of Iraqi families who formally registered as refugees in Jordan had had a child kidnapped. Many had seen family members or close friends killed before their eyes. Some continued to receive threats in East Amman apartments, as the militias tracked them down to their new, squalid residences.
It was in part this Shiite wave of militia power and the usurping of Sunni property (most displaced families in Iraq have lost possession of their homes) that convinced many Sunni clans to go over to the Americans and to fight the Sunni fundamentalists in their midst, since it was the latter whose constant bombings and attacks on Shiite neighborhoods that had provoked the Civil War. Sunni Arabs in Iraq were initially absolutely convinced that they were a majority and that the Sunni Arab world would help them get back their country from the Americans, the Shiites and the Kurds. By early 2007 it had become clear that the Shiites were overwhelming them and that, indeed, their only plausible savior was the Americans, who might be persuaded to act as a moderating influence on the Shiites.
The Shiite victory in the Civil War was thus absolutely crucial as an Iraqi social-history background for what success Petraeus’s policies had.
No such major social-historical change has occurred in Afghanistan or is likely to. The Taliban and other insurgents primarily spring from the Pashtun ethnic group that predominates in the east and southwest of the country. Pashtuns probably make up about 42 percent of Afghanistan’s some 34 million people. Pashtun clans provided the top political leadership to Afghanistan from the 18th century, through the Durrani monarchy, and they look down on the northern Tajik and Hazarah ethnic groups (who speak dialects of Persian). Although probably only 20-30 percent of Afghan Pashtuns view the Taliban favorably, more may admire the Taliban as a group that stands up for Afghanistan’s independence from the Western nations now occupying it.
The Pashtuns do not believe that they have been conquered by anyone, and the vast majority of them wants US and NATO troops out of their country. They would fall down laughing at the idea of being afraid of the Tajiks and Hazarahs. So they will not be as easy to turn as the terrified and traumatized Sunnis of Iraq were in 2007.
What governmental and military framework the government of Nuri al-Maliki has been able to provide depends deeply on Iraq’s human capital. It was an industrializing society with an educated work force, a majority urban sector, and a respectable literacy rate, and its army could be rebuilt in part because literate soldiers are easier to train (not to mention that a stock of experienced soldiers and officers familiar with conventional military tactics could be drawn on). Iraq is an oil state with an income of $60 billion a year from petroleum alone. Afghanistan’s entire nominal GDP is $12 bn. a year. Afghanistan is 28% literate and its army is 10% literate. It is largely rural, poorly educated, and decades of civil war have destroyed or chased abroad its small managerial classes. Afghanistan is far more dependent on kinship ties (clans and tribes) in politics than Iraq (only 1/3 of Iraqis in polling say that tribal identity is important to them). Clan politics is notoriously insular and difficult for foreigners to enter into.
Moreover, Gen. Petreaus’s policies in 2007 in Iraq had many drawbacks. As noted, starting with the disarming of one ethno-religious group, the Sunni Arabs, left them vulnerable to ethnic cleansing by the still-armed Shiite militias. The creation of 100,000 Sons of Iraq fighters among the Sunni Arabs was viewed as a security problem by the Shiite government of al-Maliki, which brought only 17,000 of them into the police or other security forces. Many of the others were gradually dropped from the payroll by the Iraqi government, and, deprived of support by the withdrawing American troops, began being targeted by vengeful fundamentalists as traitors. The blast walls erected around neighborhoods cut them off economically from the city and produced 80% unemployment within, and so that tactic was not sustainable. There were also joint Sunni-Shiite demonstrations against Gen. Petraeus on the grounds that he was imposing and artificial sectarian separation on Iraqis. (I know.) The heavy US dependence on Blackwater and other private security contractors went badly awry when they kept going cowboy and committed a massacre at Nissour Square in 2007. ( The same firm, now renamed, is being brought into Afghanistan.)
Above all, Gen Petreaus was unable to attain in Iraq that pot of gold at the bottom of the counter-insurgency rainbow, increased government capacity and political reconciliation. Even his ultimate crackdown on the Mahdi Army and attempt to marginalize the Sadrists who follow Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr largely failed. The Sadrists did well in the March elections and may well end up being king-makers in the negotiations over a new prime minister and the speed of the American withdrawal. Nor has the Arab-Kurdish conflict been resolved (and that one is a tinderbox).
The Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, deeply dislikes the ex-Baathists (whom he sees as supported by neighboring Syria), and which he codes as predominantly Sunni Arabs. He has not reached out to them in any significant way, and some 80% of the Sunni Arabs are estimated to have voted for Maliki’s rival, Iyad Allawi (an ex-Baathist himself). Although the list they voted for, the Iraqiya, gained the largest single number of seats, it is not being recognized as the biggest bloc in parliament and will almost certainly not be allowed to form a government. Instead, the two big Shiite blocs made a post-election alliance and are insisting that they will form the government, and the courts have backed them.
The message to Sunnis? Even if you put down your arms and participate in the electoral process, you will likely be marginalized by the Shiite majority.
And now al-Maliki faces the Great Electricity Uprising of 2010. Iraq cannot be a model for victory in Afghanistan, and it isn’t even clear that there has been any meaningful ‘victory’ in Iraq. The best that could be said is that in summer of 2006, 2500 civilians were showing up dead every month, and now it is a tenth of that (still a lot).
The counter-insurgency push in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan could go either way. It could tamp down the Taliban and other insurgents and produce a population grateful for increased security, even at the cost of increased foreign control. Or it could involve Fallujah-like leveling of towns and large numbers of killed and displaced clansmen, pushing Pashtuns now favorable to Karzai into insurgency. I would give the former a 10% chance of happening.