What does the political science literature on civil wars really say about Iraq?

 The most interesting panel which I attended at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Toronto was on the state of the field of the study of civil wars and genocide. A diverse group of top scholars in the field -- Scott Straus, Ben Valentino, Elizabeth Wood, Barbara Walter, and Stathis Kalyvas -- offered an overview of the evolution of the field which demonstrates how much rich, useful knowledge has been produced over the last decade. But what most caught my attention -- and led me to join the discussion from the floor -- was a discussion of the applicability of the literature to Iraq sparked by Barbara Walter's presentation. 

 The issues came to a head when Walter recounted her engagement with the question of Iraq.  Asked to offer guidance to policy-makers about the likely consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Walter explained how she went to the “data” and concluded that the civil wars literature predicted a very high likelihood of a resurgence of violence if the U.S. withdraws (a version of this argument appeared in the Los Angeles Times).  Only an outside peacekeeper, she argued, could prevent a relapse into sectarian civil war.   Her presentation had an impact;  in his recent essay warning of the risks of withdrawal, Ken Pollack noted that a presentation of the consensus of the field of political science at the U.S. government's annual conference on Iraq policy had most impressed him. 

 But did Walter’s presentation in fact represent the consensus of the literature on civil wars?  By one measure, yes.  She  presented findings rooted in the strategic choice framework in the civil wars literature, with data drawn from large-n quantitative studies of the various data-sets on civil wars.  Those who share her analytical assumptions would find her presentation logical, coherent, and powerful.  But the roundtable where she presented her findings suggested that her approach was far indeed from representing a "consensus" of the political science literature on civil wars.  It left out the entire body of work which is not derived from large-n comparative analysis, and which does not rest on a rationalist logic - research rooted in constructivist notions of discourse, in political economy analysis, in historical particularities, in micro-level networks, in local knowledge. And here, we see methodological and theoretical differences which potentially make a difference. 

 Since some of the best of those alternative approaches were represented on the panel, I asked the panelists to consider how they might respond to Walter's claims from the perspective of their own methodological commitments and experience – and whether any such unified answer about the field’s findings was possible. Walter unfortunately did not engage with the question, but Straus and Wood each offered a few thoughts suggesting that their own approaches would produce very different conclusions. 

 The best answer by far came from Kalyvas.  Walter presented the problem as one of strategic commitment problems faced by three monolithic communities – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – struggling for control of the state under conditions of uncertainity about the credibility of commitments.  Her presentation did not betray deep familiarity with the actors in question or the nature of the political contestation.   Kalyvas responded by insisting on the need to understand the motivations, capabilities, and complex local relationships among the actors in questions.  He reeled off a list of conflicts rather than a single civil war among unified communities:  local struggles for power, intra-communal struggles for power, struggles among economic competitors, patronage and rent-seeking, institutional variables to do with the capability of state and civil society institutions, and the local security problems among fragmented and competitive armed groups.  These different dynamics might very well push in different directions than the logic of the first-order strategic interaction among groups - -- and thus no obvious, single conclusion could possibly be offered about the implications of a U.S. withdrawal without understanding these local specificities. 

 I found the brief comments by Kalyvas far more compelling than Walter’s birds-eye view, and far more in line with the dynamics I’ve traced out in Iraq over the last few years.  This doesn’t mean that Walter’s approach lacks merit. It is certainly useful to apply comparative analysis, and to observe the operation of significant mechanisms such as strategic commitment problems.   But alone it simply isn’t enough.  A deeper knowledge of the nature of the local conflicts and power struggles, the motivations of the relevant actors and the nature of their fears and aspirations, the impact of history and the legacies of past memories -- these seem necessary to offer useful policy advice or reliable analytical judgements.    

 In the end, Walter be right about the strategic consequences of U.S. withdrawal, and her presentation of the situation based on one set of analytical commitments makes good sense.  But the panel made clear, at least to me, that presenting those findings as representing the consensus of the civil wars literature is deeply misleading.  The urgent question is whether the other analytical approaches would lead to Iraq's playing out differently from the predictions generated by the rationalist literature. When does each apply? How would we know?   And what can we do with that information?  Food for thought. 

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.