Will Iraqi elections be the answer?

 During his trip to Iraq, Vice President Joe Biden told reporters that "a successful parliamentary election -- slated for January -- would go a long way toward resolving lingering political tensions here." This has been a primary assumption shaping American strategy for a long time.  The timing of U.S. troop withdrawals was explicitly designed around the perceived need to keep a larger troop presence through the elections to provide security.  The implicit premise has always been that once those elections are held, the security problems will recede and a more rapid withdrawal could commence.

 I've always questioned those assumptions -- both that a large U.S. troop presence would play an important or positive role in the Iraqi elections, and that the election would be a decisive moment which would transform the security calculus.   Has anything happened over the last few months which might lead U.S. officials to rethink their assumptions? 

 Let's see. In Lebanon, elections in June  led to a moment's euphoria in Washington, Riyadh and elsewhere as the March 14 coalition won a surprisingly large victory.  Tortuous coalition negotiations then proceeded for months, until PM-designate Saad Hariri finally threw in the towel (he will likely be asked to try again).  Lebanese politics looks pretty much like it looked before the election, only with more uncertainty over whether the deal granting the opposition a blocking third in the cabinet would hold.

In Iran, elections in June threw the country into turmoil over the blatant intervention by the hard-liners in the regime to block the surging reformist trend. The electoral fraud generated an upsurge of protest and then fierce repression, resulting in an Iranian regime which currently shows little sign of falling (despite the hopes of many) and whose politics have shifted far to the right.  Negotiations on the nuclear issue have been put on endless hold, at least until the Obama administration wisely decided to go ahead with talks in early October.  But those negotiations will clearly now be more difficult, and the drumbeat for sanctions and war has grown stronger. 

And in Afghanistan, elections in August meant to create a legitimate government capable of working with the revamped American counter-insurgency mission were marred by such massive fraud that they seem likely to produce a less legitimate and more unstable government than before. Many of the strategists who placed their hopes on those elections now worry that they will be a turning point in the other direction, destroying rather than saving the American-led mission. 

The similarity in American thinking about the role assigned to elections in the Iraqi and Afghan case bears particular attention. In each case, the elections are supposed to do very specific things for American strategy: legitimate the political order, bring excluded challengers into the political process, resolve enduring political conflicts, create a political foundation for the counter-insurgency campaign.  In Afghanistan, the opposite appears to have happened.  Should this worry those assigning the same hopes to Iraq?

This is not to say that the scheduled Iraqi elections don't matter (even if it were an American decision to hold them, which it most assuredly is not).  The looming elections have very clearly profoundly shaped Iraqi politics.  The jockeying over electoral coalitions, questions about Maliki's power or vulnerability, and reshaping of both intra-communal and inter-communal politics have dominated the Iraqi political arena for months.  The outcomes will matter in important ways-- Shia politics could fragment or reunite, Maliki could emerge as the power broker many hope for or fear, Sunni groups might find a better entree into the ruling coalition, particular groups may rise or fall --- and in contrast to most Arab elections, the outcomes are not pre-ordained. 

 But things could go in bad directions as easily as in good directions -- or, even more likely, could shuffle the deck without producing any miraculous breakthroughs in national reconciliation.  Certainly the 2005 elections produced their fair share of negative results -- worsening the spiral towards civil war, locking in communal representation, and paralyzing the government for months over the inability to agree on a Prime Minister.  The January 2009 provincial elections were seen, by contrast, as a great success.  But as the Times pointed out the other day, disillusionment with the results of the provincial elections -- which carried similar weight in U.S. thinking -- has grown in Anbar as new leaders fall into old habits.  

 As the national elections approach, then, analysts and policymakers should be attentive to what might go wrong and should not assume that the elections will "solve" anything.  Politics won't end.  Many analysts worry that the elections will exacerbate rather than eased the Arab-Kurdish tensions which so many put at the top of the list of current security worries (a concern given weight by the success of the al-Hadba list in provincial elections and by the trends in Iraqi political discourse thus far).  Few provisions seem to have yet been made to ensure the effective participation of the still massive refugee and IDP populations.   The potential for fraud seems high.  The laws governing the election remain unclear.  And if the SOFA referendum is packaged into the national elections, as seems increasingly likely, then all bets are off. 

 These questions, by the way, apply beyond Iraq. In a report I wrote with Brian Katulis a few months ago we urged that the Palestinian elections supposedly scheduled for January 2010 be held and the results honored.  We relied on many of these same arguments -- that it would help resolve the persistent political conflicts, create a more legitimate government, and provide a base for negotiations to proceed.  Maybe that's right, but maybe the results of these recent elections should force us to rethink the assumptions underlying that recommendation too -- and perhaps the decision to postpone elections until the late spring at Egypt's suggestion isn't so terrible.  

At any rate, worth thinking about in Iraq and beyond.  

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.