Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Musharraf's Mounting Woes

A head of state who engages in a sequence of self-serving and contradictory public remarks about a matter as sensitive as the murder of his country’s former prime minister, would seem to put his chances of political survival at serious risk. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan though, derives his authority from sources that put him beyond such mundane notions of public accountability.

Four weeks after the assassination of Pakistan Peoples’ Party leader Benazir Bhutto, the causes of her death remained a matter of bitter contestation. After his initial claim that Bhutto died from hitting her head against her vehicle’s sun-roof, Musharraf came around to an admission that she could possibly have been killed by gunfire. But he insisted as a military man with adequate ballistics expertise, that the evidence he had seen – from pictures and X-rays – did not indicate that the former Prime Minister had suffered any bullet wounds.

Yet how could a head of state be so grossly negligent of basic processes of law, as to make an issue of great public importance a matter of his word against that of the murdered leader’s husband? The answers were delivered in the course of a long interview – in parts belligerent and in parts petulant – with the U.S. magazine, Newsweek. “Somehow, in our culture, a post-mortem of a woman is not done”, he explained: “When the body was at the hospital, (Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali) Zardari himself said it could not be done; he didn't want the post-mortem done”.

Having shown an acute sense of cultural sensitivity in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Musharraf – when under pressure -- had little hesitation with proposing an even more repugnant act under Islamic custom: the exhumation of the slain politician’s body. Here again, he warned, matters were not quite so simple as western observers would assume: “Everything is not black and white here. It (exhumation) would have very big political ramifications. If I just ordered the body exhumed, that would be careless, unless (Bhutto's) people agreed. But they will not”.

Basking in the halo of martyrdom of his wife, Zardari rose to the challenge. An exhumation would be permitted, he said, but only if the investigation into the assassination were to be handed over to the United Nations. The man who spent three terms in prison since 1993, for crimes as diverse as extortion, corruption and complicity in the murder of a troublesome brother-in-law, was obviously enjoying the opportunities he had been granted by his wife’s death, to return to political centre-stage in Pakistan. Yet he was finding his effort to make the Bhutto assassination an international issue, a difficult agenda to pursue.

The precedent that Zardari was banking upon – the murder of a former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, in a devastating bomb attack in Beirut in 2005 -- was proving difficult to apply, because of inconsistent western standards. As a commentator in Pakistan’s main English language daily, Dawn, wrote: In the Rafiq al-Hariri case, the U.S. and its western partners in the U.N. Security Council were the real “sponsors, promoters, organisers and financiers” of the U.N. involvement. This was for reasons “known to the world”. In Bhutto’s case though, whatever their sympathies may have been for the slain leader, “they were in effect … on the other side”. No parallel could be drawn between the two cases, because of “historical, political and legal” considerations.

With this debate raging on one flank, Musharraf faced a multitude of challenges on other fronts. Bomb blasts in Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad, claimed innocent civilian lives in the scores. Bitter sectarian rivalries were imposing a major burden on security forces over the religious observance of Muharram. The Waziristan area was the scene of intense battles, as tribal militias repeatedly overran outposts maintained by Pakistan’s security forces. And despite official claims that the Swat valley in the North-West Frontier Province had been secured after the challenge posed by forces of the recalcitrant cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, media reports spoke of continuing turmoil, including targeted assassinations and organised attacks on Pakistan army contingents.

If they did not have enough to worry about, Pakistan’s security forces were concurrently handling a challenge of quite different dimensions on the food front. Prices of atta were spiralling, ostensibly because of speculative activity by the country’s powerful flour-milling lobby. Much valuable wheat flour was being smuggled across the border into Afghanistan. On January 13, Musharraf authorised a newly constituted Federal Food Commission (FFC) to post armed personnel from Pakistan’s Ranger Force and the military, to safeguard atta stocks around the country’s flour mills. Routes of transit from the flour mills to the country’s main urban centres were secured against unauthorised diversion of the precious food. And exports to Afghanistan were banned, till the domestic price situation stabilised.

The Afghanistan government reacted in pique by closing one of the main transit points between the two countries shortly afterwards. The food supply situation in Afghanistan, they argued, was reaching near critical levels.

With all these troubles mounting, Musharraf was given the faintest sliver of hope by the ostensible finding by British police detectives called in to assist with the Bhutto investigation, that responsibility for the crime lay with Al-Qaeda forces marshalled in Pakistan by the tribal chief in Waziristan, Baitullah Mehsud. This finding was underlined by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) shortly afterwards, in calculated leaks to the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Baitullah Mehsud was the suspect first named by the Pakistan government after the Bhutto assassination. This initial ascription of responsibility was met with a flat denial by the man concerned, who declared that the killing of women was contrary to his faith. Since then, the Pakistan government’s offensive against the Mehsud area has climbed several notches in intensity, with frequent air-strikes and the denial of transit for civilian supplies. Shortly after the CIA endorsed the finding that he was the man behind the Bhutto assassination, Mehsud reportedly issued a warning to the Pakistan military forces to stay out of his area. A jirga, or assembly of tribal elders, meanwhile, called for the lifting of the siege that was denying civilians their essential supplies, including food.

The Pakistan military’s supposed airstrikes in Waziristan were in the perception of many, a mere camouflage for more significant U.S. military action. With his country in turmoil, with bitter battles raging on its frontiers, brutal terrorism threatening its city centres and daily supplies of food becoming a matter of chance for large sections of his people, Musharraf left for an eight-day long tour of Europe, giving the word “nonchalance” a new definition. He was received with the courtesy due to a man who has been certified by the U.S. as a vital ally in what it fancifully calls the “global war on terror”. Civil society groups though, had a different perception, organising a series of protests against the growing authoritarianism of his regime.

A power sharing arrangement between Musharraf and Bhutto, was a remedy crafted in Washington DC for the country’s many ills. Ever since a meeting in Abu Dhabi last August, the two had conducted an on-now off-again dialogue, while denying any rapprochement in public. Bhutto’s rival for the democratic mantle, Mian Mohammad Sharief, meanwhile had sought to short-circuit that dialogue by arriving precipitately in Pakistan in defiance of an agreement under which he had accepted self-exile rather than imprisonment for alleged acts of “treason”. Sharief was unceremoniously bundled out, but managed to regain entry in the slipstream of Bhutto’s return last October. Today, he seeks a rapprochement with Bhutto’s party after years of bitter jealousy, which have been in no small way responsible for the repeated failures of bourgeois democracy in Pakistan.

Sharief’s peace-offering to the Bhutto camp is a “national government” that will involve all Pakistan’s political parties and shut Musharraf out. The latter objective may seem attractive to Zardari, but the man who earned the well-deserved sobriquet of “Mr Ten Percent” for his untrammelled exercise of patronage and pelf during Bhutto’s last administration, is not about to let a lifetime’s opportunity slip. A “national government”, he has said, is not appropriate at a time when elections have already been notified and campaigning is underway.

The months following Musharraf’s effort to discipline the country’s judiciary by dismissing Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury, have been traumatic for his regime. Since the siege of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad was broken in July by heavy-handed military methods, he has suffered an even more rapid descent in public esteem. Moderate and enlightened opinion in Pakistan, which he had been counting on for support, has turned decisively against his intent to stay in office and his determination, only recently renounced, to retain his status as army chief. People are now increasingly tilting to the belief that the Lal Masjid militants were marionettes that Musharraf had self-servingly put into play, to create a climate of fear and bolster his claims to another term as Pakistan’s uniformed president. The armed confrontation that followed only proved that he was not quite in control of the forces that he chose to unleash.

The Lal Masjid confrontation was followed in short order, by a public repudiation by tribal chiefs in Waziristan, of the peace agreement that Musharraf had forged with them in September 2006. This effectively turned the clock back four years, to the military operations that Musharraf had begun in the region in the turbulent summer of 2002, when India and Pakistan were mobilising forces for what both sides vowed, would be a decisive battle, and the U.S. was pressuring the Pakistan leader into doing its bidding as a price for its continuing neutrality.
Musharraf then sent his forces into the tribal areas, only to see them suffer grievous casualties. Today, he is compelled by circumstances, to seek fresh recourse to the discredited technique of using maximal force against an adversary that is resolute and resourceful in resistance. He can count upon the cushion of political safety afforded by a newly appointed army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, who has reportedly vowed that the Pakistan Army will not get involved in politics under his watch. How long the army’s patience will hold out, though, is anybody’s guess, even when the matter involves a former member of its top command hierarchy.

Repairing fractured polities: Equality not Identity

A Review Article

Sumantra Bose, Contested Lands, HarperCollins Publishers India, Delhi, 2007, price not stated, pp vi + 329, ISBN 978-81-7223-608-3.

Successive waves of decolonisation since World War II created a global mosaic of nation states, putting in place a power configuration that seemed immutable. For the authors of the nationalist revival in the Third World, their mission was nothing less than predestined. Nations that had long been denied their place in the sun despite all compelling claims derived from long and hoary histories, were finally coming into their own. There was no limit to the potential for human betterment they embodied.
It did not take long for the optimism to be dispelled, as these nations faced up to the fractures bequeathed by colonialism. Where the new nations were amenable to a coherent form of ethnic characterisation and mobilisation, they suffered these fractures along other fault-lines. But in general, the majority of such fissures emanated from the competing claims of rival sections of the national elite and in turn, acquired the colours of ethnic rivalry.
Fractured national polities being pervasive, one could ask what criteria Sumantra Bose has used in his choice of six particular countries or regions for attention: Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Jammu and Kashmir, Bosnia, and Israel/Palestine. Why not Lebanon, Iraq, Congo, the Ogaden, Kenya, or Afghanisan too? Manageability may have been a criterion. To consider all the countries and regions of the world where fissiparous tendencies are at work, often with brutal implications for human security and welfare, would be to open up a canvas that could not possibly be dealt with in one scholar’s lifetime. But then, the criteria used are as good or bad as the generalisations they yield. Does Bose manage on the basis of these five case studies of divided lands, to come up with general insights that could be applied elsewhere?
Bose’s more general conclusions, fortunately, are stated with relative clarity right up front. The origins of “divided lands” he argues, are in “rival states or mobilized ethnonational groups (claiming) sovereign power over the same territory”. It is a situation that cannot possibly be sustained, since in “an era defined by globalization and its subphenomenon, regional integration and cooperation, it is simply impossible for communities to live in hermetic segregation from one another in ethnonational ghettos”. In addressing the modalities of conflict resolution, Bose permits himself two broad generalisations: that the transition from war to peace is frequently accomplished only through “third-party engagement”, and that a strategy of “incrementalism” or “step-by-step progress” is often less likely to produce durable results than “embarking on a fast track to a comprehensive settlement”.
Both formulations merit serious attention. When “third-party engagement” is called for, it is obviously relevant to inquire into the motivations that the third-party might import into its mediation effort. In all the cases that Bose has studied, there is no clear success involving a third-party mediator. Unfortunately, in a world where might speaks more eloquently than principle, the most likely mediators in any conflict would be neighbouring powers, former colonial masters, or the regnant world hyper-power, the U.S., which is in the famous words of a former top diplomat of the country, the world’s “indispensable nation”. None of these are likely to enter the fray with an unbiased attitude or an even-handed approach.
Bose fails to recognise this and though his case studies bear testimony to several instances of third-party engagement going awry, he remains convinced of its ultimate efficacy and necessity of a mediator to compose the fissures of divided lands. In relation to the U.S. record in the Israel-Palestine peace process, he manages to summon up the stricture that it failed to meet the standard of even-handedness. This must seem a rather tepid characterisation of what has seemed to most other observers, a record of gross partisanship.
All the contested lands that Bose deals with, emerged as sovereign political entities, or part sovereign entities in the years following World War II. The retreat of colonialism in these territories seemed in many instances, to resemble a disorderly cut and run. But in truth, there were calculated efforts made to effect a transfer of power that would maintain an unchanged pecking order in world councils. Orderly transfers of power were rare. In most instances, the colonial masters left deep and bitter animosities that smouldered for long, often necessitating the intervention of the U.S. to either roll back the tide of nationalist radicalism or enforce a degree of compliance with the imperial diktat.
Third party involvement in short, is often where the problem originated. Could then, the solution lie in the same? Can imperial power be acknowledged, even potentially, as a neutral arbiter? This question in turn leads to a broader one: is the organised might of a State, especially an external power, ever used in a neutral fashion?
These questions are never really addressed in Bose’s volume, which concludes with the rather rosy prognosis that “the United States holds unique leverage and influence, globally and in particular world regions, that equip it to play the role of a constructive third party with decisive results”. If played well, “such a role can significantly enhance American interests and American prestige across the world”.
How does this square up with the actual record of interventions by the U.S. in the past? Consider Cyprus, one of Bose’s case studies of divided lands. In the narration of this book, Cyprus was a land torn between two ethnic nationalities: the majority Greeks who believed the nation’s historic destiny lay in enosis or unification with Greece, and the Turks whose formula was for taksim, or a clean break with the Greek majority and a restoration of historic bonds with mainland Turkey. These fissures deepened through Cyprus’ long and arduous struggle for freedom from colonialism, when the British masters found in the island’s Turkish population an all too willing accessory in the brutal repression of Cypriot nationalists. The constitutional formula the island-nation adopted at independence was a model of complex and multi-tiered power-sharing, a system of governance that has lately come to be theorised and extensively studied under the rubric of “consociationalism”. Yet the island continued to be riven by ethnic rivalries and antagonistic visions of its future.
In 1974, the right-wing military junta in power in Greece, instigated revanchist Greek nationalists in Cyprus to overthrew the democratically elected President, Archbishop Makarios. Suspecting that the next step would be the fulfilment of the Greek Cypriot stratagem of enosis, Turkey which was then nominally under a civilian government though in truth controlled by the military, invaded the island-nation, effecting a partition along ethnic lines that was in due course, completed through a transfer of populations.
This much is clear from Bose’s narration. But what he fails to elaborate on is the role of the U.S., which far from intervening to calm things down, chose to instigate the most uncompromising reaction from extremist elements on both sides. Recently declassified documents show Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, with unparalleled authority over the diplomatic and intelligence machineries, putting into play his fanciful reading of the Cyprus problem, which saw Archbishop Makarios’ pesky neutrality and his resolute indifference to U.S. strategic interests, as the central issue. But since an armed confrontation between two such vital allies as Greece and Turkey would endanger the “southern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)”, a neat partition of tiny, unarmed Cyprus seemed an acceptable alternative.
Bose documents how the dynamics of European integration since, which have favoured (predominantly Greek) southern Cyprus, as the internationally recognised legatee State, have tended to soften the hard edges of this partition. But the very same process has induced also, a sense of complacence among Greek Cypriots, who have begun to enjoy the benefits of European integration without any of the burdens of sharing power within the State, with a truculent Turkish minority. Economic disparities have widened with the Greek south enjoying distinctly the better standards of living. After three decades of separation, there is little incentive left for reunification. Larger ambitions of enosis have been diluted by the political moderation that has reigned since the overthrow of the Greek military junta in 1974; and in large measure, European integration renders ambitions of enosis somewhat irrelevant.
In Sri Lanka, Bose provides an extended treatment of the internal political dynamics that have led to the current situation of separation and undying rancour between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority. But perhaps because he remains committed to “third-party engagement” as an indispensable part of the solution to such schisms, he fails to delineate the full dimensions of the fatally miscued Indian intervention of 1987-90. He correctly observes that Indian support for the Tamil insurgency, which broke out in full-blown fury in 1983, was “fundamentally shallow, born of circumstances and strategic perceptions that were open to change”. There was never the slightest support at the higher-levels of the Indian government for Tamil secession, which was seen to have deep and dark implications for India’s own fragile internal cohesion. But then the Indian response to the Sri Lankan crisis was little short of absurd: with an Indian Prime Minister signing an agreement on behalf of the Sri Lankan Tamils “after murky and hasty negotiations from which all Sri Lankan Tamils were excluded”. “The problems with the agreement went beyond questions of the lack of process and inclusiveness to matters of substantive content”, Bose comments, “although undoubtedly the glaring substantive problems stemmed directly from the absence of process”.
If the agreement was crafted in such unpropitious circumstances, its subsequent implementation was catastrophic. The principal belligerents on the Sri Lankan Tamil side, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) felt completely unconstrained by the agreement and took on the Indian army contingents deployed in the island nation, ostensibly as peacekeepers, in a savage guerrilla war. The Sri Lankan president, R. Premadasa, on succeeding the architect of the agreement, made no secret of his deep resentment of the Indian troop presence. With violence escalating dangerously, he launched a brutal war of extermination against armed Sinhalese elements in the south, while secretly conspiring with the LTTE in the north and east and rendering it material support in the guerrilla campaign against the Indian army. Bose only partially narrates this story and does not enter into a discussion of how all sides in that abortive effort to resolve the Sri Lankan issue, acted in extreme bad faith. It was, in short, not the best advertisement for the efficacy of “third-party intervention” in repairing the fissures of divided lands.
Finally, there is only the U.S. intervention in Bosnia in 1995 that Bose manages to uphold as a successful instance of third party engagement. Here again, it is clear that the truce achieved through U.S. coercion cannot, by any yardstick, be described as a just peace. And only time will tell whether it will be a durable peace. The U.S. indeed, as Bose himself suggests with a lengthy quotation from Richard Holbroooke, its principal negotiator in the dispute, recognised this. In fact, the circumstances for the Dayton peace accord were achieved only by western acquiescence in a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing by Croat armed forces, which effectively emptied three large population centres of all Serbs. This was followed by waves of U.S. and allied aerial bombing of troop concentrations that decisively tilted the balance on the ground in favour of the Croat and Bosniak Muslim forces. Bose quotes a rather ambivalent judgment by Richard Holbrooke, who recorded in his memoir of those times that “the basic truth” was “not something that could be publicly stated”. But the plain fact was that the “map negotiation” which was the most “daunting challenge” facing the U.S. as a third party mediator, was taking place on the battlefield.The essence of third-party mediation in this case then, was to use the U.S. military as a force multiplier for one side in the hostilities in Bosnia, indeed, to create a shotgun coalition of Croat and Bosniak Muslims who had nothing more in common than the contingent and convergent intent of expelling the Serbs from their enclaves.
Unwittingly perhaps, Holbrooke lays out the dubious U.S. motivations in the very same memoir that Bose relies upon, just a few pages ahead of the section that he quotes. As a member of Holbrooke’s negotiating team scribbled on a note just as the mediation mission was beginning, there was no cause for excessive scruple about the methods used by the U.S.’s chosen allies. The Croats and the Bosniaks, as he said, had been hired as “junkyard dogs” because the U.S. was “desperate”: “We need to try to control them. But this is no time to get squeamish about things. This is the first time the Serb wave has been reversed. That is essential for us to get stability, so we can get out”.
Stability in other words was the object, not justice. And the regime that was crafted was a hasty patchwork operation to remedy the instability caused by the precipitate western recognition of a 1992 referendum that voted – in the face of a complete boycott by Bosnian Serbs – for the independence of the province from the larger Yugoslav federation. The western powers failed evidently, to honour the cardinal principle of stable confederations, which is that each constituent unit would have a veto over crucial policy decisions.
When structures of the state are dismantled, there should be little wonder that people fall back on ties of kinship and community as their sole bulwark against a threatening environment. Ethnic nationalism and extreme forms of historical revanchism are not natural states of being, but the contingent outcomes of cataclysmic failures of the modern political State. If the mission of repairing the polities of deeply fractured lands is partly about forging -- in place of an ethnic or communitarian sense of belonging -- a sense of civic identity, of citizenship as the sole basis of entitlements and responsibilities, then part of the strategy must embrace a radical program of social and economic equality. It is when equality is denied that identity becomes paramount. And the forging of this radical notion of substantive equality is not a task that is done in an “incremental” or “gradualist” fashion, but through a fast-track effort that clearly recognises the ultimate goal in advance. In this manner perhaps, Bose is quite right, though not perhaps in the manner that he intends.

When Reconciliation is the Object, Does the Truth Matter?

A Review Article

Iraq, Preventing a New Generation of Conflict, Markus E. Bouillon, David M. Malone and Ben Rowswell (editors), a project of the International Peace Academy, Viva Books, New Delhi, 2007, pp xiv + 351, price not stated.

There could be no quarrel with the stated theoretical endeavour of this book. Iraq is a country that has gone through a quarter-century of war: first against a neighbour, then against the whole world, now against itself. A generation in the country has grown up with unhappy memories of isolation from the world. And any Iraqi who had the wherewithal to cast his or her eyes beyond the country’s borders, would have witnessed a variety of demonisation of the country and its leadership that grossly overstepped all bounds of reasonable discourse. Iraq now witnesses a virulent upsurge of ethnic enmities that are in part, the self-fulfilling outcome of relentless western propaganda. It is a situation that necessarily calls for not merely peace-making, but an effort at looking forward, to a vision that might enable a future generation to leave behind the bitter animosities of the last quarter century.
But beyond this statement of the obvious, a number of questions arise. Is reconciliation achieved through historical amnesia? Or is remembrance, the acknowledgment of error, and forgiveness the answer? If reconciliation is the object, is the truth at all germane? Does it matter, in other words, that the tragedy of Iraq – from the war of destruction waged in 1991, through the campaign of attrition by sanctions, to the climactic act of the U.S. invasion and the current state of internal meltdown – was constructed on a foundation of western duplicity and falsehood?
In an early contribution to this volume, Jon Pedersen warns against the temptation to “ascribe the socio-economic situation of present-day Iraq solely to the sanctions period, invasion, subsequent occupation and insurgency”. Playing safe in terms of the dominant wisdom, he places these episodes of an unfolding catastrophe in a continuum with all of Iraq’s “turbulent modern history”. This situation has not been helped by either the Iraqi regime or the international community, which in mutually adversarial reactions, have created a state “that relied on buying political support and quelling unrest through direct transfers and subsidies”. Such a state, says Pedersen, “is inherently unstable, because it rests on its ability to continue paying for the loyalty of the population”.
Soon afterwards, Pedersen states the self-evident truth, that the “shocks to which Iraq and its people have been exposed have had dramatic consequences for virtually every aspect of life”. All indicators testify to the fact that in 1990, in the uneasy interim between the conclusion of the war against Iran and the beginning of the war of destruction by the U.S., “Iraq had the second highest development score among its neighbours in the Middle East, behind only the United Arab Emirates”. With the first stage of the U.S. project consummated in the ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Iraq’s development indicators began a rapid descent. Within a decade, Iraq was registering the region’s second worst scores, next only to Yemen. This was, Pedersen concludes, “a sobering development for the country that had the fastest increase in literacy in the world between 1970 and 1985”.
What fate is likely to befall a state that allows its citizens access to the benefits of human development, while refusing to yield any powers that it may have concentrated within itself? The plain answer is that the state becomes an anachronism. Once the level of social development exceeds the limits that are prescribed by a repressive state -- and the regime begins to be seen as an impediment to further progress -- the fetters must be broken. Dictatorships seldom survive the rising awareness and aspirations of subject peoples.
In other words, the conditions for a democratic transformation were being created in Iraq as far back as the 1980s. The sanctions that the country suffered for 12 years following the Gulf War, effectively choked off this possibility, throttling the burgeoning confidence of its middle class, destroying hope and initiative, and concentrating immense powers in the Iraqi state, almost as a survival imperative for the country and its people. The U.S. invasion in 2003 completed the destruction of the Iraqi state.
Toby Dodge points out in a contribution titled “State Collapse and the Rise of Identity Politics”, that Iraqi society has been dominated since the day U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad, by a “profound security vacuum”. Indeed, the “opportunities provided by the collapse of the state and the disbanding of the Iraqi army were seized upon by a myriad of groups deploying violence for their own ends”. A foretaste of the ethnic animosities brewing under the facade of Iraq’s liberation, came with the bombing in August 2003 of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf – a revered site of the Shia Muslim faith – which killed over a hundred, including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq or SICI). Forces of ethnic hatred were perhaps unleashed then, though they were yet to attain their most virulent expression. That indeed, happened in February 2006, when the Al Askariya shrine in Samarra was bombed.
“The main driving force behind violence in Iraq is the absence of state institutions”, says Dodge. Iraq on the eve of the 2003 invasion, he points out, was a state on the verge of collapse. Enervated through wars and sanctions, the Iraqi state could not handle the additional pressures generated by the invasion and plunged rapidly towards complete breakdown.
This reading clearly merits reassessment. By early 2001, when the Bush administration brought a cabal of neo-conservative conspirators into the portals of power in Washington DC, the policy of sanctions against Iraq had been thoroughly discredited. Its enormous toll in human suffering was a matter of public record, through successive reports from multilateral bodies. And the silent protests of earlier years were rapidly yielding to acts of conscience by international volunteers, intent on breaking the sanctions regime and exposing its illegitimacy.
It was this alarming prospect that Bush managed to checkmate in the explosive aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the U.S., which endowed him with the moral authority to pronounce an anathema on Iraq as part of a supposed “axis of evil”. The revelations that have emerged about the Bush cabal’s instinctive reaction to September 11 -- and the frenetic efforts that followed to build a case for war against Iraq -- lead definitively to the inference that the dismantlement of the Iraqi state was not an unintended consequence, or the spontaneous outcome of internal infirmities, but very much part of the U.S. design.
Dodge makes a persuasive case against partition, which is a policy that has been gaining an increasing number of advocates on the liberal end of the U.S. political spectrum. He argues that ethnic separatism is not the issue, but the “absence of institutional and coercive state capacity across the whole of central and southern Iraq”. While constructing this case, Dodge omits a crucial point: the advocates of partition, who today tend to be from the liberal end, are only echoing a proposal made as far back as 1999 by the arch neo-conservative, David Wurmser, in a breathlessly perfervid book titled “Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein”. Partition, or more euphemistically put, confederation, was curiously, also the formula advanced in 1995 by King Hussein of Jordan, who made an abrupt switch that year, immediately after signing a peace agreement with Israel, from being a sympathetic but helpless witness to the tragedy of a neighbouring state, to being an active proponent of its dismemberment.
When structures of the state are dismantled, there should be little wonder that people fall back on ties of kinship and community as their sole bulwark against a threatening environment. Abdul Salem Sidahmed points out that an element common to all the political groups that have established themselves in the post-invasion environment, is “their subscription to Islamism”. In this respect, the political parties that matter are of the same stripe as the insurgency, often enough, the front organisations of groups that are pursuing “politics by other means”. A closer look indicates though, that “Islamism” for most political groups, is “more a vehicle for mobilisation than a vision to reconstruct the state and society”. Pan-Islamism however, cannot really be a formula for unifying the fractured country, since the “multiple identities” of modern Iraqi society were built around quite distinct narratives and “actual or perceived grievances vis-a-vis the state or other communities”.
Iraqi nationalism too does not amount to a formula for composing the ethnic enmities unleashed by the occupation, says Sidahmed. This is because Iraqi nationalism has always been a “conflict-driven” ideology, fuelled by the various wars the country has been engaged in, among which the U.S.-inspired sanctions count as "war by other means". Moreover, Iraqi nationalism in the current context is built on a foundation of hostility to the Shia-Kurdish alliance that has been the dominant force in determining the country’s new constitutional shape.
Given all these constraints, Sidahmed is at pains to underline the virtues of modesty in framing political objectives. There is nothing modest though, about the nature of the task involved, which is nothing less than winning broad consent for a secular political dispensation, a civic nationalism that recognises “citizenship as the basis of all rights and entitlements”. Among several other things, this necessitates the fair and equitable distribution of the country’s resources.
Such a regime, simply put, remains a remote possibility, given the potentiality inherent in the new constitutional order for the secession of the Shia south and the Kurdish north. David Cameron points out that the 2005 constitution adopted by a national assembly conspicuously lacking in Sunni representation, exhibits a “pronounced decentralist bias”. It has a relatively short list of federal powers and a limited number of shared responsibilities between the centre and the provinces. All other powers rest with the provinces and where authority is shared with the centre, it is explicitly stated that the provinces enjoy paramountcy. There is also a provision in the constitution that allows provinces to determine, through popular referenda, their mutual aggregation into “regions”. The Kurdish “region” in Iraq, a reality in fact since the U.S. cordoned off the area in 1991 and declared it a "no-fly zone", became a reality in law in 2005. There is also a strong possibility that the Shia dominated provinces in the south will opt in the not too distant future, to group themselves into a distinct “region”.
There are contributions in this volume on the role of the Sunni militants, as also the Shia vigilante groups that have become major players on the Iraqi political scene. After remaining united on a program of rejectionism in the earlier period, the Sunni groups we learn, split into two distinct tendencies in a later phase, one deciding upon a process of engagement with the new constitutional order. This decision was driven as much by the fear of being fatally marginalised, as by the possibilities of collaboration that were opened up by schisms within the Shia groups and the emergence of an Arab nationalist strain that opposed the growing dependence on Iran.
The political reality in Iraq is far more complex than the media can really comprehend, given its dependence on shorthand descriptions like Sunni, Shia and Kurd. As this volume documents, southern Iraq in fact, witnessed pitched battles between rival Shia militias. But a significant development since, is that the Mahdi Army of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, representing a political tendency relatively autonomous of Iran, has stood down, allowing the rival Badr Brigade effective pre-eminence in the south. The pilgrimage city of Najaf, in turn, has emerged as the de facto citadel of Shia power, securely within the influence of the al-Hakim clan and its patrons in Iran.
Clearly, the Shia south is increasingly asserting its independence of the central authority, even without invoking the constitutional provisions for regional autonomy. The Kurdish north enjoys a greater measure of autonomy, though it lacks the capital city of its ambitions. The Iraqi constitution in one of its most contentious clauses, provides for a referendum, to determine the future of the city of Kirkuk, a hub of the oil industry and the putative capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was widely recognised at the moment the constitution was adopted, that this would be a flashpoint in the evolution of the Iraqi polity. That indeed has turned out to be the case, with the sensitivities involved being so acute, that the constitutional deadline of December 2007 has passed without the modalities for the future referendum being agreed.
One of the contributions in this volume looks at Kirkuk as a laboratory for peace-making. But the reality, becoming increasingly apparent today, is that it is more likely to be the point at which the geopolitics that the new Iraq is supposed to be central to, will unravel. Far from gaining control over Kirkuk, Iraq’s Kurds in December 2007 suffered the mortification of seeing Turkish forces engage in a series of major armed raids on their territory, including air strikes, to destroy what were allegedly, safe havens for Kurdish guerrillas operating in Turkey. These actions were carried out with full U.S. approval and possibly the provision of “actionable intelligence”. On a damage control visit to Kirkuk on December 17, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was refused a meeting with the deeply offended Iraqi Kurd leadership.
This clearly is the moment at which the objectives of restoring peace and redressing the grievous damage suffered by generations in Iraq, needs to reckon with the imperatives of the truth. The U.S. misadventure has seriously unsettled strategic equations in one of the world’s most combustible regions. And the law of unintended consequences has kicked in with a vengeance, greatly adding to the strategic power of Iran – another of the countries in Bush’s fancifully named “axis of evil” – and enhancing the strategic vulnerability of Turkey, a vital U.S. ally. Ever since the Gulf War of 1991, U.S. policy in Iraq had been stalemated by an uneasy awareness of these possible outcomes. But unbridled neo-conservative arrogance and the vengefulness unleashed by September 11, meant effectively that more sober counsels were discarded in the urge to reorder the world. In the process, the people of Iraq, no strangers to suffering, have been visited with a more acute phase of their collective trauma. How the authors of this tragedy have escaped public scrutiny and sanction for conduct that can only be deemed criminally racist, is perhaps a question that needs closer examination, if the ultimate object is the restoration of peace in Iraq.