Lost in the Pony Fields

Now that I’ve read the whole thing, the good news about the Iraq Study Group report is that it’s filled with accurate observations about the situation in Iraq. As Kevin Drum writes it’s “more reality-based than the Bush administration, which represents at least a little bit of progress.” On the level of concepts on logic, however, it’s more-or-less a sick joke. As the report outlines, the fundamental problem in Iraq is the absence of broad-based national reconciliation. Absent such reconciliation, it’s impossible for the US military to provide security to the country, impossible to create effective Iraqi institutions, and impossible to isolate hard-core extremists on either side of the sectarian divide.

As the report also recognizes, the main obstacle to broad-based reconciliation is that none of the relevant parties seem to want it:

  • Maliki “has publicly rejected a U.S. timetable to achieve certain benchmarks, ordered the removal of blockades around Sadr City, sought more control over Iraqi security forces, and resisted U.S. requests to move forward on reconciliation or on disbanding Shiite militias.”

  • Sistani, by contrast, “has encouraged a unified Shia bloc with moderated aims within a unified Iraq” but his “influence may be waning, as his words have not succeeded in preventing intra-Shia violence or retaliation against Sunnis.”
  • Hakin’s SCIRI is “the largest and most organized Shia political party” and it “seeks the creation of an autonomous Shia region comprising nine provinces in the south.”
  • Sunni Arabs, meanwhile “reject a federal, decentralized Iraq and do not see a Sunni autonomous region as feasible for themselves.”
  • Tariq al-Hashimi of the Iraqi Islamic Party “opposes the formation of autonomous regions” and demands “a reversal of de-Baathification, and the removal of Shiite militia fighters from the Iraqi security forces.”
  • Sheikh Harith al-Dari “is the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, the most influential Sunni organization in Iraq” and what’s more “A warrant was recently issued for his arrest for inciting violence and terrorism, an act that sparked bitter Sunni protests across Iraq.”
  • Muqtada al-Sadr is “building a political party that controls basic services within the government and an armed militia outside of the government.”

So in review, the most conciliation-oriented Shiite figure is losing influence. The Shiite head of government has refused to disband militias. That may be because the heads of the two most influential Shiite organizations in the country are militia leaders. At least one of them has put the creation of autonomous regions as the centerpiece of his political agenda. One of the two most influential Sunni political leaders has put preventing the creation of such regions as the centerpiece of his political agenda. The other major Sunni political leader is wanted for arrest by the Shiite-dominated government.

The Kurds play relatively little role in this mess, but they “insisted that the constitution require a popular referendum by December 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk can formally join the Kurdish administered region” and the ISG remarks that “the risks of further violence sparked by a Kirkuk referendum are great.”

Last but by no means least, according to the ISG “Iraq’s leaders often claim that they do not want a division of the country, but we found that key Shia and Kurdish leaders have little commitment to national reconciliation . . . many of Iraq’s most powerful and well-positioned leaders are not working toward a united Iraq.”

To make a long story short, these observations render virtually all of the ISG’s recommendations moot. Absent political reconciliation, none of this stuff about embedding someone here, or training someone there is going to accomplish anything. And national reconciliation hasn’t been forthcoming because the key people aren’t committed to it. Through absolutely no fault of the ISG membership — there simply isn’t very much to be done on this front — the section on “Steps for the United States to Take on Behalf of National Reconciliation” is incredibly thin gruel:

RECOMMENDATION 34: The question of the future U.S. force presence must be on the table for discussion as the national reconciliation dialogue takes place. Its inclusion will increase the likelihood of participation by insurgents and militia leaders, and thereby increase the possibilities for

RECOMMENDATION 35: The United States must make active efforts to engage all parties in Iraq, with the exception of al Qaeda. The United States must find a way to talk to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Moqtada al-Sadr, and militia and insurgent leaders.

RECOMMENDATION 36: The United States should encourage dialogue between sectarian communities, as outlined in the New Diplomatic Offensive above. It should press religious leaders inside and outside Iraq to speak out on behalf of peace and reconciliation.

RECOMMENDATION 37: Iraqi amnesty proposals must not be undercut in Washington by either the executive or the legislative branch.

I just don’t think there’s anything here. Recommendations 34, 35, and 37 are all good ideas and it’s conceivable that had they been implemented at some point in 2003-2004 they would have improved things. At this point, however, none of them speak to the core issue: The Iraqis. In terms of getting the Iraqis to agree to something — which is the key thing to do — all they have is asking other countries to ask Iraqis to agree, and asking “religious leaders inside and outside Iraq” to ask Iraqis to agree.

I don’t blame the ISG for not having any smarter ideas about this; I don’t have any smarter ideas either. But the whole plan founders on this point. Nothing is worth doing absent national reconciliation and nobody knows how to create it.