The ongoing violence and instability in Iraq prompt questions about how Iraq will evolve politically. The Bush administration has said that its policy is to build a stable, moderate and democratic Iraq, even if doing so requires an indefinite deployment of significant numbers of U.S. military personnel. However, insurgency and instability continue to rise to ever-higher levels, despite continuous U.S. and coalition counterinsurgency operations, and substantial high-level U.S. efforts to promote political transition and stability.
Can the administration’s goals for Iraq be accomplished, and, if so, what combination of policy choices could promote that outcome? Or are political outcomes in Iraq dependent only on the interactions among various Iraqi factions, impervious to the effects of U.S. policy choices?
A useful tool for evaluating Iraq’s future is to examine alternative scenarios and possibilities. Although the characteristics of countries and situations vary greatly, some analogies can be drawn between events and trends in Iraq and those experienced by other countries in the region. These “models” are not intended to be exhaustive, and Iraq’s political evolution might not approximate anything else seen in the region to date. However, the models discussed below can be helpful in analyzing current trends in Iraq.1
“PUPPET GOVERNMENT” MODEL
The “puppet government” model is one in which a weak government – with questionable legitimacy – rules in the capital or within limited areas of the country with the backing of a superpower army. This model characterized the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the communist governments that ruled in Kabul, Afghanistan, during 1979-92. The South Vietnamese government survived about two years after U.S. forces pulled out of that war effort. In Afghanistan, the Soviet-backed communist government of President Najibullah survived only about three years after Soviet troops withdrew in February 1989. In April 1992, Najibullah’s regime fell to the combined forces of major mujahedin factions that had enjoyed U.S. backing.
This model is analogous to what we see now in Iraq. The interim government of Iyad Allawi was established by the U.S.-led occupation government in consultation with the United Nations. It was not elected, and it was not selected in a national selection process; its legitimacy is questioned by many Iraqis. However, many Iraqis who do not view it as legitimate nonetheless want the interim government to succeed in establishing security throughout Iraq. Many Iraqis express a willingness to tolerate the interim government as a necessary step in Iraq’s transition to a democratic future.
But more important than how Iraqis feel about the interim government is its survivability in the absence of superpower armed support. That is the true measure of whether or not a government is a “puppet.” The only way to scientifically test its survivability would be to observe what happens to this government in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. Without such a withdrawal, we must rely on current facts on the ground to judge its survivability.
In the Iraq case, there is observable information. There is an ongoing insurgency whose sweep is being described by journalists and others on the ground in Iraq. There is also a track record of performance upon which to judge the interim government’s ability to defend itself. The observable facts do not support the proposition that the interim government would long survive a pullout by U.S.-led forces, were that to happen at this time.
Even with 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and about 20,000 more from other contributing countries, Sunni insurgents, most of whom are Islamists of Iraqi origin, have managed to gain de-facto control of at least two major cities: Fallujah and Ramadi.2 Other press reports say that Sunni insurgents are still strong in Samarra3 and Baqubah as well, and there is a substantial insurgent presence in and around Mosul. In the mostly Shiite south of Iraq, Shiite insurgents loyal to radical anti-U.S., anti-Iraq-government cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (“Mahdi Army”) have battled U.S. forces in Najaf and other southern cities since April 2004. Despite limited agreements between Sadr and the Iraqi government, Sadr’s support is strong in Basra, Amara, Diwaniyah and particularly in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. Sadr could yet launch another uprising. In battles against Mahdi Army forces and against Sunni insurgents, Iraqi government forces have generally performed poorly, often fleeing their positions or in some cases turning vehicles and other equipment over to insurgents. On no known occasion has any Iraqi unit, without the help of U.S.-led forces, recaptured a neighborhood or district from insurgents.
U.S. commanders in Iraq openly say that Iraqi security forces are “clearly not ready” to defend Iraq on their own. This adds up to a picture of a government that could not survive in the absence of U.S. led forces, and the interim government therefore would appear to meet the definition of a “puppet government.”
This model could describe Iraq for quite some time. It appears highly unlikely that the United States, no matter what the election outcome in November, would pull out of Iraq and leave the government vulnerable, as did the Soviets from Afghanistan. Under this model, it is likely that Iraq’s insurgents will continue to slowly erode the authority of the interim government, although the insurgents might not ever completely defeat or overthrow it as long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq to prop that government up.
THE STRONGMAN MODEL
Iraqis are familiar with governance by a “strongman,” having been governed by Saddam Hussein for 24 years. Political systems often turn to strongmen when faced with an absence of political stability and physical security – as Iraqis are today. In Iraq today, the strongman model has been commonly referred to by some as “Saddam-lite” – a reconstitution of some form of one-man rule, dependent heavily on the performance of repressive security services to keep order.
The political style and emphasis of interim Prime Minister Allawi seems to suggest that he believes that a strongman – himself – is to defeat the persistent insurgency throughout the country and achieve stability. Since taking office on June 1, 2004 (the formal handover of sovereignty was June 28), Allawi has emphasized security above all else, and several polls taken at the time of the sovereignty handover indicate that many Iraqis are willing to give up some of their new-found freedoms if doing so would calm and stabilize Iraq. In his first several speeches and statements, Allawi promised to rebuild the Iraqi military by bringing back officers who were dismissed when the United States took over. He has announced the reconstitution of a domestic intelligence service, and the interim government has approved a law that gives Allawi broad emergency security powers.
Many observers suspect that Allawi – who was a Baath party member in the 1960s and who does not have an established track record of advocating Western style democracy – is acting to secure his own grip on power, in the name of the need for Draconian security measures. Others believe he wants to concentrate power in order to improve his chances, and the chances of his Iraq National Accord (INA) party, in upcoming elections.
On balance, it is unlikely that Allawi would be able to establish himself as a strongman in post-Saddam Iraq. Unleashed by the fall of Saddam, Iraq’s majority Shiites, who are largely led by Islamist clerics and factions, see their numerical majority as their route to finally holding power in Iraq. If Allawi were to refuse to hold elections, the Shiite Islamists would likely combat him with violence. Their sheer numbers – coupled with the weakness of the Iraqi security forces recruited to date – would likely allow them to prevail in any power struggle with Allawi. Iraq’s Shiites were not well organized when Saddam Hussein rose to power, and they were unable to prevent him from solidifying his control. Much better organized now, the Shiites are likely to act, violently if necessary, to prevent any Iraqi figure from replicating Saddam’s concentration of power.
If Allawi’s true intention is to maintain his own power, and if he were to succeed – perhaps helped by a growing security apparatus and a U.S. policy that centers on Allawi – the strongman model could take hold. If it does, the model could describe Iraq’s politics for a very long time. As noted above, Saddam was Iraq’s strongman for more than two decades, and he politically survived the loss of the 1991 Gulf War. With the exception of the shah of Iran, very few dictators in the region have been overthrown in a popular revolution. The major downside of this model for U.S. policy is that it obviously conflicts with the image of democracy that the administration has said is a major U.S. goal for Iraq.
THE ELECTION-DRIVEN MODEL
This model is the currently envisioned transition pathway drawn up by the United States and leading Iraqis. If this model prevails, it would fulfill the U.S. commitment to convert Iraq from a brutal dictatorship into a pluralist democracy. According to the current election-driven transition roadmap, Iraq is to hold elections for a National Assembly by January 31, 2005; that Assembly will then select an executive branch, including a presidency council consisting of a president and two deputy presidents. This government would then draft and submit to a referendum a permanent constitution and hold elections for a permanent government by the end of 2005.
The completion of the planned transition roadmap would represent “success” for U.S. policy, but it nonetheless holds significant pitfalls. If, for example, the existing interim government were to manipulate the elections so as to ensure its own victory, or the victory of a small faction within it, the holding of elections might not, in and of itself, be widely accepted.
If the elections are truly free and fair, most observers expect a significant victory for Iraq’s Shiites, and particularly their best-organized portion – the Islamists. This model is favored by the revered Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his allied parties – the Dawa party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). This coalition favors elections not because the group is necessarily well-disposed towards the United States, but because hard political calculations indicate this group can use the elections to prevail politically and achieve long-hoped-for Shiite rule in Iraq. Were this coalition to gain a large enough preponderance of governmental power from elections, it is possible that the Shiite Islamists might try to set up an Islamic republic modeled after Iran or, at the very least, align Iraq’s foreign policy very closely with that of Iran. The main Shiite parties have close ties to Iran and ideological linkages to the founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Even a free and fair election would not, therefore, guarantee stability. Democracy requires that losers peacefully accept the results of an election. Those currently leading the insurgency in mostly Sunni central-west Iraq, however, are not likely to be subdued by the holding of elections. These insurgent leaders, as well as more modern Sunni factions, see upcoming elections as a device created by the United States to legitimize the transfer of power from the Sunnis to the Shiites. The Sunni insurgents see upcoming elections as a tool to marginalize their community in post Saddam Iraq. A boycott of the elections by most of the Sunni community is possible, even likely. As a result, a new government constituted after elections might not be able to stabilize center-west Iraq.
THE FAILED-STATE MODEL
Since September 11, 2001, many analysts have argued that a so-called failed state – a state in which there is virtually no central government – may be more threatening to U.S. interests than a strong state or a state over which the government exercises firm control. Saddam Hussein’s regime represented a strong state, one in which the government had authority over its territory (with the exception of the Kurdish regions, protected by a U.S.-led “no-fly zone”). However, this strong state was viewed as aggressive and threatening in the judgment of the Bush administration.
The continuing instability in Iraq threatens to produce the opposite – a quintessential failed state. Other observers might refer to this model as a civil-war scenario. In Thomas Hobbes’s formulation, it is the “state of nature” or “war of all against all.” In this failed-state model, every Iraqi faction would be fighting against virtually every other faction and fighting against the “center” – or what remains of it – at the same time. Afghanistan epitomized a failed state after the Soviet Union withdrew in February 1989 and its puppet communist government collapsed in 1992. A civil war ensued among the mujahedin who had fought the Soviet occupation, and their infighting paved the way for the formation and ascendancy of the Taliban regime.
In Iraq, this scenario is not necessarily likely, but it is possible. The model could emerge if the United States, possibly due to escalating U.S. casualties, did withdraw its military forces. As discussed previously, it is not likely that the current government would survive long against the growing Sunni insurgency as well as that of Sadr’s followers. If the interim government collapsed at the hands of the insurgency, a political vacuum would be created that various factions would try to fill. These factions would likely conduct an all-out scramble for power and, in the process, come into conflict with each other. The Sunni insurgents in center-west Iraq would likely see the collapse of the interim government as an opportunity to regain Sunni dominance over the Iraqi political structure – an outcome most of the Sunni community now sees as largely lost. If the center collapsed, many Shiites would likely join with Sadr’s Mahdi forces, and with each other, in an effort to capture the seat of governance in Baghdad, if for no other purpose than to deny any other community the control of Baghdad.
An open question is whether this failed-state model could emerge if U.S. forces remain in Iraq. It is difficult to envision how an interim government could collapse outright as long as U.S. forces are protecting it. An all-out insurgent attack in Baghdad itself would not likely accomplish that goal, but would more likely result in a military defeat for the insurgents, much as the Vietcong were defeated militarily in the Tet offensive. However, if the insurgents were to continue to capture actual or de facto control of various cities around Iraq, the interim government could conceivably unravel without its being attacked militarily. In that case, it is possible that Iraqi officials could resign, and the government could progressively unravel. An alternate possibility is that government leaders could be assassinated by the insurgency, precipitating an unraveling.
The failed-state model cannot produce a stable equilibrium; it would therefore likely represent a transition phase until another model emerges. Although a civil war could go on for many years, the history of these types of conflicts is that eventually the factions get tired of fighting, or the neighboring countries step in to broker a solution or precipitate a metamorphosis to a different model. In Lebanon, its neighbors prompted reconciliation in the form of the Taif Accords – essentially a power-sharing deal among Lebanon’s factions (the possibility and benefits of a power-sharing arrangement in Iraq are discussed below). In Afghanistan, there was civil war during 1992-96 and Pakistan, by backing the Taliban, aided a transition to a strongman model in which the Taliban centralized rule and repressed and defeated enemy factions.
THE POWER-SHARING MODEL
A fifth model that could emerge is a power-sharing compromise among major factions, possibly brokered by the United Nations. In this model, the major factions reach a compromise to govern in partnership with each other. What would be established under this model is a relatively weak government in Baghdad, ruling in partnership or alliance with factions that are dominant in various regions. It is likely that the factions would draw up their own transition roadmap, which might not include elections in the short term. Open, competitive elections could be detrimental to the stability of this model, because they would force the factions to confront each other. This would risk shattering the power sharing formula. More likely, if elections were held at all, the factions would likely predetermine the election outcome through negotiations. There could, under these circumstances, be a thin veneer of elections without the risks that real competition introduces.
There is some precedent for regional power-sharing deals in the region. Most notable among them is post-Taliban Afghanistan, in which the major Afghan factions appear to have reached a relatively stable compromise at the November 2001 meeting in Bonn, Germany, to establish a post-Taliban government. The apparent success of the model has been demonstrated by the absence of fighting among the major factions despite their decision to compete against each other in the October 9, 2004, presidential elections. In the Afghan case, therefore, the power sharing arrangements have allowed for a certain amount of electoral competition, perhaps contrary to expectations. In the case of Lebanon, a power-sharing agreement ended over a decade of civil war, although some attribute Lebanon’s political stability to the continuing political and security influence of Syria.
If elections were sacrificed in a power-sharing arrangement, Iraq would not undergo a true democratic transition, an outcome sought by the Bush administration. If a power-sharing deal is comprehensive and inclusive of all factions, however, it could produce the stability and security that has eluded the United States and its Iraqi partners since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It would likely have that result if, and only if, all factions, including the Baath party, the Sadr faction and others, were given some role in the political negotiations and felt sufficiently included in the new power structure. If not, then these factions would likely continue fighting against Baghdad. There is cause for skepticism that all Iraqi factions could, on their own, actually reach a stable power sharing agreement. On the other hand, there is incentive for them to do so, if reaching an agreement would avoid a civil war and lead to the complete control over Iraq’s destiny by Iraqis and not outsiders.
An obstacle to the emergence of this model is that it is distinctly different from the election-driven transition model mapped out by the Bush administration and its Iraqi partners. However, if elections cannot be held because of security conditions – and Bush administration officials indicated in mid-September 2004 that postponement is a possibility – a move to attempt power sharing might gain currency.
The model that is most likely to end Iraq’s raging insurgency and produce a stable outcome is a power-sharing agreement among major factions. However, that model does not fit the current intended trajectory of the transition mapped out by the United States and its Iraqi political partners. Even if the United States were to remove itself from the political picture in Iraq, major Shiite factions led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, assessing their numerical majority, believe that they have more to gain from following the U.S. election driven transition than from negotiating a power-sharing arrangement. Sistani and his allies are likely to resist power sharing unless it becomes clear that legitimate, accepted elections cannot be held.
For their part, some leaders currently in the interim government appear to feel that they can preserve their grip on power by keeping U.S. forces allied with them and present in Iraq. Prime Minister Allawi and his allies do not, therefore, see the need to negotiate away any of their power at this point. However, with major players fixed on their current courses of action, violence continues to spiral out of control, and neither Allawi, Sistani nor the United States appear close to realizing all their goals. The current policy framework has enabled Sunni insurgents in center-west Iraq and extremist Shiite players such as Moqtada al-Sadr to succeed as “spoilers,” preventing progress toward stability, and none of the radical “outsiders” appears vulnerable to complete political defeat purely through military action.
1 The “pathways” analyzed in this article are expanded versions of scenarios discussed by the author in a presentation for congressional staff at a Congressional Research Service seminar on Iraq on July 12, 2004. Some of the scenarios discussed in this article are also analyzed in a September 2004 briefing paper by Chatham House, “Iraq In Transition: Vortex or Catalyst?”
2 John Burns and Erik Eckholm, “In Western Iraq, Fundamentalists Hold U.S. At Bay,” The New York Times, August 29, 2004.
3 “Samarra Becomes Latest No-Go Zone in Iraq,” Associated Press, September 3, 2004.