February 05, 2008

Winning, But Not Won?

Many of our readers likely came across Max Boot's article this past week, arguing that we're winning the war in Iraq but that victory is only possible if we maintain troop strength. And that kind of logic is pretty typical of most Iraq analysis:

current assessment + hand waving = conclusion you came to three years ago

Fortunately, one of Charlie's favorite people emailed in with his own thoughts* (forgive the length, the University of Chicago teaches many things, but brevity is not among them).

This is a good piece, but I would argue on a couple of points. For one, the political solution in Iraq is not about extending security to all corners of the country. That is what security operations are for. The political strategy should be about taking this brief pause in violence and using it to build institutions that will lessen the risk of future violence. Anyway, this article is all about how we've almost achieved a balance but we're not quite there yet... With the implicit argumentbeing that once we get to that balance we can declare victory. But a balance of power is a MEANS, NOT AN END. We have achieved a balance, now what are we going to do with it? In civil war settlements that last, institutions are formed that provide the credible commitment and which help lessen the security dilemma. This works because institutions are"sticky," and have independent power to affect behavior.

We have achieved a precarious equilibirum in Iraq. It is a balance of power, but balances of power are inherently unstable. They last as long as all parties believe time is on their side. When one side no longer believes time is on its side, the whole thing comes apart. So right now we should be institutionalizing the balance, rather than trying to figure out how to expand it to the far corners of the state. Provincial elections (WHICH WE SHOULD TAKE A STAKE IN) and accelerated con-federalism are good places to start. The structure of these provincial and regional governments are, institutionally, where we have the most room to manuever, because they weren't well defined in that mess of a constitution.

Internal balances of power in civil conflict require a credible outside commitment from an external balancer. This ameliorates the security dilemma and allows for compromises to be madeand institutions to be formed. INSTITUTIONALIZING OUR GAINS IS THE IMPORTANT PART (and I don't mean by forming more extra-governmental militias.) The external balancer can't stay forever, (and balances themselves don't last because they are all about expectations and perception of future relative balances.)

On a different note, I think it is important not to confuse concerned local citizens' groups with the Anbar Awakening. The Awakening is a tribal movement, instantiated in the Anbar Salvation Councils, while the CLCs are insurgent groups being turned into local militias. As Marc Lynch has pointed out elsewhere, there are huge tensions between the two, as CLCs claim that the tribal leaders are "reaping the fruits of the jihad," without having fought for it. This will only get worse as the tribal leaders make overtures to SCIRI/SIIC, which has angered the former insurgents in some of the original CLCs. We shouldn't conflate insurgent movements with tribal movements.

*Excerpted with permission; and with the hope it may convince a reader or two that PhDs are not always a complete waste of time (sadly, you won't get top notch training in causal inference anywhere else).