Only diplomacy can save Iraq
(The article below is the English language version of my op-ed piece in Helsinki’s Hufvudstadsbladet published 1 June 2005.)
The US should bear in mind the words of the ancient Chinese martial philosopher Sun Tzu:
“When a general is morally weak and his authority has lost its rigor, when his orders and directives lack wisdom, then his army becomes disoriented, and chaos is born”
Two years after toppling Saddam Hussein, the US, Britain and the dwindling coalition of the willing have still failed to establish law and order in Iraq. A new approach is needed and other actors need to step in. Otherwise, the death-dealing violence in that country will continue to threaten stability in the region and fuel more anti-Western terrorism worldwide.
Admittedly, there is no simple solution to the complex problems of post-Saddam Iraq, where a multitude of domestic political actors as well as external forces hold high stakes. But no solution at all will be possible unless certain major mistakes are corrected. One of these was that the January elections failed to include the Sunni minority in the process of democratization. Another was the Bush rhetoric about the axis of evil and other pressure on Iran and Syria, which denied these countries the chance of mantling any official role in the crisis in their own neighborhood. More is needed, though, than just correcting past mistakes. A shift of paradigm is essential, from unilateral force to inclusive dialogue. Military action by itself will not restore order in Iraq; instead, the emphasis should be on generating a true peace process. The root causes of the bloody resistance are not being addressed, and by continuing to pound Iraqi towns, kicking in doors and firing liberally in all directions, the US and its allies will only further inflame the hostility of the Iraqis.
As long as Iraq is a failed state, terrorist groups will be able to set up bases there, training and preparing for missions in other areas. Saudi Arabia, which already has a growing problem with Islamist terrorists, may be experiencing spillover from Iraq. Syria, too, may eventually suffer from tolerating the activities of the Iraqi resistance on their soil. For domestic political reasons, Assad did not dare to strike against the flow of arms and people to these groups. But just as the PLO grew into a state within a state in both Lebanon and Jordan, the Iraqi groups may eventually threaten stability in Syria. In addition to these local effects, a continuing jihad in Iraq will likely inspire extremists to strike again against the US and its allies.
Several commentators have attempted to portray what has been happening in the Middle East as evidence of a successful US foreign policy, citing the ousting of the Syrians from Lebanon, Egyptian president Mubarak's allowing competition on the presidential ballot, Palestinian elections and limited Saudi local elections (for men only) as signs of a wind of change. Some go so far as to compare these developments with the toppling of the Berlin Wall. But in contrast to these rosy analyses, Lebanon has experienced a string of bombings, and Islamist candidates won the elections in Saudi Arabia. The optimists and neo-conservatives encouraging a democratic crusade in the Middle East also fail to mention the mounting Shiite insurgency in Yemen and PKK's return to arms in Turkey; both of these developments followed Operation Iraqi Freedom. When claiming a casual link between the invasion of Iraq and democratic currents one can just as well link all negative events to Bush and Blair's assertiveness. The comparison with glasnost and the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe is also interesting. Though such sweeping generalizations are usually ridden with fallacies, again there are similarities. Gorbachev's perestroika not only brought democracy to Eastern Europe, but also generated brutal conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia, regions which have more in common with the Middle East than does Eastern Europe.
In view of these sobering facts, what should be the essential elements of a new policy toward Iraq? First, the perception of the coalition forces as occupants in that country is a clear indication that the US, Britain and other coalition members should immediately set a reasonably early date for withdrawal and thereafter limit their role in Iraq to diplomacy and development aid. Given the inadequacy of Iraq's own security forces, however, external military assistance is clearly needed. A new force must be put together, and it must be unambiguously identifiable as separate from the current occupants. With a mandate from the UN Security Council, a force led by Jordan, Morocco or Egypt could be assembled under the Organization of the Islamic Conference or the Arab League. However, as the countries of the Middle East have proven largely incapable of concerted diplomatic action, the US should remain involved, though with a low profile. Pakistan and Bangladesh, with their extensive experience in peacekeeping, could augment the military force, while the EU could provide military advisers and staff officers, and perhaps special-operations units, from countries opposed to the war such as France, Germany and Sweden. Also, Canada may play a constructive role. For practical purposes the new force would probably need US logistical support, in airlifts for example. Positive steps toward multilateralization have already been taken. NATO is training Iraqi security forces (though not on Iraqi soil), and the EU has established its rule-of-law mission in Iraq, EUJUST LEX as well as ECHO, the European Commission Humanitarian Office’s programmes in Iraq.
The transition to the new force should be part of an integrated approach to securing peace in Iraq. For instance, further resources are needed for supplying electricity, clean water and constructing sewage systems, and the "hearts and minds" policy should be tempered with an amnesty for resistance fighters not guilty of war crimes ( i.e. striking at civilian targets), as proposed by President Jalal Talabani when sworn in on 7 April. Similarly, the US and Britain must set an example in dealing with their own offenders. The demotion of Brigadier General Karpinski, formerly in charge of Abu Ghraib, is a good start, but the US must not stop there if it is to have any hope of regaining respect worldwide.
Importantly, a real peace process cannot exclude Iran, which intends to play an active role in post-Saddam Iraq. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, recently corroborated by Time magazine, Iran's influence in Iraq is considerable, especially in the Shiite community, but also in the Kurdish north. Iran is justified in intervening as long as the Mujaheedin Khalq Organization is fighting the regime in Teheran from bases in Iraq. This group should be demobilized, and Teheran should receive guarantees that no similar group be allowed to operate from Iraqi territory.
Turkey has similar concerns with the PKK, which is based in northern Iraq, and the Turkish army will continue their occasional incursions into Iraq as long as this situation persists. Surely, the Kurds will demand a quid pro quo for demobilizing PKK, but ignoring this situation is not an option -- Iraq will never be stable as long as it keeps hosting rebel groups from its neighbors. It may seem naive to argue that US should withdraw from Iraq and limit itself to behind-the-scenes diplomacy while relying on Middle Eastern countries and other actors to provide security. But together with regional discord, US overzealousness is perhaps the principal cause of the instability in Iraq and neighboring countries. Peace in Iraq is not possible unless both these factors are addressed.