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Barkey: Amnesty Can Sharply Undercut Iraqi Insurgency

Interviewee: Henri J. Barkey
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 26, 2006

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Henri Barkey, a Middle East expert and head of the international relations department at Lehigh University, says Iraqi plans for an amnesty can seriously undercut the Iraqi insurgency by creating a rift between homegrown Iraqi insurgents, who are entitled to amnesty, and members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who are not.

Even though many Americans oppose an amnesty if given to Iraqis involved in killing American troops, Barkey supports such an offer because "if we want Iraq to succeed, we need to figure out a way for them to have national reconciliation, and we should not stand in the way."

You had an interesting op-ed in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago in which you advocated that the Iraqis offer an amnesty to the Iraqi insurgents, even if responsible for the death of American soldiers. What got you thinking about amnesties in Iraq?

I've been following the Iraq situation for a while, but I've also been following the situation in Turkey, and I've been convinced that in the case of Turkey, the Turks are really an amnesty away from resolving their problems [with their Kurdish minorities]. That said, of course the devil is in the details. It depends on the amnesty, it depends on the terms, and it depends obviously on other circumstances and the kind of deals you make with neighboring states.

Amnesties are important for one reason apart from national reconciliation. One of the things people miss with insurgencies is that behind every insurgent is a family structure, and especially in the Middle East you are talking about extended families. So for every person who is part of the insurgency there is an automatic support group. Even if the families don't like what their son is doing, they will tend to support him. They will tend to provide him safe haven. They will tend to provide food and shelter, and God knows what else. And when you think about the close relations that exist in the Middle East, where your cousin's cousin is seen as part of your family, insurgencies create their own natural support basis within the population.

And these extended families extend to tribes as well in Iraq, I guess.

Right. But the converse also works. When you offer an amnesty, pressure now arises. Many families don't necessarily want to be involved in the insurgency business because there are costs to them. Their house may be raided, their kids may get killed. So the moment you give an incentive of an amnesty, then you're putting pressure on the insurgent to take advantage of it not because he wants or he likes the amnesty but because now his mother, his father, his grandfather, his uncles, his nieces, everybody probably will try to say "Look, this is a good deal here, it's time for you to come home."

Obviously, al-Qaeda-type people and foreigners should not be given that incentive, in part because the family structure that I just discussed doesn't work in that case. Secondly, when you talk about giving an amnesty to insurgents in Iraq, it should even include insurgents who may have killed Americans. In the end, we are going to want to leave Iraq, hopefully the sooner the better. But insurgents who are Iraqi will remain in Iraq. They have no other place to go. And if we want Iraq to succeed, we need to figure out a way for them to have national reconciliation, and we should not stand in the way. It is critical they create the institutions and the basis for a future, peaceful Iraq.

You saw Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's statement to his parliament yesterday. Did you get any sense of whether this was a solid enough proposal?

Again, the details are very important, and he did not provide many details. It's not clear how it's going to be implemented. The important thing is that he now has put it out there, and he has talked about creating certain institutions that will administer this amnesty. And obviously, as time goes by, they will fill the content of the amnesty, and there will be negotiations. Because the Iraqi government itself is divided, it will take time. But it will be difficult, and he has been very upfront about this, to take a step back, especially because the Sunni elements within the government have welcomed the idea very heartily. And so even though there are Shiite elements who are very much opposed to the amnesty, it will be very difficult for the government to retreat from this. When you talk about the most horrific bombings, especially suicide bombers, they were mostly al-Qaeda people who did it and not necessarily Iraqi insurgents, so I think this is a very, very good step.

The other issue about the amnesty and the United States is we have been arguing that this is a sovereign Iraqi government. We have transferred sovereignty to them. Yes, we have lots of American troops on the ground, but the fact of the matter is, if we really mean that this is a sovereign Iraqi government, and it decides to do this because they think this is in [their] best interest, it is not really up to us to criticize them too much. I mean understandably there will be a lot of Americans who will be very upset about this.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who is the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, was very critical of any amnesty for those who were involved in any killings of Americans. What's happened in past amnesties? For instance, was there an amnesty after World War II?

I'm not sure if there was officially a formal amnesty. A number of people were obviously in the Nuremburg trials, were brought to justice, etc., but remember there was no insurgency. It was a war in which one side won decisively over another.

But you have had amnesties in Algeria, for instance, in 2000 and this year. By and large, if you look at what has happened in Algeria, it has worked. But the timing is important. You don't offer an amnesty as a government when insurgents are on the rise. The reason an amnesty now makes sense is because [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi has been killed, because there are actually some good signs on the ground of better Iraqi troop performance, better police performance, better intelligence, and so on. There is a government now that includes the Sunnis, so this is the moment to offer an amnesty.

It would not have made sense to offer an amnesty let's say six months ago, so amnesties should not be offered willy-nilly. There has to be a context. In the case of Algeria, especially the second amnesty, the government had defeated the insurgency and then offered an olive branch of sorts, and so far it has worked because the level of violence has declined precipitously. In Iraq I think the process will be different. It will take much longer for the level of violence to go down because the insurgency has not been defeated yet.

An amnesty is also an occasion to divide those of al-Qaeda from the Iraqi insurgents by simply saying we will offer something to one group and not to the other. Already there were tensions between the al-Qaeda people and the Iraqi insurgents, so you are basically playing on that division. And among the Iraqi insurgents, you are also going to divide them because not all the Iraqi insurgents will want to take advantage of an amnesty, but some will. The more people you take out, you decommission, so to say, the better off you are. If the timing is right and the context is right, it is a win-win situation for the Iraqi government.

And, of course, Maliki's also announced the release of prisoners, right?

The same thing I said about insurgents and their families also applies to prisoners and their families because when you have a prisoner, then you maybe have twenty people who are very upset with the government for having somebody who they think is innocent in prison. You see this, for example, in Turkey because the issue of the prisoners is an enormous rallying point for Kurds because they have really an emotional attachment to those prisoners no matter what the cause is. That doesn't mean the insurgents who benefit from an amnesty will turn around and like the Iraqi government or suddenly approve of the United States' presence there. On the contrary, they won't, and we shouldn't expect we're going to be gaining converts or adherents, but we will be taking somebody out of circulation, and also maybe gain[ing] intelligence in the process.

Did it help for the U.S. ambassador [Zalmay Khalilzad] to issue a statement supporting the amnesty program, which I guess he probably helped draft in the first place.

I would actually have liked the United States not to be too happy initially because one of the things that Maliki needs to do is to show his independence from the United States. I think he was humiliated two weeks ago when the president went to Iraq without informing him until a few minutes before [he] landed. You don't do this to the leader of a sovereign country. I understand there are security reasons, but it just played very, very, very poorly in Iraq and in the Arab world. So Maliki, by coming up with an amnesty that may cover insurgents who killed American soldiers, basically is saying, "Look, I'm doing what is best for Iraq, and I'm doing it despite American opposition." Because despite the sovereignty of Iraq, we've been actually deciding most things, right?

Over the weekend, there were reports that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, outlined a possible withdrawal plan that might start in September with two brigades leading up to larger withdrawals next year. Does this help Maliki?

I'm not sure because the timing is very suspicious. It's more than four months before the midterm elections, so people may see this as being purely an internal American matter where the administration is trying to gain some kind of advantage in the upcoming elections, and therefore may not have any impact on Iraq. Casey may be doing this under political pressure for all we know. I'm not sure it will necessarily help Maliki a great deal.

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