Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA and National Security Council expert on Iraq, who was a leading advocate of the forceful overthrow of Saddam Hussein, says that the just-concluded constitutional referendum was “an important step” but he says it only amounted to “dodging a bullet than actually making real progress toward the goals of stability and democracy in Iraq.”
Pollack says the United States tends to focus on such political developments and on publicized attacks on the Sunni triangle, but “what concerns me is my fear that what really matters in Iraq are other issues which we have badly neglected: the security of the Iraqi people more broadly; the problems that the security vacuum we’ve created is creating for their political structure; the growth of the rise of Iraq’s militias; and the growing disconnectedness between the average Iraqi and this political process that’s taking place inside the Green Zone in Baghdad.”
Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, was interviewed by Bernard Gwrtzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 17, 2005.
Iraqis have just voted in their constitutional referendum and the early signs are that it’s going to be approved because not enough Sunnis voted against it in the three provinces that could have turned the tide against ratification. The Bush administration has hailed this as a major accomplishment but is this demonstrably a good thing or are there still major problems ahead that we’re not focusing on?
I think it was obviously an important step and it’s good that it happened. But I see it more as dodging a bullet than actually making real progress toward the goals of stability and democracy in Iraq. In particular, my great concern is that we, in the United States, have typically focused on those aspects of Iraqi reconstruction where we’re involved, the counterinsurgent offensives against the Sunni triangle and the political process unfolding in Baghdad. But what concerns me is my fear that what really matters in Iraq are other issues which we have badly neglected: the security of the Iraqi people more broadly; the problems that the security vacuum we’ve created is creating for their political structure; the growth of the rise of Iraq’s militias; and the growing disconnectedness between the average Iraqi and this political process that’s taking place inside the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Those are interesting problems you’ve just raised. How do you go about fixing them?
Well obviously, each one in and of itself is a major undertaking. To a certain sense, I fear that it’s one of the reasons why we haven’t tried to tackle them. Even though they are much more important, we’ve focused on other things because they lend themselves to solutions much more easily, even though they might not solve the problems of Iraq. On the military side, we need to remember, even though it is true that solving the problems of Iraq are going to require military, political, and economic solutions, it all does begin with security. The security vacuum that we created in April 2003 has never been appropriately filled. And that security vacuum undermines every other thing going on in Iraq.
You mean the fact that we didn’t have enough troops on the ground at the start?
Certainly that was a major element of it, but also that we didn’t use those troops that we had to bring security to the Iraqi people. We didn’t try to stop the looting. We haven’t tried to deal with the problems of just day-to-day crime that plague the Iraqi people, that cripple their economy, and that are distorting their political process. I think most Americans believe the biggest security problems Iraqis face is from the insurgency. But if you actually speak to Iraqis, particularly the Shiite and the urban Sunnis who are not really involved with the insurgency itself, what they will tell you repeatedly is that their biggest problems are just from simple crime—organized and unorganized crime.
Iraq has far and away the highest crime rates in the entire Arab world and these are the things that are crippling the Iraqi people, making it so Iraqis don’t like to send their daughters out onto the streets and typically when the women do go out they’re very, very concerned about their safety. Oftentimes they have to be escorted by men because there are these kidnapping rings. There are constant problems with car-jackings and hijackings and people getting held-up; women getting kidnapped and then held for ransom; businesses not being able to move goods on the road. You may order something from Kuwait but it never makes its way up to Baghdad because it gets hijacked along the road; problems of people breaking in and looting power plants, electrical lines.
It’s not just the insurgency that’s going after the infrastructure; a lot of the problems in the infrastructure are just about looting, theft, etc. These are the problems that are really crippling Iraqi society, as you can imagine. These are the problems that are really undermining the economy. How do you get investment into Iraq if you can’t guarantee that there’s going to be electricity for a factory or that there are going to be goods for people to actually start working on? Or that the goods can move from a factory to where they’re going to be sold? Or that the people can be safe when they come to work on the factory floor?
How do you begin to deal with this? We’ve been talking about training police for years.
Certainly that is the right answer. But what we need to recognize is that training the Iraqis to do these jobs is a very long-term process. It’s not just twelve or sixteen weeks of training. Often it takes a year or two to get a battalion to the point where it really has a sense of cohesion and can function out there and can operate on its own; it’s one of the reasons why two years after the invasion we have maybe 30,000 Iraqi troops who can actually handle these kinds of missions.
So I think given the fact that Iraqis are still a very long way from being able to take on these missions, we need to recognize that only the United States and the other members of the coalition can really take on these burdens. And for me, that’s part of the mistake we’ve been making all along. I think that we have to put a much bigger emphasis on protecting Iraqis, protecting the Shiite and the urban Sunnis who want no part of the insurgency. And one of our faults has been that we’ve devoted too many of our troops, our resources, our effort, our attention to trying to pacify the Sunni triangle, which to tell the truth, is going to take a very, very long time if it’s ever possible because they’re the people who don’t support reconstruction. And because we’ve shifted so much of our effort and resources toward the Sunni triangle it’s meant that we have left the security vacuum elsewhere in Iraq. So one of the things I’d like to see us do is diminish, de-emphasize our operations in the Sunni triangle and instead emphasize security on the vast bulk of Iraq’s populations, which live in central and southern Iraq.
How would you do that?
The first thing I’d do is I’d start moving troops. I’d pull out a lot of the big units that are spending all of their time and effort trying to pacify and hold down towns like Fallujah and Tal Afar, which are not terribly important towns—they’re actually fairly small. Not much of Iraq’s population is located in the Sunni triangle. I’d pull all of those units out and I’d move them to central and southern Iraq and I would give them the mission of actually patrolling the streets, jointly with whatever Iraq units are on hand, until you can, in several years, train up Iraqis who can do the job for you.
Of course, a lot of people have been arguing the contrary—to get the Americans off the streets because they’re so unpopular.
I think that’s a real misreading of Iraqi public opinion. There are a lot of Iraqis who are very angry at the United States, and don’t get me wrong: There are certainly a lot of Iraqis who just want us out. But what we’ve seen very consistently from the public opinion polls, from the focus groups, and also anecdotally when you talk to Iraqis—typically, once you get past Iraqi anger—what you generally find is that what Iraqis want is for the United States to actually do something for them.
A great deal of their anger at the American presence is that they feel like we’re there, we’re running their country, we’re making their lives unpleasant, and we’re not doing anything for them. Often when you can get Iraqis past this initial anger, what they’ll say to you is, “I would grudgingly accept American troops on my streets if I thought that the Americans were actually there to help me, to protect me and my family, to protect the infrastructure, and to create a safe environment.” Again, that’s not a universal sentiment in Iraq, but as best as I can tell and as best as anyone can tell, that certainly is the majority impression.
So you would focus the security emphasis on the areas that are more or less under control to strengthen the anti-crime, etc., rather than to keep looking to prevent the insurgents from going to other places?
Exactly. This is one of the constant lessons of a counterinsurgency: It’s very different from conventional military operations. In a conventional military operation, you want to seek out where the bad guy is strongest and try to crush him. In counterinsurgency operations, you want to figure out where you are strongest, where the people are most supportive, and reinforce that support and success.
The problem is that what we’ve been doing is reinforcing the failures. We have been putting all of our time and attention, too much of our troops and our resources into these areas where the people don’t support us. But what you find with the British in Malaya, in Kenya, in Northern Ireland, what you’ve seen from the United States in Vietnam when we did it right, is that when you make an effort to provide security for those people who are at least agnostic, you can use that security to build up a local economy that thrives and you can use it to build a local political system that works. Under those circumstances, people become very supportive of the counterinsurgency effort. And again, what we’ve seen in these samplings of public opinion, whether they’re polls or focus groups or just anecdotal reporting, is that that’s what the Iraqis want.
Let’s go back to the politics a bit. Do the Iraqis also want a strong government?
That of course varies from Iraqi to Iraqi. Most of them will axiomatically say they want a strong government because it’s what they’ve always known and because there are elements of Arab culture in particular that push them in this direction. There’s an old Arab saying that goes, “Better a hundred years of tyranny than a year of chaos.” That’s very strongly engrained in Iraqi society, and given the fact that they’ve been forced to live with near chaos the last two years, I think you’re going to get a lot of Iraqis saying that.
That said, you also do have a growing number of Iraqis even outside the Kurdish regions that are becoming more and more enamored with ideas of regional autonomy. It was surprising to many people when one of the leading Shiite groups, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, came out and advocated these regional arrangements, which are now enshrined in the new constitution, which it looks like they’re going to try and use to create a Shiite regional government of some kind. What that suggests is that you’ve got a bunch of people inside of Iraq who, for various reasons, are moving in this direction.
In the case of the political leaders, it’s because they think they will be able to maximize their own power—military, political, and economic. It also reflects the fact that you’ve got lots and lots of Iraqi people who are growing more and more disaffected with the central government. The central government, unfortunately, has become deeply corrupt. It is very much involved in navel gazing, these political machinations, which, again, are so important to the United States and to the American press but which much of the time to the Iraqis, seem utterly irrelevant to what’s going on in their lives.
You get lots of Iraqis who basically say, “The central government in Baghdad, they’re in it for themselves. It’s a bunch of corrupt politicians who just want to carve up the country and the best thing we can do is distance ourselves from what’s going on in Baghdad and maybe set up a regional government that actually will do the things that we need—like provide security in the streets and clean the water and get gasoline and electricity running and find us jobs.”
That comes back to the question about what to do about the Sunnis in the center. Do you think this new election in December may do something positive?
It’s certainly a possibility. Again, I think we need to be very careful about this. This is a political process which needs to succeed because, if it fails, that in and of itself could plunge the country into civil war. But I think we need to be very careful about assuming that this political process can solve all the problems. What we’re going to get is elections now in December, and I think everyone’s hope is that you will get a new [National] Assembly that will be much more representative of the Iraqi population and in particular will bring in Sunni politicians, which will diminish the support in the Sunni tribal community for the insurgency and suggest to them that there is another, more peaceful way to go about this.
All that is entirely possible, but we need to recognize that we’ve got a number of Shiite politicians in particular, maybe even some Kurds, who very much want to exclude the Sunnis, who don’t want to give the Sunnis what the Sunnis would consider their rightful place. And by the same token, there are many Sunni leaders who believe that they’re entitled to something far beyond what I think any objective observer would actually say they are entitled to. So you have the potential that, even if you have good elections and get a good assembly in December, this whole process could break down. And beyond that again, not to sound like a broken record, we always need to keep in mind that what’s going on in Baghdad is only one part of what’s going on in Iraq. And in particular, for the Iraqi people, they’ve now seen four or five different governments since the fall of Saddam Hussein. You’ve had [Lieutenant-General] Jay Gardner’s ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance], Paul Bremer’s CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], Ayad Allawi’s interim government, now Ibrahim Jaafari’s transitional government—this will now be the fifth, but if you count the Iraqi governing council, that could be a fifth and so this one would be a sixth. Their feeling is that they’ve been disappointed by every one of these governments. Every time they’ve had a new government, every time they thought that the new government would deliver on those things I just mentioned—the things that are most important to them: security, clean water, running electricity, jobs, gasoline, those kinds of things—every government has singularly failed to do so.
What’s happening is you’re getting larger and larger numbers of Iraqis who are basically saying to themselves, “The central government’s never going to do it for us and so we now need to look to others to do it.” As a result, you’re seeing the growth of militias all across Iraq. Not just in the Sunni triangle, but in the south and in the center where the Shiite and the urban Sunnis live, people are increasingly becoming uncomfortable that the central government can do anything for them and looking to these local militia leaders, sheiks, clerics, etc. to try and do it for them. And that fragmentation is very dangerous.
What’s the role of Iran in the south, now? Many Sunnis have been accusing Iran of trying to take over the south.
Iran is very active in the south, and in the center for that matter. The problem with Iran, as always, is that their involvement is very complicated. The Iranians do have a lot of friends among various Shiite groups and there’s no question that the Iranians are funneling huge amounts of money and supplies and weaponry and other things to different groups to try and help their friends inside of Iraq. By the same token, what we’ve seen the Iranians doing, by and large, is telling their various friends to participate in the political process and to basically help the process of reconstruction that the United States is leading.
From the Iranian perspective, that would be the best plausible scenario for the future of Iraq. And in fact, the Iranians are terrified of civil war and they’ve been very, very good about telling their allies inside of Iraq not to go after the Sunnis and not to go after each other because they are so frightened of civil war. So there’s a very, very mixed role for the Iranians inside of Iraq. On the one hand, they are supporting their own people and there are rumors that they’ve been helping particular Iraqi groups go after certain Sunni leaders, participating in some assassinations. On the other hand, they’ve mostly dampened the move toward civil war and that’s been very helpful to us.
Let me touch on a couple of other things: This week is supposed to be the start of the trial of Saddam Hussein. How will that play?
You’ve got all these swirling different issues all through Iraq, like growing chaos in parts and growing stability in others, and you kind of dump in a major event like Saddam Hussein’s trial and you just have no idea what will happen. I tend to suspect that a lot of how Saddam’s trial is perceived by the Iraqi people is going to be determined in the context of the referendum. In other words, we still don’t yet know what Iraqis think of the referendum. We know how they voted, but we don’t know how it’s going to be perceived by different Iraqi communities. Are the Shiites going to see this as the beginning of a new shot at reconciliation with the Sunnis or their chance now to impose the rules that they always wanted on the country? Are the Sunnis going to look at this as a major defeat because they couldn’t get a constitution they didn’t like turned down, or will it indicate to them that there really is a way to deal with their grievances through the political process?
So we’re still waiting to see how the Iraqis react to the referendum. There are also, obviously, possibilities for real security problems to crop up here and there and I suspect that reaction to Saddam’s trial is going to be very much determined by these other things. If Iraqis are unhappy, afraid, fearful, then Saddam’s trial could be very volatile. It could arouse the Sunnis to greater resistance and anger, it could arouse certain Shiite groups to push back on the Sunnis, and maybe it will remind them of their grievances and lead them to seek out personal vengeance. On the other hand, if people have a positive sense about where things are going, they could look at the Saddam trial in a very different light if there is a triumph of the rule of law and the idea that this is the way people ought to be solving their problems.
Are they going to televise this trial?
That seems to be the direction they’re headed in, but I think it’s entirely possible you could have a last-minute decision about this. If there’s some major security problem, a major attack or massacre of some kind, and the authorities feel like televising Saddam’s trial is going to further inflame already frayed nerves, they might suddenly decide it’s better not to.
So summing up—I’m coming back to the referendum—is there any light at the end of the tunnel as a result of the referendum or is that just really a figment of American imagination?
I don’t think we should see the referendum as being the beginning of the end, at least not in the positive sense of bringing us a giant step closer toward stability and democracy in Iraq. I tend to see it more as dodging a bullet. This is an event that could have gone very badly; it didn’t and that’s important. It leaves open the opportunity to deal with all these other problems, which is very important to us. But again, I don’t see the referendum as being the solution to any of these other problems and for me that’s the key.