Whoever’s version you believe about the wave of arrests of government officials in Baghdad, the news is troubling, if not surprising. Either we’re propping up an Iraqi government that faces even more security threats than we realized, or else one that is guilty of ruthless tactics of political suppression. My first reaction to the news that these guys were plotting a coup was that it takes a serious pair to seize power by force in a country where 130,000 American troops are deployed in defense of the currently constituted government. Either that or a nod of approval from the Green Zone, which seems on the face of it absurd.
But whether or not we ever learn which version more closely resembles the truth, the news underlines the ways in which our strategic interests are now tangled up with those of a body politic that is distant, opaque and unfamiliar to us. And that, in turn, underlines the limits of what we can really accomplish in our present role of legally invited occupier.
Counterinsurgency has been compared to armed social work, and one of the similarities between the two is the tendency to rely on the “clients” who buy into the system to reinforce the assumptions and desired outcomes of the system. The need for success stories leads to the emergence of “stars” to represent the agency in promotional literature and fund-raising appeals, while those who are either ill-served by or hostile to the program’s approach are predictably sidelined. That has a counterintuitive effect on the relationship between the “star” client and the service provider, whereby the latter becomes increasingly dependent on the former to validate its position vis à vis the funding streams.
However desperately Nouri al-Maliki needed the United States to consolidate his hold on power in Iraq, the United States now needs him — or someone like him — just as desperately to both justify a continued presence to the funding stream (American voters), as well as to ultimately be able to leave the country. But there are a lot of unhappy clients in Iraq; the folks arrested this week are headed to jails full of them, who by all accounts won’t be leaving them with pleasant memories of their stay. And our need for a strong ruler in Baghdad interferes with our ability to facilitate an enduring solution to the grievances of the latter group.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard talk of a “Friedman unit,” the idea that the next six months in Iraq will prove critical to “success.” But the news from Baghdad, to my mind, makes the upcoming provincial elections a real litmus test. Unless they demonstrably result in a stable method of peacefully arriving at a powersharing arrangement (notice I don’t say democracy), the risk of a devolution of the political process in Iraq is a real possibility. And that will greatly complicate our exit strategy.