2006 October 22 Sunday
Iraq Exit Debate Outcome Predictable?

Is the Iraq exit debate really already over? Will the increasing public unhappiness about Iraq force Washington DC to act to cut the US commitment to Iraq? George Will thinks the US is going to get out of Iraq because Congress critters do not want to go down in electoral flames in 2008.

Today the policy of "staying the course" means Americans dying to prevent Shiites and Sunnis from killing each other. If in January 2009 more than 100,000 U.S. forces remain in Iraq, there might be 100 fewer Republicans in Congress. So "stay the course" is a policy stamped with an expiration date.

Yes, I think he's right. Every month that goes by the public becomes less supportive and more opposed to the war. Why should US soldiers die to prevent the Sunnis and Shiites from going at it?

Also, we aren't fighting for democracy. Will noticed a very telling use of the term "representative" in an answer James Baker (he of the Iraq Study Group, former Bush Sr Secretary of State and Bush family fixer) gave in an interview with Charlie Rose:

Hence, a fourth question: In a perhaps intentionally opaque statement on "The Charlie Rose Show" on Oct. 6, Baker said: "If we are able to promote representative -- representative government, not necessarily democracy, in a number of nations in the Middle East and bring more freedom to the people of that part of the world, [Iraq] will have been a success." Can President Bush's "freedom agenda," which Iraq has shredded, be recast by the Study Group's showing that there is more than semantic sleight of hand in the distinction between democracy and representation?

Get that "not necessarily democracy" action. He's looking for a newer definition of success that is based on much lower expectations. Can he get President George W. Bush to go along with him to shoot for a much less ambitious outcome in Iraq? If Bush doesn't then after this election Congress is going to rebel.

Bush is a lame duck. Congressional Republicans want to still be in office after Bush leaves. Their loyalties are going to shift much more toward saving their own political skins. Bush's Iraq policy is thoroughly discredited.

Rational arguments for why we can't convert Iraq into a Jeffersonian democracy didn't convince the war's supporters they were wrong. But continued fighting with escalating civil war and fighting even among the Shias make the failures of US policy undeniable.

But even if Baker can persuade Bush to make a big change in strategy and even if Baker can come up with a way to allow Bush to do it while still saving face I do not see what the US can do short of withdrawal that'll solve the problem that Iraq poses. Bush might dig in his heels and refuse to make any policy change that can be construed as a recognition that he made big mistakes with Iraq. If he does that then Congress will force a withdrawal. Might take a year or so. But it'll happen.

The Mahdi Army captured control of 750,000 population Amarah for a while last week.

Fighting in the past week indicates that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to disarm militias could be leading Iraq toward an intersectarian war between the Shiites in the government and the Shiites in the street.

Last week's battles in Amarah, capital of the southern Maysan Province, are emblematic of a widening Iraqi conflict to one where factions from the same sect vie for power.

Trouble there began with the assassination of Qassim al-Tamimi, a senior police officer in the city. He was part of the Badr Brigade, a militia loyal to the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) whose members have taken a larger role recently in the police forces there. Local SCIRI officials blamed the Mahdi Army and arrested five Sadrists.

That touched off a massive show of strength by the Sadr supporters, who overran police stations. Fighting followed leaving at least 30 dead. Though the city is now under government control, residents say it remains tense.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki needs the 30 seats that Sadr controls in the Council of Representatives.

But the two-day offensive by the Al Mahdi army highlighted how difficult it has become for the central government and its security forces to rein in Shiite Muslim militias, both in the capital and in the south.

The militias fired mortar rounds at police stations where officers had barricaded themselves. When police ran out of ammunition and fled, Al Mahdi militiamen blew up at least two of the stations. During 48 hours of ferocious street battles in the oil-rich city of 300,000, 22 people were killed and almost 100 were injured.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki visited Sadr this week in the holy city of Najaf to ask for his support in clamping down on bands of militiamen who kill with impunity. But Maliki also depends for political support on Sadr, who controls 30 seats in the Council or Representatives, or parliament. And despite Sadr's intermittent calls for calm, violence has continued unabated.

You are clear on this, right? A Shiite militia battles the Iraqi government which relies on the leader of that militia to support the government.

Withdrawal of British troops from Amarah set it up for takeover by the Mahdi Army.

Since British troops left Amarah in August, residents say the militia, which is one of the country's largest unofficial armies, has been involved in a series of killings in the city. They include slayings of merchants suspected of selling alcohol and women alleged to have engaged in behaviour deemed immoral by the militia members.

"We see here a paradigm for when U.S. and coalition forces withdraw from an area," New York Times reporter John Burns told CBC News Friday from Baghdad.

"We could see down the line a serious threat to the Iraqi government."

Why doesn't the Iraqi government have so many more troops than the militias so that it could easily put down the militias? I suspect that most Iraqi youths support the Shiite militias or the Sunni insurgent groups more than they support the government in the Green Zone of Baghdad.

Iraq might have 3.1 million internal and external refugees at this point.

Out of the population of 26 million, 1.6 million Iraqis have fled the country and a further 1.5 million are displaced within Iraq, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In Jordan alone there are 500,000 Iraqi refugees and a further 450,000 in Syria. In Syria alone they are arriving at the rate of 40,000 a month.

Here are some details on which groups are fleeing from which areas of Iraq:

Former pilots who are Sunni and served in the air force believed they were being singled out by Shia death squads because they might once have bombed Iran; many have fled to Jordan. Jordanian immigration authorities are more welcoming to Sunni than Shia Iraqis. The latter find it easier to go to Syria. Every day heavily laden buses leave Baghdad for Damascus.

All sorts of Iraqis are on the run. But the Christian minorities from Karada and Doura in Baghdad are also fast disappearing. Most of their churches are closed. Many leave the country while the better off try to rent expensive houses in Ain Kawa, a Christian neighbourhood in Arbil.

Nobody feels safe. Some 70,000 Kurds have taken flight from the largely Sunni Arab city of Mosul.


The worst slaughter is happening in the towns on the outskirts of Baghdad where Sunnis and Shias live side by side. Shias are fleeing from Mahmoudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, to Suwaira and Kut. The Iraqi army does little to help, and Shias complain that the US is more intent on attacking the Mehdi Army than rescuing villagers.

Massive displacements of refugees, killer groups hunting down Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and Christians, militias battling the government while also in the government. splintering of militias into factions that are not under control of the major militia leaders. It is hard to see how this can get better in the foreseeable future. Seems likely to get worse. The US military is way overstretched. Shia-Sunni fighting and fighting between Shias seem set to further reduce the US military's ability to control the situation.

Short of withdrawal I have two practical suggestions:

  • Bribery on a massive scale. Offer big cash rewards for Iraqi groups and individuals to do what we want them to do. But how to measures compliance?
  • Help the refugees and would-be refugees (i.e. those in danger where they are) to move more rapidly around to safer and more ethnically homogeneous towns and regions. Accelerate the ethnic cleansing with free truck transportation and housing construction to give the displaced newer and safer places to live.
Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 October 22 11:14 PM  Mideast Iraq Exit Debate

Stephen said at October 24, 2006 9:45 PM:

I do like the bribery idea - especially as military solutions just aren't working. I'd implement it like a lottery. I'd deposit US$XX billion into an account, and a small percentage of Iraqi's have a known random chance of winning a life changing amount every year for the next 40 years. The draws would be on national TV every four months. But there'd be some very clear rules:

The total potential prize pool would be allocated depending on the performance of each tribal area (Iraq has some 150 tribes of various sizes). Deductions are taken from a tribe's theoretical allocation (a) if a tribe suffers a population drop (ie that would give tribes an incentive to prevent killings in their zone); or (b) if a neighbouring tribe suffers a population drop (to stop tribes attacking their neighbours). The deducted amount isn't re-allocated to the other tribes, rather, its lost for good (this removes any economic incentive for strong tribes to kill weak tribes).

Additionally, an individual tribesman's chance of winning drops faster than the tribe's population drops. For instance, each year 25 members of a tribe would randomly win the lottery draw, but the number of potential winners would drop by 10% for each 1% drop in the tribes population.

The head of the tribe gets a personal bonus for each member of his tribe that wins - its an incentive for him to make the lottery system work.

The prize is paid out in Iraqi Dinars. This is an incentive to keep the economy strong, because the prize loses value if the economy tanks and the dinar becomes worthless.

What might happen under this system? More rational tribal behaviour takes precedence over religious differences. The tribes begin to reassert themselves and organise to secure their areas and expel any interlopers (AQ etc). Once the killing stops, the tribes will work with their neighbours to stop killings. Once the violent deaths are under control, they'll then look at developing larger political systems in order to lower death rates due to non-violence - ie public health etc. Gradually, a more civil society grows.

The key would be to pick a prize amount that is large enough that it would be life changing, but not so large that people would take the money and move overseas.

Randall Parker said at October 25, 2006 5:48 PM:


How to measure performance? We'd have to run a census. How to do that honestly? People can lie to census takers about how many people live in a dwelling. Census takers can lie - especially since they'd benefit if they were doing a census in their own area or of they were bribed.

How to measure violence? There's considerable controversy on how many have been killed.

I think we need other more easily measurable metrics of progress.

Stephen said at October 25, 2006 6:30 PM:

I agree that tribes would lie about the number of deaths (where there's money, there's lies), but they would also actively try to limit the real killings in their area in order to make their lies believable (and also because they don't like being killed...). So, the objective is met anyway.

As the rampant violence settles down and civil society reasserts itself, bureacracy steps in and body counts become meaningful again. Ultimately, violent death becomes sufficiently low that its impact on population growth becomes negligible.

As for measuring death rates, I don't think a census would be possible, but a survey would work. I'd leave that to the epidemiologists (my partner for one, though I'm not volunteering her for Iraq) and statisticians.

Stephen said at October 25, 2006 6:39 PM:

The central idea is that we need to change this mess from a zero sum religious war. The only way we can do that is to transfer the emphasis away from religion and onto the fundamental political units of Iraqi society.

(oh, and the other thing we'll need to do is change the Iraqi constitution so that the electoral system ignores religious affiliation.)

Randall Parker said at October 25, 2006 8:28 PM:


The money needed for bribery has to aim right at the people who have the power to change things. If we hand out prizes to every individual or a large fraction of the population we'd need much larger sums of money.

Also, if a large fraction of the population gets rewarded each individual will take the attitude that they can let other people fix the problem and then just get the benefits without any risks.

Bribery has to be more carefully aimed if it is to have any prospects of working. It has to alter the incentives of those out fighting and those who could stop them.

John Tierney of the NY Times points to the root of the problem: cousin marriage and the tribalism which leaves no loyalty to the state:

The deadly battle in Amara wasnít between Sunnis and Shiites, but between two Shiite clans that have feuded for generations. After one clanís militia destroyed police stations and took over half the city, the Iraqi Army did not ride to the rescue. Authorities regained control only after the clan leaders negotiated a truce.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq, American optimists invoked Germany and Japan as models for their democratization project, but Iraq didnít have the cultural cohesion or national identity of those countries. The shrewdest forecasts I heard came not from foreign policy experts but from anthropologists and sociologists who noted a crucial statistic: nearly half of Iraqis were married to their first or second cousins.

Unlike General Thurman and other Westerners, members of these tightly knit Iraqi clans donít look on society as a collection of individuals working for the common good of the nation. ďIn a modern state a citizenís allegiance is to the state, but theirs is to their clan and their tribe,Ē Ihsan M. al-Hassan, a sociologist at the University of Baghdad, warned three years ago. ďIf one person in your clan does something wrong, you favor him anyway, and you expect others to treat their relatives the same way.Ē

These allegiances explain why Iraqis donít want to give up their local militias. They know itís unrealistic to expect protection from a national force of soldiers or police officers from other clans, other regions, other religions. When the Iraqi Army ordered reinforcements to go help Americans keep peace in Baghdad, several Iraqi battalions deserted rather than risk their lives defending strangers.

How to construct an incentive system that'll make tribes behave better?

Stephen said at October 26, 2006 5:29 AM:

Randall said: "bribery has to aim right at the people who have the power to change things"

Targeting individuals doesn't work because those people who are causing the problem are reasonably immune to money. For instance, how often would you be able to bribe a mullah? Not often is my guess. If you succeeded, how long would it be before he's replaced by another one? In fact, would targeted bribes actually be creating a market in radical mullahs? ie the more radical they are, the better chance they have of being paid lots of money by the US.

The more fundamental problem with targeted bribes is that its redolent of the failed top-down strategy the US has been using in Iraq - "if we put a PM in place, every thing will be okay", "if we kill this week's number 2 in AQ, everything will be okay". That doesn't work. We need to look at a bottom-up strategy instead.

That's why a weighted random lottery (with the weighting being as described earlier), might cause a grass roots movement that might positively engage the Iraqi population. It might also resonate culturally as a form of blood money paid by the US. That said, for it to work, the US would have to stop spilling blood and entirely disengage from Iraq.

...if a large fraction of the population gets rewarded each individual will take the attitude that they can let other people fix the problem and then just get the benefits without any risks.

I agree that that's a real problem - which is why the number of annual winners has to be carefully balanced to encourage optimism, but discourage certainty. Also, the prize money has to be enough to be life changing for a family, but not so much that the winners will just buy a house in Switzerland instead of staying in Iraq.

As for the article you quote, I agree with its sentiment entirely. I've said it before, family then tribe, with State being a distant third or maybe even fourth after religion.

Oh, and Iraq might well benefit from a king because a king would stand above the tribal squables and the only way they survive is if they rule each tribe equally (badly).

Randall Parker said at October 26, 2006 5:26 PM:


Incentives have to aim either with the people causing trouble or the people who could stop them. Incentives for everyone else just wastes limited resources.

Stephen said at October 26, 2006 6:14 PM:

The 'people who could stop them' are the broader society, and the tribe is the best way to organise Iraqi society in its current besieged condition. The lottery is targeted because it rewards well managed tribes (because their citizens win more money more frequently than badly managed tribes). Remember also that the tribal sheik gets a bonus payment every time someone in his tribe wins the lottery, so that aspect also meets your targeted requirement.

The symptoms I see in Iraq are a collapse of civil society where the vacuum has been filled by religious fighting. We can't reliably bribe the religious fanatics, and we can't just create civil society out of thin air. But what we can do is create an environment where civil society might take root. In military terms, the initiative is with the fanatics and the broader society is just a passive by-stander. So, in a sense that passivity is causing the trouble. If we could lessen that passivity, then there's a chance that they will take the initiative away from the fanatics.

That said, I don't actually think that bribery would work, this is more in the way of a thought experiment following on from your article plus a desperate attempt to find a solution that doesn't involve killing more people.

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