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Cold Mountain
The American military is preventing the emergence of political legitimacy in Iraq
By Michael Vlahos, The War in Context, December 12, 2005

Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier's novel of the American Civil War's final months, has much to tell us about Iraq.

First, almost nothing can be achieved in a place with multiple competing armed authorities, each saying that they are the real law, and each all too ready to take human life to prove their claim.

In the crumbling Confederate Nation there were 1) Confederate forces, 2) state forces, 3) Union forces, 4) bounty hunters, and 5) gangs of filibusters and deserters. So in Iraq today there are 1) US forces, 2) Iraqi forces, 3) local militias, 4) insurgent units, 5) Jihadi fighters, 6) gangs and organized crime, 7) coalition "contractors" and "other" outside military advisors (Iranians, Syrians, Saudis, etc.).

We Americans look at Iraq through the lens of a "legitimate" government (that we are fighting for) under attack by illegitimate groups. But Iraqis live in the direct sunlight of violently competing legitimacies: all lethal and all pointing the muzzles of their guns in your direction. An Iraqi civilian can be shot by a plinking contractor just as easily as by an insurgent. Legitimacy is on hold. It doesn’t really exist.

At the end of the Civil War the South, having descended into such chaos, did not emerge into the light of normal life and reasonable politics as long as Union forces remained in occupation. As long as Washington pushed its "reconstruction" agenda, backing its chosen state governments over old Confederate political establishments, there remained at least four violent legitimacies in political competition: 1) US governor-generals and their troops, 2) their protected local administrations, 3) the insurgent traditional establishment, 4) ex-CSA paramilitary filibusters.

Like Iraq, nothing could happen as long as legitimacy itself was unresolved. The US Government and the US Army were therefore as much the problem as any old Confederate paramilitary. The US Government and the US Army in Iraq today are just as much the problem as any Sunni insurgent.

Go one step further than Rep. Murtha has. It is not simply that the American military can "do nothing more" in Iraq ... the American military is preventing the emergence of clear and unambiguous political legitimacy in Iraq. Moreover by putting political resolution on hold, its continuing presence has the historically negative effect of intensifying sub-Iraqi ethnogenesis.

What does this mean? When the United States invaded Iraq its ethnic groups had sub-national identities, (though Kurds under US protection had been developing a national agenda for over a decade). Rather than immediately recreating a working Iraqi state, the US Coalition Provisional Authority instead created a chaos-space in which groups were both encouraged and forced to seek their own destinies. The longer the chaos continued, the more mature the national agendas of Kurd and Shi'a became. Those who most wanted a unified Iraq, the Sunni, found themselves cast in the role of rebels against it. Thus theirs has been almost an unwilling incubation of nationhood. America's midwifery has ensured new national identities.

Again like the North's military occupation of the former Confederacy, the longer the US Army stayed, the less was the legitimacy its "reconstructed" politics - and the greater the authority of those in political resistance. Like the Union during reconstruction the United States has stayed too long in Iraq, insuring that successor legitimacies will likely be the opposite of what we sought.

But Americans worry less about Iraq's future than they do about just getting out. If staying just makes the outcome worse, why not get out now? Yet all the "serious" people, Democrat and Republican, say that getting out now would be a disaster.

Truth is, if getting out now looks like a disaster, getting out later could be a catastrophe.

Getting out now rather than later is better for five reasons:
1) The civil war will be over more quickly now. Why are we still kidding ourselves? By overstaying the United States basically created and fed the conditions for civil war. Shadow civil war is now what we have, fought out like big city gangs rumbling in places the police don't go. The titular "government" we think we are building is, like Southern state governments guarded by Union troops, merely the government we declare while we remain in occupation. The real Iraqi government(s) will only emerge after we leave. Thus the so-called Iraqi Army is also just the army we declare it to be while we are there.

So what happens when we leave? The better prepared and equipped all Iraqi armies are, the more sophisticated and intense the succeeding struggle will be. Right now there are two Iraqi armies, the Army of Kurdistan and the Army of The Islamic Republic of (Shi'a) Iraq. All that our staying will do is create the basis for a full-up Sunni army as well. Right now if we leave, the Kurd and Shi'a forces will fairly easily be able to contain a relatively disorganized Sunni insurgency. If we stay, we will be only be building up better armies for a bigger civil war - more like Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

2) Political accommodation and compromise can now only follow a civil war. Ironically such bartering cannot actually take place while the United States is still in military occupation of the country. The Sunni draw their very righteousness from resisting alien and infidel occupation. Absent that, given a reasonable offer - and facing a bad outcome if they keep fighting - they may well start negotiating in earnest. The Sunni position, like that of the Bosnians against better-organized and armed Serbs and Croats, is quite weak. It will be much stronger a year or two from now as US-training incorporates thousands of former Saddam era officers into the titular new army, building the formal cadres of a future Sunni Corps. The enormous but momentary edge that Kurd and Shi'a forces have right now is the best encouragement for Sunni factions to negotiate following US withdrawal.

What does ultimate accommodation and compromise look like? It will be a very loose federation. This is definitely not what the United States sought, but it is what this administration has come to accept. This outcome is likely because it is in all parties' interests - especially the Sunni, because they are the only group that cannot form a working separate nation.

3) A brief internal struggle followed by negotiation will lower the stakes for neighboring US clients like Saudi Arabia. The regional threat can be postponed for a while. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait would be far more threatened by civil war in Iraq two years hence, when Sunni formations are capable of standing up to Shi'a and Kurdish forces. Protracted civil war then truly has the potential to spin into regional nightmare. Washington commentators have it exactly wrong here: civil war now is much, much better than a bigger civil war later.

4) Moreover the much-ballyhooed "foreign fighters" will then be forced to go home, where pro-US tyrants will surely have them killed. US security assistance has made Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait much more capable "terrorist-killers." Plus the number of foreign fighters is simply not big enough to create an insurgent critical mass in their home countries. At one stroke we terminate the vaunted terrorist training ground that we ourselves created in Iraq.

5) The US Army will still be in working order, and it may still be possible to rebuild the Guard and Reserves. A superb Lieutenant Colonel told me that the US Army could continue at current levels of combat intensity only for another 18 months. That was a year ago. Severe US casualties at the 300-350 a month level are literally wearing away the Army's ground combat units. Moreover the Guard and Reserve, to borrow from Barry McGuire, are on the eve of destruction. Getting out now gives us a chance to restore and renew - and also to rethink how we want to better use this magnificent military force the next time we enter Muslim lands.
©2005 Michael Vlahos

Michael Vlahos is part of the National Security Assessment team of the National Security Analysis Department (NSAD) at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. His teaching and research at Johns Hopkins has led to the development of a broad analytic model for examining war and culture, with a primary focus on how military societies adapt, both to broader change within their own national cultures, and to the cultural dimension of new operational environments driven by new enemies. After 2001 this work has taken on a special urgency, and Dr. Vlahos has worked with anthropologists and Islamic Studies specialists to develop a culture-area concept to help the Defense World better understand and respond operationally to the changing environment of the Muslim World. This concept is developed in his two monographs, Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam (PDF) (2002), and Culture's Mask: War and Change After Iraq (PDF) (2004), and his recent paper, Two Enemies: Non-State Actors and Change in the Muslim World (PDF) (2005). Dr. Vlahos was foreign affairs and national security commentator for CNN for many years, and appeared regularly on Good Morning America and Canada AM. He has published articles in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, National Review, Washington Quarterly, The Times Literary Supplement, and Rolling Stone.

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