Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy. It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq began 9 years ago this week, triggering a conflict that cost the U.S. approximately 4,500 lives and a trillion dollars of taxpayers’ money. In honor of that anniversary, Wikistrat’s analytic “crowd” debated: a) what America ultimately accomplished in Iraq, and b) where Iraq is likely headed in the years ahead. These are our six primary judgments.
1) Iraq like the fall of the Ottoman Empire
Like so many U.S. post-Cold War interventions, the takedown of Saddam Hussein saw America’s military inadvertently playing midwife to three de facto mini-nations within the shell-shocked state that remains Iraq: the increasingly autonomous Kurds in the North, the decidedly super-empowered Shia majority in the south, and the now-dethroned-but-still-defiant Sunni in the center. Each features its own militia-style military, and each enjoys the external support of a regional great power intent on not “losing” Iraq - namely, Turkey (Kurds), Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni).
The internal and external dynamics roughly correspond: Out of fear of the others, no one side is so intent on collapsing the fragile middle (Baghdad and the “central” government) as to trigger a civil war - especially with Syria dissolving in that direction presently. That leaves current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as the all-placating leader who continues to convince all sides that they are best served by a central authority in some matters. So, much like the case of the late Ottoman Empire (19th and early 20th centuries), each side works to prop up the weak middle, preferring the coherence it imparts to the uncertainty of a decisive struggle, which, in many ways, awaits the playing-out of Iran’s reach for the Bomb.
2) The strongman must return
A second view stipulates that Iraq is on a trajectory of significant deterioration. This week’s multiple bombings and sniping attacks across Iraq prove the direness of the security situation. Coordinated attacks in at least 14 locations from Karbala to Kirkuk show that Sunni Islamist groups operate at will. Mass protests by Sadrist supporters demanding jobs and local investments, estimated anywhere between 100,000 and 1 million, show that pressure on the al-Maliki government is unrelenting - even from co-religious Shia. In Kurdistan, President Massoud Barzani has toughened his anti-Maliki rhetoric. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq. Corruption is legion. In short, the country is a mess and is on the brink of multiple insurgencies and insurrections.
Toppling Saddam successfully removed an anti-American and anti-Iranian Sunni strongman, and reduced Iraqi military power for a period of years. But nothing fundamental about Iraqi culture or politics was changed as a result of the war, occupation and reconstruction, except that the majority of politicians who now squabble for power and prerogatives are now Shiites rather than Sunnis. Iraqi national identity was and remains secondary to tribal and sectarian ones, and the sectarian fighting in the wake of the Iraq War helped raise the Muslim schism again to the world stage. Iran undoubtedly benefited from the removal or its historic rival and from the opportunity to patronize Iraq’s Shiite majority, but it remains unlikely that historic hatred between Mesopotamians and Persians will be overcome.
American nation-building and democracy building have been unsuccessful among Shiite and Sunni communities, the majority of whom hate and loath each other and for whom ‘Iraqiness’ remains secondary. The fate of Kurdistan is still an open question, but the deep rivalries between factions there, and their deeply anti-democratic tendencies, bode ill. In any case, no Kurdish neighbor wishes to see an independent Kurdistan.
Iraq will probably muddle along for a few years until the situation becomes so bad that there are widespread indigenous demands for forceful efforts to create stability. This will be license for violence and repression, but will likely be presented - and even sympathetically regarded - as a “republican” response to “democratic” demands. Should chaos break out fully, it will present an opportunity for al-Maliki or a local strongman to crack down in the name of security and ‘Iraq’.
One new possibility is that Arab-Spring-type uprisings could also bring forward new politicians or even old ones like al-Sadr, which would result in either a swift Islamist takeover as in Libya or more likely a slow-motion takeover, as in Egypt. Pressure to Islamify Iraq society will also likely increase after Egypt is taken over fully by the Muslim Brotherhood.
3) The strong (enough) man is already there
A third view triangulates the first pair: Iraq is a dysfunctional but not a failed state. Baghdad still holds, and the Kurds maintain their historic role as honest brokers between the South’s Arab combatants. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki does just enough to prevail - time and again - in power showdowns with all three groups. With al Qaeda now thoroughly discredited throughout the region, thanks to its over-the-top behavior during Iraq’s de facto civil war (2005-8), the U.S. legitimately claims a victory in its global “war on terror.” And with several genuinely free elections under its belt, Iraq must be recognized as a functioning democracy, notwithstanding the brute force politics that typically plagues any recently pluralized political system. This glass is half full.
Having said all that, the ability to vote doesn’t change the underlying centrifugal forces that have consistently threatened to tear this British colonial concoction apart. Political figures enter the game with their own interest first and foremost in mind, followed by the needs of their tribes. The needs of the “nation” finish a distant third. Arab democracy still follows the rule of “one man, one vote, one time,” so expect Maliki to remain in power, slowly hollowing out what democratic impulses remain in the system. If we’re lucky, we’re looking at another Pakistan - minus the nukes - down the road.
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If those are the three primary paths ahead, Wikistrat’s crowd would also offer the three following wild cards.
A) Lost generation, found opportunity?
Amidst the region’s youth-bulge-driven Arab Spring, Iraq’s young people remain a scarred and scared lot. With a median age just under 21, we’re talking a generation that has - in coming-of-age terms - only known incredible civil strife. Everybody knows what that did to Lebanon over the past several decades.
And yet, the power of example should not be underestimated, especially if the Arab Spring basically dismembers Syria, opening up the possibility of merged mini-nations: Syria’s Sunnis + Iraq’s Sunnis? Syria’s Kurds + Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government?
B) The un-Iran? (In search of Iraqi nationalism)
Iraq has never enjoyed a genuine nationalism. What it has had over the centuries is a shared hatred of the Turks, Brits, Iranians and - most recently - the Americans.
But given a chance to re-Islamify itself, a quiet hearts-and-minds battle ensues between two theological power centers: Iraq’s Najaf and Iran’s Qom. In sharp contrast to Iran’s theocratic order, Najaf’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, promotes the view that Shiite Islam remains most virtuous when it stays out of political power. As Iran’s disenchanted souls look increasingly to Najaf for spiritual guidance, expect an intra-Shia rivalry to sharpen.
C) The race for environmental sustainability
Iraq is short on clean water and grows more environmentally stressed with each passing year. The latest UNESCO World Water Development Report indicates that surface water flows in the Tigris, Euphrates, Karoun and Karkeh Rivers have diminished over time because of growing demand and diversions in upstream areas of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq (Kurdistan) itself.
Ironically, the nation’s most viable path forward is to continue fast-tracking the expansion of its oil industry, because that wealth is crucial for reviving de-salinization capacity. But even that may not be enough.
Given the region’s overall water issues, Iraq’s situation is far more unique. It’s just the one most likely to explode first.
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That’s Wikistrat’s “wisdom of the crowd” effort for this week.
Now tell us which path you find most plausible, or what other scenarios you can envision in the comments section below. And be sure to check out more at Wikistrat.com, a cutting-edge global consultancy.