Sunday, August 27, 2006

Assessing the Relevance of Theoretical Explanations for Ethnic Civil War in Iraq

Another reason I had not been posting much recently was my work on a research paper. Alhumdulillah, I completed that project and would like to share some of its findings. Feel free to quote it please do not try to pass it as a academic work to since it was already submitted as an academic research thesis.


A recent congressional report, Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, found 85 percent of the insurgent attacks accounted from August 29 to September 16, 2005 occurred in four Sunni provinces, with the remaining 14 other provinces accounting for only 15 percent of the violence. A more revealing fact is that an overwhelming majority of the insurgents are indigenous Sunnis and the small minorities who are foreign al Qaeda members or its associates are only able to operate because Iraqi Sunnis provide them with the necessary support and resources. An assessment of suicide bombing mission trends shows that a majority of them are “directed at Shiite neighborhoods, especially in ethnically mixed areas such as Baghdad, Diyala, or northern Babil, where Sunni bombers have relatively easy access to non-Sunni targets.” Since the February bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, threats and attacks upon civilians have sharply increased. As of June 2006, the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration reported that “some 100,000 people are internally displaced as a direct result of sectarian violence.” These considerations suggest that the conflict in Iraq has an ethnic-sectarian dimension. Commenting on these findings, military strategist Stephen Biddle asks, “[i]f the war in Iraq were chiefly a class-based or nationalist war, the violence would run along national, class, or ideological lines. It does not. [… Instead, it] is fundamentally a communal civil war.” Nicolas Sambias adds, “[t]he insurgency started while Iraq was under foreign occupation, but intensified since the handoff of sovereignty. The insurgents have been fighting continuously, violence affects all sides, and there have been more than 30,000 civilian and military deaths, dwarfing the median number of 18,000 deaths for all civil wars since 1945. […] What is no longer an open question, however, is the nature of the conflict. It is a civil war, not an insurgency.” Other leading Middle East and ethnic conflict experts have arrived at the same conclusion.

This paper agrees with the above assessment and establishes its research agenda on the premises that Iraq is in the middle of an ethnic civil war. The central puzzle of this paper is to explain why Iraqi ethno-sectarian groups are engaged in a low intensity civil war. The situation in Iraq is not a unique phenomenon but represents a microcosm of why ethnic conflict continues to be one of the central concerns in international security. A 2005 study confirms this assertion by identifying fifteen of the twenty ongoing major conflicts to be ethnic or communal in nature.

With the end of the Cold War, the international spread of ethnic conflict motivated some of the most prominent security studies specialists to examine the roots of communal violence. Since then, their efforts have generated an extensive and ever-expanding literature analyzing various dimensions of communal strife. Their findings on the causes of ethnic warfare are neither straightforward nor simple, often resulting in scholarly debates on the pages of leading academic journals. Despite the disagreements, the study of ethnic violence has shed light on the many complexities of ethnic violence. It should be noted that the results yielded from the study on ethnic conflict are also applicable to sectarian violence since many of the same problems afflict sectarian groups in conflict. This sectarian aspect is particularly relevant to Iraq because the major source of tension has not been amongst the ethnically different Kurds and Arabs, but rather amongst competing sects of Islam from the same Arab background.

After more than two decades of scholarly research, political scientists have been able to identify recurring themes that characterize ethnic warfare. The most popular approaches to explaining ethnic conflict center on three core concepts: inter-ethnic security dilemmas, belligerent leaders, and strategic dilemmas. These conceptual explanations have come to dominate the contemporary discussions on ethnic conflict. Earlier attempts to explain ethnic conflict also considered the “ancient hatreds” argument but recent findings have critiqued and disproved this view by showing how ethnic attitudes and identities have varied over history.

In this paper, I examine the current strife in Iraq through the lens of the three conceptual understandings on ethnic war. To begin this task, I analyze Chaim Kaufmann's security dilemmas arising from ‘inter-mixed settlement patterns’, Stuart Kaufman's political elite’s ethno-nationalist ‘outbidding’ spiral, and the information failures and commitment problems of David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, and James D. Fearon. I have chosen these theoretical frameworks because they are considered to be the best articulated arguments of the three conceptual understandings of ethnic violence.

Barry Posen is credited as the first scholar to apply Robert Jervis’ security dilemma logic to explain ethnic conflict. Posen argues that demographically mixed settlement patterns create windows of vulnerability and opportunity for one group to strike offensively and subdue or eliminate its rivals. Chaim Kaufmann builds upon this logic to explain why ethnic group identities are inflexible in communal conflict as opposed to ideological wars. Stuart Kaufman takes the existence of security dilemmas in ethnic conflict as a premise but offers a compelling explanation about why belligerent leaders fan the flames of extremist politics to ignite communal violence. Lake and Rothschild build upon Fearon’s commitment problem coupled with information failures as the source of war between ethnic groups facing fear and anarchy.

That's just the intro... Here were my findings:

Conclusions on the Three Theories Findings and their Limitations
In this section, I summarize the findings of the three theories analyzed. Investigating the conceptual frameworks of understanding ethnic conflict suggests that there are elements of all three influencing Iraq’s ethnic-sectarian war. Intermixed settlement patterns, belligerent leaders, and information failures coupled with commitment problems all play a role in exacerbating communal strife. However, the investigation presented here finds intermixed settlement patterns based security dilemma explanation and strategic dilemmas capable of identifying the causes of Iraqi ethnic war better than the belligerent leaders’ explanation.

While the belligerent leaders’ framework predicted a mass insurgency amongst a subordinate group like the Sunnis, the mass insurgency has not led to Sunnis electing politicians with a separatist agenda. Instead, the opposite has occurred – Sunnis and their elite have pressed for a strong centralized government. Where as the Kurds, who are also an ethnic minority, have offered no violent resistance against the Shiite majority and have cooperated with them through much of the political process. Another shortcoming of the belligerent leaders’ theory is the lack of ethnic outbidding amongst the Shiites. True, they have engaged in government jingoism and there is an increase in sectarianism amongst Shiite voters but key Shiite religious leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered religious Shiite leader in Iraq, have urged restrain in the face of growing ethnic violence. This trend may change in the future if other Shiite leaders such as Sadr attempt to capitalize on growing Shiite fear and animosity of Sunni insurgents. Until then, the causes of ethnic strife lay elsewhere.

On the other hand, the inter-ethnic security dilemma premised explanation reveals the motives for much of the recent ethnic strife in demographically mixed cities such as Baghdad and Kirkurk. Ethnic identity has become the focus point of political and security organization in Iraq. Elections results indicate that cross-ethnic appeals are non-existent or a vain effort. The anarchic like situation in has forced civilians to find protection and security amongst their co-ethnics. The inability to distinguish between offensive and defense actions has forced ethnic groups to organize just in case their rivals mobilize for war. The fear of ethnic cleansing has compelled many communities like the Sunnis in the Shiite dominated southern provinces to migrate to Sunni majority provinces and vice versa. This macro level effect has replicated itself in ethnically mixed cities like Baghdad, forcing tens of thousands of Sunnis and Shiites to flee to their co-ethnics territory. The inter-ethnic security dilemma explains much of the ethnic violence taking place amongst ethnically mixed regions but it offers little insight on why a mass insurgency developed in the homogenous Sunni province of Anbar.

This presents a challenge for the security dilemma theory because no ethnic group was threatening Sunnis in their own province. While it is true that the insurgency was initially directed towards Coalition troops, recent attacks have been shifted to Shiite and Kurd civilians, police and army forces. Information failures and commitment problems can account for the existence of the Sunni insurgency. There is a strong correlation between the adoption of the 2005 Iraqi constitution and an increase in insurgent attacks upon Kurds and Shiites. During the drafting of the constitution, Sunni communicated their concerns on key issues such as strong centralized government and anti-Baathist sentiments. However, the Kurd-Shiite alliance could not commit to the Sunnis demands either because of possibly miscalculating the Sunnis willingness – resulting in an information failure and commitment problem.

It is difficult to judge any conclusion about ongoing conflict, especially since it is difficult to discern all the relevant information in Iraq. However, the evidence presented here suggests that it is possible to narrow the range of possible explanations down to two. The assessment of the three approaches in explaining Iraq’s ethnic war reveals that inter-ethnic security dilemmas and information failures along with commitment problems are the most relevant in assessing the causes of the current ethnic strife in Iraq. Together, the two conceptual frameworks present a plausible explanation: The inability of the Iraqi government to provide security for demographically mixed regions, such as central Iraq, creates security dilemmas that drive ethnic groups to mobilize for war, whereas a Sunni insurgency emerged and intensified in a largely homogenous Sunni Arab province because information failures and the lack of credible commitments to Sunnis from Shiites in the 2005 Iraqi constitution.

Here were some of my thoughts for the future:

Possible Solutions and their Future Implications for Iraq
An assessment of the historical record on ethnic wars in the last half century, Chaim Kaufmann found that ethnic conflicts have ended in only three ways: 1) complete victory of one side; 2) temporary cessation of hostilities by third party military intervention or; 3) self-governance of separate communities. Policymakers concerned with resolving Iraq’s civil war should heed these findings and wisely choose which solution they aim to implement because it may have dire consequences.

The first way to end ethnic war is perhaps the most atrocious – complete victory by one side. In such a scenario, it will usually be the majority ethnic group that will conquer the ethnic minority militarily and in some cases engage in ethnic cleansing or genocide. This scenario is the most troubling for Western liberal democracies and an outcome they wish to avoid – but at what cost? On this issue, Richard K. Betts has rightly noted that that third party impartial intervention may end a war if the outside party “takes complete command of the situation, overawes all the local competitors, and impose a settlement.” That is to say, there is a chance if decisive action is taken to initially create the peace amongst warring groups. In Iraq, the Coalition troops were sufficient to win the war but not enough secure the entire country. Imposing a settlement was also an unlikely scenario since the U.S. administration’s objective was to allow compromise amongst the different groups through a democratic process. In light of these failures, Iraq can easily be considered an instance of impartial intervention – a recipe for disaster in ethnic war and civil wars. According to Betts, impartial interventions might intensify ethnic or civil conflict when competing factions or groups compete for the third party intervener’s jobs, contracts, and cash. One group tends to manipulate the third party to their own advantage and against their rival group. This is already happening in Iraq as Kurds and Shiites have been able to extract promises from the coalition let them fight the Sunni insurgents.

Currently, Coalition forces are spread thin in Iraq and domestic opinion on Iraq has increasingly become negative – with a number of politicians and political scientists urging a timeline for withdrawal. In the event of a US withdrawal, there is a strong possibility that the country would spiral into a large scale civil war where one side defeats the others and imposes its rule by force. The most likely winner of such a war would be the numerically superior Shiites. However, they would pay a high price for such a victory since the fighting the Sunni insurgents and Kurdish Peshmegra militias would a difficult task. Some political scientists like Barry Posen argue that one side winning it all may further complicate things: “[A] bloody victory by the Shiites over the Sunni Arabs could prove inimical to American interests, because it would surely be accompanied by human-rights violations that would not serve the West well in the war on terror.” A Shiite Iraq would be heavily influenced by Iranian interests, resulting in theocratic government that imitates Iran’s foreign policy agenda.

The second possible ending is a temporary cessation of hostilities between all groups. This was and continues to be the US objective in Iraq. The hope is to stop the fighting and get warring groups to participate in a democratic government that will allow the U.S. to slowly decrease its troops as the Iraqi national government takes responsibility for security. Biddle proposes a similar scenario where the US "manipulate[s] the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate." However others like Betts reject this reasoning because stopping an ethnic war often means choosing one side in a conflict. While this maybe a difficult thing for third parties democracies since it requires giving up their impartiality and openly favoring one side. While the U.S. struggles to balance all three groups into a political agreement, they continue to find themselves in an uphill battle against the Sunnis insurgency and are now is losing control of the Shiite provinces to the Badr Organization and Mahdi Army militias violence against Sunnis.

The last scenario of ending ethnic conflict is self governance of separate communities. In his analysis of Ted R. Gurr’s Minorities at Risk (MAR) database on how 27 ethnic conflicts have ended, Chaim Kaufmann concludes that demography is the critical variable in successful solutions to ethnic war; a stable resolution of ethnic civil war necessitates separating rival communities into defensible areas. In Iraq, this would translate into a decentralized national government along the lines of federalism or autonomous regions. This rational is premised upon Kaufmann observation that resolutions to ethnic civil wars are only possible when the competing groups are demographically separated into “defensible enclaves.” Separation of the ethnic groups into distinct communities eliminates the motive and the opportunity for ethnic violence or “cleansing.” Hence, the nature of the conflict changes from “mutual pre-emptive ethnic cleansing to something approaching conventional interstate war where normal deterrence dynamics apply.” With homogenous ethnic communities, attempts to seize more territory require a large conventional military offensive. Once distinguishable and separate ethnic territories are established, it may be necessary to move all enemy ethnics across the separation line and resettled in their co-ethnics territory. However, Kaufmann’s argues that this does not require ethnic purity in the regions but if minorities are present in a region, they must be small enough not to pose a threat to the dominating ethnic majority. How will this be implemented in Iraq? Kaufmann replies:
“Satisfying this obligation would mean using U.S. military strength to protect Iraqi refugees who wish to relocate. U.S. forces must defend the most vulnerable mixed towns and urban neighborhoods from both Sunni and Shiite attackers long enough to organize transport for those who want to move to safer locations.”

It is unclear how ethnically mixed cities like Baghdad, which consists of 25 percent of Iraq’s population, would be divided amongst ethnic rivals. Nor would Iraq’s infant economy and undeveloped infrastructure be able be handle the pressures of large population transfers. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that implementing such a solution may prove to be extremely difficult if communities resist moving from regions they have deeply attached sentiments and resided in for centuries. It is highly likely that Sunnis in the north would strongly resist being moved to the barren Sunni western provinces because there would lose their stakes in Iraq’s northern oil fields.

As troubling as the possible solutions and their implications for Iraq may seem, political science can only investigate the causes of political phenomena with the hope of gaining a better understanding of how to respond to them. This was the objective of this paper regarding Iraq’s ethno-sectarian civil war. In spite of these problematic findings, this paper ends by suggesting two possible remedies deduced from the findings of this paper. Iraqi ethno-sectarian groups are suffering from a combination of inter-ethnic security dilemmas, information failures, and commitment problems that place it on the edge of a large scale civil war. If the international community, and US forces are truly interested in preventing Iraq’s decline into an ethnic civil war, they must directly confront the security dilemma problem plaguing Iraqis. One of the ways they can resolve this situation temporarily is to increase the number of Coalition troops in ethnically mixed regions. In the past, the Coalition forces were primarily concerned with fighting the Sunni insurgency, depleting their resources and ability to efficiently patrol the ethically mixed cities of Baghdad, Kirkurk, and Mosul. Recent US military decisions reflect this change as “part of a fresh strategy to put down rising sectarian violence.” Also, it is not surprising to find “many Sunni Arab political and religious leaders once staunchly opposed to the American presence […] now saying they need American troops to protect them from the rampages of Shiite militias and Shiite-run government forces.” This suggests that Sunnis are fearful of Shiites engaging in government jingoism since the Sunnis have received no credible commitment that the Shiite majority will not seek revenge upon Sunnis from years of suffering under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni centered regime. However, if international forces are used to ‘keep the peace,’ they can only do so as long as they remain the enforcers. Drawing from Betts, the temporary peace imposed by Coalition forces would only prolong the conflict that will resume once peacekeepers leave. Hence, the second set of problem this paper finds necessary to address are the information failures and commitment problems. US Ambassador Khalizad’s political successes have been largely overlooked. He was able to orchestrate the resignation of Prime Minister Jaafari, who was seen as marginalizing the Sunnis, and has been able to include the once politically oblivious Sunnis in the political process. Greater diplomatic resources should be invested to get the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to credibly commit with each other over constitutional issues such as federalism, religious or secular state identity, and perhaps most importantly: Oil revenues. This paper recommends that Sunni political concerns over Iraq’s oil wealth be formally included in a constitution. Striking such an agreement may be extremely difficult when groups have incentives to misrepresent, leading to rampant information failures. The US should use both coercive and non-coercive strategies to bring warring ethnic groups to make the necessary compromises. This might entail temporarily halting the Iraqi democratic process since it may require certain groups accepting unfavorable terms (i.e. disbanding Shiite and Kurds militias which the groups would not allow under a regular democratic process). However, this is a decision the US must be willing to make if it is truly interested in preventing an Iraqi civil war. To paraphrase Clausewitz, the US must realize that its military objectives are a continuation of the politics objectives it must accomplish. Therefore, if Iraq’s security is stabilized with Coalition forces which would mitigate the security dilemma, the next crucial step would be to find a political resolution to the commitment problems and potential belligerent leaders plaguing Iraq.


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