Monday, September 05, 2005

Weintraub vs. Schwartz on the Iraqi insurgency (Contexts)

Contexts 4:3 (Summer 2005)

Jeff Weintraub vs. Michael Schwartz on the Iraqi insurgency

(An invited response by Jeff Weintraub to Michael Schwartz's "Why the United States is Losing the War in Iraq" [Contexts 4:1, Winter 2005, pp. 12-20], with Schwartz's counter-response.)

a debate on the iraqi insurgency

Michael Schwartz is a first-rate political sociologist, and his analysis of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq (Winter, 2005) is perceptive and illuminating. Unlike many opponents of the war, he argues (correctly, I think) that the emergence of a major anti-American insurgency was not inevitable, since most Iraqis, including Sunni Arabs, welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He convincingly reconstructs some key processes by which the growth of the insurgency was pro­moted, in interlocking ways, by the spectacular and disas­trous incompetence with which the post-Saddam occupation was conducted. Overall, however, Schwartz's analysis strikes me as seriously incomplete and misleading, and his conclu­sion that the insurgency has become a "viable revolution" is almost certainly incorrect.

At least one important element seems to be missing from Schwartz's picture of the insurgency. He emphasizes the need for a revolutionary insurgency to build an alternative adminis­trative and political structure, and highlights the role of rebuilt tribal and religious infrastructures. But a range of informed analysts inside and outside Iraq (including Juan Cole, whose website Schwartz describes as "[tlhe best source of news and analysis on Iraq") argue that surviving Ba'athist organization­al, military, and secret-police networks play a crucial role in coordinating--and probably funding--the insurgency. Several Iraqi analysts have suggested that this factor could help explain, for example, why the insurgents are able to carry out spectacular attacks in Shiite Arab areas, even though their popular support there is minimal, but have had little impact in the one part of Iraq where underground Ba'athist networks have been totally dismantled, Kurdistan.

Since the great majority of Iraqis still hate the Ba'athists a lot more than the Americans--and Iraqi Kurds don't dislike the Americans at all--this Ba'athist dimension of the insurgency points to some wider sociopolitical dynamics missing from Schwartz's account. Throughout his article Schwartz ignores or evades a crucial limitation of the insurgency: its support (within Iraq) comes almost exclusively from the Sunni Arab minority, estimated at around 15 to 20 percent of the popula­tion. Schwartz sometimes tries to inflate this potential con­stituency by mentioning disturbances and insurrectionary outbreaks among Shiite Arabs, particularly those led by Muqtada al-Sadr. But these tendencies are distinct from the Sunni insurgency--and, in addition, al-Sadr's challenge to the mainstream Shiite religious and political leadership (which is what his insurrections were basically about) seems to have been effectively contained and largely neutralized, at least for the moment.

True, the Sunni minority has always dominated Iraq, and in some ways this benefits the insurgents, but in other ways it adds to their problems with the remaining 80-85 percent of Iraqis. The loose collection of Ba'athists, radical (Sunni) Islamists, Sunni Arab irredentists, tribal militias, and foreign jihadists who make up the insurgency no doubt share with many Shiite Arabs the goal of ending the U.S. occupation. But the key question is: Who is going to rule Iraq? And the main agenda that appears to unite the disparate strands of the insurgency is the restoration of some form of Sunni Arab dom­ination. The great bulk of Iraqis are not just unsupportive of this program, but passionately hostile to it.

For this and other reasons, Schwartz's suggestion that the successes of the insurgency necessarily built up a self-rein­forcing and ultimately unstoppable momentum is misleadingly one-sided and, as the comrades used to say, insufficiently dialectical. These very successes also have important counter­vailing effects, since they increasingly frighten and alienate non-Sunni-Arab Iraqis, unite them against the insurgents, and reduce the desire among all Shiite political tendencies for any rapid departure of American troops. Consider the impact on Iraqi (Arab) opinion of the two U.S. assaults on Falluja in April and November 2004. "By treating all Fallujans as the enemy," Schwartz asserts, "the Americans made enemies out of virtu­ally all Iraqis." With regard to the first assault on Falluja in April 2004, this is a wild exaggeration. By the time of the second U.S. assault in November, the great majority of Iraqis (except for Sunni Arabs) either applauded or maintained, in Cole's for­mulation, a "thunderous" silence

Shiite outrage and hostility grew between April and November 2004 because the victims of the increasing ter­rorist attacks by Sunni insurgents were overwhelmingly Iraqi Shiites--not just political figures, government workers, policemen, and members of the Iraqi National Guard, but Shiite religious leaders, religious pilgrims, and ordinary civilians.

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In fact, this pattern of increasingly indiscriminate attacks on Shiites, which has continued, seems deliberately aimed at provoking an all-out civil war between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq, an outcome that the Shiite leadership has so far been able to prevent by successfully limiting Shiite reprisals. This strategy may succeed in destabilizing Iraq and making it ungovernable, perhaps even in blowing Iraqi soci­ety apart, but it is hard to see it as building a national revo­lutionary movement.

Of course, minority-based authoritarian regimes are not inherently unworkable or even rare. But by focusing so exclu­sively on the Sunni insurgency and the U.S. occupation, Schwartz has left out another dynamic element in the larger political context--the collision between the political project of the insurgency and the alternative political project pursued by mainstream Shiite religious and political leaders centered on the Ayatollah al-Sistani. This strategy, aimed at achieving power by largely peaceful political means, has emphasized building Shiite political unity and mobilization, avoiding armed confrontation with the U.S. occupation, restraining Shiite reprisals against Sunni Arab provocations, and pressing for national elections as soon as possible, against the strong reluc­tance of the Americans and the guarded caution of the Kurdish parties. For this political project, the Iraqi national elec­tions of January 30 were a remarkable success.

Schwartz's article was written too early to take into account the election and its significance, but in many ways it only highlighted and strengthened some of the long-term dynamics just outlined. Schwartz correctly points to the impor­tant role that symbolic action and political morale play in insur­gency and counter insurgency. Elections can sometimes be powerful political rituals with dramatic impacts in precisely these domains. The Iraqi election may or may not lead to a sta­ble or effective national government. but for the moment it has transformed the calculus of legitimacy in Iraqi politics. Among other things, it was a referendum on the insurgency--not least because the insurgents themselves did much to define it that way. As a result they were massively repudiated (except by Sunni Arabs, who marginalized themselves by largely boycotting the election), and the fact that they were unable to disrupt the elections by violent intimidation consti­tuted a major symbolic defeat.

Of course, the long-term results of the election are uncer­tain. It may be possible for political coalitions emerging from the election to pull together a stable regime that could man­age an orderly phasing-out of the U.S. occupation. If so, it is significant that all the major Shiite and Kurdish political ten­dencies appear committed, to some degree, to reaching out to non-fascist and non-jihadist elements in the Sunni Arab political leadership and elites (if only because they recognize what Eastern Europeans used to call, euphemistically, "geopo­litical realities"). If enough of these Sunni Arab elites were will­ing to reach an accommodation with such a regime, and vice versa, a long-term insurgency might still persist in the Sunni Arab portion of Iraq, but this insurgency could ultimately be isolated and crushed. Or, at the other extreme, the whole effort might break down into political chaos, civil war, the breakup of Iraq, ignominious U.S. retreat, and perhaps even intervention by other regional powers. Either way, one out­come that seems especially unlikely is that the Sunni insur­gency will grow into a national revolution. On the other hand, it is possible that "when the history of the American occupa­tion of Iraq is written," to quote Schwartz, the recent election may be seen as the moment when the Ayatollah al-Sistani, having politically outmaneuvered the Americans and Muqtada al-Sadr, also managed to outmaneuver the Sunni insurgency.

February 18, 2005
Jeff Weintraub, University of Pennsylvania

Schwartz responds:

Jeff Weintraub illuminates key dynamics of guerrilla war and the political trajectory of Iraq. I agree with 'much of what he has to say. I think our differences stem from differing under­standings of the resistance. Weintraub believes it is based in fringe elements in Sunni communities, led by Saddamist rem­nants, and committed to terrorist attacks on Shia civilians. This profile guarantees its isolation from the rest of the country and therefore dooms the development of an effective countrywide resistance. (For a similar analysis by u.s. military authorities, see Newsweek, Feb. 7, 2005).

I believe Weintraub is describing only a small part of the Sunni resistance. Many credible sources support my view, including recent CIA reports which specifically debunked this portrait (Washington Post, Feb. 6, 2005). Among other things, the CIA described the Zarqawi wing of the resistance ­responsible for virtually all attacks against Shia civilians – as a "lesser element" in the resistance. But one need not rely on the CIA. Eyewitness accounts of resistance centers, in Falluja, Ramadi, Tal Afar, and Samarra, characterize the mujahideen as ordinary citizens led by local clerical and tribal leaders; they are not fringe elements led by former Saddamists.

The main body of the resistance has different goals and tactics from the Saddamists and Jihadists Weintraub analyzes. They wish to expel the Americans, so they focus their attacks on Coalition military forces and their supply system. This does not alienate the rest of Iraqi society.

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This brings us to Weintraub's key point: antagonism to the Sunni resistance outside of Sunni communities makes it inca­pable of mounting an effective challenge to the Occupation. I think the resistance has already mounted such a challenge, but I accept his argument that the actions of the terrorists have substantially alienated the Shia and threaten the long-term viability of the resistance. However, I think Weintraub's mis­taken understanding of the resistance leads him to overesti­mate the danger in this alienation. In particular I note two initiatives of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), the leadership of the Sunni nationalist resistance. First, they have begun to systematically dissociate the "resistance" from the "terrorists," calling attacks on civilians the work of "criminal agents" (The New York Times, Jan. 14, 2005).

Second, the AMS has worked toward establishing an alliance with the Shia resistance, notably the Sadrist movement. Weintraub dismisses the Sadrists as "largely neutralized, at least for the moment," but I believe that they are a formidable politi­cal and military force throughout the Shia areas. (For more on the Sadrists, see my article in Against the Current, Jan. 2005, and Pepe Escobar's Asia Times article of March 11, 2005.) This new initiative resulted in a summit meeting of the" Anti-Occupation Patriotic Forces," in February 2005, led by the AMS and the Sadrists, designed to forge a broad alliance to "lead to the with­drawal of the Americans from our country" and to demarcate a clear "separation between resistance and terrorism, because some are trying to relate the Iraqi resistance to the Zarqawi group and loyalists of the former regime" (Agence France Presse, Feb. 4, 2005). The resulting document was signed by 21 groups, including secular and religious Shia and Sunni organizations.

There is no guarantee that this alliance can be consolidated or sustained (and the absence of Kurds at the meeting indicates the difficulties it faces). But I would argue that the actions of this coalition are more important to the future of Iraq than those of the newly elected National Assembly. Put another way, the fate of Iraq will be determined by the confrontation between the Occupation forces and .the parties to this agreement. The Iraqi resistance is a viable revolutionary movement.

March 14, 2005

Michael Schwartz, Professor,of Sociology, State University of New York, Stony Brook

(Unpublished) P.S. by Jeff Weintraub

Schwartz's original article was written in September 2004, with a postscript in November 2004. My response was written in February 2005, and his counter-response was written in March 2005. By the time our exchange was published in August 2005, a lot had happened in Iraq, making both of our analyses dated in some respects. I believe that, on the whole, those developments have vindicated my analysis more than his, but that can be left for readers to judge.

Many of Schwartz's points in his counter-response were reasonable, but I feel compelled to comment on two of them.

First, Schwartz mischaracterizes my argument. I did not suggest that the insurgency "is based in fringe elements in Sunni communities." I simply pointed out that the total size of the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq-and, thus, the absolute maximum (hypothetical) base of support for the insurgency-comes to 20% of the Iraqi population at most.

Second, Schwartz concludes by reiterating his claim that "The Iraqi resistance"-i.e., the Sunni Arab insurgency -"is a viable revolutionary movement." Even when Schwartz wrote his original article, it was already clear that the likelihood of the Sunni Arab insurgency growing into a pan-Iraqi national revolution was close to nil, for reasons I outlined. At this point, such a claim can most generously be described as wishful thinking.

--Jeff Weintraub (September 5, 2005)

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