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The Future of Iraq

What is the future of Iraq? New York University’s Center for Global Affairs held a scenarios workshop where an accomplished group of international scholars tried to imagine what Iraq would be like in the year 2010. The scholars assigned this task were, Richard Bulliet a professor of history at Columbia University, Steven Cook the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Paul Cruickshank a fellow at NYU School of Law,Gregory Gause an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont, Terree Haidet a Federal Executive Fellow at The Brookings Institution, Toby Jones a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Swathmore College, Gideon Rose a managing editor at Foreign Affairs, Gary Sick a senior research scholar at the Middle East Institute of Columbia University, and Steven Simon a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Their task was to envision plausible, significant and distinct pathways for the region after ‘the surge.’ The result was three scenarios, first, National Unity Dictatorship: Stable Iraq, Stable Region. Second, Contained Mess: Unstable Iraq, Stable Region. And last, Contagion: Unstable Iraq, Unstable Region.

Scenario one, the national unity dictatorship, involves a nationalist leader emerging from the chaos of Iraq, he is sufficiently independent of the U.S., Iran, al Qaeda, and Arab governments; to establish internal credibility as a unifying figure. They suggest that when confronted with the continuing sectarian rivalry and religious violence, local and regional leaders realize that, with the decreasing American military presence, a strong unified central government can only be achieved with a “National Unity Dictator” (NUD). In this scenario, the NUD would suspend the constitution, restore order, and tap into nationalism. The panel points out that, this may not necessarily be a secular leader, but more likely a Shia, who is a strong Iraqi nationalist, and not an Arab nationalist. They state that, “the failure of the Islamists and successive weak administrations in Baghdad will have persuaded large numbers of Iraqis to trade the liberal freedoms they have enjoyed on paper since the fall of Saddam for freedom from fear.” They observe that any attempt by the United States to anoint a NUD would probably backfire and that his appearance may come as a surprise, a military leader arising from his ability to consolidate power as the result of battlefield victories. They suggest one possible candidate for this role might be Lt. General Aboud Qanbar, a Shia who served as a commander in Saddam’s Navy. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appointed Qanbar over the objections of U.S. and Iraqi officials. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is virulently anti-Shia. This might be an area for collaboration between the NUD and the United States, allowing the United States to maintain a no-fly zone over AQI strongholds, which would allow for periodic strikes against terrorist training camps by Iraqi and U.S. forces. The panel felt that Iran would most likely support a NUD who was a Shia and could establish stability in Iraq. They also felt that Syria would support a NUD, as they would benefit form the stability. However, they felt Saudi Arabia had the most to fear from the emergence of a NUD. The resulting stability would result in native jihadists returning to Saudi Arabiaand could domestic security. The panel indicates that the U.S. would have to accept that the NUD is likely to be a leader it cannot control. The panel concludes that, “A policy of supporting the emergence of a NUD in Iraq reflects the re-emergence of realist thinking on the part of the United States after an ambitious but failed project to bring democracy to Iraq.”

Scenario two, contained mess, would result from Iraq disintegrating into an all out civil war, but one in which it neighbors take aggressive roll in keeping the chaos contained within Iraq. Iraq’s neighbors, excluding Turkey, would encourage the continuing battle, fighting proxy wars within Iraq, while not allowing it to expand beyond its borders. Under this scenario, the panel sees that, “the army acts increasingly as an instrument of Shia political dominance, thereby extending Shia physical control and combating the growing Sunni insurgency supported by al Qaeda and Sunni governments. The Shia in the south would begin to assert themselves more. The Kurds would abandon any efforts at reining in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).” Increased activity by the PKK could lead to intervention by Turkey. It would be in Iran’s interest to avoid direct intervention unless Shia political control was threatened or Turkey intervened in the north. For Syria the issue is border control as they try to maintain their policy of allowing foreign fighters into Iraq, but not grant them return passage, and controlling the mostly Sunni refugee inflow. The Saudis would fear increasing al Qaedafication of Sunnis, and the effect that had could have domestically on their own populations. They would support Sunni groups that opposed al Qaeda in Iraq. Under this scenario the panel envisions that, “The outcome thus resembles the situation the Bush administration said it was trying to prevent in invading Iraq in 2003: a large country in the Middle East serving as safe haven and a training ground for terrorists who then target assets in the region and beyond.” The panel expects that under this scenario, “The U.S. will maintain a no-fly zone over the entire country that contributes to containment and serves as a geographic buffer separating Iran and Israel.” This scenario would be difficult to maintain and would most likely evolve into either scenario one or scenario three.

Scenario three, under this scenario, not only is Iraq engulfed in all out civil war, but the conflict has spread destabilizing the entire region. According to the panel under this scenario, “Existing regimes in the region cling to power, but with insufficient domestic political support or acquiescence to create coalitions and pursue effective balance of power strategies necessary to contain the Iraq civil war.” A conflict of this sort could evolve into a global conflict if terrorists targeted the energy infrastructure. The U.S. or Israel could also react to any number of Iranian provocations, including the imminent development of nuclear weapons. Under this scenario, Kurdistan would win more autonomy as Baghdad deteriorates. Kurdistan would become a haven for the PKK and other pro-independence, anti-Turkish forces. Turkey would invade to suppress these elements. The panel indicates that, “Iran will use its allied terrorist groups as leverage with regimes like United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. Should it be hit—or believe it is about to be—Iran will call upon these terrorist groups to spread disorder and undermine the stability of these regimes and others in the region.” Syria, the host to hundreds of thousands of predominantly Sunni refugees, may find themselves overthrown by a revolutionary scenario within its own borders. The next regime in Syria could be prone to al-Qaedaification. Saudi Arabia could not only contribute to destabilization by support of Iraqi Sunni insurgents, but also find itself a target of destabilization by its own Shia minority. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood might choose to become involved as a peace broker, as an opportunity to re-engage the region and reassert its leadership role in the Arab world. According to the panel, “There is no reason to think terror will stay concentrated in the region, especially given the focus of jidahist anger against the United States and its allies in the Middle East.” While this scenario would not be in the long interest of any of the parties, the panel points out that, “it would be imprudent to believe too confidently in the logic of “self-interest” in the Middle East.”

This multi-disciplinary panel provides us into some interesting and insightful glimpses at the possible future Iraq will experience. As the political tide turns against a long term occupation of Iraq, Americans need to think about the future of Iraq and the role America will play in that future.

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