Iraqis Can Do More

Originally published in the Washington Post September 29, 2003

To visit Iraq today is to be forcibly reminded of the obvious: There is no military solution to politically inspired violence by locals against foreigners. What was true for the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, the Russians in Chechnya and the Israelis in the West Bank is proving true for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. Notwithstanding a huge and impressive military effort, the security situation, at least for now, is worsening. A delegation of which I was a member was told at the U.S. support base in Kuwait last week that ambushes on supply convoys are "increasing in frequency and effectiveness." At Baghdad headquarters we learned that the average number of daily attacks nationwide has climbed over recent weeks from 13 to 22. According to CPA officials, foreign terrorists are a "burgeoning problem." And the "biggest concern," in the opinion of the commander of coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, is "an overlap of FRLs [former regime loyalists] and foreigners [that] has emerged in the last 30 days." Another commander called it the "coming together of Sunnis and terrorists."

U.S. military leaders insist that the answer is not more troops. As one noted dryly, "More people are more targets." The one exception is on the borders, where some combination of more people and more technology is needed. Rather, the answers to the security situation in Iraq are political. The most urgent is to address the feeling among Iraq's Sunnis that they have no future.

Beginning with the decision to send the Iraqi army home without pay, and reinforced by "de-Baathification" and other decisions, the message has been inadvertently sent that the United States considers Sunnis, Baathists and Saddam Hussein loyalists to be one and the same. They are not. With no political party and what many feel to be no voice in the present government, Sunnis feel disenfranchised. It is no coincidence that the worst violence is in Sunni regions. This is not an issue that can wait.

Equally important is to reconsider the decision to avoid any form of interim or provisional government and to proceed in a linear manner from U.S. sovereignty to an Iraqi constitution to national elections to Iraqi sovereignty. This plan forces a completely unrealistic pace of constitution-writing in order to meet the pressures in Iraq, at the United Nations and at home to turn over sovereignty as quickly as possible.

The value of a constitution, however, is not the document but the process of coming to agreement on fundamental political choices and tradeoffs. It took the United States more than seven years. The notion that in a country with Iraq's history, demographics and recent experience "these deals could be struck quickly," as the CPA official in charge repeatedly insisted to us, is laughable. A document can be forced down Iraqi throats to meet our deadline (as Secretary of State Colin Powell put it: "They've got six months"), but it would be a piece of paper with little meaning, seeded with political land mines that would explode soon after we were gone, perhaps into civil war.

There is an alternative and, oddly, the United States is implementing it with one hand while ruling it out with the other. It is to put in place an interim government, sovereign in name. Currently, Iraq is divided into six regions under military command, each encompassing several Iraqi provinces. Commanders have chosen local leaders in the provinces in proportion to ethnic and religious numbers to attend delegate conventions. These have met, and they have chosen interim councils of 25 or 30 persons, which in turn elect governors and local officials. The process is obviously not democracy and the results are not uniformly welcomed, but it has put in place governments of Iraqis that are doing things and can do more.

At the national level, where the process can't be quite so rough and ready, the analog would be to adopt a straightforward election law and under it hold elections to choose members of a provisional assembly empowered to hold office for a few years. The assembly would choose an interim cabinet and write a constitution. Like everything else we are doing in Iraq this course would be risky, but it would have great advantages in popular legitimacy and time available. It would also provide a natural basis for compromise at the United Nations. Ambassador Paul Bremer acknowledged last week that "some Iraqis are beginning to regard us as occupiers and not as liberators." At about the same time, Sanchez was saying to us that a U.N. role under a new resolution would ease Iraqis' sense of foreign occupation, providing a security bonus regardless of how many troops are forthcoming.

On the economic front, too, coalition actions seem to be more on the right track in the regions than at CPA headquarters. Military commanders are doling out money through hundreds of small projects, decentralized down to the battalion level. They are removing trash, restoring buildings, repairing telephone systems and water treatment plants, painting lines on roads and, in at least one case, restarting factories. At CPA planners are deep into nearly every crevice of national government, from the postal service to tax policy, from finance to telling Iraqi teachers how they could teach better. A lot of this could be and should be left to Iraqis to decide eventually, even if we're convinced that we know better. Our delegation was told of the need for "unified command and control at the political/economic level." We should know better.

CPA is also letting the best be the enemy of the better-than-Saddam, employing U.S. contractors in needlessly expensive projects that strive for U.S.-level technology. U.S. contractors can't fix 1960s technology. They have to replace it. Iraqis, with a fraction of the money and sometimes with help from their original suppliers, could make it go. The benefit would be cost savings for us, employment and a priceless sense of ownership for them.

It is, after all, their country. The sooner we can convince Iraqis and the rest of the world that we understand this, and the sooner we can add the legitimacy conferred by a U.N. political role, the greater our still slim chances of success. We will need all the help we can get.