Monday, March 31, 2008

Military Success and Legitimacy

The intense fighting in Basra and Sadr City over the last six days has exposed Iraq Prime Minister Maliki’s military as not well equipped to provide security. Seen by many as a move to consolidate political power in the wake of upcoming elections, Maliki ordered military action against Mokata al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra, a Shiite stronghold in south-eastern Iraq. The Mahdi Army, expected by the Iraqi government to be easily defeated, provided a “very strong resistance that made us change our plans,” according to Iraq’s defense minister. The battle of Basra offers an illuminating glimpse into a problem plaguing the American and Iraqi militaries in Iraq – the ineffectiveness of illegitimate military force.

Basra should be a stronghold of support for President Maliki. After all, Maliki is a Shiite in a predominantly Sunni country, and Basra is heavily Shiite. Nevertheless, Basra has proven to be a thorn in Maliki’s side, as it harbors the powerful contrarian Mahdi Army. The lack of support for Maliki proves just how unsupportive Iraqi citizens are of American occupiers. A Basra resident sums up the overall sentiment well when he says, “unfortunately with the presence of this new government and this democracy that was brought to us by the invader, it made us kill each other…and the war is now between us.” Maliki’s government, although democratically elected, is seen as propped up by American support and acts in effect, as an American puppet. This close affiliation with the Americans gives no legitimacy to its military efforts in rabidly anti-American cities such as Basra.

This lack of legitimacy has proven itself to be perhaps the most important determinant of military success in Iraq. Vastly better trained, better armed, and better informed military forces of both the Americans and the Iraqi government have failed to defeat loosely organized and poorly equipped insurgent militias. Why? The militias had (more or less) the support of the people, as well as an identifiable enemy around which they could rally support. As the Iraqi government is viewed as largely illegitimate by the Iraqi people, any opposition group is, regardless of their intentions, deemed legitimate. Thus, radical groups with bad intentions can easily gain popular support, simply through demonizing the unpopular group in power. Such examples can be readily seen in recent memory, notably Idi Amin’s use of anti-Milton Obote sentiment in Uganda in 1971 to take power, and Milton Obote’s use of anti-Idi Amin sentiment in 1981 to retake power.

The American presence in Iraq, therefore, faces a dire problem. If the Americans are able to win over popular support in Iraq, the governments that they support and prop up have a chance at success. Such a hope is, however, overly idealistic given the situation in Iraq and the deep-seated hatred most Iraqis hold towards the American “invaders.” More likely a consequence of America’s presence is a country fragmented by ethnic tensions and ruled regionally by radical strong men who claim legitimacy on the back of American illegitimacy.

The third possibility is an American withdrawal. Without an American presence in Iraq, there is no enemy from which radicals such as al-Sadr can garner support. The process will be painful, but Iraqi leaders will ultimately be judged not by their affiliation with Americans, but by their ability to do good by Iraqis. The call for American withdrawal is often framed as a policy that is best for Americans. The huge benefits that Iraq would see from such a withdrawal are unfortunately overlooked, but they are far more dramatic. Without American troops in Iraq, reconciliation and nation-building can truly begin.

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