A Matter of Perspective Pt I: Apples and Oranges

Fellow Chicago Boy Michael Hiteshew has written a post where he discusses his doubts about a victory in Iraq. He feels that the terrorists have gained ground, and might be winning no matter how the US tries to stop them. He correctly points out that neither side can hope to win unless they enjoy the support of the general population.

“There is no possible way for 150,000 troops to control a country of 28 million without the active support of its inhabitants. And donít tell me about the British Empire. This is not 1850. Today, support can stream in from across the globe to supply weapons and fighters to a guerrilla insurgency allowing them to wreak havoc for decades.”

Michael also compares the situation to the relative success in Afghanistan.

“Why isnít this happening in Afghanistan? Quite simply because thereís no support for it. For starters, twenty years of civil war have simply worn them out. More importantly, in Afghanistan, by contrast with Iraq, the war was led by Afghanis, with the US merely supplying the overwhelming firepower when needed. Finally, the international community, much as it pains many Americans to admit it, provided the necessary political framework for the war to succeed, from the political meetings held in Bonn, Germany, to the active help of neighboring countries like Russia, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. All of which are missing in Iraq.”

I’ve noticed that most people are rather vague when they discuss their misgivings about the situation in Iraq. They know that it’s not going the way they hoped but they have very few ideas as to why, or what can be done to correct it. This is understandable when one considers that they don’t have a very firm background when it comes to Iraqi culture or history. I’m hardly an expert myself, but I do have a keen interest in the history part of it, and I’ve been reading up.

First off, people here in the West love to compare Afghanistan to Iraq. And why shouldn’t they? After all, both countries are rugged and lacking in water. Both countries were recently suffering under despotic regimes. And both countries are predominantly Islamic. They’re practically the same, right?

Not at all, and it’s important to keep in mind that the differences are more significant than the simularities.

Afghanistan has a rich and varied cultural history. The predmoninate ethnic group is Pushtun at 42%, followed by Tajik (27%), Hazara (9%), Uzbek (9%), Aimak (4%), Turkmen (3%), Bloch (2%), and a few other ethnic groups that aren’t organized enough to be considered as significant. Althought there are areas in the country where there one or another ethnic group predominates, there is a great deal of interaction between the groups, particularly in the cities.

Compare this to Iraq. The majority of the population in Iraq is Arab (75%), followed by the Kurds (20%), and the rest a smattering of various ethnic groups.

This points up one big advantage that Afghanistan has over Iraq: room for negotiation. The greater complexity of Afghan culture allows the government there to cut deals, work out more bugs. The reason why the various groups are willing to come to the table is pure self-interest. If they pass up on a chance to make a deal then a rival group might get better treatment.

This seems backwards to Westerners, but keep in mind that this section of the world operates under a tribal system. It doesn’t matter which country you come from, only which family gave you birth. Relatives can be counted on to protect you and help you prosper, anyone else is not to be trusted. The conflicting ethnic groups allow for another, larger part of the population for people to identify themselves with. )If you’re a Tajik you’d better go along with the rest of your group or else the Pushtun will bury you.)

It’s also significant that not one ethnic group is large enough to overwhelm the others through sheer numbers. Even the largest group (Pushtun, 42% of the population) cannot ignore the chance that the rest of the country could become united against them if Pushtuns are perceived as being too heavy handed. They have to negotiate, even if they bring more to the table and can demand greater concessions.

But Iraq isn’t culturally monolithic. Not only are there two distinct ethnic groups (Kurds and Arabs), but there’s divisions and factions competing in each of them. We’ll discuss the Iraqi Arabs in another post, but right now I’d like to turn our attention to the Kurds.

The Kurds live in the north, and they’ve pretty much been expecting to be able to form their own government and nation since Gulf War I. They’ve even been printing their own money. (It’s trading at a very competitive rate compared to the Iraqi dinar.) What’s more, the area of Iraq under thier control is almost completely free from the violence erupting in the rest of Iraq. Consider, for example, that the Kurd-controlled territory is exempt from the recent State of Emergency that the Iraqi interim government declared for the rest of the country.

This means that the two groups are very distinct, with sharply defined territory that each control. It’s not possible to play one group off on the other since the vastly outnumbered Kurds realize that their only real chance for survival is either with the formation of a new nation (Kurdistan), or with the formation of a liberal democracy in Iraq where they would have some influence in their future treatment.

In my next post I’ll discuss the area dominated by the Arabs, and the problems that they have been experiencing lately.

3 thoughts on “A Matter of Perspective Pt I: Apples and Oranges”

  1. He correctly points out that neither side can hope to win unless they enjoy the support of the general population.

    Actually, I think the problem is a little more subtle and insidious than that. For the US to reach its goals we need the active support of the locals. We’re getting that to a degree, but not in sufficient amounts to reach a decisive tipping point. By contrast, for the Sunnis and jihadis to win they need only the aquiescence of the Shias. The Sunnis and jihadis can simply terrorize the Shia into submission, as they always have.

    So we’ve got the Eqyptians and Syrians and Saudis fanning the flames among the Sunnis and we’ve got the Iranians fanning the flames among the Shia.

    You’ve also got pan-Arabic media like Al Jazeera propagandizing for the ‘resistence’ across the entire Arab and Islamic world.

    It’s a bad strategic situation. And unless sufficient numbers of Iraqis – not Americans, Iraqis – get out in front of this thing and take control of their country the insurgency is going to be highly active indefinitely.

  2. It is interesting that we are not getting the Iraqi side of the story. Occassionally I’ll see a reporter writing about conversations w/ ordinary Iraqis, and from what it looks like to me they don’t like the insurgants. They ruled by fear in Fallujah. I would imagine that as time went by and more and more of the insurgents are dead, then the regular people will feel more comfortable. Sooner or later, the Iraqi police will be trained and effective, although I’m not expecting that anytime soon. When our reporters just talk about the violence, it skews our perceptions. I’m not saying that all is well, but given time, our perception of Iraq will change.

  3. One thing to consider with respect to Afghanistan is that the opium trade precludes any economic advantages of a potential insurgency. Oddly enough, the Taliban nearly stopped the production of Opium in 2001. When they were ousted from power, the country returned to opium production (which could partially explain why the Taliban fell so quickly – as those who would normally be resisting sat the fight out because they knew they could get back to business afterwards). It is much more lucrative to sell opium than it is to mount an insurgency. Unfortunately, opium trade isn’t exactly a pleasant business, but it is at least keeping the bad elements busy. It is a poor outlet, but it is better than what the Iraqis have. It should be interesting to see what happens if Karzai attempts to crack down on the opium trade (as he has planned). The catch 22 here is that opium is bad, but cutting down on opium will increase the likelyhood of an insurgency similar to the one in Iraq…

Comments are closed.