A risky prospect for Iraq

One of my favortie scholars on armed conflict, territory, and identity-Monica Duffy Toft-is guest posting for Stephen Walt this week. Students in my IB History class read sections of Toft’s “The Geography of Ethnic Violence” during our seminars on the Causes, Practices, and Effects of war. See her latest article below (via Walt-Foreign Policy)


By Monica Duffy Toft

As American troops pull back from Iraq’s urban areas, a central question is whether Iraq’s forces will be able to secure the peace. If history is any guide, Iraq’s security forces face a challenging task. Ending civil wars and keeping them ended is not easy. Iraq faces three critical risk factors.

First, the violence was ended by a negotiated settlement. Iraq is a unique case when it comes to the emergence of civil war, which started with invasion and occupation by an outside power: the United States and its coalition partners. Yet rather than unite and attack the invaders cum occupiers, Iraqis turned on themselves. Stopping this self-destruction has entailed a series of negotiations and agreements between the parties to form a government and rule the country. In essence, no one side emerged victorious (as most recently by the government in Sri Lanka); rather, a negotiated settlement of sorts was put into place in Iraq, with each of the main factions guaranteed a say in running the government.

On the face of it, negotiated settlements are desirable outcomes for ending violence. Violence is stopped and each party is guaranteed a voice in the government; it seems more democratic. Yet this equity in governance comes at a price: negotiated settlements turn out to be the most precarious ending to civil wars. They are twice as likely to break down than are military victories, and the recurred war that results is often even longer and bloodier than the first war. In the longer term, Sri Lanka is likely to stabilize while Iraq is not. This is the case because for negotiated settlements to work, they require trust between the contracting parties and continual negotiation and bargaining. When tensions run deep, such bargaining and comprise are difficult. What we find is that these settlements hold for one or two rounds of elections, with the elections functioning as part of the negotiated process, but often break down thereafter. Why? Because one party or both becomes frustrated that it has not won (enough) parliamentary seats, leadership positions, or desired policies. Rather than pursue the ballot box one more time, they take out their guns and challenge the system.

There are exceptions. One is El Salvador, which suffered a long and brutal civil war that ended in a negotiated settlement in 1992. It has remained at peace, and in fact, the candidate for the former rebels, the Farabundo Martî, recently won the presidency. This bodes well for democracy in El Salvador. However, such an outcome will be more difficult to achieve in Iraq. The reason is the second critical risk factor in Iraq, which is sectarian divisions, a risk factor absent in El Salvador, where the fight was class-based, not ethnic, religious, or linguistic.

Divisions based on identity are risk factors for a number of reasons. First, most identities are born in bloodshed and in opposition to an “other.” This means that when stories of the birth of the nation or religion are told and retold, they often invoke an enemy that must be overcome. For the Serbs, it is the nasty Ottomans or Muslims; for the Chechens, it is Moscow’s imperial yoke; and for the Shia in Iraq, it is historically the Sunnis. Such histories of fear, hatred and violence are difficult to overcome and almost impossible to erase. Thus, when political power is divided up, these identities come to the fore and often play a role in how power is divided and administered. The Shii-Sunni division is real, and it will continue to play out in Iraqi politics. Already there are warning signs, including the dominance of Shia in the security apparatus (notably the Ministry of Interior) and the lack of progress in integrating the Sunni-dominated Awakening Council members in the security forces.

A final critical risk factor is the geographical distribution of Iraqis, with Kurds dominant in the north, the Shia in the southeast, and Sunnis in the west. Living in enclaves affords them greater autonomy to not only run their own affairs, but challenge the state. Ethnic groups that are concentrated in regions of a country and are also a majority of that region’s population are three times more likely to engage in violence than those that are dispersed or constitute minorities.

One bit of good news is Baghdad. Not only is the city intermingled with different populations, but urbanization has a dampening effect on ethnic violence. Nevertheless, years of violence have segregated neighborhoods, and even countries with intermingled capitals undergo serious challenges to centralized state authority (consider Belgium).

Taken alone, these risk factors might not tip the balance. In combination, it’s a different story. States experiencing civil wars ended by negotiated settlement, with distrust and fear among the dominant identity groups that are concentrated into separate enclaves are difficult to manage even in well established democracies. The likelihood Iraq will emerge as a consolidated democracy is slim. More likely, either Iraq will divide, or a new strong-man — Shii or Sunni –will emerge to keep the country together.

Monica Duffy Toft is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of The Geography of Ethnic Violence and Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars.


About Charlie Gleek

Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies and graduate instructor in the Department of English at Florida Atlantic University. My work takes place around intersections of postcolonial literature, quantitative literary analysis, and digital humanities.

Posted on 01/07/2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on A risky prospect for Iraq.

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