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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Iraq: The Next Step

I had an opportunity to see Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute over at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations last evening. Pollack laid out what the next layers of challengs in Iraq will be. First of all, Pollack, formerly of the Clinton administration, stated in no uncertain terms that the surge succeeded fabulously in most of its goals: reducing violence, breaking the backs of the militias, and providing necessary stability. Second, Pollack stressed that Iraq is much like an onion. Once one layer of challenges is met, what you uncover, and often create, is a whole new set of challenges. While he never said so outwardly, I got the impression that Pollack would not favor a timetable for withdrawal as Barack Obama advocates. Pollack sees four main challenges facing Iraq in the near term

1) Refugees

There are roughly four million refugees that left Iraq during the most violent period of the war that must be re integrated into Iraq. On the panel with Pollack was a former Jordanian diplomat (who's name slips my mind) and he mentioned that his country, Jordan, has about 5 million citizens. He estimates that about one million Iraqis crossed the border into Jordan when refugees were flowing out of Iraq. He said that unless they are re integrated back into Iraq his own country will face a demographic evolution with all sorts of unintended consequences.

The problems of re integration are three fold. First, many of these folks lef their homes because their homes were destroyed. Others left their homes and now someone else occupies said homes. Still others will find that their previous neighborhoods and cities have seen demographic revolutions of their own. For instance, Baghdad, which used to be fairly mixed, is now more than 80% Shia.

Pollack suggested a system of vouchers where the central Iraqi government would help these folks buy new homes or build new homes. Pollack mentioned that home vouchers have worked for refugees in other nations.

Unless these folks are fairly re integrated back in Iraqi society, the threat of a re newed civil war continues.

2) Sons of Iraq

These are the Sunnis, once allied with AQI, that flipped to our side. These folks are extremely well armed, mostly Sunni, and with no one to fight they can just as easily turn on the government and re ignite a civil war. They must be integrated into Iraqi society as an organized and legitimate force. The most logical step is to turn most of these folks into police or military. Of course, if they are integrated into either force, they will also have to deal with a mixed ethnic military force, one they currently aren't dealing with.

3) Kirkuk

This city in the the center of a lot of problems, history and potential. It used to be mostly Kurdish except that Saddam "Arabized" it in the 1980's in order to weaken the influence of his rivals, the Kurds, on this city which is oil rich. Right now, both Arabs and Kurds are laying claim to that city and as a result there is not enough housing for the amount of people that want to live there. Because ethnicity is once again at the center of this struggle, if this is not worked out properly this city can again become the flashpoint for a civil war

4) The economy

Rising oil prices have created a budget surplus in Iraq of about $79 billion. Unfortunately, these so called petro dollars have not trickled down to the bulk of the population and Iraqi unemployment continues to hover at a staggering 25%. Pollack made a point to mention that often times when wealth is created in the Middle East that can end up boomeranging. For instance, the Iranian revolution happened, at least in part, because the Shah promised that the explosion of oil prices would trickle down to the rest of the population. When those promises weren't met, the people revolted. The same thing can happen in Iraq. The folks know full well that the country is gaining wealth as a result of high oil prices. There is only so long that they will accept their own economic struggle while the country grows in wealth. In fact, much of the failure of moderate politicians in the Middle East in general comes from their inability to deliver on their economic promises.

Fortunately, in General Petraeus' counter insurgency strategy, the third part is the build portion. The first two are clear and hold. Those have largely been accomplished. The building portion is supposed to bring the exact economic development that Pollack insists must happen or we will see Iraq devolve into chaos again. If the last part of his strategy works as well as the first two, we can rest easy that economic development is on its way in Iraq.

These four areas of concern are the ones to watch in the next few years as we continue to guide Iraq into a functioning Democracy.

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