Nestled between the two key events on the road to full Iraqi sovereignty— the selection of the Interim Government in May 2004 and elections in January 2005, there is an obscure event that has to date been treated as mere window dressing. In reality, the national gathering envisioned by Ambassador Brahimi for July 2004 may be the key to the entire process. It deserves far more attention than it has been given. There are several disconnects in the current Iraqi political progression. First, the presence of foreign security forces is provoking the very instability that must diminish in order for the process to work. Second, there is a veritable chasm between the international selection of the new Iraqi leaders, which lacks legitimacy, and national elections, which are still many months and innumerable hurdles away. The national gathering could help to bridge these gaps and disconnects, and should be strongly promoted with the new Iraqi leadership. A national gathering that legitimizes the selection of the new leadership and captures the attention of the Iraqi people with a major Iraqi-run political event, tied directly to the phased, scheduled withdrawal of the coalition security forces into cantonments, would set the conditions for successful elections. Without this it is difficult to see how the end-state of a stable, self-governing Iraq will be reached.
Hurdles to Stability
I would badly like to be optimistic for Iraq and believe that the new interim government will see the country through to elections and a stable government in six months. It is possible that this will happen; initial soundings are that many Iraqis find the method of selecting the new government troublesome, but are pleased that it is finally their government and will give it a chance. But the hurdles to this government leading the country to viable elections and a stable transition are still immense.
First, there is an innate disconnect between the requirement for security that the coalition forces must stay to implant, and the instability that the presence of these same forces causes. This disconnect will continue to grow. With the military setbacks of Kufa, Najaf and Fallujah, in which insurgents and irregular forces skillfully combined fanatical, if militarily unskilled fighting, with the use of religious terrain to battle the coalition to a standstill, Iraqis now know that the U.S. can be beaten. This combines with the inflammatory photos from Abu Ghraib to ignite widespread willingness to fight the coalition, or at least to give sanctuary to those who fight. This trend of increasing combativeness will likely grow, loosely coupled with the growing desire of foreign fighters to see the coalition, and anything associated with it, fail.
Second, the political body we have ceded sovereignty to will have little national legitimacy and an inability, due to security concerns, to travel and perform even the most basic functions of government. While there was hope at one point that this would be a new body with legitimacy among the Iraqi people, in the end it is essentially a remake of the Governing Council, and will likely be the same kind of Green Zone government as its predecessor. It is clear now that any governing body that can be traced back to the coalition will lack the essential legitimacy to govern effectively.
Third, it is difficult to envision how anything even remotely resembling a credible national election could be held in six months time without a significant boost to security and stability. The extreme security conditions and the associated problems they bring to travel, especially for foreigners, will make it difficult for election teams to physically prepare the country for elections, and the same security concerns and questions of legitimacy will seriously limit the participation of key elements of society in the electoral process.
If this is to work, what is needed is to implant a firebreak between the coalition and the ultimate Iraqi government that emerges from elections, and to radically enhance popular support for the process. One source of our failure to date stems from an inability to go beyond the Coalition selection of leaders (who ultimately lack legitimacy) as we wait for the legitimate election of new leaders (which is still many months away). An interim step is needed, a mechanism whereby Iraqis see that the process of selecting their leadership and the decision on the ultimate form of government they embrace, has been fully ceded to them, not continually manipulated by outside forces. Until they see this they will not cooperate in the provision of security and without security we will end up with a long and bloody six month lead-up to elections that in turn yields a weak and unstable government at the end of the process.
There is a natural mechanism for this firebreak in the second of the three key events that have been laid out on the path to full Iraqi sovereignty. Nestled between the US/UN selection of the IIG but before national elections in January 2005, there is talk of a national conference to be held in July 2004. This gathering, which appears to be mere window dressing to the more important events, could in reality be the keystone to the entire process. A national gathering, properly held, could provide Iraq with the security and political stability it needs to make it through the national election with a functional government.
To fully capitalize on the national gathering it should be tied directly to a declared, phased withdrawal of coalition troops back to cantonments, and ultimately out of the country. These two events, properly stage-managed, could capture the attention and the support of the Iraqi middle ground and rapidly start to squeeze out the operating space of the insurgents.
A Loya Jirga and a Phased Withdrawal
I would envision a three-step step process following the transfer of sovereignty on June 28:
A large national gathering for July or August is announced prior to the handover. The rough parameters of this gathering would be as follows:
50 persons per province selected through a caucus system run by Iraqis (each province would be different, in some the Governor has enough credibility to manage a popular selection, in others the current Provincial Council has adequate legitimacy to simply show up, in some the judiciary could run a new process).
Gathering held on a secure location in Iraq (one of the isolated air bases such as Al Asad for example).
Internal security provided exclusively by Iraq security forces, with coalition providing an outer, invisible cordon.
Secretariat selected by the gathering; no foreign presence, even of observers, except such technical experts that are invited by the body.
Gathering would develop its own mandate, but its first task would be to approve the current interim administration and change any ministers or leaders who do not meet the body’s approval.
No time limits on how long the body would take to conduct its work (four weeks would be a good planning figure).
All open proceedings televised on Iraqi television and international networks. Major political theater.
The gathering would finish its work by voting itself down to an interim parliament of approximately 100-200 individuals which would have a transitional mandate alongside the interim government. This would not be an advisory body, but would have real power.
Coalition forces would agree that with the successful conclusion of this process the force would withdraw into approximately 10 cantonments, with a further reduction announced, say to 7 in January, then 5, then 3, where it would end in the spring of 2005. The assumption that a withdrawal of the coalition would leave a security vacuum is highly questionable. Most of the current violence is directed against the coalition and those who are aligned with it. Coalition forces are not only not stopping most of the violence, they are the active force which is provoking it. Their withdrawal would leave many areas more passive, not more unstable. Their main mission by the winter of 2005 would be to ensure there is no massing of insurgent and anti-regime forces, focused on the survival of the regime, not street security per se. A force of this type could be much smaller than the current force and would travel far less. This would at the same time remove the provocation that the current force brings with it, while allowing the withdrawal to take place on our terms, lest our enemies feel they chased us out of the country. If the force ultimately falls under a UN mandate and is blue helmeted, it should be made to appear as an entirely new force. The latter would, on the other hand, leave considerably more options in terms of how it is deployed and used.
In partnership with the UN, the new government and national assembly would work for the holding of elections. If the national gathering has yielded a strong, legitimate transitional government, the date for elections could be delayed beyond January 2005. This would be the sovereign decision of the legitimate Iraqi government. This may be essential as it is not at all clear that elections will be possible while the coalition is still in Iraq. If the level of violence will not diminish until the coalition departs, this national assembly could buy the time that is required to allow for a withdrawal and preparations for proper elections.
Support to the Political Process
A national gathering for Iraq will provide a number of key supports to the political process.
First, it will allow for the natural emergence of national leaders. To date leaders in Iraq have either been local or have been hopelessly tainted by their association with the coalition. The fact that there is no Karzai in Iraq is troublesome, but perhaps more troublesome is the fact that even if there were a Karzai he would have no way to gain a national platform. This process would help provide that.
Second, the Iraqi people would, for the first time, be able to see their nation as a nation. It would not always be pretty. There would be speeches of recrimination and much finger-wagging. There would be displays of tribalism and contention, walk-outs and protests. There may be violence to try to disrupt the gathering. But through all of it there would be Iraqi leaders sitting down with other Iraqi leaders and finding national solutions to their people’s problems. The visuals alone would be worth the effort.
Third, the process would have legitimacy. I managed a provincial council caucus in January 2004 that brought together over 5,000 Iraqis to select Al Anbar’s leadership and learned a good deal about how Iraqis view the question of legitimacy. What many of us found locally, was that if Iraqis were given a framework for caucuses which they agreed to, they would accept them as legitimate. But it had to be a system with their full involvement and participation, where outsiders provided only the framework, not the actual end-state. This has worked fairly well at the local level and has led to strong local bodies. It should be replicated at the national level.
Fourth, a national conference would jump-start the national political process, which is moribund. It would bring together parties, civic organizations, professional groupings, tribal organizations, and allow for controlled cross-over of ethnic and tribal groups. It would be a testing for these groups and allow the stronger and more dynamic organizations and leaders to gain prominence while the less dynamic among them fade away.
A Loya Jirga is not a panacea for Iraq, there are still a host of things that can and will go wrong and many reasons why the entire project could still fail. But a properly supported national gathering, well-publicized and televised within Iraq and to the outside world, could provide the crucial bridge between the selection of the interim government and the ultimate election of new leadership by the Iraqi people. It would also refurbish some of the tarnished image of the coalition at a crucial time. By visibly shifting the locus of Iraq’s political development away from international actors and to large numbers of Iraqis, it could provide a crucial boost that will tamp down the violence while strengthening the very fragile political process, giving the new government that emerges from all this a chance of success.