Changing Horses in Mid-Stream

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As the neo-cons celebrate a "victory" in Iraq that has yet to be won, they also proclaim the downfall of Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdj Army militia and staunch opponent of the American occupation. The headline of the August 5 Wall Street Journal announced, "Radical Iraq Cleric in Retreat."

Well, maybe. But I think something else is happening to the Mahdj Army, and it is a development of more than passing interest to those concerned with 4GW theory. I think Muqtada al-Sadr is attempting to transition from leading a 4GW, non-state entity, the Mahdj Army, to taking over a state.

Like all changes of horses in mid-stream, the operation is delicate and can easily go awry. But Mr. Sadr so far seems to be making all the right moves. As the Wall Street Journal piece reports,

Mr. Sadr began moving away from military operations when he ordered a cease-fire last August after Mahdj Army members clashed with government forces in the southern city of Karbala during a Shiite religious holiday. The fighting represented growing rivalry between Sadr followers and supporters of the main Shiite parties in government…. In February Mr. Sadr extended the cease-fire for an additional six months.

If Muqtada al-Sadr wants to rule Iraq, he cannot let himself and his organization be drawn into Shiite-on-Shiite violence. That would narrow his base when he needs to broaden it, and would also alienate the large majority of Iraqis who want order and security, not more war. The cease-fire and its extension were wise.

The Journal quotes from a new brochure issued by the Mahdj Army leadership that lays out Sadr’s next move:

(The) brochure … states that the Mahdj Army will now be guided by Shiite spirituality instead of anti-American militancy. The group will focus on education, religion and social justice…. The brochure also states that it "is not allowed to use arms at all."

Here, the Mahdj Army is clearly taking a page out of Hezbollah’s book. Hezbollah’s strength comes from its effectiveness and honesty in delivering services to the community that the state cannot provide. The Journal quotes Kenneth Pollack of Brookings as saying, "If the government fails to deliver on basic services and other needs of the Iraqis, Sadr followers could use their new organization to tell people they should look to them as the voices of change." Precisely so. This is a key element of the struggle for legitimacy, which Mr. Sadr seems to understand will be decisive in determining who controls post-occupation Iraq.

Mr. Sadr has promised that small, well-trained elements of the Mahdj Army will continue to attack the Americans, but so far he has held off launching such attacks. That too is wise. He can maintain his anti-American credentials, another key to legitimacy, with less risk by working politically for the Obama-al-Maliki plan, under which the American occupation troops would leave Iraq by 2010. If I were in Sadr’s position, I would be organizing massive street demonstrations to demand withdrawal by 2010 be the basis of any new status of forces agreement with the Americans. That is a win-win position. If the Iraqi government demands American withdrawal on that timetable, Sadr can claim the credit, and if al-Maliki crumbles under American pressure and allows the occupation to continue indefinitely, al-Maliki loses his only chance to gain some legitimacy.

The Mahdi Army will retain its ability to go to war with the Americans if it has to. But that capability is most useful as a "fleet in being," maintained as a threat but not employed. The threat gives Mr. Sadr more leverage than armed action would buy him, because the Mahdi Army is not strong enough to force the Americans out and it could suffer a military defeat. More, war with the Americans would bring more chaos and suffering to the Iraqi people, for which they might blame Sadr.

Sadr’s change of horses in mid-stream may of course fail. His movement could come apart under the strain, as militant elements that want to fight the Americans split off. His failure is not in America’s best interest, not only because it would mean more American casualties but also because it would undermine the chance for a new state to arise in Iraq. I continue to think Muqtada al-Sadr represents that best available leader for a new Iraqi state, because only someone who has opposed the occupation can have legitimacy. America only wins in Iraq if and when a new state emerges there, a real state, not a fig-leaf to cover the reality of continued American control.

From the standpoint of Fourth Generation War theory, the Mahdi Army’s attempt to move from its status as a 4GW, non-state entity to an organization that can create and control a new Iraqi state is a hopeful sign. If it succeeds, other 4GW entities may be tempted to do the same. That brings them back within the state framework, a positive development in terms of the interests of the international state system. It is the success and continuation of that system that is America’s most vital interest in the face of Fourth Generation War. Not all 4GW entities will take that track, nor would it be in their interest to do so. But if even some can be drawn back into the framework of the state, the 4GW threat will diminish. Washington will never see it this way, because Washington cannot think strategically. But those who can should pray that Muqtada al-Sadr continues to make all the right moves.

William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.

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