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Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Do Troop Levels Matter In Iraq?

A while back I wrote about why every responsible American should support the war in Iraq: lower domestic political support means that the Bush Administration would need to draw down the military and rely more on the air campaign. Air bombing, while leading to fewer American casualties, would result in more Iraqi civilian casualties and increase Iraqi political factionalization.

What I am going to argue here is that it not only matters that we don't reduce the current amount of American troops in Iraq, it also matters that we vastly increase the amount of our armed forces stationed and patrolling in Iraq.

The intuitive response would be: (a) our troops are fueling the insurgency which is directed against our occupation, and (b) more troops would intensify the insurgency and thereby increase American and Iraqi casualties. This response, however, only addresses half the problem.

There are two conflicts brewing in Iraq today: an inter-ethnic civil war and an insurgency. Let us look briefly at both to understand their roots.

Ethnicity and the American occupation are the bases for the two distinct, but interrelated conflicts, for two simple reasons: (1) ethnicity and anti-Americanism are the two forces in Iraq capable of mobilizing the support of the civilian population and (2) Iraq lacks the bundle of political and economic institutions capable of delivering goods and services reliably enough to counter-mobilize the population.

Religious cleavages converge with ethnic ties and loyalties through which elites distribute and maintain patronage. The elites have solidified this patronage into formal political power in the presence of political parties in the government and juridical privilege in the Iraqi Constitution. These ethnic-religious tensions matter because almost everyone in Iraqi supports this social structure. The populace reinforces it through voting and through participating in client networks. The elites have built patronage relations along these religious and ethnic dimensions. The tacit bargain between the elites and the populace is that in exchange for the populace generating an ethnic nationalism affiliated with types of Islamic piety, the elites will make claims to the international community, the failing Iraqi state, and to other political collectivities in the name of a sovereign self-governing people. The Kurds are unique in this formulation because unlike the Sunni or the Shi'ia they do not imbricate movements and expression of piety into their nationalist claims. Conflicting nationalist claims about how the institutions of the state will govern, in whose name, over which territories, and by what authority push the political collectivities in Iraq toward a civil war designed to decide how power will be both shared and constituted.

If weak state institutions incapable of adjudicating and containing the collective demands for justice, rights, and safety have led to the fracturing of Iraqi society along ethnic lines and have created the conditions of possible civil war, then the failures of the state institutions to either deliver goods and services or provide a focal point for state-centered identities and client-networks inflamed anti-Americanism. With the toppling of the regime and the occupation of Iraq, the populace made claims for the basic goods and services--food, health, water, jobs, and electricity--supposed to be provided to them by their regime and found institutional capacity to deliver wanting. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and the war enthusiasts--I hesitate to call them war architects or planners as that implies forethought--in the Bush Administration, believe that a small army would be sufficient to topple the government of Saddam and release the Iraqis into their own freedom. The demonstrated ineptitude of the American occupation, with its stereotypically high-handed comments by the SecDef in response to the collapse of law and order that "freedom was messy" as well as the oversoon announcements of "Mission Accomplished" with two thumbs up, created an unmet demand among the Iraqi populace in urban centers against their American liberators. The influx of foreign fighters, with their slogans and insurgent tactics, provided a replace for state-centered populism: anti-occupation anti-Americanism.

To the Bush Administration's credit, it did realize that the vacuum of authority and deliveries left by the dismantled dictator-state would need to be filled by state institutions if the United States was going to accomplish its mission. To this end it built the skeletons of a neoliberal state--already a slim set of institutional arrangements and understandings devoted mostly to creating the conditions for market capitalism--and tried to conjure a constitutional order through an interim government, a convention, and elections. However, by this time, the elites for whom the anti-American insurgency was not the only way to order domestic support had begun to bend the dynamics of a parliamentary system to their own needs, and drive a government fighting an insurgency into promoting ethnic war. Ironically, the very institutions that were supposed to help the Iraqis out in the untidy den of freedom in that way became the very institutions through which pious ethnic elites would hold them hostage.

More troops would quell the slide to civil war by sitting on top of the bubbling ethnic tensions and physically separating/ policing those combatants determined to see the war through. The United States could operate as the muscle of peace by providing for the real security needs of all the populations in whose names claims of sovereignty are being made. Moreover, the Army could once again act the guarantors of the delivery of goods and services, dismantling the fiefdoms of misery and re-integrating entire urban centers back into the jurisdiction of state institutions.

More troops would not quash the insurgency military but would address the political and economic factors converging in support of it. By holding the Iraqi state together through a massive occupation, the United States military could dis-aggregate the bundles of security and political interests currently bundled together as "politics" in the nascent Iraqi parliament. Furthermore, it would give the state institutions time to grow in capacity; with more capacity the Iraqi state could do what most other states do: exchange goods and service for national allegiance.