Friday, February 13, 2004

Iraq and the Importance of Ethnic Tensions

When I pointed out the important role ethnic conflict had to play in Africa's problems, someone objected to my explanation as being "ad hoc." Leaving aside the tremendous amount of historical evidence (much of it going back, where Africa is concerned, to before 1920) in support of my supposedly jerry-rigged thesis, as well as the substantial body of high-quality statistical data in its favor, I can't think of a better illustration of precisely what I was talking about than what is currently happening in Iraq. Here I am living by Popper's prescription that a theory is worthwhile only if it risks something by making falsifiable predictions: if Iraq isn't partitioned, it will take a miracle to avoid civil war once American troops depart the country.

A year ago, testifying before Congress, Wolfowitz predicted that securing postwar Iraq would be an easier job than the United States and its allies faced in Bosnia or Afghanistan. After all, the deputy secretary said, there's no ethnic tension in Iraq.

The immediate reaction of virtually everyone who knew even a little bit about Iraq and its long-simmering tensions, repression, bloodshed and just plain bad blood among Kurds and Turkomen in the north, Sunni Arabs in the middle and Shiite Muslims in the south, was: Say what?

Not since President Ford prematurely declared Soviet-dominated Poland a free country has a public official stuck his foot so deeply and so publicly in his mouth.

Wolfowitz visited Iraq early this month and, at a meeting in the northern city of Kirkuk, he got a long, painful ear pounding on the subject of tension and fear among the country's ethnic groups.

The Sunni Arabs complained that they were being abused and mistreated by the Kurds. The Shia made it clear that the only thing would satisfy them - the long-oppressed majority in this nation of 25 million people - was free and open elections, which they would, of course, win. Other Iraqis complained that local militias, who owe no loyalty to the central government, are intimidating and frightening people.

Central Intelligence Agency officers in Baghdad Station have reported to the home office their own fears that Iraq is on a "glide path to civil war." (emphasis added)

Things are looking good so far for my "ad hoc" explanation, no? Not that I want to be vindicated at the expense of the Iraqi populace - I think Washington ought to have been bolder, and done something to satisfy Kurdish demands for a state of their own, even if that meant risking the wrath of the Turks, who did prove less than helpful in the prosecution of the war, after all.