The future of Iraq: fly apart at the seams or will the seams hold?
This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.
Predicting the future of a nation is comparatively easy when the country has a democracy with stable institutions, but it is considerably more difficult when the country's reins are forcefully held by an individual or party. In situations like this, where there is no democracy and rule of one applies, once that ruler disappears, the country's future trajectory is anybody's guess. This is the reason why, despite very enlightened rulers, kingdoms and empires fell apart regularly throughout history.
The case of Iraq, which was ruled for a very long time by despots, the last one of whom was deposed violently, is extra-ordinarily difficult to predict. But when my editor asked me to take a stab at it, it turned out to be an interesting mental exercise! And the result of all those mental callisthenics was that, in my opinion, on the balance of probability, Iraq as we know it will no longer exist in fifty years time, if the troops are pulled out before the Iraqi federal political system is stably bedded down.
While I said at the beginning that the future of democratic societies can be predicted, it is also true that most of the democratic societies, with some honourable exceptions, have been homogenous countries, meaning that while there are different ethnic groups within the country, there is generally no debate about the basic country ethos / principle / ideology. For example, take France, USA, UK, Japan and India, strongly democratic countries, with a strong national ethos superseding any racial, religious, economic, ethnic, linguistic, political, sociological or anthropological grouping. The stronger this national ethos is, the lesser the chance that the country will fly apart. Civil wars or national disintegration happen when the national ethos is in question between the groups.
To complicate matters, post imperial or post colonial societies take birth in very difficult circumstances. A survey of 112 western European post colonial countries in 2004 by three American professors showed that a colonial background is not conducive to democratic rule. Colonialism has generally lead to under-development, high levels of social fragmentation and the relationship between state / civil society is generally bad. Given such a historical background, when we look at Iraq, it is clear that it is starting from a bad initial point. People point to India as a successful post colonial society when talking about the future of Iraq, but as I keep on pointing out, India had certain advantages. It had a history of multi party elections (albeit under a colonial regime), these political parties spanned the full spectrum of political thought, so it provided a home for all kinds of citizens.
There was an agreed overarching national ethos of India (howsoever vague and possible contentious), there were political giants such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Motilal Nehru, Jagjivan Ram, Mahatma Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, C. Rajagopalachari etc. who believed in secular and liberal democracy. So despite a bewildering variety of competing identities based upon cuisine, religion, culture, clothing, dialects, languages, locations, history, etc., these factors helped in creating a vibrant democratic country with a secure future. A cursory look at Pakistan will show what a country without these factors can face, and a similar situation is faced by Iraq. In the case of Iraq, there IS no national ethos which can be used. History shows that it was either based on a combination of tottering and decaying Safavid and Ottoman empires, or an imposed and illogical imperial construct by Britain and France after the Skyes – Picot agreement and finally by fear of the Ba'ath Party / Saddam Hussein. For those doubters who think Saddam was some kind of a leader with a consistent ideology, I am afraid that is way off the mark, the chap was a socialist, then a great Arab leader, then the leader of the faithful and a great Islamic warrior and all this while he was basically a small time thug.
So no national ethos around which a country can be created. But before we talk about why this should be formed, we need to think about the downsides. If Iraq falls apart into three parts, the Shia, Sunni and Kurd parts, then the Middle East is going to go up in flames. Turkey and Syria will go to war over Kurdistan. Iran will gobble up Eastern and Southern Shia dominated Iraq, while Western Sunni Iraq, the empty part (both in terms of land and oil) will be orphaned. There is a strong chance that round two (round one being the first Iran Iraq war) of the Shia Sunni theological war breaks out (shades of the European Thirty Year War) and Israel is a running sore already. Nobody, in their right minds, wants the country to break up, irrespective of the lack of national ethos. The only way to do it is to impose or encourage a Secular Liberal Democracy.
Unfortunately, these ethnic and religious sectarianism means that there is simply nobody who can be acceptable to all. A Nehru or Tito will not be able to arise in such a situation, although the fate of Yugoslavia post Tito is instructive. One cannot keep such a state alive once the fear element is removed. The development of a secular liberal democracy is possible. Look at post 1947 India, a secular country despite the presence of a multitude of fairly unique groups. But back to Iraq, the presence of Wahhabi Sunni autocratic Saudi Arabia on the left and theocratic Shia Iran on the right means it will be a challenge. In the north, given the extreme sensitivities of Turkey about a Kurdistan, you have a country which is already beset with extreme centrifugal force. Unlike India, which had the benefit of some very strong personalities who believed in the benefits of secular democracy, Iraq does not have that.
So the only solution is to impose the steel security framework needed for a secular democracy to take seed. And that can only be provided by the presence of the Americans and British troops. A potent indicator is that the current Prime Minister is so very weak because he does not have a militia of his own. As a matter of fact, he was selected because of his political weakness. So the future of Iraq, when/if the coalition forces withdraw, is bleak and will definitely fly apart at the seams in a very short matter of time.
The probability that there will be genocide and a far hotter civil / regional war breaking out is quite high as well. Given the US Presidential Election coming up, the amazingly incoherent and incompetent prosecution of the war by President Bush and the new UK Prime Minister, who is himself facing a new election in couple of years, it is pretty much certain that most, if not all, of the troops will be withdrawn in a couple of years time. That's when Allah/God and other assorted deities and divinities need to step up to the plate and knock some sense into the warring groups and parties.
What is unfortunate is that the future of the country and its people is now either dependent on a divine miracle or on a bunch of frankly very small minded people lead by pygmies, wrapped up in obstinate ideologies and the vagaries of American / British politics. All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!