Iraq’s Election: A Key Event in America’s Wars
May 14, 2018
The most important events in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2018 will have nothing to do with the fighting, with developments in military forces, or with changes in U.S. strategy or shifts in casualties. These are all important issues, but the key to any major progress in both countries is creating a more effective structure of civil governance that can win popular support and confidence, provide more effective governance, and put the country on the path of development that will have the support of every major sectarian, ethnic, and tribal faction.
This will not be determined by the fighting. It will be determined by the outcome of two elections. The first such election has already taken place and was in Iraq. The second, if it occurs, will be in Afghanistan. The question in both cases is whether the election will: produce a functional government that can meet the needs and expectation of its people, show that it can begin to rebuild the country and put it on a stable path towards development, limit corruption and self-serving actions by the political elite, provide a reasonable degree of equity for every major faction, and create both broad support at a popular level and show that the government is making a case for real national unity.
In each case, the key issue will not be who is elected, or what mix of factions "wins," but what the government actually does over time. As previous elections have shown in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the worst case may not be that a less desirable party or coalition is elected, but rather that forming a government takes too long, discredits the elected, and ends without a government strong enough to actually govern or act.
Here, the U.S. must take much of the responsibility in both countries for the creation of a system that favors national lists of given parties or factions that do not really depend on a given constituency, and that focus far more on sect, ethnicity, and ideology than actually serving any well-defined group of voters. It is also no coincidence that the World Bank's governance indicators rate the Iraqi and Afghan governments as two of the worst in the world and that Transparency International rates Iraq as the 11th most corrupt country in the world out of the 180 countries it rates, and Afghanistan as the third most corrupt.
The Iraqi election is by far the most important of the two. Iraq is far more critical to U.S. strategic interests: counterterrorism, containing Iran, and the security of the global petroleum trade and economy. History also provides a grim warning. The war against ISIS from 2013 to date has largely been the result of a failed election that led to a long power struggle, and the emergence of Nouri al-Maliki as a figure who kept power at any price, supported Shi'ites at the expense of Sunnis, pushed U.S. advisors largely out of the country, and turned the security forces into political tools that supported him at the nation's expense.
The current Iraqi election already presents serious problems. Some 7,000 candidates ran for only 329 seats, most all of the factions changed key personalities without defining any clear future programs, and only 44% of the eligible voters participated verses 62% in past elections. The wrong outcome of the Iraqi political negotiations that follow the current election could be a repetition of the failures under Maliki between 2010 and 2016: a government that becomes progressively more closely linked to Iran, and/or a level of practical political paralysis that makes it impossible to reform the government into a body that can serve Iraq's people with any degree of equity, put the nation on a path to recovery and stable development, and keep Iraq from becoming the scene of a struggle for influence by outside powers.
The results of the election are still unclear, and they may remain so for some time after all of the votes are counted. It is critical, however, that these results be appraised as objectively as possible. It is already clear that the United States will have to deal with two major factions led by men that have previously been somewhat hostile to the U.S. – Muqtada al-Sadr, Nouri al-Maliki, and Hadi al-Ameri.
It is also clear that the low voter turnout and the partial boycott of the election was not the result of apathy but rather of political failure and poor, unresponsive governance. The U.S. must do everything it can to convince as many of those who are elected that it will support a strong and independent Iraq – rather than try to create a client state – and that it will help any elements of the new government that actively seek reform, recovery, and development.
Fortunately, there are Iraqis who can help explain the emerging trends in the popular vote in the election and their meaning objectively and in the form of public opinion polls that reflect how Iraqis see their politics and their current level of governance. Dr. Munqith Dagher introduced modern public opinion polling in Iraq in 2003, and has been refining his polling efforts ever since. He has presented the results of these poll at CSIS on several occasions, and his preliminary report on the election results is attached to this commentary.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.