Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader and the self-proclaimed caliph of the “Islamic State” (IS), was created in the Iraqi prison-like Camp Bucca under the American occupation. The deep humiliation felt by him and the rest of the 18% Sunni population of Iraq, after the exhaustive de-Baathifiction process, disbanding of the 300,000-strong Saddam’s Sunni army, and imprisoning many Sunni leaders, the occupying power flared up hatred and revenge among the group that governed Iraq since the Ottoman Empire. Sensing a power shift in favour of Shi’as and Kurds orchestrated by America, the Sunnis went on the offensive. The ensued inferno of sectarian conflicts – among other factors -destroyed an enormous possibility of a country containing the second largest oil reserve in the world.
It is a well known fact, exposed by many experts, that America’s mishandling of Iraq knows no bounds. It is mind-boggling how the superpower that once – after World War II – rebuilt devastated and defeated enemy countries like Japan and Germany to become world powers, could possibly fail so miserably in Iraq 50 years later, after becoming more powerful, more capable and more experienced. Everything that could possibly go wrong did.
Paul Bremer, who did not have much experience with the Middle East, was sent to head the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA), Washington’s shadow government in Iraq. His Executive Order 1 and 2 ignited sectarian fire all across the land, 4.7 million Iraqis got displaced, hundreds of thousands got killed, enormous destruction of properties and infrastructure, the economy almost came to a halt, and most of the technocrats who were supposed to rebuild the country fled. Within just a few years of occupying Iraq, a country that was relatively well-educated and prosperous in the Middle East before descended into the Dark Age.
Much of this could be avoided if some visionary steps were taken, such as setting up a power-sharing arrangement among the three ethnic groups: – Shi’a (60%), Sunni (18%) and Kurds (21%). Each of these groups with long regional connections is indispensable in keeping Iraq as one nation. If power-sharing arrangements and national reconciliation processes have turned arch enemies into partners in governance in places like South Africa, Kosovo, El-Salvador, and now in Afghanistan, why was it not tried in Iraq?
These steps, difficult at other times, could have been applied with relative ease in that period when there was a total power vacuum – except the occupying power (mainly America) – after Saddam was gone and the Iraqi political factors and forces were just beginning to take shape. Almost anything could be done by America without much resistance and difficulty. This is the way America’s occupation created a total shift in direction for Japan and Germany over half a century ago. Some of those steps were not democratic at all, but those were the initiatives that helped make these societies democratic and successful in the long run. Why did America fail to embark on such a Marshall Plan for Iraq?
Extremism does not grow where good governance and stability prevail. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Somalia and IS in Iraq and Syria all originated in utter chaos, turmoil, repression or subjugation of a group, mismanagement and poor or lack of governance.
In Iraq, under the Shi’a and Kurdish pressures, and the pressures from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who – in order to attain Shi’a dominance – played on America’s democratic ideology, America was compelled to hold premature elections in 2005. America complied and the American neo-conservatives, who wanted to influence Iraq through Shi’a rule, were happy. Consequently, the constituent assembly that the elections produced was over60% Shi’a, and the constitution that the body framed was not acceptable to the Sunnis. Realising early on that this was a game they would invariably be made to lose, Sunnis boycotted the election and went on the offensive. Both the Iraqi and the American people paid a heavy price for this blunder.
Why did America fail to do what it did for El-Salvador in 1992; that is, compelling the arch rivals to come together to negotiate terms of power-sharing and peaceful coexistence?
As such, a step in the right direction could entail removing and punishing the top officials of the Saddam regime, and rehabilitating and integrating the rest into society. Similar integration processes were undertaken for the Nazis and the Japanese after World War II, and later for South African whites. The integration of Sunnis would have saved Iraq from horrendously destructive and bloody episodes. America invaded Iraq, it was America’s responsibility to take the right course of action and rebuild Iraq using a Marshall Plan.
The Muslim world, along with others, has paid the high price for Western follies for a long time. Throughout the long Colonial rules and exploitation, the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 and the post-World War II period in creating the troublesome Middle East, the Cold War period and installing puppet governments and consequent repressions, the propagation of neo-imperialism and later globalisation, the West has committed immeasurable injustices and troubles. A vast young generation – 65% to 70% of the Muslims in the world are 35 years or younger – is frustrated and angry about what was done to their societies and their gloomy future. The breeding grounds for troubles and extremism surely loom large. In the name of security and national interests, the West has done a tremendous disservice to its own people as well. It is long overdue that the Western powers in general and America in particular should now be seen as part of the solutions and not part of the problems.
The West has great leverage that it can use to compel many countries that are undemocratic and even repressive to go for inclusive politics and power-sharing arrangements. In order to defeat extremism, there is no other alternative but good governance. In this global society, there is increasing awareness of human rights and dignity; it is counterproductive to marginalise any group or leave them out of a political system.
No matter how wrong and oppressive a group was in the past, a substantial part of that can always be reclaimed and integrated into the rest of the society with a visionary process. In doing so a win-win state of affairs ensues and society becomes victorious. South Africa after the Apartheid period, Europe after World War II, America after the Civil War in 1864, and many other examples in history remain testament to that truth. Troubles ensue when these groups – the menaces of the past – are rejected and cornered.
One does not need reconciliation where there were no serious disagreements or a difficult past. Nelson Mandela realised that after seeing the consequences of Zimbabwe’s failure to integrate. Right after he got out of the prison in1994, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, through which he punished only a handful of perpetrators, but the rest were reintegrated into the society. This process of integration helped South Africa to become the ‘rainbow’ nation that it is now and triple its GDP within 20 years. On the other hand, Sri Lanka and Nepal were on the right track, but now they seem to have stumbled because they still fail to incorporate a power-sharing system completely. On the other hand, Tunisia is becoming a success story in our time by marginalising the lurking extremism through inclusive politics and power-sharing via proportional representation. A lion’s share of the credit goes to the visionary leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi.
As for Iraq, America, in collaboration with the international community, can still exert enough pressures to help bring about inclusive politics and power-sharing arrangements.
One way the inter-dependency could be achieved is by setting two legislatures, the lower house elected on the basis of universal suffrage, and the upper one consisting of an equal number of elected members from each group, and striking a balance between the two houses under a presidential form of government. Furthermore, all important posts, including that of the President, the Supreme Court judges, army heads, etc. should be assigned to leaders from each of these three groups on a rotating basis or some other preset formula, as was done in Lebanon in the past. Striking a delicate balance between the national and provincial governments is also an imperative. The army should consist of all three groups, with a specific quota assigned to each group to ensure inclusiveness. Only then can groups like IS be subdued and transformed. Similar solutions apply to Nigeria and Somalia as well.
Ruby Amatulla is a writer and an activist. She is the Executive Director of Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress [website, www.mpjp.org], and the Secretary General of Women for Good Governance