What Worked in Kabul Won't in Baghdad

So -- next stop, Baghdad?

That's what some Bush administration officials are hoping in the wake of the resounding success of the war in Afghanistan. Having so swiftly routed the Taliban, they proclaim, we should now move to depose Saddam Hussein and rid ourselves of a terrorist threat even greater than al Qaeda.

According to this thinking, the United States can adopt a strategy similar to the one we used in Afghanistan: If we can only empower and help the Iraqi opposition, then Saddam's regime, too, can be undone. For these officials, a number of whom are veterans of Ronald Reagan's presidency, it's not a surprising way to think: They hearken back to the 1980s and the Nicaraguan contras' war against the Sandinistas as another example of the successful use of internal opposition to dislodge an undesirable regime.

But imagining that we can duplicate these happy outcomes in Iraq could be dangerous. Not only is Saddam Hussein hardly the pushover the Taliban has turned out to be, there is a real question as to whether a credible Iraqi opposition exists anywhere other than in the minds of a few hawks in Washington. Certainly, there is no fighting force comparable to the Northern Alliance for the United States to back.

When people speak of the "Iraqi opposition," they are generally referring to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), headquartered in London and led by Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, a banker with a PhD in mathematics from MIT and strong contacts in Washington. This is the group upon which Congress has bestowed its largest since the end of the Persian Gulf War, and the group some Bush administration officials and supporters on the Hill still champion as the great hope of Iraqi liberation.

The INC is nominally an umbrella organization uniting a variety of regime opponents, including the two largest constituent groups of the Iraqi demographic mosaic: the Kurds of the north (who make up 20 to 25 percent of the Iraqi population) and theShiites of the south and of Baghdad's shantytowns (the country's majority at 55 percent). But unity, in the.cas2. of the INC, is strictly a relative term. For its entire existence, the group has reflected and suffered from the divisions that have historically bedeviled Iraq and enabled regimes such as Saddam's to survive.

Chalabi, who singlehandedly built the INC from the ground up, isa Shiite who has tried to remain above the sectarian fray, but he cannot escape the suspicions of the Sunni minority of central Iraq, which is as critical to any coalition in Iraq as the Pashtuns are in Afghanistan. Saddam not only bases his power on this Sunni minority, but to keep them in line, he exploits their fear that his overthrow would give rise to a vengeful Shiite-based regime.

For a time after the Gulf War, the INC was an important -- but certainly not overwhelming -- source of opposition to the regime in Baghdad. Based in the Kurdish-controlled North, it had extensive contacts within the country, and, with Kurdish backing, it had modest military force behind it. It helped lure defectors from Saddam's military machine and in 1995 undertook a small military campaign against Iraqi forces with one of the two Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). But it fell apart in the fall of 1996, when infighting between the two Kurdish camps escalated into civil war. Saddam entered into a temporary alliance against the PUK with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and ordered Iraqi forces into Kurdish territory. By the time they left, Saddam had achieved a critical goal: He had demolished the INC apparatus in northern Iraq, torturing and killing countless of its operatives.

It was a debacle for the INC. With its networks smashed, the organization lost much of its international credibility. Chalabi and others were forced to flee to the West. The Clinton administration's decision to retaliate by launching a few cruise missiles at targets in southern Iraq further disheartened the movement, and internal tensions degenerated into squabbling. Increasingly, Iraqi opposition figures complained about Chalabi's autocratic style and his reluctance to share information. The Kurds remained under the INC umbrella, mostly to please the United States, but ceased to be eager supporters. More and more, the INC seemed to derive its strength not from its component parts, but from Chalabi's Washington connections. Slowly, Chalabi seemed to become the INC, and the INC nothing more than Chalabi. Since 1996, Washington is the only place the INC has scored any victories. Despite the group's dysfunction, U.S. lawmakers and officials have never given up trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
In 1998, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, allocating some $97 million in aid to the INC. But the fractured movement has proven incapable of making use of these resources. Meanwhile, the State Department appointed a special liaison to help remake the INC into a broad-based opposition movement. We at State had great admiration for what Chalabi had accomplished in creating the INC, but by this time we found that the department's and Chalabi's visions of a future course of action were at odds with each other. While State wanted the INC to concentrate on rebuilding internally -- and away from Iraq -- Chalabi thought his group could re-infiltrate the homeland. Ironically, this
dispute continues to this day, despite the change in administrations.Last month, the INC refused a State Department offer of $8 million because the department would not allow the funds to be used for INC activities inside Iraq.

The INC today exists essentially in name only. There is no muscle behind Chalabi. Both the Kurds and the Shiites pay only the feeblest lip service to the group. These two groups are the only opposition movements with real forces on the ground in Iraq, but they would be highly unlikely to bow to the INC if the United States made a move against Saddam. No opposition movement in history, of course, has been absolutely free of internecine fighting. Had we focused on the splits in the French Resistance during World War II, the movement may never have existed at all. Still, those who look to the INC to free Iraq from Saddam Hussein would do well to consider how different the Iraq experience would be from Afghanistan. As weak and disorganized as the Northern Alliance was, it had been physically fighting the Taliban since 1996. More importantly, in the Taliban, it confronted an army nearly as weak and disorganized as itself. The Iraqi military, though weakened by years of U.N. sanctions, is still a formidable force. The Kurds, while armed, are no match for Iraqi Revolutionary Guard divisions. Furthermore, unlike the Northern Alliance, Chalabi and his INC do not enjoy the support of any of the states bordering Iraq. Iraq's neighbors worry the country might break up in a post-Saddam environment; some, such as Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, would prefer Saddam in Baghdad to most other alternatives.

The good news from Afghanistan is that an opposition force aided and abetted by U.S. airpower and ground troops can indeed unseat a regime. But the bad news is that the overthrow of the Taliban couldn't have been achieved without U.S. power. In fact, before Sept. 11, the Northern Alliance was on the verge of collapse. This clearly means one thing: Repeating "the Afghan success story" in Iraq would require a major U.S. military commitment. The question is, how much is the United States willing to invest in the effort to overthrow Saddam? Before we engage in an opposition-based strategy in Iraq, we should explore alternatives to a direct military confrontation. A better approach would be an all-out, coercive diplomatic offensive to unseat Saddam -- backed by the threat of using U.S. ground forces. Our greatest handicap in confronting the dictator is the fact that no one wants us to intervene militarily: The regional powers, Russia, France and some of our other European allies are deathly afraid of the ramifications of a U.S. attack. Yet this fear is, at the same time, our ace in the hole. These governments know that a U.S. administration flush with victory in Afghanistan and with significant domestic public support can do just about anything it chooses. If they do not want us to go in with guns blazing, they need to get behind a diplomatic strategy -- one that could well involve Chalabi and the INC -- to accomplish our objective. We have yet to try such a diplomatic approach. But it may prove to be less expensive and more promising than trying to make the INC into a force that could lead a military charge for us.

Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, served on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 1998 to 2000.

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