A larger lesson from the delayed elections in Iraq

Summary:  The Iraq government has been unable to arrange for scheduled elections this Fall.  While significant in itself, this is evidence of a larger and more important lesson going to the heart of out ability to successfully execute modern COIN theory as set forth in FM 3-24.

Iraq parliament fails to pass elections bill“, Los Angeles Times, 7 August 2008 — “Iraq lawmakers break for vacation, unable to agree on oil-rich Kirkuk, which the Kurds want to annex to the semiautonomous Kurdish region.”

See these three sites for detailed coverage about this.

(1)  Informed Comment, Professor Juan Coles’s blog.

(2)  “not much to show“, Abu Aardvark — Excerpt:

We are potentially approaching a moment of truth.  The consequences of building up these forces outside of the structures of the Iraqi state, while stringing them along with promises that require Iraqi government acquiesence to deliver may be coming due.   I know well that US military commanders have been far more attentive to these issues than have the cheerleaders, and MNF-I and Ambassador Crocker have been working as hard as they can to resolve them.

Their failure to deliver a compromise on the provincial elections law and their failure to deliver meaningful progress on SOI integration both suggest the limits of American influence in Iraq – a lesson which the advocates of “strategic patience“, who continue to view American decisions as the only ones which really matter, never seem to digest.

(3)  “Dr. iRack is Back . . . But the Elections Aren’t“, abu muqawama — Excerpt:

In short, the clash over the provincial elections law brings to the surface a set of underlying conflicts between the “Powers That Be” and the “Powers That Aren’t”–tensions that could unravel the hard-fought security progress over the past year. This speaks to a broader theme from Dr. iRack’s recent crisscrossing of Iraq: violence is down (way down), but the fundamental political problems and divisions in the country remain unresolved. In this context, the longer the provincial elections are delayed, the higher the prospects for renewed civil strife.

Whatever the resolution of the election issue, their national government’s difficulties illustrate a critical point about our ability to successfully do COIN.  COIN, like all forms of warfare, requires both a clear vision and understanding of social dynamics.  Successful COIN, as seen in FM 3-24, is largely supporting a government against its internal enemies.  Unfortunately, we have difficulty seeing the true state of client governments — confusing our hopes (often what others consider a puppet government) with the real thing. 

This was true in Vietnam 40 years ago, and in Iraq today.  One might never know from reading US government reports (and our mainstream media) that there is not a functioning national government (beyond the security forces).

What is a government?

Amidst the most sophisticated discussions of modern warfare we see naive understanding of political science.

There is no need for me to argue because the United Nations has accepted the current Iraqi government into the world community and further legitimizing it by overseeing its elections.
From a thread at the Small Wars Council

The UN recognized and gave seats to Belarus and the Ukraine, puppet regimes of the Soviet Union (along with Russia, they had three seats).  Kurdistan has a far more tangible government than Iraq, but no UN seat.  More generally:  a bureaucracy, capital, constitution, and flag, elections, and seat at the UN are the forms of government — not the substance.

Being born in a stable does not make one a horse.
Duke of Wellington (source and authenticity unknown)

A government is defined by its attributes:  sovereignty, authority, and legitimacy.  The more of these they possess, the stronger and more durable.  The most important attributes:

  • Control of armed forces, ideally a monopoly of armed force within its borders.
  • The ability to levy and collect taxes.
  • An administrative mechanism to execute its policies.
  • Territory in which it is the dominant political entity.
  • Control of borders.
  • Legitimacy (not love) in the eyes of its people.

The national “government” of Iraq has, by most reports, none of these.  It lives on oil revenue and US funding.  Its ministries are controlled by ethnic and religious groups, parceled out as patronage and run for their “owners” benefit.  While growing in strength, it’s still in a larval stage.  Compare it with Kurdistan’s government, which has all six attributes.  Which would have better odds of survival if we withdrew all support?


The roots of FM 3-24 and modern COIN theory lie in subtle and powerful social science theory.  This is problematic for several reasons.

1.  As seen in this post, we might lack the sophistication to execute the theory.

2.  The social sciences are immature compared to the physical sciences.  Only political science and economics have many real-world successes.  We may be doing the equivalent of building a steam engine to be driven by phlogiston.

3.  The roots of the social sciences are sharp and dark.  We may be playing with tools we do not understand, with unpleasant consequences.  For more on this, see Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Posts about COIN and FM 3-24

  1. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  2. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008

Other posts about the fragmentation of Iraq and the end of the War

  1. Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq (29 December 2005)
  2. The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace (13 March 2007)
  3. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq (27 September 2007)
  4. Iraq, after the war (20 May 2008)

Go here to see an archive of my posts about the Iraq War.

1 thought on “A larger lesson from the delayed elections in Iraq”

  1. As the world moves increasingly in a post-Westphalian direction, COIN efforts will grow increasingly futile precisely because establishing effective governance, on the one hand, and establishing / maintaining a nationstate, on the other, are two different – and increasingly inconsistent – things.

    The death knell to COIN / War on Terror will come when a later-day Cervantes portrays doughty “Democratizers” who go forth to fight dragons, returning home on their nags with yellow-ribboned buckets over their heads, proclaiming victory.

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