Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 02, 2016
Is Iraq as a nation sustainable?

Hans Morgenthau, one of the founding fathers of the realist school in international affairs , quoted in his 1948 masterpiece, “Politics Amongst Nations”, that the world ” is the result of forces inherent in human nature’

“You really have no choice”, wrote Morgenthau,” but to work with these forces, however imperfect, and not against them”. He stressed that foreign policy has to look at historical precedent & geographical realities rather than abstract principles and lofty aims.

In retrospect, how one wishes that the late Morgenthau and not Paul Wolfovitz was advising and guiding US Policy in early 2003, before the fatally and ironically coined operation “Enduring Freedom” pressed into doomed action in Iraq.

To gauge the current predicament in Iraq, one needs to step back and, as Morgentau said, understand the historical precedent and geographical undercurrents.

The fertile land between the Tigris and the Euphrates has never had a dull moment in its long winding history. Right from its long civilisation centricity, it has been at the crossroads of Persian and the Ottoman Empires. Baghdad was the centre of the “Islamic Golden Age” in the 9th century (Under the Abbasid Caliphate).

In the 16th century, it became part of the Ottoman Empire, and post the disintegration of the Empire in the World War I, it fell under the British control by 1920.

This is when the first Western blunder in this region took place. The blunder is actually very visible when you look up Iraq’s map. The boundaries are marked by almost straight lines, made in the 1920 by the British.

British Cabinet map showing the proposed boundaries of Iraq in early 1921


The idea then seemed to be to get the three provinces of Mosul (in the north), Baghdad (central) and Basra (in the south) into one geographical cluster. They drew lines around the geographical cluster which could accommodate these towns. They named this cluster Iraq.

For almost four centuries prior to the 20th century, in the current land of Iraq, three distinct and semi-governing provinces, or Vilayets, existed within the Ottoman Empire (Centred around current day Mosul, Baghdad and Basra). In each of these provinces, one of the three ethnic groups (Shia’s, Sunnis & Kurds) held the reigns to governance. The umbrella of the Ottoman law held supreme sway over this complex interwoven web of alliances and ethnicities. This delicate system was undone by the British, and a geographical entity called Iraq was carved out making a poorly woven patchwork of the three provinces.

This unwieldy patchwork of provinces, arrogantly ignoring the political and cultural sensibilities of the local inhabitants, was bound to be fractious. Britain grew weary of holding this volatility together and hastened Iraq toward independence. Post multiple coups and the Ba’ath Party’s seizure of power, Saddam was ensconced in the power saddle by 1979.

In his book, “The Revenge of Geography”, Robert Kaplan puts forward a very pertinent observation — The nature of governance and political system in a place is determined largely by geography. What Kaplan indicates is that some countries can choose to be democracies. Some places can’t.

As morbid as it sounds, Iraq, with three conflicting ethnicities and a complex web of imbalance, never really had the choice of a democracy. The depth and consciousness of sectarian sentiment in this country will never really allow for long lasting settlement.

As unbelievable and difficult as it sounds, Saddam, the dictator, for all his warts and extremities, was what held Iraq together for 25 years.

Enter the USA in 2003. Along comes the coercive push for democracy. Enter the Arab Spring in 2010. Along comes, a suddenly expanded theatre, multiple state and non-state actors, and a wild burning cauldron, with historic fault lines fuelling it. The ethno-religious map of Iraq below indicates a tentative direction in the near future of the conflict. Iraq, the geographical cluster, is being pulled apart by ethno religious loyalties, beyond its own borders. A Kurdish North insistent on establishing a greater Kurdistan, a Sunni Central region, with loyalties and possible extensions to/for Saudi Arabia, and a Shia South, integrated with or an in-principle protectorate of Iran.

On the economic front, the crises seem as acute as the political one. Around 90 percent of all government revenue in Iraq comes from oil.

War and austerity have extracted a heavy price, and the economy shrank by 2.7% last year. The last budget of Iraq projects an oil price of 56$/Barrel and a certain minimum production/day. The production levels and prices of oil today are at 60-70% levels of projections.

The fiscal deficit is expected to cross 15% levels. Unemployment is at 25% levels.

This harsh economic reality has transformed into an interesting regional solution. The central government at Baghdad is planning of borrowing from the IMF/World Bank, while the Kurdish government in the north is borrowing from Turkey.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) passed its own oil laws in 2007, and has directly signed about 50 contracts to develop energy reserves. The federal government has disputed the legal authority of the KRG to conclude most of these contracts, some of which are also in areas with unresolved administrative boundaries in dispute between the federal and regional government.

Even economically, the different regions have started enacting and passing their own laws. You see where this is all heading. Federalism is not part of the construct anymore.

A historical blunder, a geographical incongruence, an economic crises and non-existent institutions-Iraq is sitting on a powder keg.

Crystal gazing in such a complicated region, post the Arab Spring is near impossible. To be able to predict the direction of the big wheel, turned in place by wheels-within-wheels, is proving to be Herculean.

The cauldron in Iraq, the Levant and Yemen would either slow simmer for multiple years to come, or more probably, there would be an uneasy reconciliation preceded by ethnic Balkanisation. These geographies, which are now proxy conflict theatres for the Sunni and Shia powers, will need the powers to define their protectorates, and reach an understanding. Economic strides and a central rallying force (usually political) have seen the phasing out of global conflicts. Neither of these seem feasible in the near future in this crumbling structure.

International continuation in this geography, with or without US and NATO presence, makes little difference to the outcome. There is little choice, but for back channel talks between Iran and Saudi to plug the fund taps to their proxies. This, followed by demarcation in the long run and re-aligning of geographies to suit the cultural and historical context, might be the only plausible, yet imperfect solution.

The author is a geo-political analyst of the Middle East. He heads new country development at Marico Ltd.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Avijit Goel

Avijit Goel

Avijit Goel is a Senior Director with Flipkart. An alumnus of the Oxford University

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