In Memoriam

This site is also dedicated to Stan Sargent. Stan and I grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and both of us left for college at about the same time. Stan served in Vietnam while I joined the Peace Corps. Stan won the Silver Star for heroism. Read Stan's story (1 MB download pdf).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Inventing Iraq

Inventing Iraq:
The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied
By Toby Dodge, Columbia University Press, 2003 (1)

“Inventing Iraq” provides a historical perspective of nation building by analyzing the British occupation of three Ottoman Empire provinces that were formed into Iraq. Beginning in 1920, the country was administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate and became the first mandated state to gain independence and enter the League as a full, self-determining member in 1932. Dodge tracks the history of British rule of Iraq, analyzes its transition to a sovereign state, highlights the mistakes made in this process, and recommends how the US can avoid pitfalls in our nation building effort here. The key point that Dodge makes in the book is that a successful transformation of Iraq can only be achieved through long term, grass roots development aimed at creating a local sense of community. Tribal fiefdoms, the primary Iraqi civil society structures shaped over the last 400 years creates a “shadow state” and undermines the long term sustainability of a national government. Historically, central governments in Iraq, dating back to early Ottoman Empire have not adequately controlled the rural areas. A succession of ruling entities have depended upon a combination of violence and patronage to bring tribal leaders into a largely informal governing coalition with the state. (2)

The book defines the end state for successful nation building as the ability of a nation to, “… deliver public goods to the population contained within its recognized borders through a differentiated set of centralized government institutions. Crucial to its ability to perform these tasks is the veracity of its claim to ‘binding authority’ over its citizenship and ultimately over all actions taking place within the are of its jurisdiction.” Three key characteristics guarantee sustainability of a state (1) ability of the state’s institutions to claim a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, (2) the capacity of the state’s bureaucracy to implement its decisions across the territorial entirety of the country, and (3) creating a positive relevance of the state to the everyday lives of its citizens. Dodge states that when there is a failure to provide protection through a monopoly on the use of violence, the citizenry will seek public goods and services, economic subsistence and eventually their physical survival through ad hoc and informal channels. People will look to whatever group can help them survive – militia, tribe, clan -- proclamation of statehood is not sufficient. For Iraq to become a sustainable state it must have the ability to protect, govern, and serve all its citizenry.
Working with the Sheiks - “(To address the problem of a small elite ruling class that was mostly urban, and thus removed from the majority of the people who lived in the rural areas, the British decided) … its relations had to be mediated through a series of tribal sheiks. For a sheik, government recognition brought with it responsibility, reward and prestige. By guaranteeing the good behavior of the tribe or that of a particular section, he would receive a monthly subsidy. The designated sheiks learned quickly what was required of them and how to manipulate the key concerns of the British.” “Inventing Iraq” pp. 83 - 86

Lack of Civil Society in Iraq - “Since seizing power in 1968, the Baath regime efficiently used extreme levels of violence and the powers of patronage delivered by oil wealth to co-opt or break any independent vestiges of civil society. Autonomous collective societal structures beyond the control of the state simply do not exist. In their place, society came to be dominated by aspects of the “shadow state” flexible networks of patronage and violence that were used to reshape Iraqi society… The danger the US administrators trying to make sense of a society they have little knowledge of is that they will grasp aspects of the shadow state as authentic representations of Iraqi polity. In doing so they will be reproducing the very structures set up by Sadam Hussein to guarantee his own grip on power.” - “Inventing Iraq” p. 159.

Key to governance is the belief of the people that they have an effective way to voice their grievances and have a role in addressing their problems at the local and provincial levels. The civil society structures that play a critical role in providing this voice to the people does not exist in Iraq. To address this problem, Dodge recommends a strategic approach that sounds very similar to our ePRT led grass roots effort of building local capacity, empowering communities, and giving ordinary citizens a voice in government. The issues identified in this book and their potential impact on the future are important to consider as we transition away from ePRTs (Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team) toward a PRT (Provinical Reconstruction Team) led effort to strengthen provincial governments and their capacity to govern. (3)

Dodge recommends that the US learn the lesson from the British occupation that a sustainable state requires empowering local communities to effectively address their local problems, provide a consensus for community action, and interact with local and provincial governments. Civil society groups will, according to Dodge, provide the only sustainable means of empowering local communities. The establishment of these groups will have to be a grass roots effort that focuses on increasing social capital, providing a voice for ordinary citizens, and engendering a feeling among local communities of inclusion and benefit in a national government system.

Dodge contends that the degree to which Iraq can be inclusive and equitable to all citizens will determine whether there will be a renewal of violence. “Inventing Iraq” sends a clear message that for the state to effectively govern and serve its citizenry much more than a strong military is required – ordinary Iraqis have to believe in their ability to come together to address their problems. This book provides an interesting historical perspective that points to ways that the US might effectively address issues regarding the sustainability of the Iraqi state once Coalition Forces eventually depart. Building a vibrant civil society should, according to Dodge, be one of the key goals of US policy. The most effective way to create a strong civil society is by working at the ePRT level – the grass roots – focusing on bringing people together to address their problems, create a sense of community, and effectively interact with their provincial and national government.
Finally, the ePRT concept was described in the book -- ePRT Model of Civil Society Strengthening -- “Evidence from Umm Qasr suggests a different and more sustainable approach to rebuilding Iraq’s governing structures. The experience there has been acknowledged by American forces to be a potential model for the rest of Iraq. Self-selected (modest, mid-level civil servants came together to form a council) citizens approached British troops and asked when schools could be re-opened. The U.S. Agency for International Development moved quickly to capitalize on this development, giving the council $41,000 for offices and computers. This experiment in “micromanagement” implies the value of “root and branch” approach to reform of Iraq’s government. If carried to its logical conclusion, such a policy would involve a sustained attempt not only to change the visible institutions of the state but and their interaction with society but also to transform the dynamics of the shadow state by creating a basis for social trust.” -- Inventing Iraq, p. 169


The following are excepts from the “Inventing Iraq” referring to the problems, issues and realities faced by the British personnel charged with the first modern attempt at nation building in Iraq. Many of the points highlighted in the book could be taken from today’s headlines. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.” Clearly this is the case in Iraq today.

Dealing with Iraq nationalism. There was pressure from the Iraqis to transition from a “mandate” to a treaty with the UK that outlined when Iraq would be declared a sovereign state. Iraqi nationalism became a force in a short period time after the Ottoman Turks were defeated. “The speed with which Britain’s role in Iraq changed from 1920 to 1922 is highlighted by the rapid shift in its legal basis.” p. 22 “Having set up our independent or quasi-independent state, we were bound to deal with it on terms of greater equality, and less from the point with it on terms of greater equality, and less from the point of view of a guardian towards its ward, than was originally contemplated.” p. 22 “The rapid growth of well-organized and vibrant nationalism in Iraq exacerbated the conflict at the heart of the British policy.” p. 30

Political realities impacted events on the ground. “The irresoluble tensions inherent in British nation building produced, by 1932, the quasi-state of Iraq. When Iraq entered the League of Nations it was granted de jure independence as a self-determining nation state. But the reality was something quite different. Iraq was a territory inhabited by a diverse and divided population run by a small clique of mainly Sunni politicians who could not control the country without the help of British airplanes.” p. 31 “The heavy constraints upon the British state meant that sovereign power had to be devolved to the political elite of Baghdad – those who, by 1926, were in a position to run things.” p. 37 “The Permanent Mandates Commission had been the personification of Britain’s international obligations to Iraq, but, after 1929, it became an obstacle to the government’s goal of ridding itself of the costly and potentially unending burden of turning Iraq into a liberal state of international standing.” p. 38

Dealing with the power brokers rather than transforming the state. “Their concept of the Ottoman Empire led the British to place their trust in those who inhabited the countryside, those identified as ‘tribal’.” p. 45 “… Iraqi civil servants … were detached from society. They constituted a distinctly secular, separate and parasitic middle class.” p. 48 “The image that permeates the British descriptions of Iraqi governing groups was of a small elite floating above society. ‘I do not suppose there is in the whole history another example of a state with a representative government of modern type, in which only people who count are two or three hundred at most. It is in fact a closed oligarchy.” p. 66 “Ultimately it was the way British understood Iraqi society that came to undermine their attempt to build a stable state. Resources were channeled through individuals (the sheiks) in the hope that they would guarantee social order at the lowest possible cost.” p. 158

Rule of Law was a difficult concept – land tenure was a very difficult issue. “In effect, written law could be rigid or liberal as the drafters desired because it ultimately would stand little chance of being enforced. (The Turks had a) “… blind impulse to draw all authority into a single net, (they) not only neglected but actively discouraged the delegation of power.” p. 51 “Upon the Turkish conquest the agricultural land of Iraq became state property … (but the) Ottoman Government were never in a position to exercise any systematic control of the large areas of miri land throughout the country.” p. 54 “With the state unable to enforce its will over the majority of the country, no cadastral survey was possible. A result was title deeds and records that were ‘incomplete and entirely inaccurate in respect to names, areas, and boundaries, sometimes forged, sometimes overlapping, sometimes duplicated in respect of identical properties.” p. 55 “Order was attempted in two stages. First, land had to be owned, and it was the administrator’s job to find out who that owner was – to formalize and then protect his rights of possession. Then the proprietor was encouraged to farm the land as efficiently as possible.” p. 105

(1) Tony Dodge is an English scholar on the Middle East for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

(2) This lack of rural control applies primarily to the Ottoman Empire rule of Iraq from 1535 to 1918, and the English mandate period 1920 – 1932, but was also true to varying degrees in modern Iraq under the rule of Hashemite King Faisal followed by Ghazi, Nuria al Said, and Abdullah Al-llah until the July 14, 1958 Revolution led by General Abdul Karim Qassim. Central control was strengthened when Qassim was overthrown in 1963 by Col. Adbul Salam Arif who died in 1966 and was succeeded by his brother, Rahman Arif. After the 1968 coup by the Baath Party put Saddam Hussein on a track to becoming the sole dictator of Iraq in 1979, the Iraqi state used terror and money to control the rural areas.

(3) PRT – Provincial Reconstruction Team; ePRT – Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team lives and operates within a US military combat team at the Brigade level or lower. The PRT concept began in 2002 in Afghanistan. A PRT is defined in the “Provincial Reconstruction Team Playbook” Center for Army Lessons Learned as “… a means to … stabilize an area through an integrated civilian-military focus. It combines the diplomatic, military and developmental components of the various agencies … to help improve stability by building up the capacity of the host nation to govern; enhance economic viability; and deliver essential public services such as security, law and order, justice, health care, and education. Once the stability objectives have been fulfilled, PRTs can begin to dismantle and the traditional diplomatic and developmental programs will operate within their normal venues.” Total PRTs in Iraq (09/2008) are 31: US PRT 11, Coalition 3, ePRT 13, and PST 4 (Provincial Support Teams).

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