Monday, May 17, 2004

The Wedding Theory of conflict resolution

It is being widely reported that the General Staff have proposed a new policy in Iraq to the Government. Details are hazy at least as far as the public go, but it seems to suggest another huge deployment of troops - talking 3,000 rifles plus - to take over the Multinational Division South-Centre, the area around Najaf where serious fighting has been going on. In fact, Nasiriyah, in the Italian area of responsibility, erupted last night and the Italian army was forced to retreat from the city centre. (link) This is worrying - in the initial outburst of the Shia uprising, the Italians were one of the few contingents in South-Central Iraq not to be run out of town despite being heavily attacked (comments about tanks with more reverse than forward gears are NOT welcome, all right?). Juan Cole reports that both the Italian government and (of all people) Ahmed Chalabi have protested to the Americans about their assault on Najaf, where the Imam Ali shrine is reported to have been damaged. Not to mention the Shia cemetery being driven over by tanks - haven't they heard the phrase "dancing on their ancestors' graves"? Cole also claims that the US general Martin Dempsey's plan to recruit members of the militias to keep order in Najaf was kiboshed by the CPA. No surprises that Bremer's ability to take the worst possible decision in a given situation continues strong.

So that is a brief situation report of the area it is proposed to take over. The other half of the strategy is apparently that this is conditional on the withdrawal of forces by this time next year. A sort of last-push policy, partly determined by the problems of maintaining such a grandiose commitment for very long. It seems sensible to set a term to this adventure, but the historic precedents are not good. The idea of setting a fixed date for unilateral action, in order to press other parties to agree, has often been used in world politics. I call it the Wedding Theory - surely, once she names the day he can't back out? The Good Friday Agreement is one of its successes - the name recalls the fact that the parties to the talks were given a deadline, although in the end it was extended overnight. (That is why Ulster Unionists call it the "Belfast Agreement".) Another was the Bosnian settlement at Dayton, where Richard Holbrooke put all the factions in a room and announced that they had a fixed period to agree or have a settlement imposed by force. Those are examples of success. There are also examples of failure. Setting a deadline has some bad effects - one is to reward brinkmanship, the idea of hanging on to the last moment to let the pressure of time tell on the other side. This played a role in the failure of the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations in the spring of 2000. Another is that whoever sets the deadline effectively terminates much of their bargaining strength. This was so in India in 1947, where the British decision to set a fixed independence day created a reward for intransigence. Congress would get what they wanted in the end - independence - and, without further progress, so would Jinnah (partition). There was no incentive to agree, and every incentive to create, in the grim phrase, facts on the ground.

It's very possible - damn it, it's a fact - that the run-up to the formal handover on the 30th of June is going to be like that. I predict that the run-up to any withdrawal next year is going to be very bloody indeed - more so, because that will be the real handover of power. It's all rather similar to the position of the army in Aden, 1967. After the government had declared the date for withdrawal, there was no hope of ending the struggle early except for an early retreat. The military were left to fight it out to no purpose whatsoever.

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