November 2, 2007

Professor Discusses Causes of Iraq Insurgency

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Ten days ago, President Bush asked Congress for $46 billion to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a proposal which would bring the war budget to $196.4 billion this fiscal year. Four days after the proposal, Prof. David Siddhartha Patel, government, delivered a lecture entitled, “Islam and Insurgency in Iraq,” part of a week long series of talks hosted by the Department of Near Eastern Studies, urging the audience to form educated opinions on the pressing situation in Iraq and to question whether the new influx of money would be worthwhile. 13 students attended.
“I have one vote in the next election,” Patel said. “My opinion is no more or less valuable than anyone else’s.”
Patel, who spent part of 2003 and 2004 living in Iraq, argued that the violence in Iraq today spawns from material incentives — power and money — rather than Islamic ideology.
“The fighting in Iraq really isn’t motivated by Islam. It’s really motivated by politics; it’s about economics; it’s about money. And that divide between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that we hear so much about … that doesn’t really capture what’s going on. Just as much, the violence is within groups as between groups,” Patel said.
The lecture, held at Lund Lounge in Mews Hall, was structured as both an information session and an interactive forum in which the audience was encouraged to ask questions.
Patel began by outlining the composition of the Iraqi government. He stressed that the parliament, which the Iraqi people elected, consists of many factions and political figures that the U.S. government does not, according to what they say outwardly, support.
“Sunni Islamists clearly dominate the parliament. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but — just so we’re on the same page — this is the government that we’re there supporting. This is the government that we’re staking our claims to,” Patel said.
There are also Neo-Baathists in the parliament, a group the U.S. attempted to eradicate with the ousting of Sadaam Hussein.
“There are a lot of Muslim Brothers, pretty nasty guys — I shouldn’t say nasty — clearly lots of groups who don’t want the U.S. to stay there much longer.”
Patel cited the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as a case in point. Maliki is a member of the Islamic Dawa Party, which, he said, was previously designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.
Patel’s purpose in illustrating the abundance of “nasty guys” in the Iraqi parliament was to show that, although many politicians in America claim that the U.S. is fighting Islamist organizations in Iraq, in many cases they are acting in accordance with them.
However, he said, while the Bush Administration continues to advertise the same rhetoric at home, they are changing their strategy in Iraq.
“Instead of trying to work with those elected parliamentarians who came to power, [the military] is turning to sheiks and tribal leaders throughout the Sunni area, and what they’re doing is wining and dining them. This is what Bush is touting now. Violence is down. Why? Because U.S. soldiers are dancing with Iraqi tribes,” Patel said, pointing, appropriately, to his proof: a photograph of U.S. soldiers dancing with Iraqi tribes.
Patel emphasized that what the Bush Administration says it is doing in Iraq is not always what they are actually doing — and, he said, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
“When you hear President Bush or the military talk about [the Sunni Arab insurgency], they tend to lump it all together and call it, ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq,’ and that seems to be who we’re fighting. That’s the way the administration talks. But, if you look at what the administration does, I think they have a much more nuanced view of the insurgency, which is much more accurate,” Patel said.
Patel broke down the government’s “nuanced view of the insurgency.” There are three groups, Patel said: the Salafi jihadists, the Baathists and the POIs.
“The overwhelming majority of the insurgents are what the government calls POIs — Pissed Off Iraqis — and the POIs are a very diverse group,” he said.
According to Patel, some POIs have joined the Mahdi Army, a division of the insurgency behind much of the violence in Iraq, led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Although Patel acknowledged that Sadr himself is a radical Islamist whose violence stems from his ideology, he argued that the bulk of the actual Mahdi Army is simply “interested in local protection, local black markets, local smuggling; Godfather-type stuff.”
“Like most things in the Middle East or anywhere, if you want to look for pictures of the Mahdi and see them as a rabble, an uncoordinated rabble, you’ll find them. If you want to look for them marching in unison, waving Hezbollah signs, looking intimidating, you’ll find them … You have to think about what else could be going on there. In my opinion, the best way of looking at the Mahdi Army is a loose grouping of local criminal and rogue elements — Muqtada has influence over some of them, but very few,” he said.
Patel concluded his talk with a breakdown of the potential 2008 candidates and their respective stances on the War in Iraq. He criticized Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Senator John Edwards for being “extremely vague” on their proposals for gradual withdrawal. He criticized Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and the “Democratic thinktankers” for advocating the relocation of populations using U.S. troops (adding, sarcastically, “It worked so well in India and Pakistan”). He did not say anything explicitly opinionated about the Republican candidates.
“Probably the most likely scenario that no one talks about — and it’s probably not going to happen tomorrow, it’s probably going to happen four, five, six years from now — is the U.S. is going to have to pick a dictator,” Patel said.
“We’re going to have to put Humpty Dumpty back together. We’re going to have to forget about democracy, pick somebody who is less bad to as many people as we can find and then militarily back him. At this point, that might be the best strategy.”
Matt Clemente ’11, who attended the lecture, had a different view on the future of Iraq.
“I think the situation is even more hopeless than [Patel] made it out to be. I’m not sure we even have the choice of picking a dictator — whoever we pick, the opposition would just kill,” Clemente said.
Ahmed Salem ’08, president of the Cornell Republicans, thought that Patel’s outlook was “very accurate” in its approach to Iraq policy. However, he wanted to stress that religious considerations are present in the insurgency.
“An important thing to keep in mind is that the ideology that most threatens stability, and the ideology the United States should fight, is Wahhabism [the Salafi-jihadists in Iraq]. That interpretation of Islam is dangerous because it does not allow for different interpretations of the faith … in the case of Iraq, it labels anyone who doesn’t adhere to it as someone who deserves to be punished,” he said.