Election Criteria Not a Measure of Success in Iraq

Members of Congress are positioning themselves in anticipation of this week’s Iraq progress report by U.S. Army General David Petreaus and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker.  Every one of them will see in it that which they want to see:  either support for continuing the current mission in Iraq or proofs of what many believe is a fatally flawed policy. 

Many aspects of the report will undoubtedly refer to the benchmarks that have been established to measure progress in Iraq.  Congressional focus will be on the stated benchmarks — including the one about holding provincial and local elections — which is completely irrelevant as a yardstick to measure success in Iraq.

No doubt, provincial and local governments that serve as administrative arms to a powerful central government, is a holdover from Iraq’s past.  The structure is based on the centralization of power — a cornerstone for totalitarian regimes.  The benchmark for provincial and local elections was created to decentralize power in Iraq and to help foster an American-style federal system that shares power between the local, state (province), and national governments. 

The role of Coalition Forces in Iraq is to provide the security necessary to allow the political process to move forward in order to create an Iraqi central government with enough stability so that the country will not descend into a failed state once Coalition Forces withdraw.  The United States does not need to achieve peace in Iraq in order to leave.  What is needed is a functioning central government that is strong enough to defend itself against the forces challenging its authority.  Provincial and local elections have absolutely nothing to do with achieving this strategy and should not be a factor when evaluating the success or failure of the Iraqis in their bid at self government.

In 2005, I was a Major with the U.S. Marines serving in Iraq as a member of the 6th Civil Affairs Group deployed in al Anbar province.  In Iraq, I worked in support of the constitutional referendum and the national election.  After working on elections, I was reassigned in early January 2006 to help establish a Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC) in Haditha and then to serve as a civil affairs governance officer for Haditha and two other towns in the Western Euphrates River Valley. 

Each town had an appointed interim city council selected from the leaders of these communities.  For the most part, the members were the leading tribal sheiks from each area.  They were to continue serving until local elections could be held after the Council of Representatives (Iraq’s parliament) passed legislation setting the date for provincial elections. In turn, the newly elected provincial governments were to decide the date when local elections would be held. To date, the Council of Representatives has yet to pass the required legislation. Consequently, the elections at the provincial and local levels have not occurred.

The sole utility of these interim city councils is to act in an advisory capacity to Coalition Forces.  The city councils function as a much needed conduit by communicating any problems arising between the local civilian population and Coalition Forces operating within their communities. These city councils have virtually no powers and the same can be said for the appointed interim officials at the provincial level. 

Currently in Iraq, as was the case under Saddam Hussein, all power emanates from Baghdad.  For example, a local police chief will report directly to the head of the police at the provincial level.  The provincial head of the police will answer directly to the Ministry of the Interior, who ultimately controls all of the police forces in the country.  The Minister of the Interior, a cabinet level official, reports to the Prime Minister. Whether its education, transportation, the military, police or health care, every department of government is vertically structured in this same manner.

What became evident to me while working in the Iraqi towns along the river valley was how well their public administrators were able to deliver much needed services, despite being in such a war torn area.  The schools were open, the hospitals and health clinics attended to patients, and they did the best they could to make water and electricity available to their citizens.  Compared to what I have heard of their counterparts in Baghdad, I thought they were remarkably effective.

Unlike the United States, there is no system of taxation at the provincial or local levels.  In Iraq, the oil wealth of the country negates that need.  Provincial and local governments receive their funding from the central government in Baghdad.  With no responsibilities for provincial and local governments to raise tax revenue or to make decisions regarding appropriations, the need for locally elected officials is greatly mitigated, relative to the requirements placed on state and local governments in the United States.

The day may come when the benchmark of provincial and local elections will be relevant to the Iraqi people and to the political realities of the country.  However, the question should be asked, is this benchmark relevant now, and should it be used to measure progress in Iraq?   The answer is clearly no. Having elections at the provincial and local level has virtually nothing to do with achieving the necessary level of stability in the central government that is necessary before a withdrawal of U.S. military forces can reasonably occur.