Security Studies Program Seminar

An Assessment of Iraq Two Years after the End of Major Combat

Roger Petersen
MIT Department of Political Science

May 4, 2005

Today I am focused on the insurgency. In reports prior to the conflict in Iraq , there was no mention of insurgency by groups like International Crisis Group. No one predicted this. At many key junctures there have been predictions that the insurgency would die down. But we have to understand the local roots of insurgence. The puzzle is the persistence of the causes of it. Only 6-9 % of the country is not under control.

In order to understand how I think about Iraq, I have to explain the methods I used to study Lithuanian insurgency against the Soviets. My dependent variable is the role the insurgents are playing. Scale of -3 to +3, ranging from least to most contribution to the insurgency. +3 are mobile, armed resistance fighters. The +1 and +2 are sustaining mechanisms, people who are not mobile, who stay in their communities, and can bleed back into the community. These are the hardest to identify and eliminate.

How do people get to this position? What I want to understand is what are the mechanisms—the identifiable causal patterns—that move people along this spectrum? One mechanism is the tyranny of sunk costs. Causes vary, but there are a finite number of these causal mechanisms.

What other field work has been done? My work has focused on eastern and central Europe. I did interview work on the Lithuanian resistance to the three different occupations. For instance, I had people draw "maps" of their communities, with land and place on spectrum of resistance. They were able to map who knew who, who knew about bunkers and resistance.

Then you can figure out things about community structure. Why would some communities have such firmly organized resistance, while others next door would not? It is the structure of the community that made the difference.

Some communities had pre-existing communities and organizations. There is always a collective action dilemma—"I'll get involved if others do." Who are people who say, "I'll get involved, regardless of what others do," "I'll get involved if X person does." It's an n-person insurance game. These pre-existing organizations created norms and oaths that could mobilize collective action. What are the social groups, and how are people connected to local communities?

The best predictor of motivator for violence is status reversal—your group was on top and then thrown into lower status position. This is obviously relevant for Iraq. It is also important to consider status in local community: do you get status by resisting?

There also need to be focal events, such as the Soviet crackdown on All Souls' Day in Lithuania, that get people to organize and resist.

There is also safety in numbers. Once you get a lot of +2 people, you get people willing to take even more risk and move to +3. For example, in Lithuania in 1943, draft resistors to the Soviet army were obviously especially motivated to resist. Youth fled into the woods, then went back to their communities. Their parents put pressure on other families who didn't have draft-age youth. So it led to a cascade effect. So a critical factor was the number of draft age youth. They spent a few years in a hole and that turned them into ideologues. The ideology followed their commitment.

Why did people stay and keep fighting against the Soviets in 1948-9? Because the organization developed the ability to threaten you. Also, there are irrational psychological mechanisms at work: the value of small victories; the tyranny of sunk costs (your friends died—it couldn't happen for nothing); wishful thinking ( Lithuania became independent in the past—maybe it could happen again). So there are three different paths to resistance.

What does this have to do with Iraq? What are the paths there towards these +2 insurgencies? What is driving Sunni resistance? The Kurds and Shia are happy. Right now it is the status reversal of the Sunnis that is driving the resistance.

Why was Muqtada al Sadr easily defeated? He didn't have any locally based organization. It was easy to wipe him out and identify who was supporting him. The major mechanism driving people is status reversal, cutting Baathists entirely out of the government and demobilization. This is the equivalent of the Lithuanians who saw no future in the state. It is the former regime elements who now have no future when they come back to their communities.

When they went back to the communities, what was the nature of their relationship with their communities? These are different from foreign fighters. They are relying on their tribes. Tribes were important under Saddam as sources of patronage and control.

What does the future hold? What are the tactics against the insurgency? The tactics are trying to crack down on the mechanisms. They want to reduce the status of being part of the rebellion. They are putting insurgents on television and humiliating them so people won't want to be associated with them. They are putting Sunnis in the government to lessen resentment about status loss. The insurgency cannot be "decapitated" because it is not centralized. If you kill a few cells, there are still others around. The psychological mechanisms are still around: the value of small victories (attacks everyday, played up in the media); tyranny of sunk costs (we've killed a lot of locals); wishful thinking (the Bin Laden world view).

I think the US will stay the course. As we put the Shia in power and give the Kurds virtual independence, there will not be resistance from them. There will be some Sunni resistance, but I think eventually we will get rid of this insurgency, though it will be an ugly and painful process.

Amnesties are another major way to reduce resistance. We might give the Sunnis power to give amnesties so that people can be re-integrated.

Associate Professor of Political Science. Professor Petersen studies comparative politics with a special focus on conflict and violence. He has written two books: Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, Resentment in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). He also has an interest in comparative method and has co-edited, with John Bowen, Critical Comparisons in Politics and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1999). He is currently researching war and violence in the Balkans, especially in Kosovo.

Rapporteur: Caitlin Talmadge

back to Seminar Summary, Spring 2005