Monday, September 1, 2008

There Will Be Blood

The U.S. is returning control of heavily-Sunni-dominated Anbar Province (and former Decline and Fall stomping ground) to the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government and hailing it as an example of the success of the "surge" in that area. While I am all for pulling our military out of Iraq as soon as possible, there's very little to be hopeful for in terms of Iraqi internal security in the short term, and there's no reason to attribute the significant downtick in violence in Anbar over the last year and a half to the troop surge, the vast majority of which was centered on Baghdad and the Diyala province.

Violence went down in Anbar because we started paying them, to the tune of $300 per month to more than 100,000 people, a somewhat substantial salary in a province where people still raise livestock in relatively dense urban areas, such as Fallujah and Ramadi. These payouts went to the Awakening groups, composed largely of former insurgents, many of whom had spent time in American-run prisons such as Abu Ghraib and Camp Cropper. The idea was that if the violence could be brought to a more manageable level, political space might open up for negotiations between the Maliki government and Sunni militants. That hasn't been so successful.

My guess is that life is about to get a lot worse for the average Anbar resident, because as soon as we remove ourselves from the area and/or stop cutting those Awakenings checks all bets are off. Maliki's government, widely considered illegitimate among Sunnis, has already started cracking down on Awakening movement members in and around Baghdad, driving them from their homes and arresting them. From the WaPo story:

Shiite officials have attacked the movement as illegitimate and have recently issued more than 650 arrest warrants for people in areas west of Baghdad to shut the movement down.

Abu Zakaria, an Awakening leader, said the move by the Iraqi Army could destroy the security gains in the province.

"We don't want to see al-Qaeda come back but if this keeps happening we will be in serious danger of seeing an explosion of attacks," he said.

In western Baghdad's Abu Ghraib district, members of the Awakening have fled their homes and their posts to avoid capture. Residents said that violence has recently spiked and members of the Sunni insurgent group Al-Qaeda in Iraq have returned.
In other words, the negotiations went nowhere, and the U.S. has just handed the central Iraqi government a geographically enormous area populated by well-armed, well-organized and U.S.-legitimated domestic enemies. The American hope that these "former" insurgents would be absorbed into the Iraqi military has been dashed by Maliki, who can't afford to (and isn't inclined to) bring them all under the umbrella of a legitimate Iraqi military and/or police force. In the interest of short-term security gains (laudable as those might be, especially for the servicemembers deployed there) America funded, armed, trainedand granted legitimacy to an enormous faction of internal dissidents with a proven record of violence and (somewhat understandable) hostility to the Iraqi central government.

When I was in Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar, I met many of these so-called "Sons of Iraq" and observed hundreds of them in their daily jobs. What I saw was a group of people divided between their tribal loyalties (tribes are still the dominant form of social and political organization in Anbar, and the Awakening movement's success can be greatly attributed to the cooperation of Tribal Sheikhs, who simply ordered members of their tribes to join the Awakening, sometimes personally delivering them to recruitment centers)and their still-seething hatred for America, Iraqi Shi'a and the Maliki government. Sometimes it was unmistakable: the cold hatred I saw in the eyes of many "Sons of Iraq" toward me seemed to say, "if I had my way I would have killed you by now." I was not reassured by the fact that so many of them were armed with loaded AK-47s. These were many of the same people who had fought tenaciously against U.S. forces as recently as the year before in Fallujah and elsewhere, and old grudges die hard.

Caught in the middle of all this is the vast majority of people in Anbar who never explicitly sided with the insurgents or supported their operations only tacitly and out of fear. As the Iraqi Military, Police and Ministry of Interior expands into Anbar, the most likely outcome will be sectarian repression, mass arrests and attempts to wrest power from Tribal Sheikhs. Any of these would be enough to spark a return to 2004-2006 levels of violence, and soon there will be few U.S. troops to provide any counterbalance.

Again, I'm glad our servicemembers are being taken out of harm's way in Iraq; and it's about time we refocused on Afghanistan, which wehad a legitimate reason to invade. But get ready for the proverbial rivers of blood. Bribing insurgents was short-sighted and irresponsible, because no thoughtful analysis could conclude that those people's motivation for laying down their arms (then picking up ours) was a desire to see the Maliki government succeed. (I don't know if those payments are set to stop, but even if they continue tensions are likely to boil over.) They are still as concerned with resisting the central government as they ever were, and almost no one in Anbar believes the Sunnis are going to get a fair shake in Iraqi politics without forcing Maliki's hand. If anything, our policies made the long-term problem worse: they're better-trained, better-organized, and have a patina of respectability now.

I sincerely hope this doesn't come about, and that Maliki and the Sunni Sheikhs find a way to work together. History doesn't give us much reason for hope, however. These are people fighting for power in an internal struggle that American policy created and exacerbated through policies that paid scant attention to the underlying causes of sectarian violence in Anbar and elsewhere. Remember that as U.S. officials pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

(Cross-posted at Decline and Fall.)