The Blog

Sunni Skies Ahead?

Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgents are turning against al Qaeda, and that's not a bad thing.

12:00 AM, Jun 12, 2007 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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SEVERAL ARTICLES IN the news in the past few days have raised questions about the success and even the wisdom of American efforts to turn former insurgents--and Iraq's Sunni Arab population in general--into allies against al Qaeda. Stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times highlighted the risks of this approach, and also made a number of assertions about the supposed "failures" of the Baghdad Security Plan that require a response.

John F. Burns and Alissa Rubin make a number of such assertions that need to be addressed in today's Times under the title "U.S. Arming Sunnis in Iraq to Battle Old Qaeda Allies":

1. This article notes that suicide bombings have dropped in Baghdad (and risen elsewhere) as evidence of the failure of the effort. We must remember that it is called the Baghdad Security Plan, not the Iraq Security Plan. If bombings are dropping in Baghdad, which the administration, General Petraeus, and everyone else who supported this proposal identified as the center of gravity--as the capital is home to roughly a quarter of Iraq's population--then the Baghdad Security Plan is working. No one imagined or promised that 30,000 troops would get the whole country under control in four months.

2. No one imagined or promised that the plan would work even in Baghdad in just four months. Saying that the plan has "failed so far to fulfill the aim of bringing enhanced stability to Baghdad" is both inappropriate and wrong. It is inappropriate because the plan is just starting to take full effect. It is wrong because both sectarian killings and, apparently from this article, suicide bombings are down in Baghdad. How is that failing to bring "enhanced stability" to the capital?

3. Burns and Rubin say, "An initial decline in sectarian killings in Baghdad in the first two months of the troop buildup has reversed, with growing numbers of bodies showing up each day in the capital." Actually, killings were down for the first four months of the buildup, not two. More bodies were found in the first two weeks of May, although a number were found in neighborhoods we had not been in and which were in advanced states of decay. General Petraeus noted recently that killings in the third week of May were back down. The rise in killings has brought the level back to one-half of what it had been before the surge (up from one-third). And we must remember that the figures were climbing steadily month-to-month at the end of 2006. It would have been an accomplishment to hold them steady; it is a major accomplishment to be keeping them at the current level. This article does not provide a source or attribution for this assertion, but elsewhere it appears that people are using figures from the Baghdad morgue, frequently reported through anonymous sources in the Interior Ministry. These are very unreliable reports, and the language is almost always "x bodies showed up at the morgue, many showing signs of torture." When the U.S. military makes its reports, they are very specific because our soldiers recognize the precise techniques that sectarian killers use and eyeball and count every body. That is why these reports are more consistent and reliable than vague and imprecise numbers being funneled via anonymous sources who likely have an axe to grind.

4. Finally, it apparently bears endless repeating that the last surge unit has only just arrived, that it is going into vital areas, that it takes anywhere from 30 to 60 days for a newly arrived unit to reach full effectiveness, and that this is why General Petraeus is waiting until September to offer a preliminary evaluation of progress on security. We can desire and wish for earlier reports all we want, but any evaluations of this plan at this stage is simply premature.

Stories on the negotiations with former insurgents have focused on two problems: first, that it is a dangerous approach that could backfire, and, second, that the Anbar Salvation Council is already falling apart. Let's consider the first, and most serious, assertion.

To begin with, the most important news is that AQ's former allies are turning against it, a very positive fact.