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Understanding the Sunni Splits

3:58 PM, Jun 11, 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.

The article in the Washington Post mentions that we're negotiating with elements of the 1920s Brigades. For background on those guys, see this link. These are real, hard-core Sunni insurgent types. I'm very surprised that any of them are willing to talk to us. That's really quite an accomplishment. More to the point, I hadn't heard that they were having any difficulty arming themselves. It's not as though we're taking people off the streets and giving them weapons to form a militia. As far as I can tell, we've got two kinds of people coming into the fold: people of all kinds of backgrounds formally entering the Iraqi Security Forces through one of several ways in Anbar--amounting to 12,000 since the beginning of the year according to a recent briefing by General Odierno--and former insurgents who had been using weapons of some kind to kill us (else they couldn't have "blood on their hands" of any variety) who are now fighting with us instead of against us. In the one case, the fighting organizations are at least quasi-official and nominally under government control (which is not true, by the way, of the Jaysh al Mahdi or the Badr Corps). In the other case, we're turning already-armed insurgents around, taking biometric data, and giving them new weapons (whose serial numbers we keep). Is there risk involved? Of course. But the articles dramatically overstate the degree to which we are "forming" any new Sunni militia outside government control.

On the other hand, I'm sure that a lot of senior (and junior) Shia in the government are worried about this. And long-term success will require disarming all extra-governmental armed groups and ensuring that the nominally governmental groups being formed in Anbar become integrated into the ISF and come under real government control--which will require the government to reach out, and so on. But these developments are all steps in the right direction, not steps backward--it is a perfectly logical progression from insurgent to fighter against AQ to former insurgent, even for people who do not formally join governmental militias. And the Anbaris who are joining through normal recruiting processes are obviously on the right road to working with the government rather than against it. The trick is to keep moving forward and not to abandon the strategy that has gotten us in five months what four years of the previous strategy (to which the domestic U.S. opposition wishes to return) could not accomplish at all.

Concerning the possible fragmentation of the Anbar Salvation Council, the rest of the article in which this trend was reported casts considerable doubt on the significance of this warning. It may be that a reorganization is underway, which wouldn't surprise me; and in any reorganization, the guys on the outs will make it sound as bad as possible. The Sunni tribes in Anbar do not all love each other and never have, and the politics are complex. The questions are: 1) Does the reorganization actually happen? 2) Does the organization fall apart or simply change? 3) Does it or some successor organizations continue to work with us against al Qaeda?

All the trends within the Sunni community point to good answers to the last question. This report could be a bad sign, could be wrong, or could be a harbinger of a relatively unimportant development. We must stop reacting to word of every change, and to initial word of various disasters, with complete credulity and terror. Many initial reports coming out of the Iraqi political process are wrong, either because the people making them are ill-informed or because they are trying to spin various audiences (including us). Time will tell where the Anbar Awakening is heading; so far, it is heading very much in the right direction.

All of these stories, by the way, underline how incredibly important it is for us to be there and to be taking an active role, as we are now doing. We are serving as the bridge between the Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders and the Shi'a government. Before the end of last year, there were virtually no Sunnis willing to step on that bridge. Now, five months into the surge, tens of thousands are walking on it. It will take time to get them all the way to the other side, and it is possible that the Shia government will ultimately make it impossible. But one thing is certain: if we pull out now or abandon the current approach, the bridge collapses and it's the end of the story. But make no mistake about it: this is a strategy for success, if it works. We get them to start by working with us against a common enemy (can you believe it--AQ is the common enemy between us and the Sunni Arab community?), then we work to gain their trust, then we work to make the current government comfortable dealing with former insurgents (and almost any government would be initially resistant, by the way, to negotiate with former rebels), then we work to transfer the insurgents' trust in us to trust in the government, and work to make that trust reciprocal and permanent. It will take time and good fortune and hard work, and it may fail. In the meantime, violence is way down in Anbar and people who had been our sworn enemies are now swearing to fight al Qaeda both in Anbar and in Baghdad. Any objective observer would see these for the positive signs that they are.