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Understanding the Sunni Splits

3:58 PM, Jun 11, 2007 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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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.