January 25, 2008
The gist of Mark Perry's spellbinding two-part article in the AsiaTimes online (as far as Iraq itself is concerned) is this: Starting in 2003, US military officers on the ground started meeting with, and trying to work out cooperative arrangements with, Iraqis who needed help in fighting off the Wahhabi fundamentalists aka AlQaeda who were flooding the country after the fall of Saddam.
The efforts of these officers were opposed by the White House. Finally in 2005 one such cooperative effort went ahead anyway, involving cooperation between a Marine unit and Sunni leaders fighting AlQaeda in Falluja. That example of cooperation, with the support of "a tight circle of Pentagon civilian advisers around Rumsfeld", was eventually made the model for the Awakening Council strategy in Anbar province. A later attempt to expand this to areas south of Baghdad ran into trouble when a bomb blast at a meeting at the Mansour Hotel in the GreenZone killed many of that scheme's tribal supporters. But the strategy went ahead, including in Babil province, where the provincial government is Shiite, and including also an agreement with the multi-area Janabi tribe.
So the general approach is continuing, but at same time, this brings with it the realization that (1) If it is a sound strategy, even for the short term, then there was no reason not to have implemented it five years ago; and (2) If the best available strategy now seems to be to ally with Iraqi nationalists fighting AlQaeda, and this could have been implemented five years ago, but for the White House ideologues, this raises the next level of questions, or as Mark Perry puts it, continuing his summary of the thinking of the military officers involved:
All of which raises the question of whether the United States should have invaded Iraq in the first place, an issue that is becoming more pertinent to military officers who view the American adventure in Iraq as a political and military failure. In a nutshell, from the military-operations point of view, the learning curve has been this: (1) The White House opposed any and all deals with Iraqi leaders even if it meant joining hands with Iraqis to fight AlQaeda; (2) now that White House opposition to that strategy has been reversed, and the strategy is showing dramatic short-term results, the question they are raising is this: Why not have done that initially, and in fact, if the key was to ally with Iraqis in fighting AlQaeda, why did we invade in order to fight these people in the first place?
I have left out, in this account of Mark Perry's story, a lot of the detail and the color, and I have also left out all of the extremely interesting intra-military debates, and for that there is no alternative but to read the articles from beginning to end, and carefully, a couple of times, to let the enormity of what has been done to the American military really sink in. It is a colossal story in itself.
But back to the question of recent Iraqi history. I have some comments on the story of how American strategy has played out in Iraq, as a result of a year and a half of reading accounts of this from the Arab-press side. In a nutshell:
Perry tells of obstruction from the White House (Bremer, Rice, and others) to deals of any kind with the Sunni tribes in the period from 2003 to 2005 or -06. Then deals of that type started being okayed. This is presented as essentially a case of obstruction by ignorant ideologues, eventually overcome in a process that could be called a victory for practical common-sense, or some such expression. Perry's story includes no particular motivation for the change to the Awakening strategy. It was merely that the merits of the idea gradually came to be unarguable.
The prevailing Iraqi view of this is quite different. American strategy starting in 2003 was to use Shiite groups to harass the remnants of the Baath regime and their sympathizers (aka the Iraqi national resistance, but which was and is in fact much broader than that), and anyone shooting at US troops was either in that class or AlQaeda. Hence the logic of the "no deals" prohibition. Then at some time in 2005 or 2006, partly in the face of growing disaffection on the part of the Saudis and others, and partly from concern about Maliki's ties to Tehran, there had to be a tilt to the Sunnis, hence the decision to enlist Sunni groups, in order to, among other things, act as a counterweight to the sectarian Shiite power. In other words, so far this has been a two-act occupation, first helping Shiites harass Sunnis, then in a second stage helping Sunnis deter Shiites. There are many provisos and nuances, but essentially this is the Iraqi story: This was from the beginning a sectarian strategy, with a shift sometime in 2005 or -06 from anti-Sunni/pro-Shiite to anti-Shiite/pro-Sunni, in terms of the overall weight of American military influence. The weight of the American alliances shifted, but this had nothing to do with "learning about Iraq", and everything to do with keeping the divide-and-conquer ball rolling.
The fact that there was a learning-curve-type struggle to okay this particular form of a tilt to the Sunnis doesn't mean that the tilt to the Sunnis "just happened". There is an ongoing US policy, which is a sectarian policy, and in the carrying out of that policy, this Awakening Council strategy was obviously seen as the way forward. There are two stories here: The story of the officers' struggles to get common-sense policies okayed; and the story of the sectarian US policy. They are two different stories. Mark Perry has given us a lot of the first story from the point of view of the common-sense of the officers on the ground. But the second story, from the point of view of the common sense of Iraqis, hasn't sunk in at all as far as the anglosphere is concerned.
And the reason why the two stories don't easily fit together is this: In the American mind, there was never any concept of Iraq, or of fighting in Iraq, other than the sectarian one. "Iraq" was always "Sunna versus Shiia". So any strategy, or any concepts at all respecting the country, had to start from one side or the other. Why this has been the case is another story, but it is a fact. And consequently, the idea of allying with "Iraqis"--even if it meant in a common fight against the Wahhabi fundamentalists--wasn't on. It would have meant allying with "Sunnis", at a time when we were trying to help the underdog "Shia" get out from under their yoke. It was one against the other; there was no concept of an "Iraqi".
And as Mark Perry points out, once people in the military realized that they could profitably ally with Sunni tribes in defending against AlQaeda, this immediately started to bring down the whole ideological house of cards: (1) Some Iraqis care about their country as a whole, and (2) why exactly did we take these same people to be our enemy in the first place. Not that good for morale, Perry notes.
I am sure that the story Mark Perry tells is exactly what happened, from the vantage-point of the US military officers on the ground in Iraq and those responsible for them. And as I said, the effects of this on the US military are a story that bears a couple of careful readings, a period of reflection, and then another reading. Because perhaps on the third reading you will begin to ask yourself why this story has taken so long to be told.
But from the point of view of Iraq, it isn't the whole story, and I don't think it is necessarily even the most important part of the story from their point of view.