Update from AIJAC
April 12, 2007
Number 04/07 #02
This Update features some new accounts of the situation inside Iraq as the troop “surge” starts to become significant.
The first report comes from top Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, who presents a long analysis of the findings of his recent trip to Baghdad and other critical parts of Iraq. He argues the Shiites are growing into their role as the new governing majority, and starting to repudiate their extremists, while Sunnis are beginning to accept their changed circumstances and looking to the Americans as protectors against unrestrained Shiite hegemony. He also sees signs of hope on the streets of Baghdad and to read all of his many observations, CLICK HERE.
Next, two veteran Iraq observers, Bing and Owen West, report on the situation in Anbar province, once the heartland of the insurgency, now the site of growing clashes between Sunni tribal leaders and al-Qaeda linked terrorists and insurgents. They chart the disillusionment of the tribes with the thuggish behaviour of al-Qaeda, their appreciation of American military and civil efforts, and their growing willingness to supply both information to the US and recruits to the Iraqi Army and police. For more on the positive, though as yet not decisive, trends in Anbar, CLICK HERE.
Finally, historian Arthur Herman uses both the American experience in Vietnam and the French experience in Algeria to counter the common belief that insurgencies cannot be defeated. He shows that the current American strategy in Iraq is adopting the lessons of both those episodes, and has every chance of gradually succeeding, despite past mistakes, but argues that the danger of loss comes from lack of political support, as in both those earlier cases. For his explanation of how Iraq can be won, and also lost, CLICK HERE.
In Washington, panic. In Baghdad, cautious optimism.
BY FOUAD AJAMI
Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, April 11, 2007
BAGHDAD–For 35 years the sun did not shine here,” said a man on the grounds of the great Shia shrine of al-Kadhimiyyah, on the outskirts of Baghdad. I had come to the shrine at night, in the company of the Shia politician Ahmed Chalabi.
We had driven in an armed convoy, and our presence had drawn a crowd. The place was bathed with light, framed by multiple minarets–a huge rectangular structure, its beauty and dereliction side by side. The tile work was exquisite, there were deep Persian carpets everywhere, the gifts of benefactors, rulers and merchants, drawn from the world of Shi’ism.
It was a cool spring night, and beguilingly tranquil. (There were the echoes of a firefight across the river, from the Sunni neighborhood of al-Adhamiyyah, but it was background noise and oddly easy to ignore.) A keeper of the shrine had been showing us the place, and he was proud of its doors made of teak from Burma–a kind of wood, he said, that resisted rain, wind and sun. It was to that description that the quiet man on the edge of this gathering had offered the thought that the sun had not risen during the long night of Baathist despotism.
A traveler who moves between Baghdad and Washington is struck by the gloomy despair in Washington and the cautious sense of optimism in Baghdad. Baghdad has not been prettified; its streets remain a sore to the eye, its government still hunkered down in the Green Zone, and violence is never far. But the sense of deliverance, and the hopes invested in this new security plan, are palpable. I crisscrossed the city–always with armed protection–making my way to Sunni and Shia politicians and clerics alike. The Sunni and Shia versions of political things–of reality itself–remain at odds. But there can be discerned, through the acrimony, the emergence of a fragile consensus.
Some months back, the Bush administration had called into question both the intentions and capabilities of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But this modest and earnest man, born in 1950, a child of the Shia mainstream in the Middle Euphrates, has come into his own. He had not been a figure of the American regency in Baghdad. Steeped entirely in the Arabic language and culture, he had a been a stranger to the Americans; fate cast him on the scene when the Americans pushed aside Mr. Maliki’s colleague in the Daawa Party, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari.
There had been rumors that the Americans could strike again in their search for a leader who would give the American presence better cover. There had been steady talk that the old CIA standby, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, could make his way back to power. Mr. Allawi himself had fed these speculations, but this is fantasy. Mr. Allawi circles Arab capitals and is rarely at home in his country. Mr. Maliki meanwhile has settled into his role.
In retrospect, the defining moment for Mr. Maliki had been those early hours of Dec. 30, when Saddam Hussein was sent to the gallows. He had not flinched, the decision was his, and he assumed it. Beyond the sound and fury of the controversy that greeted the execution, Mr. Maliki had taken the execution as a warrant for a new accommodation with the Sunni political class. A lifelong opponent of the Baath, he had come to the judgment that the back of the apparatus of the old regime had been broken, and that the time had come for an olive branch to those ready to accept the new political rules.
When I called on Mr. Maliki at his residence, a law offering pensions to the former officers of the Iraqi army had been readied and was soon put into effect. That decision had been supported by the head of the de-Baathification commission, Ahmed Chalabi. A proposal for a deeper reversal of the de-Baathification process was in the works, and would be announced days later by Mr. Maliki and President Jalal Talabani. This was in truth Zalmay Khalilzad’s doing, his attempt to bury the entire de-Baathification effort as his tenure drew to a close.
This was more than the political traffic in the Shia community could bear. Few were ready to accept the return of old Baathists to government service. The victims of the old terror were appalled at a piece of this legislation, giving them a period of only three months to bring charges against their former tormentors. This had not been Mr. Maliki’s choice–for his animus toward the Baath has been the driving force of his political life. It was known that he trusted that the religious hierarchy in Najaf, and the forces within the Shia alliance, would rein in this drive toward rehabilitating the remnants of the old regime.
Power and experience have clearly changed Mr. Maliki as he makes his way between the Shia coalition that sustains him on the one hand, and the American presence on the other. By all accounts, he is increasingly independent of the diehards in his own coalition–another dividend of the high-profile executions of Saddam Hussein and three of the tyrant’s principal lieutenants. He is surrounded by old associates drawn from the Daawa Party, but keeps his own counsel.
There is a built-in tension between a prime minister keen to press for his own prerogatives and an American military presence that underpins the security of this new order. Mr. Maliki does not have the access to American military arms he would like; he does not have control over an Iraqi special-forces brigade that the Americans had trained and nurtured. His police forces remain poorly equipped. The levers of power are not fully his, and he knows it. Not a student of American ways–he spent his years of exile mostly in Syria–he is fully aware of the American exhaustion with Iraq as leading American politicians have come his way often.
The nightmare of this government is that of a precipitous American withdrawal. Six months ago, the British quit the southern city of Amarrah, the capital of the Maysan Province. It had been, by Iraqi accounts, a precipitous British decision, and the forces of Moqtada al-Sadr had rushed into the void; they had looted the barracks and overpowered the police. Amarrah haunts the Iraqis in the circle of power–the prospect of Americans leaving this government to fend for itself.
In the long scheme of history, the Shia Arabs had never governed–and Mr. Maliki and the coalition arrayed around him know their isolation in the region. This Iraqi state of which they had become the principal inheritors will have to make its way in a hostile regional landscape. Set aside Turkey’s Islamist government, with its avowedly Sunni mindset and its sense of itself as a claimant to an older Ottoman tradition; the Arab order of power is yet to make room for this Iraqi state. Mr. Maliki’s first trip beyond Iraq’s borders had been to Saudi Arabia. He had meant that visit as a message that Iraq’s “Arab identity” will trump all other orientations. It had been a message that the Arab world’s Shia stepchildren were ready to come into the fold. But a huge historical contest had erupted in Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid caliphate had fallen to new Shia inheritors, and the custodians of Arab power were not yet ready for this new history.
For one, the “Sunni street”–the Islamists, the pan-Arabists who hid their anti-Shia animus underneath a secular cover, the intellectual class that had been invested in the ideology of the Baath party–remained unalterably opposed to this new Iraq. The Shia could offer the Arab rulers the promise that their new state would refrain from regional adventures, but it would not be easy for these rulers to come to this accommodation.
A worldly Shia cleric, the legislator Humam Hamoudi who had headed the constitutional drafting committee, told me that he had laid out to interlocutors from the House of Saud the case that this new Iraqi state would be a better neighbor than the Sunni-based state of Saddam Hussein had been. “We would not be given to military adventures beyond our borders, what wealth we have at our disposal would have to go to repairing our homeland, for you we would be easier to fend off for we are Shiites and would be cognizant and respectful of the differences between us,” Mr. Hamoudi had said. “You had a fellow Sunni in Baghdad for more than three decades, and look what terrible harvest, what wreckage, he left behind.” This sort of appeal is yet to be heard, for this change in Baghdad is a break with a long millennium of Sunni Arab primacy.
The blunt truth of this new phase in the fight for Iraq is that the Sunnis have lost the battle for Baghdad. The great flight from Baghdad to Jordan, to Syria, to other Arab destinations, has been the flight of Baghdad’s Sunni middle-class. It is they who had the means of escape, and the savings.
Whole mixed districts in the city–Rasafa, Karkh–have been emptied of their Sunni populations. Even the old Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyyah is embattled and besieged. What remains for the Sunnis are the western outskirts. This was the tragic logic of the campaign of terror waged by the Baathists and the jihadists against the Shia; this was what played out in the terrible year that followed the attack on the Askariya shrine of Samarra in February 2006. Possessed of an old notion of their own dominion, and of Shia passivity and quiescence, the Sunni Arabs waged a war they were destined to lose.
No one knows with any precision the sectarian composition of today’s Baghdad, but there are estimates that the Sunnis may now account for 15% of the city’s population. Behind closed doors, Sunni leaders speak of the great calamity that befell their community. They admit to a great disappointment in the Arab states that fed the flames but could never alter the contest on the ground in Iraq. No Arab cavalry had ridden, or was ever going to ride, to the rescue of the Sunnis of Iraq.
A cultured member of the (Sunni) Association of Muslim Scholars in Baghdad, a younger man of deep moderation, likened the dilemma of his community to that of the Palestinian Arabs since 1948. “They waited for deliverance that never came,” he said. “Like them, we placed our hopes in Arab leaders who have their own concerns. We fell for those Arab satellite channels, we believed that Arab brigades would turn up in Anbar and Baghdad. We made room for al Qaeda only to have them turn on us in Anbar.” There had once been a Sunni maxim in Iraq, “for us ruling and power, for you self-flagellation,” that branded the Shia as a people of sorrow and quietism. Now the ground has shifted, and among the Sunnis there is a widespread sentiment of disinheritance and loss.
The Mahdi Army, more precisely the underclass of Sadr City, had won the fight for Baghdad. This Shia underclass had been hurled into the city from its ancestral lands in the Marshes and the Middle Euphrates. In a cruel twist of irony, Baathist terror had driven these people into the slums of Baghdad. The Baathist tyranny had cut down the palm trees in the south, burned the reed beds of the Marshes. Then the campaign of terror that Sunni society sheltered and abetted in the aftermath of the despot’s fall gave the Mahdi Army its cause and its power.
“The Mahdi Army protected us and our lands, our homes, and our honor,” said a tribal Shia notable in a meeting in Baghdad, acknowledging that it was perhaps time for the boys of Moqtada al-Sadr to step aside in favor of the government forces. He laid bare, as he spoke, the terrible complications of this country; six of his sisters, he said, were married to Sunnis, countless nephews of his were Sunni. Violence had hacked away at this pluralism; no one could be certain when, and if, the place could mend.
In their grief, the Sunni Arabs have fallen back on the most unexpected of hopes; having warred against the Americans, they now see them as redeemers. “This government is an American creation,” a powerful Sunni legislator, Saleh al-Mutlak, said. “It is up to the Americans to replace it, change the constitution that was imposed on us, replace this incompetent, sectarian government with a government of national unity, a cabinet of technocrats.” Shrewd and alert to the ways of the world (he has a Ph.D. in soil science from a university in the U.K.) Mr. Mutlak gave voice to a wider Sunni conviction that this order in Baghdad is but an American puppet. America and Iran may be at odds in the region, but the Sunni Arabs see an American-Persian conspiracy that had robbed them of their patrimony.
They had made their own bed, the Sunni Arabs, but old habits of dominion die hard, and save but for a few, there is precious little acknowledgment of the wages of the terror that the Shia had been subjected to in the years that followed the American invasion. As matters stand, the Sunni Arabs are in desperate need of leaders who can call off the violence, cut a favorable deal for their community, and distance that community form the temptations and the ruin of the insurgency. It is late in the hour, but there is still eagerness in the Maliki government to conciliate the Sunnis, if only to give the country a chance at normalcy.
The Shia have come into their own, but there still hovers over them their old history of dispossession; there still trails shadows of doubt about their hold on power, about conspiracies hatched against them in neighboring Arab lands.
The Americans have given birth to this new Shia primacy, but there lingers a fear, in the inner circles of the Shia coalition, that the Americans have in mind a Sunni-based army, of the Pakistani and Turkish mold, that would upend the democratic, majoritarian bases of power on which Shia primacy rests. They are keenly aware, these new Shia men of power in Baghdad, that the Pax Americana in the region is based on an alliance of long standing with the Sunni regimes. They are under no illusions about their own access to Washington when compared with that of Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and the smaller principalities of the Persian Gulf. This suspicion is in the nature of things; it is the way of once marginal men who had come into an unexpected triumph.
In truth, it is not only the Arab order of power that remains ill at ease with the rise of the Shia of Iraq. The (Shia) genie that came out of the bottle was not fully to America’s liking. Indeed, the U.S. strategy in Iraq had tried to sidestep the history that America itself had given birth to. There had been the disastrous regency of Paul Bremer. It had been followed by the attempt to create a national security state under Ayad Allawi. Then there had come the strategy of the American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, that aimed to bring the Sunni leadership into the political process and wean them away from the terror and the insurgency.
Mr. Khalilzad had become, in his own sense of himself, something of a High Commissioner in Iraq, and his strategy had ended in failure; the Sunni leaders never broke with the insurgency. Their sobriety of late has been a function of the defeat their cause has suffered on the ground; all the inducements had not worked.
We are now in a new, and fourth, phase of this American presence. We should not try to “cheat” in the region, conceal what we had done, or apologize for it, by floating an Arab-Israeli peace process to the liking of the “Sunni street.”
The Arabs have an unerring feel for the ways of strangers who venture into their lands. Deep down, the Sunni Arabs know what the fight for Baghdad is all about–oil wealth and power, the balance between the Sunni edifice of material and moral power and the claims of the Shia stepchildren. To this fight, Iran is a newcomer, an outlier. This is an old Arab account, the fight between the order of merchants and rulers and establishment jurists on the one side, and the righteous (Shia) oppositionists on the other. How apt it is that the struggle that had been fought on the plains of Karbala in southern Iraq so long ago has now returned, full circle, to Iraq.
For our part, we can’t give full credence to the Sunni representations of things. We can cushion the Sunni defeat but can’t reverse it. Our soldiers have not waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against Sunni extremists to fall for the fear of some imagined “Shia crescent” peddled by Sunni rulers and preachers. To that atavistic fight between Sunni and Shia, we ought to remain decent and discerning arbiters. To be sure, in Iraq itself we can’t give a blank check to Shia maximalism. On its own, mainstream Shi’ism is eager to rein in its own diehards and self-anointed avengers.
There is a growing Shia unease with the Mahdi Army–and with the venality and incompetence of the Sadrists represented in the cabinet–and an increasing faith that the government and its instruments of order are the surer bet. The crackdown on the Mahdi Army that the new American commander, Gen. David Petraeus, has launched has the backing of the ruling Shia coalition. Iraqi police and army units have taken to the field against elements of the Mahdi army. In recent days, in the southern city of Diwaniyya, American and Iraqi forces have together battled the forces of Moqtada al-Sadr. To the extent that the Shia now see Iraq as their own country, their tolerance for mayhem and chaos has receded. Sadr may damn the American occupiers, but ordinary Shia men and women know that the liberty that came their way had been a gift of the Americans.
The young men of little education–earnest displaced villagers with the ways of the countryside showing through their features and dialect and shiny suits–who guarded me through Baghdad, spoke of old terrors, and of the joy and dignity of this new order. Children and nephews and younger brothers of men lost to the terror of the Baath, they are done with the old servitude. They behold the Americans keeping the peace of their troubled land with undisguised gratitude. It hasn’t been always brilliant, this campaign waged in Iraq. But its mistakes can never smother its honor, and no apology for it is due the Arab autocrats who had averted their gaze from Iraq’s long night of terror under the Baath.
One can never reconcile the beneficiaries of illegitimate, abnormal power to the end of their dominion. But this current re-alignment in Iraq carries with it a gift for the possible redemption of modern Islam among the Arabs. Hitherto Sunni Islam had taken its hegemony for granted and extremist strands within it have shown a refusal to accept “the other.” Conversely, Shia history has been distorted by weakness and exclusion and by a concomitant abdication of responsibility.
A Shia-led state in Baghdad–with a strong Kurdish presence in it and a big niche for the Sunnis–can go a long way toward changing the region’s terrible habits and expectations of authority and command. The Sunnis would still be hegemonic in the Arab councils of power beyond Iraq, but their monopoly would yield to the pluralism and complexity of that region.
“Watch your adjectives” is the admonition given American officers by Gen. Petraeus. In Baghdad, Americans and Iraqis alike know that this big endeavor has entered its final, decisive phase. Iraq has surprised and disappointed us before, but as they and we watch our adjectives there can be discerned the shape of a new country, a rough balance of forces commensurate with the demography of the place and with the outcome of a war that its erstwhile Sunni rulers had launched and lost. We made this history and should now make our peace with it.
Mr. Ajami, a 2006 recipient of the Bradley Prize, teaches at Johns Hopkins and is author of “The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq” (Free Press, 2006).
Sunni tribes battle al Qaeda terrorists in the insurgency’s stronghold
BY BING WEST AND OWEN WEST
Wall Street Journal, Thursday, April 5, 2007
ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq–Last fall, President Bush, citing the violence in Baghdad, said that the U.S. strategy in Iraq was “slowly failing.” At that time, though, more Americans were dying in Anbar Province, stronghold of the Sunni insurgency. About the size of Utah, Anbar has the savagery, lawlessness and violence of America’s Wild West in the 1870s. The two most lethal cities in Iraq are Fallujah and Ramadi, and the 25-mile swath of farmlands between them is Indian Country.
Imagine the surprise of the veteran Iraqi battalion last November when a young sheik, leader of a local tribe outside Ramadi, offered to point out the insurgents hiding in his hometown. “We have decided that by helping you,” he said, “we are helping God.”
For years, the tribes had supported the insurgents who claimed to be waging jihad. Now, citing the same religion, a tribe wanted to switch sides. Col. Mohammed, the battalion commander, accepted the offer. “The irhabi (terrorists) call themselves martyrs. They are liars,” he said. “I lost a soldier and when I pulled off his armor, there was the blood of a martyr.”
With Iraqi soldiers and Marines providing protection, the sheik and his tribesmen rolled through town, pointing at various men. The sweep netted 30 insurgents, including “Abu Muslim,” who was wanted for the murder of a jundi (Iraqi soldier). “He was just standing there waving at us with all the others,” one jundi said during the minor celebration at the detention facility.
Six months ago, American intelligence reports about Anbar were dire. Although the Marines won the firefights, insurgents controlled the population–the classic guerrilla pattern. Among the groups, the extremists called al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had achieved dominance. In 2004, AQI briefly held Fallujah, where they whipped teenagers who talked back, bludgeoned women who wore lipstick and beheaded “collaborators”–hapless passersby and truckers. AQI preached a persuasive message: Our way or the grave.
In Anbar, AQI became the occupier, shaking down truck drivers and extorting shop owners. In the young sheik’s zone, AQI controlled the fuel market. Each month, 10 trucks with 80,000 gallons of heavily subsidized gasoline and five trucks with kerosene were due to arrive. Instead, AQI diverted most shipments to Jordan or Syria where prices were higher, netting $10,000 per shipment and antagonizing 30,000 shivering townspeople. No local cop dared to make an arrest. The tribal power structure, built over centuries, was shoved aside. Sheiks who objected were shot or blown up, while others fled.
In late 2005, acceptably-trained Iraqi battalions began to join the persistent Americans in Anbar. AQI resorted to suicide attacks and roadside bombs, and avoided direct fights. Sub-tribes began to kill AQI members in retaliation for individual crimes, and discovered that AQI was ruthless, but not tough. Near the Syrian border, an entire tribe joined forces with the Marines and drove AQI from the city of al Qaim.
By the fall of 2006 AQI had become the oppressor, careless in its destructive swath, while the American and Iraqi forces persisted with their mix of force of arms and civil engagement. When an AQI suicide car bomb attacked an Anbar market in November, killing a Marine and nine civilians, the Marine battalion commander and his Iraqi counterpart offered medical care at the local clinic for the entire town, including the first gynecological examinations many local women had seen. This was not an isolated event, and the people noticed.
With a war-weary population buoying them, 25 of the 31 Anbar sub-tribes have pledged to fight the insurgents over the past five months, sending thousands of tribesmen into the police and army. Led by Sheik Abu Sittar, who has called this an “awakening,” the tribes believed they were joining the winners.
Politics in Baghdad have swirled around reinstating former Baathists to their prior jobs, thereby supposedly diminishing the insurgency. The central government, though, has given Anbar such paltry funds that jobs are scant, Baathist or not. In Anbar, reconciliation theories count far less than that eternal adage: Show me the money.
When the sheiks delivered thousands of police recruits, they consolidated their patrimonial power by providing jobs, plus pocketing a fee rumored at $400 paid by each recruit. The tribal police then provided security that permitted American civic action projects profitable to contractors connected, of course, to the sheiks. Our Congress has just appropriated an emergency supplemental for our troops that included millions to grow spinach and store peanuts; in Anbar, the sheiks are filling potholes that can conceal IEDs.
There remain problems that require military solutions, however. Neither the coalition nor the Iraqi government is prepared to imprison the sharp increase in killers like Abu Muslim who are being netted in the surge in Baghdad and the tribal awakening in Anbar. No one wants to take the heat from the mainstream press that would accompany the construction of prisons and the indefinite incarceration of several tens of thousands of insurgents.
In response to the 2003 abuses at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military and the Iraqi government instituted a catch-and-release system that Sweden would find too liberal. Unlike uniformed prisoners who in past wars were held until the war was over, in Iraq most detainees are released within a few months. To some, this represents a scrupulous adherence to the rule of law, with every insurgent provided the right of habeas corpus.
To the sheiks, it is both naïve and deadly. The Iraqi judicial system in Anbar is nonexistent. Locals are quick to relate stories of killers who returned to murder those who snitched. So it’s no surprise that while most insurgents are arrested, some simply disappear. The American command in Anbar has issued a clear order barring support to any unauthorized militia. But guidance from the Iraqi ministries has been vague. If the insurgents have a complaint, they can take it up with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In recent weeks, al Qaeda has struck back with suicide bombers, blowing up a Sunni mosque in the young sheik’s area, killing 40 worshipers, and then detonating a series of chlorine truck bombs in residential neighborhoods outside Fallujah. They hope that if they murder random groups of women and children, the tribes will fall back in line. These tactics have locked AQI in a fight to the death against the tribal leaders. It reflects an enemy who has lost popular support for his jihad, clinging to fear alone. Had any American analyst predicted AQI would attack local Sunnis with weaponized chemicals nine months ago, he would have been laughed at.
In itself, the tribal shift is significant but not decisive. The intensity of tribal loyalty varies across the province and is weakest in the cities. While perhaps only a quarter of the males in Anbar heed the orders of the sheiks, their cohesion gives them larger sway. Others will follow their lead, provide tips or stay out of their way. Numerical estimates aren’t possible because there has been no systematic effort to identify via biometrics the military-age males in the Sunni Triangle, a gross military error in combating an insurgency. The tribes aren’t trained fighters. They occasionally engage AQI in a melee, but they need American or Iraqi soldiers to destroy insurgent bands, especially when holed up in houses that serve as concrete pillboxes.
The real value of the tribes lies in providing specific information and recruits for the police and army. The tribes openly acknowledge that it has been the personal behavior, strength of arms and persistence of the American forces that convinced them to join the fight. “The American coalition is the only thing,” Sheik Abureeshah of Ramadi said, “that makes the Iraqi government give anything to Anbar.”
The tribes want their share of oil revenues, more power and a cut of the American contracts. With American combat forces likely to leave within a year or two, it is the Iraqi Government that must determine the modesty of the demands. But to put the state of the province in perspective, six months ago the head of Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, told the Congress that “Anbar was not under control.” Last week the U.S. commander in Anbar, Maj. Gen. Walt Gaskin, said he was “very, very optimistic.”
Gen. David Petraeus, the top general in Iraq, recently persuaded Mr. Maliki to visit Ramadi and meet with the tribes. That was the start of the bargaining. The Iraqi government faces a classic risk-versus-reward calculation. The reward is that the tribes will provide the information, recruits and local policing that shrinks the area where AQI operates. With less area to search, the Iraqi Army can concentrate wherever al Qaeda tries to rest or regroup, eventually drying up the swamp. The risk is that, if the Shiite-dominated government refuses reasonable terms, the tribes use their military muscle to reach a truce with AQI and the province reverts.
Baghdad is the critical battleground. But it is only in Anbar that the Congress agrees with the president that U.S. forces must combat the AQI terrorists. The tribes will learn to play that card to keep pressure on the central government not to neglect them.
Civil war between the Sunni tribes and the extremists has broken out in Anbar Province, the stronghold of the insurgency, and the U.S. and Iraqi government should support it. Anbar is like the American West in the 1870s. Security will come to towns in Anbar as it came to Tombstone–by the emergence of tough, local sheriffs with guns, local power and local laws.
Bing West, a correspondent for The Atlantic, is currently on his 12th trip in Anbar Province. Owen West, his son, is a managing director at a Wall Street bank and just returned from Anbar where he was a Marine adviser.
And how to lose.
BY ARTHUR HERMAN
Commentary, April 2007
“It is best if an enemy nation comes and surrenders of its own accord.”
–Du You (735-812)
To the student of counterinsurgency warfare, the war in Iraq has reached a critical but dismally familiar stage.
On the one hand, events in that country have taken a more hopeful direction in recent months. Operations in the city of Najaf in January presaged a more effective burden-sharing between American and Iraqi troops than in the past. The opening moves of the so-called surge in Baghdad, involving increased American patrols and the steady addition of more than 21,000 ground troops, have begun to sweep Shiite militias from the streets, while their leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, has gone to ground. Above all, the appointment of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the author of the U.S. Army’s latest counterinsurgency field manual, as commander of American ground forces in Iraq bespeaks the Pentagon’s conviction that what we need to confront the Iraq insurgency is not more high-tech firepower but the time-tested methods of unconventional or “fourth generation” warfare.
In Washington, on the other hand, among the nation’s political class, the growing consensus is that the war in Iraq is not only not winnable but as good as lost–Rep. Henry Waxman of California, for one, has proclaimed that the war is lost. Politicians who initially backed the effort, like Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, and Republican Reps. Walter Jones and Tom Davis, have been busily backing away or out, insisting that Iraq has descended into civil war and that Americans are helpless to shape events militarily. A growing number, like Rep. John Murtha, even suggest that the American presence is making matters worse. The Democratic Party has devoted much internal discussion to whether and how to restrict the President’s ability to carry out even the present counterinsurgency effort.
In short, if the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis still continues and is showing signs of improvement, the battle for the hearts and minds of Congress, or at least of the Democratic majority, seems to be all but over. In the meantime, still more adamant on the subject are many of our best-known pundits and media commentators. According to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who speaks for many, Iraq “is so broken it can’t even have a proper civil war,” and America is therefore now left with but a single option: “how we might disengage with the least damage possible.” To the left of Mr. Friedman and his ilk are the strident and often openly anti-American voices of organizations like MoveOn.org.
It is indeed striking that war critics like Sens. Harry Reid and Joseph Biden, who in 2005 were calling on the Pentagon to mount a proper counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, and to send enough troops to make it happen, should now be seeking ways to revoke legislative authority for that very operation. Exactly why they should have changed their minds on the issue is not obvious, although they and their colleagues do claim to be expressing not only their own judgment but the opinions and sentiments of the American people at large. If recent polls are to be trusted, however, these politicians may well turn out be wrong about popular sentiment. And if past history and our current experience in Iraq are any guide, they are certainly wrong about the war on the ground.
In fact, the historical record is clear. The roots of failure in fighting insurgencies like the one in Iraq are not military. To the contrary, Western militaries have shown remarkable skill in learning and relearning the crucial lessons of how to prevail against unconventional foes, and tremendous bravery in fighting difficult and unfamiliar battles. If Iraq fails, the cause will have to be sought elsewhere.
Most wars are lost, not won. To most Americans, the nearest example of a failed war is Vietnam. As in Iraq today, we came up against a guerrilla-type insurrectionary force led by ideological extremists; in the end, we were forced to withdraw and surrender the country of South Vietnam to the aggressors. But an even more striking parallel to our present situation exists in the French experience in Algeria almost exactly 50 years ago. There, French troops and a beleaguered local government faced an insurgency mounted by Muslim extremists who had managed to gain the upper hand. In response, the leadership of the French army had to figure out, almost from scratch, how to fight unconventional wars of this kind–with results that have influenced the thinking of counterinsurgency experts ever since.
The armed insurrection against French rule in Algeria began in November 1954. The insurgent force, the National Liberation Front (FLN), was a direct prototype of today’s al Qaeda and the insurgent forces in Iraq. Its leaders were motivated less by nationalism than by virulent anti-Western (and, not incidentally, anti-Jewish) ideologies. Their goal was not military victory, which they knew was impossible in the face of French conventional force. Instead, they set out to provoke reprisals against Muslims by Algeria’s whites in order to trigger an all-out civil war. To this end they employed terror bombings, torture and the savage murder of Muslim moderates and Algeria’s professional class. “One corpse in a suit,” an FLN leader was quoted as saying, “is worth 20 in uniform.” All the while, the main audience they were trying to reach and influence was not in Algeria; it was in France itself. As the American counterinsurgency expert Bruce Hoffman has written, the Algerian rebels “were counting on the fatigue and disenchantment of the French to help turn the tide if the war lasted long enough.”
It was a brilliant plan. Like American troops in Iraq today, French troops in Algeria found themselves reacting to one crisis after another, while a succession of commanders, strategies and resources were rotated into the effort in piecemeal fashion. Even with 140,000 soldiers on the ground, in a country with less than half the population of Iraq in 2007, the French government found itself helpless to reverse the course of events. The rapidly deteriorating situation prompted Algeria’s white population to turn against its government. By late 1956, when terror bombings in the capital city of Algiers killed 49 people and maimed many more, the overstressed, overstretched French police and army were ready to throw in the towel.
But on Aug. 1, 1956, a French lieutenant colonel of Tunisian descent named David Galula had taken command of the mountainous and rebel-infested Aissa Mimoun area of Kabylia. To the FLN’s unconventional mode of warfare, Galula responded with unconventional methods of his own. These proved so successful so quickly that they were soon adopted by French commanders in other parts of Algeria.
As early as January 1957, French Gen. Jacques Massu and intelligence chief Roger Trinquier were ready to apply some of Galula’s techniques to the urban environment of the capital, Algiers. After weeks of hard fighting, Massu and his paratroopers broke the back of the insurgency in the city, installing a block-by-block intelligence network that kept the FLN on the run and encouraged moderate Muslims to step forward.
Indeed, the 1957 battle for Algiers marked a crucial turning point in the fight against the FLN. By 1959, Galula’s principles had been extended across Algeria. Some 600 “specialized administrative sections” were set up, each headed by army officers to oversee civil as well as military affairs. The new structure finally allowed the French army to use effectively its superior numbers (including 150,000 loyal native troops, more than a third of the total) and conventional military hardware. Helping to put the guerrillas on the defensive were such tactics as the division of troops into “static” and “mobile” units to deal with terrorist outbreaks; the use of helicopters for counterinsurgency operations; and construction of a 200-mile, 8-foot-high electric fence (the so-called Morice Line), which shut down the FLN’s sources of support from neighboring Tunisia. By January 1960, the war that many had considered lost three years earlier was virtually won.
Galula’s subsequent book, “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice,” laid out the blueprint for success in this form of warfare. From the start, Galula had discarded the assumptions governing conventional conflicts. A decisive battlefield victory of the kind familiar from World War II, he saw, would never work against indigenous, loosely organized but deeply committed insurgencies like the FLN. As he had learned from watching the British mount successful counterinsurgencies in Malaya and Greece, neither heavy casualties, nor the loss of weapons and bases, nor even the loss of leaders, would stop the rebels. Ultimately, indeed, “military action [was] but a minor factor in the conflict.”
What then? Essentially, Galula grasped that the new form of warfare had reversed the conventional relationship in war between combatant and civilian. No longer bystanders or useful adjuncts to the war effort, as in World War II, civilians were the critical determinants of success or failure. Without the help or at least the passive acquiescence of the local population, the government would be doomed. In a crucial sense, it did not matter how many guerrillas were killed, or how many regular soldiers were on the ground; the center of gravity was the opinion of the local community.
Thus, the key to success lay in bringing to the surface the portion of the populace that hated the guerrillas, and then turning that minority into a majority by a combination of political, social and cultural initiatives. But of course that crucial portion, Galula wrote, “will not and cannot emerge as long as the threat [of insurgent retaliation] has not been lifted.” This was where military strategy came into play. Galula’s approach boiled down to three stages, each with its own lesson for Iraq today.
The first was concentration of force. Whereas terrorists were able to do much with little (witness, in today’s Iraq, the improvised explosive device or the lone suicide bomber), government forces could do but little with their much. Even after having expanded in number to 450,000 men–nearly one soldier for every 23 Algerians–French forces could not confront the elusive FLN everywhere. So Galula divided his own district into zones: “white,” where government control was complete or nearly complete; “pink,” where insurgents competed with the government for control; and “red,” where the insurgents were in complete control. A successful counterinsurgency involved turning pink zones into white zones, then red into pink, through a block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood struggle to force the terrorists into the shadows.
The second of Galula’s lessons was the need for a visible and continuous military presence, in order to build civil institutions of support and trust. In counterinsurgencies, the classic Clausewitzian dictum–that war is the continuation of politics by other means–turned in on itself. Through constant policing and patrolling, by running down insurgents and punishing them on, if possible, “the very spot” where they committed a terrorist attack or outrage, and above all by visibly supporting and rewarding allies, the military occupation would itself became a political weapon: outward and conspicuous proof that supporting the government translated into increased security, peace of mind, prosperity, and eventually social and political advance.
Toward this end, Galula’s third lesson was that the counterinsurgency must project a sense of inevitable victory. The local populace had to see the military and civilian authority as the ultimate winner. For that, native troops were essential. In counterinsurgency terms, they were more than just auxiliaries in the fight; they were also signposts of the future, of a secure post-insurgency order around which the local populace could rally.
As recently as two years ago, Galula’s book was virtually unknown in Pentagon circles. Today it has become the bible of American counterinsurgency thinkers like Gen. Petraeus, whose field manual (known as FM 3-24) it largely informs. Its masterful approach to breaking, isolating and then uprooting a terrorist insurgency is the core of our revised near-term strategy for Iraq, a strategy based, in Gen. Petraeus’s words, on the principle that “you’re not going to kill your way out of an insurgency.”
The current surge of 21,500 troops in Baghdad is a textbook example of Galula’s lessons in action. First, as in the northern city of Mosul in 2003-04, where he used a similar grid system, Gen. Petraeus aims to turn things around in the single most vital “pink” zone–namely, Baghdad and its environs, within whose 50-mile radius 80% of the violence in Iraq takes place. Critics have already charged that our recent successes in suppressing the militias in this area signify only a temporary respite. But Gen. Petraeus, like his predecessor Galula, understands that in counterinsurgency warfare, temporary respites are all there is. The goal is to make those respites last longer and longer, until eventually they become permanent. As he has said, “The idea is to end each day with fewer enemies than when it started.” Anything more ambitious leads to overreaching, disenchantment, and ultimately failure.
The Baghdad surge also illustrates the second of Galula’s lessons. “Increasing the number of stakeholders is crucial to success,” writes Gen. Petraeus, again self-consciously following both Galula’s model and his own prior experience. In the northern district of Kabylia, for example, Gen. Petraeus had his men operating schools for 1,400 children, including girls, offering free medical support, and helping with building projects and road construction. One of his proudest accomplishments was the help given by troops of the 101st Airborne in rebuilding and opening Mosul University.
Gen. Petraeus’s field manual states: “Some of the best weapons do not shoot.” They come instead in the form of meetings held with local leaders, wells drilled, streets repaired, soccer leagues organized. In the current surge, one of his stated goals is to get American soldiers out of Baghdad’s Green Zone to meet, eat with and even live with Iraqi families. Such “cultural awareness,” to quote Gen. Petraeus again, “is a force multiplier.” Political victories won street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood do not so much destroy the insurgency–it cannot be destroyed in any traditional sense–as replace it, forcing the bond between insurgent and citizen to give way to a new bond between citizen and government.
Finally, in an application of Galula’s third lesson, Gen. Petraeus’s men in northern Iraq trained more than 20,000 Iraqi police who even now continue to patrol the border between Iraq and Turkey. It was, in fact, Gen. Petraeus’s success in organizing and staffing a reliable Iraqi security force that convinced his superiors to put him in charge of training the new Iraqi army and to make him commander of American ground forces this year. Now his experience is being put to the test on a broader scale as we attempt, in his words, to “build institutions, not just units”–a process as vital to American success in Iraq as it was to French success in Algeria 50 years ago.
Will it work? That is not the crucial question. It has been done before, and it can be done again; at least, it can be done on the ground. The crucial question is whether the political will exists to see it through to the end. Here, too, the French experience in Algeria is instructive–in a wholly negative way.
In under two years, as I have noted, the fight against the FLN insurgents in Algeria was all but won. But the war itself was lost. By late 1959, even as the army was scoring victory after victory, President Charles de Gaulle had concluded that he had no choice but to offer Algeria “self-determination.” Within two years, the French had pulled out and the FLN’s leader, Ben Bela, was Algeria’s president.
What happened was this: while the French military had been concentrating on fighting the insurgency in the streets and mountains in Algeria, an intellectual and cultural insurgency at home, led by the French left and the media, had been scoring its own succession of victories.
In its haste to defeat the FLN, the French army had left a crucial hostage to political fortune. Military commanders had authorized army interrogators to use certain forms of torture to extract information from suspected terrorist detainees. This is not the place to debate the merits or demerits of torture in counterinsurgency operations–for the record, Galula himself considered it counterproductive. Nor was French opinion particularly sensitive to brutality per se; the FLN’s own use of torture and outright butchery–Arab loyalists routinely had their tongues and testicles cut off and their eyes gouged out–had aroused little or no outrage. But, as with the incidents at Abu Ghraib 50 years later, news of the army practice gave domestic opponents of the war a weapon with which to discredit the entire enterprise.
Led by Jean-Paul Sartre, a campaign of denunciation got under way in which French forces were accused of being the equivalent of Nazis–an especially freighted charge coming only a decade and a half after World War II and the German occupation of France. Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s companion, went so far as to say that the sight of a French army uniform had “the same effect on me that swastikas once did.” Although many of the antiwar agitators were communists or leftist fellow travelers, their petitions and demonstrations included enough authentic heroes of the Resistance and eminent liberals like Francois Mauriac to bestow upon the movement a credible public image. The constant message it conveyed was that the true authors of violence in Algeria were not the FLN at all but the French, and that only when the latter departed would Algerians be able to sort out their destiny for themselves.
The French military and political leadership was completely blindsided by the attack. No amount of justification of the selective use of torture, not even the cancellation of the original authorization, could halt the criticism or stem the loss of public support for the war. Even as the FLN took to setting off bombs in France itself, leftist Catholic priests continued to raise funds for it, while those like Albert Camus who harbored doubts about the wisdom of handing victory to the terrorists were derided and silenced. The consensus that had informed French politics as late as 1956–namely, that abandoning Algeria was “unthinkable and unmentionable”–fell apart.
Divisions over Algeria doomed France’s Fourth Republic. For its successor, the price of political survival was handing over Algeria to a totalitarian band that had lost the war on the battlefield but managed to win a stunning victory in France itself. The result was the massive flight of Algerian whites and, at home, a bloodbath as FLN terrorists put to death tens of thousands of Muslim Algerians who had been loyal to the French regime. Soldiers who had fought alongside the French were forced to swallow their medals before they were shot.
Before long, a similar process would play itself out in Vietnam. By 1972, the American military there had broken the back of the Viet Cong insurgency, had fought the North Vietnamese army to a standstill, and had forced the government in Hanoi to the bargaining table. Here at home, meanwhile, the end of the military draft had removed the domestic antiwar movement’s most powerful wedge issue. Nevertheless, reorganizing itself, the movement began to lobby Congress vigorously to cut off support for the pro-American governments in South Vietnam and Cambodia. The refrain, exactly as in the Algerian case, was that this would both bring the killing and suffering to an end and allow the Vietnamese and Cambodians to “find their own solutions to their problems.” Once Watergate destroyed the Nixon presidency, and “peace” Democrats took control of Congress in the 1974 midterm elections, funding to keep South Vietnam free from communist control evaporated. Victory was turned into defeat; the “solution” advanced by the antiwar Left turned out to be the crushing and disappearance of the country of South Vietnam.
It is hardly difficult to see the same process at work in present-day Iraq. Of course, as in the past, one can point to mistakes made in the conduct of the war. From the Galula perspective, for instance, splitting civil and military functions between the Coalition Provisional Authority and Centcom was a grave initial error. Another lay in the assumption that war-making in Iraq would yield quickly to peacekeeping, the way it had in Bosnia in the 1990s. The difference was that in Bosnia, Americans arrived on the scene when Christians and Muslims had fought each other to a standstill, while in Iraq the military’s main problem was not winding down a civil war but preventing one from breaking out in the first place.
Some critics have argued that there were also not enough American troops in Iraq to provide the kind of sustained visible presence demanded by counterinsurgency operations. In the first three years of the war, these critics point out, American soldiers and Marines were forced to abandon friendly territory and collaborative allies on account of the paucity of their numbers. Even Gen. Petraeus’s district around Mosul fell into chaos, and much of his work was undone, when his troops had to leave before Iraqi forces were ready to assume the security burden (and as the Iraqi civil administration fell into turmoil following the handover of authority from the CPA).
But mistakes are hardly unknown in war; nor are they necessarily irreparable. In fourth-generation conflicts in particular, as the case of French Algeria suggests, turnarounds can be achieved quickly by changes in thinking and action. Gen. Petraeus’s appointment and the early success of the so-called surge point to just such a major and hopeful change. Yet the current clamor to cut off funding, or to strip away congressional authorization for the Iraq effort, threatens to undo this potential turnaround before it has a chance to prove itself.
Under the slogan “strategic redeployment,” for example–to cite the title of a position paper on Iraq released by the left-liberal Center for American Progress–we have been assured that what incites the violence in Iraq is not the terrorists or insurgents but the American “occupation.” Left to themselves, the contention goes, Sunnis and Shiites will have no choice but to reach an accommodation and live together in peace. Indeed, to Sarah Shields, a Middle East expert at the University of North Carolina, today’s jihadists are but the “latest example in a long line of peoples’ fighting against occupation.” The sooner we depart, she writes, “the fewer people will have been compromised by their connection with our occupation.”
The argument is virtually identical to the one pursued by homefront defeatists in Algeria and Vietnam. What will happen to those already “compromised by their connection” with us, let alone to the hopes of millions of ordinary Iraqis, does not evidently concern its proponents–any more than it concerned Jean-Paul Sartre in Algeria, or Tom Hayden in Vietnam.
In fourth-generation warfare, whoever seems to own the future wins. To this day, thanks to Gille Pontecorvo’s celebrated and highly propagandized 1967 film, most people assume that “the battle of Algiers” was an FLN victory when in fact it was anything but. Similarly, most people believe that the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam was a major setback for the United States, for so it was successfully portrayed in the media; in fact, it crippled the Viet Cong as an insurgency. The same happened more recently in the battle of Falluja in 2005, where our eradication of a vicious jihadist network was presented almost entirely in terms of too many American casualties and too much “collateral damage.”
Thus far, the antiwar forces in both the United States and Europe have been greatly successful in presenting the Iraqi future in terms of an inevitable, and richly deserved, American defeat. Not even positive results on the ground have deterred them from pressing their case for withdrawal, or from winning influential converts in the heart of the U.S. Congress. If they succeed in their ultimate goal of forcing a withdrawal, they will take their place in another “long line,” joining the shameful company of those who compelled the French to leave Algeria in disgrace and to stand by as the victorious FLN conducted a hideous bloodbath, and of those who compelled America to leave Vietnam under similar circumstances and to similar effect.
Unlike the French in Algeria, the United States is in Iraq not in order to retain a colony but to help create a free, open and liberal society in a part of the world still mired in autocracy and fanaticism. Will we stay long enough to defeat the jihadists, to engage Iraqis in the process of modern nation-building, and to ease the transition to a free society? Or will we quit before the hard work is done, leaving this vital part of the world to become an al Qaeda sanctuary, bathed in chaos, anarchy, and blood? As the polls suggest, a large constituency at home is waiting to learn the answer to this question, and so is a much larger constituency abroad. But time is running short.
“Act quickly,” Gen. Petraeus wrote in January 2006, “because every army of liberation has a half-life.” This is true not only in the field but at home. James Thurber once said that the saddest two words in the English language are “too late.” Terrible as it is to think that our surge may have come too late, it is much more terrible to think that feckless politicians, out of whatever calculation, may pull the plug before the new approach is fully tested.
And terrible not only for Iraqis. For the French, the price of failure in Algeria was the collapse of one Republic and a permanent stain on the next–along with the deep alienation of the French military from the political establishment that it believed (with considerable justification) had betrayed it. Here at home, it took the American military almost a decade and a half to recover its confidence and resiliency after the failure and humiliation of Vietnam. How we would weather another and even more consequential humiliation is anybody’s guess; but the stakes are enormous, and the clock is ticking.
Mr. Herman, who has taught history at George Mason University and Georgetown University, is author of “The Idea of Decline in Western History”and “To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World,” among other books.