Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Dangers of Unconditional Support

In the LA Times, Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl discuss the "gathering storm" that has been the Maliki government's inexplicable crack-down of the Sunni "Awakening" or "Sons of Iraq" groups that have been so instrumental in recent security gains and decreased levels of violence in Iraq. Led by a group Sunni tribal leaders who became more and more outraged by the indiscriminate and brutal tactics of al-Qaeda in late 2006, these groups joined sides with coalition forces to expel the terrorists from Anbar in hopes of bringing some sense of stability and security back to their neighborhoods. It was a major turning-point in the war as one of our biggest foes - the Sunni insurgency - flipped sides to help fight another.

Throughout 2007, U.S. commanders capitalized on this Sunni movement, the so-called Awakening, to create an expanding network of alliances with Sunni tribes and former insurgents that helped turn the tide and drive Al Qaeda in Iraq to near extinction. There are now about 100,000 armed Sons of Iraq, each paid $300 a month by U.S. forces to provide security in local neighborhoods throughout the country. In recognition of the key role the Awakening played in security improvements, President Bush met with several Sunni tribal leaders during his trip to Anbar last September, and Petraeus, who cites the program as a critical factor explaining the decline in violence, has promised to "not walk away from them."

But Iraq's predominantly Shiite central government seems intent on doing precisely that. Maliki and his advisers never really accepted the Sunni Awakening, and they remain convinced that the movement is simply a way for Sunni insurgents to buy time to restart a campaign of violence or to infiltrate the state's security apparatus. In 2007, with Iraq's government weak and its military not yet ready to take the lead in operations, the Maliki government acquiesced to the U.S.-led initiative and grudgingly agreed to integrate 20% of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces. Now, a newly confident Maliki government is edging away from this commitment.

It was always a tenuous partnership and the integration of these groups into the Iraqi Security Forces has been one of the key benchmarks crucial to long-term Iraqi stability and reconciliation. After all, these groups could not remain on the U.S. payroll and outside the apparatus of the Iraqi government forever. Regardless, the Maliki government, which has even been reluctant to provide much-needed reconstruction dollars to predominantly Sunni communities, has fought integration every step of the way - justifying its blatant sectarianism by claiming the "Sons of Iraq" are nothing more than armed militias or criminal gangs. In a tribal society, that may be true to a great extent (as we've also seen by the infiltration of Shia militias into the Iraqi Security Forces) but until the Shia-dominated government begins taking steps toward inclusion - toward true reconciliation between the various sectarian groups - long-term stability can never be achieved. Instead, it will be a perpetual cycle of violence between various sects, fighting desperately to gain the upper hand over their rivals. There is no U.S.-role in that civil war.

Plans to integrate these Sunni fighters into Iraq's security forces or provide them with civilian employment have been consistently "slow rolled." While Maliki has committed to incorporate 20% of the 100,000 Sons of Iraq members under U.S. contract into Iraq's army or police forces by the end of this year, only a small fraction have actually been hired. When asked if the Iraqi government had created stumbling blocks to integrating the Sons of Iraq, Petraeus said in a recent interview, "That certainly has been the case."

It gets worse. Over the last several weeks, Iraqi army units and special operations forces (which report directly to Maliki) have arrested Sons of Iraq leaders, dismantled checkpoints and otherwise harassed local security volunteers in Diyala province and greater Baghdad. There are reportedly plans to detain hundreds of Sons of Iraq members in the coming weeks. "These people are like cancer, and we must remove them," an Iraqi army general in Abu Ghraib, a Baghdad suburb, told a reporter last week. Another Iraqi commander in Baghdad confided, "We cannot stand them, and we detained many of them recently," before telling that reporter of plans to instigate a major crackdown as early as November.

As Brimley and Khan point out, the underlying driver of this recklessness is the growing hubris of the Maliki government - which is fueled by the unconditional support of its benefactor, the Bush Administration. Until the President says enough is enough, and no longer allows a corrupt and incompetent foreign government to hold hostage our national security interests and the well-being of our armed forces, it will be more of the same. The continued deployment of U.S. troops must be conditioned upon Iraqi political progress. Barack Obama understands this. John McCain offers nothing but a blank check of American blood and treasure.

It is obvious where this road might end. The last time tens of thousands of armed Sunni men were humiliated in Iraq - by disbanding the Baath Party and Iraqi army in May 2003 - an insurgency began, costing thousands of U.S. lives and throwing Iraq into chaos. Yet Maliki and his advisers risk provoking Iraq's Sunni community into another round of violence. The rising tensions in Iraq reveal a weakness in U.S. strategy and the Bush administration's approach to the war: the unconditional nature of our support to Maliki's government.

The "surge" strategy in Iraq, as described by President Bush in January 2007, rested on the belief that tamping down violence would provide a window of opportunity that Iraq's leaders would use to pursue political reconciliation. But this has not occurred, despite the dramatic security improvements. Indeed, if the problem in 2006 and 2007 was Maliki's weakness and inability to pursue reconciliation in the midst of a civil war, the issue in 2008 is his overconfidence and unwillingness to entertain any real accommodation with his political adversaries. America's blank check to the Iraqi government feeds this hubris.

U.S. strategy must be reengineered to exploit our diminished but still significant leverage. Despite recent military successes, the Iraqi security forces remain critically dependent on U.S. air power, logistical support, intelligence and training. The United States must make continued security assistance conditional on Maliki carrying through on his commitments to integrate and gainfully employ the Sons of Iraq.

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