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And What Defeat Looks Like

April 6, 2009, 8:21 am

[A follow-up to this post. Cross-posted here.]

In counterinsurgencies, military effort can create the conditions for ending the war, but it (usually) can’t end the war by itself. That depends on the political accommodation of enough of the constituencies supporting the insurgents to undercut their military effort. Without that, the insurgency is likely to start again. In the Philippines in 1899-1902, the US was careful to recruit insurgents and their supporters to the American side through a variety of methods. A number of local warlords “surrendered” to American forces and then were immediately appointed governors of their areas. At a lower level, insurgent soldiers who surrendered were given amnesty and sent back to their homes. The result was that the Filipino insurgency was defeated not only militarily, but had the oxygen of support sucked away from them.

In Iraq, the political tensions have largely been between the Shi’ite majority, which dominates the Iraqi government, and the Sunni minority, which had held power in Hussein’s government. The Anbar Awakening was a reconciliation between American forces and the Sunni militias which had been fighting against them. The U.S. recruited the militias over to our side, with generous payments to leaders and militia members alike. The Sunnis, for their part, saw this as an opportunity to have influence in the larger polity. The Awakening, and the effectiveness of renewed counterinsurgency efforts in Baghdad essentially brought the insurgency down to a manageable level in 2007-2008.

But the thorn on the rose was always how the Shi’ite government would handle incorporating the Sunni militias and the people they represent into the larger government. Without an effective and good faith effort on the part of Maliki’s government to integrate the militias into the Iraqi military and give the Sunnis some form of reasonable political voice, there was no reason that the violence in Iraq could not spiral again. That’s why this is not a good sign:

But the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government never really liked the idea. Indeed, the first deals were cut by U.S. officials behind the back of the Iraqi government. So Maliki’s guys are:

  • Arresting some leaders of the “Sons of Iraq” (the American term for Awakening forces)

  • Attacking others
  • Bringing only 5,000 of the ex-insurgents into the Iraqi security forces
  • And stiffing others on pay, with some complaining they haven’t been paid in weeks or even months

I think Maliki’s gambit is to crack down on the Sunnis while American forces are still available in sufficient numbers to back him up. This is a turning into a test of strength, Sunni vs. Shiite.

Counterinsurgency operations succeed when they can co-opt the nationalism of the country in which the insurgency is being fought. But they have to co-opt the entirety (or as as near as makes no difference) of that nationalism, not just the attractive parts. In Iraq, that means Sunni as well as Shi’ite nationalism needs to be brought in out of the cold.

Having said this, it’s not clear that the Americans can do anything useful any more. Long-term, the Sunnis and Shi’ites have to figure out a way to live with each other. Any kind of realistic solution has to come from them. Unfortunately, a “realistic” solution might include an all-out civil war which ends with one side or the other emerging on top. Winning the counterinsurgency doesn’t stop Iraq’s ethnic, cultural, or political divisions; it only creates the opportunity to resolve them.

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