Focusing on a minor player lets the military claim short-term progress in Iraq, but it leaves the main problem unsolved.
Just weeks after an American-led coalition ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a delegation from Iraq's largest Sunni Arab tribes traveled to Saddam Hussein's presidential palace in Baghdad. In a display heavy with symbolic meaning, the Sunni chieftains threw their tribal banners at Saddam's feet and vowed total loyalty to Iraq's president. What prompted such a display of tribal fealty never before seen in Iraq? An uprising by Iraq's majority Shiite population against Saddam's Sunni-dominated government. Saddam labeled the tribes the "swords of the state" in his brutal campaign to put down the Shia uprising.
In Iraq's western Anbar province, the U.S. military has allied itself with the powerful Sunni Arab Duleimi tribe, along with other Sunni tribes, in the battle against al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group that assumed the al Qaeda label in 2004.
Whether the group receives direction from al Qaeda's leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, is unclear. Some of these same tribesmen were active members of the Sunni insurgency, carrying out attacks on American and Iraqi troops; now they are being armed by American troops and recruited to serve as local police. The tribal turn against the al Qaeda in Iraq group in Anbar province is heralded by the Bush administration as evidence of the success of its "surge" strategy under way in Iraq.
A more accurate reading is that a local power struggle broke out between the Sunni Arab tribes and al Qaeda in Iraq over the population and resources of Anbar province. The tribes have lived on that land for centuries and control the trade and smuggling routes from Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Local tribal leaders believed al Qaeda in Iraq, which had declared itself a political as well as military organization, threatened their traditional power base in Anbar, and turned against them. The sheer numbers of available fighters the tribal leaders can draw upon meant the contest was never in doubt. Al Qaeda in Iraq is thought to number less than 1,000; the tribal federation commands tens of thousands of loyal fighters.
American commanders say they now hope the Sunni tribes will embrace the Iraqi government, largely dominated by Iraq's majority Shiites. But Iraq's Sunni Arab tribes long have fought to stem the expansion of Shia Islam westward. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s that was seen by most regional players as a Sunni versus Shia battle. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, pumped tens of billions of dollars' worth of aid into Saddam's regime during the war. It was the Saudis who warned the Americans in 1991 not to advance on Baghdad and depose Saddam's regime because doing so would empower Shia Iran. The Saudis, along with other wealthy oil-producing Sunni gulf rulers, are unofficially funneling money and resources to the Sunni insurgency because they view the fighting in Iraq as a Sunni versus Shia conflict, with the prospect of the minority Sunni being eradicated by the majority Shia. The Saudis have stated publicly they will not allow that. An American intelligence officer in Baghdad in 2005 said the amount of money the former members of Saddam's regime made off with during the American invasion in 2003 to fund the insurgency is a "drop in the bucket" compared to the vast amounts of hard cash that flows across Iraq's porous southern border to Sunni insurgents from the Saudis, Kuwaitis and the United Arab Emirates.
Many of Iraq's Shia parliamentarians are rightly alarmed at the prospect of the U.S. military providing weapons and resources to Sunni tribal fighters. There is not a functioning central government in Iraq. Current American policy of recruiting former Sunni insurgents to fight al Qaeda in Iraq simply perpetuates the "militiazation" of the region, a term coined by Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. Power continues to devolve away from the central government toward local leaders who have their own heavily armed militias. In Iraq today, the power of any leader is dependent on the strength of a militia, not any universally recognized state-given authority.
The same dynamic infects Iraq's security forces. There is no such thing as an Iraqi army. There are groupings of units loyal to their commanders. The "big man" concept of loyalty to the individual versus the state continues to dominate the Iraqi army. It is clear-no matter how the Pentagon does the accounting-that three years into an effort to rebuild the Iraqi army, it remains incapable of protecting Iraq's political leadership, defending the borders or defeating the insurgency.
In recent months, a shift in American military strategy has emphasized capturing or killing members of al Qaeda in Iraq, now identified as the most dangerous insurgent group and described as being lead by foreigners, not Iraqis. By singling out al Qaeda in Iraq as Enemy No. 1 and as the focus of American operations, military leaders are acknowledging what many have known for some time: The much larger Sunni insurgency, the group responsible for the overwhelming majority of American deaths, cannot be defeated militarily. The threat to stability posed by al Qaeda in Iraq cannot be minimized. But the war in Iraq is much larger than al Qaeda in Iraq, which is but a tiny fraction of the overall insurgency. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times said of the 19,000 prisoners held by the U.S. military in Iraq, only 135 are foreigners, nearly half from Saudi Arabia.
Writing on the Small Wars Journal blog, David Kilcullen, former Australian Army officer turned adviser to American Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, explained the military's new strategy: "The aim is not to kill every last [al Qaeda] leader, but rather to drive them off the population and keep them off, so that we can work with the community to prevent their return." This is a page taken directly from Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Praeger Security International, 2006) a book written in the 1960s by David Galula, a French officer who fought in the Algerian war. Galula said that until a population feels protected, it won't throw in with a central government and the security forces and begin to finger the insurgents in its midst.
The problem with that strategy is that Iraq's Sunni Arabs are the insurgency. They provide the leadership, the rank and file, and at least their passive if not active support to those fighting what they view as an American occupation that has done nothing more than empower the Shia. The larger Sunni insurgent groups long have opposed al Qaeda in Iraq. Intelligence reports dating from 2005 reveal that a split already had developed between the two. During the past year, the Sunni insurgency has sought to marginalize al Qaeda in Iraq and its role in what the Sunni see as an honorable resistance.
The roots of opposition can go only so deep before eliminating them becomes an impossibility. How deep are they among the Iraqi population now? A poll conducted by the BBC earlier this year found that 22 percent of Iraqis support the U.S. troop presence, 21 percent thought American troops made things safer, 69 percent thought the presence of U.S. combat troops on their streets made life more dangerous.
Those who argue that success will be achieved when al Qaeda in Iraq is driven off must explain why the 2006 death of the group's leader, the fanatical Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi, along with a significant chunk of al Qaeda in Iraq's top leadership, had little effect on the violence in Iraq. If al Qaeda in Iraq plays such an important role in the counterinsurgency, then its decapitation should have resulted in a significant falloff in violence. It did not. Attacks against American and Iraqi troops averaged 177 a day in June, an all-time high.
The real challenge is laid out in the pages of Petraeus' own counterinsurgency manual: "In the end, victory comes, in large measure, by convincing the populace that their life will be better under the [host nation] government than under an insurgent regime." So the key to a successful surge is convincing the Sunnis their lives will be better under a Shiite-dominated government. Increasingly, it appears that's an argument America cannot convincingly win.