The Iraqi government is flexing its muscles. Recently, it arrested a significant Sunni leader in Baghdad. This particular leader was a member of the Sunni Awakening, the key to the stabilization of Iraq along with the shift in U.S. military strategy to utilization of a troop surge. On the surface, the government had a good reason to arrest the leader. He was demanding protection money from locals and was suspected of aiding in bombings. However, the soldiers arresting him are still mostly Shiites, a military choice that presents a problem.
Arresting Sunnis must be possible for the Iraqi Security Forces if they are to maintain order, but as it is, many Sunni Awakening members feel targeted by the central government. The U.S. worked out deals with Sunni leaders based on guaranteed government wages and a promise to integrate the militiamen into the Iraqi Security forces. However, the Shia-dominated central government struggles to pay the owed wages to the Sunnis, let alone integrate them. A recent
article found that “a relative few” of the Sunnis have been incorporated into the governmental forces.
No one expected the progress in Iraq to be a linear upward trend. Still, the recent resurgence of violence is accompanied by stories that highlight the problems of constructing a national security agency with a mix of Sunnis and Shiites. They suggest that a familiar problem for the U.S. may be emerging. For the most part, the Sunni Awakening fighters are battle-hardened, locally supported, and fiercely independent. Comparing Afghanistan strategies to Iraq is in vogue, but here there may be a fruitful comparison of Iraq to Afghanistan.
The U.S. supported the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mujahideen fighters, benefitting from local and U.S. support, became a formidable guerrilla force which eventually pushed out the Soviets. The unfortunate corollary to that history is that the same individuals who forged their legitimacy as resistance fighters with U.S. help became many of the leaders who attack American forces today.
Given that relatively recent chain of events, what could the consequences of the American relationship with the Awakening be? We should at least consider the possibility that we are watching the creation of a new generation of mujahideen. To a large degree, the U.S. has already helped to both kill and create more resistance fighters. The real question now is how the situation might be prevented from getting worse. Much of the issue is in the hands of the Iraqi government, as evidenced by the recent policing. Americans must start conceiving of such issues as relevant to Iraqi security, not just American security.
For some Sunni fighters, America will remain the primary enemy. Sunni resentment and hostility is understandable as America has bombed, shot and arrested Iraqis over the last six years. The U.S. has created a fundamentally new power structure in Iraq that is less advantageous to Sunnis than that which existed before 2003. It is not insignificant, though, that many of the forces concerned with security in Iraq now are Iraqi. America embittered and scarred thousands of Iraqis, potentially creating more future resistance fighters and the U.S. cannot totally reverse these past mistakes now. Iraqis must begin to rely on the Iraqi government.
There will continue to be difficulties for the nascent Iraqi government. A recent New York Times article notes the rise in Al Qaeda and Saddam loyalist attacks. America should not expect an instant resplendent beacon of Jeffersonian democracy on the Tigris. At the same time, the Iraqis will work to improve their government; it is in their interest and within their capacity. Defending Iraqi stability against the threat of Al Qaeda helped unite the government and the Awakening in the past, under close American supervision. By most accounts, the Iraqis are capable of quelling the latest round of insurgent activity. Completing the integration of Awakening leaders is a first step for the Iraqi government away from creating more destabilizing forces. Counter-insurgency is rarely easy to combat, but it is usually easier for a native government rather than an unwanted outside occupation force. If the U.S. is serious about leaving Iraq, the rise in violence must become essentially an Iraqi problem, and one with Iraqi solutions.