The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Backing Sunni groups is reaping big gains on the ground in Iraq, but it may be unleashing forces the U.S. military cannot control.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty ImagesShaky strategy: In Iraq, todays saviors could easily become tomorrows enemy.

When the two most powerful Americans in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, testify before Congress next week, expect a lot of debate over whether Iraq has met Congresss benchmarks for success. But dont be fooled. The most important improvements in Iraq have little to do with the U.S. troop surge and even less to do with the central government. In Anbar province, once the focal point of Sunni rebellion, tribal and insurgent leaders are cooperating with U.S. forces. This so-called Anbar Awakening has resulted in a dramatic reduction in attacks and has raised the prospect that large numbers of U.S. troops may be able to leave the province in the near term. But although its true that backing Sunni groups is reaping big gains, the success of that strategy has little to do with the surge and, more importantly, if poorly managed may unleash forces that undermine the ultimate goal in Iraq.

It is fast becoming conventional wisdom, even among leading Democrats, that the surge is helping bring large numbers of Sunni sheikhs and former insurgents into the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq. But this grassroots progress is not the result of extra troops. Instead, it is the result of Sunni outrage over atrocities committed by al Qaeda in tribal areasgrievances that predate the surge. Sunni groups also want to reverse their current marginalization and position themselves vis–vis their Shiite counterparts, and Iran, in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. It is enemy-of-my-enemy logic, not a change of heart or U.S. troop increases, that is driving Sunni cooperation.

Nevertheless, the United States is now applying the Anbar model in Babil, Baghdad, Diyala, Salah al-Din, and elsewhere across the country. The hope is apparently that local cease-fires and new auxiliary security forces charged with going after terrorists and sectarian death squads will produce political reconciliation from the bottom up, even as national efforts from the top down have stalled. Or, as U.S. President George W. Bush recently put it, As reconciliation occurs in local communities across Iraq, it will help create conditions for reconciliation in Baghdad.

Any opportunity for improved security in Iraq should of course be seized. Engaging Sunnis provides one possible bridge to a substantial withdrawal of U.S. forces. But this strategy also comes with risks. U.S. cooperation with Sunni groups is already fueling Shiite fears in ways that may compromise the overall reconciliation effort. Thanks to a long history of repression under Saddam Hussein and an endless series of large-scale bombings by Sunni insurgents since 2003, Iraqs Shiites are a majority with a minority complex. They blame the Sunnis for Iraqs ongoing violence and fear a return to Sunni tyranny despite their demographic dominance. And a troubling number of them downplay sectarian murder by Shiite militias as self-defense.

When the United States courts Sunni militants, this fear and hyperbole only becomes magnified. Even if Shiite fears are misplaced, perception in Iraq is reality. By exacerbating Shiite anxieties, the U.S.-Sunni lovefest jeopardizes the United States ability to get Shiite politicians to take steps toward political reconciliation. It is also conceivable that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will judge U.S. aid to Sunni militias so intolerable that he demands a U.S. departure and turns to Iran or Syria for patronage. And this is to say nothing of another danger: Sunni blowback. The U.S. militarys desperate effort to destroy al Qaeda in Iraq also empowers Sunni groups that may one day further escalate the civil war, topple the current government, or turn their guns against the United States. Todays saviors could very easily become tomorrows enemy.

Any successful strategy in Iraq must ensure that the sum of local initiatives will add up to a stable and lasting peace. Pulling this off will be tough. Efforts to build up local Sunni militias must be calibrated so that tribal leaders are strong enough to feel secure and fight al Qaeda, but weak enough to ensure they cannot topple the central government. Similar caution should be exercised when applying the Anbar model in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas or within stranded islands of Sunni minority populations, including several neighborhoods in Baghdad. Nonsectarian divisions of the Iraqi Army, rather than local Sunni militias, should police these areas. And the number of embedded American advisors mentoring Sunni forces and monitoring human rights abuses must increase. Money will be another key factor to any successful strategy. Currently, most payments to Sunni groups come from the U.S. military. Thats a mistake. Arrangements to pay Sunnis through Iraqs central government are a vital next step to assuaging Shiite fears and deterring Sunni troublemaking.

Reconciliation in Iraq will remain a distant star well into the foreseeable future. In the meantime, progress toward that goal requires seizing the enormous opportunity presented by engaging Sunnis, while navigating the danger this very strategy poses. How this delicate balancing act will be achieved is the central question that should be posited to Petraeus and Crocker. And their answer is the true benchmark against which the current U.S. strategy in Iraq should be measured.

Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Twitter: @ColinKahl
Shawn Brimley is the director of studies at the Center for a New American Security and served as director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff and at the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

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