Best Defense

No, Tom, we shouldn’t go rogue in supporting and arming Anbar’s tribes

By Colin Kiernan Best Defense guest columnist The notion that American military strategy in Iraq should turn to arming individual Sunni tribes in Al Anbar, absent of cooperation with the government in Baghdad, is not advisable given our poor historical track record of managing rogue actors in foreign conflicts.  Those who are advocating giving the ...

IRAQ-POLITICS-UNREST
Iraqi anti-government gunmen from Sunni tribes in the western Anbar province march during a protest in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on April 26, 2013. The United Nations warned that Iraq is at a "crossroads" and appealed for restraint, as a bloody four-day wave of violence killed 195 people. The violence is the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that broke out in Sunni areas of the Shiite-majority country more than four months ago, raising fears of a return to all-out sectarian conflict. AFP PHOTO/AZHAR SHALLAL (Photo credit should read AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images)

By Colin Kiernan

Best Defense guest columnist

The notion that American military strategy in Iraq should turn to arming individual Sunni tribes in Al Anbar, absent of cooperation with the government in Baghdad, is not advisable given our poor historical track record of managing rogue actors in foreign conflicts.  Those who are advocating giving the Sunnis carte blanche to operate independently are misinformed by the overstated mythology regarding the successes of our counterinsurgency in Al Anbar.  They are also ignoring the fact that the Anbar Awakening was a microcosm to the larger context of an occupied Iraq.

The Anbar Awakening and the conditions which allowed it to take place hinged upon the massive presence of American boots on the ground to broker power between the Sunnis and the government in Baghdad.  With the negotiated stalemate in 2011 after General Petraeus’s “surge”, those same Sunni tribes that supported us were left without a stake in Iraq’s political and economic future with the withdraw of our troops and money.  The present sectarian conflict is an inevitable outcome of our so-called democratization placing the Shia majority in power after years of persecution by the Sunni minority.

With respect to the grievances of the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, ISIL owns the narrative of being the collective response to the loss of Sunni influence in the region.  It is easy to dismiss the notion that ISIL has broad appeal with their intended constituency, but to do so ignores the evidence suggesting otherwise.  Those who claim the tribes of Al Anbar possess the needed moderate Sunni voice are not examining their intentions, capabilities, and limitations.  These mercenary tribes would likely seek to supplant the government in Baghdad while simultaneously failing to gather the popular support required – even with our advisers, precision-guided munitions, and suitcases full of money.  At best they would disrupt ISIL for a short time before turning their attention against sectarian foes.  At worst they would join our enemy in the fight.

America should stand with Baghdad if we mean to see our project there during the last twelve years have any purpose other than spilt blood and lost treasure.  Haider al-Abadi must be pressed to publicly reconcile with the Sunni tribes not yet in ISIL’s grasp.  In the absence of their support, his government must still be successful in securing its strategic interests in places like Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra in order to deny those areas to the enemy – even if that looks like a sectarian conflict.  Outside of Iraq and Syria, the cooperation of regional players is required to both ensure containment of ISIL and to find a political solution.  Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and the Kurds come to mind as they each have a stake in this war.

The political boundaries of what we call Iraq is a fiction defined nearly a hundred years ago by colonial powers with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of World War I, which gave rise to the conditions causing this strife today.  The Arab Winter has seen the mobilization of Sunnis, rallied by religious ardor, against this old world order that they view as corrupt.  Their efforts across the region to affect change have been largely unsuccessful, leaving regimes that are by design led by governments dependent on foreign support.  Without the necessary political change in the Middle East, we will only see growing extremism.

T. E. Lawrence once proposed an alternative vision for the Middle East (see this map). As difficult as it would be to adopt in its entirety, maybe it is an idea worth revisiting.

Colin Kiernan is a Marine infantry captain who spent time in the Middle East conducting bilateral training with Jordanian and Kuwaiti military, led a training team in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, propping up national security forces there, and led a reconnaissance platoon conducting counter-narcotics raids in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  He is currently a reservist with an ANGLICO unit and resides with his wife in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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