ANBAR. This article about Anbar province has received a lot of attention, especially in the wingnuttier parts of the blogosphere. Attacks do seem to have mildly decreased in Anbar, and local tribal elites appear to have turned against Al Qaeda. Captain Ed thinks that this is proof that victory is still possible, the Occupation is working, etc. Unsurprisingly, I think this is quite the wrong interpretation. The key passage is here:

The turnabout began last September, when a federation of tribes in the Ramadi area came together as the Anbar Salvation Council to oppose the fundamentalist militants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Among the council's founders were members of the Abu Ali Jassem tribe, based in a rural area of northern Ramadi. The tribe�s leader, Sheik Tahir Sabbar Badawie, said in a recent interview that members of his tribe had fought in the insurgency that kept the Americans pinned down on their bases in Anbar for most of the last four years.

"If your country was occupied by Iraq, would you fight?" he asked. "Enough said."

But while the anti-American sheiks in Anbar and Al Qaeda both opposed the Americans, their goals were different. The sheiks were part of a relatively moderate front that sought to drive the Americans out of Iraq; some were also fighting to restore Sunni Arab power. But Al Qaeda wanted to go even further and impose a fundamentalist Islamic state in Anbar, a plan that many of the sheiks did not share.

Al Qaeda's fighters began to use killing, intimidation and financial coercion to divide the tribes and win support for their agenda. They killed about 210 people in the Abu Ali Jassem tribe alone and kidnapped others, demanding ransoms as high as $65,000 per person, Sheik Badawie said.

For all the sheiks' hostility toward the Americans, they realized that they had a bigger enemy, or at least one that needed to be fought first, as a matter of survival.

The council sought financial and military support from the Iraqi and American governments. In return the sheiks volunteered hundreds of tribesmen for duty as police officers and agreed to allow the construction of joint American-Iraqi police and military outposts throughout their tribal territories.

The turnabout happened in September, well before the Surge, and in response to no particular policy being pursued by the United States. Tribal elites determined that, in the short run at least, Al Qaeda posed a greater threat to their power than did the United States. Virtually all of the progress in Anbar comes down to this decision, not to any policy enacted by the United States.

What are some implications of this? First, the alliance is unstable. If the threat of Al Qaeda recedes, then it's quite likely that the alliance will break down, and that local elites will continue their struggle against the U.S., only with more resources and greater freedom than before. Second, far from justifying the U.S. presence in Iraq, the recovery in Anbar suggests that the country might not descend into an orgy of bloodletting if the U.S. withdrew. Local elites still retain important influence; they can shift a province from chaos to relative order if they want to. Just as British forces in the south of Iraq have decided that they themselves constitute the central destabilizing presence, U.S. forces in places like Anbar (which is almost entirely Sunni) may discover that they were part of the problem, and not the solution. Third, the example of Anbar sheds some light on appropriate U.S. withdrawal and post-withdrawal policy. U.S. support and training can certainly contribute to counter-terrorist activities in a post-withdrawal Iraq, just as the U.S. has helped facilitate such programs in Anbar.

That violence in Anbar is ticking down slightly is a good thing, even if violence is ticking up everywhere else. But the developments there are not in response to U.S. policy, they are not contingent on a continued occupation, and they can provide only a limited degree of insight into the situation in other parts of the country. For the wingnutty among us, all good flows from U.S. policy, but this is not a defensible position, either now or in the past. Politics goes on, and people will find ways to solve their problems. Eventually, the sheiks of Anbar are going to decide that, again, the U.S. is the problem. The key is getting out before that happens.

Sully and Drum have more along these lines.

--Robert Farley

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