Exporting the Anbar Awakening

Imagine the Bush administration's war cabinet as a drunken gambler during a moment of sobriety-inducing panic. The fortune he thought he accumulated has proven illusory, and most of the money he brought to the casino is gone. His throat is dry and his head is pounding. The display of his cell phone shows numerous missed calls -- all from his wife, who begged him not to indulge his worst habits, and now pleads with him to come home. Three facts concentrate his addled mind: he is coated in shame, he is still in the casino, and he has a few dollars more.

He thinks for a moment. In the last few hands, he unexpectedly won a little cash. Hope swells in his heart. Something that he doesn't understand stopped him from losing all his money -- but what? Maybe he doesn't need to know. He can just ride it out -- on a different game, even -- and come home with something to show for the weekend. As long as he has just a little something in his pocket, he won't have to admit that he made a drastic mistake by gambling away his family's nest egg. A Joe Strummer lyric crackles through his brain: Monday's coming like a jail on wheels. If he's going to make a play, it has to be now. He jangles the chips in his pocket and summons the bartender.

It's hard not to think of a man without self-control when considering that the Bush administration might export the Anbar Awakening to Pakistan. The New York Times recently reported that some in the U.S. military's Special Operations Command (SOCOM) believe the so-called Awakening -- where the U.S. exploited a 2006 cleavage between Sunni Iraqis and al-Qaeda -- offers a viable model for U.S. policy in the tribal areas of Pakistan that shelter Osama bin Laden. To do so would make our gambler look responsible by comparison as he slinks back to the craps table. So how can a plan so potentially calamitous merit serious debate?

Here's what's up for discussion. While Gen. Musharraf suppresses any possible moderate, civilian threat to his continued rule, the tribal areas in the west of his country, bordering Afghanistan, remain mostly outside his control. Autonomy for what the U.S. calls the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, has been part of the Pakistani social compact since there's been a Pakistan. Invading -- or supporting a Pakistani Army conquest -- isn't an option, unless new waves of instability are to befall a nuclear-armed country. Yet within the FATA is, as a National Intelligence Estimate recently concluded, a "safehaven" for an increasingly powerful cohort of the original al-Qaeda's senior leadership, or "AQSL" in intelligence community parlance. So, the Pentagon figures, the best course of action is to buy off tribal figures in the FATA to shift their allegiances from AQSL and its Taliban partners; organize its young men into an anti-AQSL militia supported by the Pakistani Interior Ministry; and witness the extirpation of al-Qaeda in its most important redoubt. It'll require raising U.S. military profile in one of the least stable portions of the globe, but, hey, it worked in Anbar Province, right?

Put aside for the moment any doubts about the long-term effects of the Anbar Awakening. Stipulate that the Awakening is a good and worthy thing: After all, turning Muslims against al-Qaeda is the surest course to anything resembling victory in the war on terrorism. Even so, gambling on a FATA Awakening is still a poor idea.

The fundamental problem is one of causation. In 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq declared something called the Islamic State of Iraq in Ramadi. It was a massive blunder, representing in effect the conquest of part of Iraq by a foreign entity. Long-simmering tensions between foreign jihadis and Sunni tribal figures and insurgents -- al-Qaeda would murder people for smoking cigarettes, for instance -- that had been suppressed in the name of fighting the U.S. and the Shiites boiled over. The U.S. military, led by counterinsurgency experts like Gen.l David Petraeus, was smart enough to distinguish between its true enemies (al-Qaeda) and its transactional ones (the Sunni insurgents) and to capitalize on the blunders of its true enemies.

In Pakistan, nothing like this exists. The FATA tribes show no sign of tensions with AQSL. The Times reported that many of the same tribes that would form the basis of a FATA Awakening still actively fight alongside the Taliban -- as do elements within the Interior Ministry that would be responsible for nurturing the Awakening. Within SOCOM, which has developed the proposal, analysts have no idea whether the tribes would accept or reject American support. In short, the basic strategic condition that allowed the Anbar Awakening to exist -- a split between Iraqis and al-Qaeda -- isn't in evidence here. All sorts of other potential problems arise:  For one, this potential paramilitary tribal force, with its minimal control by Islamabad, wouldn't augur well for the internal stability of a nuclear-armed country. But without the basic FATA/AQSL split, it makes no sense to consider such second-order questions. And in that case, flooding the FATA with money and guns is about as wise as making a blank check out to Osama bin Laden.

Since the story broke, the SOCOM proposal has been greeted harshly. Phil Carter, an Iraq veteran and sensible national-security commentator, called it a "formula for blowback," and compared it to arming the proto-Taliban of the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s. On the right, Bill Roggio wrote that absent direct U.S. military support, the plan "would be a death sentence for any tribe foolish enough to join the fight." Adm. Eric Olson, the SOCOM chief, is a well-respected military professional. How can he be hovering on the precipice of catastrophe?

That brings us back to the drunken gambler. The gambler stays at the casino because he hasn't hit bottom yet. Fortune has cursed him with what appears to be a small blessing: though he's lost so much, a few minor victories have convinced him that he's bouncing back. He is unable to distinguish between luck and strategy.

Olson, to be clear, isn't a drunken gambler. But the trauma of losing the Iraq War has introduced a loss of perspective for many in the U.S. defense establishment over the war's eleventh-hour fortunes. The Anbar Awakening is a case in point: The reasons for its apparent successes are little understood, and erode under scrutiny. It's much less traumatic to simply proclaim success confidently. And what better way to display confidence in the Awakening than to export it to a place where military options are limited and the margin for error is thin?

Arming the Pakistani tribes is less about Pakistan or AQSL than about proving a point concerning Iraq. If it seems unwise or inappropriate, that's because its wisdom is incidental and its propriety doesn't enter into the equation. And like all desperate attempts at doubling down when gambling strategies fail, its application is a surefire way to hit the awful bottom that all sane people spend their lives trying to avoid.