Sectarian Strife In Iraq Does Not Presume A Continued Military Presence
Brian Katulis, one of my favorite foreign policy wonks, has a very good paper spinning off of the incident in Baghdad over the weekend, which signaled a breakdown in relations between the Shiite central government and the Sunni Awakening forces. Katulis argues that this was inevitable:
The standoff between two U.S. “allies” this weekend in the heart of Baghdad is a harbinger of things to come in Iraq. The showdown between Iraq’s central government security forces and members of Sunni militias, known as "Awakenings," had nothing to do with the size of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and almost everything to do with enduring tensions in Iraq—multiple struggles for power between competing Iraqi factions.
What happened this weekend in central Baghdad between Iraqi security forces and members of the Sunni Awakening groups was not unexpected, in large part because many of the tactics used in the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces built a shaky and unstable foundation. Violence broke out in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Fadhil—just a few miles north of the Green Zone—when Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces arrested Adil Mashadani, an “Awakening” militia leader on charges of terrorist and sectarian crimes. According to news reports, Mashadani allegedly maintained ties with Al Qaeda forces, helped plan roadside bombing attacks against Iraqi security forces, and ran an extortion racket that squeezed Fadhil residents for tens of thousands of dollars.
Whether these specific charges against Mashadani are true or not, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that someone like Mashadani was on the payroll of the U.S. taxpayers. I argued in a paper on the Awakening groups more than a year ago that the same U.S. tactics that contributed to the so-called “success” of the surge were actually undermining the process of helping Iraq bridge internal divisions. The tactics employed during the surge helped create alternate centers of power in supporting new militias, which built a shaky foundation that led to short-term security gains at the expense of longer-term political stability.
Iraq still exhibits a stark divide between competing sectarian factions, and the surge did nothing to assuage that. Instead we paid off the Awakening forces to provide the illusion of stability without really addressing the root causes that could make such stability lasting. And we allowed delay on the fundamental political solutions that need to be made between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq. As Thomas Ricks says, "That is Iraq 2009. Does it sound peaceful to you? Does it seem like the political questions vexing Iraq have been solved?" And he also thinks the Sadrists could take advantage of the chaos.
If the Awakening fighting spreads, I wouldn't be surprised to see Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia re-emerge. I've always thought the Sunni Awakening forced him to go to ground, because he didn't want to be the only guy taking on American forces. But if the Sunnis are on the attack again, it might be game on for him as well. I am reminded of Ambassador Ryan Crocker's worry, expressed in my new book and elsewhere, that the future of Iraq was something like Lebanon. That is, it has a government, but it is shaky, and there is violence in the streets, with some political parties having armed wings that are outside the control of the government.
That's probably accurate, and yet it's important to note that we don't have 140,000 troops in Lebanon right now, and when we tried to put troops there we eventually were forced to leave, and Ronald Reagan made that call and I would argue that it was the right one. Anyone using the continued sectarian strife in Iraq to call for a continued military commitment from the US is not being mindful of other realities. As Katulis notes, the Iraqis set the withdrawal date, not us. We have bigger challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan that push against a giant commitment in Iraq. In addition, our military presence probably inflames this situation. The US should be engaged diplomatically to force a solution between the factions, but our military is essentially being used as a pawn for Nouri al-Maliki as he jockeys for power. Without soveriegnty, and without the US military as a crutch, Iraq will simply never be stable.