Dr. David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading experts on counterinsurgency warfare has a fascinating look into how al-Qaeda in Iraq lost in al-Anbar Province and what it means for the wider war in Iraq. In the end, what motivated the Iraqis to defeat AQI in those regions was simple self-interest:
The uprising began last year, far out in western Anbar province, but is now affecting about 40% of the country. It has spread to Ninewa, Diyala, Babil, Salah-ad-Din, Baghdad and – intriguingly – is filtering into Shi’a communities in the South. The Iraqi government was in on it from the start; our Iraqi intelligence colleagues predicted, well before we realized it, that Anbar was going to “flip”, with tribal leaders turning toward the government and away from extremists.
Some tribal leaders told me that the split started over women. This is not as odd as it sounds. One of AQ’s standard techniques, which I have seen them apply in places as diverse as Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia, is to marry leaders and key operatives to women from prominent tribal families. The strategy works by creating a bond with the community, exploiting kinship-based alliances, and so “embedding” the AQ network into the society. Over time, this makes AQ part of the social landscape, allows them to manipulate local people and makes it harder for outsiders to pry the network apart from the population. (Last year, while working in the tribal agencies along Pakistan’s North-West Frontier, a Khyber Rifles officer told me “we Punjabis are the foreigners here: al Qa’ida have been here 25 years and have married into the Pashtun hill-tribes to the point where it’s hard to tell the terrorists from everyone else.”) Well, indeed.
…This led to violence, as these things do: AQI killed a sheikh over his refusal to give daughters of his tribe to them in marriage, which created a revenge obligation (tha’r) on his people, who attacked AQI. The terrorists retaliated with immense brutality, killing the children of a prominent sheikh in a particularly gruesome manner, witnesses told us. This was the last straw, they said, and the tribes rose up. Neighboring clans joined the fight, which escalated as AQI (who had generally worn out their welcome through high-handedness) tried to crush the revolt through more atrocities. Soon the uprising took off, spreading along kinship lines through Anbar and into neighboring provinces.
Al-Anbar was certainly a victory in the overall war, but it wasn’t our victory — it was the victory of the Sunni tribes who decided that enough was enough. However, that’s critical for the future development of Iraq. The essential mistake made by the United States in the reconstruction of Iraq is pushing a top-down model of development. Such models never work — a society can have the most perfectly crafted institutions, a government that is designed flawlessly, and a wonderfully-drafted constitution, and if there isn’t a bedrock of civil society underpinning all of that the government will still collapse into anarchy.
Al-Anbar has gone from a place that was all but lost to terrorism to a place where al-Qaeda is finding less and less purchase. The lessons of al-Anbar are critical for the rest of Iraq. As Dr. Kilcullen explains:
AQI’s “pitch” to the Sunni community is based on the argument that only al Qa’ida stands between the Sunnis and a Shi’a-led genocide. The presence of local Sunni security forces – which protect their own communities but do not attack the Shi’a – gives the lie to this claim, undercuts AQI’s appeal, and reassures Sunni leaders that they will not be permanently victimized in a future Iraq. It may thus make such leaders more willing to engage in the political process, functioning as an informal confidence-building measure, and it may help marginalize al Qa’ida. This might represent a step toward an intra-communal “balance of power” that could potentially be quite stable over time. On the Shi’a side, AQI represents a bogey-man that extremist groups like Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM, Muqtada al-Sadr’s group) exploit to gain public acquiescence: their pitch is “we are all that stands between you and AQI”. By reducing the AQI threat, the tribal uprising also therefore undercuts JAM’s appeal. And as mentioned, Shi’a tribes have recently begun to turn against JAM and other Shi’a extremists also, with the potential to further reduce the level of intra-communal violence and bring non-sectarian Shi’a into the political process, marginalizing extremists and Iranian agents.
All this means that correctly handled, with appropriate safeguards, and in partnership with the Iraqi government, the current social “wave” of Sunni communities turning against AQI could provide one element in the self-sustaining security architecture we have been seeking. And if the recent spread of the uprising into the Shi’a community continues, we might end up with a revolt of the center against both extremes, which would be a truly major development.
I, perhaps optimistically, believe that is the case. What we are seeing is an Iraq that is stabilized not by the US or by hopes of some democratic government in Baghdad, but by something far more primal: self interest. Why do the Sunnis need to defeat AQI? Because AQI is a convenient boogeyman for the Shi’a. Why do the Shi’a want to defeat AQI? Because AQI is, in fact, a threat to the Iraqi Shi’a. Why do the Sunnis and Shi’a need to get along? Because in the end, if the Shi’ites push the Sunnis too hard, the Sunnis will have no choice but to turn to AQI for protection.
The rhetoric over Iraq has been one of failure. What we forget is that the only way that people learn is by failing. It’s irrational to expect the democratization of Iraq not to be marked by significant failures — any scholar of democratization theory will tell you that the process usually involves a tentative step forward, a major step backwards, and sometimes big leaps followed by more steps backwards. Democratization is a game of inches, not a Hail Mary pass.
What we’re seeing in Iraq is the first sign of a vastly changing dynamic, and a dynamic that’s changing from within rather than in response to anything we’re doing. That’s a crucial sign for the future of Iraq. Ultimately, the US can’t provide security forever, and Iraq’s government and civil institutions need to start working. Those institutions need to be based on grass-roots support. The Anbar Awakening and its offshoots in Diyala and Baghdad are crucial, as they represent grass-roots efforts towards seeing an Iraq free from terrorism.
The future of Iraq has to come from within and has to be led by the Iraqi people. The last few months are showing evidence that the Iraqis are starting to take increasing responsibility for their own security. The conventional wisdom on Iraq has never followed the events on the ground, and now it finally appears that this tribal uprising in al-Anbar may be a presaging of a new sense of Iraqi unity against terrorism and foreign domination. Once that happens, the foreign-dominated “insurgency” will have lost all credibility and Iraqi nationalism and self interest will lead the people of Iraq towards a political solution from the bottom up rather than from the top down.
UPDATE: Don’t miss Michael Yon’s firsthand reporting from al-Anbar documenting the changes there.