Wednesday, June 13, 2007

They swallowed the spider to catch the fly


The US military has embarked on a new and risky strategy in Iraq by arming Sunni insurgents in the hope that they will tackle the extremist al-Qaida in Iraq.
The US high command this month gave permission to its officers on the ground to negotiate arms deals with local leaders. Arms, ammunition, body armour and other equipment, as well as cash, pick-up trucks and fuel, have already been handed over in return for promises to turn on al-Qaida and not attack US troops.

Obviously this is a gamble, and a somewhat desperate one at that. But there is a rationale to it:

One [US] commander… said that despite the risks in arming groups that have until now fought against the Americans, the potential gains against Al Qaeda were too great to be missed. He said the strategy held out the prospect of finally driving a wedge between two wings of the Sunni insurgency that had previously worked in a devastating alliance — die-hard loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s formerly dominant Baath Party, and Islamic militants belonging to a constellation of groups linked to Al Qaeda.

Sunni groups offering to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American and Iraqi forces met a basic condition for re-establishing stability in insurgent-hit areas: they had roots in the areas where they operated, and thus held out the prospect of building security from the ground up.

If these groups do what their leaders say they will, and don’t just sell the weapons on the black market or use them against Shiites or Americans, then some good may come of it. That’s a big if.

But even granting this, there are wider implications. As has long been obvious, the US and allies (surge or no surge) lack the ability to stabilise Iraq; the Iraqi government, itself a gaggle of factions many of which have links to assorted militias, is in no position to impose order either.

There is nobody with anything like a monopoly of force in the country, and the government’s legitimacy is shaky and contested: it’s hard to call Iraq a functioning state by Weberian standards. Strengthening the state requires more than increasing the flow of resources to the centre. Despite the constitutional referendum, the national elections and the parties’ agreement to form the government, Iraq’s still some way off a lasting political settlement.

The balance of power in the land is not what the US (nor very many Iraqis) would like. Given this, they can either accept it and work with whatever main players emerge, or try to change the balance by weakening one group, strengthening another or plonking themselves in the middle. They’ve been trying all three ways of pushing change, with the national government as presently constituted their top dog of choice.

But if this new move is meant seriously, it suggests a change in political as well as military strategy. If it works in turning non-fanatical Sunni militias against al-Qaeda, then those militias will win popular appeal among their religious constituency. The logic of this (and I know logic can be hard to come by in US Iraq policy) is that more political legitimacy will accrue to these groups rather than to the national authorities. This would mirror the support among Shia populations for groups such as those linked to Muqtada al-Sadr.

So, instead of working to build a unified national polity, this would – largely in tune with reality – favour local, sectarian power relations. It’s impossible to know whether this would be a prelude to a new settlement driven by the Sadrists and the ex-Baathists (as, in Northern Ireland, the initial agreement between moderates broke down pending the ascent of the hardliners), or a way of getting Sunni groups to coalesce and compromise in advance of their co-option into the current army and government.

Or it could just mean more powder stuffed into the keg.

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