Fickle Alliance or Military Success?
By Mark C. Partridge
27 February 2008: Violence in Iraq has fallen in recent months. Supporters of President George W. Bush, as well as analysts, have pointed to the build up in U.S. forces as one of the main reasons for the positive developments. However, there have been a number of other factors that have helped lightened the pall of daily suicide attacks and sectarian strife.
One major component has been the decision by radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to “suspend” his Mahdi Army’s assaults on U.S. and Sunni forces, which he recently extended by another six months. While Sadr’s ceasefire has not been adhered to by all of his followers, the cessation of attacks by the largest Shia militia-along with the U.S. Army’s larger footprint in the country-has allowed American forces to focus on other groups in Iraq such as Al Qa’eda.
This Shia ceasefire has been matched by a corresponding Sunni ceasefire, which has commonly become known as the Awakening. In an intriguing article in Rolling Stone, Nir Rosen outlines some of the details behind this dramatic turnaround:
“Having lost the civil war, many Sunnis were suddenly desperate to switch sides-and [commander of U.S. forces in Iraq] Gen. David Petraeus was eager to oblige. The U.S. has not only added 30,000 more troops in Iraq-it has essentially bribed the opposition, arming the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces. To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq’s central government.”
According to Rosen, there are at least 80,000-mainly Sunni-men who are on the payroll of the U.S. (This NPR report gives some more information about these U.S. financed groups.) In the short term, this strategy looks to have been particularly effective in neutralizing Al Qa’eda and tamping down the violence-and some might argue it has been more effective than the surge itself.
But what of the long term? As Rosen points out, “loyalty that can be purchased is by its very nature fickle.”
There is certainly historical proof to back up this claim. Whether is was the U.S.’s financing of the mujahideens’ war against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, or the British Crown’s backing of privateers against the Spanish in 17th century, the group that you support today will not always be on your side tomorrow. There is certainly a risk that these Sunni groups will use the money, weapons, and training that they are getting now to attack U.S. troops and Shias in the future.
Another risk is that the Sunni Awakening and the Moqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire are simply ways for the two sides to regroup, strengthen vis-à-vis each other, and bide their time until the U.S. military has fewer troops on the ground. If this is the case, the U.S. can still use the lull to try and avert the storm-even if the ultimate prize of Iraqi political progress, in the words of Gen. Petraeus, “not worked out as we had hoped.”
Therefore, in as far as the surge has been a success, these gains can be attributed not so much to the increased number of boots and guns on the ground, but to diplomatic initiatives that have splintered enemy alliances and fostering ceasefires. But the question at this point is: can these positive developments be sustained through the drawdown in U.S. troop levels-especially given the strain being felt by the American military machine? Or, are bought alliances simply too fickle?
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