U.S. commanders with whom I spoke in Anbar province in August were worried — worried that their Marines would get bored in the absence of combat action. Enlisted Marines on return tours of duty expressed surprise verging on bewilderment that cities such as Fallujah, long wracked by insurgent violence, were calm and open for business. Foreign terrorists who once ruled the streets still launched minor attacks, but had been marginalized across the province. And last year’s Sunni-Arab enemies were busily scheming how to profit from the American presence.
Although a few portions of Anbar remain dangerous — not least, for Iraqis — the turnaround during the last six months has been remarkable, an illustration of the nonlinear develop¬ments in warfare that confound academic theorists. Numerous factors influenced the Sunni-Arab “flip,” but, on the whole, it remains one of those events that analysts could not foresee and which was by no means inevitable. At a certain point, the chemistry was simply there and a few alert com¬manders recognized it and acted.
Now the crucial question is whether the shift in loyalties in Anbar can be replicated where the sectarian and political dynamics are different: Was this exclusively a Sunni-Arab phenomenon, or can truculent Shiites be won over, as well? Eager commanders express optimism, but the truth is that we just don’t know. The future of Iraq and of the U.S. presence will be shaped by the Shiite response.
What happened in Anbar? Past a point, the emotional turns of identity groups, such as the province’s Sunni Arabs, defy clinical analysis, but the evident factors are these: First, al-Qaida behaved so barbarically and decreed forms of social dis¬cipline so alien to local norms that Anbar’s Muslims rejected the terrorists who claimed to be their champions. With the murder of popular sheikhs, the kidnapping of daughters for forced marriages, the destruction of commerce, the suppres¬sion of everyday pleasures — including smoking, which may have been decisive — and the terrorists’ sheer bloodlust, al-Qaida in Iraq ultimately excited revulsion and outrage. While the American presence aimed at a political transformation, the foreign terrorists sought to regulate the intimate details of daily life. American troops may have been undesirable, but al-Qaida was unbearable.
The second factor was the persistence of the U.S. effort. Sunni Arabs, who lost the most when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, didn’t feel the immediate pain of war during our march to Baghdad. They had no real sense of having been defeated. It took years of fighting for them to accept their changed status, with the process of recognition hampered by the erratic nature of U.S. operations — fits of activity, such as the reduction of Fallujah in the autumn of 2004, interrupted by relative disengagement. (Green-Zone decision-makers seem to have had an attention-span problem.) In this regard, the implementation of the troop surge in the first half of 2007 proved critical: The signal that we could not be driven out by violence, but were willing to raise the stakes, was at least as important psychologically as the additional boots on the ground were militarily.
We wore the Sunnis down, and al-Qaida wore them out. Key tribal leaders and authority figures within the insurgency also realized, belatedly, that while the Americans intended to leave eventually, if on their own terms, al-Qaida meant to stay forev¬er. After that, the choice of allegiances wasn’t difficult.
But the choice had to be offered, which was where experi¬enced U.S. commanders came in. In Ramadi and elsewhere, they sensed that a window of opportunity had opened and took advantage of it to step inside the Sunni house. While it doesn’t do to overstate the newfound affection the locals feel for things American, an undeniable commonality of interests has emerged. Complex emotional reactions also played an unacknowledged role. Speaking with Marine commanders on the ground, as well as with local security officials and sheikhs, one gets the sense that this alliance of convenience goes a bit beyond “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” While it’s much too early for conclusive pronouncements, it appears that the longer-term outcome in Iraq may be just the opposite of the expectations held in 2003: We may find that it’s the Sunni Arabs (as well as the largely Sunni Kurds), not the Shiites, with whom we can achieve a useful accommodation.
And that’s where the trouble starts.
THE SHIITE CURSE
The progress in Anbar province is undeniable. It may not be irreversible, but the sound money is on the intensification of the U.S.-Sunni rapprochement — not least because, for all the culture’s endemic emotionalism, the Sunnis now demonstrate a higher degree of pragmatism than the country’s majority Shiites, whose penchant for oracular religion has spilled into the political arena. Long-suffering, the Shiites are hypersensi¬tive, distrustful of everyone and expectant of persecution. In an office interview, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the coalition’s battle captain, put it this way: “The problem is that the Shia still haven’t realized that they’ve won.” The primary character¬istic of the dysfunctional Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is paranoia.
Constituting 60 percent of Iraq’s population, the Shiites were long excluded from power. By and large, they are less-educated, more prone to obscurantism and occult beliefs, and particular¬ly drawn to charismatic leadership (a political characteristic nurtured by Shiite millenarianism). The Shiite inability to gov¬ern well echoes the challenges faced by African states in the early years of independence, when the paucity of educated, experienced leaders left the stage vacant for demagogues, and elections became naked assertions of tribal power.
Nor is Shiite anger entirely unjustified. Sunni-Arab repres¬sion of the Shiites — and disdain for their ornate version of Islam — predated the Baathist era by many centuries. Contrary to the insistence of Western leaders and diplomats, it’s by no means certain that Iraq’s Shiites, now empowered, can be cajoled or bullied into an equitable power-sharing arrangement with their historical enemies. To this community, democracy is a winner-take-all affair.
Iranian meddling exacerbates every problem the Shiites pose, but, as deadly and destructive as Tehran’s engagement may be, it’s essential not to blame Iran for pre-existing prob¬lems: Iranian agents aren’t making trouble from scratch, but are simply encouraging and enabling the troublemakers in place. Nor is Iran likely to profit enduringly from even the most-favorable short-term outcome in Iraq, since Persian racism toward Arabs is no secret to Iraq’s Arab Shiites. For now, though, Iranian mischief makes a bad situation worse.
And it could get much uglier. As the Sunni-insurgent threat dis¬solves and al-Qaida is thrust onto the strategic defensive, a num¬ber of U.S. officers express the belief that we’re moving beyond counterinsurgency operations toward peace-enforcement and, ultimately, a peacekeeping role, acting as the referee between Sunni-Arabs and Shiites along the country’s sectarian fault lines and in those urban neighborhoods that have not been ethnically cleansed. Others look beyond the current interconfessional vio¬lence to a possible showdown within the Shiite community — pitting Muqtada al-Sadr, who has positioned himself as a champi¬on of the masses, against the (comparatively) moderate Shiites, whose moral arbiter remains the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
In a conflict between al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army (the Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM) and the better-disciplined Badr Brigades and their allies, U.S. observers predict that Badr units would achieve initial victories against the more-slapdash JAM, but that, as the struggle continued, the JAM’s numbers and broad public support would begin to tell. And Iran would attempt to position itself so that it emerged behind the winning side — whichever side that might be.
In the lengthy chronicle of lost opportunities in Iraq, one of the sorriest now appears to be the feckless decision not to kill al-Sadr in the summer of 2003, after he began his campaign to assassinate rivals for power. The legal justification was there, as was the operational necessity. But, in the classic post-mod¬ern American pattern, the decision was made to postpone the trip to the dentist in the hope that the cavity would get better on its own. In mid-2003, al-Sadr had a bodyguard. Two years later, he had an army. Thousands of Iraqis and Americans have died because we failed to stop one man.
Of course, re-fighting the lost battles of 2003 — or subse¬quent years — is an exercise for historians and a default stance for politicians. But the fact remains that those whom we expected to embrace as allies, the Shiites, are increasingly hos¬tile to our interests and hopes, while our initial enemies, the Sunni-Arabs, are killing Muslim terrorists for us. The apocalyp¬tic impulse and attendant paranoia within Shiite Islam may be the greatest threat to a tolerable (if not quite tolerant) and equitable future for the population of Iraq.
If the paranoid, vengeful behavior of Iraq’s Shiites and the mes¬sianic pretensions of men such as al-Sadr inhibit a bearable out¬come in Iraq, one great strategic triumph has been achieved: the Sunni-Arab repudiation and humiliation of al-Qaida.
Although this Muslim rejection of al-Qaida has been report¬ed (if gingerly) in the Western media, few Americans sense the enormity of what’s happened. For all of our inept efforts at “public diplomacy,” our single public-relations triumph since the capture of Saddam Hussein — and a much greater one — has been handed to us by our former enemies. When Iraq’s Sunni Arabs turned, violently and openly, against al-Qaida, an organization which poses as the champion of Sunni Muslims, the strategic equation shifted. No matter how al-Jazeera and other regional media may downplay this development, word gets out. Sunni Arabs fought beside al-Qaida against the Great Satan — and ultimately found the Great Satan a preferable companion. This humiliation of al-Qaida may prove, in retro¬spect, to have been the great turning point that led to the orga¬nization’s long decline. Unfortunately, it will be a long, painful affair still. Future historians may even see this single result as having redeemed our entire Iraq experiment. Even if not a sin¬gle al-Qaida operative was in Iraq prior to 2003 — a contention still in dispute — the terror organization made a colossal strategic error thereafter by declaring Iraq the central front in its struggle against America; al-Qaida has now lost decisively on its “central front” and can only hope that America’s domes¬tic politics will rescue it.
CITY OF WONDERS
Baghdad plays a leading role in the Arab world’s collective memory and myths. Sprawling and wretched, its glory days are a millennium behind it, yet, in the Arab imagination it retains a charisma equal to the Western Protestant vision of “a city on a hill.” Nor has it been only Arabs who romanticized Baghdad; industrial-age Westerners ascribed to it a greatness the city hadn’t possessed since the Mongol conquest, from the dream of a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway to sanitized versions of “The Arabian Nights” and the pre-digital film-making feats of spe¬cial-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen.
The city’s apogee under Harun al-Rashid predated the Christian conversion of most of northern Europe, and its destruction at the hands of the Mongols eight centuries ago haunts the Arab interpretation of history — which is little more than a search for excuses for centuries of ever-deepening failure. It’s as if Westerners looked back to Charlemagne for routine encouragement — skipping everything in between — and bewailed the Fall of Constantinople as the cause of the subprime mortgage crisis.
“Baghdad” is an incantatory word for Arabs. As a conse¬quence, the actual city’s importance is exaggerated even beyond its notable size and strategic location. Westerners may never quite grasp the despair Arabs felt when American tanks reached the city with such ease in 2003; the brevity of the Iraqi defense of Baghdad shamed an entire civilization. As a result, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs will never accept Shiite domination of the city, no matter the argument of demographics. For their part, Iraq’s Shiites view Baghdad as the great prize that has fallen to them. On one level, the death-squad murders, terrorist bomb¬ings and outright battles in the city have been about the con¬crete possession of turf, but, on another plane, this is a strug¬gle for the ownership of a myth — in faux-academic terms, a contest to “dominate the narrative.”
On the mundane side, where U.S. commanders have to operate, the city remains a crazy-quilt of neighborhoods for¬eign to one another. In classic third-world fashion, poverty often encroaches upon wealth and vice versa. Physically, some neighborhoods are relatively green and pleasant, while many others are fouled by ponds of sewage and poisoned by the stench of human waste. Many districts have been ethnically cleansed, while others remain mixed — the fault-line neigh¬borhoods where the surge arrested ethnic cleansing, but which demand an enduring security presence.
Depending on where you look in Baghdad, you can find evi¬dence for almost any political argument you wish to make. Sectarian and anti-coalition violence remains endemic in some districts — most notably, in Shiite neighborhoods loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr — while other areas have come back to life under the enhanced security conditions the troop surge pro¬vided. Fault-line neighborhoods remain deadly for Iraqis and for us, while others, such as Haifa Street north of the Green Zone, which saw pitched battles as recently as last January, have begun to flourish again. Progress may be tenuous and security frail in the absence of U.S. forces, yet it’s impossible to deny that the situation in the early autumn of 2007 is far better than it was one year ago.
The shift in political alignments is evident in Baghdad, as well. Sunni neighborhoods, once bitterly hostile, increasingly welcome U.S. forces (and “welcome” is, indeed, the appropri¬ate word — by providing dependable security at last, the U.S. military excited a fresh enthusiasm for our presence; Sunni Arabs do not want us to leave until a national settlement is in place and proven in practice). On the other hand, Sadr City, which I was not able to visit, remains volatile and embittered, its Lumpenproletariat schooled by fanatics.
Of course, the re-invented American relationship with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, whether in Baghdad or in the provinces, fuels Shiite paranoia and the local passion for conspiracy theories is super¬charged by the local passion for conspiracies. Viewing politics as a zero-sum game, Shiite leaders view our new accommodation with the Sunnis and even the pacification of Sunni-Arab neighborhoods in Baghdad as a calculat¬ed diminution of their power and even as a betrayal. Our desire to build construc¬tive relationships with both sides simply doesn’t match the codes of the Shiites’ mental software and the program threat¬ens to go haywire. In the country’s Shiite-heartland south, where the ballyhooed British “light touch” failed comprehen¬sively, there is no longer any hope of an equitable, integrated society, and women’s rights have been reversed by a century.
Yet, it would be strategically disas¬trous to write off the very real progress made this year as meaningless. We’re recovering from nearly four years of appalling errors in Iraq. An objective observer, if one could be found these days, would be startled by how far we’ve come since January. Much of this progress is, of course, due to the fresh approach implemented by Gen. David Petraeus, but, as Petraeus himself stress¬es, many of the elements of the new strategy were already falling into place as local commanders explored their own initiatives for engaging and seducing former enemies. One quality of a first-rate commander that too often goes overlooked is the ability of a leader to recognize when his subordinates already have it right and either to build upon their success or get out of the way. While the return of Petraeus in his new role as our military commander had a decisive effect in Iraq, if not in Washington, our subsequent successes have been a col¬lective achievement — which Petraeus is the first to point out. If our political leaders often seem to have learned little or nothing, our military, educated by six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, has learned a great deal.
QUO VADIS, BABY?
We don’t know where Iraq is headed because the Iraqis don’t know. No mat¬ter how well our military performs, the complex population of Iraq will deter¬mine their country’s future in the end — if Iraq endures as a single entity. Yet, I returned from this trip to Iraq guardedly optimistic. Success, which must now be defined down to a rational level, would be characterized by three achievements: al-Qaida hammered down, Iran kept out, and sectarian violence reduced to a level that allows for general governance. On the first count, we’re winning. On the second, we’re holding the line. On the third, we’re making progress, but the danger of an intra-Shiite conflict is a wild card, while intransigent Shiite soli¬darity vis-à-vis Iraq’s minorities poses the greatest immediate obstacle to our strategic aspirations for the region.
Iraq isn’t going to emerge as our dreamed-of model democracy in the Middle East. It may even end up in a hard partition. But there’s a reasonable chance that a confederated Iraq will find its way to a more-equitable form of government than any major state in the region (except for Israel) has achieved. Given how badly the occupation was botched early on, that would constitute a very big win for us. And even a stum¬bling democracy would be a great advance for the region.
The one thing we must avoid, what¬ever our individual political biases, is linear projections: If A and B, inevitably C. The Sunni Arab change of sides may only have been the first step in a com¬plex series of internal re-alignments, and so much is in flux that we may find ourselves with unexpected allies of con¬venience — or new enemies — within the Shiite community. But for all of the infernal complexity at work in Iraq today, we must bear in mind two funda¬mental points:
First, when all of the highfalutin’ the¬ories have been propounded and hom¬age has been paid to every anthropolog¬ical nuance, counterinsurgency warfare is about killing those who need killing, helping those who need help — and knowing the difference between the two. On that count, we’ve made enor¬mous progress.
The second point has to do with loy¬alties and alliances, and it’s ultimately clear-cut, as well: Those who help us kill our enemies are our allies, and those who continue to kill our troops are our enemies. For all their alarm over our new alliance with their country’s Sunni Arabs, Iraq’s Shiites need to figure that one out.