Paul Pillar

The Awakening Falls Asleep

While we were all watching the seemingly interminable political deadlock in Baghdad following the Iraqi election in March, another piece of related bad news from Iraq was brewing in Anbar province in the west. The Awakening Councils, the U.S.-backed, locally-based Sunni militias that provided a framework for combating—and weaning fighters away from—Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, have been losing members, or at least losing their loyalty. Some members have quit; others have been dismissed by the governmental entities that oversee the operations of the councils. Reportedly hundreds of the fighters have rejoined Al Qaeda, bringing with them their knowledge of government—and U.S.—security operations. Iraqi officials say that many more who remain on the government payroll may be covertly aiding the insurgency.

It is easy to draw the wrong lessons from this discouraging development. It does not mean that that U.S. encouragement and sponsorship of the Awakening was a mistake. To the contrary, such support was one of the more effective, and cost-effective, measures the United States has taken in Iraq. That probably can still be said even if there are more defections.

Another erroneous conclusion would be that the problems with the Awakening Councils are a reason to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond the agreed deadline of December 2011. Voices in Washington already are calling for such an extension. Do not be surprised to hear the Awakening's troubles used as a further argument for that position. This line of argument is related to common misperceptions about the earlier surge of U.S. troops. The reduction in nationwide violence often attributed to the surge was due at least as much to several other factors, the Awakening being one of them. The Awakening was not facilitated by the surge so much as it was complemented by it.

The political reconciliation among sectarian communities that the surge was supposed to facilitate but never did, and that still has not occurred, is at the heart of the Awakening's current problems. Many in the Shia-dominated central government do not trust the fighters who are part of the Awakening Councils. Many of the fighters are unhappy about not being integrated into the army and police, about pay being late or reduced and weapons being confiscated, and other grievances. Many of them see the government as a threat to their interests or even their lives.

Whatever equilibrium is to reached in Anbar will be reached by the Iraqis themselves. Part of an eventual equilibrium is likely to be continued repulsion among many Sunnis against the tactics and objectives of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which is what gave rise to the Awakening in the first place despite the unresolved sectarian conflict. And before thinking too many thoughts about trying to solve this problem with an extended U.S. troop presence, remember that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not come into existence until after U.S. troops occupied Iraq.