Iraq in Perspective

Iraq in Perspective

Amidst all the talk of troop numbers, drawdowns and militia crackdowns, TNI makes sense of the Iraq situation.

Amidst all the talk of troop numbers, drawdowns and militia crackdowns, TNI makes sense of the Iraq situation: Stephen Biddle, Andrew Michta and Steven Metz weigh in.


Patient Stabilized?
Stephen Biddle


IRAQ'S PROGNOSIS is better today than it has been for a long time. An end to major violence, and with it a major reduction in the risk of a wider war and the human cost of further bloodshed, is now a real possibility. But to realize this potential won't be cheap or easy. And it won't produce Eden on the Euphrates. A stable Iraq would probably look more like Bosnia or Kosovo than Japan or Germany.

This is because the likeliest route to stability in Iraq is not by winning hearts and minds or reaching a grand political bargain in Baghdad. It is by building on a rapidly expanding system of "bottom up" local cease-fires, in which individual combatant factions who retain their arms nevertheless agree to stop using them and stand down. Of course, fighters who voluntarily stop shooting can voluntarily start again; such deals are not inherently stable or self-policing. But neither are these merely accidents or brief tactical breathing spells. Cease-fires in Iraq have spread so rapidly because they reflect an underlying, systematic shift in the war's strategic calculus since early 2006 that has now made peace look better than war for the major combatants. This same strategic reality gives most of the remaining holdouts a similar incentive to stand down, which could bring an uneasy stability to Iraq.

If so, the challenge for the United States would not end. The mission would shift from war fighting to peacekeeping, and U.S. casualties would fall accordingly. But a continued presence by a substantial outside force would be essential for many years to keep a patchwork quilt of wary former enemies from turning on one another.

This was not what the administration had in mind when it designed the surge or invaded Iraq. And it will not produce a strong, internally unified, Jeffersonian democracy that spreads liberty through the Middle East while standing in alliance with America against extremist and hegemonic threats in the region. But it can stop the fighting, save the lives of untold thousands of innocent Iraqis who would otherwise die brutal, violent deaths, and secure America's remaining vital strategic interest in this conflict: that it not spread to engulf the entire Middle East in a regionwide war. Eden this is not. Reasonable people could judge it too costly or too risky. But there is now a greater chance of stability in exchange for this cost and risk than there has been since this war's early months-and given the stakes, the case for staying and doing what is needed is stronger now than it has been for years.


THE ORIGINAL idea behind the surge was to reduce the violence in Baghdad, enabling the Iraqis to negotiate the kind of national power-sharing deal we thought would be necessary to stabilize the country. The violence came down, but the compromise did not follow. Instead, a completely different possibility arose-a "bottom up" approach beginning with a group of Sunni tribal sheikhs in Anbar Province.

In a span of just a few months, this "bottom-up" approach has yielded more than one hundred local cease-fires across much of western and central Iraq. The participants agree not to fight U.S. or Iraqi government forces, to turn their arms instead on common enemies, to wear distinguishing uniforms, to patrol their home districts, to limit their activities to those home districts and to provide coalition forces with biometric data (e.g., fingerprints and retinal scans) for all members. In exchange they receive recognition as legitimate security providers in their districts, a pledge that they will not be fired upon by U.S. or Iraqi government forces as long as they observe their end of the agreement and a U.S.-provided salary of $300 per member per month. More than eighty thousand Iraqis have now joined the "Awakening Councils" or "Concerned Local Citizen" (CLC) groups that implement these deals.

This was very bad news for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The CLC members had once been their allies, providing the safe houses, financial support, intelligence and concealment that had been essential to AQI. Without this, al-Qaeda was left exposed to U.S. firepower in ways it had never been before. Their ensuing heavy losses in Anbar and Baghdad drove AQI's remnants into the limited areas of Diyala, Salah ad Din and Ninawa Provinces where CLC deals had not yet been reached.

The CLCs are mostly Sunni. But many of the principal Shia combatants are now observing their own cease-fires. In particular, in August 2007 Moktada al-Sadr, the principal Shia militia warlord in central Iraq, directed his Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) or "Mahdi Army" militia to stand down, too.

Holdouts remain, especially in the northern provinces between Baghdad and Kurdistan. But by January 2008, most of the major combatants on both the Sunni and Shia sides were all observing voluntary cease-fires. This produced a dramatic reduction in opposition, a dramatic reduction in the number of enemy-initiated attacks, and a corresponding reduction in U.S. casualties, Iraqi civilian deaths and Iraqi government military losses. There are no guarantees, but it is now increasingly plausible that enough of today's holdouts can be brought around to bring something resembling a nationwide cease-fire to Iraq.


IF THIS happens, will the cease-fires hold? After all, voluntary decisions to stop fighting can be reversed. CLC members and JAM militiamen retain their weapons. Many are essentially the same units, under the same leaders, that fought coalition forces until agreeing to stop in 2007. Many retain fond hopes to realize their former ambitions and seize control of the country eventually. Many observers have thus argued that these cease-fire deals could easily collapse. And indeed they could.

But this is not unusual for cease-fires meant to end communal civil wars such as Iraq's. These typically involve very distrustful parties; they often begin with former combatants agreeing to cease-fires but retaining their arms; and they are always at risk of renewed violence. Many fail under these pressures. But some succeed: in Bosnia, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, for example, cease-fires of this kind have held.

Translating fragile deals into persistent stability requires at least two key conditions: peace has to be in the perceived strategic self-interest of both parties, and outside peacekeepers have to be present to keep it that way.


UNTIL RECENTLY, Iraq failed to meet the first condition. But two major errors by AQI changed the strategic landscape dramatically by mid-2007.

Their first big mistake was to bomb the Shia Askariya Mosque in Samarra in February 2006. Before this, Sunnis believed they were the militarily stronger side; if only they could drive the United States out, they thought they could defeat a weak Shia regime and rule Iraq again. The Shia had largely allowed the U.S. and Iraqi governments to wage war against the Sunnis for them; Shia militias had fought mostly defensively and often stood on the sidelines in Sunni-U.S. combat. But when AQI destroyed the shrine, the Shia militias entered the war in force and on the offensive. The result was the Battle of Baghdad: a yearlong wave of sectarian violence in the capital pitting Sunni insurgent factions and their AQI allies against, especially, the Jaish al-Mahdi. At the time, Americans saw this wave of bloodshed as a disaster-and in humanitarian terms it was. But in retrospect, it may prove to have been the critical enabler of a later wave of cease-fires by changing fundamentally the Sunni strategic calculus in Iraq.

The Battle of Baghdad gave the Sunnis a Technicolor view of what an all-out war would really mean, and they did not like what they saw. With the Americans playing no decisive role, the JAM overwhelmed Sunni combatants in neighborhood after neighborhood, turning what had been a mixed-sect city into a predominantly Shia one. Districts that had been Sunni homeland for generations were now off-limits, populated with and defended by their rivals. By goading the JAM into open battle, AQI had triggered a head-to-head fight in which Sunnis were clearly and decisively beaten by Shia they had assumed they could dominate.

AQI's second mistake was a systematic alienation of its Sunni allies. Fellow Sunnis whom AQI's leadership judged insufficiently devout or committed were treated with extraordinary brutality-including delivery of children's severed heads to the doorsteps of wayward sheikhs. The smuggling networks that Sunnis in Anbar Province relied upon to fund tribal patronage networks were appropriated by AQI for its own use, leaving sheikhs impoverished and disempowered. Before the Battle of Baghdad, most Sunnis tolerated these costs on the assumption that AQI's combat value against Shia and Americans outweighed their disadvantages. Defeat in Baghdad, however, showed that AQI could not deliver real protection, making AQI all cost and no benefit for its coreligionists.

By late 2006, Sunnis who once thought they were on the road to victory thus realized they faced defeat unless they found new allies. This forced them to abandon AQI and turn to the United States while they still could. After initial wariness, U.S. forces took the plunge and aligned with the tribes against AQI. With American firepower connected to Sunni tribal knowledge of whom and where to strike, the ensuing campaign decimated AQI and led to their virtual eviction from Anbar Province. U.S. protection in turn enabled the tribes to survive the inevitable, brutal AQI counterattacks. The result was a provincewide cease-fire under the auspices of the Anbar Awakening Council and the U.S. military.