Fighting al Qaeda in Iraq

Mixed news this morning on the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq. John Burns and Alissa Rubin report that arming relatively friendly Sunni groups to fight the terrorists is showing promise.

American commanders say they have successfully tested the strategy in Anbar Province west of Baghdad and have held talks with Sunni groups in at least four areas of central and north-central Iraq where the insurgency has been strong. In some cases, the American commanders say, the Sunni groups are suspected of involvement in past attacks on American troops or of having links to such groups. Some of these groups, they say, have been provided, usually through Iraqi military units allied with the Americans, with arms, ammunition, cash, fuel and supplies.

American officers who have engaged in what they call outreach to the Sunni groups say many of them have had past links to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia but grew disillusioned with the Islamic militants’ extremist tactics, particularly suicide bombings that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. In exchange for American backing, these officials say, the Sunni groups have agreed to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American units. Commanders who have undertaken these negotiations say that in some cases, Sunni groups have agreed to alert American troops to the location of roadside bombs and other lethal booby traps.

Of course, as we’ve seen many times in the past, arming the enemy of our enemy can backfire down the road:

But critics of the strategy, including some American officers, say it could amount to the Americans’ arming both sides in a future civil war. The United States has spent more than $15 billion in building up Iraq’s army and police force, whose manpower of 350,000 is heavily Shiite. With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shiite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a risk that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shiites. There is also the possibility the weapons could be used against the Americans themselves.

Over at WaPo, Joshua Partlow and John Ward Anderson tell a different story.

A tribal coalition formed to oppose the extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, a development that U.S. officials say has reduced violence in Iraq’s troubled Anbar province, is beginning to splinter, according to an Anbar tribal leader and a U.S. military official familiar with tribal politics.

In an interview in his Baghdad office, Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, 35, a leader of the Dulaim confederation, the largest tribal organization in Anbar, said that the Anbar Salvation Council would be dissolved because of growing internal dissatisfaction over its cooperation with U.S. soldiers and the behavior of the council’s most prominent member, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. Suleiman called Abu Risha a “traitor” who “sells his beliefs, his religion and his people for money.”

They note that there is some dispute as to whether this is just a reconfiguring of forces or an impending collapse. Either way, though, it’s a tightrope walk:

But the divisions within the coalition underscore what many see as a central dilemma: Should the United States be sponsoring profit-oriented tribal groups that involve themselves in sometimes fragile alliances and that could turn against U.S. troops? “The question with a group like this always is, does it stay bought?” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to suggestions that the United States is paying for loyalty from the tribes. Although backing the tribal coalition looks like “the least bad option” under the current circumstances, he said, “The key is, what can the Iraqi government offer them over time, and is it enough for them to stay with the bargain?”

There are no guarantees that this will work. Still, it’s more likely to bear fruit than introducing more American troops into the scene, and certainly more easily accomplished.

UPDATE: Tina Susman and Garrett Therolf indirectly get at a different aspect of this:

Two U.S. generals gave poor marks Sunday to Iraqi security forces for a lack of readiness, assessments that bode ill for Iraq’s ability to fend for itself as pressure builds in Washington to draw down American troops.

Though both military leaders said Iraqi soldiers had made progress in recent months, one said the Shiite-led Iraqi army lacked top-notch senior officers. Both described the national police force as riddled with corruption and sectarianism. One general told reporters that in his area of command, the situation was so dire that the U.S. military was looking to fill the void by arming Sunni Arabs linked to tribal sheiks and militant groups who were willing to work with Americans enforcing security.

So, even if this plan is ultimately successful, that it is being tried at all is an indication of the failure to assemble a top-notch Iraqi security force. This, of course, is a direct result of dismantling the pre-existing police and military force. No matter how strong the training program, one can’t manufacture competent senior leaders in a matter of three or four years; that takes decades of experience.

FILED UNDER: Religion, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    The Sunni-arming thing sounds so intuitively crazy that it’s hard to see how it could have good results in the long run. I doubt however that “the long run” is the concern of many American leaders now.

  2. Tlaloc says:

    Of course, as we’ve seen many times in the past, arming the enemy of our enemy can backfire down the road

    It’s our favorite mistake, one we seem intent on making at least every other decade. History would be a lot more interesting if it wasn’t so tediously repetitive.

    I mean really, can’t we try to $#%^ up in a new way just once in a while?