Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Mystery of The Sunni Switch

Al Asad airbase, western Iraq -  As you know, Anbar Province in western Iraq is now pretty quiet. It used to be about the worst of the worst, and the bastion of the Sunni insurgency.  Now there is about one tenth as much violence as before.  It is pretty close to the "acceptable level of violence" that is the goal here.
It has happened because the Sunnis have allied themselves with the Iraqi government and US military, and booted out al Qaeda.
But how did it happen?  How did the Sunnis decide to fight against al Qaeda and throw in their lot with their sworn enemies?
This question is important.  Very important.  It is the final score card on how to fight these kinds of wars, how the US did here, and what to do next.
There are two very different answers as to what happened and why.  One is right, one is wrong. I don't know which is which, but here are the versions and the evidence.
Scenario 1 - The Marines (who run Anbar) did such a great job the enemy just gave up.  The combination of ferocious attacks coupled with civil affairs projects (building schools, wells, roads etc) convinced the local Sunni sheikhs, who make the decisions, that the game wasn't worth the candle. Why endure the hurt when the US Marines and subordinate units instead will offer economic benefits and then go home?  So they joined the US and Iraqi government and went against al Qaeda.  This scenario portrays the Marines as increasingly in control.
Scenario 2 - The locals got sick of al Qaeda and unilaterally decided to get rid of them. They fought al Qaeda and then allied themselves with the Iraqi government and the US military, which were seen as the lesser evil.  The sheikhs realized the US would eventually leave.  In this version, al Qaeda essentially controlled the province for years, but their tyranny became too onerous.  Cutting hands off for stealing, summary executions for trivial offenses, killing popular local sheikhs for petty transgressions, forcing marriages between the daughters of local sheikhs and al Qaeda cadres.  It was unbearable and so the Sunnis rose up.
The evidence is this:
- The Marines spent some money but not a huge amount on local aid projects.  I don't think I saw one in 2 years of being in Anbar.  There were a good number, but there just seemed to be less than in other areas.
- The local Sunni sheikhs told US Army soldiers that last November (2006) they got sick of al Qaeda and started to fight them.  The extremists were too out of step with mainstream Iraqi culture, which is actually quite permissive. The Sunnis fought al Qaeda from November until January, when the US military noticed what was going on.  By March the US military was cooperating with the Sunni "rebels", even on operations.  By June it was over and the Sunni sheikhs won, al Qaeda lost.
- The conventional wisdom was that Anbar was a province that could be held but never converted.  It would just eventually go along with developments in other parts of Iraq.  The "win" would be gradual. But in fact, within six months the change was 180 degrees, and the war was mostly won here.  The flip was relatively quick - and not a gradually increasing ascendancy over the area predicted by the US military's own estimates.
So that's the evidence.  And those are the theories.
This all matters because the Marines now want to "take over" the war in Afghanistan, using their "highly effective" methods developed in Anbar.
That's a good idea if you believe the Marines won in Anbar - after all, they won because they know how to fight counterinsurgencies.
It is a lousy idea is you believe the other scenario - that al Qaeda was not only in control, but in such authoritative control that the local Sunnis were forced to take matters into their own hands.  And the Marine methods created essentially no victory in the war.  Al Qaeda did that all by themselves.
Personally I think the Marines ought to stay out of Afghanistan.


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