Sunday, May 18, 2008

Buying Security in Iraq

(Kirkuk Iraq) - America is taking the next logical step in Iraq to cut violence.
Too bad it's about 4 years late.
Until the latest spike in violence, insurgent activity had dropped off dramatically, to about 40 American deaths a month. Partly because renegade religious leader Muqtada al Sadr declared a ceasefire. But mostly because the Sunnis for the most part threw in the towel. Al Qaeda's barbarous acts against the very Sunnis who most supported them drove those same Sunnis to turn against the insurgent group and throw them out.
Now many of the Sunnis are manning checkpoints, riding around in cars and generally keeping the peace in their own neighborhoods across the Sunni areas.
Now American patrols routinely stop at these checkpoints, talk and joke with the Sunni "fighters," hand out some water, and find out what the insurgents are up to in the area.
It's a remarkably effective way to quell violence. If someone lays a roadside bomb, it's these neighborhood security groups that have the local knowledge to find the perpetrator.
For this the Americans pay the Sunni fighters the princely sum of somewhere between $125 a month to $250 a month per fighter, depending on the area. In this part of northern Iraq there are 12,000 of these fighters. Upward of 70,000 across the country.
It is probably the best bargain America ever made. One of the reasons the al Qaeda message was initially so attractive is because al Qaeda paid good money. For an unemployed Iraqi man, especially one with a family, getting $100 in return for firing a gun at America forces or helping to lay a roadside bomb is a meal ticket good for a month.
Many American officers knew as far back as 2004 that the economic incentive was a major factor in quelling the insurgency. That's not surprising. Counter-insurgencies are waged at the level of the village, neighborhood and household. That meant sergeants, lieutenants and captains knew what was going on better than the generals.
But that knowledge didn't flow upwards. To take away the economic attractions of al Qaeda meant the Americans needed to spend money on a massive scale and spread it around in small chunks. Like a 1930s-era Works Projects Administration.
That essentially is what these US-funded Sunni security groups do - they pay American dollars to military-minded Iraqis to stay away from al Qaeda. We out-bid al Qaeda for their services and we won. Violence is down. It works.
Finally and at last the military is taking that idea and extending it. A new program called the Civilian Service Corps (CSC) is being created. It aims to get thousands of people into job training and into viable construction companies, and give them a guaranteed paycheck for about a year, courtesy of the America taxpayer. It will bring economic stimulus to large areas of Iraq.
The idea, essentially, is to let the Iraqis eat their way out of the insurgency. As ideas go it's a winner.
But the problem with ideas like this is they are not "sexy." Economic training and jobs programs are... yawn... boring. Sadly, they are also much more effective than kicking in doors and shooting people.
This massive jobs program didn't happen in 2004 because the American military leaders didn't have the ability to take the information from below and develop something like the CSC. And because the rules governing the military's use of funds for civil projects actually prohibited spending money for programs like the CSC.
It will be interesting over the next year to see if the CSC works. If it doesn't work it won't be because it's not a good idea - it's probably the best one of the past year. It will be because the idea is so gosh-darn unbearably boring that no one will take it seriously.

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