John McCain is running on a strategy of Winning in Iraq, but nobody seems to know whose side we are on these days. We started out being on the side of the guys who are most closely associated with Iran. Lately, we've been on both sides at once. But nobody seems to be on our side. The whole situation makes Catch 22 sound like Euclid's Elements.
Now, in the midst of the surge, the Bush administration has done an about-face. Having lost the civil war, many Sunnis were suddenly desperate to switch sides — and Gen. David Petraeus was eager to oblige. The U.S. has not only added 30,000 more troops in Iraq — it has essentially bribed the opposition, arming the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces. To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq's central government. The Americans call the units by a variety of euphemisms: Iraqi Security Volunteers (ISVs), neighborhood watch groups, Concerned Local Citizens, Critical Infrastructure Security. The militias prefer a simpler and more dramatic name: They call themselves Sahwa, or "the Awakening." ...
The American forces responsible for overseeing "volunteer" militias like Osama's have no illusions about their loyalty. "The only reason anything works or anybody deals with us is because we give them money," says a young Army intelligence officer. The 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which patrols Osama's territory, is handing out $32 million to Iraqis in the district, including $6 million to build the towering walls that, in the words of one U.S. officer, serve only to "make Iraqis more divided than they already are." In districts like Dora, the strategy of the surge seems simple: to buy off every Iraqi in sight. All told, the U.S. is now backing more than 600,000 Iraqi men in the security sector — more than half the number Saddam had at the height of his power. With the ISVs in place, the Americans are now arming both sides in the civil war. "Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems," as U.S. strategists like to say. David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. Petraeus, calls it "balancing competing armed interest groups." ...
But loyalty that can be purchased is by its very nature fickle. Only months ago, members of the Awakening were planting IEDs and ambushing U.S. soldiers. They were snipers and assassins, singing songs in honor of Fallujah and fighting what they viewed as a war of national liberation against the foreign occupiers. These are men the Americans described as terrorists, Saddam loyalists, dead-enders, evildoers, Baathists, insurgents. There is little doubt what will happen when the massive influx of American money stops: Unless the new Iraqi state continues to operate as a vast bribing machine, the insurgent Sunnis who have joined the new militias will likely revert to fighting the ruling Shiites, who still refuse to share power.
"We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority," says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. "Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future."
Okay, but isn't "vast bribing machine" a reasonable definition for most governments? And maybe quasi-feudal isn't so bad? Europe puttered along for a long time being feudal. Indeed, perhaps what Iraq and Afghanistan need is formal feudalism: tell a warlord or gang leader that you're now the Earl of Fallujah, so start behaving like an Earl who expects to leave a prosperous Earldom to his son, the Second Earl of Fallujah.
Parker suggests that maybe we should just bribe more guys, which would have to be cheaper than occupying the place.
The hopeful thing is that people do eventually get tired of violence, although it can take awhile, such as three decades in Northern Ireland. My vague impression is that one of the sticking points in the 1998 agreements in Belfast was that the IRA men wanted jobs as policemen. They wanted to spend their declining years trundling about the old neighborhood, smiling at little children, cashing government paychecks, pocketing the odd bribe, whacking upside the head with a shillelagh anybody who gives them any lip. Is that too much to ask for?
Whatever happened there, anyway? My impression is that Southern Ireland finally woke up and started making lots of money, so the fighting in Northern Ireland started looking less like a zero sum game and more like a waste of time.
Are there any lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland that could be applied in Iraq?