Good news continues to flow from a most unlikely place, namely Iraq’s Anbar province, home ground of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. Al-Qaeda has blundered and continues to blunder, attacking and alienating the local Sunni population. Adapting, for once, more quickly than the insurgents, the U.S. military has made tactical alliances with some of the Sunni insurgent groups, helping them to fight al-Qaeda. Last Thursday, the same phenomenon spread to a Baghdad Sunni neighborhood, where the locals turned their guns and IEDs on al Qaeda. According to the June 1 Washington Post, America’s second-in-command in Iraq, General Raymond T. Odierno, has authorized his subordinates to make cease-fire agreements with insurgent groups wherever they can.
How real is all this good news, and what does it mean? Some of it, no doubt, is puffery; friends who have recently returned from Anbar province do not describe their time there as a picnic. In the American military chain-of-command, good news is magnified as it moves up the chain while bad news is minimized. The higher you go, the less real the picture.
But some of the good news does appear real. Al-Qaeda has made a classic insurgency blunder. It is attempting to enforce its locally unpopular, Salafist brand of Islam in Sunni regions before it has won the war and consolidated power. In so doing, it has alienated part of its base, an error that can prove fatal. Worse, it seems unable to change course and adopt a “broad front” strategy, perhaps because the Salafist fanaticism of its fighters will not allow it to.
Equally real is the American attempt to capitalize on al-Qaeda’s blunder. General Odierno’s order allowing local cease-fires shows genuine learning on our part. In Anbar, the Marine Corps seems to have done what successful counter-insurgency requires and adopted a policy of de-escalation, though one may wonder to what degree it is successful in getting the troops to do that.
At the same time, if we look at these developments through the lens of Fourth Generation theory, they may mean less than we would hope them to. In Fourth Generation war, there is not one opponent, but a vast kaleidoscope of players, whose relationships to each other change constantly. Each player may, at any given time, be at war with a number of other players, not just one. Alliances tend to be short-term and purely tactical. The fact that some Sunni groups are fighting al-Qaeda does not mean they accept our presence, much less our now-avowed intention to keep forces in Iraq for half a century as in Korea. The Post quoted the mayor of the Sunni Baghdad suburb that rose against al-Qaeda as saying, “But if the Americans interfere, it will blow up, because they are the enemy of us both, and we will unite against them and stop fighting each other.”
More, the fact that some Sunni resistance groups may make cease-fires with American forces or even cooperate with them against al-Qaeda does not mean they accept the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in the Green Zone. In judging the strategic implications of local cease-fires and alliances, we must remind ourselves that the strategic objective is re-creating an Iraqi state. Local cease-fires and alliances between U.S. forces and some Sunni resistance organizations do not necessarily move us toward that goal, however much they may benefit our forces on the ground or work against al-Qaeda. On the contrary, they may represent an acceptance on our part of the absence of an Iraqi state and our inability to create one. Such acceptance may be realistic and necessary, but it is also a recognition of strategic failure, whether or not we perceive it.
This points to a third important qualifier, one I have noted before: in this kind of war, as in many other kinds, strategic success cannot be attained merely by adding up tactical successes. That is Second Generation, attrition- warfare thinking. On the contrary, the strategic level has a logic of its own, and attaining strategic goals requires good strategy, not just successful tactics. It is not clear, at this point, that America has anything that can be called a strategy in Iraq.
Putting the good news from Anbar in this larger perspective is not intended to diminish what the Marines are accomplishing there. Splitting our opposition is certainly preferable to uniting it; local, tactical alliances are better than no alliances; and local cease-fires do more for us than local fire-fights. Anything that furthers de-escalation is a plus. The fact that all of these may point to improving adaptability on the part of U.S. higher command levels is the best news of all. Rigidity at those levels, much of it no doubt driven by the rigidity of the Bush administration, has been both a cause and a sign of our despair.
But like German tactical successes on the Eastern Front in 1945, we ought not read too much into good news from Anbar. The bigger picture remains grim. Tactical successes, successes not in winning battles but in de-escalating the conflict, will only become meaningful if they are matched by changes of course at the strategic level, which is to say changes in policy. Any such changes would require the concurrence of a White House which, from all appearances, is millions of miles from earth.
WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.