Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
From the beginning of the insurgency in the summer of 2003 to the U.S. congressional elections in November 2006, there was little or no evidence that U.S. forces were winning the war in Iraq. Virtually all independent military and political strategists agreed that the only questions were how we would lose and what would be the consequences of that loss (e.g., would they be as bad as Vietnam, or perhaps even worse?). This common understanding was exemplified in November 2006 in a special issue of the New Republic, in which a symposium of 14 foreign-affairs analysts (myself included) debated how to make our outcome in Iraq “the least grim” from the U.S. point of view.
Then something happened. Indeed, enough has happened that now The American Interest can devote a symposium of its own to the question, “What if we win?”
The best way to answer this new question is to examine what happened to make it possible to raise it. This is because the nature of our “win” will be determined by the new conditions that might bring it about, and here we have at least two plausible, but quite different, answers.
The Bush Administration and its supporters point to “the surge.” The increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq (actually, only a net addition of about 25,000) has at last tipped the balance and provided the margin of victory against the insurgents. And along with the U.S. military surge has come a U.S. political surge: The Administration’s persistent pressure on Iraq’s Shi‘a-dominated government has at last caused that government (such as it is) to open itself to moderate Sunni leaders, so that the Sunni population as a whole has withdrawn support from the insurgents.
If this tale is true, we can expect that the Sunnis will now be reconciled to accept a minority but secure position in the new Iraq defined by Shi‘a majority rule, but also by substantial minority rights for both the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds. This new Iraq will be democratic, pluralistic and even, to a degree, federal. It will be an Iraq whose political organization and operations will be rather like those of the United States. This would be a handsome win indeed.
But, the Bush Administration’s tale continues, there is a serpent in this garden, one that could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: the time constraint on the U.S. military surge. The surge cannot be sustained throughout the coming year and into 2009, in part due to problems of recruitment, retention and overstretch within the U.S. military. However, most of the time constraint we face is due to the reckless and relentless pressure from Democrats—both their congressional representatives and their presidential candidates—to bring the U.S. troops home prematurely. If the Democrats achieve their goal, they will have thrown away the Administration’s, and America’s, win in Iraq. It will replicate what congressional Democrats did in 1974–75 with the Nixon Administration’s and America’s win in Vietnam, where the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 had achieved the basic U.S. objective, which was the political independence and territorial integrity of South Vietnam. But the consequences of abandoning victory in Iraq—centrally located in the vast oil region of the Persian Gulf—would be far worse than those from abandoning victory in Vietnam.
There is, however, a second tale of our winning in Iraq. Those who are actually doing the winning, the U.S. military, point to something more than the surge in U.S. troops and the Bush Administration’s ministrations in Baghdad. This is the surge in Sunni allies at the local level, such as the Awakening Councils. Often composed of former Sunni insurgents who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, this surge began largely independent of U.S. initiatives. Al-Qaeda had engaged in actions highly offensive to the local Sunni tribes, such as marginalizing or even assassinating their sheiks and forcing their women into marriages with al-Qaeda members. The result by early 2006 was a growing civil war within the Sunni insurgency itself, particularly within Anbar province, where the insurgency had been most successful.
However, this development in the Sunni tribes nicely complemented the new approach developed by the U.S. Army, and particularly by the man who would become the new U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus. Petraeus had no special expertise in such local conditions as Iraqi tribal organization, Sunni identity and Arab culture. But he was the leading and most sophisticated Army expert on counterinsurgency (indeed, he literally wrote the book on the topic: the new U.S. Field Manual), and he put knowledge of local realities and cooperation with local forces at the center of his doctrine. He was therefore perfectly predisposed to see and take advantage of the Sunni tribal developments. This has included paying active male members of the Awakening Councils about $300 a month (a substantial sum in current Iraqi conditions). There are now more than 70,000 members of these councils, and the plan is to increase that number to 100,000.
It is this Sunni civil war—and specifically the Sunni local tribes and Awakening Councils—that really accounts for the winning thus far against the al-Qaeda insurgents (a winning by local groups against a transnational network). The U.S. military has supported and enabled the Sunni Awakening, and has even advised and guided it, but we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that the U.S. military initiated or commands it.
The Sunni Awakening has done much to dry up the Sunni sea in which the al-Qaeda insurgents swam. Or rather, there had been three different insurgent fish swimming in this sea—the transnational al-Qaeda, the Ba‘athi resistance and the local tribes—all cooperating in savagely attacking the hapless whale that was the U.S. military. Now, however, one fish (the tribes) has turned upon another (al-Qaeda). The sea (the Sunni population) will support and sustain the Sunni fish that is most likely to win and to protect them from their worst, long-term enemies. These, unfortunately for the future, are the Shi‘a.
Simply put, the Sunnis are putting themselves in a position to secure their own interests in a post-U.S. Iraq. They seek to regain the military organization and experience they lost with the overthrow of Saddam’s regime and the abolition of the Ba‘athi-dominated Iraqi army and security forces. Moreover, the Awakening Councils are now pressing to have their members admitted into the current Iraqi army and police (such as they are), which are now dominated by Shi‘a. The Shi‘a have every good reason to keep the Sunnis out of these forces (or at least to keep them as marginalized as the Shi‘a were once kept by the Sunnis). Thus the Sunni Awakening Councils are now embarked upon a collision course with the Shi‘a (“Iraqi”) security forces.
The U.S. success against the Sunni insurgents is thus not really explained by the surge in U.S. troops. Indeed, most of the surge military operations have been directed against Shi‘a militias either within Shi‘a areas or in protection of Sunni ones. The surge has also been complemented by the wall, an extensive system of barriers that has been constructed to separate districts of Baghdad. However, it was by containing the Shi‘a militias that the surge established the political conditions that have allowed the Shi‘a central government and some Sunni politicians to make an appearance of compromise on some political issues. But these political conditions are fragile and temporary at best. The leaders of the Shi‘a militias, most importantly Moqtada al-Sadr, have told their men to avoid combat with U.S. soldiers and to lay low—at least until the surge is over, U.S. troops have ebbed home, and the real war from their perspective, the one against the Sunnis, once again begins.
We can now see the nature of the possible U.S. “win” in Iraq. The necessary condition for the U.S. win over the Sunni insurgents has been the empowering of the Sunni tribes. Because these tribes are largely local and found in areas that are largely Sunni, they are the Sunnis who are least threatening to the Shi‘a. Indeed, if these tribes were to control their own locales (but no more), they would actually help to further the Shi‘a objective of an Iraq composed of ethnically separate and largely autonomous regions (all the more so since the Sunni tribes are usually found where the oil fields are not).
However, if these Sunni tribes or the Awakening Councils press to re-establish Sunni control over national Iraqi institutions, the Shi‘a and their militias will resist. Indeed, some resistance is already evident. The more the Sunni allies of the United States achieve their national, as opposed to merely local, goals, the more the Shi‘a will fight to prevent it.
If the U.S. military is still in Iraq when this conflict breaks out, it will be caught in the middle of a war between the Shi‘a militias and the Sunni councils. It could consolidate its “win” by enabling its Sunni allies to crush the Shi‘a militias. That kind of U.S. win would produce a new Sunni dictatorship in Iraq or at least in its Arab provinces. That kind of win would produce in most respects an Iraq rather like the one we went to war against and overthrew in 2003.
Conversely, if the U.S. troops are no longer there, each side’s forces will probably establish rule in the areas where the particular “sea” supports and sustains them—Sunni councils in largely Sunni areas and Shi‘a militias (and the “Iraqi” army and police) in largely Shi‘a areas. This kind of U.S. win would produce an Iraq rather like Yugoslavia after the ethnic wars of the 1990s, only in Iraq there would be no U.S. or European Union forces staying on for years to keep an unstable peace. Instead, neighboring powers would likely try to establish their own version of a peace. Iran would intervene to help the Shi‘a militias, and Saudi Arabia (or at least Saudi organizations) would do so to help the Sunni tribes.
So the necessary condition for our win in Iraq—the military empowerment of the Sunni tribes and councils—will have laid the groundwork for an Iranian-Saudi war, either between their Iraqi proxies, between Iran and Saudi Arabia themselves, or perhaps a cluster of vaguely linked wars between Shi‘a and Sunnis in much of the Muslim world. That could in theory constitute a kind of win for the United States in cold-blooded realpolitik terms, but it certainly would not look like anything most Americans would recognize as a win. Still, if real life can be stranger than fiction, there is no good reason why success cannot seem stranger than defeat.