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I’ve mentioned the International Crisis Group before. They call themselves “the world’s leading independent, non-partisan, source of analysis and advice to governments, and intergovernmental bodies like the United Nations, European Union and World Bank, on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict.”

The Crisis Group has published two Iraq pieces recently, with the first one being, Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape. If you want to understand the changing dynamics in Iraq and what is really going on, then you need to read pieces like this. Since they’re 30-40 pages long, single spaced with footnotes however, I doubt you’re going to have time to do that. So, I’ve picked out some of the more relevant points.

On the role the Surge played in calming violence:

“It would be just as simplistic to attribute these facts to the surge alone as it would be to deny any causation between the two. Without a doubt, supplementary troops helped increase security, alter the balance of power and embolden those opposed to al-Qaeda in Iraq to switch sides. But the addition of some 35,000 troops to the 130,000 already there could have only a marginal direct impact; indeed, some of these changes occurred in areas that saw no increase in U.S. military presence. The developments that took place could have come about neither as swiftly nor as massively without concurrent, profound internal transformations. The U.S. did not generate them; rather, and importantly, it showed the subtlety and flexibility necessary to turn them to its advantage. The surge is one element in a set of mutually reinforcing dynamics, the complexities and ambiguities of which must be understood if the current window of opportunity is to be transformed into more sustainable progress…”

“This combination of U.S. firepower and local intelligence proved overwhelmingly effective in clearing large swaths of territory. After four years of an inadequate military doctrine the U.S. military also began implementing the kind of counter-insurgency tactics required to actually hold conquered ground: making safety of the local population rather than force protection a priority; setting up advanced, small bases within local communities; relying on proxies recruited in the neighbourhood; adopting a pragmatic approach to former combatants, even those with American blood on their hands; and helping provide services and encouraging basic economic revival in zones under U.S. control….”

“According to U.S. commanders interviewed by Crisis Group, this would have been impossible without the additional troops provided by the surge. As one put it: I think improvement in security happened because increased forces allowed our division to focus on smaller areas so we could come in and stay. The first thing we did after we took control was to build the patrol base. We came, we secured the area and we stayed, thus projecting a sense of security. Now if something happens in town, my soldiers have probably seen it or heard it – we live with the population. We had a very hard fight in September as we arrived. Al-Qaeda launched several vicious counteroffensives, but these attacks proved unsuccessful. We’d still be around, shops would reopen the next day, and the city would continue to thrive….”

“An insurgent sympathiser claimed: The surge is not what turned things around. A few more U.S. soldiers in Anbar could not weaken the resistance. The surge’s so-called success is due to shifts among Sunnis. We decided we’d better counter Iran’s plans for Iraq. But our cooperation with the U.S. is only temporary and cannot be called collaboration. We remain opposed to the occupation; we don’t forget the ultimate objective, which is to chase out the occupying forces. But right now they play a somewhat positive role. Resisting the occupation doesn’t translate exclusively into armed resistance. At times one must put weapons aside and opt for a longer-term strategy. Some of us oppose this, but I believe it was high time to realise we have a more dangerous enemy than the US. Evidence abounds as to Iran’s hegemonic goals, including the behaviour of its allies within the political system and its provision of weapons and funding to armed groups. We believe Iran was funding terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Why at a certain stage did we choose to side with the Americans rather than Iraqis belonging to al-Qaeda or acting in its name? Because we understood that the murder of our religious leaders, our fighters and our people could only serve foreign agendas. We realised that we couldn’t do with al-Qaeda, and the Americans realised they couldn’t do without us.”

On the current strength of Al-Qaeda in Iraq:

“That al-Qaeda in Iraq has been considerably weakened and suffered significant setbacks is beyond doubt. The movement turned out to be its own worst enemy, overreaching, alienating its constituency and creating an extremely hostile environment for itself even prior to the surge…”

“Al-Qaeda will not disappear for a number of reasons. First, it is not an organisation but an ideology and an appealing one at that. It thrives on the struggle against the U.S. occupation and hegemonic regional policies. Secondly, it has colossal financial capacities, the importance of which is magnified in a country with such ample needs. Thirdly, al-Qaeda’s sectarian outlook is not a disadvantage only, in that many people embrace it. Fourthly, a political vacuum remains, in the sense that the alternative to al-Qaeda’s nihilistic program is not yet convincing to many. Fifthly, it is very much a generational phenomenon, strongly appealing to the young…”

“The U.S. and Iraqi governments reportedly are planning a major offensive to eradicate al-Qaeda in Iraq from its northern refuge, leading some to surmise that the jihadi movement would be eradicated before the end of 2008. However, a senior U.S. military commander was more nuanced: We must continue to press our efforts on al-Qaeda. Mosul is a last urban stronghold, but we also need to do more work up the Tigris river valley, in the Zab triangle [the Little Zab and Great Zab are two effluents of the Tigris, coming down from Kurdistan and joining with the Tigris south of Mosul]. It is a small but significant area. I do believe al-Qaeda’s threat to Iraq has been significantly reduced, but it can regenerate – nothing here is irreversible…”

“We can say al-Qaeda has been weakened and has lost perhaps 50 per cent of its capacities, but it remains, be it in the form of active groups or sleeping cells. They are still up and about in the west of the country, in Salaheddin and elsewhere, and are waiting for a signal that the fight is resuming”, Crisis Group interview, prominent tribal leader from Falluja, March 2008. This notion of “sleeping cells” is a recurrent one. “In reality, the Americans achieved considerable success against al-Qaeda in Anbar, Baghdad, Salaheddin and Diyala. But even Anbar will witness its violent return after its sleeping cells have completed preparations for its revival”, Crisis Group interview, Iraqi analyst with ties to the insurgency, March 2008…”

Why the Sunni Tribes turned on Al-Qaeda:

“What really happened is the Sheiks and tribal leaders decided they could not achieve their political goals with the AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq], in fighting the U.S. and the GOI [government of Iraq]. As such the overwhelming majority of Sunni leaders made four strategic decisions to 1) stop the violence; 2) leverage the U.S. leaders to influence the GOI; 3) reconcile with the GOI; and 4) provide their “sons” to work with us and the Iraqis to help defeat the AQI and protect their own people.…Clearly the Sunnis are politically reconciling with the GOI, and the GOI is assisting…”

“As of 2007, the U.S. military effort had completely failed; they had lost Anbar governorate. Things started to change for reasons that had nothing to do with them. The conflict between al-Qaeda and several sheikhs, foremost among them Sattar Abu Risha, was prompted by competition for control of spoils deriving from traffic on the Baghdad-Amman highway…”

“However, the phenomenon is more nuanced. There are confessional motivations, to be sure, but sectarianism often is rejected by tribal figures whose own rather liberal conception of Islam is more consistent with a national, secular agenda than with a narrow, fundamentalist one. They tend to condemn what they see as a sectarian, Iranian-backed government rather than Shiites per se…”

“A sahwa leader said: Al-Qaeda has only itself to blame if we now allow the Americans to walk freely in the streets of Ramadi, Baghdad and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda messed everything up, killed and expelled innocent people. They planted the seeds of sectarianism and sedition. Before, Sunnis and Shiites were brothers. They used to live together, from north to south, with Christians and other religions. I don’t even like to call them that, but that’s the way things have become. Sunni, Shiite, “triangle of death” and the like: none of this vocabulary was in use prior to the occupation. It came from outside and intoxicated deranged souls who started to rampage and kill their own nation….”

“A sahwa leader explained: We have nothing against mujahidin fighting in the name of God. But these people tarnished the notion of jihad. They targeted educated people and tribal leaders, they blurred lines and interfered in everything. They banned cigarettes and even ruled that tomatoes and cucumbers couldn’t be mixed together. They blew up mobile phone relays. Islam never taught us decapitation. Those committing these crimes often were foreign to Falluja – not necessarily foreigners, but ignorant peasants who killed people as if slaughtering mere animals…”

“All in all, al-Qaeda in Iraq disrupted more than the tribal elite. It dislocated an entire social order, triggering self-preserving, conservative reactions among sheikhs. As one commented, “we are against the occupation, but al-Qaeda went too far. They killed not only our leaders but also our educated people. They undermined society as a whole, assassinating local policemen because they represent the law. But law and police are the basis for stability. And ultimately, we want stability”…”

On Where Things Stand Now

“The conflict appears to have reached a new stalemate. On one side, insurgents face huge, quasi-insurmountable obstacles in areas where U.S. forces have successfully deployed their counter-insurgency tactics; their only hope for a resurgence will come if and when U.S. achievements – in particular, the Sons of Iraq phenomenon – are undone. Their fate, in other words, is intricately tied to U.S. actions – its ability to strike and sustain local deals and achieve meaningful political progress as well as the pace and scope of any withdrawal…”

“On the other side, the surge appears to have reached its limits. It has had little to no impact in Ninawa or in parts of Salaheddin and Kirkuk (although the establishment of the Huwayja sahwa was one of the surge’s important indirect outcomes). Lacking sufficient troops, the counter-insurgency tactics applied in some areas are hard to replicate elsewhere; moving U.S. forces to new locations and leaving behind Iraqi security forces would be risky, for they remain weak and unreliable. Paradoxically, in most areas the surge highlighted the inability of Iraqi forces, working on their own, to protect the local population and gain its confidence. Moreover, as the surge phases out, the fragility of local deals with the U.S. risks becoming more apparent, adding to the difficulty of convincing tribes and insurgent groups in the northern governorates to emulate their counterparts further south…”

“In sum, although the insurgency has been cut down to a more manageable size, what remains is an enduring source of violence and instability. It also likely could rapidly revive should there be lack of political progress, disappointment with existing deals or other setbacks, be it at a local or national level…”


“Ultimately, stability will require that such rivalries be mediated neither through violence nor buy-off, but by functional, legitimate state institutions. This will take time, but initial movement in that direction requires the U.S. and others to push for a genuinely inclusive political system rather than sustain a deeply sectarian and corrupt one. As further described in the companion report, this means finding ways – eg, new provincial and then national elections; more pressure on the Iraqi government; a broader domestic gathering (al-Qaeda in Iraq excluded) coupled with greater regional engagement to forge a new political consensus – to bring together the nation’s various elements. One immediate step would be for the U.S., perhaps through the UN, to negotiate with what remains of an insurgency that cannot be militarily defeated and that could revive if this opportunity – the most promising since 2003 – is wasted…”

Related Reading:
  • Victory in Iraq Affects Our Negotiations With Iran as Well
  • Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Lessons For Iraq
  • Iraq Must “Win” Withdrawal Negotiations
  • Obama On The Surge
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