The Best Defense

Iraq: the unraveling?

I thought some of the surge-era deals in Iraq would unravel but I didn't think that would begin happening this quickly. It's only March 2009, and already Awakening fighters are fighting U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad.

Anyone who tells you that the Iraq war is over should be forced to memorize this paragraph from the Sunday edition of the Washington Post:

As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage.

That is Iraq 2009. Does it sound peaceful to you? Does it seem like the political questions vexing Iraq have been solved?

Here is a quote of the day:

If they don't release Adil Mashadani, all the Awakening in Iraq will rise up like our uprising today," he [a local Awakening Council spokesman] added."

Along with the bombings in west Baghdad lately, the street fighting  over the weekend doesn't quite form a trend. But it points toward one possible series of events. That is, the Maliki government is putting the screws to the Awakening movement (for those who just arrived, that's a mainly Sunni group of about 100,000 people, many of them former insurgents, who in late 2006 and 2007 arrived at ceasefires with the U.S. military presence in Iraq). The American plan was to integrate about 20,000 members of Awakening groups into Iraqi security forces, and help the rest find other work. Meantime, the Baghdad government was supposed to take over the payments to the groups, which when I last checked totaled about $30 million a month.

But the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government never really liked the idea. Indeed, the first deals were cut by U.S. officials behind the back of the Iraqi government. So Maliki's guys are:

  • Arresting some leaders of the "Sons of Iraq" (the American term for Awakening forces)
  • Attacking others
  • Bringing only 5,000 of the ex-insurgents into the Iraqi security forces
  • And stiffing others on pay, with some complaining they haven't been paid in weeks or even months

I think Maliki's gambit is to crack down on the Sunnis while American forces are still available in sufficient numbers to back him up. This is a turning into a test of strength, Sunni vs. Shiite.  

There's more. If the Awakening fighting spreads, I wouldn't be surprised to see Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia re-emerge. I've always thought the Sunni Awakening forced him to go to ground, because he didn't want to be the only guy taking on American forces. But if the Sunnis are on the attack again, it might be game on for him as well. I am reminded of Ambassador Ryan Crocker's worry, expressed in my new book and elsewhere, that the future of Iraq was something like Lebanon. That is, it has a government, but it is shaky, and there is violence in the streets, with some political parties having armed wings that are outside the control of the government.

The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid calls this all "potentially worrisome." When Shadid begins to worry, we all should. He's the guy who back in early 2004 used to encourage me to take taxis around Baghdad.

Proven provider John McCreary of NightWatch fame is even more emphatic:

This is a pre-cursor of the second round of the Sunni-Shia civil war to follow."

Question of the day: What should I say the next time someone tells me the surge "worked"?

ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images

The Best Defense

Is that it?

I liked President Obama's Afghan stuff, as far as it went. Reducing American goals and training Afghan security forces makes sense. And reaching out to less extreme Taliban leaders is also worth trying. But I was surprised by how little the president had to offer on the other big problems. Sure, corruption in Afghanistan is easy to denounce, Mr. President, but what are you going to do about it? How are you going to stop the police from shaking down Afghans and so driving them into arms of the Taliban?

Finally, what about the Pakistani military? The saying is that most countries have militaries, while in Pakistan the military has a country.

Right now the Pakistani armed forces are part of the problem. Obama gave no indication of how they might be made part of the solution, and that worries me. I know it is difficult to say anything about this publicly -- but he should have said something.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images