Tag: Anbar Awakening

When Myths Meet Reality in Iraq and Afghanistan

What are America’s prospects in Afghanistan?  Two articles from The New York Times today throw light on the question. 

[America’s Afghanistan] strategy looks a lot like the one that brought General Petraeus success in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. With Iraq engulfed in apocalyptic violence, American field commanders reached out to nationalist-minded guerrilla leaders and found many of them exhausted by war and willing to make peace. About 100,000 Iraqis, many of them insurgents, came on the American payroll. 
The Americans were working both ends of the insurgency. As they made peace with some insurgent leaders, they intensified their efforts to kill the holdouts and fanatics. The violence, beginning in late 2007, dropped precipitously. 
Can the Americans pull off something similar in Afghanistan?
The other article provides a preliminary answer—by undermining the question’s premise. 
Members of United States-allied Awakening Councils have quit or been dismissed from their positions in significant numbers in recent months, prey to an intensive recruitment campaign by the Sunni insurgency, according to government officials, current and former members of the Awakening and insurgents. 
Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency. 
The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shiite-led government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well as by pressure from Al Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have provided Al Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters. 
The Awakening members’ switch in loyalties poses a new threat to Iraq’s tenuous social and political balance during the country’s ongoing political crisis and as the United States military prepares to withdraw next year. 
* * *
One Awakening leader in Diyala, Bakr Karkhi, said during an interview that nearly two dozen of his fighters had rejoined Al Qaeda during the past few weeks, a process he said had been occurring throughout Sunni areas of Iraq. Other fighters, he said, had abruptly stopped reporting for duty. “I became suspicious when some of them started making questionable comments, so I expelled them,” he said. “Others left the Awakening on their own and then disappeared from their villages. We found out they were conducting illegal operations and cooperating with armed groups, including Al Qaeda.” 
Sic Transit Pax Petraeus.  The supposed success of the Iraq “surge” is still anything but clear or assured—despite bipartisan acclaim for it here in the U.S.  The eagerness with which Republicans and Democrats embraced the surge was, of course, not based on long-term research or deep insight.  It was simply an easy way to declare a kind of “victory” in a hugely expensive and bloody war entered on false pretenses and without strategic vision.  In that, it was much like George Bush’s declaration of victory in Iraq onboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln back in 2003. 
On the bright side, the myth of the surge has provided short-term cover for a drawdown of American troops—though some 50,000 remain in Iraq.  That is progress of a sort, but leaves the U.S. heavily committed and the Iraqis still incapable of solving their problems on their own.
The Obama/Petraeus strategy in Afghanistan is to forge a similar myth—as a basis for a similarly slow and hugely costly “withdrawal.”  But if neither the Afghan nor Iraqi surges leads to durable peace–due to deep political distrust between the indigenous forces there–then the policies will in fact be failures.  Sadly, the straws in the wind from today’s news point to exactly that–the predictable result when myths meet realities. 
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Selling the Afghan Surge

As you might expect, I’ve had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about the prospects for the so-called “Afghan surge.” Boosters like to point to the alleged success of the Iraq surge, but many of them ignore some salient points.

For example, the U.S. also changed its military tactics in Iraq even as it implemented the surge. The military embraced counterinsurgency tactics, something it had been reluctant to do since Vietnam.

Moreover, the surge coincided with the so-called Anbar awakening. Sunni tribal sheikhs split from al Qaeda and ended up working with the U.S. military instead of against it. A lot of money apparently changed hands to grease this process.

Matt Yglesias had a fine post Monday noting that the Iraqi national security advisor at the time is not willing to credit the surge with success in his country. Plus, as Yglesias notes, Afghanistan was falling apart even as Iraq was gaining some stability:

Iraq is definitely in better shape than it was three years ago and Afghanistan is definitely in worse shape. It’s not clear that that’s a net strategic gain for the United States nor is it clear that our dispatch of troops to Iraq was really decisive in leading to the improvements.

So, can the surge in Afghanistan work, coupled with COIN tactics?

As I’ve blogged previously, there’s no guarantee that anything like the Anbar Awakening can occur in Afghanistan. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that American troops are not popular in Afghanistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan are extremely unpopular there. Thus, we cannot be assured that either a simple surge in troops or a change in military tactics can work in the Af-Pak context.

Yglesias suggests that the biggest success of the Iraq surge has been in PR — proponents created a narrative that allowed for the forthcoming U.S. exit. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for in Afghanistan as well.

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