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If at First You Don’t Succeed in Iraq, Surge, Surge Again

U.S. Army soldiers in Baghdad in 2008. (Photo: flickr/cc/The U.S. Army)

America’s new strategy for resolving the Sunni-Shi’ite crisis in Iraq? The Surge — again.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey sounds as if he were reading off the 2007 script, echoing the divide-and-conquer strategy that was the basis for the Surge: “If you can separate those [Sunni] groups,” Dempsey said, “then the problem becomes manageable and understandable.”

So, Washington is now sending U.S. officials to meet with Sunni tribal leaders and others. The ultimate goal — after hopefully forcing out foreign fighters from within Sunni ranks in 2014, as in 2007 — is political reconciliation between Sunni and Shi’ite.

It won’t work, because it hasn’t.

History is, in the end, all that matters. In January 2007, following signs that the metastasizing Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in Iraq was not about to stop without some new sort of intervention, then-President George W. Bush announced the Surge. The most public component was the deployment of 26,000 additional military personnel to Iraq, a clenched fist of freedom.

But there was another side: a plan to take advantage of fissures inside the bloc of Sunni forces, primarily those between foreign fighters such as al Qaeda and the local Sunni tribes. U.S. forces created a cadre of local Sunnis, first dubbed the Orwellian “Concerned Local Citizens” and later renamed the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq, to cleave off al Qaeda through an Awakening.

In return for Iraqi Sunnis partnering with coalition forces, Washington would pay them well to guard checkpoints and do temporary make-work.

With an eye toward the exits in 2009, Washington attempted to shift the Sahwa payments to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government. Maliki, however, did not continue most of the payments and reneged on his promise to find real jobs for the Sons of Iraq.

The United States walked away from the problem. The Sunni-Shi’ite crisis, kicked off by the near-complete chaos of 2003 and unresolved by the Surge, was left to simmer.

I saw it happen. As a State Department Foreign Service officer, I worked in some of the same areas again consumed by sectarian fighting. In 2009, I had begun hearing from Sunni tribal leaders that the Shi’ite government was not finding decent work for their young men — only about 20 percent were ultimately given any job. Payments from the Iraqi government had also trailed off nationwide. For example, 50 percent of the Sahwa had not been paid in April and May 2010.


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One terrifying day, I was sent out to assure a heavily armed Sunni warlord that he should be patient. We were, after all, building a democracy in Iraq. So a few late payments could be expected.

That long afternoon, over many glasses of too-sweet tea, the warlord explained to me how efforts to keep disparate but loosely allied groups separate but content stretched back to his great-grandfather and the Ottoman Turks and had continued with his grandfather and the British occupiers. It was also a standard tool of control under Saddam Hussein.

But deals had to be honored. His message was blunt: If the Maliki government did not fulfill its promises of jobs, money and a political role for the Sunnis, he would send his men back to war.

Not a threat per se. More of an attempt to explain to an amateur like me how divide-and-conquer was played — by someone whose family had been at it long enough that they likely helped invent the game.

With the Sunni-Shi’ite simmer now at full boil, U.S. officials are again “seeking ways to exploit emerging fissures between the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant [ISIL] and Iraqi extremist groups allied with it.” They are again talking about reconciliation. Sound familiar?

A Shi’ite government has been in power since 2006, and political reconciliation has still not taken place. Quite the opposite, in fact. Post-occupation, Sunnis were singled out for arrest, torture and recrimination. Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashimi was sentenced to death in 2012 and remains in exile.

A diverse group of Sunni fighters has controlled western Iraq, including the city of Fallujah, since January. The Shi’ite government’s response was to attack, not reconcile. Despite a $25- billion training investment by the United States, the Iraqi Army is crippled by sectarianism. Maliki has turned to the same militias who fought the Sunnis during the insurgency. The Iraqi air force airlifted some 4,000 civilian Shi’ite “volunteers” to Ramadi to fight against Sunnis. Iraqi security forces and militias executed at least 255 Sunni prisoners since early June. At least eight were under age 18.

The Iraqi political process looks static. A Shi’ite will likely be the next prime minister, perhaps even Maliki again. Since 2006, the United States has maintained its largest embassy in Baghdad. All those diplomats have not accomplished much toward reconciliation. The Islamic State, as ISIL now calls itself, did not appear as some byproduct of the Syrian mess; it evolved in response to recent history. And for the Sunnis, history is what matters now.

Dempsey is right about one thing. The Sunnis who make up the Islamic State are a diverse group of foreign fighters, tribal warlords, politicized jihadis and secular Baathists. There are significant fissures among them. Yet despite their differences, there is collectively little good will toward the Shi’ite Iraqi government. And a powerful sense of a common enemy.

So any limited Sunni-on-Sunni violence should not be misinterpreted. The Surge failed on these points with the full weight of the U.S. military behind it. Any small-scale attempt to duplicate the Surge will likely yield the same results.

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His new book is We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).

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