IRG member David Ucko has published an article in the World Politics Review on the Sons of Iraq phenomenon. The article is reproduced in full below.
The analysis is nuanced and also very timely, in that both Iraq and the United States are approaching elections that will, each in their own way, be critical to the future of Iraq. Examining the origins and evolution of the SoI partnerships, the article challenges some of the spin to surround this important issue.
The article concludes with some sobering analysis of the phenomenon, focusing in particular on the intransigence of the incumbent central government in Iraq to consolidate or react constructively to the new partnerships with tribal elements and former insurgents. The article argues that the US discussion on Iraq must now abandon the either-or option of staying or withdrawing and focus more closely on events on the ground, as they develop in the run-up to the Iraqi provincial elections in October 2008, and the US elections soon thereafter.
Read the full article below.
Upcoming Iraqi Elections Must Consolidate Security Gains of ‘Sons of Iraq’ – David Ucko
In the typically polarized debate on Iraq, the significance of the “Sons of Iraq” — the predominantly Sunni militias now allied with the U.S. military against insurgents and terrorists — can easily be lost. Depending on one’s point of view, the U.S. military’s new Sunni friends are either “concerned local citizens” or “opportunist insurgents” — with pro- and anti-war camps each using the phenomenon to support pre-existing political positions. As Iraq approaches provincial elections in October, however, and the United States nears its own presidential vote, it is high time to abandon easy slogans and to examine the fresh challenges and many opportunities presented by recent events in Iraq. Among such events, the emergence of the Sons of Iraq stands out as particularly important.
Sons of Iraq (SOI) is the collective name used for the tribal elements, insurgents and civilians that turned against extremist groups active in Iraq and began working instead with the U.S. military. With the help of U.S. soldiers and Marines, the SOI have been largely responsible for the decrease in violence seen since the onset of the so-called “surge” in early 2007. The phenomenon, however, predates the surge, finding its origins in al-Anbar province in late 2006. There, the U.S. military and local Sunni tribes were able to seal security pacts with locals to work together against al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and other Islamist armed groups. This pattern soon repeated itself in other parts of Iraq, bringing stability to former insurgent and AQI strongholds. At present, an estimated 103,000 Sons of Iraq (70 percent Sunni; 30 percent Shiite) are working with the U.S.-led coalition.
The Sunni community was for a long time excluded from the state-building project in Iraq: Their ethnic affiliation suggested close proximity to the former regime and their tribal structure clashed with the democratic foundations on which the future Iraqi state was to be built. The decision to disband Baathist security forces also alienated the many Sunnis serving in the Iraqi Army. The added alienation of Sunnis from government — through U.S. military operations, which overwhelmingly targeted the Sunni community, and the ensuing Sunni sense of victimization, leading to their boycott of the January 2005 elections — made this community a natural ally of the insurgents and extremists establishing themselves in Iraq’s power vacuums. Such alliances were based on shared Sunni identity, opposition to the sectarian, Shiite-dominated central government, and to its protector, the American-led coalition. U.S. strategy, meanwhile, seldom differentiated between elements of the Sunni community. The few attempts by various U.S. military units to create and exploit extant rifts were on the whole unsuccessful.
In late 2006, two related factors changed this state of affairs. First, AQI rendered itself deeply unpopular among the Anbar tribes by disrupting or taking over informal business networks, seeking to marry into the higher tribal echelons and through its intimidation and violence. These efforts resulted in a backlash. It was not, as is commonly reported, primarily a matter of AQI brutality — though this aspect certainly accelerated the breakdown in relations. More fundamentally, the backlash grew out of a wider competition over resources, financial networks, social influence and political power. Differences in these areas were what fuelled the violence, itself a crude attempt by AQI to coerce the tribes into submission.
Secondly, the U.S. military changed its strategy, assisting and even enabling the decoupling of Sunni tribes and extremist groups. In short, a number of U.S. brigades moved from a narrow focus on rooting out the insurgency to a broader effort to “end the cycle of violence,” primarily by examining and engaging U.S. adversaries’ various motivations for picking up arms in the first place. This effort resulted in the identification of individuals within the insurgency with whom cooperation would be possible. By pursuing a strategy of co-opting and cooperating with the middle ground, the U.S. military helped achieve the common goal of greater stability while marginalizing more extremist elements.
The U.S. Role
It bears emphasising that the change in U.S. military strategy in Iraq — and the later surge of five additional brigades — directly enabled these collaborative arrangements. Detractors of the new strategy commonly credit the Sunni groups’ shift in allegiance rather than any U.S. action for the ensuing security gains. In most cases, however, the former could not have occurred without the latter.
When the U.S. Army 1st Armored Divison’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, known as the “Ready First Combat Team” (RFCT), first deployed to al-Anbar, it conducted a review of local population and realized most residents of the predominately Sunni province did not willingly side with the extremist elements, as previously assumed. Instead, AQI was escalating its intimidation and was generally disliked, yet the tribes were unable to counter this threat for fear of retaliation. Meanwhile, American assurances of an imminent troop withdrawal, intended to placate the Sunni tribes, in fact heightened their fears of continued AQI intimidation and of an Iranian power-grab (conducted either directly or through the Iraqi government, then widely seen in al-Anbar as a “Persian” puppet government). The RFCT therefore changed the message and the mission: U.S. troops would not leave, but would stand by the sheiks and actively help their forces defend against Iranian interference and AQI violence.
A similar type of partnership was emerging in northwest Baghdad. With a mission statement “to defeat al-Qaida and affiliated movements,” the 1st Infantry Division’s “Dagger Brigade” initiated its tour in November 2006 by carefully studying the local population. It emerged that, in this ethnically mixed area, the Sunni population felt compelled to side with AQI as an imperfect security guarantee against the incursions of Shiite death squads conducting ethnic cleansing. This understanding of the Sunni perspective suggestive an opportunity to “turn” the area’s more moderate fighters.
These pacts were to be sealed with action rather than words. Even before a shift from operating out of isolated forward operating bases became official U.S. strategy, the RFCT, Dagger Brigade and other units deployed to the most volatile sections of their areas of operations to gain the support of the sheiks and of the local population. The Dagger Brigade established combat outposts on the sectarian fault lines separating the Sunni community from Shiite extremist elements. With the first outpost, the unit immediately saw increased participation by local citizens in maintaining security, which in turn allowed for job creation and a more vibrant economy. In Ramadi, combat outposts were constructed where AQI violence was at its highest. There, U.S. troops teamed up with Sunni sheiks’ forces to combat the terrorist threat. Tribal fighters also joined the security forces en masse and worked with the U.S. military to protect and secure the hospital and other civil institutions against AQI control.
The deployment of U.S. troops throughout Iraq’s cities — as opposed to their being hunkered down in isolated bases — became a central tenet of the U.S. military’s Iraq strategy in February 2007, leading to closer interaction with local communities. More and more U.S. units successfully teamed up with Sunni moderates against extremists. As various collaborative opportunities emerged, greater numbers of SOI were put on the payroll. The recruits were screened and registered using biometric technology, but were then largely free to patrol their own neighborhoods, countering the forces causing violence there and producing a notable reduction in bloodshed nationwide.
Progress or Expedience?
While the positive results of the SOI phenomenon are undeniable, questions have now turned to their significance as part of the United States’ broader Iraq project. Discussion has focused on the sheiks’ loyalties and the tenability of local security agreements with what are, after all, former insurgents. It is feared that, out of desperation, the U.S. military has embraced a short-term solution that will prove detrimental to the Iraqi state.
Many of the concerns underlying this critique are baseless. The U.S. military has not, for example, simply bribed another militia, bent on ethnic cleansing. The SOI are neither cohesive as a force nor independently strong: They are carefully screened, derive their strength from U.S. support and are limited to police missions. Nor has the United States armed these fighters: Most of the weapons used existed long before the shift in U.S. strategy. The tribes, meanwhile, are not sectarian but rather secular nationalists, concerned over all with their local power base and community. Indeed, their grievances against extremists were genuine rather than opportunistic and they therefore did not need to be bought off.
Finally, though the SOI have gained influence at the expense of the central government, their rise does not ultimately have to pose a challenge to the Iraqi state. The Iraqi government — fragmented and intensely identity-driven — has itself been responsible for some of instability and denial of services witnessed in Iraq. The emergence of alternative political structures can provide a healthy challenge to the elected government, whose inability or unwillingness to address violence in Iraq has rendered it increasingly unpopular. It is therefore promising to see a number of the tribal councils transforming their movements into political parties, able to partake in the provincial elections later this year.
If the dangers most commonly associated with the SOI are less than what they seem, however, it does not follow that their rise has or will be entirely unproblematic. The empowerment of Sunni tribes and former insurgents is a threat not only to the dominant Shiites in Baghdad, but also to the Sunnis in government who have so far posed as the champions of their ethnic constituency. This explains why the Iraqi government has done so little to consolidate and build on the gains in the security situation. Unless this changes, the pacts made with the U.S. military are likely to unravel — along with the achievements seen since 2006.
This danger is illustrated by the difficulties faced by Sunni volunteer fighters seeking a permanent place within the government’s security services. While volunteer fighters who have civilian skills can return to a more traditional profession, many SOI are untrained and uneducated or simply unwilling to abandon the power and prestige of protecting their community. Several SOI were also part of the former security forces, which were dismissed by the Americans in 2003, and are therefore eager to reclaim their profession. According to current plans, only 20 percent of the tribal fighters are to be integrated with central government security forces, with the rest provided civilian employment opportunities. However, even the process of approving selected SOI for national service has faced delays and rarely led to actual integration. As a result, volunteers are threatening to desert or actually deserting.
The delays stem from a combination of bureaucratic impediments and government resistance. The Shiite and Kurdish parties in power clearly want to maintain their grip on the security structure, currently based around their own sectarian militia: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Organization and the Kurdish Peshmurga. The government has also expressed concern that a large incorporation of volunteer fighters would bring AQI or insurgent elements into the security forces. These fears should be allayed by U.S. registration and scanning methods, but have nonetheless significantly delayed the reintegration process.
The problem is not merely one of Baghdad intransigence: While seeking the legitimacy of national service, some tribal elements have resisted foreswearing the benefits of their isolation, which range from control over local jobs, resources and business opportunities to the significant payoffs from extra-governmental deals made with the U.S. military. In addition, the Iraqi security services have a limited absorption capacity, though this technical impediment is diminishing over time. Nonetheless, the administrative process of incorporating SOI into existing forces and of forming new units may require more patience than currently exists.
Looking Toward Elections
The viability of disparate bottom-up security pacts as a means toward sustainable stability therefore remains uncertain. Given the reality facing Iraq in 2006 and the alternatives available to the coalition, the turning of Sunni insurgents and tribes is unequivocally good news. At the same time, however, as these cooperative arrangements emerged without much buy-in from the central government, this method of reintegration — never mind reconciliation — is far from ideal. The long-term consolidation of security gains will require the government to eschew the self-interested form of decision-making that has marked its performance since the handover of sovereignty in 2004.
On this front, the best source of hope — and an indicator of where Iraq is heading — will be the planned October 2008 provincial elections and December 2009 national elections. In a best-case scenario, the elections will offer Sunnis a chance to elect leaders they view as legitimate and representative, which may in turn undercut their motivation for future violence. The United States must therefore use its status as guarantor of Iraqi stability to ensure the government of Iraq holds elections fairly and on time. And, in lieu of sloganeering, these Iraqi elections must become a focal point for serious discussion and policymaking in Washington.
Dr. David Ucko is a research fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. This article is based on research he conducted while serving as a visiting research associate in the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.