Have you noticed the change in the Iraq debate?
Most American experts and policy makers wasted the past few years assuming that change in Iraq would come from the center and spread outward. They squandered months arguing about the benchmarks that would supposedly induce the Baghdad politicians to make compromises. They quibbled over whether this or that prime minister was up to the job. They unrealistically imagined that peace would come through some grand Sunni-Shiite reconciliation.
Now, at long last, the smartest analysts and policy makers are starting to think like sociologists. They are finally acknowledging that the key Iraqi figures are not in the center but in the provinces and the tribes. Peace will come to the center last, not to the center first. Stability will come not through some grand reconciliation but through the agglomeration of order, tribe by tribe and street by street.
The big change in the debate has come about because the surge failed, and it failed in an unexpected way.
The original idea behind the surge was that U.S. troops would create enough calm to allow the national politicians to make compromises. The surge was intended to bolster the “modern” — meaning nonsectarian and nontribal — institutions in the country.
But the surge is failing, at least politically, because there are practically no nonsectarian institutions, and there are few nonsectarian leaders to create them. Security gains have not led to political gains.
At the same time, something unexpected happened. As Iraqi national politics stagnated, the tribes began to take the initiative. The process started in Anbar Province, when the local tribes revolted against Al Qaeda. It has continued in Diyala Province and even in Baghdad neighborhoods like Ameriya. In the South, moderate Shiite parties have begun to resist the Sadrists, while in many places local groups that look like mafia families struggle to impose order on their turf.
In other words, organic local actors — some thuggish, some not — have begun to impose a security structure on parts of the country. Some are independent, some require assistance from the U.S. troops supplied by the surge.
In Washington, these trends went largely unnoticed, and the debate went on: benchmarks, withdrawal dates, all-in or all-out. But U.S. commanders in Iraq did notice, and shifted their attention. They set out to provide whatever assistance they could to the newly assertive tribes, sometimes against national meddling.
The key piece of reportage illuminating this process is Michael R. Gordon’s must-read essay in last Sunday’s Times Magazine. In one scene, a Sunni tribal leader has been captured by the National Police, who are about to hand him over to the Mahdi Army to be murdered. He manages to call the Americans on his cellphone, who launch a rescue mission. After a tense standoff, he’s freed and can go back to stabilizing his town.
In other words, as Gordon notes, a former Sunni insurgent and enemy of the U.S. ends up calling the Americans so he can be liberated from America’s supposed allies.
The crucial question now is: Do these tribes represent proto-local governments, or are they simply regional bands arming themselves in anticipation of a cataclysmic civil war?
Over the summer, a stream of the best American analysts flooded into Iraq. Upon their return they began writing reports grappling with the tribal resurgence. Slowly, under their influence, the entire debate is shifting. Efforts to transform Iraq into some sort of “modern” nontribal, nonsectarian state are giving way to more realistic visions.
David Kilcullen wrote an essay called “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt,” which is available on the Web site of the Small Wars Journal. Kilcullen believes the tribal initiatives represent “arguably the most significant change in the Iraqi operating environment for several years.”
Anthony Cordesman has written “The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq,” which is available on the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman has been among the most mordant and therefore most accurate analysts of Iraq. In his ambivalent report, he notes that many national institutions are “unsalvageable.” But he observes that there “is a real opportunity that did not exist at the start of the year.” He praises Gen. David Petraeus and comes out, barely, on the side of patience.
As September begins, we’re finally moving beyond abstract debates over troop levels and timetables. The key questions now are: Can U.S. troops help Iraqi locals take control of their own neighborhoods? Is it worth more American lives to help them do so? And, if so, how?