More on arming the Sunnis

Yesterday's Washington Post had a remarkable piece about a new strategy to arms the Sunni militias in Iraq.  I will admit being a little skeptical about this plan, but in the current issue of Democracy Carter Malkasian makes a compelling case for why this new strategy may be one worth giving serious consideration to.  He ends his article this way (and I hope you read the whole thing):

Neither the insurgency nor AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] can be defeated if Al Anbar is not secured. Unfortunately, the Iraqi Army appears unlikely to do so. The widely accepted recommendation to invest more advisers, training, or equipment will not change the ethnicity of the Iraqi Army, lessen sectarian tensions, or reverse popular disaffection with the government. Even more preposterous is the idea that expediting U.S. withdrawal will somehow enable the army to provide security. Perhaps the Iraqi government could massively reinforce the Iraqi Army and crush the Sunnis but, considering the strength of the insurgency, this could only be accomplished through wanton brutality, which would have prohibitive domestic and international political ramifications for the United States, as well as destabilizing repercussions throughout the region.

Given the likelihood of continued ethnic conflict, the United States needs to look to limited means of protecting its interests in Iraq. First and foremost, that means constraining AQI’s influence. Pursuing a grassroots Iraqization in which greater effort is placed on developing local police forces–throughout the Sunni provinces–could allow the areas that enjoy relatively restricted insurgent activity to be expanded, thereby constraining AQI’s influence. In contrast to the Iraqi Army, local Sunni forces can control territory, collect intelligence, and cripple AQI–precisely what the United States needs as it looks to draw down its forces. To start, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior must expand police recruitment and, as training capacity permits, lift caps on personnel numbers. Additionally, the United States needs to put as much effort into training, advising, and equipping the police as the army. In particular, the quality of the advisory teams working with the police should be improved. Like the army, the best active-duty Marines and soldiers ought to be embedded with the police.

But these are the simple actions. The U.S. and Iraqi governments need to go further and empower local Sunni leaders, as they did with the Albu Mahal and Sittar in Al Anbar province. Local Sunni leaders should be given the power and authority to motivate their communities to join and support the police. Imams, sheiks, and other local leaders need to be lavished with political and economic rewards, to be distributed to their communities, for supporting the police: political positions, command of military formations, civil affairs projects, economic compensation packages, salaries, and permission to run black-market activities. There will, of course, be corruption as local leaders take money and profits for themselves. In Iraq, that is the cost of doing business.

Such a policy may sound like a minor technical change, but it would actually be a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy. It would undermine America’s key strategic goals of forming a democracy and a unified state. The United States would be tacitly permitting Sunnis to field militias and defend themselves. This would be one more step toward the fragmentation of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish areas. Indeed, a real possibility exists that Sunni police would clash with Shia militias in defense of their neighborhoods. Additionally, the government would be devolving power from democratically elected officials to traditional nonelected authority figures, such as imams and sheiks, which could further undermine the democratization effort.

These downsides are undeniable, but they should not be exaggerated. National unity would probably be no more weakened than it is now, and fighting between the government and Sunni police outside Baghdad is unlikely. In fact, Sunni police forces have a better relationship with the Iraqi government than any other element of Sunni society, and there are no cases of Sunni police from Al Anbar attacking Shia areas. The Iraqi Army and local Sunni police regularly conduct combined operations against AQI. Sittar has even openly proposed cooperation with Shia tribes. Similarly, the Iraqi government is not set against working with Sunnis; the fact that Maliki has backed local Sunni forces suggests that he does not view them as a threat. The risk of clashes with Shia militias could be mitigated by not forming Sunni police within Baghdad.

Ultimately, the United States faces a choice. It can continue to push a national and unified state, and risk letting hardcore insurgents and terrorists go unchallenged. Or the ties that bind the state can be loosened to counter AQI with local police forces, but at the cost of formalizing sectarian divisions and weakening democratization. The latter is hardly optimal, but optimal is no longer a luxury the United States can afford. Right now, we must focus on avoiding the worst possible outcome, and that means doing what we can to prevent AQI from having uncontested control over the Sunni provinces. Grassroots Iraqization would accomplish that goal, and hopefully, the local forces that are empowered through this strategy one day could contribute to producing a peaceful and stable Iraq.