Politics & Policy

The Price of Betrayal

The U.S. didn’t need to abandon its allies in Iraq.

Nothing good comes of betrayal, no matter how elegantly it’s rationalized. I witnessed America’s abandonment of its Iraqi allies — mostly Sunni, but also some Shiite – which was a sellout justified in the name of “democracy” and “nation building.” Instead of democracy, we facilitated the emergence of a sectarian autocracy closely tied to Iran. Now a marauder army of the most extreme Sunni jihadists is closing in on Baghdad, slaughtering thousands in its path, erasing the national borders European powers imposed after World War I, and proclaiming a new caliphate. Its victims are both Shiites and those Sunni whom the killers believe to have cooperated with the Americans or the Shiite-dominated central government.

In 2005, leaders of the Sunni “resistance” against U.S. occupation realized that pervasive Iranian intervention in Iraq was more dangerous to their long-term interests than the finite coalition presence. Some day, the Americans and their allies would go home; the Iranians would be there forever. Faction leaders began to see a truce with U.S. forces as a favorable expedient. A tipping point came in 2006, when al-Qaeda declared an Islamic State of Iraq complete with sharia courts that challenged the authority of tribal councils.

The dramatic rebellion of the Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda, sometimes known as “the awakening,” staved off military catastrophe for the United States in 2006–2007. The tribesmen turned their guns on al-Qaeda and were instrumental in the success of the surge of U.S. forces that began in 2007.

From August of 2007 to August of 2008, as a field anthropologist with the Army’s first Human Terrain Team in Iraq, I interacted with the sheiks and militia leaders of the Sunni awakening, also known as the Sons of Iraq, in the area between Baghdad and Anbar Province. My participation in these meetings was mostly passive. I listened respectfully, absorbed information, and asked the occasional question. And always I deferred to the senior uniformed officer, shunning the Sonny Corleone error of showing daylight between the leader and the staff.

The awakening was an ad hoc, bottom-up phenomenon. As such, it triggered at first a certain unease in the top-down, modular, U.S. military-command structure, institutionally hindered by the “not invented here” mentality. Nevertheless, some mid-level commanders adapted quickly, and for a short time I had the privilege of working with one of them.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki became less tolerant of Sunni militias as the awakening spread closer to Baghdad. Here is how Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, in their book The Endgame, explained the threat the Sons of Iraq faced in the area just west of the capital: “The 6th Iraqi Army Division’s Muthana Brigade was, in effect, taking part in the sectarian struggle in Abu Ghraib on the same side as the Mahdi Army [of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr], even busing Shiite settlers into the area. That the brigade’s commander was a Maliki favorite did not help matters.”

The U.S. commander with whom I first worked did what he could to protect his indigenous allies. After he rotated home, things deteriorated, with the Americans increasingly deferring to Maliki’s wishes. I remember the helplessness and frustration I felt when I learned the Muthana Brigade was on its way to roust the volunteers and the desolation in the empty compound after the raid. 

Of the two principal militia leaders I knew, one was complex, cagey, a politician, and a survivor; the other was pure warrior, a go-for-broke fighting man. The first freely admitted that he kept open his channels of communication with al-Qaeda. When the crackdown came, he had an escape plan in place. Instead of hiding out in the villages, or ducking into fetid canals to elude pursuers, he sought sanctuary with Sunni clerics in Baghdad until he could ingratiate himself with the Maliki government. He eventually worked his way to being an adviser to officials close to the prime minister.

The other militia leader went on the run, hunted by the Iraqi army. The valor he showed in fighting on the same side as the Americans counted for nothing with timorous U.S. officials. Many of his relatives were killed either by al-Qaeda or by Iraqi security forces. Eventually, he was captured and imprisoned by the Baghdad government. Today I don’t know whether he is alive or dead.

All of this was avoidable. The United States could have put its considerable heft behind a unifying politician not beholden to Iran or Syria. One possibility was former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose bloc got the most votes in the 2010 election. Allawi has his faults, and sectarian Shiites believe he’s too close to the Sunni, but I can report with confidence that Iraqis don’t yearn for democracy as we understand it. Rather, they yearn for a strongman who will treat them with a modicum of fairness and protect them from violence. Maliki has been an abject failure on both counts.

With sufficient persistence and finesse, the United States could have promoted the fortunes of Mithal al-Alusi, a pro-Western secular Sunni who was reelected to Parliament on April 30. My interviews, although anecdotal and empirical, told me that educated Baghdad Shiites held him in high regard. Alusi lacks the political clout to become prime minister, but he easily could head an important ministry.

I disagree with those who say that the continued existence of independent militias never was in the cards and was an intolerable affront to the Baghdad government. A world power must show, again and again, that it merits the loyalty of its native auxiliaries. States that fail to do this don’t deserve to be world powers and probably won’t remain so for long.

— Louis Marano, a Vietnam veteran, is an anthropologist and former journalist. In 2007-2009, he served two tours as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Army in Iraq. 

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