The Corner

How an Insurgency Loses

The New York Times finally reported the good news out of Anbar, as has been noted earlier here. A couple of things of note, I think.

1) It’s incredible how swiftly the change happened. It wasn’t long ago that Anbar was said to have been lost to al Qaeda (“Situation Called Dire in West Iraq; Anbar is Lost Politically, Marine Analyst Says,” Washington Post, September 11, 2006). Now all the sudden it’s different:

The new calm is eerie and unsettling, particularly for anyone who knew the city even several months ago.

“The complete change from night to day gives me pause,” said Capt. Brice Cooper, 26, executive officer of Company B, First Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division, which has been stationed in the city and its outskirts since last summer. “A month and a half ago we were getting shot up. Now we’re doing civil affairs work.”

2) It was a political change that made the difference, with the sheiks shifting their allegiance. That made the military picture entirely different:

With the help of the Anbar sheiks, the military equation immediately became simpler for the Americans in Ramadi. The number of enemies they faced suddenly diminished, American and Iraqi officials said. They were able to move more freely through large areas. With the addition of the tribal recruits, the Americans had enough troops to build and operate garrisons in areas they cleared, many of which had never seen any government security presence before.

And the Americans were now fighting alongside people with a deep knowledge of the local population and terrain, and with a sense of duty, vengeance and righteousness.

3) If the political piece of the puzzle was crucial, so was the military. The tribes wanted “financial and military” support. We wouldn’t have military support to give unless we were on the ground in Iraq. Clearing operations were important in Ramadi:

Beginning last summer and continuing through March, the American-led joint forces pressed into the city, block by block, and swept the farmlands on its outskirts.

And we still have lots of troops on the ground to hold:

The Ramadi region is essentially a police state now, with some 6,000 American troops, 4,000 Iraqi soldiers and 4,500 Iraqi police officers, including an auxiliary police force of about 2,000, all local tribesmen, known as the Provincial Security Force. The security forces are garrisoned in more than 65 police stations, military bases and joint American-Iraqi combat outposts, up from no more than 10 a year ago.

Anyone who says the tribes could do this without us is living in a fantasy world.

4) In a microcosm, you can see here the kind of political development that the war promised in theory–not the rise of liberal democracy, but of self-governing Arabs who hate al Qaeda and will fight it. There’s this:

“We know this area, we know the best way to talk to the people and get information from them,” said Capt. Hussein Abd Nusaif, a police commander in a neighborhood in western Ramadi, who carries a Kalashnikov with an Al Capone-style “snail drum” magazine. “We are not afraid of Al Qaeda. We will fight them anywhere and anytime.”

And this: 

Abd Muhammad Khalaf, 28, a policeman in the Jazeera district on Ramadi’s northern edge, is typical. He joined the police after Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia killed two of his brothers, he said. “I will die when God wills it,” he said. “But before I die, I will support my friends and kill some terrorists.”  

If this sentiment is sustained, and if the people who feel this way prevail, it’s a big deal.

5) Brutality usually, but not always, back-fires in insurgencies. When the counter-insurgents use it, it creates more insurgents, and when the insurgents use it, it creates a popular backlash. That’s exactly what al Qaeda did in Anbar, and it’s the downside risk in its current bombing campaign in Baghdad and elsewhere.

6) So does Anbar hold lessons for the Battle for Baghdad? Maybe, maybe not. This is a useful cautionary note in the Times piece: 

Yet the fact that Anbar is almost entirely Sunni and not riven by the same sectarian feuds as other violent places, like Baghdad and Diyala Province, has helped to establish order. Elsewhere, security forces are largely Shiite and are perceived by many Sunnis as part of the problem. In Anbar, however, the new police force reflects the homogeneous face of the province and appears to enjoy the support of the people.

This highlights how important it is to tamp down the civil war in Baghdad and–pace the Democrats–the civil war’s organic connection to the fight against al Qaeda. If the Shia can be prodded by al Qaeda into mass reprisals against the Sunni, the Sunni are going to hate the Shia more than al Qaeda. If, on the other hand, the Shia control themselves and the central government acts responsibly, the kind of distaste for al Qaeda evident in Anbar has a chance to become paramount among the Sunnis, creating a hugely important political and strategic shift.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

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