Iraq: Positive Signs
By: George Friedman, Stratfor.comNovember 13, 2007
The latest reports concerning the war in Iraq suggest the situation is looking up for the United States. First, U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties continue to fall. Second, there are confirmed reports that Sunni insurgents controlled by local leaders have turned on al Qaeda militants, particularly those from outside the country. Third, the head of U.S. Central Command, in an interview with the Financial Times, implied that an attack against Iran is a distant possibility.

It is tempting to say the United States has turned the corner on the war. The temptation might not be misplaced, but after many disappointments since 2003, it is prudent to be cautious in declaring turning points-and it is equally prudent not to confuse a turning point with a victory. That said, given expectations that the United States would be unable to limit violence in Iraq, and that Sunni insurgents would remain implacable-not to mention the broad expectation of a U.S. attack against Iran-these three points indicate a reversal-and must be taken seriously.

The most startling point is the decline in casualties, and particularly the apparent decline in sectarian violence. Explaining this is difficult. It could simply be the result of the more efficient use of U.S. troops in suppressing the insurgency and controlling the Shiite militias. If that were the only explanation, however, it would be troubling. Standard guerrilla warfare doctrine holds that during periods of intense enemy counterinsurgency operations, guerrillas should cease fighting, hide weapons and equipment and blend into the civilian population. Only after the enemy shifts its area of operations or reduces operational tempo should the guerrillas resume combat operations. Under no circumstances should insurgents attempt to fight a surge.

Therefore, if we were considering U.S. military operations alone, few conclusions could be drawn until after the operations shifted or slowed. In addition, in a country of 25 million, the expectation that some 167,000 troops-many of them not directly involved in combat-could break the back of an entrenched insurgency is optimistic. The numbers simply don't work, particularly when Shiite militias are added to the equation. Therefore, if viewed simply in terms of military operations, the decline in casualties would not validate a shift in the war until much later, and our expectation is that the insurgency would resume prior levels of activity over time.

What makes the situation more hopeful for the United States is the clear decline in civilian casualties. Most of those were caused not by U.S. combat operations but by sectarian conflict, particularly between Sunnis and Shia. Part of the decline can be explained by U.S. operations, but when we look at the scope and intensity of sectarian fighting, it is difficult to give U.S. operations full credit. A more likely explanation is political, a decision on the part of the various sectarian organizations to stop operations not only against the Americans but also against each other.

There were two wars going on in Iraq. One was against the United States. The more important war, from the Iraqi point of view, was the Sunni-Shiite struggle to determine who would control Iraq's future. Part of this struggle, particularly on the Shiite side, was intrasectarian violence. All of it was political and, in a real sense, it was life and death. It involved the control of neighborhoods, of ministries, of the police force and so on. It was a struggle over the shape of everyday life. If either side simply abandoned the struggle, it would leave a vacuum for the other. U.S. operations or not, that civil war could not be suspended. To a significant extent, however, it has been suspended.

That means that some political decisions were made, at least on the local level and likely at higher levels as well, as several U.S. authorities have implied recently. Civilian casualties from the civil war would not have dropped as much as they have without some sort of political decisions to restrain forces, and those decisions could not be made unilaterally or simply in response to U.S. military pressure. It required a set of at least temporary political arrangements. And that, in many ways, is more promising than simply a decline because of U.S. combat operations. The political arrangements open the door to the possibility that the decline in casualties is likely to be longer lasting.

This brings us to the second point, the attacks by the Sunnis against the jihadists. Immediately after the invasion in 2003, the United States essentially attempted to strip the Sunnis-the foundation of Saddam Hussein's strength-of their power. The U.S. de-Baathification laws had the effect of eliminating the Sunni community's participation in the future of Iraq. Viewing the Shia-the victims of Hussein's rule-as likely interested not only in dominating Iraq but also in retribution against the Sunnis, the Sunni leadership, particularly at the local level, supported and instigated an insurgency against U.S. forces. The political purpose of the insurgency was to force the United States to shift its pro-Shiite policy and include the Sunnis, from religious to Baathist, in the regime.

Given the insurgency's political purpose, the power of U.S. forces and the well-organized Shiite militias, the Iraqi Sunnis were prepared to form alliances wherever they could find them. A leading source of support for the Iraqi Sunnis came from outside Iraq, among the Sunni jihadist fighters who organized themselves under the banner of al Qaeda and, weapons in hand, infiltrated the country from outside, particular through Syria.

Nevertheless, there was underlying tension between the local Sunnis and the jihadists. The Iraqi Sunnis were part of the local power structure, many having been involved in the essentially secular Baath Party, and others, more religious, having remained outside the regime but ruled by traditional tribal systems. The foreign jihadists were revolutionaries not only in the sense that they were prepared to fight the Americans but also in that they wanted to revolutionize-radically Islamize-the local Sunni community. By extension, they wanted to supplant the local leadership with their own by supporting and elevating new local leaders dependent for their survival on al Qaeda power.

For an extended period of time, the United States saw the Sunni insurgency as consisting of a single fabric. The local insurgents and the jihadists were viewed as the same, and the adopted name of the jihadists, al Qaeda, caused the Americans to see them as the primary enemy. Over time, and particularly since the death of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the United States has adopted a more nuanced view of the Sunni insurgency, drawing a distinction between the largely native Iraqi insurgents and the largely foreign jihadists.

Once this occurred and the United States began to make overtures to the native Iraqi insurgents, the underlying tensions between the foreign jihadists and the Iraqi insurgents emerged. The Sunnis, over time, came to see the jihadists as a greater danger to them than the Americans, and by the time U.S. President George W. Bush last visited Iraq, several Sunni leaders were prepared to be seen publicly with him. The growing animosities eventually turned into active warfare between the two factions, with al Qaeda being outnumbered and outgunned and the natives enjoying all of the perks of having the home-court advantage.

From the U.S. point of view, splitting the Sunni insurgency politically and militarily was important not only for the obvious reasons but also for influencing the Shia. From a Shiite point of view-and now let's introduce Iran, the primary external backer of Iraq's Shiites-the worst-case scenario would be the re-establishment of a predominantly Sunni government in Baghdad backed by the U.S. military. The political accommodation between the United States and the Iraqi Sunnis represented a direct threat to the Shia.

It is important to recall that Hussein and his Baathist predecessors-all Sunnis leading a predominantly Sunni government-were able to dominate the more numerous Shia for decades. The reason was that the Shia were highly fragmented politically, more so than the Sunnis. This historic factionalization made the Shia much weaker than their numbers would have indicated. It was no accident that the Sunnis dominated the Shia.

And the Shia remained fragmented. While the Sunnis were fighting an external force, the Shia were fighting both the Sunnis and one another. Given those circumstances, it was not inconceivable that the United States would try, and perhaps succeed, to re-establish the status quo ante of a united Iraq under a Sunni government-backed by U.S. power until Iraq could regenerate its own force. Of course, that represented a reversal of the original U.S. goal of establishing a Shiite regime.

For Iran, this was an intolerable outcome because it would again raise the possibility of an Iran-Iraq war-in which Iran might take another million casualties. The Iranian response was to use its influence among the competing Shiite militias to attack the Sunnis and to inflict casualties on American troops, hoping to force a withdrawal. Paradoxically, while the jihadists are the Iranians' foe, they were useful to Tehran because the more they attacked the Shia-and the more the Shia retaliated-the more the Sunnis and al Qaeda aligned-which kept the United States and the Sunnis apart. Iran, in other words, wanted a united Sunni-jihadist movement because it would wreck the emerging political arrangements. In addition, when the Iranians realized that the Democrats in the U.S. Congress were not going to force a U.S. withdrawal, their calculations about the future changed.

Caught between al Qaeda and the militias, the Sunnis were under intense pressure. The United States responded by conducting operations against the jihadists-trying to limit engagements with Iraqi Sunni insurgents-and most important, against Shiite militias. The goal was to hold the Sunnis in the emerging political matrix while damaging the militias that were engaging the Sunnis. The United States was trying increase the cost to the Shia of adhering to the Iranian strategy.

At the same time, the United States sought to intimidate the Iranians by raising, and trying to make very real, the possibility that the United States would attack them as well. As we have argued, the U.S. military options are limited, so an attack would make little military sense. The Iranians, however, could not be certain that the United States was being rational about the whole thing, which was pretty much what the United States wanted. The United States wanted the Shia in Iraq to see the various costs of following the Iranian line-including creating a Sunni-dominated government-while convincing the Iranians that they were in grave danger of American military action.

In this context, we find the third point particularly interesting. Adm. William Fallon's interview with the Financial Times-in which he went out of its way to downplay the American military threat to Iran-was not given by accident. Fallon does not agree to interviews without clearance. The United States was using the interview to telegraph to Iran that it should not have undue fear of an American attack.

The United States can easily turn up the heat again psychologically, though for the moment it has chosen to lower it. By doing so, we assume Washington is sending two messages to Iran. First, it is acknowledging that creating a predominantly Sunni government is not its first choice. Also, it is rewarding Iran for the decline in violence by the Shiite militias, which undoubtedly required Tehran to shift its orders to its covert operatives in Iraq.

The important question is whether we are seeing a turning point in Iraq. The answer is that it appears so, but not primarily because of the effectiveness of U.S. military operations. Rather, it is the result of U.S. military operations coupled with a much more complex and sophisticated approach to Iraq. To be more precise, a series of political initiatives that the United States had undertaken over the past two years in fits and starts has been united into a single orchestrated effort. The result of these efforts was a series of political decisions on the part of various Iraqi parties not only to reduce attacks against U.S. troops but also to bring the civil war under control.

A few months ago, we laid out four scenarios for Iraq, including the possibility that that United States would maintain troops there indefinitely. At the time, we argued against this idea on the assumption that what had not worked previously would not work in the future. Instead, we argued that resisting Iranian power required that efforts to create security be stopped and troops moved to blocking positions along the Saudi border. We had not calculated that the United States would now supplement combat operations with a highly sophisticated and nuanced political offensive. Therefore, we were wrong in underestimating the effectiveness of the scenario.

That said, a turning point is not the same as victory, and the turning point could turn into a failure. The key weaknesses are the fragmented Shia and the forces and decisions that might emerge there, underwritten by Iran. Everything could be wrecked should Iran choose to take the necessary risks. For the moment, however, the Iranians seem to be exercising caution, and the Shia are responding by reducing violence. If that trend continues, then this really could be a turning point. Of course, any outcome that depends on the Shia and Iranians doing what the United States hopes they will do is fragile. Iran in particular has little interest in giving the United States a graceful solution unless it is well compensated for it. On the other hand, for the moment, Tehran is cooperating. This could simply be another instance of Iran holding off before disappointing the United States, or it could mean it has reason to believe it will be well compensated. Revealing that compensation-if it is coming-is the next turn of the wheel.

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