The newspapers are full of stories about the successful alliance struck between the American military and Sunni tribes in Iraq, and how said alliance augurs well for the future. “In the villages around the Abu Ghraib district on the western outskirts of Baghdad, American commanders have achieved their goal of enlisting more than 1,000 of these local Sunni recruits into the Iraqi security forces,” the Washington Post reported today. “For the past few months, the recruits have operated checkpoints, pointed out Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters and located caches of weapons.” Exhibit A was Naiem al-Qaisi, who had once been imprisoned and tortured by the Iraqi government. “Now,” the Post reported, Qaisi “wants to be a policeman” and help America fight Al Qaeda.
There’s certainly been some benefit from such deals. However–and you wouldn’t know this from reading most accounts–the long-term prospects of the American-Sunni alliance are dicey. Here’s how Milt Bearden, a former senior CIA officer with broad experience in the Middle East and who served as station chief in Pakistan from 1986 until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, assessed the situation in a conversation we had this morning:
The administration is employing a very prudent tactic by having American commanders in the field striking these alliances, which eases our immediate torment. But the administration is spinning this as some sort of strategic victory for its vision of the Middle East. It’s not. The good news is that the sheiks are accepting our guns and money. The bad news is that the sheiks are accepting our guns and money. Yes, okay, go ahead and make these alliances–but understand how it’s going to play out. Don’t boogey in the end zone and pretend these Sunni fighters are a bunch of Presbyterians.
When I was in Pakistan I asked an Army commander if we could get the Afghan tribes to do something and he said, “We can usually get the Afghans to do something that they want to do.” In Afghanistan, the Soviets made thousands of deals with the tribes, but you don’t buy them–you rent them. These guys change sides all the time. It’s the same thing here. Their needs and goals are completely unrelated to our vision of the world. The sheiks figure that their turf is threatened by Al Qaeda in Iraq and they’re happy to help go after them, especially when the U.S. is doing the heavy lifting. But there will be a piper that needs to be paid. You don’t have to go much beyond T.E. Lawrence to see how this is likely to play out.