Iraq’s Sunnis must be amazed at the role they are playing in today’s Washington. A year ago, they were “dead-enders,” brutal killers disgruntled over their expulsion from power and nostalgic for the return of Saddam Hussein. The suggestion that Americans might productively talk to Sunni insurgents would have met with as much Beltway scorn as do calls today to engage in talks with Iran or Syria.
The best way to deal with these Sunni throwbacks, we were told back then, was to unleash American firepower and pummel them until they surrendered or died. America’s failures were failures of timidity and political correctness. Arabs only understood force, and America needed to beat them into submission and forget about “struggling to win hearts and minds which can’t be won.” The rubble of Fallujah and the prisons of Abu Ghraib bear silent testimony to the influence of such thinking.
Alas, while the president’s men may have discovered Iraq’s Sunnis, they still show little sign of actually understanding them. The cheerleaders for the surge have constructed a Disney-esque fantasy of an Iraqi “Sunni World” which might as well be in Orlando for all it has to do with the grim realities of today’s Iraq.
Much of the conventional wisdom about the Sunni areas now seems to come from the impressions formed by politicians and journalists on stage-managed visits to Iraq, or by carefully crafted press interviews with “former insurgents” hand-picked by American military handlers. But we don’t need such a mediated view. Leaders of the major Iraqi Sunni groups actually speak quite often and quite candidly to their own people, though: in open letters, in official statements posted on internet forums, in the Arab and Iraqi press, and in statements released on al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations. What they say in such statements, in Arabic, when addressing their own constituencies, might be considered a more reliable guide to their strategy and thinking. So what are the major Iraqi Sunni leaders saying?
In their literature and public rhetoric, the Sunni insurgency has already defeated the American occupation — which is why the Americans stopped fighting them and came to them for help in fighting al-Qaeda. One discovers virtually nothing in this literature of the American conceit that our forces wore them out or forced them to come to the table. During his meeting with President Bush in Anbar last week, Abu Risha, reportedly joked that his people had achieved in four months what the American military could not achieve in four years. It was one of the few claims made by Abu Risha with which most Iraqi Sunnis would agree, and one which should probably have infuriated more Americans than it seems to have.
Most of these statements are already looking past the question of al-Qaeda, and are instead in preparation for the aftermath of an American withdrawal. The overwhelming theme of recent Sunni discourse is the need to achieve political unity to prepare for a post-occupation Iraq. While Americans celebrate their cordial relations with certain tribal shaykhs, the insurgency’s leaders publicly fumed that the fruits of their victory might be snatched by undeserving interlopers. The widely disseminated pictures of President Bush shaking hands with Sattar Abu Risha, the epitome of such illegitimate bon vivantes, were likely his death warrant.
Meanwhile, certain tribes worry that the groundwork is being laid for the domination of Sunni politics by other tribes, and that this is in fact the American plan — to leave behind a divided, suspicious, and compromised array of tribes which will be unable to act politically. An important recent open letter from the highly influential Association of Muslim Scholars powerfully invoked the experience of the Afghan jihad, which collapsed upon itself after defeating the Soviet Union. The famously fractious insurgency has been trying hard to put forward a public political front to fill this perceived void, though at this point the various projects still seem to exist mostly on paper.
Partition, soft or hard, has far fewer fans in Anbar than in Washington. Most Sunnis continue to support a unified Iraqi state, and have exaggerated expectations about the role they should play in such a state. A recent letter from the “Amir” of the Islamic Army of Iraq claimed that Sunnis made up 60 percent of the population of Iraq, and few Sunnis seem ready to accept the status of “tolerated minority” within a Shia-dominated state. The Maliki government is almost universally denounced as sectarian, culpable for sectarian cleansing, and an Iranian puppet.
There is absolutely nothing in current Sunni discourse to suggest that any sort of “bottom up reconciliation” with the Shia is taking place or that the tactical cooperation with American forces against al-Qaeda is producing any kind of meaningful integration into the Iraqi state. Far more common is the need to prepare for future conflict with the Shia and, increasingly, the Kurds (see Kirkuk and Mosul). Resentment over the sectarian ‘cleansing’ of Baghdad runs exceptionally high, and few Sunnis seem prepared to accept any political settlement which does not include their return to Baghdad — something that the Shia militias (which continue to dominate the Iraqi Police) seem rather unlikely to accept.
Finally, the alliance of convenience with American forces has not translated into support for the United States at the mass level. A public opinion survey conducted last month — well into the surge — found that only 1 percent of Sunnis say they have confidence in American forces and only 1 percent of Sunnis support the American presence in Iraq. Rather, 72 percent of Sunnis say that the US forces should leave immediately, 95 percent say that the presence of U.S. troops makes security worse, and 93 percent still see attacks on coalition forces as acceptable. Such results should make obvious the vacuity of claims that the turn against al-Qaeda was a victory for American diplomacy.
As I’ve stated before, the big difference I can see between Iraq and Vietnam is that in Vietnam, our allies wouldn’t happily shoot at Americans if given the opportunity. Fortunately, if we just clap harder the problem goes away.