"Of the roughly 80,000 concerned local citizens currently working alongside U.S. forces, only 25 per cent can be absorbed into the army and police. For the rest, there must be jobs, or they risk becoming disillusioned, frustrated, and perhaps returning to their old ways. Gen. Petraeus told CBS News a week ago that this, above all else, was the thing that kept him awake at night. " -- CBS News, March 19.
I'm glad that General Petraeus has said this on the record. I've been banging the drum for many long months trying to draw attention to the growing signs that the Awakenings program was jumping the tracks. These problems have been getting more attention of late, what with the alleged accidental bombing of an Awakenings checkpoint; the Anbar Salvation Council's threat to use force to expel their elected Islamic Party rivals from Anbar (the first deadline passed without incident last week after US mediation, the second deadline is today); the campaign of attacks against the Awakenings forces (blamed, at various times, on AQI, the government, and Iranian-back Shia militias); and their widespread threats to go on strike over late payments and insufficient support from the US (I'm not sure how seriously to take this Guardian report that "out
of 49 Sahwa councils four with more than 1,400 men have already quit,
38 are threatening to go on strike and two already have", but this is certainly the trend). And there's much, much more across multiple Iraqi neighborhoods and regions that I've been tracking in detail over the last few months. Arab and Iraqi media coverage of the Awakenings over the last few months has been dominated by their escalating complaints about the Iraqi government and about the Americans, their fulminations against the "Iranian occupation" of Iraq, and their warnings to return to the insurgency or allow AQI back in.
Because I've written so very much about this I'm not going to belabor the point, other than to repeat that this isn't just an unfortunate development in an otherwise sound approach. It's structural, and gets to the essence of the strategic failure of the surge. The Awakenings strategy was a smart, tactically successful adaptation to developments on the ground, and Petraeus's team has done the best it could with the hand it was dealt. But it has always been the case that the Awakenings strategy built up military power outside of the Iraqi state, and has never had a plausible theory of how that power would be harnessed into a unified, legitimate state. It achieved some of its short-term tactical ends, but worked against the strategic goal of creating an effectively sovereign Iraqi state with a security architecture sustainable without US forces.
Combine Petraeus's surprising public complaint a couple of weeks ago about the disappointing levels of political reconciliation with the one he made to CBS about his worries about the Awakenings. It seems likely that his main concern is not the legislative benchmarks but the Iraqi government's refusal to deal seriously with the need to integrate the Awakenings into the national security forces. Despite Maliki's occasional rhetorical gambits, their integration has been painfully slow, grudging, and far too limited. Even if Maliki's government fully delivered on its current promises (which is unlikely), some three quarters of the Awakenings fighters would still be left in the cold (with "left in the cold" here meaning "left in a heavily armed militia with a deep grudge against the state."). And so, deadlock: no lasting political accommodation or sustainable security without the integration of the Awakenings, but no way to get the Iraqi government to integrate the Awakenings.
So what to do? Brian Katulis and Ian Moss over the weekend argued that "the United States must signal that it will stop its independent funding of the Sunni militias that are part of the sahwa movement, providing ample time for Iraq's Ministries of Defense and Interior to assume financial responsibility. With the price of oil hovering around $110 a barrel, the Iraqi government does not lack the resources to fund these groups on its own." Over the last two weeks I had been privately circulating a similar proposal along these lines, though I had suggested sweetening the pot by offering to compensate the Iraqi government for the expense of hiring the Awakening fighters in order to remove any financial incentives.
The argument basically goes like this. If the Awakenings are not integrated into the national security forces, then there is little hope for political accommodation or for lasting security and the US is effectively trapped. Since all other forms of persuasion seem to have failed, it's time to give Maliki an ultimatum: in two months, payments to the Awakenings will cease. If Maliki gives in, then there may finally be some hope for political accommodation and for overcoming the strategic problems created by the surge - think of it as cashing in the Awakenings chip before it loses its value.
The downside is that if Maliki doesn't go along, dragging his feet and ignoring American advice as usual, then things may well get ugly. But all signs suggest that they will get ugly anyway - and better that they get ugly while the US is at the highest troop levels it will ever have. If Maliki won't do this now, when US troop levels are high and security is relatively better, with the shadow of a new President who likely will not continue to offer an open-ended commitment, then he never will... and everyone should know this. The upside is that if it works, then the next President - whoever it is - will be dealing with a more competent and more effectively sovereign Iraqi state in which the weight of Sunni arms is more vested rather than with an uneasy, violent standoff between heavily armed and mistrustful militias seperated only by American troops.
There are three main objections that I can see.
First, there's the argument that the current situation is going well, so why rock the boat? While I can understand where those more impressed with the status quo are coming from, I disagree strongly. I don't see the Awakenings situation right now as a stable situation to be maintained, but as a slowly crumbling situation which could quickly cascade into chaos. If the move is made now, before Sunni attitudes irrevocably turn back to hostility, there's an opportunity which might well not exist nine months from now.
Second, there's the argument that this should be an Iraqi sovereign decision, not something imposed by the US. Well, sure, but the Awakenings are currently being paid by the US so by the same argument it is perfectly justified in walking away. The Maliki government currently is simply free-riding on the US, using our open ended commitment to avoid making any hard decisions. That has to end.
Third, there's the argument (which few make publicly but I suspect many privately believe) that the only thing that matters is keeping the Iraqi scene relatively quiet until November in support of McCain's candidacy, at which point Bush, Cheney, Petraeus and Crocker will all be moving on to other jobs and someone else can be blamed when things go south. I would like to believe that the latter two, at least, are well above such considerations and would put the demands of long-term strategic objectives in Iraq first.
OK, tell me why this is a terrible idea...