A couple of weeks ago, I laid out the case that the problem of the future of the Awakenings was coming to a head. Well, while I was away, the issue seems to have exploded. McClatchy, the New York Times, the LA Times, and others have run important stories on what seems to be a concerted campaign by the Maliki government to crack down on the Awakenings movement - with what appears to be grudging American acceptance.
The Awakenings experience demonstrates the limits of American influence over the Iraqi government - months of sustained, intense pressure on Maliki to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the Security Forces has produced remarkably little results, and now Maliki is cracking down on a pillar of Gen. Petraeus's strategy against al-Qaeda. This should be another nail in the coffin of the popular idea that improving security will lead the Iraqi government to make political accommodations with its rivals. Quite the opposite - much more on that coming soon, I promise.
On a related note, Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat, has a widely discussed piece voicing intense displeasure with the 'betrayal' of the Awakening (English version here). The crackdown could very well put the ice on the recent opening of relations between Arab states and the Iraqi government (which has not, at any rate, yet extended to the Saudis). I don't think that the Awakenings are as beloved and respected by Arab public opinion as some pretend - they are backed more by governments, the Saudi and Jordanian media, those sorts of sectors - but Homayed's closing lines about the message conveyed will likely resonate more broadly: "Beware of cooperating with the Americans, or you will share the Awakening Councils' fate."
Both reducing America's ability to pressure the Iraqi government to seek political accommodation and creating the perception that the United States betrayed the Awakenings are commonly cited as reasons why the U.S. should not withdraw troops from Iraq. That both are happening anyway seems to be relevant.
Back to the internal dynamics at play. Maliki is casting this as another step in the "law and order" campaign, with the refrain of no arms in the hands of militias familiar from earlier campaigns in Basra et al. Ironically, this framing actually follows what I've advocated for well over a year - establishing effective state sovereignty, which the U.S.-backed Awakenings project undermined. But I had hoped that this would be done by integrating the Sunni Awakenings into the security forces, not by arresting their leaders and throwing their members back out onto the streets. This is just one more example of the gap between the formal policy and the implementation which has plagued Iraqi politics - an amnesty law which doesn't seem to let many Sunnis out of jail, a deBaathification reform law which seems to make things harder for its intended beneficiaries, calls for refugee return which do nothing to allow them to successfully return.
If this is indeed the showdown, and - in the words of the influential ISCI leader Jalal al-Saghir - "the Awakenings have no future in Iraq", then what's going to happen? It could shape up into a real world test of two competing hypotheses: 'we don't need to accommodate those hoodlums' (Maliki, Gen. Keane) vs 'they can cause a lot of trouble if not accommodated' (Petraeus and Odierno, among many others). The first position basically assumes that the Awakenings are the remnants of a spent force, unwilling and unable to go back to the insurgency, which can be easily bought off with jobs or ignored. The second basically assumes that the Awakenings represented a choice made by the insurgency factions, which could go back to the insurgency if it had to.
I think that they can go back to the fight, even if they don't really want to. I've never understood the argument that a group which effectively fought the U.S. for years, then voluntarily decided to strike deals with the U.S. to battle a common enemy, can not now switch sides again. I don't have the faith in biometric data that I hear from U.S. military sources.
But you can see the Maliki calculation here pretty clearly. Start from the basic assumption that all other things equal, most of these guys really don't want to go back to the insurgency. They'd prefer to be integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces, recognized as the power-brokers in the Sunni community, and given de facto control of their local neighborhoods. But the Maliki government now seems intent on denying them that option. So what can they do?
The deals with the U.S. (never yet with the Iraqi government) don't mean that they've given up their guns or forgotten how to fight. But their extreme fragmentation (some 200 different individual deals with the U.S. military, as Steve Biddle always points out) creates a major collective action problem. The absence of a unified leadership makes it harder for them both to make and enforce binding deals (pace Jim Fearon), but also to return en masse to the mattresses. With each local group looking out for itself, Maliki likely believes he can slice and dice them, co-opting some while cracking down on others, counting on their inability to overcome the collective action problem. Plus, as I was told recently by a senior U.S. military leader, if the Awakenings groups do hit back then Maliki has the excuse he needs to slam down even harder.
Much of this depends on whether the insurgency factions such as the Islamic Army of Iraq still retain operational control over all these local cells and small groupings - if they do, then they could overcome the collective action problem and initiate a coordinated return to insurgency (though not to any 2005-style alignment with AQI, I don't think - that divorce, from what I've heard from a wide range of sources, is final). Even if they can't or won't go that route, it doesn't seem like it would take that many individual defectors - even just a few thousand - to seriously ramp up fighting again.
But here's a stumper. What if that battle is joined, but the "former Awakenings" ("the once and future insurgency?") choose not to turn those guns against their American "friends" but concentrate exclusively on the Iraqi government. Which side does the U.S. support? The Awakenings movement which it has built and cultivated, or the Iraqi government which it has built and cultivated? Could get messy.