Thursday, April 22, 2004
The United States and the Sunni guerrillas in Iraq agreed to an extended cease-fire in Al Fallujah on April 19. Most media treated the news as important. It was, in fact, extraordinary. The fact that either force -- U.S. or Iraqi -- would have considered negotiating with the other represents an astounding evolution on both sides. For the first time in the guerrilla war, the United States and the guerrillas went down what a Marine general referred to as a "political track." That a political track has emerged between these two adversaries represents a stunning evolution. Even if it goes no further -- and even if the cease-fire in Al Fallujah collapses -- it represents a massive shift in policy on both sides...
The willingness of the United States to negotiate with the guerrillas is the most significant evolution...
More important is the fact that both sides felt constrained -- at least in this limited circumstance -- to negotiate. In that sense, each side was defeated by the other. The United States conceded that it could not unilaterally impose its will on Al Fallujah. There are political and military reasons for this. Politically, the collateral damage of house-to-house fighting would have had significant political consequences for Iraq, the alliance and the United States. The guerrillas could not have been defeated without a significant number of civilian casualties. Militarily, the United States has no desire to engage in urban combat. Casualties among U.S. troops would have been high, and the forces doing the fighting would have been exhausted. At a time of substantial troop shortages, the level of effort needed to pacify Al Fallujah would have represented a substantial burden. The guerrillas had posed a politico-military problem that could not readily be solved unilaterally.
It was also a defeat for the guerrillas. Their political position has been unalterable opposition to the United States, and an uncompromising struggle to defeat the Americans. They have presented themselves not only as ready to die, but also as representing an Iraq that was ready to die with them. At the very least, it is clear that the citizens of Al Fallujah were ready neither to die nor to endure the siege the United States was prepared to impose. At most, the guerrillas themselves, trapped inside Al Fallujah, chose to negotiate an exit, even if it meant surrendering heavy weapons -- including machine guns -- and even if it meant that they could no longer use Al Fallujah as a battleground. Whether it was the civilians or the guerrillas that drove for settlement, someone settled -- and the settlement included the guerrillas.
The behavior of the guerrillas indicates to us that their numbers and resources are not as deep as it might appear. The guerrillas are not cowards. Cowards don't take on U.S. Marines. Forcing the United States into house-to-house fighting would have been logical -- unless the guerrillas in Al Fallujah represented a substantial proportion of the guerrilla fighting force and had to be retained. If that were the case, it would indicate that the guerrillas are afraid of battles of annihilation that they cannot recover from. Obviously, there is strong anti-American feeling in Iraq, but the difference between throwing a rock or a grenade and carrying out the effective, coordinated warfare of the professional guerrilla is training. Enthusiasm does not create soldiers. Training takes time and secure bases. It is likely that the guerrillas have neither, so -- with substantial forces trapped in Al Fallujah -- they had to negotiate their way out....
Al Fallujah demonstrates three things: First, it demonstrates that under certain circumstances, a political agreement -- however limited -- can be negotiated between the United States and the guerrillas. Second, it demonstrates that the United States is aware of the limits of its power and is now open, for the first time, to some sort of political resolution -- even if it means dealing with the guerrillas. Third, it demonstrates that the guerrillas are aware of the limits of their power, and are implicitly prepared for some solution short of complete, immediate victory....
There were powerful political forces driving toward a settlement as well, and the military imperative was simply the cutting edge. But there are also powerful political forces in Iraq. The United States clearly does not want an interminable civil war in Iraq. The jihadists -- the foreign Islamist militants -- obviously do want that. But the view of the Sunni guerrillas might be different. They have other enemies besides the Americans -- they have the Shia. The Sunnis have as little desire to be dominated by the Shia as the Shia have to be dominated by the Sunnis. In that aversion, there is political opportunity. Unlike the foreign jihadists, the native Sunni guerrillas are not ideologically opposed to negotiating with the Shia -- or the Americans.
The United States has banked heavily on the cooperation of the Shia. It reached agreement with the Shia to allow them a Shiite-dominated government. After the December 2003 suppression of the Sunni guerrillas, Washington cooled a bit on the deal. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani demanded elections, which he knew the Shia would win. Washington insisted on a prefabricated government that limited Shiite power and would frame the new constitution, leading to elections. Al-Sistani suspected that the new constitution would be written so as to deny the Shia what the United States had promised.
Al-Sistani first demanded elections. The United States refused to budge. He then called huge demonstrations. The United States refused to budge. Then Muqtada al-Sadr -- who is either al-Sistani's mortal enemy, his tool or both -- rose up in the south. Al-Sistani was showing the United States that -- without him and the Shia -- the U.S. position in Iraq would become untenable. He made an exceptionally good case. The United States approached al-Sistani urgently to intercede, but -- outstanding negotiator that he is -- al-Sistani refused to budge for several days, during which it appeared that all of Iraq was exploding. Then, he quietly interceded and al-Sadr -- trapped with relatively limited forces, isolated from the Shiite main body and facing the United States -- began to look for a way out. Al-Sistani appeared to have proven his point to the United States: Without the Shia, the United States cannot remain in Iraq. Without al-Sistani, the Shia will become unmanageable.
From al-Sistani's point of view, there was a three-player game in Iraq -- fragments notwithstanding -- and the Shia were the swing players, with the Sunnis and Americans at each other's throats. In any three-player game, the swing player is in the strongest position. Al-Sistani, able to swing between the Americans and the Sunnis, was the most powerful figure in Iraq. So long as the Americans and Sunnis remained locked in that position, al-Sistani would win.
The Sunnis did not want to see a Shiite-dominated Iraq. So long as al-Sistani was talking to the Americans and they were not, the choice was between a long, difficult, uncertain war and capitulation. The Sunnis had to change the terms of the game. What they signaled to al-Sistani was that if he continued to negotiate with the United States and not throw in with the guerrillas, they would have no choice but to open a line of communication with the Americans as well. Al Fallujah proved not only that they would -- but more importantly -- that they could.
From the U.S. point of view, the hostility between Sunnis and Shia is the bedrock of the occupation. They cannot permit the two players to unite against them. Nor can they allow the Shia to become too powerful or for the Americans to become their prisoners. While al-Sistani was coolly playing his hand, it became clear to the Americans that they needed additional options. Otherwise, the only two outcomes they faced here were a Sunni-Shiite alliance against them or becoming the prisoner of the Shia.
By opening negotiations with the Sunnis, the Americans sent a stunning message to the Shia: The idea of negotiation with the Sunnis is not out of the question. In fact, by completing the cease-fire agreement before agreement was reached over al-Sadr's forces in An Najaf, the United States pointed out that it was, at the moment, easier to deal with the Sunnis than with the Shia. This increased pressure on al-Sistani, who saw for the first time a small indicator that his position was not as unassailably powerful as he thought.
The New Swing Player
The Al Fallujah cease-fire has started -- emphasis on "started" -- a process whereby the United States moves to become the swing player, balancing between Sunnis and Shia. Having reached out to the Sunnis to isolate the Americans and make them more forthcoming, the Shia now face the possibility of "arrangements" -- not agreements, not treaties, not a settlement -- between U.S. and Sunni forces that put realities in place, out of which broader understandings might gradually emerge.
In the end, the United States has limited interest in Iraq, but the Iraqis -- Sunnis and Shia alike -- are not going anywhere. They are going to have to deal with each other, although they do not trust each other -- and with good reason. Neither trusts the United States, but the United States will eventually leave. In the meantime, the United States could be exceedingly useful in cementing Sunni or Shiite power over each other. Neither side wants to wind up dominated by the other. Neither wants the Americans to stay in Iraq permanently, but the United States does not want to stay permanently either. A few years hardly makes a major difference in an area where history is measured in millennia.
The simple assumption is that most Iraqis want the Americans out. That is a true statement, but not a sufficient one. A truer statement is this: Most Iraqis want the Americans out, but are extremely interested in what happens after they leave. Given that, the proper statement is: Most Iraqis want the Americans out, but are prepared to use the Americans toward their ends while they are there, and want them to leave in a manner that will maximize their own interests in a postwar Iraqi world.
That is the lever that the Americans have, and that they seem to have been playing in the past year. It is a long step down from the days when the Department of Defense skirmished with the State Department about which of them would govern postwar Iraq, on the assumption that those were the only choices. Unpleasant political choices will have to be made in Iraq, but the United States now has a standpoint from which to manipulate the situation and remain in Iraq while it exerts pressure in the region. In the end -- grand ambitions notwithstanding -- that is what the United States came for in the first place.