Today’s issue of the New York Times includes a fantastic article about the successes and problematic nature of the American co-opted and trained Sunni tribal "Awakening" militias. Although I hate to say "I told you so," this piece flows rather smoothly from my own work on failed state militia employment and deconstructive violence. See my presentation at this year’s ISSS/ISAC conference for more detail. Here my recent paper on federal "solutions" to ethnic conflict may also be mildly informative.
Formerly anti-US insurgents, these groups have been instrumental in bringing calm and relative peace to regions of Iraq that were exceedingly violent and destabilized just months ago such as Anbar and Diyala provinces. They have also struck a sour tone with the Shi’ite led government who fears their growing power and popular support base. Many fear that the growth of these militia are sewing the seeds for all-out sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite. Given the weak legitimacy of the central government, the already fragmented nature of the new Iraqi security forces, and the continued power of Shi’ite militia in government and on the streets, to say that this concern is legitimate is an understatement at best.
I have reproduced the opening section of the article below. If you are at all interested in the potentially destabilizing and sovereignty deconstructing potential of militia employment in failed states, this piece is well worth the read.
In a Force for Iraqi Calm, Seeds of Conflict
By ALISSA J. RUBIN and DAMIEN CAVE
The thin teenage boy rushed up to the patrol of American soldiers walking through Dora, a shrapnel-scarred neighborhood of the capital, and lifted his shirt to show them a mass of red welts across his back.
He said he was a member of a local Sunni “Awakening” group, paid by the American military to patrol the district, but he said it was another Awakening group that beat him. “They took me while I was working,” he said, “and broke my badge and said, ‘You are from Al Qaeda.’”
The soldiers were unsure of what to do. The Awakening groups in just their area of southern Baghdad could not seem to get along: they fought over turf and, it turned out in this case, one group had warned the other that its members should not pay rent to Shiite “dogs.”
The Awakening movement, a predominantly Sunni Arab force recruited to fight Sunni Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, has become a great success story after its spread from Sunni tribes in Anbar Province to become an ad-hoc armed force of 65,000 to 80,000 across the country in less than a year. A linchpin of the American strategy to pacify Iraq, the movement has been widely credited with turning around the violence-scarred areas where the Sunni insurgency has been based.
But the beating that day was a stark example of how rivalries and sectarianism are still undermining the Americans’ plans. And in particular, the Awakening’s rapid expansion — the Americans say the force could reach 100,000 — is creating new concerns.
How, when thousands are joining each month, can spies and extremists be reliably weeded out? How can the men’s loyalty be maintained, given their tribal and sectarian ties, and in many cases their insurgent pasts? And crucially, how can the movement be sustained once the Americans turn over control to a Shiite-dominated government that has been wary, and sometimes hostile, toward the groups?
Despite the successes of the movement, including the members’ ability to provide valuable intelligence and give rebuilding efforts a new chance in war-shattered communities, the American military acknowledges that it is also a high-risk proposition. It is an experiment in counterinsurgency warfare that could contain the seeds of a civil war — in which, if the worst fears come true, the United States would have helped organize some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government on which so many American lives and dollars have been spent.
In interviews with Awakening groups in 10 locations — four interviewed during a week in Anbar, and six groups in and around Baghdad interviewed over several days — it was evident that the groups were improving security in their areas. But it is also clear that there is little loyalty, in either direction, between the Sunni groups and the Shiites who run the government.
The Americans are haunted by the possibility that Iraq could go the way of Afghanistan, where Americans initially bought the loyalty of tribal leaders only to have some of them gravitate back to the Taliban when the money stopped.
Col. Martin Stanton, chief of reconciliation and engagement for the Multinational Corps-Iraq, said the military had no illusions about the Awakening members’ former lives or the reasons for what appeared to be their change of heart.
“These weren’t people who were struck by a lightning bolt or saw a burning bush and came over to this side of the Lord,” Colonel Stanton said. “These were people who last year were being hammered from two different directions: by Al Qaeda and by us. It was probably a distasteful choice to make back then because, after all, they viewed us as invaders, and they probably still do, but it was a survival choice and they made it.”
Though the Americans obtain biometric data on every Awakening group member to try to screen out known insurgents, the government and many Shiite citizens say they fear that the movement has spread so quickly that it is impossible to keep track of who has signed up for it. And while government officials are somewhat willing to accept the tribal character of the Awakening groups in Anbar Province, they are leery of the new ones in and around Baghdad, which have more Baathists from the era of Saddam Hussein in their leadership and are active in more mixed neighborhoods.
“Many people believe this will end with tens of thousands of armed people, primarily Sunnis, and this will excite the Shiite militias to grow and in the end it will grow into a civil war,” said Safa Hussein, the deputy national security adviser and a point man on the Awakening program for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
Still, the government has made only the most halting steps toward rapprochement with the Awakening groups, even those who have been fighting insurgents for months in their neighborhoods.
And for the Americans who helped create and nurture the movement, the initial excitement has been tempered by the challenge of managing a huge, and growing, force where many of the men have shadowy pasts.
“It’s the case with any franchise organization,” said Maj. Gen. John R. Allen, the deputy commander in Anbar Province. “Sooner or later you lose control over the standards.”