Much has been made (and, come September 15, will be made) of the new U.S. alliance with Sunni tribesmen in Iraq's Anbar province. The fragile union aims to rid the area of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). And, indeed, the new tactics appear to be working, at least in the short term: Between December 2006 and June 2007 (the most recent month for which numbers are available), insurgent attacks in Anbar province declined by 34 percent. As the Pentagon described in its most recent report to Congress, "In Anbar province, anti-AQI sentiment is widespread, with growing tribal influence as the primary driver of decreasing violence levels."
But, as the new NIE warns, the relative calm in Anbar could be shortlived:
Sunni Arab resistance to AQI has expanded, and neighborhood security groups, occasionally consisting of mixed Shia-Sunni units, have proliferated in the past several months. These trends, combined with increased Coalition operations, have eroded AQI's operational presence and capabilities in some areas... Such initiatives, if not fully exploited by the Iraqi Government, could over time also shift greater power to the regions, undermine efforts to impose central authority, and reinvigorate armed opposition to the Baghdad government.
Did we really need the NIE to tell us that arming Sunni tribesmen carries risk of blowback? More importantly, should we consider the recent gains in Anbar to be anything other than illusory? From Walter Pincus in this morning's Washington Post:
Fourteen months ago, a 300-page Defense Department-sponsored research paper titled "Iraq Tribal Study: Al-Anbar Governorate" was completed and delivered to the Pentagon. That report -- put together by a distinguished group of retired military counterinsurgency specialists and academics, each with Iraq experience -- was circulated in the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., at the time led by then-Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the top U.S. commander in Iraq. The study proposed changing how the United States interacts with Sunni tribal leaders, eventually contributing to winning their support in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq forces...
The study summed up how the Sunni tribes viewed the conditions that Washington established in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. "Throughout the modern history of Iraq, the Sunni tribes have occupied a privileged position in Iraq society and enjoyed wealth, autonomy and political clout," the report said. "To lose those advantages in a system of proportional representation that empowered the Shia, or in a truncated Iraq with a Kurdish autonomous province, would bring shame to a long and prosperous Sunni history."
It also cautioned that the main themes of the U.S. message in Iraq -- "freedom and democracy" -- do not resonate well with the population "because freedom is associated with chaos in Iraq." In addition, the Sunnis "are deathly afraid of being ruled by a Shia government, which they believe will be little more than a puppet of the Shia religious extremists in Iran."
The study identified three tribes in al-Anbar province, all of which initially fought as insurgents against U.S. forces. But more recently, all three tribes -- or "significant parts of them" -- joined the movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq. "This presents a window of opportunity for engagement and influence of the tribes by the coalition," the study stated.
However, the study warned that with two of the tribes, such cooperation "should not be considered as support for, or even acceptance of, coalition activities." Instead, it occurs "for no other purpose but to rid the area of a common enemy, al-Qaeda and its allies." With the third, it cautioned, "the recognized leadership plays both ends of the insurgency, coalition versus the insurgents, against the middle while maintaining a single motive, to force the coalition to leave Iraq."
In short, the study's experts pointed toward what has become a short-term U.S. success, while warning more than a year ago -- as the intelligence community did last week -- that it is all temporary.