The warlord option?

Meanwhile, in other “Iraqi vs. Iraqi” news, Pamela Hess reports that Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq are starting to turn against many of the more vicious Iraqi insurgents—both foreign and homegrown. Hess notes that the U.S. military commanders have actually been encouraging the intra-Sunni violence of late: In Fallujah, for instance, after insurgents killed Lt. Col. Sulaiman Hamad Ftikan, a member of the Dulaimi tribe, Marine Col. Jean Toolan says, “We tried to sanction a little bit of tribal interest in finding out who was responsible for Sulaiman’s death, specifically.” It worked, and the Dulaimis hunted down and murdered the culprits.

Judging from Hess’ reporting, it seems that this sort of approach is likely to become more common in the future. There are real divisions among the Sunni tribes, and rivalries among different tribes, all of which can be exploited by the U.S. Something along the lines of: “We’ll give you money and guns if you stop supporting these foreign fighters; if you don’t, we’ll go talk to these rival sheikhs.” Indeed, security experts like Daniel Byman have suggested this sort of strategy in lieu of a real counterinsurgency campaign, which would require far more troops than the U.S. can possibly commit to Iraq.

The only problem here is that these tribal sheikhs aren’t at all willing to work with the U.S.—or the Shi’ites or Kurds—on the larger goal of a unified Iraqi government. In essence, then, the U.S. would be promoting the warlordization of Iraq, as it did in Afghanistan, in order to weed out the most immediate enemy—namely, the ex-Baathists and foreign jihadists who are leading the anti-American fighters in Iraq. In other words, they tamp down the insurgency at the risk of locking in the rule of the gun and possible sectarian strife.