Iraq‘s Sunni tribes began turning against al Qaeda when the largely foreign-run terrorist organization tried to arrange forced marriages with local women to secure their foothold in the country, according to a top counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. coalition in Iraq.
Australian Col. David Kilcullen, who just completed a tour as senior counterinsurgency aide to U.S. commander Gen. David H. Petraeus in Baghdad, said in an extensive analysis that the decision by the Sunni tribes to break with al Qaeda could prove a major — if unanticipated — boost to President Bush‘s surge strategy in the country.
“The uprising represents very significant political progress toward reconciliation at the grass-roots level, and major security progress in marginalizing extremists and reducing civilian deaths,” Col. Kilcullen wrote Wednesday in the military blog Small Wars Journal (https://smallwarsjournal.com/blog).
With an estimated 30,000 Sunni fighters in Iraq now battling their former al Qaeda allies, “the tribal revolt is arguably the most significant change in the Iraqi operating environment for several years,” he added in his entry titled “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt.”
Mr. Bush has talked repeatedly about the improving security situation in Anbar province and other Sunni strongholds, saying the shift enhances the prospect for both security and political gains from the military surge.
“The momentum is now on our side,” Mr. Bush said this week in a speech to the American Legion national convention in Reno, Nev. “The surge is seizing the initiative from the enemy and handing it to the Iraqi people.”
But critics in Congress and in the antiwar movement warn that the Sunni shift may be temporary, and could create its own problems for the embattled government in Baghdad.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said yesterday the apparent decline of violence in some Iraqi communities could just be the result of sectarian cleansing that has driven Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites out of formerly mixed communities. War critics have also challenged administration assertions that sectarian killings have gone down in recent months.
“For the last nine months, the surge has really failed to do anything the president said it would do,” Mr. Katulis said.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff are scheduled to meet with Mr. Bush today to give their assessment of the progress of the Iraq war, the Pentagon said yesterday, two weeks ahead of a crucial progress report to be delivered by the White House to Congress.
Col. Kilcullen, writing for a small but influential military readership at the Web site, provides a level of detail about the Sunni tribal dynamic not previously laid out by U.S. military officials, and discusses the major pros and cons of the shifting security landscape.
The Australian colonel said that the Iraqi government’s own intelligence services picked up on the break between Iraqi Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda long before the U.S.-led coalition did, as it was developing in Anbar and other provinces over the past two years.
The tactic of forced political marriages was standard for al Qaeda, according to Col. Kilcullen, used successfully in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere to “embed” the international terrorist network in the local kinship and tribal network.
But in Iraq, he wrote, “the tactic seemed to have backfired,” in part because the radical Islamist movement failed to appreciate Iraq’s brand of Islam.
Forced marriages outside the tribe have never been culturally accepted in traditional Iraqi society, and tribal leaders resisted demands for such marriages. Al Qaeda operatives responded by demanding — often violently — such marriages, killing one sheik and brutally murdering the children of another.
“[Al Qaeda], with their hyper-reductionist version of ‘Islam’ stripped of cultural content, discounted the tribes’ view as ignorant, stupid and sinful,” the colonel writes.
The Sunni revolt was fueled by other factors. Al Qaeda terrorist strikes disrupted long-established smuggling and trade routes. Sunni tribal leaders also suspect al Qaeda has established ties to Shi’ite Iran in a bid to defeat the United States in Iraq.
The Sunni “awakening” now includes major tribes in Anbar, Diyala, Salah-ad-din and even parts of urban Baghdad, where tribal identities still linger among the urban population.
The colonel noted that the Sunni revolt was not sparked by the U.S. military surge, and poses clear risks to the overall U.S. strategy.
Among them: the creation of armed Sunni groups not under the full control of the central government; the opposition of some Shi’ite factions within the government and national police to working with Sunni tribes; and the “outside chance” that Sunni tribes that have “flipped” against al Qaeda could “flip back” if they see the central government as hostile.
Col. Kilcullen said the major shift on the ground in Iraq may also be ignored in the mounting debate in Washington over Mr. Bush’s surge strategy, which was a top-down plan aimed at giving Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and leading Iraqi factions in the Green Zone time and space to make deals.
“To be perfectly honest, the pattern we are seeing runs somewhat counter to what we expected in the ‘surge,’ ” he acknowledged, “and therefore lies well outside the ‘benchmarks’ ” for progress that are at the heart of the war debate between the White House and Congress.