The Iraq Awakening Showdown

04/08/2009 05:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Looks like the Iraqi government is moving against the Awakening Councils in Iraq. The councils, as you may recall, were the Sunnis (many of them ex-insurgents) whom the Americans paid and armed to fight al-Qa'eda in Iraq, and to impose some sort of rough peace on their areas. They aren't really controlled by the central government, and no central government likes the idea of having independent military forces in its territory, so they've been arresting leaders, which has led to some pitched fighting.

From the point of view of the Iraqi central government, they've got till the US leaves to get this done with. As with when they went after al-Sadr is Basra and had to be bailed out by American troops and Iranian diplomacy, it's not clear that the Iraqi army is capable of independent operations against highly motivated enemy forces. But as long as the Americans are around, no one wants to call up a large enough force to beat the Iraqi army, because if they do the Americans will swoop down, and no one in Iraq can beat them in open field combat and even if they could, the losses they would take are not worth it.

The "surge" worked less because of extra troops than because ethnic cleansing had pretty much completed itself and because Americans paid part of the insurgency (the Awakening Councils) to fight another part (al-Qa'eda in Iraq).

The question now is whether the Iraqi government can get enough of a monopoly on force to survive after the majority of American forces leave. It's not clear to me that they can, if only because their own military is pretty awful and thoroughly infiltrated by various other groups. A lot will depend on the deals they cut with the Sunni opposition, and with al-Sadr. If Sadr and the Sunnis decide to work together, I don't think the central government can survive. Folks forget the nature of militias in Iraq--you put out the call, and they rise up and when they're not needed large numbers of them appear to be little more than civilians.

And again, when it comes to large scale operations, the Iraq army does not have a record of success unless backed up by US troops.

So this will be a political game as much as a military one. If the central government doesn't buy off enough of the opposition, I expect it will lose entire provinces to a new insurgency when they rise after the Americans leave.

Remember, the game has never been primarily about fighting the Americans. The game has always been about who will be in charge after the Americans leave.

Addendum: The Newshoggers have been covering Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan better than anyone else I've seen, and very much in the spirit of the old BOPnews and Agonist. I suggest keeping an eye on them if you want good analysis about what's really going on.