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The Enemy of My Enemy: The Lesson of al-Anbar

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In June 2006 the al Malaki government set 18 benchmarks to measure progress in Iraq. In January 2007, the Bush Administration announced the surge and touted the benchmarks, especially the political reconciliation benchmarks as the justification for the surge. In September 2007, when all outside reports on Iraq - NIE, GAO, Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq - make it clear that the surge has failed to create space for political reconciliation progress, the Bush Administration is simultaneously exaggerating progress on the benchmarks and dismissing their importance. The latest criteria for success are not progress at national reconciliation but progress at the local level. This is declaring success by anecdote. Find a child's soccer game and declare the surge a success. The absurdity and shamelessness of this latest change of goalposts would be amusing if the subject were not so deadly serious.

The President visited al-Anbar province on his quick stop in Iraq because there were no success photo opportunities in Baghdad. But what does al-Anbar prove? The President would have us believe that the siding of the Sunni tribal sheiks in al-Anbar with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq was a result of the surge. This is another deception. The surge was announced on 10 January 2007. The change in al-Anbar began in late November or early December 2006. Why? Because the tribal leaders are better at reading election returns than Karl Rove. They read the November elections as a clear sign that the end was near for the U.S. occupation in Iraq as the Democrats swept to control of Congress.

The Sunni tribal leaders (aka insurgents) had been having more and more problems with the al-Qaeda in Iraq and other militant groups. Leaders were being assassinated, their people killed in indiscriminate suicide bombings and imposition of sharia law - including banning on smoking, the Iraqi national pastime. The leaders knew that when the U.S. leaves, they will have a reckoning with the extremists. So they did what has been done for a thousand years in the Middle East, they cut a deal with a short term enemy in order to destroy a long term enemy. The tribal leaders have made clear that they do not want U.S. troops in Iraq in the long term, only long enough to receive U.S. arms and to weaken or destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq, especially the fifteen percent or so of the group that are the foreign fighters. As an extra bonus, the arms and training will help the Sunni fend off the central government when the U.S. forces depart.

In short, while the troops provided by the surge are helping destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq (not those guys who attacked us on 9/11) the strategic decision to switch sides, at lease temporarily, was a pre-surge strategic decision that probably was triggered by the outcome of the November elections. We will not be "the enemy of my enemy" forever. We will soon be just "my enemy" again.

But the events in al Anbar do raise some further questions. What will happen if the tribal sheiks see that the November elections are not speeding up U.S. withdrawal? Will other groups in other areas not follow the al Anbar lead and decline to face the need to resolve local problems in anticipation of that withdrawal? The failure of the surge to achieve national political movement combined with the failure to begin withdrawal to promote local reconciliation could lead to an explosion of violence and an erosion of any short term security gains.