Awakening in the Balance of Iraq: Insurgents Turned Constable

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 10 months ago

In Are We Bribing the Sheikhs? and Payment to Concerned Citizens: Strategy of Genius or Shame?, I discussed the expansion of one aspect of the Anbar model into the balance of Iraq, this aspect specifically being settling with the enemy and using his services to maintain regional or local stability and security.  South of Baghdad this model is having success, but it has potential pitfalls which might have to be be addressed in the future.

JURF AL-SAKHR, Iraq; In this desolate tiny town in what was once called the Triangle of Death, signs of the violent past mix oddly with evidence of today’s more tranquil life.

Large plots of land emptied by car bombs sit next to refurbished buildings. A new water treatment plant looks out to blast walls that have not been necessary for months. A newly opened clothes shop is next to one that has been shut for ages.

The U.S. calls this former al-Qaida stronghold a paragon of post-surge Iraq. Violence has come to a near standstill. Yet the government that has emerged is far from the democratic republic once promised.

The town is run by deals among its anointed leaders, nearly all of them former Sunni Muslim insurgents. None was elected. No one pays any mind to what might be happening in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated Parliament in Baghdad. Residents assume that the elected central government will never help them.

Instead, the insurgents-turned-leaders depend on an influx of money from the U.S. or from the provincial government to keep Islamic extremists from dominating the town again. So far, the U.S. military has spent $1 million, the cost of one of the military’s newest armored vehicles, on reconstruction projects and salaries for residents to secure the town and its surrounding area — 30,000 people in all. If the U.S. plan works, the next million will come from the Shiite-led provincial government.

U.S. officials acknowledge that their approach is tenuous, but one that so far has produced a big drop in violence. No U.S. soldier has been attacked since June, and they can now walk with some assurance of safety.

Residents reopened more than 40 shops and are sending their children to school. Townspeople are no longer locked in their homes.

But everyone agrees a major bombing, the assassination of a key figure or a lack of money could break the deal.

And it raises questions of what role the central government will have in Iraq. If residents reject that government, can Iraq stay together? Or will it become a series of fiefdoms run by unelected leaders backed by the United States?

U.S. commanders hail the turnaround here, saying they approached it in an Iraqi way.

“This place is about all kinds of agreements,? said Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment based at Fort Richardson, Alaska. “The central government right now is too far removed. I mean, if these people were to rely on the central government, they don’t see any hope there. So what we are doing is bringing government from the ground up.?

This is no grassroots democracy, however.

Once the U.S. swept the area and reduced the militants’ hold on the town early on in the troop surge, it turned to the tribal sheik of the Islamic Army, the secular Sunni insurgency, to run the town. His name is Sabah al-Janabi.

Unlike the more homogenous Anbar province, Jurf al-Sakhr is south of Baghdad and sits on the Shiite-Sunni fault line. For Sheik Sabah, as he is called, to be a legitimate leader, the nearest Shiite town, Musayyib, would have to approve.

Accompanied by Balcavage, Sheik Sabah traveled there to seek the approval of the local commander of the Mahdi Army militia, a Shiite group loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; the head of the police; and the local Shiite tribal leader. They agreed. The sheik would be responsible for Jurf al-Sakhr and its people, and he’d make sure that his Shiite neighbors no longer felt threatened.

Armed with that agreement, the sheik then went to the provincial government. Once approved, he received his mayoral salary from the province, his first legitimate pay since the fall of Hussein’s regime.

With that, the U.S. reached its next deal. It agreed to employ Sheik Sabah’s fellow tribesmen and former insurgents as concerned local citizens, as the U.S. calls the local security forces it has been creating.

The members of the new security force would earn $375 a month, and it would be up to Sheik Sabah to distribute the funds. Some of their salaries would go toward buying weapons; another part was presumed to go to Sheik Sabah. And it would be up to him to secure the town.

“What we are really trying to do is employ heads of household now so that they can participate in the local economy and have hope,? said Capt. Henry Moltz, of A Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, who is in charge of the town.

When the money was doled out, the violence dropped immediately. The U.S. military had offered the residents a better deal than the Islamists had. The former insurgents were now paid to be the town’s guardians.

As more residents earned paychecks, more shops opened, and, Moltz said, fewer people depended on the U.S. salaries. An economic system developed.

Sheik Sabah said that if the U.S. support were to stop, “al-Qaida would return.?

And while residents might not attack U.S. soldiers anymore, their disdain remains. As U.S. troops walked up to Sheik Sabah’s office last week, his young son, Ahmad, sneered, “Go away,? in Arabic.

Moltz said he did not care: “I don’t have anyone lying to me anymore. I don’t have anyone bombing me anymore.?

And he rejected suggestions that Sheik Sabah or his backers would turn and embrace their former insurgent lifestyle. “Why would they? They couldn’t walk through their streets then.?

Every situation is different.  Bill Ardolino reports that the Southern area of Fallujah was very amenable to Marine presence, with waves and smiles from the population, while the Northern part of Fallujah was less hospitable.  Ramadi, where the origins of the tribal awakening occurred, are easy terrain for the Marines.  Where there are mixed Sunni-Shi’a communities, or where the Sunni population has not had the constant kinetic operations resulting from a Marine presence, the situation is less amenable to niceties.

Arming and organizing the Sunni insurgency to provide security and stability, while aligning with tested anthropological doctrine as I have previously suggested (heads of households providing sustenance for their families), is fraught with possible unintended consequences.  But at the present, as Dave Dilegge of the Small Wars Journal suggests, this is our only and best option:

I personally favor a bottom-up approach to COIN, especially in the absence of any national political reconciliation. The clock, especially the “Washington Clock” is running out and right now this approach is probably our only option. It may be blessing in disguise. You are right though, this does come with risks, and COIN is all about risks and long-term commitment. While the advantages of a “bottom-up” approach to COIN is arguable; solid tactics, executed correctly and uniformly, provide a solid base while the “top” (host nation or otherwise) sorts itself out.

But settle we are, whether the Sunnis like their new station (deposed along with Saddam) or not.  The future is uncertain.  If this approach is successful, a paradox presents itself to senior leadership, this paradox being unrelated to Iraq, per se.  We will continue to send Marines to Mohave Viper to train prior to deployment, yet it appears that their mission will be one primarily of neighborhood diplomacy and constabulary operations, perhaps to the detriment of morale among at least some of the troops (e.g., after heavy kinetic operations by 2/6, concerning the transition to food bags and neighborhood diplomacy, Bill Ardolino observes that some Marines are bored with civil affairs missions, some embrace them; and some Marines complain about the “boring” nature of the civil affairs focus, while others embrace it.)

These are good and necessary missions, but are they the ones that should be assigned to Marines?

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  • Brian H

    Hasn’t war always been “long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror”?

    But something like Barnett’s SysAdmin to deal with mixed military-economic stabilization scenarios is going to have to develop for the long term.


You are currently reading "Awakening in the Balance of Iraq: Insurgents Turned Constable", entry #762 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Constabulary Actions,Counterinsurgency,Iraq,Marine Corps and was published November 14th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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