Earlier in the week many tribesmen fought against the government, following the arrest of the Sunni lawmaker and the dismantling of the protest tents, but when Al Qaeda returned many quickly switched sides. “We don’t want to be like Syria,” said Sheikh Omar al-Asabi, who led a group of fighting men in an area east of Falluja. For many men of Anbar over the last several years, fighting has been a constant, even as the enemy has shifted. “We fought the Americans, and we fought the Maliki army, and now we are fighting Qaeda,” said Firas Mohammed, 28, who is an engineer when he is not at war. “We will not allow any outsider to come here and impose his will on us.” -- NY Times, January 3, 2013
Falluja and Ramadi are the Iraq wars' on-going versions of Stalingrad, Hue and the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. These were brutal battles, and while individuals and units of the Marines and the Army covered themselves with glory, they did so at a tremendous cost in blood, treasure, truama and moral authority. There is nothing measured or glorious inherent in battle - but urban conflict and clearing cities of insurgents, aggrieved locals and perceived threats are inevitably brutal, costly and vicious. Anbar province was not so much an al Qaeda issue as a Sunni issue. As the times points out, a third of US casualties in the Iraq war occurred here. Suspicions of US use of tactical nukes, white phosphorous rounds as anti-personnel weapons, and other complaints justified or not indicated that this was a problem area. Then, of course, Anbar province became the home of the Sunni Awakening, the proof that Petraeus was the greatest military genius since Giap and that COIN was the greatest thing since C-rations. Yeah -- it proved that if you gave the Sunnis in Iraq a certain level of autonomy, armed them, bribed their leaders and then let them go about their business, outsiders would have very little sway. Outsiders being broadly defined as Shiites, Qaeda, and anyone else except those bearing gifts of money, weapons and stuff...
One thing we should have learned and that should be mandatory headings on briefing papers and slide shows throughout the high end of the military industrial complex anytime someone decides to do something in the Middle East and Central Asia is a quote from an anonymous British officer briefing a bunch of American officers on the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the resulting unpleasantness during the 90s --" You need to remember that they are all guilty bastards!" That can be the top heading; at the bottom, the legend should quote Egyptian diplomat Tasheen Bashir's quip on the Arab World that " When the chips are down, there is only one real place in the entire area – Egypt. All the rest – forgive me – are tribes with flags. " with a parenthetical sub-text that reads "Who Really Hate Each Other!"
Of course, what's happening in Egypt now should probably make us stop for a second and evaluate the mess more stringently -- frankly, Egypt is pretty much shattering. The less homogeneous Arab states are in absolute turmoil -- Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine. In a March 2013 in Foreign Policy titled Tribes With Flags: How the Arab Spring Has Exposed the Myth of Arab Statehood AaronDavid Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Institute makes some very interesting arguments that should have been made and listened to ten years ago:
...it may be time to ponder another proposition: In the wake of the Arab Spring, we're witnessing the beginning of the end of another Arab illusion -- the functional and coherent Arab state.
Forget democracies. What's at stake here is basic coherence and governance (My emphasis)
....understand that however empathetic we may want to be, it shouldn't willfully blind us to certain realities either. And perhaps one of the most disturbing is the accelerating trend -- long present in the Arab world -- toward decentralization and weak state control. The political turbulence of the past few years has only deepened this lack of coherence. And it raises serious questions about whether even basic governance is possible...
To move beyond the challenges they now face, Arab states need three things they seem unable to produce.First, they will need leaders willing and able to think and act in truly national terms, transcending their narrow sectarian, corporatist, family, and religious affiliations. Name one leader in any Arab country that fits that description.Second, Arab states need inclusive and legitimate institutions that aren't hostage to political intrigue or playthings of the elites that compete for power. Their primary objective should be representing the nation's citizens -- not the perpetuation of their own perquisites and those of the ruling elite.And third, the Arab world needs a mechanism for negotiating differences and accommodating polarization without it spilling into the streets. As the recent riots in Egypt and the killing of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid show, the alternative to this is violence and murder.
Since March, of course, things have continued to go down hill. The Times article cites the presence of a Hezbollah Office in Anbar, which makes as much since and is about as sensitive to local realities as putting a US Marine Corps recruiting office there. Egypt has been doing its continuous remake of the Battle of Algiers, Syria is looking less like a revolution than a Capone reply from the Chicago of the 20s, and on and on and on. Miller points out that the monarchies seem to be holding their own but the other Arab nations are pretty much bordering between anarchy and...well, different anarchy. He also reminds us that the potent political states in the region are non-Arab: Israel, Turkey and Iran. It's probably worth pointing out that all three have strong, somewhat dictatorial governments; in Israel's case, the more conservative religious parties have the ascendancy; Turkey is starting to struggle with the conflict between a modernist but Islamic government in a secular state; Iran is dealing with issues related in some ways to the tension between the Persian culture and fundamentalist Shiite approaches to governance and law. ( I'm tempted to go all neo-Marxist on describing the problems the three nations face, but that's for another time. Still, the conflict between secular and religious pressures sure looks like an iteration of thesis/antithesis to me). However, compared to who's running the neighborhood, who's the boss of me sort of issues facing Eygpt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon et al, these are sophisticated problems concerning application of law and governance. The chaotic nations of the Arab world are faced with trying to put out the fires and get the blood off the floor while burying the dead -- when everything is going to hell in a hand basket, is really sucks to run out of baskets.
So, it's reasonable to say that the prognosis is not great for the outbreak of region wide Jeffersonian Democracy. Anbar Province is a particularly nasty reminder of a totally bankrupt -- morally, philosophically and practically -- approach to working our will or the will of any outside agency in the region but it's not unique. It's just louder -- civil wars tend to be noisy. They are also best handled internally. So, before someone decides to head back in to help -- and I'm sure the words Al Qaeda in Iraq will incite all sorts of Republican orgasms of anger and demand for blood and treasure to pour all over Iraq again -- we need to look long, hard and if it seems at all like a good idea, look hard again.
And now for some post Paisley-ite tolerance...