Archive for May, 2008

Steven Simon’s Analysis of America’s Strategy in Iraq

May 10, 2008

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Steven Simon discusses the implications of America’s current counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (  He states that while the US troop surge that began in early 2007 has helped reduce the level of violence in Iraq, the main reason for the decrease has been the “Sunni Awakening” and American efforts to cooperate with the Sunni tribes.  He argues that this strategy is ultimately counterproductive, and recommends that the US withdraw its forces from Iraq while remaining politically engaged there.  He closes with descriptions of what a post-withdrawal Iraq might look like.


Like Simon, many analysts have cited the Sunni Awakening as one of the main reasons, if not the primary reason, that the number of killings in Iraq has dropped significantly in the past 15 months.  Before the Awakening, Sunni tribes cooperated with Al Qaeda against the US and the Shiite-led Iraqi government because they embraced the concept that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Sunnis wanted to regain their preeminence in Iraq that they enjoyed before the US toppled Saddam’s regime, and they saw the US and the Shiites as obstacles to that goal.  However, the Sunnis eventually turned on Al Qaeda for the following reasons: Al Qaeda attempted to take over the leadership of the insurgency and exert political control over a large area of Iraq, and it started killing tribal leaders and encroaching on their sources of revenue such as taxing or extorted travelers and business people.  The Sunnis continued to adhere to the idea that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and therefore allied with the US, which provided the Sunni tribes with financial and other forms of assistance, against their new main enemy: Al Qaeda. 


The reason Simon believes this new US strategy of helping the Sunni tribes will be counterproductive in the long term is that it promotes tribalism, warlordism and sectarianism by strengthening and emboldening anti-government forces in Iraq.  He says that it is now less likely that the Sunnis will accept a Shiite-led government and social order and be assimilated into the security forces.  He warns that the Sunnis may soon turn on the US once Al Qaeda has been sufficiently weakened, and recommends that the US military leave Iraq over the next 2-3 years while the American government tries to mediate a settlement of the outstanding political issues that have yet to be resolved with the assistance of nations that border Iraq, European allies and the UN.  He predicts that a US withdrawal will lead to a major increase in violence and may precipitate a new Sunni alliance with Al Qaeda against Shiites who will forge closer ties with the Sadr army and the Iranians.  If chaos continues, a strengthened Iraqi military might eventually seize power and create a dictatorship similar to Saddam’s.


Simon’s notion that the UN and other outside powers will be able to resolve the political conflicts within Iraq seems like a pipe dream.  If the US has been unable to do that with a large military presence there it seems highly unlikely that other powers, which will not have security forces in the country, will be able to do so.  Furthermore, the Iraqis have a negative view of the UN as a result of the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the international body in the wake of the First Gulf War, and therefore may refuse to accept a UN-led peace effort.  It is also improbable that neighboring countries and European allies will be willing to invest a lot of financial resources in an unstable Iraq in an effort to rebuild the country.


In terms of political outcomes, the majority Shiites may eventually be able to impose their rule on the Sunnis while allowing the Kurds to have substantial autonomy.  In that case, backing the Shiite government would be the best move for the US given that the Shiites are much more hostile to Al Qaeda than the Sunnis. 


The military takeover that Simon warns about may come to fruition, but that might not be as bad as Simon fears.  The military intervention in Iraqi politics might follow the Turkish model, which has been relatively benign as far as juntas go, rather than a totalitarian one.  Perhaps the Iraqi military, which was trained by American forces, will be friendly towards Washington if the US continues to provide financial and other types of assistance.


At this point, the US has no good options when it comes to Iraq so it must choose the least bad option, which is to do essentially what Simon recommends, namely withdraw its troops and try to broker a political solution to the intra-state conflict.  The odds that a political reconciliation can be achieved with or without the assistance of outside powers are low, so the US must be prepared to deal with a future Iraqi government that may not look like the one that Washington envisioned.  Iraq might end up a Shiite-dominated, quasi-democratic state or a military dictatorship.  Either way, the US should be prepared to engage that government and try to establish friendly relations with it.  Hopefully, violence in Iraq will not spiral out of control and the various factions will quickly reach a political accommodation.  However, if that unlikely scenario does not develop then the best the US can hope for is the emergence of a pro-American regime that can establish a decent amount of order and minimize the bloodshed in Iraq.