April 09, 2008

Once upon a time, there was a really troubling place known as Iraq that was fraught with inter-ethnic violence, tensions with a an occupying power, and some really bad kids called al-Queda who tempted the good folks with wicked extremism. But luckily some “€œconcerned local citizens”€ got together and formed a rag-tag crew called the “€œSons of Iraq”€ and finally restored moderation and reconciliation to the streets.

Such seems to be the outline of one of the administration’s new narratives about the Iraq war, first told by some in the sympathetic media and then reiterated by General Petraeus when he presented before Congress a photo of the “€œSon’s of Iraq: Concerned Local Citizens”€: a group of guys who earn a salary from the U.S. government to patrol the streets in orange traffic vests and carry machine guns. (If you want to see it for yourself, just go to page 6 5 of this link.)

The Sons, and groups like them, cost Washington around 16 million, and it seems that one high-minded senator was concerned that “€œthey”€™re earning twice the salary of average Iraqis.”€ This should be the least of our worries.  

First, there’s simply the name. While “€œSon’s of Iraq”€ sounds completely hokey, the “€œconcerned local citizens”€ sounds like a neighborhood watch or an environmental group sponsoring a 5K run. While the “€œSons”€ clean up the streets, will the “€œDaughters of Iraq”€ being selling “€œfreedom cookies”€? Perhaps the whole thing is better in Arabic?”€” Ibna”€™a al-Iraq

Projects like “€œSons”€ emerged after it began to dawn on Washington just how hopless Maliki and the Baghdad state actually was, and many began to think that a whole new ethnic policy was in order: sure, we”€™d de-Baathed the Sunnis and kicked them out of power, but perhaps we could make amends? From this point on, a great deal of “€œthe surge is working”€ mantra was predicated on our doling out great sums to Sunnis in the East, especially Anbar province, and offering them more local control apart from Baghdad. 

This is not to say that bribing is bad counterinsurgent warfare”€”to the contrary, it’s one of the best kinds. But sooner than you can say “€œunintended consequences”€ the whole thing is likely to blow up in your face. It was Brzezinski who had the bright idea of arming some “€œwe”€™ll never hear from them again”€ group called al-Qaeda… 

But there’s more, and here’s where I think that my exasperation with names like “€œconcerned local citizens”€ is more than just a matter of taste. Our funding of groups like the Sons is based on the notion that we can win Middle Eastern wars by leading Arabs and Muslims towards “€œmoderation”€ and “€œdemocracy”€ and away from the dreaded “€œextremism.”€  But as Anatol Lieven argues in the latest National Interest, most Muslims usually don”€™t resist Islamicist appeals because they”€™ve joined up in some “€œdemocratic modernity”€ boy scouts troop. They resist al-Qaeda because they”€™re traditionalist, because their attachments to tribe and patronage mean much more to them than a global terror syndicate. Perhaps the Sons are doing some good work out there; however, the notions that they represent a “€œgrassroots insurgency”€ against al-Qaeda, will remain loyal and well behaved once the money runs out, or support a “€œdemocratic Iraq aligned with the United States in the war on terror”€ (or however else victory is defined) is beyond naïve.  


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