Madhavi Bhasin
Informed Comment
May 3, 2008

The Bush administration says it is waging a global war to fight terrorism and defeat Al-Qaeda. The human, financial and psychological costs of the war on terror have been immense. The U.S. is attempting to adopt every possible military and non-military approach to meet the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan– the two active theaters of the war on terror. But what appears strange is that the U.S. continues to commit the same strategic mistakes, in countering terrorism that facilitated its emergence in the first place.

The roots of Taliban and Al-Qaeda can be traced to the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion of 1978. The U.S. had provided military support to the anti-Soviet movement, thereby assisting the consolidation of the Taliban. The inability of the U.S. to foresee the implications of arming the Taliban in a country characterized by political instability, social divisiveness and economic impoverishment has contributed in making terrorism an unmanageable challenge. It was a short-term solution that created long term problems.

The U.S. approach in Iraq, unfortunately, is following much the same course. The U.S. is arming and even giving pay-cheques to Sunni groups on the pretext of gaining local support for fighting the Al-Qaeda. In November 2006 Sunni tribal leaders approached the Coalition forces and suggested to form organized armed groups to resist the attacks by the Al-Qaeda terrorists. The U.S. obliged by providing arms and military training to these groups and initiating an incentive based payment method. The members receive a bonus for periods devoid of major attacks by opposition forces. The experiment referred to as the “Awakening Councils” by the U.S. forces and Al-Sahwa by the Iraqi people, was even commended by President George W. Bush in his 2008 State of Union Address. The President referred to it as ‘the surge by the Iraqis’.

The services of the Al-Sahwa members are used by the Coalition forces to manage the security by countering insurgent groups, including the Al-Qaeda terrorists. In order to establish the indigenous character of the Al-Sahwa group and strategy, the U.S. forces refer to its members as “Sons of Iraq”. But these “Sons of Iraq” are performing important public diplomacy functions for the U.S. Abu Azam, one of the founders of the Al-Sahwa, has referred to the threats that his group is facing from Iran and Syria in the process of stabilizing Iraq. The U.S. insistence that Iran is seeking to de-stabilize Iraq is expected to gain credence if a segment of the Iraqi population supports the claim. The Al-Sahwa is indeed serving as a multi-task force for the U.S. But history is repeating itself a little too soon for the U.S. Once again the U.S. is opting for a short term solution that could create long term problems.

There are several problems associated with the formation and operation of the Al-Sahwa. Most of the members of the Al-Sahwa are former Ba’ath party members, military and security officials who served under the Saddam Hussein regime. The Sunni population of Iraq has come to form a dominant segment of these new groups. The Sunni ruling class under the Saddam Hussein regime has come to be dominated Shias under the new political set-up. The sectarian rivalries have been further fueled by this turn of political fortunes in Iraq.

Given these political and sociological realities in Iraq the emergence and strengthening of the Al-Sahwa forces is a matter of concern. By arming a Sunni segment of the population, which had been close to Saddam Hussein, the U.S. is re-enforcing sectarian and political divisions within Iraq. The Al-Sahwa, much like the Taliban, is attempting to achieve its religious and political aims through the U.S. The activities of Al-Sahwa clearly demonstrates this fact. In February this year, the group suspended cooperation with the Coalition Forces and demanded resignation of the Police Chief of Diyala Province, who happens to be a Shia.

The common people still live in the midst of fear as according to them members of the Al-Sahwa have merely changed allegiance from Saddam Hussien to the Coalition Forces. A representative from the Iraqi Interior Ministry has expressed the opinion that Al-Sahwa has emerged as third security force in the country along with the Army and Police. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has agreed that intelligence reports establish that the Al-Qaeda operatives have been able to sneak into the Al-Sahwa groups creating major security concerns. The members of the Al-Sahwa are operating with a strategic purpose in mind and have clearly stated that they will resist any attempt by the U.S. to abandon the group after the short-term goals of the Coalition forces are achieved. In an interview with Patrick Cockburn, one of the Al-Sahwa leaders threatened to go war against the U.S. forces and Iraqi government if the demands of his group were not complied with.

Under these given conditions will the Al-Sahwa emerge any different from the Al-Qaeda after the Coalition Forces withdraw and these armed Sunnis are deprived of any role in the regular Iraqi Army?

Madhavi Bhasin
Research Fellow
Jadavpur University
Kolkata, India

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