After Richard Nixon started the U.S. troop drawdown in Vietnam, the American public thought “problem solved” and demonstrations on college campuses dissipated. Then it was disclosed that Nixon, while reducing U.S. forces in Vietnam, was escalating a parallel war in Cambodia by bombing and invasion. Antiwar protests resumed with a new frenzy.
Similarly, for some time now, the American people have been lulled to sleep concerning the Iraq War by reduced violence and a similar drawdown of U.S. forces. But about 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and ominous signs are appearing on the horizon. If almost eight months of gridlock after inconclusive parliamentary elections in March 2010 have not starkly illustrated the deep-seated and probably catastrophic fissures in Iraqi society, the knotting off of the Awakening movement may very well be a harbinger of the unfortunate nightmare that could potentially befall the Iraqis.
Gen. David Petraeus’s strategy in Iraq was to step up U.S. attacks against al-Qaeda there while dividing the Iraqi Sunni resistance by bribing some of them—the Awakening—to quit fighting the United States and begin fighting their Sunni al-Qaeda brethren. The Awakening was given money, guns, and military training and promised jobs in the Iraqi security forces and government. Petraeus’s strategy was an ingenious way to show things were improving in Iraq in the short- and medium-term—read: until George W. Bush got safely out of office and could say that things were getting better in Iraq when he left the presidency—by temporarily lowering violence. However, the general’s funding, arming, and training of a third rival side in any possible future civil war has always had the potential to make that conflict more violent. (The U.S. had previously armed and trained the Kurdish militias and the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi security forces.)
That impending day of reckoning is moving closer. The problem with bribing people to quit being violent is that when the benefits stop, they will likely resume their belligerent activities. As the United States began to withdraw forces, it handed over responsibility for paying and nurturing the Sunni Awakening movement to a Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government that is hostile to Sunnis. The results have been unsurprising. Not even half of the Awakening members have been given promised government employment, and even those jobs were menial or temporary. And only 10 percent of the Awakening fighters have been integrated into the Iraqi security forces. Awakening members have had their ranks reduced, their pay cut, and their weapons commandeered. As a result of the Shi’ite government reneging, a growing number of these Sunnis fighters have rejoined the insurgency or are helping it surreptitiously. As a result, violence in Iraq has again shown signs of increasing. As withdrawing U.S. forces left many areas, the fractious ethno-sectarian nature of Iraqi society made such results inevitable.
In Afghanistan, Petraeus, now the commander there, is unsurprisingly trying the same technique. He has stepped up attacks against the hard-core Taliban while trying to lure away lower-level Taliban with incentives—for example, promises of job training. Yet the Taliban in Afghanistan enjoys more support than al-Qaeda did in Iraq. In contrast to the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was primarily made up of non-Iraqis, the Taliban is made up of local Afghans. Furthermore, al-Qaeda is primarily a terrorist organization that has no problem committing unpopular atrocities against civilians.
The Taliban, however, may be harsh in its punishments, but it does dispense uncorrupt justice and governance and provides social services in a poor country. So converting Afghans to fight against the Taliban is much more challenging than recruiting Sunnis to attack al-Qaeda in Iraq. And negotiating with a zealous nationalist movement, which is winning the war, over the fate of its own country could very well prove as disappointing as the outcome of a similar effort in Vietnam.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has been blinded by desired TV images of having the locals sport blue thumbs—emphasizing democratic elections versus an increased appreciation for individual rights. In Iraq, elections have made things worse by exacerbating ethno-sectarian fault lines, which have led to political gridlock and increased violence. In Afghanistan, fraud in both the presidential and recent parliamentary elections has and will be exploited by the Taliban to show President Hamid Karzai’s government is hopelessly corrupt.
This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.