The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Iraq Awakening Showdown

Image by a62a68

Image by a62a68

Looks like the Iraqi government is moving against the Awakening Councils in Iraq. The councils, as you may recall, were the Sunnis (many of them ex-insurgents) whom the Americans paid and armed to fight al-Qa’eda in Iraq, and to impose some sort of rough peace on their areas.  They aren’t really controlled by the central government, and no central government likes the idea of having independent military forces in its territory, so they’ve been arresting leaders, which has led to some pitched fighting.

From the point of view of the Iraqi central government, they’ve got till the US leaves to get this done with.  As with when they went after al-Sadr is Basra and had to be bailed out by American troops and Iranian diplomacy, it’s not clear that the Iraqi army is capable of independent operations against highly motivated enemy forces.  But as long as the Americans are around, no one wants to call up a large enough force to beat the Iraqi army, because if they do the Americans will swoop down, and no one in Iraq can beat them in open field combat and even if they could, the losses they would take are not worth it.

The “surge” worked less becuase of extra troops than because ethnic cleansing had pretty much completed itself and because Americans paid part of the insurgency (the Awakening Councils) to fight another part (al-Qa’eda in Iraq).

The question now is whether the Iraqi government can get enough of a monopoly on force to survive after the majority of American forces leave.  It’s not clear to me that they can, if only because their own military is pretty awful and thoroughly infiltrated by various other groups.  A lot will depend on the deals they cut with the Sunni opposition, and with al-Sadr.  If Sadr and the Sunnis decide to work together, I don’t think the central government can survive.  Folks forget the nature of militias in Iraq—you put out the call, and they rise up and when they’re not needed large numbers of them appear to be little more than civilians.

And again, when it comes to large scale operations, the Iraq army does not have a record of success unless backed up by US troops.

So this will be a political game as much as a military one.  If the central government doesn’t buy off enough of the opposition, I expect it will lose entire provinces to a new insurgency when they rise after the Americans leave.

Remember, the game has never been primarily about fighting the Americans.  The game has always been about who will be in charge after the Americans leave.

Addendum: The Newshoggers have been covering Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan better than anyone else I’ve seen, and very much in the spirit of the old BOPnews and Agonist.  I suggest keeping an eye on them if you want good analysis about what’s really going on.


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  1. Ian, thanks for the kind words about the ‘Hog. I appreciate being able to find all of your work in one place now.

    What is the Iraqi army’s logistical capacity to fight out of area — even if out of area is forty or fifty miles away from Shi’a dominated urban areas? I think the fight will be on establishing the marginal frontiers of contested space and not for domination that a monopoly on force requires.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Very probably true.

    Control over resources. Which in Iraq means religious sites and oil, mostly. But it’s very hard to stop people from damaging pipelines… You don’t need a ton of violence to inflict significant costs on the central government if they won’t make a deal you can live with.

  3. rumor

    Thanks for pointing over to Newshoggers, I took a look and I think I’ll be reading it for a while. Is this site going to be hosting all your columns from now on, or just stuff published independently from FDL and other areas? It’s been hell trying to keep track of you all over the internet for the past few years, you know.

  4. senecal

    Very interesting comment. I just wonder about your assumption that American forces will leave. The consensus seems to be that at least 60,000 will remain behind for the long term, for “training” and “security” and other umbrella purposes, including aerial support. Wouldn’t this be sufficient to deter any sustained resistance to the central government?

  5. Ian Welsh


    Everything I write will go here, though it may also go elsewhere. Right now, in addition to here, I’m mostly writing at Huffpo, though I imagine that’ll change. I’m enjoying not “having to write” for a little while, now that I’m no longer managing editor at FDL.

    I’ll also, over time, be republishing older pieces here that I think stand the test of time.


  6. Ian Welsh


    I suppose it depends how much real combat ability those “non combat” troops have. And of course, I’m sure the US will provide air assets. But with only 60K or so, many of which really aren’t combat capable, I think various folks might get uppity. 60K wasn’t enough to keep them down in the past, so the question will be whether the Iraqi military really has improved, or if they can buy off enough of the opposition.

  7. rumor

    Thanks for the info, Ian. I’ve been very appreciative of your insight for a long time (although I guess you wouldn’t know given my silence). I used to have bookmarked an old post of yours from summarizing Canada’s resource, export based economy (we dig things up and cut things down for the most part, to very roughly paraphrase you). That was a good one that sticks in my mind, for the simple, powerful point it made about the main pillar our economy stands on.

    I don’t know whether you would be able or willing, but one day I’d love to hear about your frequent moves from site to site over the past several years. Seems to me you had a strong positive impact where you went, particularly at the Agonist, which now seems less impressive than it used to be. I am oh-so-curious at the reasons and stories behind such things.

    Finally, keeping this OT, re: residual forces in Iraq. I would not be surprised if the political position regarding American forces in Iraq following the draw-down defaulted back to hunkering down in protected bases. Provide training and otherwise stay out of harm’s way and avoid American troop losses. Seems to me the public’s acceptance for this type of approach is probably growing to a high, and the formal removal of a positive combat mission from Iraq would provide the excuse for, essentially, a shrugging of the shoulders on Iraq as long as Americans don’t shed any more blood. I wonder if this is a realistic possibility.

  8. Ian Welsh


    doubt I’ll ever write on my moves, but if you’re ever in Toronto let me know and we can chat.

    I’m still on very good terms with Sean-Paul at the Agonist (I consider him a friend), and may write for him again in the future, though I doubt I’ll take back over the managing editor of the site.

    Canada’s economy is mostly digging things up/chopping them down/extracting them, but there was an important counter-cyclical element to it where when manufacturing was doing well, resources would be doing not as well, and vice versa. There’s also the use of EI to warehouse poeple where they’re cheap, moving them to hot areas when not. It’s also a relatively free trade economy, and set up that way, though I’m not sure if deliberately (I mean real free trade, not the fake stuff, though of course there are issues with free trade in Canada).

    I’m quite worried about the Canadian economy, actually, the government seems to have no real plan what to do about the decline of manufacturing, and turning into nothing but a resource economy with a service/financial sector would be very very bad for us.

    Tilting went down under a cyber attack, I’m hoping it will go back up at some point, if only so I can recover the archives.

  9. There aren’t any behind the scenes issue that happened at The Agonist. Ian left on really positive, great terms–that’s not to say I wasn’t very sad to see him go. People move on. They get tired of doing one thing and want to do something else. Perfectly normal human behavior. Ian’s always welcome back at The Agonist and I look forward to hanging out with him in Toronto soon.

    Sometimes there is no conspiracy or behind the scenes stuff. Sometimes it’s just life.

  10. Ian Welsh

    As SP says, there was nothing behind the scenesl about leaving the Agonist.

  11. rumor

    I wasn’t necessarily implying conflict behind the scenes, although I suppose the idea did cross my mind. I’m simply interested in learning about being involved at a high level at so many different political blogging sites, and your experiences along the way.

    In case Sean-Paul will see this, I wanted to add that what I said about the Agonist was unfair and, on reflection, wrong. I still read the Agonist for news coverage and commentary, and when I tried to justify to myself saying it was less impressive now, all I could come up with is that the people I most liked to read there have moved on, which is nothing more than personal preference, really. If I had any real constructive criticism, I could mention it at the Agonist directly, and since I don’t… well.

  12. Rumor,

    My feelings aren’t hurt. Things change, people move on, that’s life and blogs rise and fall like the setting sun. But I wanted to note on the record in the above comment that there wasn’t any conflict when Ian left. Now, there have been other departures, but that’s by the by.

    As for The Agonist, well, as you are probably aware, my focus has changed as I am traveling the world for a year and talent is at a premium these days days and ad revenues are down. So, that’s pretty much the reality we’re dealing with at The Agonist.

  13. JustPlainDave

    The additional possible dimension that I haven’t yet seen anyone pick up on is that there may well be a reason why AQI [or whatever the formal term is this week] has been able to pull more ops of late. Were I the Awakening Councils movement, I’d quietly make it clear that systemic action against us would result in AQI having a more freedom of action.

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