U.S. arming Sunni coalition to battle AQ ... just as coalition starts to fracture

Haven’t we tried this before, in Afghanistan, in the mid-80s? Answer: Yes, but what choice do we have now? According to WaPo, the Pentagon’s planning a drawdown next year from 150,000 troops to something on the order of 40,000, a la Bush’s mention recently of a long-term South Korean occupation model. A small part of the 40K will be Special Ops assigned to target Al Qaeda, but they can only do so much. So the plan, it seems, is to outfit Sunnis with weapons, cars, and money like we’ve done the past few months in Anbar (with great success) and let them handle more of the fight. The risk is that they’ll use the weapons against us or the Shiites; the counterrisk is that if we don’t support them, they’ll be more likely to reconcile with AQ and/or become even less likely to reconcile with the central government. Besides, haven’t we been arming and supplying a Shiite-dominated force for the past four years? I think it’s called “the Iraqi Army.”

The difference, of course, is that the tribes are even more mercenary and less cohesive than the IA is. Which is why we’re starting to see cracks in the “Anbar awakening”:

A tribal coalition formed to oppose the extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, a development that U.S. officials say has reduced violence in Iraq’s troubled Anbar province, is beginning to splinter, according to an Anbar tribal leader and a U.S. military official familiar with tribal politics…

Lt. Col. Richard D. Welch, a U.S. military official who works closely with the tribal leaders in Iraq, said that relations inside the group were strained and that he expected a complete overhaul of the coalition in coming days…

[Tribal leader Ali Hatem Ali] Suleiman said 12 Anbar tribal leaders have signed an agreement to form a new coalition that would result in the dissolution of the Anbar Salvation Council and the purging of Abu Risha. “Those people have thrown themselves in the arms of the U.S. forces for their own benefit,” he said.

Suleiman and Welch alleged that Abu Risha runs an oil smuggling ring and that his followers have worked as highway bandits on Anbar’s roads, activities in which many tribal groups engage.

Abu Risha “made his living running a band of thieves who kidnapped and stopped and robbed people on the road between Baghdad and Jordan. That’s how he made his fortune,” Welch said. Tribesmen accuse Abu Risha of passing false information to U.S. forces about other tribal leaders in order to eliminate business rivals, Welch said.

Abu Risha denied these allegations and said Suleiman’s work in Baghdad left him out of touch with day-to-day affairs in the province.

Afghan vet Major John Tammes questioned my assessment in this thread that warlordism among the Sunni tribes was a “likely possibility.” I hope he’s right. We might be about to find out.

Update: I forgot to mention this, from the first WaPo link:

U.S. officials also calculate that underneath the anti-American rhetoric, even Shiite radicals such as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr don’t really want to see a total U.S. pullout, especially while they feel threatened by Sunni insurgents. Also, officials think any Iraqi government will prefer to keep a small U.S. combat force to deter foreign intervention.

Really? Sadr feels threatened by insurgents, even though the Shia outnumber the Sunni by 6 to 1 and control the government? The insurgents boost the popularity of the militias every time they attack while posing no serious threat to Shiite dominance. They’re his best friend in Iraq. If anything, he feels threatened by neighboring Sunni armies and the prospect of them coming in if the Shia make a move on Anbar. Hence the South Korean analog: the presence of U.S. troops acts as a sort of tripwire which keeps neighboring states out of the country lest an invasion be perceived as an attack on the United States itself.

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