Friday, April 30, 2004

sorts of victory
Who’d have thought it? So it’s the last day of April 2004 and a former associate of Chemical Ali rides into an Iraqi town in his Saddam era general’s uniform, to receive a rapturous reception from the assembled crowds. It’s almost as if they’d been liberated.

The third world cops have pulled it off again. One difference this time is that the decision to retreat seems to have been made at the tactical level by the soldiers themselves without waiting for signals from their political masters, who seem a bit ambivalent, to say the least.

It is not clear whether Conway conveyed the terms of the deal to his superiors in Baghdad and at the Pentagon, or even to leaders of the U.S. occupation authority. One person familiar with the deal said it took senior U.S. military and civilian officials in Baghdad by surprise. Because of the apparent lack of consultation, some officials said elements of the agreement, particularly the speedy troop withdrawal, may be tempered by the Pentagon or by the U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of operations in Iraq.

"It's very confusing right now," a senior Pentagon official said. "There's a disconnect here and we can't figure it out."

Last week, Stratfor published an analysis which said that the occupation authorities are essentially in a three player game with Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities. On the one hand, the occupiers depend on the quiescence of the Shi’a to make the occupation work at all. On the other, the persistence of Sunni insurgents means that dependence on the Sh’ia is not sufficient, though it may be necessary. Viewed in this light, the re-admittance of former senior Baathists to the army and the retreat from Fallujah can be seen as an attempt to make the Us a swing player in the game, opening the ground for some sort of rapprochement with Sunni guerillas and therefore strengthening their hand in negotiations with the Shi’a about the form of an eventual Iraqi government.

Well, maybe. It’s hard to know what’s going on because it’s difficult to say who’s actually in charge of American policy. It’s no surprise in this context if the Marines have decided to issue their own demarche.

(As an aside, the US Marines are supposed to operate according to the USMC Small Wars manual, a surprisingly liberal guide to military occupation and its political outcomes. How this fits in with US installed regimes like the Duvaliers and Somosas is anyone’s guess. But it does give the Marines in Fallujah the theoretical justification for a bit of pragmatic common sense).

So who’s won the battle for Fallujah, now that the Marines have decided it isn’t worth fighting? Or rather, which Iraqis? While the conflict was ongoing, the official line was that it was some kind of thugs alliance between foreign jihadis, Baathist diehards and local hooligans animated by nothing more than atavistic hatred of the United States.
The counter-argument was that Fallujah was a stronghold of Iraqi tribal culture, operating from deep rooted social imperatives of honour, loyalty and revenge. Amatzia Baram, from last year.

...many of the older tenets of tribal life linger, and help to fuel the pattern of violence in the triangle today. Attacks on coalition troops should be viewed through the prism of tribal warfare. This is a world defined in large measure by avenging the blood of a relative (al-tha'r); demonstrating one's manly courage in battle (al-muruwwah); generally upholding one's manly honor (al-sharaf). For some of these young men, killing American soldiers is a political act, but it is also not unlike what hunting lions was to British colonial officers in 19th-century Africa: it involves a certain risk, but the reward is great.

Yes, religious fanaticism may also serve as a motivation, but in Iraq the rural tribes have generally been less inclined toward religious fanaticism than the city dwellers. The problem for the coalition is that religious fanaticism and tribal values are now working in the same direction. The coalition leaders must bear in mind that while the violence is endemic, it is not unstoppable — in large part, we are dealing with people who are open to persuasion.

Specifically, the Governing Council and its American supporters must come up with a coherent tribal policy. Certainly they can be excused for not having one — they've racked up many other achievements while focusing on more pressing problems. Moreover, the hesitation to give power to tribal leaders has been understandable: cultivating the tribes and the sheiks might be seen as a contradiction of the new leaders' stated goal of forming a democratic Iraqi civil society in a modern way. But to avoid increasing violence in the Sunni Triangle, there is a need to rethink that approach.

And maybe that’s what’s started happening now. If Fallujans are somewhat exceptional in terms of Iraqi society it means that their success in fighting the US army to a standstill is less likely to be replicated elsewhere. It could also be a sign that the occupiers closer to the action have become more willing to deal with Iraq as it actually is, rather than as they believe it should be.

So it’s a good day for the resistance, but also maybe not such a bad one for the occupiers either. Next step: drop that stupid flag.

Baram article via Flit