Iraq's Sunni Time Bomb


Apr 3, 2008

By Matthew Sherman

This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on April 3, 2008.

While the recent fighting in Basra and Baghdad has alerted many Americans to the danger that Shiite-on-Shiite violence poses to our goals in Iraq, it should not divert our focus from another looming threat: that the Sunni tribesmen who have sided with the American-led coalition may turn against us.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the drop in violence during the second half of 2007 was the coalition's hiring of some 90,000 men, mostly Sunnis, to protect critical government properties like pipelines and to take part in neighborhood-watch systems. The decision to support these so-called Sons of Iraq — armed, many times, with the same AK-47's that had been pointed at our troops just months earlier — was always viewed as risky, but few options were available to us at the time to reduce violence. So far, the gamble has paid off.

The Sons of Iraq program was at the heart of what the United States military called its “bottom-up reconciliation movement,” intended to get Iraqis to stop fighting the government and one another at the local neighborhood and village level. But use of the term “reconciliation” may be misleading. The word conjures images of forgiveness and repentance. That's not what the Sons of Iraq idea was about — the coalition set out simply to neutralize a large swath of rogue fighters, often with money, with the hope of finding ways to reconcile in the future.

This is not to say that reconciliation is not possible; I believe it is. And by this I don't mean reconciling Sunni and Shiite Islam — 1,300 years of history are unlikely to be resolved in a relative instant. What we can do is help shift the debate inside Iraq so that it doesn't rest on how one sect relates to another but how individual Iraqis relate to their government.

While the Sons of Iraq movement has been a leading contributor toward the reduction of violence against American troops, it remains highly fragile. Some of its groupings are nationalist, some are Islamist, many are tribally rooted and some may, unfortunately, be composed of hard-line Sunnis intent on restoring their sect's domination over Shiites. Thus, unsurprisingly, the group is viewed with great skepticism by many Shiites in the Baghdad government.

With each passing day, the amount of influence American officials have with the Iraqi government dwindles, while the list of objectives we wish to achieve grows. We need to pick our priorities now — and at the top of that list must be finding a productive future role for the Sons of Iraq.

First, we must take a look at who the Sons of Iraq are and what motivates them. They are not a monolith; members come from more than 125 political and tribal groups holding differing aspirations and influenced by numerous entities, some of which have goals contrary to those of the Americans and the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Thus there is no single solution to all 90,000 potential problems.

The leading idea so far is to fold a fraction of them, about 20,000, into the Iraqi security forces. The remainder would be accommodated in civilian job-placement and training programs. But this will be far harder than it looks.

For political and sectarian reasons, the (mostly Shiite) ministers and officials who oversee the security forces are unenthusiastic about bringing in Sunnis. In addition, the government doesn't have the bureaucratic efficiency to handle such a large influx of people easily. Aside from those problems, we'd need to come up with a way of deciding which men are qualified for security duty — a screening method to marginalize hard-liners and co-opt less ideologically driven members.

But the American leadership must press the Iraqis to overcome those obstacles. As we look to transform the Sons of Iraq, we are talking about more than just a venue to redirect insurgents from violence. This is also an opportunity to encourage engagement by Sunnis, many hailing from oft-ignored western Iraq and who have no real voice in the political system, in the new nation.

As for the American stake in this, the future drawing down of forces will be largely determined by the commitment of Iraqi factions to reach local political and security compromises. If we can't help find a way to integrate the Sunnis into the state, many Sons of Iraq could revert to the insurgency. (This is another reason that it's prudent to put a pause on further American troop reductions.)

By better understanding the objectives of this diverse group we can more efficiently create postwar employment, promote acceptance within the government, foster local security solutions and improve the chances of sustained success against the insurgents. Failure to find a new role for the Sons of Iraq, however, will result in the deterioration of government authority, an inability to draw down our own forces, and a return to militia rule for much of Iraq.

Matt Sherman has spent more than three years as a civilian official in postwar Iraq, most recently in 2007 as the political adviser to the First Cavalry Division in Baghdad. He is a principal with SCI Consulting, a senior adviser with the Scowcroft Group and an adjunct with the RAND Corporation.

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