Proponents of the Bush administration's Iraq policy (such as Frederick Kagan) point repeatedly to one phenomenon as vindicating the whole past and future US strategy in Iraq. In recent months a swell of opposition to Al Qaeda has arisen among the predominately Sunni tribes of Anbar Province. Beginning last September, an alliance of tribal sheiks has formed into the Anbar Salvation Council (ASC), a group dedicated to driving Al Qaeda and other foreign jihadists from the soil of Iraq. The group represents a substantial (if not majority) constituency within Anbar, and its formation has completely transformed the strategic situation of Coalition forces operating within the province.
The ASC has joined cooperative negotiations with the Shi'ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Its member sheiks have encouraged Anbari citizens to join the local police forces and militia, substantially increasing the manpower resources and prestige of local security forces. US soldiers find themselves operating with new mobility and effectiveness throughout Anbar Province, partnered with new allies possessed of intimate knowledge of the regional terrain and local society.
Pundits such as Mr. Kagan leap from these facts to the conclusion that the US occupation of Iraq should be intensified and extended. Now that "we" have Al Qaeda on the run, so goes this logic, we should keep the pressure on. If current troop levels committed to this point have produced such positive results, more troops kept longer will work to even better effect.
Such logic is fundamentally flawed. It ignores the basic fact that the current strategic turn in Anbar is not the result of any positive action undertaken by the US. The Sunni sheiks of Anbar have not formed the ASC out of fear of US power or love of US virtue. In fact, virtually all of its members admit freely that they were actively campaigning to make Anbar a living hell for US forces not so long ago. No change in US policy shifted the allegiance of the ASC's members, rather it was the repellent policies and tactics of Al Qaeda that drove Sunni tribal leaders into the camp of the Coalition.
Such a development was virtually a foregone conclusion from the outset. The Sunni Arab society of Anbar has historically been markedly secular and nationalist, conditions which made it fertile ground to serve as a base of support for Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. The US invasion made Anbar's Sunni tribes welcome Al Qaeda's jihadist to the region as allies against the foreign invader, but prior to the US invasion Anbaris had never been positively disposed toward Al Qaeda or its militant brand of Islam. Al Qaeda's zealous and sanguine campaign to create a universal Islamic caliphate was sure to alienate the denizens of Anbar Province sooner or later. In March of 2006 I wrote that a staged withdrawal of US forces was advisable because it
...will drive a wedge between the most extreme elements of the Sunni insurgency led by Al Qaeda and secular Sunni Arabs with whom they are currently allied. In the face of the threat posed by the US ideological and nationalist tensions have already somewhat undermined the operational unity of the Sunni Arab insurgency, in the absence of that threat those tensions would likely cause the insurgent “coalition” to crack and hemorrhage personnel into the political process.
Current developments in Anbar do not prove my assertions wrong- quite the contrary. The fact that a schism between Al Qaeda and its Anbari allies has emerged even before US forces begin to withdraw only demonstrates that this fracture point is extremely fragile, so much so that it can be depended upon to break under its own strain with virtually no action by the US whatsoever (as I wrote in November of 2006, "once the US leaves the Iraqis will pass [the jihadists] like a kidney stone"). Withdrawal of US forces will not rob the ASC's campaign of momentum. US troops were not half as effective in Anbar before the formation of the ASC, thus it is the ASC itself and not the presence of US troops that is of crucial importance to the strategic trajectory in Anbar.
Beginning to withdraw US troops now will not lessen the ASC's animosity toward Al Qaeda, it will only compel the Sunni sheiks into closer partnership with the Maliki government. Such a development is profoundly to be desired, both from the perspective of the US and of Iraq itself. The only long-term hope for Iraq lies in the establishment of an effective and sustainable Iraqi central authority, and the extension of the Maliki government's reach into Anbar would be a critical first step in the development of just such a state apparatus. If anything, developments in Anbar evince the danger of withdrawing US forces too late rather than too early. One must not forget that members of the ASC were killing US soldiers until they decided that their hatred of Al Qaeda eclipsed their hatred of the US. When the moon eclipses the sun it does not mean that the sun is altogether gone, the good money is always on its reappearing. Keeping US forces in Anbar risks producing "occupation fatigue" that could cause cooperation between the tribes and the Coalition to fray, if not collapse. A timely and well-coordinated withdrawal of US forces from the region (coinciding with an expanded presence of the Iraqi military) is the best strategy for maintaining positive momentum in the struggle against Al Qaeda.