WASHINGTON - While US President George W
Bush continued to claim a strategy for "victory"
in Iraq in recent speeches, his administration has
quietly renounced the goal of defeating the
non-al-Qaeda, Sunni-armed organizations there.
The administration is evidently preparing
for serious negotiations with the Sunni
insurgents, whom it has started referring to as
"nationalists", emphasizing their opposition to
The new policy has
thus far gone unnoticed in the media, partly
because it has only been articulated by US
Khalilzad and the spokesman
for the US command in Baghdad.
House clearly recognizes that the shift could
cause serious political problems if and when it
becomes widely understood. The Republican Party
has just unveiled a new television ad attacking
Democratic Party chair Howard Dean for suggesting
that the war in Iraq cannot be won.
Renouncing victory over the Sunni
insurgents therefore undercuts the president's
political strategy of portraying his policy as one
of "staying the course" and attacking the
Democrats for "cutting and running".
recently, the administration treated the
indigenous Sunni insurgents as the main enemy in
Iraq, measuring progress primarily in terms of the
numbers of insurgents killed and captured, and
areas "cleared" of insurgent presence.
Administration officials portrayed Sunni
insurgents as allies of al-Qaeda and referred to
them as "anti-Iraqi forces".
The hard line
toward Sunni insurgents remained even after the
administration began last summer to put much
greater emphasis on the political track of
attracting Sunnis into the new government. As
recently as mid-November, briefings by the US
command described operations in Western Iraq as
being against "insurgents" - not against al-Qaeda
But beginning in late
November, both the US command and the US Embassy
began signaling a dramatic change in Washington's
attitude toward Sunni resistance organizations.
On November 24, the top US military
spokesman, Major General Rick Lynch, made a point
of emphasizing the command's understanding of the
"capabilities, the vulnerabilities and the
intentions of each group of the insurgency - the
foreign fighters, the Iraqi rejectionists and the
He referred to the
administration's "deliberate outreach" to the
"rejectionists", which would allow them to "become
part of the solution and not part of the problem".
That same week, Khalilzad announced in an
ABC News,interview that he was prepared to open
negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, but not
with "Saddamists" or foreign terrorists. And in an
interview with Time magazine, Khalilzad, referring
specifically to Sunni insurgent groups, said: "We
want to deal with their legitimate concerns."
Khalilzad then combined two major
indications of a new willingness to accommodate
the Sunni insurgents in the same sentence. "The
fault line between al-Qaeda and the nationalists
seems to have increased," he told Time.
Thus the image of the insurgents had been
transformed from "anti-Iraqi forces" to
"nationalists". The conflicting objectives of the
Sunni resistance groups and the al-Qaeda-connected
terrorist network were now played up rather than
ignored, as in the past.
articulation of the change in policy to date,
however, came in a US command media briefing by
Lynch on December 8. He was asked to what extent
the insurgency was "dominated or run by Ba'athists
and rejectionists" and to what extent by "Islamic
His reply avoided the
question of which was more important and instead
emphasized the difference between US policy toward
the Sunni insurgents and its policy toward
al-Qaeda terrorists. Lynch said US operations "are
focused on [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi and his
Then he made a crucial
distinction. "We've made a conscious decision," he
said, "to focus on defeating the terrorists and
foreign fighters and disrupting the capabilities
of the rest of the insurgents." So his audience
wouldn't miss the distinction he was making, Lynch
added that "the primary way to disrupt the
capability of the rejectionists is through
political engagement ..."
engagement", as we now know from Khalilzad, means
direct negotiations with the leaders of the
insurgency. Lynch's answer had been carefully
prepared ahead of time and reflected the new
The new soft line
toward the Sunni insurgents is a belated
administration response to the conclusion of the
US military commanders in Iraq last summer that
the Sunni insurgents could not be "defeated" and
that there must be a political settlement with
General George Casey, the commander
of all multinational forces in Iraq, declared in
an interview in late June that the conflict "will
ultimately be settled by negotiation and inclusion
in the political process. It will not be settled
on the battlefield."
did not distinguish between US and Iraqi forces in
calling for negotiations, thus differing with
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In a news
conference that same day, Rumsfeld said, "The
coalition forces, the foreign forces, are not
going to repress the insurgency," implying that
Iraqi forces would be able to do so.
also suggested that the "preliminary talks" that
had occurred between US officials and insurgents
could lead to actual negotiations. That idea was
quickly squelched by the US Embassy, evidently on
White House orders.
However, a policy
debate over how to handle the Sunnis obviously
continued within the administration, with the US
military leadership in Iraq and Khalilzad pushing
for real negotiations. It is now clear that the
proponents of accommodation won the debate.
This does not mean that the White House
has decided to give in on a timetable for troop
withdrawal, which Bush just publicly rejected once
again. As Seymour Hersh wrote in the December 5
New Yorker magazine, a think tank source close to
Vice President Dick Cheney said the president
still believed he could "tough this one out".
And despite its new line on the
insurgency, US military operations are in fact
still aimed largely at the Sunni insurgents rather
than at al-Qaeda.
administration's abandonment of the goal of
military defeat of the Sunni insurgents and
willingness to negotiate with them betrays its
would certainly have considerable impact on the
domestic politics of the war. Such negotiations
would become the new focus of public views of
Bush's handling of Iraq. That would in turn
increase the pressure on the White House to get
the insurgent leaders to come to an agreement.
Meanwhile, the insurgents can be expected to
insist that no agreement is possible without a
timetable for US military withdrawal.
insurgents can also increase the pressure on Bush
by making public their offer, reportedly made by
insurgent leaders to Arab League officials in
Cairo last month, to deliver al-Qaeda leader in
Iraq, Zarqawi, to the Iraqi authorities as part of
a peace agreement involving a US withdrawal
As more people in the US,
including members of Congress, understand that the
Sunni resistance is not the enemy, but is the
necessary ally in the elimination of al-Qaeda's
"terrorist haven" in Iraq, political support for
continued US military presence is likely to shrink
even further. Why, it may be asked, should US
troops stay in Iraq to fight Sunni armed groups
who are willing and able to turn in the real enemy
Thus the softening of the
administration's policy toward the insurgents
could set in motion a train of events that brings
the US occupation to an end much more quickly than
now seems possible.
Porter is an independent historian and foreign
policy analyst. He is the author of The Third
Option in Iraq: A Responsible Exit Strategy in
the Fall issue of Middle East Policy.