Shi'ite fight shows other side of
the COIN By Ehsan M Ahrari
The current battle between Iraqi forces
and Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army
or JAM) has raised the level of instability and
uncertainty in Iraq by several notches. The fact
that the Iraqi forces fighting the JAM are
Shi'ites is a wrinkle that is pitting family
members against each other. This is a Shi'ite
versus Shi'ite struggle, and no one knows how bad
it will get before it improves, if it ever does.
The fighting has been limited, but it's
been enough to draw in the US Air Force. And
although the tension eased on Sunday when Muqtada
said he had told his militia to lay down its
weapons, he demanded that officials stop raids on
his men, especially in the southern city of Basa
and in Sadr City in Baghdad. At any moment,
violence could break out again.
United States has attached so much significance to
counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) in Iraq, the
Shi'ite battle deserves serious examination in
order to understand the continued, albeit
arguable, success of that campaign in stabilizing
Iraq and eventually in bringing about the
redeployment of most American troops.
US's claims about the success of the COIN in Iraq
are based on Sunni cooperation, which, in turn, is
related to the "al-Anbar Awakening" in which
Sunnis have been armed by the US to fight against
The number of casualties in Iraq
had gone down over the past few months, but
recently it has gone up again. At the same time, a
number of independent reporters and Iraqi bloggers
are raising concerns that, by heavily relying on
Sunni fighting groups, the US is presiding over
the making of Sunni militias, which might be as
anti-Shi'ite in its ways of dealing the Shi'ite
sector of the populace as the Shi'ite militias
have been in their treatment of the Sunnis.
One of the unstated, but highly crucial,
reasons underlying the effective implementation of
the "surge" strategy was that neither the US nor
the Iraqi security forces had to fight the
Shi'ites. Even though, at least for now, the Iraqi
forces are largely confronting the JAM, their
chances of gaining an upper hand against the JAM
fighters is contingent on the absence of a serious
confrontation from the Sunni side. More to the
point, in this latest fight with the JAM, the
Iraqi security forces must pay special attention
to not alienating the Shi'ites in the south.
An extremely important basis for the
success of the COIN doctrine - as is also true
about the success of any counterinsurgency warfare
- is that the populace has to support the fighting
forces. One of the major reasons that the Sunni
insurgency became so deadly was that it was
supported by the Sunni population of Iraq, which
envisaged itself as marginalized in the aftermath
of the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The US military was slow to understand the
depth of alienation that it was facing from the
Sunni side. That slowness, in turn, stemmed from
the fact that the top US military leaders in Iraq
- and the former secretary of defense Donald
Rumsfeld - were unwilling to recognize the
emergence of insurgency between 2002 and 2005. The
recognition was a vital precondition for
implementing a new doctrine of fighting them.
However, once such recognition
materialized, the US military got busy in
implementing the new COIN doctrine. But the
essence of any successful COIN doctrine was
support from the Sunni groups. That is where
al-Qaeda in Iraq became America's unwitting
"ally". By letting loose a bloody war against
"collaborators", it murdered hundreds of Sunnis,
thereby transforming its core of support into
newly sworn enemies. The United States deftly
exploited that phenomenon by implementing its COIN
doctrine in a comprehensive manner.
essence of that doctrine was clearing up
al-Qaeda's strongholds, maintaining the long-term
presence of American and Iraqi forces in those
regions, while conducting a systematic process of
"nation-building" (the "clear, hold, and build"
strategy). The nation-building part of the COIN
was also about increasing the capabilities of the
Iraqi police force, registration of local
residents, and counterintelligence with a view to
eradicating all political and sleeper cells.
The "surge" also became effective because
the Iraqi and US forces were not fighting another
insurgency in the Shi'ite south. But that
situation might be changing.
meantime, insufficient attention was paid to the
fact that the success of the COIN in Iraq amounted
to applying balm to a serious wound, which might
require either serious treatment or even major
surgery. What is missing in Iraq is the legitimacy
of the government of Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki, which is perceived as highly inept and
equally corrupt. That legitimacy can only be
obtained and expanded by making and implementing
comprehensive policies that are aimed at raising
the level of comfort and standard of living of the
It is possible that Maliki
has decided to acquire that legitimacy by
confronting the JAM-related groups, which have
been involved in increasing amounts of lawlessness
and thuggery in the south. Whether that is the
right decision has a lot to do with who persuaded
him to arrive at that decision.
Americans have persuaded or forced him to confront
Muqtada, then Maliki is really involved in the
proverbial high-wire act. The timing of his
decision is highly questionable. Besides, an
argument can be made that, while Muqtada has
recently extended his ceasefire by a period of six
months, Maliki could have used that opportunity to
negotiate the disarming of the JAM. In his current
high-wire act, Maliki is faced with the options of
success or a fatal fall. There is no going back.
However, from the perspectives of the
COIN, Maliki is also facing a serious gamble. If
this battle were to raise the misery index in
southern Iraq, then his government is doomed by
its very chief constituency. If he is conscious of
that reality, then Maliki will have to look for
peace signals from Muqtada and opt to negotiate.
At the same time, he will continue to face the
uncertainty about how serious Muqtada really is in
making peace offerings. The Americans in Iraq also
know this conundrum, but they are just as
uncertain about solving it as Maliki.
Therefore, the least risky option for
Maliki would be to accept the current peace
offerings from Muqtada, stop military actions long
enough to see how serious he really is, and seek a
political compromise instead of seeking a Pyrrhic
military victory. If Muqtada is indulging in
delaying tactics, then Maliki might wish to
consider the use of force. Even then, he has to be
fully cognizant of the risks associated with
alienating the Shi'ite populace.
serious problem that Maliki is encountering in
southern Iraq is that - unlike the strategy of
al-Qaeda that relied so heavily on killing anyone
who disagreed with its interpretation of "jihad"
in the Sunni sectors of Iraq and thereby
alienating the Sunnis - Muqtada enjoys a
considerable amount of popularity and support.
By unleashing the Iraqi security forces
without serious forethought regarding its
long-term implications, Maliki might also face the
kind of unpopularity in the Shi'ite sectors of
Iraq that al-Qaeda is encountering in the Sunni
region. Maliki is well advised to avoid that path
in every way he can.
Ehsan Ahrari is
professor of Security Studies (Counterterrorism)
at the Asia-Pacific Center of Security Studies.
Views expressed in this essay are strictly private
and do not reflect those of the APCSS, the United
States Pacific Command, or any other agency of the