The most dismaying thing I’ve read in a while is a Page One story in the May 17 Philadelphia Inquirer, by staff reporters Hannah Allam and Mohammed al Dulaimy, headlined, “Iraqis Lament a Call for Help.” If you want to know why we’re not winning in Iraq, and why we’re not likely to win anytime soon (if ever), there is no more brutally illustrative tale.
The story concerns Operation Matador, last week’s clash between U.S. forces and foreign jihadists in the desert villages of western Iraq. Officials have portrayed the operation as a grand success. Allam and Dulaimy depict it as a grave disaster.
For months, they report, Iraqi tribal leaders in the area had formed a vigilante group called the Hamza Forces to stave off the Islamic extremists streaming across the Syrian border. Outnumbered, at least three of the tribal chiefs asked the Iraqi defense ministry and the U.S. Marines for help.
Rather than respond in a coordinated fashion, U.S. forces blazed in with armored vehicles and helicopter gun ships and simply pummeled the place. Fasal al-Goud, a former governor of Anbar province and one of the sheiks who had asked for assistance, told the Inquirer, “The Americans were bombing whole villages, and saying they were only after the foreigners.”
Villagers who returned after the fighting were stunned to find entire neighborhoods destroyed. Men who had stayed behind to help were found dead in shot-up houses. Over 100 jihadists were killed, but so were a lot of Iraqis fighting on the side of the Americans, to say nothing of several bystanders caught in the crossfire.
Fasal al-Goud now says he regrets calling for help. Allam and Dulaimy heard confirming accounts and similar sentiments from two other tribal leaders, who asked not to be named because the jihadists (who, it seems, weren’t expelled entirely) are still holding some tribesmen hostage.
This story is depressing in two ways, beyond the obvious horror of needless death and destruction. First, a number of encouraging news stories have appeared recently—including a column in today’s Washington Post—about a surge of creative, new thinking inside the U.S. military: a revival of counterinsurgency doctrines, training in small-arms tactics, instruction in Arab languages and culture, and so forth. Yet, at least in the short term, nothing seems to be changing. From Fallujah to Ramadi and now to the desert villages around Qaim, our commanders ultimately fall back on the big kaboom. Leveling towns, bombing every suspicious target in sight—this is not how hearts and minds are won or how persistent insurgencies are defeated.
Second and more disheartening still, U.S. officials have realized for some time now that a crucial strategic task in this war must be to separate Iraq’s Sunni nationalists from the jihadist fighters in their midst. Most nationalists despise the U.S. occupation, but many also resent the jihadists, whose presence they tolerate either out of fear or as (in their bitter, dispossessed eyes) the lesser evil. The trick for American policymakers is, 1) to distinguish the nationalists from the jihadists (the passive abetters from the active enemy); 2) to drive a wedge between them; and 3) to kill and defeat the latter without alienating the former.
Operation Matador offered a golden opportunity to try out both categories of new thinking: a) smarter counterinsurgency tactics that b) distinguish and separate the nationalists from the jihadists. Here was an unusual, perhaps unique, case of real Sunni tribal leaders asking us to come in and help them fight the common enemy. And we bungled it by confusing victory with mere firepower and by brushing aside—not even consulting with—a serious group of aspiring allies.
This failure is all the more appalling given that the interim Iraqi government is in shambles—and the prospects for a free and democratic Iraq are uncertain, at best—in large part because of growing sectarian splits among the country’s three main ethnic groups: Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. The Sunnis, who comprise (or shelter) the most lethal factions of the insurgency, are demanding a greater share of power in the central government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a trip to Baghdad last week to urge the predominantly Shiite leaders to satisfy this demand for the sake of stability. It’s generally accepted these days that merely killing insurgents creates more insurgents and that a peaceful settlement will come about, if at all, only after a political settlement.
And yet, here comes the U.S. military, roaring across the western deserts, strafing and shelling anyone with a gun and everything all around him. In short, Operation Matador was a double-whammy of old thinking: kaboom, kaboom, kaboom—and in a way that alienated precisely the people we should be assuring. Maybe Fasal al-Goud and the Hamza Forces won’t go so far as to join the insurgency. But it’s unlikely now that they’ll keep up their resistance, consider the Americans as their friends, or—more devastating—see the Iraqi politicians in Baghdad as their government.