How can we deprive al-Qaeda of an Iraqi base? Arm moderate Sunnis

Neither President Bush’s surge of troops, nor the withdrawal deadline Congress is expected to send to him after the Easter recess, has any hope of stabilizing Iraq. So it is time to contemplate a more radical option: Switch our allegiance from that country’s Shiite-controlled government to its moderate Sunni minority, on condition they help us wipe out Sunni extremists in Iraq, including al-Qaeda.

This shift would not immediately stabilize Iraq, but it offers the only near-term path to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a haven and claiming credit for a U.S. withdrawal. In the longer term, restoring an ethno-sectarian balance of power could lay the groundwork for eventual peace.

The president’s ongoing surge of roughly 30,000 combat forces cannot succeed because it provides too few troops to hold areas after we clear them of bad guys, who simply shift operations elsewhere until we move on. But a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops, as Democrats pushed through both houses of Congress, would backfire by increasing ethnic cleansing, boosting Iranian influence and elevating al-Qaeda’s prestige. The third option, partition or federalism along ethno-sectarian lines, cannot satisfy Iraq’s Sunnis, who have neither large oil fields nor faith that the Shiites and Kurds would share revenue.

Because no option can stabilize Iraq quickly, we should refocus on our greatest achievable objective: preventing al-Qaeda from establishing a haven. This danger arises because Iraq’s moderate Sunnis have allied with their extremist Sunni rivals. Why? They’re trying to fend off domination and ethnic cleansing by the majority Shiites, who control Iraq’s government, army and militias. Indeed, the U.S. strategy of bolstering and training Iraq’s Shiite-controlled army drives Sunni moderates into extremist hands. The only way to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq is to switch our primary allegiance to Iraq’s moderate Sunnis.

The prospect of this dramatic shift in U.S. strategy raises several questions, including most fundamentally: Can we identify the moderates? Fortunately, two ready pools are available. First are the Sunni tribes the United States has attempted to recruit with little success. Until now, our offers have been too feeble, but serious military aid could do the trick.

The second source of recruits is Saddam’s secular Sunni-led party, which was antithetical to al-Qaeda. Admittedly, some former Baathists are attacking U.S. forces and coordinating with Sunni extremists because they view our presence as an obstacle to their return to power, but this could change quickly if we offered to support these former enemies.

There is a danger, of course, in arming Sunni moderates because the weapons could end up in the hands of extremists. That’s why implementation would be crucial. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the United States outsourced the arming of mujahedin rebels to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which favored the most extreme Sunni rebels and thereby gave rise to al-Qaeda. To avoid replicating this error, we should strive for monopoly control over weapons delivery and training of Iraq’s Sunnis, and demand cooperation from Saudi Arabia.

The most delicate problem would be managing our existing alliance with Iraq’s Shiite-led government. In an ideal world, even as we armed the Sunni moderates to stamp out al-Qaeda, we could continue working with Iraq’s Shiites to marginalize their militias, enabling the quick stabilization of Iraq under a moderate inter-sectarian government. But that scenario is improbable.

More likely, the moderate Sunnis would use our military aid not merely to quash al-Qaeda but to try to reverse recent ethnic cleansing. Shiite and Kurd militias would retaliate in kind. Iraq’s government, dependent on support from militia leaders, including Muqtada al-Sadr, would not dare confront them. So the United States would be compelled to reduce military assistance to the government.

The good news is that al-Qaeda would be marginalized, but at least initially, Iraq’s civil war would escalate. U.S. forces, needlessly in harm’s way, would have to be withdrawn. The exception would be a limited number of special operations troops to arm, train and monitor the moderate Sunni forces, and coordinate airstrikes on extremists, as they did with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance in 2001.

Peace would become possible only much later, after our aid bolstered the Sunni moderates and produced an ethno-sectarian balance of power, leading to a protracted stalemate that convinced each side victory was impossible. Americans will be dissatisfied by this strategy because it cannot stabilize Iraq quickly. But no option can accomplish that cherished objective, and at least this plan could stamp out al-Qaeda in Iraq while permitting withdrawal of most U.S. ground troops.

Unfortunately, in this war, that is the closest we can come to victory.

Alan J. Kuperman is assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, and co-editor of Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention