Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Failed Province: Marines Lose Hope in Anbar

(Political Map of Iraq. See Anbar in the southwest)

Back in September, the Washington Post reported on a memo circulating among American military officials on the state of affairs in Anbar province in western Iraq. Now, the Post reports, more details from the five-page report ("State of the Insurgency in Al-Anbar") by Col. Peter Devlin, a veteran intelligence officer with the Marine Expeditionary Force, have been made available. The picture that the paper paints is very grim. It concedes that the US cannot defeat the insurgency in Anbar and that the province is becoming a base for al-Qaeda.

Al-Anbar, is Iraq's largest province, home to 1.25 million people, most of whom are Sunni. Its major cities, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Haditha were the sites of some of the worst fighting for American troops. Today, they are run by militias and criminal gangs. The report by the Marines claims that al-Qaeda is taking over whatever institutions exist. As a whole, al-Anbar is probably the most dangerous place for US soldiers in Iraq.

Unlike the Shi'a-dominated south and the Kurdish north, Anbar has no significant oil fields, though a major pipeline runs through the province to Syria. One of the main sources of income in the region seems to be oil smuggling. No doubt, other criminal activity fills the rest of the coffers of the militias there. Perhaps foreign money is also flowing in to support al-Qaeda affiliates or similar such groups.

Al-Anbar is one of the last Sunni outposts in Iraq. Even before the American invasion, Salafi groups were allowed to organize here, so that it is no wonder that the area's residents are both virulently anti-American and anti-Shi'a. Although one of the biggest fears in the area is the encroaching influence of the Shi'a-dominated central government and the various Iranian proxies active in Iraq, ordinary people in Anbar probably suffer most from the lack of order and ubiquity of weapons so characteristic of failed states.

Anbar province illustrates the pitfalls of the policy of regime change. The "failed province" is likely to become a staging area for attacks on US forces, the Iraqi central government, as well as on Saudi Arabia and Jordan. At the same time, as Iraq becomes more and more Iranian, the Saudis and others might be tempted to use the province as a buffer. In any case, it is unlikely that the flow of guns and fighters into and out of Anbar - no doubt much of them through Syria - will stop soon. It does not look like the US can afford to back any of the factions in the province; most of them would probably not be very interested in such a deal anyway. On the other hand, the US would probably be reluctant to support Shi'a efforts to crush the insurgents there, because this could very well play into Iran's hands.

Those who still think that Iraq can avoid disintegration in anything but name are advised to check out a September article by Michael Totten on his visit to Kurdistan, "The Kurds go their own way." In the meantime, I am trying to get a sense of where the oil fields and pipelines are. The following December 2005 report on the "Geographical Distribution of Iraqi Oil Fields," is quite useful.

For a PDF of all of Iraq's provinces and administrative regions see this UN map.


Anonymous said...

Ziemlich deprimierend. Would more troops from the outset have mattered?

If not: it would be good to make that point irrefutably clear.


Amos said...

What do you think, professor? I am really not sure. I think it would have required a huge occupation force to forestall the insurgency in places like Anbar - too large to render the task possible. It would also have required some kind of post-war plan on the part of the White House, but that's another story.

I don't know if there was ever a partner on the ground with whom the US could have worked in Anbar.

Anyway, it seems almost inevitable that with Saddam gone, the Shi'a would seek to undo the decades of discrimination they suffered, to eliminate the privileges accorded to Sunni, and to hunt down former Baathists who persecuted Shi'a. This constellation would have brought predominantly Sunni provinces like Anbar into conflict with the new, Shi'a-dominated central government sooner or later.