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"Are we Arming the Sunnis?" -- And, if So, Does it Really Matter?

This appeared on NRO's The Corner a few days ago and, as my clarifying email to Jonah wasn't posted (though his friend's inaccurate information was), I figured I'd get it up here, as it's an important topic. So, please bear with the blockquote from the Corner to get to the response below the fold.
I keep hearing people say we're "arming the Sunnis" in dire terms — the implication being that we're destined for blowback once the Sunni tribes kick out al Qaeda in Iraq. There are responses to the concern, but it strikes me as a legitimate and serious objection worth discussing — if it's true. But the thing is last week on Meet the Press, the NYT's Michael Gordon — whose spent lots of time in Sunni areas — said it's simply not true. The relevant quote:

MR. RUSSERT: If we, in fact, are arming the Sunnis and we've already armed the Shiites, are we arming both factions in a civil war?

MR. GORDON: Well, we're not arming these groups. They're not being given arms by the Americans, but you're pointing to one of the very real risks. I mean, the potential here is by organizing these Sunni groups in Baquba and...(unintelligible)...and...(unintelligible)...and all sorts of places in Iraq, we do have a mechanism to provide local security and really to drive out al-Qaeda of Iraq. The downside is unless this becomes institutionalized and these people become either Iraqi police or somehow approved by the Iraqi government, we might be setting the stage for more intensified civil war.

Since then, I've read lots of blanket assertions that we are arming the Sunnis. The latest issue of Time (via Nexis, so no link) has a long cover story by Michael Duffy et al. advancing the "blowback" concern, which reads in part:

That's because there are unmistakable risks to the new Sunni alliance. Arming the Sunnis against al-Qaeda is fine, but if they tire of their alliance with Washington, they become just another faction armed with U.S. weapons. Shi'ites and Kurds worry that the Sunni tribesmen who are fighting alongside American troops now have little or no loyalty to the Iraqi government and would just as soon turn their guns on Iraqi forces as on al-Qaeda. In addition, strengthening a Sunni stronghold in the middle of the country goes a ways toward cementing the very partitioning of Iraq that the Bush team has long sought to avoid. Which means the U.S. has to reckon with its new Sunni allies on roughly the same terms that lobbyists calculate the tenuous support of Senators they don't really trust: the question isn't whether you can buy the Sunnis; it's whether they will stay bought. "These people used to be America's problem, so America has bought their friendship," says the Iraqi analyst. "When the Americans leave, these people will become Iraq's problem."

Now, "arming the Sunnis" might be mangled code for "organizing the Sunnis" or "aiding the Sunnis" but the these are differnt things, no? Maybe the guys at The Tank can settle this for me. Are we or aren't we arming the Sunnis? Curious minds wants to know.

Update: From a friend:


Regarding our arming the Sunnis, the answer is no. read some Bill Ardolino from Fallujah. We are recruiting neighborhood watch members and they are authorized to carry their own weapons. All Iraqi males are authorized to own an AK-47 and once they join they get a hat, a t-shirt and the right t patrol their neoghborhood. i they are good they can be promoted to the Iraqi Police.

Mark I.

Here's my response and clarification:


Rather than referring to the guys at The Tank [for those not familiar, The Tank is NRO's attempt at a milblog. There are some very good contributors, but any "milblog" that allows Mario Loyola to contribute is extremely suspect], perhaps someone who has firsthand knowledge of this can help you out. I've been embedded with the US military at the front here in Iraq for several weeks this time (after last leaving in May; reports available at, and have both sat in on the tribal meetings in which such policies and actions are discussed, and have seen this in action.

As it stands, this allowing of Sunni (and Shi'a, for that matter) tribes to arm themselves -- in an extremely organized way -- is a pretty necessary action. Despite the so-called 'Surge,' there simply aren't enough troops in Iraq (the total combat strength would not fill RFK stadium in Washington DC) to kill, capture, or drive out every insurgent fighter, Sunni or Shi'a. What has to happen in order for the coalition to succeed there is for the individual tribes (which is how the people here think of themselves -- not as "Iraqis," but as members of their individual tribes, sects, clans, cities, etc.) to step up and fight alongside the coalition against al Qaeda, JAM, etc. In Ramadi and Fallujah, it was the Sunni tribesmen who, backed by the US Marines, largely drove Sunni al Qaeda out. As it was there, it must be elsewhere, as well -- and helping to organize Sunnis (who we allow, provided they register, are input into a biometric database, and agree to wear a recognizable uniform, to be armed beyond the one AK-47 and one 30-round magazine per household allowance granted the rest of the country) is not only a smart move, but a necessary one at this point. Sunni Iraqis are suffering greatly at the hands of Sunni al Qaeda, and getting behind them, while empowering them to stand up for themselves, is something which we need to do in order to help turn the tide against AQI.

Now, whether the alliance of Sunni tribes that made up the Anbar Awakening, and any alliance of tribes in other areas, will last into the future, once there is no longer a common enemy who offers (in the words of one tribal sheik) "only death" to the people here is another matter altogether. It is an issue which must be addressed down the road, but at this point, the present and near term future is (and must be) the focus, especially given America's notoriously brief attention span and patience level.

On one more point, the potential problem right now is not one of armed Sunni "tir[ing] of their alliance with Washington" and becoming "another faction armed with U.S. weapons." For one thing, they are not receiving U.S. weapons -- they receive AKs just like everybody else, and these weapons do not come from the U.S. More importantly, though, the biggest concern here is not whether these people will eventually "tire of their alliance with Washington," but whether they (and the rest of their countrymen, whom we are counting on to stand with us as we fight the insurgency) will tire of never knowing, from one day to the next, whether the US is really behind them, and will remain there to the end -- or, based on the rhetoric they hear loudly and clearly from our homeland, whether they might wake up one day in the near future to find that the Americans -- their sole source of security and of encouragement -- have left.

That, more than anything else, would turn these people into simply "another [armed] faction" -- though one which would likely have a very brief lifespan after our departure.

Jeff Emanuel


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