The 2006 shift by the Sunnis, beginning in Anbar province, away from Al Qaeda in Iraq was among the most important developments in the Iraq War. Ever since it happened, however, some stalwart friends and I have tended to focus on its dark sidesthe rise of warlordism, primarily — as well point out how transactional and reversible the shift was in the fact of outside (read: sectarian) pressures. That seems to be taking shape.

Dr. iRack and Abu Aardvark have been all over this. Most recently, a key Son of Iraq (as the mostly-Sunni militiamen are now known) named Abu Abed has fled to Jordan while the Maliki government investigates him for murder. Dr. iRack:

Separate from the merits or demerits of the Abu Abed case specifically, Abu Abed is not just a guy–he is a symbol. His treatment, in conjunction with other evidence of disdain for the SoIs emanating from Maliki and his coterie, could signal that former Sunni fighters will be locked out (and chased out) from integration and accommodation efforts. If so, there is a real risk of the SoI program imploding, taking much of the recent security progress with it. As Abu Abed himself warned: "Al Qaeda will come back and the government and Iraqi army will be helpless to defeat them. People will have lost their faith in the government because of the way they treated me and others."

The Abu Abed case crystallizes the place that the war has brought us to. If we don’t keep paying off the SOI warlords/militiamen — there are probably over 100,000 of them by now — then they have little incentive to keep their guns pointed away from U.S. troops, as the Maliki government has made it clear it distrusts them intensely. If we keep paying off the SOI warlords/militiamen, we undermine the ability of the government that we still support to ever achieve a monopoly on the use of force, and put cash into the pockets of brutal men who, in many cases, promise to shoot their way to power. If we don’t keep paying off the SOI warlords/militiamen, al-Qaeda could reemerge in Iraq. If we keep paying off the SOI warlords/militiamen, the Shiites in the government will remain intransigent in terms of reconciliation, fearing that the armed Sunnis are getting ready to take a mile if given an inch. If we keep paying off the SOI warlords/militiamen, we risk a resurgence of violence. If we don’t keep paying off the SOI warlords/militiamen, we risk a resurgence of violence. Any and all of these possibilities exist whether or not we keep paying off the SOI warlords/militiamen. Pick your poison.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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