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Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape
Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants

Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape

Against the odds, the U.S. military surge contributed to a significant reduction in violence. Its achievements should not be understated. But in the absence of the fundamental political changes in Iraq the surge was meant to facilitate, its successes will remain insufficient, fragile and reversible.

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Executive Summary

This is the first of two companion reports on Iraq after the Surge, which Crisis Group is publishing simultaneously, with identical Executive Summaries and policy Recommendations. Part I analyses changes in the Sunni landscape. Part II analyses the state of political progress.

Against the odds, the U.S. military surge contributed to a significant reduction in violence. Its achievements should not be understated. But in the absence of the fundamental political changes in Iraq the surge was meant to facilitate, its successes will remain insufficient, fragile and reversible. The ever-more relative lull is an opportunity for the U.S. to focus on two missing ingredients: pressuring the Iraqi government to take long overdue steps toward political compromise and altering the regional climate so that Iraq’s neighbours use their leverage to encourage that compromise and make it stick. As shown in these two companion reports, this entails ceasing to provide the Iraqi government with unconditional military support; reaching out to what remains of the insurgency; using its leverage to encourage free and fair provincial elections and progress toward a broad national dialogue and compact; and engaging in real diplomacy with all Iraq’s neighbours, Iran and Syria included.

Many factors account for the reduction in violence: the surge in some cases benefited from, in others encouraged, and in the remainder produced, a series of politico-military shifts affecting the Sunni and Shiite communities. But there is little doubt that U.S. field commanders displayed sophistication and knowledge of local dynamics without precedent during a conflict characterised from the outset by U.S. policy misguided in its assumptions and flawed in its execution. A conceptual revolution within the military leadership gave U.S. forces the ability to carry out new policies and take advantage of new dynamics. Had they remained mired in past conceptions, propitious evolutions on the ground notwithstanding, the situation today would be far bleaker.

One of the more remarkable changes has been the realignment of tribal elements in Anbar, known as the sahwat, and of former insurgents, collectively known as the “Sons of Iraq”. This was largely due to increased friction over al-Qaeda in Iraq’s brutal tactics, proclamation of an Islamic state and escalating assaults on ordinary citizens. But the tribal and insurgent decisions also were aided by enhanced military pressure on the jihadi movement resulting from augmented U.S. troops: in both instances U.S. forces demonstrated more subtle understanding of existing tensions and intra-Sunni fault lines. Overall, the military campaign calmed areas that had become particularly violent and inaccessible, such as Anbar and several Baghdad neighbourhoods, and essentially halted sectarian warfare.

But on their own, without an overarching strategy for Iraq and the region, these tactical victories cannot turn into lasting success. The mood among Sunnis could alter. The turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq is not necessarily the end of the story. While some tribal chiefs, left in the cold after Saddam’s fall, found in the U.S. a new patron ready and able to provide resources, this hardly equates with a genuine, durable trend toward Sunni Arab acceptance of the political process. For these chiefs, as for the former insurgents, it mainly is a tactical alliance, forged to confront an immediate enemy (al-Qaeda in Iraq) or the central one (Iran). Any accommodation has been with the U.S., not between them and their government. It risks unravelling if the ruling parties do not agree to greater power sharing and if Sunni Arabs become convinced the U.S. is not prepared to side with them against Iran or its perceived proxies; at that point, confronting the greater foe (Shiite militias or the Shiite-dominated government) once again will take precedence.

Forces combating the U.S. have been weakened but not vanquished. The insurgency has been cut down to more manageable size and, after believing victory was within reach, now appears eager for negotiations with the U.S. Still, what remains is an enduring source of violence and instability that could be revived should political progress lag or the Sons of Iraq experiment falter. Even al-Qaeda in Iraq cannot be decisively defeated through U.S. military means alone. While the organisation has been significantly weakened and its operational capacity severely degraded, its deep pockets, fluid structure and ideological appeal to many young Iraqis mean it will not be irrevocably vanquished. The only lasting solution is a state that extends its intelligence and coercive apparatus throughout its territory, while offering credible alternatives and socio-economic opportunities to younger generations.

The U.S. approach suffers from another drawback. It is bolstering a set of local actors operating beyond the state’s realm or the rule of law and who impose their authority by force of arms. The sahwat in particular has generated new divisions in an already divided society and new potential sources of violence in an already multilayered conflict. Some tribes have benefited heavily from U.S. assistance, others less so. This redistribution of power almost certainly will engender instability and rivalry, which in turn could trigger intense feuds – an outcome on which still-active insurgent groups are banking. None of this constitutes progress toward consolidation of the central government or institutions; all of it could amount to little more than the U.S. boosting specific actors in an increasingly fragmented civil war and unbridled scramble for power and resources. Short-term achievement could threaten long-term stability.

By President Bush’s own standards, the military surge was useful primarily insofar as it led the Iraqi government to forge a national consensus, recalibrate power relations and provide Sunni Arabs in particular with a sense their future was secure. Observers may legitimately differ over how many of the administration’s so-called benchmarks have been met. None could reasonably dispute that the government’s performance has been utterly lacking. Its absence of capacity cannot conceal or excuse its absence of will. True to its sectarian nature and loath to share power, the ruling coalition has actively resisted compromise. Why not? It has no reason to alienate its constituency, jeopardise its political makeup or relinquish its perks and privileges when inaction has no consequence and the U.S. will always back it.

The surge is the latest instalment in a stop-and-start project to build a functioning state and legitimate institutions. All along, the fundamental challenge has been to settle major disputes and end a chaotic scramble for power, positions and resources in a society that, after a reign of terror, finds itself without accepted rules of the game or means to enforce them. Politically, this conflict has expressed itself in disputes, both violent and non-violent, over the structure of the state system (federalism/regionalisation and the degree of power devolution); ownership, management and distribution of oil and gas wealth (a hydrocarbons law); internal boundaries (particularly of the Kurdistan region); mechanisms for settling relations between post-Saddam “winners” and “losers” (for example, de-Baathification, amnesty, reintegration); and the way in which groups gain power (elections vs. force).

A small number of agreements have been reached and are regularly trumpeted. But they have made virtually no difference. Without basic political consensus over the nature of the state and the distribution of power and resources, passage of legislation is only the first step, and often the least meaningful one. Most of these laws are ambiguous enough to ensure that implementation is postponed, or that the battle over substance becomes a struggle over interpretation. Moreover, in the absence of legitimate and effective state and local institutions, implementation by definition will be partisan and politicised. What matters is not principally whether a law is passed in the Green Zone. It is how the law is carried out in the Red Zone.

Three things are becoming increasingly clear: First, the issues at the heart of the political struggle cannot be solved individually or sequentially. Secondly, the current governing structure does not want, nor is it able, to take advantage of the surge to produce agreement on fundamentals. Thirdly, without cooperation from regional actors, progress will be unsustainable, with dissatisfied groups seeking help from neighbouring states to promote their interests. All this suggests that the current piecemeal approach toward deal making should be replaced with efforts to bring about a broad agreement that deals with federalism, oil and internal boundaries; encourages reconciliation/accommodation; and ensures provincial and national elections as a means of renewing and expanding the political class. It also suggests yet again the need for the U.S. to engage in both genuine negotiations with the insurgency and for vigorous regional diplomacy to achieve agreement on rules of the game for outside actors in Iraq.

In the U.S., much of the debate has focused on whether to maintain or withdraw troops. But this puts the question the wrong way, and spawns misguided answers. The issue, rather, should be whether the U.S. is pursuing a policy that, by laying the foundations of legitimate, functional institutions and rules of the game, will minimise the costs to itself, the Iraqi people and regional stability of a withdrawal that sooner or later must occur – or whether it is simply postponing a scenario of Iraq’s collapse into a failed and fragmented state, protracted and multilayered violence, as well as increased foreign meddling.

The surge clearly has contributed to a series of notable successes. But the question is: Now what? What higher purpose will they serve? For the first four years of the war, the U.S. administration pursued a lofty strategy – the spread of democracy; Iraq as a regional model – detached from any realistic tactics. The risk today is that, having finally adopted a set of smart, pragmatic tactics, it finds itself devoid of any overarching strategy.

Baghdad/Istanbul/Damascus/Brussels, 30 April 2008

‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants

Originally published in The Guardian

Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.

There are around 150 British women in the world who can be called “jihadi brides” – those who left places such as Luton, Birmingham and Burton upon Trent to migrate to the Islamic State and eventually marry its fighters – and Shamima Begum is one of the youngest. She assumed this status as a minor, and the use of the term “jihadi bride” by journalists and commentators to describe her is appalling, a heaping of further trauma on a groomed child.

Tabloid sensationalism flattens a complicated and necessary debate about agency: whether these women had any; and how much and the extent to which they should be held accountable for the spectacular violence Isis has inflicted, even if they were not directly involved and some of them were crushed by it, too. In trying to get to the bottom of these questions for a forthcoming book, I interviewed more than 20 Isis women.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word ‘bride’, so resonant and feminine.

At the heart of this problem is female militancy itself: the historical and near-universal aversion across so many societies to viewing young women as capable of dreadful violence, and the incentives for powerful governments and militaries to downplay or amplify the nature of female militancy and its implications. One premise underlying the term “jihadi bride” is that the debutante in question holds no valid political grievances, is indoctrinated into accepting grotesque violence as legitimate, and as “just” a wife plays a dangerous but marginal role in the working of the armed group to which she is wed rather than operationally affiliated. “In-house whores for Isis,” as one columnist memorably called them in 2015. The term also tilts toward characterising such women as civilian spouses of jihadist militants, akin to the German wives who held dinner parties for Nazi SS officers, rather than aspirant members who joined first and wed second, or at least concurrently.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word “bride”, so resonant and feminine. Its inclusion is almost antique, from a time when women had hysterics and doctors acting on behalf of the patriarchy had to pacify them with dubious sex therapies or lobotomies. But perhaps in the past this patronising view also served a social function: if militants’ wives were just wives, society could forgive them more easily and, once the fighting was over, they could serve as bridges back to some normalcy. Women could then try to explain what had overtaken their sons and husbands (as Osama bin Laden’s mother has done). As I wrote earlier this year, in Nigeria viewing women who voluntarily joined the Boko Haram insurgency as wives who didn’t commit violence has helped communities grudgingly tolerate their reintegration. Returnee men are often simply slaughtered.

But this inherited thinking has outlived its use, especially in light of the way militant groups themselves play on gender to recruit and swell their ranks. Ignoring women’s agency in this process obscures our understanding of all the ways, meaningful, oblique and direct, that women lent their power and numbers to Isis. Women in the caliphate served as doctors and midwives, language instructors, recruiters and intelligence agents, and morality policewomen who tormented locals.

With the flow of Isis men and women out of the group’s last patch of territory and the prospect of them returning to their countries of origin, there are loud voices now calling for the suspension of “jihadi bride”. But sometimes these reflect social and political forces with their own agendas, such as Sajid Javid’s early bid for the Tory leadership, which was signalled through the stripping of Begum’s status as a British citizen. In the rush to bestow militant women agency, there is a tendency to blaze past any legal and investigative process and hold girls such as Begum just as accountable as those who beheaded civilians. The haste to make her indoctrinated, feeble responses to journalists’ questions appear lucid and defining of her fate is reminiscent of the excesses of the post-9/11 period, when jihadists disappeared into the facility at Guantánamo Bay in a netherworld of lawless, indefinite detainment. Among those who directly suffered under Isis there is an understandable impatience with the attention such women receive, but among some voices from Syria and Iraq, the language about Begum is sometimes dehumanising, making her the focus for both justified rage at what transpired and a target for sectarian or ethnic hate.

Our need for new, measured and more forensic language to characterise female militancy and the agency that underpins it is now clear. Yet we must remain sensitive to the coercion and violence many female Isis members experienced themselves.

It is worth remembering that, after a certain point, it became virtually impossible to leave the caliphate. During the years I spent following the stories of female Isis members, I was in touch with women, or families of women, who were repulsed by what they saw unfolding and tried to escape. Kadiza Sultana, one of the three original Bethnal Green girls, saw she had made a terrible mistake and worked with her family in London to plan her evacuation. She died in an airstrike on the building where she lived, before the collapse of the territorial caliphate gave her a chance to flee.

It is no disrespect to the victims of Isis to hear women such as Begum attempt to explain their motivations. Perhaps not immediately after having a baby, in a fetid IDP camp, but later, in a courtroom – or, better, in a transitional justice hearing, where she could be confronted with the stories of Yazidi women such as Nobel peace prize winner Nadia Murad, the victims of Isis who were faceless at the time, about whose suffering Begum was, and remains, chillingly incurious.

There are legal bases on which to assess criminal accountability, which require investigations and collection of evidence. But we are also struggling to understand, as a society encumbered by loaded terms such as “jihadi bride”, how much blame to accord such women. This requires learning precisely what they did – and what might have been done to them.

The role of women in Isis is one of the most significant questions of the post-Arab spring period, the aftermath of a historic sweeping revolt that women often led and animated. The Syrian Isis woman who met Begum at the Syrian border that dark night in February 2015 and escorted her into Raqqa told me later how surprised she was by the Bethnal Green girls’ submissiveness. The driver snapped at them to cover their hair properly, and they smilingly complied.

This woman, a bookish university student, a Hemingway reader who had gone from demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad to working for Isis at the behest of her family, couldn’t understand what had brought these London girls to the hell that had become her country. They seemed bewitched. She herself was dissimulating each day, biding her time until she could just get out.