Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts You Don’t Win Hearts and Minds, You Rent Them – Reigniting Sunni Tribes Against ISIS

You Don’t Win Hearts and Minds, You Rent Them – Reigniting Sunni Tribes Against ISIS

In 2008, Americans lauded the great success of ‘The Surge’ – implementation of broad new counterinsurgency doctrine that “Won The Hearts and Minds” of Iraqis, particularly disaffected Sunnis strewn throughout Western Iraq.  “Winning Hearts and Minds”, so we were told, hinged on the “Sunni Awakening”, where Americans would partner with disenfranchised Sunnis on shared goals – defeating jihadi insurgents and ensuring the inclusion of Sunnis in Iraq’s new Shia dominated democratic government.  More importantly, but less discussed in academic propaganda on counterinsurgency, was U.S. funding of the “Sons of Iraq” Sunni militias. The “Sons of Iraq”, as part of the “Sunni Awakening”, were not “won” over solely by the pleasantries of U.S. troops and the great merits of representative democracy. America imported another lesson learned from its own democracy; when you can’t convince someone to support you based solely on the merits of your ideas, you must then pay them to endorse your idea as their own. If you can’t “Win Their Hearts and Minds” then you “Buy Their Hearts and Minds”.  Only now, having withdrawn from Iraq, we Americans realize we neither “Won” nor “Bought” the hearts and minds of Iraqis, we only “Rented” them.

Abandonment of ethnic groups is a signature of U.S. warfare in Iraq – Kurds and Southern Shia in 1991 and the Sunni in 2010.  Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Sunni hopes of inclusion in the Maliki Iraqi democratic government faded and payments slowed. The “Sons of Iraq” militias went the way of almost all militias throughout history – they sought out new suitors. After helping squash al Qaeda in Iraq and their alter ego the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) by 2009, Sunnis in Western Iraq this year supported, permitted or acquiesced in the reemergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).

The American strategy to dislodge ISIS suffers one major flaw above all others – a lack of viable ground force options for regaining Sunni dominated areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Until recently, U.S. efforts to build up the Free Syrian Army against Assad were restrained and ineffective.  To the east, Sunni militias in Iraq still feel the sting of abandonment after the U.S. withdrawal. 

The lack of viable ground options for securing terrorist safe havens is not a challenge unique to Iraq.  The U.S. faces a similar challenge against jihadist enclaves enmeshed in ungoverned spaces in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and the Sahel to name only a few places. Compounding this problem is American distaste for the downsides of all three ground force options available to secure these safe havens where local militaries continue to fail. (See Figure 1)

  • Large-Scale Military Deployment –  The U.S. military remains the most effective and professional military force in history.  Military deployments allow for complete command and control, accountability and transparency.  But U.S. military deployments cost cash and produce causalities.  Having just exited Iraq and Afghanistan, a large-scale U.S. military deployment, sufficient to displace ISIS, remains unlikely.
  • Military Contractors and Mercenaries – For centuries, countries have paid forces to secure their interests in far off lands. The U.S., at times over the past decade, augmented its operations significantly with short-term help that almost always became a long-term solution. Contractors appear cheaper and provide a layer of protection against the responsibility for mishaps. See Blackwater, Xi, et al., from 2003 to the present. But, Americans sit with unease when it comes to contractors. Buying fighters who may not share the democratic principles and transparency indicative of a nation pushing a freedom agenda around the globe presents persistent legitimacy problems over the long-term.
  • Militias and Paramilitaries – A hallmark of counterinsurgency has been the creation and/or backing of local militias who sit apart from foreign militaries but can more effectively police their local areas at a low cost.  Local militias can navigate both the physical and human terrain of their areas and can sometimes be trusted partners for disenfranchised local populations.  Americans can grow to like militias because they are cheap and provide insulation against the dirty business of counterinsurgency. Militias come with a host of problems as well.  Building a militia is easier than demobilizing one, rarely does a profiting warlord seek to melt back into democratic institutions. Backing militias routinely reinforces tribalism, competition, and warlord politics, unless of course the institution might sustain their patronage (corruption).  Issues of control and accountability quickly arise where militias take the cash and pursue their interests in their own way first, and seek out American objectives second. 

No matter what the solution, the U.S. will need to employ a combination of the three ground force options listed above to disperse ISIS members to other safe havens.  U.S. advisors continue to deploy supporting the Iraqi Army and many military contractors still remain from the last American deployment to Iraq.  The missing piece remains the build up of militias.  Hopefully those crafting the plan to counter ISIS can design a “Renting Hearts and Minds” strategy that secures western Iraq and eastern Syria at the lowest price over the longest duration, accepting that no matter what option is chosen, it will be frought with many downsides. 

“Renting Hearts and Minds” – A Framework

Four factors should be considered for effectively building relationships with Sunni ground force partners in Iraq and Syria

  • Establishing favorable conditions for negotiating with militia partners – As I noted in the “Let Them Rot” strategy a couple months back, the preferred method for building militia partners is to have them seek out U.S. support as much or more than the U.S. seeks their support.  During the ‘Surge’ era, Americans went begging the “Sons of Iraq” to participate – i.e., Sunni tribes held the upper hand.  Today, the conditions may be reversed.  Sunnis are suffering under ISIS harsh reign, the U.S. might be able to keep the upper hand to compel participation with tighter controls or lower costs. 
  • Offering incentives for participation – Americans must provide more than just cash to entice locals to again rise up against ISIS.  In Iraq, Sunnis feel burned by the American withdrawal.  What would incentivize them to fight? Last time, the “Sons of Iraq” got the cash, but never got their place in governance. Possibly a Sunni state would entice them.  But this would require Americans opening up to a three state solution in Iraq, one that has been rebuffed since the 2003 invasion, but appears ever more realistic and necessary moving forward. 
  • Determining the level of control and responsibility for militia actions – Today, the U.S. prefers the “Hear No Evil, See No Evil” militia approach.  But ISIS atrocities have been remarkable.  Surely building Sunni militias in Iraq and Syria will result in monstrous reprisals. We might also expect these Sunni militias to later plot against the Shia dominated Iraqi government, or even worse, metastasize into an anti-American terrorist group.  Americans should brace themselves now for the unintended and unexpected consequences of bartering with Sunni militias in both Syria and Iraq who are in need of support and desired by many suitors with differing agendas.
  • Duration of Support – During the 1980s, the U.S. backed militias in Pakistan that fought against the Soviet Union.  These militias and their safe haven later became the protective layer for al Qaeda.  Americans won’t be able to support Sunni militias forever.  How much are they willing to pay?  How long will they “rent” these militias? And who will start employing these militias when we no longer have use for them?

Building or backing militias in Iraq and Syria will remain a necessity for years to come.  The U.S. must identify its interests in the region, what costs come with employing militias and what will be the obvious downsides of such an approach on the horizon.  Lastly, I’d encourage all those interested in the topic to read “Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare” at Small Wars Journal where Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, America’s greatest military tactician, provides his excellent perspective on the challenge of using partners in warfare.