Friday, April 27, 2007

Leveraging What Works

The thing that most impressed me about General David Petraeus was that, on his first tour of duty, he seemed to have a very good sense of what did and did not work coupled with an action plan for using the things that did work to his advantage. When he received his new appointment, I wondered whether or not he would continue to exercise this skill. Reporting for Reuters, Yara Bayoumy has identified at least one situation, in the Anbar province, where Petraeus is doing just that:

At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, hailed Abu Risha and other Sunni tribal leaders.

He said the Sunni Arab tribes were "helping transform Anbar province and other areas from being assessed as lost as little as six months ago to being relatively heartening".

So what is it that Petraeus found at the Sunni tribal level that "worked" will enough to be incorporated into his own strategy? Here is Bayoumy's lead:

A year ago, Iraq's Anbar was the most dangerous province for U.S. troops. Al Qaeda had dug in across the vast desert region. Iraqis were afraid to leave their homes in the local capital Ramadi, where insurgents held sway.

Then last summer Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Abdulsattar Abu Risha gathered his fellow tribal chiefs together and created a police force to try to restore security.

Under the umbrella of the Anbar Salvation Council, Abu Risha says his initiative is showing early signs of success, with recruitment putting some 20,000 police on the streets of the Sunni-dominated province.

"The situation (in Anbar) was unbearable before, people were tortured, shot dead, bodies littered the streets. We couldn't even leave our homes to bury the dead," Abu Risha told Reuters from Ramadi by a crackly satellite phone.

Abu Risha's initiative -- partly in response to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda's indiscriminate killing of civilians in Anbar -- has revived 15 large police stations that now come under the control of the provincial police chief.

Now, while car bombings still plague Anbar, and especially Ramadi, their number has fallen, U.S. military officials said.

And for the first time in three years, U.S. military deaths in the insurgent stronghold stretching across western Iraq number fewer than in Baghdad, where a new security crackdown began in February with additional troops.

This is definitely a "good news" story; but, more importantly, it is a story about a solution that was conceived and implemented at a tribal level. Not only that, the story is about a Sunni tribe that refused to have anything to do with the practices of another Sunni-based organization, al Qaeda. We are so obsessed with the primacy of the concept of "nation," whether in our own world-view of government or the world-view at the core of the United Nations, that we find it hard to conceive of any governance structure grounded on any other concept. T. E. Lawrence was probably able to conceive of such governance but had no skill in trying to convince his own country, which was both nation-bound and empire-bound. This is not to promote Petraeus as a latter-day Lawrence or as a "wise man" of political theory. Petraeus just believes in leveraging anything that works. If his superiors allow him to continue with this strategy, he may be our best hope for getting out of the mess we have made for ourselves.

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