Dr. Ahmed Hashim is an Associate Professor of Strategic Studies and Deputy Coordinator of the Military Studies Program at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His 2006 book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq was ahead of its time not only for its insight into the insurgency but identity politics as well. In 2009 he wrote a follow up book on the topic Iraq’s Sunni Insurgency. This is an interview with Prof. Hashim about why the insurgency emerged, how it operates, and whether there are any political solutions to resolve it.
1. You wrote in your book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency In Iraq that the Sunni insurgency didn’t start because of a loss of power so much as a loss of national identity. The Islamic State has played upon that proclaiming itself the protector of Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq. Can you explain what you meant by that and how dolling out government positions via quotas and other concessions wouldn’t solve this sense of loss?
I may not have been completely clear; of course, it was partly due to loss of power. However, my major point was that the loss of identity hit them harder than the loss of power. Not all Sunni had power; but all Sunni Arabs had been indoctrinated into the belief that they had created and built up Iraq. They believed that it was “theirs,” and had been so since its inception. Indeed, since Ottoman times the Turks moved them into positions of power and provided secular education. Maybe positions and allocation of power and resources would have alleviated that but they did not get it when the Americans left in 2011. First, a breed of unscrupulous politicians and carpetbaggers took over in Anbar and tried to curry favor with Maliki. They got little, which leads to the second point. Second, Maliki gave the Sunnis little and the latter were not in a position to get much from a Shia establishment that had secured most of the levers of the state.
2. Another point you’ve made in the past was that the Sunni community made a strategic mistake by supporting a strong central government after 2003 because it would be dominated by Shiites rather than backing federalism. It took until 2011 for a few provinces like Salahaddin and Diyala to call for regionalism, which was also taken up by some of the Sunni protest movement as well. Do you think federal regions would still be viable for Sunni governorates, do enough of the Sunni elite now agree with the idea, and would it be accepted by Baghdad and the ruling Shiite parties?
It has slowly seeped into Sunni consciousness that they cannot seize power in the center again; this is why they now call for Sunni regionalism, much to the satisfaction of the Kurds and even with their encouragement. The Sunni areas are not as unviable as people ordinarily believe. They have gas and agriculture. I think more and more Sunni elites are coming round to the idea of federalism; it was and remains strange to their mindset, having been at the center of power for so long and in control.
3. Iraq’s Sunnis have been fractured more than any other group in the country. This has only been made worse by the emergence of the Islamic State with some tribes backing the group, some with the government, and others sitting on the fence. Some politicians like the Nujafis have had their base in Mosul occupied by the insurgents. Can you see any solution to this political dysfunction and if it isn’t resolved does that mean militant groups will always have a chance to find supporters?
There is an interesting paradox here, which I am exploring in my forthcoming book The Caliphate At War. Until 2003, they [Sunnis] were at the center of power, or elements of them. Precisely because of that, Saddam kept a close watch on them: Sunnis watched other Sunnis in a byzantine web of security and intelligence services. His particular worry was that disgruntled Sunnis would use the military to shoot their way into power. He had to be sure that would never happen; after all, he was not overthrown by the army. The Sunnis had no alternative power centers; the Islamic parties had been weakened. The tribes had been strengthened at the local provincial level but were not national players. The Shias and Kurds had alternatives: their alienation from power and exile of many of them allowed them to develop parties; the Kurds in particular had their sanctuary, which gave them the opportunity to build political machines. The Sunnis had the insurgency, which was frankly a dismal affair between 2003 and 2007 when many of the groups absconded and joined the Sahwa. They were fractious, did not have clearly defined political and military wings; wedded to their ‘restorationist’ agenda, and defined by the barbaric AQI of Zarqawi and his successors. The situation did not improve for them after the temporary defeat of ISI in 2009, a defeat that has been overrated as the organization came back again and took advantage of the Sunni weaknesses and their constant series of blunders.