It would be easy to assume that these developments signal the declining fortunes of al-Qaida in Iraq. But that isn't necessarily the case. It is at least as plausible that the moves come in response to the growing strength of its Islamic State of Iraq, formed in the fall of 2006 to serve as an umbrella group for the insurgency. Intensely controversial from the start, the ISI has grown increasingly bold, demanding that other factions swear fealty (with a crude "with us or against us" rhetoric which could have been crafted in Texas), denouncing those who do not as American collaborators, and allegedly physically attacking other Sunnis. The angry responses from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and local tribal leaders could be interpreted as a lashing out against the bleeding away of their own support.In other words, the reactions of some Sunnis against Al Qaeda may be the result of this Al Qaeda front, the Islamic State in Iraq, attempting to assert its dominance over the insurgency and bring the insurgency's goals-mostly kicking us out and protecting Sunni intersts in Iraq- in line with its own, establishing a Sunni Islamic caliphate in Iraq and a base of operations against other targets in other countries. As Lynch indicates, this could be interpreted as a sign of the growing strength of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-related groups in Iraq, or it could be a sign that they're overplaying their hand. Either way, it's clear that the withdrawal of U.S. troops, at least to the point where the perception is no longer that we are occupying the country, would sap this movement of a large part of its strength. Make no mistake, the Sunnis insurgents, and most especially the Al Qaeda affiliated groups, consider the Shiites and the Shiite dominated government to be their utter enemies. Fighting will certainly continue. But as I stated before, it's beyond ridiculous to think that Al Qaeda could ever hope to establish a Sunni caliphate in the majority Shiite Iraq. They simply don't have the strength to do it. That does not mean they won't keep fighting. But it does mean that our strategy can be changed accordingly.
The insurgency factions publicly turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq express no interest in reining in their war against the occupation. Indeed, their main complaints are that the Islamic State of Iraq's attempts to dominate the insurgency have proven internally divisive and are weakening the insurgency. They also complain about the ISI's globalist discourse, calling for jihad everywhere rather than focusing on the Iraqi jihad.
There is a silver lining here, but only if the United States gets serious about withdrawing from Iraq. The factions complaining about al-Qaida emphasise the Iraqi front, and deny any intent of turning Iraq into a base for a wider jihad. While these statements seem primarily aimed at reassuring their Arab neighbours, they also rebut one of the Bush administration's most frequently invoked reasons for staying in Iraq - the "phantom menace" that al-Qaida would establish a mini-Emirate in the Sunni areas which would become a new Afghan-style base for the jihad. What is more, while the Islamic Army of Iraq stoutly denies having negotiated with the Americans (despite pervasive rumours to the contrary), it refuses to rule talks out as long as an American withdrawal is the topic of discussion. It has been clear for over a year that at least some of the insurgency factions (unlike al-Qaeda in Iraq) are ready to talk about a political settlement, if it involves the US leaving and the interests of the Sunni community being protected from Shi'ite domination.
The lesson is clear. True security and the establishment of a democratic government in Iraq are no longer feasible goals. We don't have the manpower to or the political will power to do it. Necessarily, we must narrow our goals accordingly. Our primary goal should be the destruction of Al Qaeda and foreign jihadist movements in Iraq (arming moderate Sunnis if necessary), but we should also support efforts to protect Sunni civilians from rampaging death squads, and the full consequences of an inevitable Shiite "victory" over the insurgency (a goal that would also be aided by arming moderate Sunnis.) If necessary, we should support the division of the country among Sunni and Shiite to facillitate an eventual peace. We should do what we can to avoid Bosnia on a larger scale, but understand that there is only so much our limited resources can do, and that it will certainly be necessary for war to rage for some time before either side is willing to reach an accomodation. We should limit foreign intervention in the country as best we can. Most importantly, we should realize we don't need 150,000 or 170,000 or 200,000 troops in Iraq to achieve this. We can do that with a fourth of the men we have in Iraq now, and they can operate from bases where they are kept mostly out of harm's way, unless they are needed to attack Al Qaeda or deter foreign invasions.
Peace in Iraq is a pipe dream. We can't enforce it, and if we're lucky, it will be less than a decade until we see it. There's no point in letting our troops die in a conflict being fought between two sides, neither of which really wants us there, to accomplish something that can't be accomplished. It's time to radically limit our mission in Iraq, and bring most of the troops home.
UPDATE: For more discussion on how Al Qaeda's strategic limitations in Iraq could work to our advantage, I recommend this post by Brian Ulrich at American Footprints.