Kevin Drum cautions: “if you read a story saying, for example, that tribal leaders are ‘turning against al-Qaeda,’ this may or may not really mean anything. It might be good news, but it also might mean only that the local shaykhs are taking sides in an internal dispute — but are no less committed to fighting American forces. Something to keep in the back of your mind as you scan the news.” I would put it differently. Tribal leaders turning against al-Qaeda is definitely a good thing but only if we handle it correctly.
The correct way to handle it is to say to Sunni Arabs that we want out of Iraq. And to prove that we want out of Iraq by leaving Iraq. But then to say to them that the only thing we want less than US forces in Iraq are al-Qaeda operatives killing Americans from a base in al-Anbar province. Our troops are leaving Iraq, but they can be put back in. Get rid of al-Qaeda, we say to the local Sunni Arabs, and we’ll stay away forever — this war was a tremendous mistake. But if al-Qaeda hits us, we have to come back and hit them. As we’ve seen time and again, most Sunni Arabs have no love for either Americans or al-Qaeda. If we create a situation where we’re gone and fighting al-Qaeda is the best way to keep us gone, they’ll fight al-Qaeda. If, by contrast, we insist in staying in Iraq to fight al-Qaeda ourselves, then we’ll have a problem. We’ll risk returning to the situation we’ve had throughout the bulk fo the war, where Sunni Arabs dislike al-Qaeda but will take whichever allies the can find against the United States.