Rich Lowry argues against yours truly that the problem with leaving the Sunnis alone to fight it out with al-Qaeda “is that if we absented ourselves, al Qaeda would prevail.” Frankly, I doubt it. As we’ve seen over and over again, local support matters a lot. It’s extremely difficult for a foreign force to sustain itself in the face of hostile public sentiment even if the foreign force is in some sense superior from a technical point of view.
To me, the overestimation of al-Qaeda’s ability to impose its will upon Iraqis is just of a piece with earlier overestimation of the United States’ ability to impose our will upon Iraqis. This stuff is hard. It’s crucial to recall that the Taliban was not just a religious movement, but also an expression of Pashto nationalism, and that that the Taliban had a lot of trouble expanding into areas where other ethnicities predominated.