The Shiite Awakening

Back in the mid-90’s, when I was working as an intervention counselor with adolescent gang members in Santa Cruz and Watsonville (Calif.), I once proposed paying the kids to join neighborhood watch groups. The logic was that by both offering them alternatives to illegal income and empowering them with a responsibility to protecting people in their neighborhoods as opposed to victimizing them, we could get them to buy into the system. Needless to say, my idea was shot down like a Georgian drone over Abkhazia by the head of the County Juvenile Probation Dept, to the general amusement of all assembled. Even one of my colleagues on the mental health side of the joint Children’s Health Services-Juvenile Probation program blithely observed, “That would be like putting the wolves in the hen house.”

I’m reminded of the episode by the news (WaPo via Abu Muqawama’s Dr. iRack) that the Awakening tactic responsible for “turning” Sunni insurgents in Anbar province is now being rolled out in the Mahdi militia stronghold of Sadr City, where Shiite “Neighborhood Guards” are being paid and armed by the American military. Now, I’ll leave it for others to argue about the advisability of arming these guys. Suffice it to say that what seemed like a good idea when it came to walkie talkie-wielding adolescents well-known to the local Santa Cruz beat cops strikes me at first glance as inherently more risky when it comes to AK 47-wielding adults well-known to the local Sadr City militia leaders.

But what also concerns me about the development is the same thing that eventually led me to leave the joint program in Santa Cruz. Namely, the increasing encroachment of the police/security function on the civil/humanitarian function. With regard to the gang intervention program, I felt like the therapeutic component was instrumentalized to soften the edge of the police function, something that was apparent from both the funding stream (through the Probation Dept) and the decision-making process (which while admirably open-minded was nonetheless weighted to the punitive end of the spectrum). Both components are certainly necessary, but when the line between them blurs, it’s the civil function that suffers, since it loses the impartiality required to build trust and acceptance among the target population.

So what does this have to with the Awakening? Well, everyone agrees that the Awakening tactic is a way to divert unemployed youngIraqi men from the insurgency by providing them the kind of living wage that the Iraqi economy can not provide. It is, for all intents and purposes, a job creation program, even if italso designed to address the security vacuum in the targeted areas. Of course, job-creation programs are most often associated with civil development and reconstruction aiddesigned to create sustainable economic opportunities . So the Awakening tactic represents another example of the militarization of a civil process, similar to the multidepartmental Provincial Reconstruction Teams funded mainly through the Pentagon. But perhaps even more significantly, it represents the militarization of the outcome as well, because the jobs created are military jobs, with the added disadvantage that they’re inherently unsustainable, since everyone acknowledges that there’s not enough room to integrate all of the “Awakened” Iraqis into the Iraqi Security Forces.

This is a bête noire of mine, I know, but I think it’s one that bears flagging. The impact of the “Long War” on American influence and the global order have been obvious. In many ways, its impact on America — our culture, our reflexes — have, too. (I’m thinking primarily of Gitmo, waterboarding, domestic surveillance, among other examples.) But the encroachment of the military on activities that were historically civilian is in many ways flying under the radar. I don’t think you have to posit some sort of nefarious intent to find the development, if not alarming, at least worthy of reflection.

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