The teaching moment began the day we toppled Saddam from power. We did not notice. We were busy congratulating ourselves for liberating Iraq. But the Arab, Sunni Muslim world was not celebrating. Their view was that our invasion of the Sunni heartland unshackled the beast of Shia Islam which had been chained for a "thousand years."
Since then, all of Iraq's Sunni neighbors have struggled to curtail Shia power in Iraq, and its growing influence throughout the region. Consequently, some Sunni regimes which have been occasionally cooperative with us in the Middle East now see us as unwitting friends of their theological enemies. No longer can we trust these Sunni regimes to work in concert with our efforts in the region.
This is one reason why countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and others have permitted many of their citizen-jihadists to fight "the good war" against American troops in Iraq: They do not want us to succeed. They cannot digest the image that the former seat of the Sunni Abassid Caliphate and capital of oil-rich Iraq would be ruled by the Shia, as would be the case if we succeeded in establishing a peaceful, united, democratic Iraq. The Shia, who form a large majority of Iraq's population, would best any coalition of Sunni political factions. Moreover, if the U.S. and its allies succeed in Iraq, Muslims throughout the region would be tempted to see a Shia-controlled Iraq and Shia Iran as the models to emulate instead if the Sunni model.
These Sunni states also fear instability among the Shia populations inside their borders. For instance, the al-Saud family in Arabia will worry about the majority Shia population at the center of its oil empire in the Eastern Province of al-Hasa. The minority Sunni al-Khalifa family in Shia Bahrain will be thrust into a state of anxiety, and there is the high likelihood of unrest among Kuwait's 30% Shia Muslim population.
A meeting a few years ago with an old comrade in the Jordanian military intelligence, was not a pleasant one. My Jordanian friend had just returned from duty in Iraq with Jordan's Special Forces. After the obligatory warm greeting, he launched into an invective-filled denunciation of U.S. policy: "How could your bosses have been so shortsighted?…Saddam was a monster, but he was mortal. He was secular, but he still was sane enough to know his limitations. Now you have opened the door wide to Iran. Now the Shia think the future belongs to them: your stupid actions threaten us all."
Although my friend hails from a rural-based tribe in Jordan, and his father was part of the generation that sustained the Hashemite dynasty of the late King Hussein, the King has been dead a long time and many of his top military aides have now retired. Hussein's son, King Abdullah, although a tough veteran of Jordan's Special Forces, does not command the fabled loyalty of his father.
As a Jordanian officer remarked during an all night tour of the key battle sites in Amman during the September, 1970, revolt of the Jordan-based Palestinians, "The army proved loyal then; it might not be so quick to defend the monarchy next time."
Palestinians now account for at least 60% of Jordan's population, and the society is more radicalized including the Jordanian army. What Jordanian moderates like my friend fear most is that they no longer have any legitimate foreign or internal rationale for maintaining friendly ties to America. To survive, regime elites must move closer to the world and regional views of their populations.
Many officers in Jordan's army, like those in Pakistan's military, are more radicalized than the generation before them. We cannot assume the good will of any Sunni today without a thorough vetting, as our Marines discovered in Iraq's Al-Anbar Province with the "Awakening Sheiks Movement." In the "Awakening," the U.S. had funded Sunni tribal sheikhs in Iraq to fight together against al-Qaeda, only to find them infiltrated, and potentially turning into a separate militia that might fight against the government. Even though the U.S. and the twenty or so top Sunni Muslim Sheikhs had an identical great enemy, it took two years before they decided to shed the shackles of their alliance with al-Qaeda and reach an accommodation with American forces. However, this time these same Sheiks will not tolerate a prolonged political ascendency for the Shia in Iraq. As we continue to draw down our troop levels in Iraq, we shall witness their determination.
All of us need to be vigilant about what is around us and diligent in imparting sensitive information to others. Whether it conmcerns an airliner about to land in Detroit, passengers on a bus in Jerusalem, tourists in a hotel in Mumbai, soldiers at a U.S. shopping mall or operatives in a secure facility in Afghanistan, it is the same war.
They are affixing a few more black stars on the "wall of the fallen" at Langley this week. It is in this manner that the CIA honors its brothers and sisters who have given the last measure of devotion to our country. Many of those martyred-soldiers of our Republic represented by those black stars on that lobby wall are known only to their professional and personal families.
We are not privy to the mix of unlucky circumstance, duplicity, inattention, and possible lapse in tradecraft that leads to the death of Americans in Afghanistan. For most of us the assignment of blame for this disaster and the pain of loss will pass. However, the strategic lessons learned must be long remembered.