The Anbar Narrative: Part 2

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 1 month ago

In The Anbar Narrative: Part 1, I provided an excerpt from a speech by Major General John Kelly on the counterinsurgency campaign in Anbar.  By all accounts, it was a magnificent, well-executed and hard fought campaign, with each city and area of operation being slightly to significantly different from the others.  Adaptability and improvisation have marked the effort all across the province.  Like I have argued before concerning the necessity for a military blow to al Qaeda to enable the awakening, while pointing to the significance of the population turning against al Qaeda, he also sets the necessary backdrop for this.

… by relentless pursuit by a bunch of fearless 19 year olds with guns who never flinched or gave an inch, while at the same time holding out the carrot of economic development, they have seen the light and know AQ can’t win against such men. By staying in the fight, and remaining true to our word, and our honor, AQ today can’t spend more than a few hours in Fallujah, Ramadi, or the Al Anbar in general

There is no question that the campaign was a military victory, but it is helpful to hear all perspectives, even contrary viewpoints.  In The Daily Star, Muhammad Abu Rumman published a commentary entitled “Deconstructing Iraq’s Sunni armed groups,” in which he gives an alternative perspective.

Although there have been ideological and political struggles among armed Sunni factions in Iraq since the beginning of the occupation, until recently they were kept quiet. In early 2007, differences came out into the open in the form of warring public statements between the Islamic State of Iraq (a coalition including Al-Qaeda) and the Islamic Army in Iraq, exposing previously unacknowledged animosity.

As the two groups went at each other in the media, other Sunni groups began a complicated process of splintering and reformation. The 1920 Revolution Brigades split into two military factions, Fatah and Jihad, with Fatah later reclaiming the 1920 Revolution Brigades name. Hamas-Iraq, which emerged as the first armed movement to build political and media institutions parallel to its military activities, joined forces with the Iraqi Resistance Islamic Front. In early May 2007, the Jihad and Reform Front was formed, incorporating the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Mujahideen Army, and the Sharia Committee of Ansar al-Sunna (which split from its mother organization, Ansar al-Sunna), with the Fatiheen Army joining later. Then in early September seven factions, including the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Al-Rashideen Army, joined forces to establish the Jihad and Change Front.      

This period of upheaval has left four main blocs in the Iraqi Sunni resistance: first, Jihadist Salafism, which is an extension of Al-Qaeda. This bloc consists primarily of the Islamic State of Iraq and is close to Ansar al-Sunna as well.

Second, nationalist Salafism, which observers believe toes the Saudi Salafist line and receives material and moral support from abroad. The groups in the Jihad and Reform Front belong to this bloc. 

Third, the Muslim Brotherhood trend, mainly Hamas-Iraq and the Resistance Islamic Front. Observers believe it is associated with the Islamic Party, which participates in politics within the Iraqi Accord parliamentary bloc.

And fourth, the nationalist Islamist trend, including the Jihad and Change Front groups (such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades and Al-Rashideen Army). This bloc is ideologically close to the Brotherhood trend and is considered an extension of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the leading group of Iraqi Sunni clerics. 

While keeping the players straight is admittedly difficult, it is important to understand why Sunni groups are experiencing such turmoil. Two factors – US discussion of withdrawal from Iraq and genuine ideological and political differences among Sunnis – can explain what is taking place.

First, signs of American military failure and the rising chorus of voices in Washington calling for withdrawal have changed the focus of Sunni insurgents. As militants sense that a US withdrawal is approaching, defeating the occupation has lost primacy as a goal in favor of maneuvering to fill the power vacuum in the post-occupation stage.

In this context, several factors have fueled tensions among resistance factions. For example, the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaeda and its allies) has not only tried to spread its influence among the other factions, it has also demanded that many faction members pledge allegiance to its emir, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. At the same time, Arab countries (particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia) have begun to worry about who will fill the power vacuum after the US withdraws. Such countries are concerned about preventing the dual threat of increasing Iranian influence and the rising power of Al-Qaeda in western Iraq, the latter of which constitutes a clear and direct threat to their security.

Second, there are genuine ideological and political disagreements – mostly centering on questions of nationalism and religious ideology – among armed factions. The Islamic State of Iraq employs a universalist rhetoric, and is more concerned about defeating the US occupation and waging a war of attrition than agreeing on the nature of a new Iraqi political system. These groups’ close ties with Al-Qaeda’s central command give them a broad agenda, whereas the goal of other Sunni factions is essentially confined to bringing about a US withdrawal from Iraq.

On political-religious ideology, the Islamic State of Iraq also adopts a more uncompromising rhetoric than the other factions on key questions such as attitudes toward the Shiites. The Jihad and Reform Front also takes a hard-line position on the Shiites, though less so than groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The Jihad and Change Front groups, meanwhile, see their priority as defeating the US occupation, although they do not conceal their concern about Iranian ambitions in Iraq. Regarding what should come after the US withdrawal, the Jihad and Reform Front seeks to establish rule by Sharia (Islamic law). For their part, the Jihad and Change Front groups say they would allow a popular consensus to determine democratically what type of political regime would prevail.

Several ideas give this analysis away as propaganda.  First, the statement about the “American military failure” is so over-the-top absurd that it calls into question the credibility of the author and remaining analysis and casts some degree of doubt on any usefulness that it might have.  The surge and security plan has thus far been militarily successful, but aside from that, the surge had nothing to do with the Anbar campaign.  The seeds of security were planted in Anbar long before the surge was ever conceived, and in fact the surge can rightly be said to be modeled after the Anbar campaign.  If there is any failure it would be the internal political machinations in Iraq, but that is no fault of the U.S. military.

Second, the statement about the “rising power of al Qaeda in Western Iraq” forces us to wonder exactly where the author has been the last year.  Al Qaeda resides in the suburbs and surrounding small towns of Baghdad (such as Tarmiyah) and to the North and Northeast of Baghdad in the Diyala Province, but can find no safe haven in Anbar.  Their last haven in Anbar, Fallujah, was taken from them in Operation Alljah.

If for no other reason, this analysis is helpful for the current breakdown of the Sunni insurgency as he sees it, and for understanding the propaganda value of calling the counterinsurgency campaign a “defeat” for the U.S.

But setting aside the propagandistic nature of the commentary, there is one final bit of useful information.  “As militants sense that a US withdrawal is approaching, defeating the occupation has lost primacy as a goal in favor of maneuvering to fill the power vacuum in the post-occupation stage.”  Indeed, this pressure and violence towards competing elements – including the government – is well underway.  “Sunni Arab extremists have begun a systematic campaign to assassinate police chiefs, police officers, other Interior Ministry officials and tribal leaders throughout Iraq, staging at least 10 attacks in 48 hours.”

A complete stand down of U.S. forces seems to be what the insurgency not only wants, but sees on the horizon.  Their plans appear to have been crafted around just such an eventuality, and if the U.S. obliges the insurgency, the military gains – however magnificent they have been - may come to no avail.


You are currently reading "The Anbar Narrative: Part 2", entry #627 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) al Qaeda,Ansar al Sunna,Sunni Insurgency,The Anbar Narrative and was published September 26th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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