The Anbar Narrative: Part III

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 4 months ago

In our effort to catalogue the history of the counterinsurgency campaign in Anbar, we began the The Anbar Narrative and have since added many articles to this category.  Bing West, author of The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq, weighed in with our friend Rich Lowry at The National Review on an article he wrote.  The specifics of the statements Rich made will not be included here because of length, but can be found at the link above.  However, Bing’s comments on the Anbar awakening will be fully included below.

There is a cult movement in a few circles to create a myth re Iraq, a myth that is quite dangerous if applied to Afghanistan. The myth is that the U.S. can create tribal awakenings by “proper” counterinsurgency techniques.

You wrote: “A key element was the Anbar Awakening: They (the tribes) didn’t fight for an abstract notion of freedom, but to defend their way of life and their homes against foreign Islamic extremists. They fought for their honor and their traditions.”

Umm. For two years, I have struggled to find the reasons why the Awakening occurred. Dammed if I know. I do know it was the third such effort; we Americans rejected the first tribal offer in late 2004, and it’s unclear how sincere that offer was; AQI slaughtered the Sunnis who tried a genuine effort at the end of 2005; and the third effort (fall of 2006) succeeded not because the Sunni tribes fought—there was very, very little actual fighting—but because the Americans protected the tribes, and used them as informers. Sattar was protected by a Marine platoon that camped out on his front lawn with a tank. He was betrayed by his own cousin. To me, the Awakening was as much due to three years of small unit American persistence in Anbar, tough fighters forbearing of those who didn’t fight them, as to any other cause.

“Talk to the American military officers involved in the surge’s success and they will tell you how important it was to be immersed in Iraqi culture and know the key tribal players in their particulars — who really has influence, who hates whom and why, etc.”

— This was the case from 2004 on; we all knew the tribes. Dialogue among hundreds of Americans and tribal members was an everyday affair in ’05 and ’06. But before mid-2006, the tribes weren’t buying the American line. There wasn’t a special set of colonels who “got it” with the surge in 2007, while the others didn’t.

 ”Bush saved Iraq post-2006 — in a culturally attuned counterinsurgency campaign with the minimalist goal of ousting al-Qaeda while accommodating traditional local players.”

— This is the myth that is rewriting history. The Sunnis came over in Anbar half a year before the surge in Baghdad began. So the Americans in Anbar were practicing a culturally attuned counterinsurgency campaign long before it became conventional wisdom in the mainstream press. 

There were always two fronts in the war. Anbar and Baghdad. Each accounted for about 33% of all US fatalities over the course of the war. The Awakening occurred in Anbar in September of ’06. The war was over in Anbar before Petraeus arrived in Baghdad in Feb of ’07. U.S. deaths were over 350 in Anbar in ’06—44% of all U.S. losses for that year. In ’07, U.S. deaths in Anbar were a little over 100—17% of total. The war was over in ’06, and all of us out there knew it. Mattis congratulated the troops in Ramadi for winning the war on 4 Feb; the next day, Petraeus took over in Baghdad. 

Baghdad was a tough fight in ’07, because the Americans left the bases and repeated the tactics used in Anbar. Had those tactics not been used in ’05 and ’06 in Anbar, there would have been no change in Sunni attitude. That change was the critical independent variable—the Sunnis in Anbar led the Sunnis in Baghdad and elsewhere and to this day are the leaders—that set the essential condition allowing Dave Petraeus to succeed in Baghdad. Had the Sunnis persisted in supporting the insurgency and al Qaeda, as they had in 2004, Baghdad would have remained a mess in 2007, despite Dave’s efforts. 

Why the Awakening happened in the fall of ’06 has a large element of mystery. I pressed Sattar on this, asking why it didn’t happen two years earlier, and save both the Americans and Sunnis many casualties and grief. He was a thoughtful guy. He chewed on that and then said, “You Americans could not convince us. We Sunnis had to convince ourselves.”

We Americans should not take credit for something we did not do! The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says we are now changing our strategy in Afghanistan. Hmm. What has it been for seven years?? The Command and Control has been an unfathomable mess—created by the military and not attributable to a lack of troops.

We have to be careful not to design a strategy that is based on a theory created from myths. If you look at Anbar prior to the Sunnis coming over, you see that the Americans were persisting in very small unit (squads) dismounted patrolling, day and night. If you transfer that model to Afghanistan, you are increasing the risk and assuring many more U.S. casualties. It may Americanize yet further a war that should be quite limited, and focused on how to get to al Qaeda in western Pakistan. Above all, we shouldn’t do it because we believe it worked first in Baghdad in 2007 and became the key to bringing over the Sunnis in a short period of time. That’s not what happened.

As we have pointed out in The Surge, the U.S. Marines were doing counterinsurgency in Anbar long before Petraeus applied the same tactics in Baghdad.  But Bing appears to be truncating the Anbar campaign short of completion.  The war was not over in Anbar in 2006.  Period.  The war was over in Ramadi in 2006.  Upon completion of the hard work in Western Anbar, foreign fighters, mostly affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq, moved Eastward.

Fallujah became the stronghold of the remaining foreign fighters in 2007, and even though prior Marine units had declared Fallujah unwinnable,  Operation Alljah ended their presence in Fallujah for all practical purposes (see our coverage and analysis of Fallujah).  Some casualties were taken by the U.S. Marines in Fallujah in 2007, but the kinetic operations were very aggressive and many foreign fighters died there.  From there, AQI fled North to Mosul.  But there is a reason that they didn’t flee to Baghdad, and it has to do with the surge.

Friend of The Captain’s Journal Major Neil Smith previously weighed in on the reason that this came to pass.

As a personal opinion, I doubt that we would have had the flexibility to break Baghdad’s “cycle of violence” without the addition of extra troops, combined with a coherent and synchronized operational plan based off of organizational learning. The Awakening probably would have occurred in Anbar regardless, but I doubt it could have spread into the “Sons of Iraq” movement without the addition of troops to mitigate the sectarian cycle of violence combined with evolved COIN practices (the above plus things like gated communities in B’Dad).

Gated communities and biometrics came into vogue after successfully applied in Fallujah in 2007.  The Anbar narrative is a complex and intricate affair which is not amenable to simplistic or truncated accounts – all things which Bing knows full well.  The campaign in Anbar didn’t end in 2006, and the surge was an absolutely necessary component of the full spectrum of operations necessary to end the influence of foreign fighters in Iraq, albeit in conjunction with other elements of the campaign which were already underway.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,The Anbar Narrative and was published December 18th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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