Archive for the 'The Anbar Narrative' Category



Ideologues and Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 9 months ago

At Blackfive, Uncle Jimbo (Jim Hanson) swerves way outside his lanes and lampoons an article penned by Colonel Gian Gentile, Professor of History at West Point and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Says Jim:

Crush points out, while nodding sagely in agreement, a piece by COL Gian Gentile bemoaning the idea that an insurgency should be fought using a counterinsurgency strategy. I think it bears a look at COL Gentile and his deep and abiding distaste for COIN prior to taking him too seriously. There is plenty to debate about the best way to counter an insurgency, but if you are going to debate you need an open mind. That is lacking here as the rhetoric in COL Gentile’s piece clearly shows.

Jim continues:

Did I miss something, I thought that a switch to COIN was one of the major factors in our victory in Iraq. (sic) even (sic) the Anbar Awakening was conditioned upon our employing a strategy that was focused on safeguarding the populace and helping the Iraqis do just that …

The fact that I am quite familiar with COL Gentile and his opinions regarding COIN would seem to argue against his feeling that there was no public debate about how to deal w/ insurgents. It seems more likely that since he lost those public debates he is now bitter. The Army needed a doctrine to deal with the active insurgencies we were facing and COL Gentile was definitely heard, he simply didn’t prevail. We continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the particular tactics that make up this doctrine and empirical evidence from the battlefield is examined to facilitate that. it may seem counter-intuitive for an Army to have a sweetness & light side, but it remains a fact that you can’t kill your way out of every problem.

Gentile’s article is entitled Time for the Deconstruction of Field Manual 3-24, published by National Defense University Press.  It’s a fairly short article, but several money quotes are given below.

Of course, leaders in war must be held accountable for their actions and what results from them. But to use as a measuring stick the COIN principles put forth in FM 3–24 with all of their underlying and unproven theories and assumptions about insurgencies and how to counter them is wrong, and the Army needs to think hard about where its collective “head is at” in this regard.

It is time for the Army to debate FM 3–24 critically, in a wide and open forum. The notion that it was debated sufficiently during the months leading up to its publication is a chimera. Unfortunately, the dialogue within defense circles about counterinsurgency and the Army’s new way of war is stale and reflects thinking that is well over 40 years old. In short, our Army has been steamrollered by a counterinsurgency doctrine that was developed by Western military officers to deal with insurgencies and national wars of independence from the mountains of northern Algeria in the 1950s to the swamps of Indochina in the 1960s. The simple truth is that we have bought into a doctrine for countering insurgencies that did not work in the past, as proven by history, and whose efficacy and utility remain highly problematic today. Yet prominent members of the Army and the defense expert community seem to be mired in this out-of-date doctrine.

Gentile goes on to cite several historical examples of counterintuitive effects in warfare, and then argues for the deconstruction of FM 3-24 with more openness to dialogue and debate than when it was first penned.

We will return to Gentile’s points later.  But Jim Hanson makes a blunder so obvious that it must be addressed before we can go any further.  He says “even (sic) the Anbar Awakening was conditioned upon our employing a strategy that was focused on safeguarding the populace and helping the Iraqis do just that.”  Anbar was won by switching strategy to a population-centric COIN model upon the advent of General David Petraeus, or so Hanson apparently believes.

This is approximately the same narrative that I heard Bill O’Reilly reiterate: “General Petraeus was able to convince the tribes in Iraq to oppose AQI, and that’s why the surge succeeded.”  It’s the narrative for the population, for the simpletons who need a short synopsis embodied in heroic proportions and in a single individual.  Americans love their generals, and their exploits tend towards the mythical.

The reality in the Anbar Province was much dirtier, much bloodier, much harder and much more costly than this narrative portrays.  The U.S. Marine Corps suffered more than a thousand Marines who perished in Anbar, and many thousands more who were maimed.  They didn’t die because of improper strategy, and the things that happened in Anbar were set into motion long before February 10, 2007 when Petraeus took over Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Colonel Sean MacFarland took Ramadi in May/June of 2006.  He observed that:

“The prize in the counterinsurgency fight is not terrain,” he says. “It’s the people. When you’ve secured the people, you have won the war. The sheiks lead the people.”

But the sheiks were sitting on the fence.

They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.

The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.

“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.

“We get there in late May and early June 2006, and the tribes are on the sidelines. They’d seen the insurgents take a beating. After watching that, they’re like, ‘Let’s see which way this is going to go.’ “

But his approach was heavily kinetic.

Col. Sean MacFarland arrived in Ramadi as commander of the U.S. 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division. His four Army and Marine battalion commanders built small outposts throughout the city, from which troops patrolled every block. When al Qaeda in Iraq challenged this intrusion, the Americans fought back with overwhelming firepower. Unlike other American commanders at the time, who sought to minimize their losses, Col. MacFarland did not relent when American casualties mounted. “My measure of effectiveness would not be low friendly casualties,” he told Mr. Michaels. “My measure of success would be defeating the enemy.”

Mr. Michaels explains that Col. MacFarland’s military operations helped to convince Sattar that the Americans—then at a low point in their effort to reshape Iraq—would persist and prevail in Anbar Province. So did Col. MacFarland’s personal diplomacy. “Instead of telling [the Iraqis] that we would leave soon and they must assume responsibility for their own security,” Col. MacFarland recalled, “we told them that we would stay as long as necessary to defeat the
terrorists.”

In Haditha, it was a variant of the same story.  Sand berms were used to quell the flow of insurgents into Haditha from the Syrian border, but in a pattern that was to play out all over Anbar, a local strongman helped to control the population, a former officer in the Saddam Hussein army known simply as Colonel Faruq, with the power and charisma to bring the town to heel.

In Al Qaim AQI had the tribes beaten down until the U.S. Marines engaged in enough heavy kinetics that the tribes wanted to ally themselves with the Marines.  After that point, a local strongman named Abu Ahmed helped to police the population.

By early 2007 both foreign fighters and indigenous insurgents had been driven from Al Qaim, Ramadi and Haditha, and they had landed squarely in Fallujah.  When the 2/6 Marines arrived in Fallujah in April of 2007, they had to construct some of Forward Operating Base Reaper while laying on their backs and passing sand bags over their bodies (to eventually be used for walls) because of the constant fire coming their way.  The previous unit had begin patrolling only at night because of snipers, and because they didn’t own the daytime, IEDs controlled their night time patrols, thus relegating them to sitting in their FOBs for the last three weeks of their deployment awaiting relief.  The population was so allied with AQI that their children were sent out with black balloons to demarcate patrol locations so that insurgent mortars could target the U.S. Marines (even at grave risk to the children).

Operation Alljah was started, and the Marines went in hard (I am not linking the Wikipedia link on Operation Alljah because of know with certainty that much of the data is simply erroneous or mistaken and incomplete.  The link is essentially worthless).  HMMWVs with loud speakers were deployed to every Mosque in the city bellowing U.S. positions and propaganda.  Heavy and aggressive patrols were conducted, and heavy fires were employed any time any insurgent used weapons against the Marines, including everything from fire team and squad level weapons to combined arms.

Policing of the population was aggressive, ubiquitous and around the clock.  In order to address the vehicle-borne IED problem, the use of automobiles was prohibited within Fallujah proper until such time as security was established.  Concrete barricades were set up throughout the city, and census data was taken on the entire population, much of it at night so that the population was awakened to Marine presence in their homes.

Many local insurgents were killed, and also even more foreign fighters.  Insurgents from Chechnya, men with skin “as black as night,” and even “men with slanted eyes” were killed in Fallujah in the summer of 2007.  The city was locked down and the atmosphere made very uncomfortable for the population – until, that is, they began cooperating with the U.S. Marines Corps.

I know many more things that I simply cannot share concerning this operation, but things that I have communicated to Colonel Gian Gentile.  Suffice it to say that Colonel Gentile isn’t frightened by invoking Iraq as an example of proper counterinsurgency strategy.  Whatever the incredibly intelligent General David Patraeus did for Baghdad and beyond, The Anbar Narrative is one of U.S. Marine Corps force projection.  But it didn’t stay that way.  Eventually, the warrior scholar emerged, and Lt. Col. William F. Mullen (now Colonel Mullen) was at city council meetings discussing power supply and trash collection.  Eventually, also, the concrete barricades were removed.

Colonel Gian Gentile isn’t a proponent of jettisoning counterinsurgency doctrine, despite what Jim Hanson believes.  Gentile knows that there are phases to campaigns, and one particular paper that has been influential in my thinking (given to me by Gentile) is from The Journal of Strategic Studies, entitled The Malayan Emergency as Counter-Insurgency Paradigm.  One money quote reads as follows:

It is naive to think that the blend of policies found at the optimisation phase of successful insurgencies will work well at the outset of a conflict. Hence, though measures to win ‘hearts and minds’ have their place in all phases, if only to dampen the effects of collateral damage and hatred of the security forces, in Malaya the emphasis in the critical 1950-52 phase was on getting effective command, small unit patrols bolted onto areas, and population control and security.

This campaign followed the example of phased counterinsurgency, with hard tactics and carrots and sticks employed at the right time and in the right degree.  The problem Gentile is addressing pertains to the unsubstantiated belief that everywhere, at all times, under all circumstances, and without exception, the center of gravity of a counterinsurgency campaign is the population.  I have also addressed this in Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN.  I envision multiple lines of effort, Gentile envisions a situation in which the troops on the ground discover the center of gravity if there is one, both views variants on the same theme.

Either way, Gentile is right, and the doctrines of FM 3-24 are in need of re-evaluation.  Jim Hanson has done a disservice to the practice of warfare by so quickly and disrespectfully dismissing Gentile’s arguments.  Moreover, he has come unarmed to an intellectual battle with a Jedi Master named Gentile.  It’s embarrassing for Hanson, even if he is too stolid to know it.  Colonel Gentile is discussing population-centric counterinsurgency as an exclusive use procedure, and demurring, while Hanson is discussing – well, I don’t know what.  By my Google mail search, I have exchanged literally hundreds of e-mails with Colonel Gentile on the issue of counterinsurgency.  What has Jim Hanson done to ensure that he has the proper understanding of Gentile’s position?  He doesn’t tell us.  Pity.

The question concerns the way in which to conduct counterinsurgency in the unfortunate advent of the situation in which we have no other choice.  In this, Gentile is sipping Merlot and smoking fine cigars in the back room where the decisions are being made, while Hanson is shouting and throwing down with his boys drinking PBR in the front room.  Occasionally, the raucous behavior spills over to the back room until the MPs arrive.  I’ll side with Gentile, thank you.

Postscript: See also Extracting Counterinsurgency Lessons: The Malayan Emergency and Afghanistan

Was Iraq Easy?

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 1 month ago

The Small Wars Journal has a paper up entitled The Tribal Path – a Better Alternative? I think there are a whole host of problems with this paper, not the least of which is that I stop listening when someone implies that everyone else is wrong and they have the only true solution to our counterinsurgency ills, a sort of Gnostic insight that everyone else is lacking.

But this stunning statement appears in the paper: “Greater tribal cooperation and understanding would further allow the government to appeal to the Taliban nationalists, (the Afghans), whose only real concern and cause is a free and peaceful Afghanistan, without the presence of foreign troops.”

Uh huh.  The rights of women is high on the Taliban’s list of things to work on, and hiding behind women and children so that they die instead of the Taliban certainly ensures the peace of Afghanistan.  What a foolish statement.  Then there is this: “Afghanistan is much more complicated than Iraq with many more tribes to study and understand.”

This is a tip of the hat to the Iraq narrative for idiots, you know, the one that goes like this.  In 2003 – 2006 we were stepping on our crank, couldn’t do anything right, and were totally confused.  Along came General Petraeus who implemented a brand new counterinsurgency strategy, and we suddenly reduced the kinetics, made friends with the tribal leaders, and Iraq became Shangri La.

Anbar was won due to a number of different things.  Tribes were indeed important, but only in Ramadi.  In Haditha policing and pacifying the population required sand berms to prevent the influx of fighters from Syria, along with a police strong man named Colonel Faruq.  In Al Qaim it required a police strong man named Abu Ahmed aligning with the U.S. Marines, and heavy kinetics by the Marines.  In Fallujah in 2007 it required heavy kinetics, biometrics, gated communities and concrete barriers, census taking and aggressive policing.

What was going on in Anbar happened as a result of Marines and many casualties.  It was going on prior to General Petraeus’ arrival and continued after it.  More than 1000 Marines perished in Iraq, many of them in the Anbar Province.  Many tens of thousands more were wounded and maimed.  I have read the names of many of them, and read the stories of their wives and parents.

Iraq wasn’t easy, and its success remains a testimony to the hard work, blood, sweat and tears of U.S. Servicemen.  It’s offensive when I hear dumbed down narratives, but Marines Corps and Army parents can at least rest assured that some of us understand the truth.

Continuing Use of Sand Berms in Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 11 months ago

In Sand Berms Around Haditha, we discussed instances of the use of sand berms over two years ago to isolate Haditha from insurgents coming across the border from Syria.  The strategy in Haditha also relied on a strong police chief, but the berms were a necessary element that allowed the Marines and police chief to control traffic into and out of Haditha.  Now as Regimental Combat Team 5 comes home, we learn of the continuing use of sand berms in counterinsurgency.

Securing the area involved building large sand berms around cities that would otherwise be easy to approach from any direction in the desert. Doing this limited the number of insurgent strikes and allowed the Iraqis to control the flow of population in their own cities, Malay said.

This, combined with intelligence gathering and cooperation with tribal leaders and Iraqi police forces, helped limit the number of attacks on Marines during the team’s 13-month tour in Iraq. Malay said attacks diminished from 16 a week when the unit arrived to less than two a week when it returned last month.

This tactic has been necessary for cities nearest to the Syrian border.  RCT-5 has been active in the West of Anbar, in and around Rawah, and Rutbah.  Rawah is close to the Syrian border.

Rutbah is close to not only the Syrian border, but the Jordanian border as well.  Whether it is gated communities and biometrics to prevent the flow of insurgents through the city, or the simpler use of sand berms surrounding a city, interdiction of the flow of insurgents through physical terrain has been a key tactic in counterinsurgency as practiced by the Marines in Anbar.

John Robb on Iraq and the Taliban Victory in Swat

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 1 month ago

For those who follow John Robb at Global Guerrillas, John turns our head with a couple of recent posts, and they are related (the mistaken narrative in the first informs the view in the second).  First, Robb conveys some strange musings on Iraq and the lack of applicability of our experience there to Afghanistan.

Perversely, the US military doesn’t see what happened in Iraq as luck.  Revisionist history is now attributing it to the successful application of COIN doctrine and secret weapons (arg!).  As a result of these assumption errors, it isn’t using the lull in the conflict as a window of opportunity to withdraw.  This would be the smart thing to do given the fiscal crunch in the US.

The second pertains to the Pakistan’s truce with the Taliban in Swat.

To the extent there is an upside,

  1. Open warfare will slow, curtailing the bad effects of a unpopular guerrilla war on Pakistan’s military.
  2. These groups can now be negotiated with, since it is likely that by giving these Islamic groups local control, it forces them into a position of defending gains.  They now have something to lose.
  3. Internal opposition will mount as these Islamic groups over reach with their application of Sharia.

Attaboy!  Only John Robb could find good in the settlement with the Taliban and bad in the success in Iraq.  Let’s unpack this a bit.  But stay tuned for some personal revelations on this ridiculous notion of luck (and maybe a bit more)!

First off, Robb assumes that the Taliban have no global interests and will negotiate in good faith.  The past three years in Pakistan have shown this to be a false axiom, and we have discussed this in our own articles.  Says Baitullah Mehsud,

“We want to eradicate Britain and America, and to shatter the arrogance and tyranny of the infidels. We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York, and London.”

The second point is just as important and related to both his comment on Swat and his view of the successes in Iraq.  It is absolutely critical to get the correct narrative on Iraq.  Without it the wrong lessons will be learned and thus will become institutional obstacles rather than tools.

The Captain is a Calvinist, and so to The Captain’s Journal, luck doesn’t exist.  But without a doubt The Captain’s Journal has many readers who do not see things through the lens of the Calvinian perspective.  But those who don’t can’t define luck in a philosophically defensible way.  Luck is something that is without power and lacking as a causative agent.  Luck doesn’t effect change or cause things to happen.  “Luck” is what people say when they haven’t thought clearly enough about it to say what really happened.  Luck is when people throw up their hands and refuse to think any further because they are mentally lazy or their system is philosophically bankrupt.

But Robb isn’t really lazy, and he doesn’t ascribe the success to something nonexistent.  He is just using the term loosely.  Writers and analysts shouldn’t do that.  Earlier in the article he summarizes what he believes happened in Iraq.

… a low level civil war that put two front pressure on guerrilla groups, a commander (Petaeus) that was able to abandon doctrine in favor of developments taking place on the ground (local commanders reporting that Sunni tribal groups were willing to work with the US), [creating] a crack in the Iraqi open source insurgency that enabled the US military to turn hundreds of guerrilla/tribal groups into US funded/armed militias.

It’s all about the tribes to Robb.  The tribes were a significant part of the turnaround in Anbar, to be sure, but without the proper context this narrative can be misleading.  As we have discussed before, Colonel MacFarland noted the state of the tribes upon his arrival to Anbar.

… the sheiks were sitting on the fence.

They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.

The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.

“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.

Similarly, Abu Ahmed in al Qaim, Iraq (the Western part of Anbar), lost to al Qaeda until the U.S. Marines joined the fight at his behest.  The tribe-only approach to the success in Iraq, or in other words, the either-or approach to the narrative, is flawed in that it fails to recognize the symbiotic connection between the indigenous and U.S. forces.  No one “reported” that the tribes were willing to work with the U.S. forces as if waiting for approval.  U.S. forces worked with tribal sheikhs from the beginning in Anbar, and this persistence it eventually paid off.  Rather than either-or, it was both-and.

With a foreign army (referring to al Qaeda) having invaded Anbar, the tribes needed another army to help drive it away.  Without a functional Iraqi army, they turned to the U.S. forces.  Similarly, the tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan will not be able to drive out the Taliban alone.  Force projection and strength are required.

This is the crucial point where Robb fails to grasp the fundamental nature of the problem with the Taliban and al Qaeda.  He reaches the stunning and inverted conclusion that having achieved victory is the only thing that will bring the Taliban to the bargaining table, and that the circumstances alone will defeat the insurgency.  This coheres with Robb’s usual position that insurgencies cannot be defeated.  Getting the narrative wrong is perilous, and lessons learned and applied can only redound to success when they are the right lessons.

Prior: The Anbar Narrative

Of Marines, Counterinsurgency, Widows and Cows

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

U.S. Marine Maj. Gen John Kelly, the top U.S. commander in Anbar Province, is seen before the start of a handover ceremony at the government headquarters in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, in Iraq Monday, Sept. 1, 2008. Progress is proceeding apace in Anbar, and the Marines are leaving the Fallujah area of operations headed mainly for Camp Baharia and Al Asad Air Base.

We have observed before that it is the responsibility of the people and government of Iraq to progress on reconciliation, and that the Marines can help only marginally in this endeavor and certainly don’t belong in the middle of internecine struggles at this point in the counterinsurgency and reconstruction effort.  Maj. Gen. Kelly regrets, though, the lack of progress in sectarian reconciliation, saying that “the Shiite-led government should have poured reconstruction money into the Sunni region after Sunni fighters joined forces with U.S. troops to chase al-Qaida out of the western province.

Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly told The Associated Press that his greatest “mission failure” was his inability to bring together the government in Baghdad and the Sunnis in Anbar to take advantage of the steep decline in violence … Although Kelly said his mission did not include asking the central government for more money for the Sunni province, he was clearly frustrated by the lack of progress — a schism that stems from decades of brutal oppression of Shiites under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.”

In a time in our nation when the reflexive tendency is to avoid responsibility for things assigned to your responsible charge, the U.S. Marines still accept responsibility for things they weren’t assigned.  It’s a still sure and reliable sign that the phrase semper fidelis is more than mere words – it’s a code by which the Marines live.

The adaptability, wisdom and scholarly approach to the campaign in Anbar is a testimony to the character of the Marines and their leadership.  It hasn’t ended, and the example provided to the government of Iraq even recently by the Marines couldn’t be more stark.  Rather than “close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver,” the Marines are making sure that they have done their very best to ensure that there is no enemy, once again at the direction of Maj. Gen. Kelly.

As American forces work to revive Iraq’s tattered farming economy, they seem to have found an effective new weapon.

Cows.

At the suggestion of an Iraqi women’s group, the Marine Corps recently bought 50 cows for 50 Iraqi widows in the farm belt around Fallouja, once the insurgent capital of war-torn Anbar province.

The cow purchase is seen as a small step toward reestablishing Iraq’s once-thriving dairy industry, as well as a way to help women and children hurt by the frequent failure of the Iraqi government to provide the pensions that Iraqi law promises to widows.

The early sign is that the program is working. Widows, many with no other income, have a marketable item to sell, as well as milk for their children. Although Iraqis, particularly women, are often reluctant to participate in an American effort, the cows were immediately popular.

“It was an easy sell,” said Maj. Meredith Brown, assigned to the Marines’ outreach program for Iraqi women.

The idea, proposed by members of the Women’s Cultural Center in Fallouja, at first met with resistance from U.S. military officers and civilian officials involved in aid programs for Anbar. Nothing in their training provided guidance in haggling for livestock.

But those objections quickly evaporated when Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the top Marine in Iraq, signaled his support, Brown said. The Iraqis now refer to their animals as Kelly’s Cows.

Though Kelly’s support may have been based on gut instinct, the need to beef up Iraq’s badly broken dairy industry was argued in a Nov. 25 report by Land O’Lakes Inc.

The Minnesota cheese-and-butter company was hired by the Marine Corps to examine the Iraqi dairy industry. Its 38-page report, based on field research in the fall by two Land O’Lakes dairy specialists, concluded that there was enormous growth potential for the industry in a milk-drinking, cheese-eating nation that can locally produce enough milk to satisfy only 5% of the demand.

The study also pointed out that, even in Iraqi farm families with able-bodied adult males, much of the work is left to women: “Women milk the cows, bring feed and fodder to the animals and are supported by their children.”

In Anbar, two factors drew the Marines to the cow purchase: It was small-scale and it was suggested by the Iraqis. The Marines have learned that big-ticket projects, or those imposed by the U.S. on the Iraqis without local support, start with two strikes.

The Marines began buying cows in November at a livestock market at Saqlawiyah. Of the 50 cows, 35 were pregnant and 10 already had calves, which went along with their mothers. The five others were taken to a laboratory for artificial insemination. Brown put the program cost so far at $58,000.

To qualify for a free cow, each widow had to sign an agreement not to slaughter or sell the animal and instead to use the milk as a marketable item or for the family.

The project is not entirely altruistic. The Marines believe that widows with at least some economic resources are less likely to join Al Qaeda to carry out suicide attacks in exchange for a promise that their children will be cared for after the women are gone.

“If she’s desperate enough, she just might put on that [suicide] vest or drive that truck” full of explosives, Maj. Brown said.

Rather than being in the middle of internecine struggles, the Marines have led by example.  This is counterinsurgency at its very best, and represents the closing of an era in Anbar.  It’s the final phase of the campaign, and while troops will remain in Iraq for some time to help ensure border sovereignty, proper training of Iraqi Security Forces and robust actions against remaining hard core al Qaeda in Iraq fighters, General Kelly has every reason to be proud of his Marines and his own effort.  Mission accomplished.

Cheap Imitations of the Anbar Awakening in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

Apparently the U.S. – and by this we mean officers who weren’t part of the campaign for Anbar – is trying to imitate the Anbar awakening in Afghanistan.

The US yesterday outlined a controversial plan to organise local militias in Afghanistan to contain the growing strength of the Taliban, echoing tactics used by American commanders in Iraq.

The programme is formally an Afghan government project with UN and US backing, but much of the impetus is believed to have come from US military commanders hoping to replicate the Sons of Iraq militias – American-backed Sunni groups which have helped combat al-Qaida and Iraqi insurgents. The architect of that initiative, General David Petraeus, is now head of Central Command, and running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Community Guard programme will be launched as a pilot project in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The US envoy, William Wood, said the programme was intended “to strengthen local communities and local tribes in their ability to protect what they consider to be their traditional homes”.

Gordon Brown proposed a similar scheme a year ago, based on a traditional form of tribal militias, or arbakai, but it was criticised at the time by an American commander in Afghanistan as detracting from the work of the national police force.

However, American objections have since been dropped as it has become clear that the combined strength of the Afghan army and the Nato force may not enough to defeat a resurgent Taliban, even with 30,000 US reinforcements expected next year after Barack Obama takes office.

Wood noted that Taliban roadside bombs doubled this year to 2,000, as did kidnappings, from 150 to 300. British officials said yesterday they had not been given details of the scheme, but supported it in principle.

“We encourage and support more Afghan ownership, particularly on security,” a Foreign Office official said.

Cheap imitation, we say.  Let’s rehearse one facet of the awakening in Anbar, that involving Abu Ahmed.

The 40-year-old is a hero to the 50,000 residents of Al-Qaim for having chased Al-Qaeda from the agricultural centre where houses line the green and blue waters of the Euphrates.

In the main street, with its fruit and vegetable stalls, its workshops and restaurants, men with pistols in their belts approach Abu Ahmed to kiss his cheek and right shoulder in a mark of respect.

It was not always this way.

He tells how one evening in May 2005 he decided that the disciples of Osama bin Laden went too far — they killed his cousin Jamaa Mahal.

“I started shooting in the air and throughout the town bursts of gunfire echoed across the sky. My family understood that the time had come. And we started the war against Al-Qaeda.”

It took three battles in the streets of Al-Qaim — in June, in July and then in November 2005 — to finish off the extremists who had come from Arab countries to fight the Americans.

Abu Ahmed, initially defeated by better equipped forces, had to flee to the desert region of Akashat, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Al-Qaim. There he sought help from the US Marines.

“With their help we were able to liberate Al-Qaim,” he said, sitting in his house with its maroon tiled facade.

This alliance between a Sunni tribe and American troops was to be the first, and it give birth to a strategy of other US-paid Sunni fighters ready to mobilise against Al-Qaeda.

It resulted in the Sunni province of Al-Anbar being pacified in two years.

It wasn’t fabricated, it wasn’t drummed up, and it wasn’t the brainchild of some smarter-than-thou counterinsurgency specialist applying heretofore unheard-of tactics.  It was the families tiring of the brutality and fighting back, losing, and then turning to the U.S. Marines who had the force projection to turn al Qaeda back with the assistance of intelligence from the families.  Without force projection and troop presence, both on the part of the families and the sustaining force of the professional warriors, it wouldn’t have happened.

Again we say, cheap imitation.  Without troop presence it won’t happen in Afghanistan and further time will be wasted pining away after an Afghan awakening that never had a chance.

The Anbar Narrative: Part III

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 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.

Mission (Almost) Accomplished

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 5 months ago

In a sign of the evolving state of affairs in Iraq’s Anbar Province, Camp Fallujah is soon to close to U.S. forces.

When Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly deployed to Iraq in February, the violence had fallen so low in Anbar province that he began figuring out how to start closing bases and prepare to go home.

In the last 10 months the Marines in Fallujah have done what was unthinkable before the surge began — they have quietly transferred out of one of Anbar province’s largest cities. FOX News has learned in an exclusive interview with Kelly from Fallujah that 80 percent of the move is complete. In February there were 8,000 Marines living at Fallujah base. Now there are about 3,000 left. By Nov. 14 there will be none.

“We will shut down the command function here and I will move; my staff has already started to move,” Kelly, the commander of Multinational Force-West, told FOX News in an exclusive interview via satellite. “We will turn the lights off here.”

They will hand the Fallujah base over to their Iraqi counterparts on Nov. 14, having relocated themselves and thousands of combat vehicles to the desert base of Al Asad to the west. Marines will no longer be seen in city centers such as Fallujah — a major step toward leaving Iraq, and one step closer to Iraq’s goal of having U.S. troops out of its population centers by mid-2009 — one of the key points enshrined in the Status of Forces Agreement being reviewed on Capitol Hill today.

On Wednesday, to little fanfare, the Marines quietly closed down Al Qaim base near the Syrian border. Now it is run by Iraqis.

In Fallujah, where the U.S. Marines once had three large mess halls to feed troops, they are now down to one. The Marines have quietly disassembled the entire infrastructure of the base.

“We probably had several thousand of those large metal containers — tractor-trailer containers,” Kelly said. “I bet we don’t have 200 of them here now.”

Of the thousands of vehicles once parked at the base, now there are only 300 left. Their transfer occurred at night, between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., over the past 10 months so as not to disturb Iraqi drivers and clog the roads.

They dubbed it “Operation Rudy Giuliani” because they were cleaning the streets up and returning Fallujah to normalcy — taking down barbed wire and tearing down checkpoints and Jersey walls that made Anbar look like a war zone.

“There is almost no barbed wire left anywhere in Fallujah,” Kelly said. An Iraqi no longer sees barbed wire when traveling in and around the city.

Between 300 and 400 concrete barriers that divided the city were removed by Navy Seabees.

One of the big changes Kelly made when he took command in Anbar was to remove fixed checkpoints, and Iraqi vehicles no longer had to pull off to the side when a military convoy was on the road. His troops risked car bombs, but the gamble paid off in what had once been Iraq’s most dangerous province. The new road rules instantly lowered the tension between military and locals. Soon he transitioned to moving military convoys only at night, so they would not encounter locals. This also stymied many of the insurgents laying IEDs or roadside bombs, which they often had done at night.

Another change for the better since Kelly arrived in February: He pushed the central government to provide more fuel to the people of Anbar, so the mostly Sunni population is now happier. In February, Anbaris were receiving only 8 percent of their allocation of fuel from the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Now it’s 90 percent — eliminating one of their main gripes …

… the Marines no longer use violence as an indicator of how much progress they have made. Two years ago they had 400 attacks — roadside bombs or shootings — at U.S. forces every week. In February it was down to 30 attacks per week. Now it is down to under 12 attacks per week. There hasn’t been a Marine death in a few months.

Troop numbers have dropped, as well — down by 40 percent since February. About 26,000 Marines still serve in Anbar.

“In Anbar there is no longer an insurgency,” Kelly said. “Unless someone does something stupid (for instance, if the Coalition were to accidentally kill a large number of civilians), this place will not go back to the way it was.”

In football terms, Kelly says, the Marines are “in the last 10 yards of this fight.”

While some Army and a limited number of National Guard participated in the campaign for Anbar, it has mostly been a Marine Corps operation.  It wasn’t too long ago that the streets of Ramadi were impassable due to enemy activity, and that Fallujah was locked down to vehicular traffic.  Operation Alljah, run out of Forward Operating Base Reaper on the South side of Fallujah, sectioned Fallujah into neighborhoods monitored by block captains, or Muktars.  These communities were gated, and biometrics were used to take census and monitor the activities of the population.  Barbed wire, concrete barricades, gates and checkpoints were a large part of the strategy to secure Fallujah (along with intensive kinetic operations the first few months of the operation and overflights and combat over the Euphrates River to prevent insurgents from re-entering the city on the South side).  The disappearance of barbed wire and concrete barricades represents a profound evolution in the state of Fallujah and indeed, all of Anbar.

My son and I were sitting a few months ago and reflecting on FOB Reaper, the things he saw in Fallujah, the things he did, the history that had been made, and the fact that no U.S. forces would ever again occupy this (or any other) FOB in Anbar.  The thoughts were communicated haltingly, but communicated they were.  It is something that has passed in time, but the sights and smells of Fallujah are forever burned into his memory.  Anbar has indeed been a hard and remarkable campaign, perhaps the most remarkable counterinsurgency campaign in history.

Let us never forget the sacrifices necessary for the campaign – more than one thousand Marine dead and many thousands wounded and disabled.  Let us also be diligent to judiciously utilize U.S. forces in the future.

The United States Marines will eventually completely stand down in Anbar, and take up Marine Expeditionary Units, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and other assignments.  Things change, and so will the Marines and their challenges.  We are in the last 10 yards of the fight.  Mission almost accomplished.

Prior: Did the U.S. Turn Over Anbar Too Soon?

See also: US News & World Report, In the Former Cradle of Iraq’s Insurgency, A U.S. Military Base Prepares to Close.

On Negotiating with the Taliban

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 6 months ago

This comment at the Small Wars Journal Blog by a British officer reminds us again of the myth that has sprung up around the narrative of Anbar.

… dialogue with Afghan tribes/groupings that provided the ‘freedom’ for them to accept localised security responsibility. Given the nature of some of these local forces it was this aspect of our tactical activity that I recall being the subject of friction between the Brit and US chains of command. Slightly ironic when one considers the subsequent endorsement of the ‘awakening’ in Al An bar and Baghdad. Clearly this latter course of action was driven by our own limited means and was fraught with risk. However, compromise is, I submit, an enduring tenet of COIN.

The irony is only apparent, and belongs to the realm of myth-telling concerning the U.S. experience in the Anbar Province. The one who believes that kinetic operations and force projection weren’t the pre-condition for the tribal awakening would do well to remember U.S. Marine deaths in Anbar – approximately 1000 between active duty and reserve.

No less than Colonel MacFarland gives us a synopsis of the tribal view upon his arrival in Ramadi.

“The prize in the counterinsurgency fight is not terrain,” he says. “It’s the people. When you’ve secured the people, you have won the war. The sheiks lead the people.”

But the sheiks were sitting on the fence.

They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.

The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.

“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.

“We get there in late May and early June 2006, and the tribes are on the sidelines. They’d seen the insurgents take a beating. After watching that, they’re like, ‘Let’s see which way this is going to go.’ “

Note that even initially the tribes didn’t like the presence of al Qaeda, but just as with Abu Ahmed in al-Qaid, who lost to al Qaeda until aided by U.S. Marines, they needed security and assistance along with a strong presence by U.S. forces in order for their resistance to be successful. The awakening didn’t materialize out of nothing, but rather had a cornerstone, without which the foundation wouldn’t have stood.

So how well does this compare with the situation in Afghanistan? First of all, the Taliban willingly approved of sanctuary for al Qaeda rather than fought against them prior to 9/11. Second, they willingly fight side-by-side with their fighters today against U.S. and NATO forces. Third, Operation Enduring Freedom is an “economy of force” campaign, which means that, as we were told by both Generals McNeill and McKiernan, we don’t have enough troops, and by definition, this means that we don’t have the force projection necessary to do the job of counterinsurgency.

The view is therefore clouded when the loss of the campaign is on the horizon. Senior British military leadership believes that the war is lost.

Britain’s most senior military commander in Afghanistan has warned that the war against the Taliban cannot be won. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said the British public should not expect a “decisive military victory” but should be prepared for a possible deal with the Taliban.

His assessment followed the leaking of a memo from a French diplomat who claimed that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul, had told him the current strategy was “doomed to fail”.

Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan, said it was necessary to “lower our expectations”. He said: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

The brigadier added: “We may well leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency . . . I don’t think we should expect that when we go there won’t be roaming bands of armed men in this part of the world. That would be unrealistic and probably incredible.”

Negotiating with the Taliban means giving power and authority to Mullah Omar, who paid Baitullah Mehsud $70,000 to mastermind attacks against diplomats of countries involved in the publication of sacrilegious cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, and who has also acknowledged the authority of Baitullah Mehsud over the TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban).

Baitullah himself has global aspirations. “We will continue our struggle until foreign troops are thrown out. Then we will attack them in the US and Britain until they either accept Islam or agree to pay jazia (a tax in Islam for non-Muslims living in an Islamic state).”

So the difference between the Anbar awakening and the Taliban insurgency are stark, and serve to highlight the confusion of this British officer who doesn’t understand why we cannot negotiate with the Taliban. More troubling, however, is the acquiescence of General Petraeus to the notion of peace-making with the Taliban.

For Afghanistan, he spoke of increasing international forces and what he called “thickening” local forces as well, through greater political engagement of tribes and reconciliation with fighters who were not hard-core. There was also the need to engage countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, to help with the Taliban, he said.

This must be done very carefully, since the force projection necessary to convince the tribes to reject extremism has not been implemented since the beginning of the campaign. We must do first things first. As for the mistaken effort to get the Saudis to collaborate and win the peace, the Taliban clearly aren’t interested. Why should they be, since they are winning? Negotiating in this instance is a sign of weakness. The Anbaris wanted security and patronage. We have nothing that the Taliban and al Qaeda want. The mistake is a simple one of category. We aren’t involved in a traditional counterinsurgency. We are waging a counterinsurgency against religious jihad. They want us.

Did the U.S. Turn Over Anbar Too Soon?

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 6 months ago

In Human Events Rowan Scarborough is asking the question “did we turn over Anbar to the Iraqis too soon?” (or better, he is writing about others posing the question):

Within the Marine Corps there are worries that the U.S. has turned Iraq’s Anbar Province back to the locals too soon and too fast.

Officers who spoke with HUMAN EVENTS say the Sept. 1 transfer should have been delayed. The Pentagon first needs to fully understand the consequences of Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s ongoing campaign to shut down quasi-official Sunni citizens groups who helped America fight al Qaeda.

“My biggest concern is the Iraq government is now taking a very hard line against the Sunni ‘awakening’ and the Sons of Iraq,” said a Marine officer who did a seven-month tour in Anbar and asked not to be named. “The problem here is, the harder line they take will push the Sunnis back into the insurgency.”

[ ... ]

The Sons of Iraq have grown in political power and are at odds with of Iraqi Islamic Party which won the sparsely attended January 2005 elections in Anbar and is part of the Maliki government.

“A lot of the security in Anbar is provided by the awakening Sons of Iraq and there are political clashes between them and the Iraqi Islamic Party,” Parker said. “Even in the hand-over ceremonies they were sniping at each other.”

The change in power also came without any assurances that there will be new provincial elections in Iraq. The Iraqi parliament has yet to agree on a new election law, a stalemate that is denying Sunni outsiders a chance to get their people into power.

“There are a lot of political questions that are still unresolved,” Parker said. “That is the questions I would have in handing over Anbar.”

The Captain’s Journal has addressed the recalcitrance of Prime Minister Maliki (and the majority Shi’ite party) in their rejection of the Sons of Iraq (formerly concerned citizens).

Maliki obviously has a large degree of confidence in the ISF and the idea that the Sunnis will willingly roll over. TCJ is not as confident. But regardless of the outcome, Maliki’s actions are immoral and thuggish, and if Iraq is still peaceful once the “Shi’ite majority” has accomplished this disarmament and imprisonment of the awakening, it will be in spite of and not because of Maliki’s actions. Maliki may yet prove himself to be the most stolid dunce and inept stooge on the planet.

The U.S. Marines performed heroically to hand over a stable Anbar Province by defeating the indigenous insurgency and coupling with the Awakening to defeat al Qaeda and other foreign fighters (such as Ansar al-Sunna). Today Anbar is a law abiding Province that is seeing its people placed under arrest and rejected at the national level because they are the minority sect.

It was the responsibility of U.S. forces to battle the insurgency and then drive al Qaeda out of the Province in defeat and humiliation. Maliki and the Shi’ite majority now have a chance at real reconciliation and peace. If they knowingly ruin this chance by cranking up a war with the Sunnis, it is most certainly not the responsibility of the U.S. forces to take sides in such an internal power struggle.

While thuggish and brutish, the Jaish al Mahdi is comprised mostly inept fighters and stooges for Iran. If Maliki believes that the Sunni minority is incapable of sustained and bloody resistance, he is badly mistaken. The ISF is only a little more capable than is the JAM. In the end all the U.S. can do is give the Iraqis a chance. Like children who will make their own decisions in spite of parenting, there is nothing that can be done if they decide not to take advantage of the hard-won opportunities. If they don’t learn the lessons the easy way, then they will learn the hard way. We have turned over the Anbar Province at just the right time after honorable service by U.S. warriors, and the U.S. Marines must now move on.


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