Will we Lose the Anbar Province?

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 2 months ago

By now it has become news that the latest military intelligence assessments of the western Iraq province of al Anbar are remarkably negative and even morose.  The various news coverage is cataloged in a discussion thread at Small Wars Journal, called Situation Called Dire in West Iraq.  Since I have my readers for an average of only a couple of minutes per visit, I won’t waste time reiterating the news in this post.  You can go check it out at SWJ.  The pronosis looks grim, even after being “spun” by the military brass to remove some of the sting of the assessments.

There are still dozens of loosely connected smaller insurgent cells in al Anbar, some with only several fighters.  But there are some large groups, including the Islamic Army in Iraq, made up of several thousand fighters, and the Mujihadeen Army.  Together these two groups make up about 50% of the total insurgent force in the al Anbar province.  Finally, there is still a contingency of al Qaeda, but the loose connection between these groups means that there is no one leader to target, no single strategy that is necessarily the best, and no central command and control.  These groups enjoy maximum latitude and command is pushed down through the “organization(s).”  The only thing in common between these groups is that they have no intention of becoming part of the political process, and they intend to fight to the death.

There is a stark difference in the way the U.S. has approached Fallujah and the way we have approached Ramadi.  This difference is due to the influence of several factors.  First, the empty-headed catcalls and questions about when we are going to leave Iraq have been met with equally empty-headed retorts that “we’ll leave when the Iraqis are ready to take over from us.”  Both the question and retort miss the point, and in the superlative degree.  The second reason for the difference is the current influence of military brass that preens and postures and pontificates about the lessons learned from Vietnam.  There is a drive to assume a small footprint and use minimum force projection.  I argue in my post The Debate over Diminished Force Projection that this confuses categories and fails to learn the lessons of Iraq (forget Vietnam for a minute and focus on Iraq).

Regarding the intelligence report, one Army officer summarized it as arguing that in Anbar province, “We haven’t been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically — and that’s where wars are won and lost.”  It would appear that even this misses the point.

If the question “when are we leaving” misses the point, the retort “when the Iraqis can take over” misses the point, and wars being “won or lost” in politics misses the point, then what exactly is the point?

Remembering Iraqi politics is necessary to understand why these things have happened, and invoking the lessons of Vietnam is not very helpful.  Politics teaches us that to refer to “Iraqis” is too broad, since there are three very distinct groups: Kurds, Shia and Sunni.  The army is made up largely of Shia Muslims, and after displacement of the Sunni population upon the fall of the regime, the Sunni and Shia have an understandably suspicious view of each other.  For the Iraqi army to wage war on the insurgents in al Anbar is not what it seems.  Rather, in reality, it would approximately be the Shia army waging war on the remaining Fedayeen fighters and regime loyalists, with Sunni citizens caught in the middle who have no love for the Shia and a certain amount of sympathy for the loyalists.  Al Qaeda in Iraq is a nuisance and a violent organization, but to the extent that they serve to repell government forces from al Anbar, they prevent revenge killings of the Sunnis (not so much from the army, but from the certain police presence to follow).

To refer to politics in al Anbar is to refer to something that doesn’t currently exist.  The brass in Iraq, by diminishing force projection in al Anbar in order to let “reconstruction win the hearts and minds of the people,” are deferring to a phantom.  The very people whose hearts and minds we want to win are being protected by the enemy who destroys their political institutions and prevents reconstruction.

The Strategy Page from a few months ago is correct.  There isn’t civil war in Iraq, and there can never be civil war in Iraq.  If the factions war with each other, the Kurds will be left alone (or defended by themselves alongside the Kurds in Turkey), and the Shia majority will utterly destroy the Sunni minority.  Rather than speak of civil war, we should speak of genocide.

The only force in the region who is capable of winning the war on the battlefield is the U.S.  Reliance on the Iraqis to effect the victory is a losing strategy.  Yet, this seems to be exactly what our strategy is, according to Maj. Gen. Zilmer:

A senior American commander in Iraq said Tuesday that U.S.-led military operations are “stifling” the insurgency in western Anbar province but are not strong enough to defeat it.

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer told reporters in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Fallujah that he has enough U.S. troops _ about 30,000 _ to accomplish what he called his main mission: training Iraqi security forces.

“For what we are trying to achieve out here I think our force levels are about right,” he said. Even so, he said the training of Iraqi soldiers and police had not progressed as quickly as once expected.

“Now, if that mission statement changes _ if there is seen a larger role for coalition forces out here to win that insurgency fight _ then that is going to change the metrics of what we need out here,” he added.

Maintenance of the peace can be accomplished by the Iraqi troops alongside U.S. troops, and the political process can be protected by both the U.S. and Iraqis.  Reconstruction can be assisted by the most versatile force in the world, the U.S. military.  But winning the war on the battlefield is necessary prior to winning it politically.  Unless and until the enemy is killed or captured, politics is irrelevant because it doesn’t exist.

We can still win this war, but we need to dispatch a division of Marines as soon as possible to begin operations in Ramadi, Fallujah (yes, it has regressed), Hamdaniyah, Haditha and al Haqlania.  Generals who learned the wrong lessons from the wrong war and who are applying them in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reasons with the wrong understanding are decreasing our chances of success in al Anbar.

We should remember the counsel of General George Patton, who believed that the the U.S. at the Battle of the Bulge could still lose World War II.  This belief caused him to drive his troops 100 miles within 48 hours and engage in combat with no food and no sleep.  This war can be won, but we must move quickly, and we must move with a heavy footstep.

Col. David Hunt, appearing on FNC a couple of months ago, almost blew a gasket when asked what to do about Ramadi: “Send in the Marines and let them clean it out.”

Indeed.  Then … and only then … can politics begin.


  1. On September 13, 2006 at 4:20 pm, Chris said:

    Your observations are eye-openning. There are no “politics” in al Anbar. There is just insecurity.

  2. On September 23, 2006 at 5:22 pm, Navy Brat, Army Captain, Air Force Wife said:

    Hi. I just found your site. I was in the first Gulf War, in a field hospital in Kuwait. My MFA was 71, and my AOC was 67B.

    What do you think about the possibility of embedding special forces advisors in Iraqi units and beginning a phased draw-down of the American troop presence?

  3. On October 1, 2006 at 10:00 am, Jim in Cala Dor Palma de Mallorca said:

    My comment is non-expert, but citizen sanity in support of your anti-war positions generally, and emphasis on the illegality of Bush’s War declaration as properly viewed as NOT representing America, and NOT the duty of the authority bestowed to the President who is to adhere to Congress as the true body representing the people in times of war.

    Unprovoked war is certainly not wanted by a majority of Americans.

    I have written in 1985 for the FREEZE as a volunteer, and had the opportunity to interview what was then named “Beyond War Movement

  4. On October 1, 2006 at 5:07 pm, Breakerjump said:

    I sincerely hope English is not Jim’s first language.

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This article is filed under the category(s) War & Warfare and was published September 13th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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