(Re-) Creating Anbar's Awakening

Describing the Anbar Awakening movement as a miraculous Sunni uprising blinds us to the lessons we ought to have learned.
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Signaling his commitment to campaign promises of a "surge" in Afghanistan, President Obama recently authorized the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to reinforce our flagging efforts. While he is still awaiting the official "strategic review" of the war, the president undoubtedly believes that the additional troops are necessary to counter the resurgent Taliban in much the same way that our surge in Iraq succeeded in quelling violence and securing the apocalyptic Baghdad.

Such a comparison, with especially significant strategic implications, requires a more thorough understanding of our Iraqi successes than currently exists. The differences between Afghanistan and Iraq are myriad and meaningful -- that is clear -- but the focus on implementing our newly recast counter-insurgency doctrine in the "other" war should give us reason to consider what exactly we did to turn the tide in Iraq. As most now recognize, the change began in Iraq's most infamous province, al Anbar. The popular consensus regarding Al Anbar contends that the tribal movement known as the "Awakening" was an impromptu rejection by Sunnis of Al Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) brutal methods and radical rule. This consensus is wrong, or at best, only partially right.

I saw this dramatic transformation as a Marine officer deployed to Haditha in 2006 and Karma in 2007-2008. The Anbar Awakening was not a spontaneous uprising against the horrible brutality of the insurgents. Rather, it occurred and succeeded due to the conditions created by U.S. forces who steadily built the foundation for Anbar's stability. Through dynamic security operations, complex relationships with tribal leaders, and consistent moral authority, we successfully separated the population from the insurgency, demonstrated our potential for victory, and earned the support of Iraqis yearning for peace. It was only after we established these conditions that the Sunni sheiks could urge their tribes to awaken and stand together with U.S. forces against the AQI terrorists.

When I arrived in the Haditha area of Al Anbar in March of 2006, the local Sunnis had substantial reasons to distrust the U.S. military. The U.S. had dismantled the old Sunni dominated Iraqi Army, Shi'ites dominated the new government, and there was no cooperation from Baghdad. The Sunnis concluded that they had little hope for the future under Coalition/Shi'ite rule. We had been unable to protect those who worked with us as AQI's murder and intimidation campaign grew to horrific levels. Sunnis couldn't choose between the apparently impotent Coalition and the vicious insurgency and were paralyzed by uncertainty. As Marine General Mattis told author Bing West for his book The Strongest Tribe, "Not one man in a hundred will stand up to a real killer. It's ruthlessness that cows people." Our ruthless enemy used fear as a weapon; we needed to give the Iraqis reason to hope.

The most critical condition required for the emergence of the tribal Awakening movement was a dynamic and effective security infrastructure. American military forces could not achieve such an impact alone, due to inadequate force levels and an inability to effectively distinguish insurgents from civilians. Good security required the active participation of screened and trained local Iraqi police and army units, partnered with U.S. forces, focused in the population centers.

We increased our presence in these population centers by establishing combat outposts and remaining in neighborhoods for duration operations. Our Marines patrolled continuously, which disrupted the enemy's freedom of movement and fostered relationships with the local population. We partnered with Iraqi Army units to develop them tactically and to mentor their leaders. Our embedded Military Training Teams lived with the Iraqi Army, developed close personal ties and fought side by side with them as the lessons gradually took hold. When locals were afraid to join the police force, we went outside the area and brought in Iraqis who had previously fled to help us retake control. We built and provided protection for new police units, and together began a concerted offensive against insurgents who soon had nowhere to hide.

Security was a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in Anbar. Other key conditions included empowering tribal leaders, maintaining moral authority, and cultivating confidence in our long term objectives and capabilities. Our commanders set a grueling operational tempo and we established these conditions day-by-day. We involved tribal sheiks in decisions and the distribution of projects and funds. We made them choose between us and the insurgents by rewarding those who worked with us and marginalizing those who did not.

Marine leaders insisted on maintaining moral authority and ordered Marines to act with kindness and compassion towards Iraqis whenever possible. "First, do no harm", and "Seek first to understand" were maxims that reinforced our respect for the humanity and dignity of the Iraqi people. We tried to improve their lives and give them hope in the future, as AQI murdered their neighbors to keep them in fear. Through our actions we convinced the Iraqis that we were there to provide them a chance for a better life, and through our persistence we showed them that together we were capable of succeeding.

As we developed these conditions, AQI became more desperate to regain control of the shifting population and increased the intensity of their murder and intimidation campaigns. When the enemy became more desperate they became more vulnerable. Through adaptive tactics, burgeoning local support, and increasingly effective Iraqi forces, we were able to damage their operations and separate them from the population. In their desperation insurgents turned against the population, and thereby gave the tribal sheiks the final push they needed to stand with us against the terrorists. This is indeed a model for counter-insurgency operations, as those of us who participated in it well know. Describing the Awakening movement as a miraculous Sunni uprising blinds us to the lessons we ought to have learned, and degrades the understanding we should be cultivating and applying to all theaters of this long war.

Gabe Ledeen served as a Marine officer in an infantry battalion from 2004-2008 and completed two tours in Al Anbar, Iraq.

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