Timothy S. McWilliams
& Kurtis P. Wheeler, editors
Marine Corps University Press, 2009
The Iraqi “Awakening”—Sahawa al-’Iraq in Arabic—was the decisive event of the Iraq War. The revolt of the Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda began in early 2006 among the Albu Mahal of al-Qaim, in far northwestern Anbar province. By mid-2007 it had spread to Baghdad, cascading from tribe to tribe throughout Anbar and beyond, transforming the attitudes of population groups across at least half of Iraq. As the tribal and nationalist wings of the insurgency turned against al-Qaeda, the war was transfigured. The tribes began to partner with U.S. and allied forces, their young men began to join the Iraqi police, and the vortex of violence that had torn Iraqi society apart began to abate. Iraqis started putting their weapons down, turning to peaceful means to resolve their grievances against the occupation and the Baghdad government.
There is still a long way to go in the process of institutionalizing a decent politics in Iraq; even today the country is far from peaceful. Still, the Awakening saved tens of thousands of lives, transformed the war at a stroke and enabled a political process to set roots that, however shallow, have at least some chance of enduring. But what exactly occurred? Was the Sahawa a coincidence that just happened along at the critical moment, a lucky anomaly that was neither predictable nor repeatable, and therefore no guide for the future? Or was it, at the other extreme, a planned, purposive component of the “surge” that happened because we made it happen? Was it a homegrown miracle, springing from the heroic vision of leaders like Sheikh Abdul Sattar or his brother Ahmad Fteikhan of the Albu Risha, who had the courage to radically re-conceptualize the war, to see us as partners and al-Qaeda as brutal exploiters? Was it something in between—a spontaneous movement, an unplanned uprising-within-an-uprising that U.S. Marines, soldiers and civilians on the ground were smart enough to notice, and their leaders just barely agile enough to exploit?
These questions matter enormously, and not only because of what the Awakening tells us about Iraq. They also concern the conduct of modern war in tribal or de-tribalizing societies and the nature of Western and international intervention in traditional societies more generally.
We now have a good start on answers to these questions. U.S. Marines, along with several U.S. Army formations, were intimately involved in the Awakening—first as observers, then as grateful beneficiaries, ultimately as partners—and the new two-volume U.S. Marine Corps history Al-Anbar Awakening goes a long way toward explaining what happened. The book draws on interviews conducted in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 with American commanders and Iraqi civilians, tribal leaders and former insurgents, as well as members of the Iraqi military and police and participants in the Awakening. Though both volumes offer outstanding accounts of the complex events of the Awakening, the second—which presents Iraqi perspectives—is the more illuminating.
A constant in the Iraqi interviews is the terrible choice the tribes faced: how to be safe in a lethally complex environment, when choices of identity and allegiance had to be made continually—and choosing wrongly could mean dying horribly. This is not unique to Iraq; all populations in insurgencies and civil wars are buffeted by uncertainty and pressed by demands for allegiance on all sides: by the insurgents, the government, the occupation forces, the police, criminal groups and undergrounds. In Iraq, a bewildering array of such groups clamored for support and threatened beheading, or worse, if they did not get it.
Populations under these conditions maneuver to find predictability, order and safety. They shift ground, navigating complex choices on a moment-by-moment basis, to survive. They favor the predictability afforded by a set of rules and sanctions—a “normative system”, in other words—that tells them where they stand and what guidelines they must follow to be safe. Fieldwork on insurgency, my own and that of others, has consistently shown that populations gravitate to the side with the strongest, most consistent normative system that can create order and make them feel safe. They do this even if they do not particularly like the side in question: Populations under the duress of insurgency wars, it turns out, are swing voters for whom order trumps ideology nearly every time.
In this sense, the Marines’ history reinforces something we already know from research on roughly 386 insurgencies and civil wars since 1815. This body of research includes groundbreaking studies like Stathis Kalyvas’s 2006 The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Gerald Cannon Hickey’s 1964 Village in Vietnam, Jeffrey Race’s masterful (and recently re-published) War Comes to Long An (1972), and James C. Scott’s classic The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976). Scott and Kalyvas, in particular, make sense of the risk-minimizing and order-seeking behavior of rural populations—tendencies that apply in spades when the consequences of poor choices can be instantaneous and lethal.
We also know from anthropological studies as recent as Philip Carl Salzman’s Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (2008) and as venerable as Max Gluckmann’s Custom and Conflict in Africa (1955) that traditional societies do not all behave alike. Tribes behave differently from peasants, nomadic pastoralists behave differently from sedentary agriculturalists, de-tribalizing societies exhibit different characteristics from fully tribal societies, and rural populations apply a calculus different from that of urban-dwellers. Even the loose category “tribes” covers a huge variety of social arrangements and behavioral norms; as I showed in The Accidental Guerrilla (2009), hill tribes (like the Pashtuns of the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier) think about warfare very differently from desert tribes (like those of Anbar).
Al-Anbar Awakening provides new data from a new case that helps us to deepen, and in some cases adjust, our understanding. It tells the story of how a de-tribalizing society already strained by rapid urbanization, economic modernization and industrialization under the Ba’ath regime—what one Iraqi interviewee described as “a country that is transforming from Bedouin to civilization”—experienced beginning in March 2003 the colossal shock of invasion, defeat and occupation. It then suffered the further trauma of the disbanding of the Iraqi army and deep de-Ba’athification under Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority. These latter spectacularly ill-considered aspects of occupation policy emerged time and again as key grievances in the Marines’ interviews with Iraqis. Sunnis considered themselves Iraq’s natural leaders, and had indeed dominated the territory of what is today the Republic of Iraq for a thousand years. De-Ba’athification and dissolution of the Army alienated them, disarmed them, dispossessed their elites, and dishonored them on national, personal and ethno-religious levels all at the same time. It created massively widespread grievances in Anbar and throughout the Sunni tribal region, formed a huge labor pool of unemployed, trained ex-soldiers, and drove the Sunnis into the waiting arms of a manipulative and opportunistic insurgency.
The insurgency was initially led by former regime members, but was quickly radicalized and hijacked by political and religious extremists as Saddam’s family were killed or captured and the old regime-in-hiding lost control. At first, there was significant overlap between former regime loyalists and the extremists, but over a fairly short time the craziest radicals came to dominate. This, by the way, is utterly normal in resistance warfare, a form of conflict that, along with civil war, is at least as applicable to Iraq as the concept of “counterinsurgency” that ultimately came to dominate our thinking.
Then in 2006 came the ethno-sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shi‘a communities, Arabs, Kurds and ethnic minorities. The war’s deep roots lay in Sunni rejection of a new a Shi‘a-dominated government, a development itself affected both by the ill-judged Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections and Muqtada al-Sadr’s effective agitation among dispossessed Shi‘a. But the proximate trigger for civil war was a series of spectacular al-Qaeda atrocities, the most provocative of which was the Samarra mosque bombing of February 22, 2006. This led the Shi‘a to retaliate against Sunnis through ethnic cleansing, denial of essential services and a horrifying reign of terror conducted by pseudo-official death squads. This, in turn, pushed Sunnis into the arms of al-Qaeda, who cynically posed as their protectors—even though al-Qaeda had provoked the civil war in the first place. Many Sunnis came to feel that al-Qaeda was the only thing standing between them and oblivion at the hands of the Shi‘a. All this emerges clearly in the Iraqi interviews in the Marine Corps history, and tracks closely with what Iraqis told me time and again in 2006–07.
The tribes, meanwhile, after initially welcoming assistance from the terrorists, had come to hate al-Qaeda. Not only had the terrorists engaged in ferocious violence against tribal leaders and their families, but al-Qaeda also usurped the elders’ authority with local populations, imposed a fanatically restrictive version of Islam that clashed with their traditions, and muscled in on lucrative business activities, legal and illicit, that tribal leaders considered theirs by right. Moreover, many al-Qaeda leaders were non-Iraqi and most al-Qaeda fighters were urban-dwellers by origin, prompting a split between the tribes and the terrorists as early as 2005.
At the most basic level, tribal and nationalist insurgents saw themselves as an honorable resistance, fighting to regain their country and protect their people, while al-Qaeda cared only about killing Americans. Most of us who fought in Iraq in 2007 know of numerous occasions when al-Qaeda attacked without compunction on crowded streets, knowing but not caring that dozens of innocent Sunnis would be killed. Their callous cowardice hit me like a face-punch one day in April 2007 when two adults used two children, sitting unawares in the back of a car, as cover to infiltrate a Baghdad market. Having maneuvered the car into position, the terrorists fled; moments later, they detonated a massive bomb in the trunk, incinerating a terrified six-year old boy and his eight-year old sister. Their cruelty sickened me. It sickens me still. More important, the tribes saw, and hated al-Qaeda for it. When the time came, they turned on the terrorists in a heartbeat.
The Awakening that began in 2006 in Ramadi under Sheikh Sattar of the Rishawi was by no means the tribes’ first attempt to throw off these parasites. On the contrary, the 2006 Awakening was at least the tribes’ fifth uprising, but in every previous attempt the tribes had been slaughtered. Why did they succeed this time?
The difference was the American surge, though not in any pre-planned way. The extra U.S. troop presence meant that for the first time, as American interviewees in the book explain, we could hold population centers, support the tribes when they turned against the terrorists and protect the people against retaliation. The partnership between our troops and the tribes gave them the confidence to rise up again.
But it was more than mere numbers: Tactics made all the difference. Not that the tactics of the surge were new in themselves. What was new was having the resources and approval to execute them. As the interviews make clear, the tactics—partnering with the population, protecting them from all comers, building relations with tribal elders and applying “clear, hold, build” methods concurrently rather than sequentially (something familiar to Marines through their “three-block war” concept)—aligned with long-standing policy. Marine units had been trying to do this all along, but often with insufficient resources and top-cover. In part, the events of 2006–07 represented the culmination of processes that local commanders had been pushing for years. In part, they reflected a leadership team, under Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, that was willing to let local commanders reconcile with local populations and supported them when they did. Generals George Casey and Peter Chiarelli, predecessors to Petraeus and Odierno, understood the issues well, too. Already in 2005–06 they had planted the seeds that bore fruit in the surge. But in 2007 there was new direction from the White House, intensive leadership from a President who was now closely engaged and heavily invested in the campaign, and a new Secretary of Defense who intuitively understood and supported the effort.
Still, things did not go exactly according to plan. The President’s original conception of the surge, laid out in his speech of January 10, 2007, said nothing about the Awakening or the local security forces (“Sons of Iraq” and others) that ultimately proved decisive. Instead, the initial concept envisioned creating a level of security that would enable a top-down “grand bargain” at the elite level. Nor was there anything explicit about bottom-up peace-building or mass reconciliation in the new December 2006 Field Manual on counterinsurgency (FM 3-24). Thus, the most any of us at headquarters could claim was that we recognized what was happening in a timely way, were agile enough to exploit it, avoided stifling local commanders’ initiative, found the funds and gained the approval, and—for once—listened to the Iraqis. In practice, security did not prompt reconciliation: on the contrary, security followed and resulted from reconciliation. Top-down deals did not put an end to the violence: rather, grassroots reconciliation created the confidence that made subsequent deals possible.
Counterterrorism theorists sometimes say that it takes a network to defeat a network. In Iraq we learned that it takes a movement to defeat a movement. The spontaneous uprising of the tribes exposed the irreconcilable elements of the insurgency so that we could target them, and brought an unexpected peace for the reconcilables, who were the overwhelming majority of insurgents. We also learned that bottom-up, inclusive peace-building, led by and focused on local civil society, can transform conflicts. We learned, too, that the proper role of soldiers, diplomats, aid workers and administrators in such circumstances is to find and implement policy postures (in security, political, economic and informational terms) that are most conducive to this bottom-up peace process.
For international assistance efforts, a key lesson is that local leaders very often do know best, and that local grassroots efforts can succeed where elite-based interventions become corrupt and stall. Recent experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa (specifically, the different experiences of Somaliland and Somalia since 1992) reinforces the view that bottom-up, civil society-based programs that focus on peace-building, reconciliation and the connection of legitimate local non-state governance structures (like the tribes of Anbar) to wider state institutions have a greater chance of success in conflict and post-conflict environments than traditional top-down, internationally led programs that focus on building the national-level institutions of the central state.
The implications for the future of the U.S. military and for American grand strategy seem equally clear. First, if we all found the Iraq War a deeply searing and disquieting experience that we would prefer not to repeat—and most of us, I would suspect, did—then there is a simple remedy: Don’t repeat it. If we all found the consequences of living up to our obligations to create a stable environment in Iraq, doing so under international law as an occupying power, to be icky, irksome and smacking of neo-colonialism—and, again, I think most of us did—then there is a simple solution: Get out of the business of invading other people’s countries because small terrorist cells have set up shop there, and especially the business of engaging in wholesale regime destruction and social re-engineering on a massive scale. There are other ways to deal with these problems; as the Anbar Awakening showed us, they involve close partnerships with local peoples at the grassroots level. Military leaders, no less than diplomats and scholars, have a duty of care to remind policymakers of the pitfalls of such business, and no less a duty to discourage them from embarking on future conflicts of this type unless policymakers are certain of the local partnerships that are the sine qua non of success.
Would that it were so. The American political appetite for such wars of conquest seems to have dissipated for the moment, but if history is any guide—and as Janine Davidson in Lifting the Fog of Peace (2010) and Nadia Schadlow in “War and the Art of Governance” (2003) have each demonstrated, the United States has engaged in these forms of conflict throughout its history—then there are liable to be more counterinsurgencies, more interventions in messy civil wars, and more complex conflict resolution problems in our future. All the more reason, then, for us to learn the counterinsurgency and peace-building lessons of the Awakening, and of Iraq and Afghanistan more broadly. We must do all we can to retain the knowledge so painfully acquired and so eloquently recorded in works like the Marines’ Al-Anbar Awakening so that we can avoid making the same old mistakes next time around. At least then we might make some new ones.