President Bush’s Labor Day visit to Iraq should have surprised no one who was paying attention. At such a critical point in the debate over Iraq policy, it was almost inconceivable that he would fly to and from Australia without stopping in Iraq. What was surprising was the precise location and nature of the visit. Instead of flying into Baghdad and surrounding himself with his generals and the Iraqi government, Bush flew to al Asad airfield, west of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. He brought with him his secretaries of State and Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the commander of U.S. Central Command. He was met at al Asad by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, as well as Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kemal al Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and Vice Presidents Adel Abdul Mehdi and Tariq al Hashemi. In other words, Bush called together all of the leading political and military figures in his administration and the Iraqi government in the heart of Anbar Province. If ever there was a sign that we have turned a corner in the fight against both al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency, this was it.
Anbar, as everyone knows, has been one of the hotbeds and the most important base for both the Sunni rejectionist insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq since 2003. It has been one of the most violent provinces in Iraq, and one of the most dangerous for American soldiers and Marines, until recently. Now it is one of the safest — safe enough for the war cabinet of the United States of America to meet there with the senior leadership of the government of Iraq to discuss strategy. Instead of talking about how to convince the Anbaris that the Sunni will not retake power in Iraq any time soon, Bush, Maliki, Petraeus, Talabani, and Crocker talked about how to get American and Iraqi aid and reconstruction money flowing more rapidly to the province as a reward for its dramatic and decisive turn against AQI and against the Sunni rejectionist insurgency. In any other war, with any other president, this event would be recognized for what it is: the sign of a crucial victory over two challenges that had seemed both unconquerable and fatal. It should be recognized as at least the Gettysburg of this war, to the extent that counterinsurgencies can have such turning points. Less than a year ago, it was common wisdom and the conclusion of the Marine intelligence community in Anbar that the province and its people were hopelessly lost. Now the Anbaris are looking to the Americans and the government of Iraq for legitimacy, for protection, and for inclusion in a political process they have spurned for years. What is that if not a major victory in this war?
Critics of the war have done everything in their power to denigrate the significance of Anbar’s turn against the takfiris and nationalist insurgents. Their arguments include:
Anbar’s tribal structure is unique, and therefore this “awakening” cannot be replicated elsewhere in Iraq.
The “Anbar Awakening” happened before the “surge” and independently of it, and will continue whether or not U.S. forces remain.
The movements in Anbar are local and mean nothing because they will not translate into reconciliation at the national level.
The government of Iraq distrusts these “awakening” movements and will alienate them, driving them back into the arms of the insurgents and takfiris.
The Anbaris are just operating on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and will turn on us and/or the Iraqi government at the drop of a hat.
We are setting the preconditions for a horrible civil war by “arming” local Sunni movements like that in Anbar.
None of these arguments holds much water, and all miss both the dynamics of the movement within the Sunni community and its significance for Iraq and the region.
Anbar is, indeed, a unique province in Iraq. Its population is almost entirely Sunni, and tribal structures remain unusually strong in a country where they have generally been weakened by years of secular, totalitarian rule. There is little or no “sectarian” violence in Anbar, and the only real Shia threat the province faces comes from the central government in Baghdad and its security forces. These facts are now used to explain away the “Anbar Awakening” by “proving” that the movement will not gain traction outside this unusual area. One might note in passing that all of these facts have been true since 2003, yet the area was not what one might call friendly to the Coalition until recently, so whatever the uniqueness of the province, clearly something has happened worth noting.
It might be possible to demonstrate in principle that the Anbar Awakening movement could spread outside of the province, but it is not necessary, because it has already done so. Although some media outlets continue to portray this spread as speculative or potential, it is, in fact, well documented. Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen recently described it in detail in a post on the Small Wars Journal website; Michael Gordon described it in even greater detail in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, and U.S. military and political officials have been briefing on it for many weeks. Local Sunni Arabs all throughout Central Iraq have come forward to volunteer for service in the Iraqi Security Forces in order to fight al Qaeda in Iraq and bring peace to their war-torn lands. This movement has gained great traction in Diyala Province — another area that was so heavily infested with AQI and Shia militias that many had given it up for lost — where it helped secure the gains of recent U.S.-ISF operations that cleared its capital, Baqubah. It is growing rapidly in the areas south of Baghdad (which Michael Gordon wrote about), including in the area formerly known as the “triangle of death” and serious al Qaeda safe havens in the Arab Jabour area. It has spread into Abu Ghraib, where more than 2,400 Sunni young men volunteered to join the ISF, and over 1,700 have been accepted by the Iraqi government. And it has even spread into Baghdad itself, where “concerned citizens groups” are helping U.S. forces track down and eliminate AQI fighters and leaders and to secure their neighborhoods. Movements are starting to grow even in Salah-ad-Din Province, site of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and Samarra, and also a major base for Sunni rejectionists and AQI fighters. The evidence of the spread of these movements is absolutely irrefutable. Anbar may be unique — and many of the local movements outside the province have ostentatiously refused to call themselves “awakenings” or to model themselves after the Anbar movement — but the Iraqis themselves are aggressively adopting the Anbar model to suit local circumstances in order to work with the Coalition and the Iraqi government against terrorists and militias to secure their homes.
Anbar and the Surge
The tribal leaders in Anbar began to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq last year, largely due to unspeakable atrocities committed by the terrorists against their own hosts. Many analysts and observers have seized upon this fact to argue that the movement in Anbar had nothing to do with the surge, began before the surge did, and would continue even without the surge. This argument is invalid. Anbari tribal leaders did begin to turn against AQI in their areas last year before the surge began, but not before Colonel Sean MacFarland began to apply in Ramadi the tactics and techniques that are the basis of the current strategy in Baghdad. His soldiers and Marines fought tenaciously to establish a foothold in Anbar’s capital, which was then a terrorist stronghold, and thereby demonstrated to the local leaders that they could count on American support as they began to fight their erstwhile allies. Even so, the movement proceeded slowly and fitfully for most of 2006 and, indeed, into 2007. But when Colonel John Charlton’s brigade relieved MacFarland’s in Ramadi and was joined by two additional Marine battalions (part of the surge) elsewhere in Anbar, the “awakening” began to accelerate very rapidly. At the start of 2007 there were only a handful of Anbaris in the local security forces. By the summer there were over 14,000. Before the surge, Ramadi was one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq; now it is possible for Americans to walk through its market with limited security details and without body armor. David Kilcullen describes the relationship between the surge and the movement very well in his Small Wars Journal posting, and I have also addressed the issue in detail in a recent Weekly Standard article . The fact is that neither the surge nor the turn of the tribal leaders would in itself have been enough to turn Anbar around — both were necessary, and will remain so for some time.
Anbar and National Reconciliation
One major problem with the current discussions about Iraq in Washington is that they focus so heavily on the congressionally mandated “benchmarks,” initially discussed in 2006 by the Bush Administration. Those benchmarks address the Iraqi central government, and particularly the Council of Representatives — the Iraqi parliament — almost exclusively. As a result, political developments that occur outside the CoR tend to be discounted in this debate, and so the shift in Anbar itself has been devalued inappropriately as it does not seem likely to lead rapidly to the passage of legislation in Baghdad.
But the turn of Anbar is not simply an isolated local phenomenon with no significance in the larger political struggle in Iraq. On the contrary, it is an event that may well have profound long-term consequences even more important than the passage of any given piece of legislation. The Anbari rejection of AQI deprived Anbar’s leaders of the single most effective fighting force they had in attacking the Shia-led Iraqi government and attacking or defending against its militias. If the Anbaris had thereupon asked for the creation of a local, autonomous or semi-autonomous security force that would be a de facto tribal militia, there would have been cause for concern about their intentions. But they did not. Instead, Anbar’s tribal leaders have been offering their sons by the thousands as volunteers in the Iraqi police army. An entirely new training center was built in a couple of months in Habbaniyah, near Fallujah, which has just graduated its first couple of classes of Anbari recruits to join the ISF. The Anbari police will naturally stay in their areas, but they will not have the technical or tactical ability to project force outside of Anbar — they cannot become an effective Sunni “coup force.” Anbaris joining the Iraqi army, on the other hand, are joining a heavily Shia institution that they will not readily be able to seize control of and turn against the Shia government. In other words, the turn in Anbar is dramatically reducing the ability of the Anbaris to fight the Shia, and committing them ever more completely to the success of Iraq as a whole.