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Bing West on the Anbar Awakening


I wrote a piece in the new issue of NR on Bush’s second inaugural address. I criticize it, among other things, for its gross over-simplifications. Bing West, author most recently of The Strongest Tribe, read the piece and e-mails to say I’m guilty of some over-simplifications of my own:

Hi, Rich – I enjoyed and agree with your piece re Bush’s shallowness and confusion re freedom. Separately, though, I was surprised by your sentences about the Awakening. 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. 


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