Politics & Policy

The Gettysburg of This War

This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror.

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’s Uniqueness

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.

This commitment will have consequences. It remains true that Anbar’s leaders are now more reasonable and probably more committed to the political success of Iraq than the Sunni parties in the Council of Representatives. Those parties were chosen at a time when most Iraqi Sunnis really did reject the notion of accepting a lesser role in Iraq, and many Sunni parliamentarians have continued to press for a maximalist version of Sunni aims. Local elections would help, although scheduling them is very complicated for a wide variety of reasons have nothing to do with any putative unwillingness of the Maliki government to “empower” Sunnis, but another event looms on the horizon of greater significance: Iraq will hold new parliamentary elections in 2009. As those elections approach, unreasonable Sunni parliamentarians will face the classic politician’s dilemma: tack more closely to their pragmatic base, or lose their seats to more pragmatic leaders. Either way, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the turn in Anbar will not have a profound effect on the political dynamics of the central government in Baghdad within a few years if not sooner.

Anbar and Shia Mistrust

The Maliki government is unquestionably twitchy about working with many of the Sunni grassroots movements, and with good reason. A lot of the new Sunni volunteers for the ISF were insurgents, and Iraq’s Shia, still traumatized by four years of Sunni attacks, are naturally nervous about taking former insurgents into their security forces. Nevertheless, they are doing so. The creation of the new training center at Habbaniyah, the acceptance of 1,700 Sunni recruits in Abu Ghraib — a very touchy issue because of the proximity of Abu Ghraib to Baghdad — efforts to repair sectarian imbalances within the two Iraqi Army divisions in Anbar itself, the Iraqi government’s acceptance of the establishment of “concerned citizens” groups all around Central Iraq, including in Baghdad, and a variety of other initiatives all indicate a surprising degree of willingness by the current Iraqi government to work and talk with former enemies.

The Sunni, of course, don’t trust the Maliki government any more than it trusts them, and herein lies a key point for American strategy. Right now, American forces are serving as the “honest broker,” the bridge between Sunni and Shia. Both sides trust us more or less, and are willing to work with us; neither trusts the other completely. If we remove this bridge now, it is unlikely that the Iraqis will be able to continue on a path to real reconciliation. But we are working hard every day to help them create their own independent reconciliation structure that will be able to stand on its own. President Bush’s visit to Anbar was a statement. Maliki, Talabani, and Adel Mehdi’s joining him there was a statement. The promise of additional U.S. aid to Anbar is a statement. So is the promise of additional Iraqi aid. This is a process that is ongoing and will take time to work, but it depends unequivocally on the continued presence of American forces and a continued American commitment to Iraq.

Anbar and “My Enemy’s Enemy…”

The Anbaris have certainly not reached out to American forces or the Maliki government because they have suddenly decided that they like us or them. Their turn has been based entirely on self-interest — which is why it is likely to be durable and meaningful. If Anbari leaders were now espousing their longing for Jeffersonian democracy or their enthusiasm for Shia rule, one would have to be highly suspicious of their motives. They are not. They turned toward us initially because they needed allies against AQI. They are joining the ISF rather than working to establish their own militias for similarly self-interested reasons. For instance, the Iraqi Army has always been held in high regard in Iraq and still is, for all its problems. Young Anbaris, who feel defeated by the Americans and the Shia in their quest to regain control of Iraq, need a way to regain honor in Iraqi society. Joining a militia won’t accomplish that goal — we’ve all spent four years telling them that militias are bad. Joining the Iraqi army does accomplish that goal — it gives them an honored place not just in Anbari, but in Iraqi society. It also gives them a reliable paycheck, which offers them the hope of being able to afford to get married, raise children, and so on — armies tend to be much more reliable than militias in this regard. The Anbari leaders are happy for their sons to make these decisions — indeed, are pressing them to do so — because it suits their own self-interest. We support their enlistment, but would oppose the establishment of militias. We promise to reward them with aid and prestige for taking this step, but would censure and dishonor them if they chose the militia path. Reluctant as it might be, the Iraqi government has made clear that it will accept Sunnis in the ISF, but that it will not accept Sunni militias. The wonderful thing about this movement, and the thing that makes it potentially so stable, is that it follows the line of everyone’s self-interest rather than relying upon commitment to ideologies or abstract principles.

Could the Anbaris turn against the U.S.? They might, but they would face a number of problems in doing so. All recruits into the ISF and even into “concerned citizens groups” have to provide U.S. forces with biometric data, including fingerprints and retina scans, and with the serial numbers of their weapons. All of this information strips them of their anonymity — a key asset for insurgents and terrorists. It would make it much easier for U.S. forces to locate turncoats and demonstrate their crimes. And even if they did turn, we would hardly be worse off than before — most of these guys were insurgents, remember. They had been fighting against us; now they’re fighting for us. Even if they turn back, we’re in no worse position than we had been before.

Anbar and the Danger of Civil War

Last is the argument that by “arming” former insurgents U.S. forces are setting the conditions for a terrible civil war if they turn against the Iraqi government at a future date. To begin with, despite a variety of media reports to the contrary, U.S. forces are not arming former insurgents in Iraq. The American command has been explicit and consistent on this point many times, I observed it for myself on a trip at the end of July, and Michael Gordon also addressed it after a longer and more extensive trip from which he recently returned. One of the characteristics of an insurgent is to be armed. By Iraqi law, every household is entitled to possess one AK-47. Almost everyone in Iraq is armed. The last thing former insurgents need is weapons. And, as noted above, not only do we not give them weapons, but we take the serial numbers of the weapons they do have. Whatever else is going on, the U.S. forces are not arming the Sunni in preparation for a civil war.

Nor are we helping them to organize in preparation for fighting such a civil war. Another characteristic of insurgents is that they were already organized to fight. The new organization is based heavily on Iraqi Security Forces and groups partnered with American troops — hardly a solid basis for fighting a sectarian civil war. Finally, if a civil war developed in Iraq — most likely as the result of a premature American withdrawal — does anyone imagine that the Sunni would fail to organize and arm themselves to fight it? On the contrary, by helping the Sunni community establish a legitimate local security force tied into the central government and both supported and advised by American troops, we are helping to establish the basis of long-term stability at the local level. Fear of Shia genocide has been a powerful force behind Sunni rejectionism. Local Sunni security forces help alleviate that fear. Fear of Sunni revanchism has been a strong motivation for Shia intransigence. Incorporating Sunni into the ISF mitigates that fear. Local developments in Anbar and beyond are far more likely to be elements of long-term stability and political progress than to be dangers — as long as the U.S. continues the right strategy.


Much depends on what America does. Progress in Anbar and throughout the Sunni community has depended heavily on a skillful balance between military force and political efforts at the local level. Neither alone would have been successful, as commanders on the ground readily attest. Stripping the U.S. effort of the forces needed to continue this strategy, as some in Washington and elsewhere are demanding, will most likely destroy the progress already made and lay the groundwork for collapse in Iraq and the destabilization of the region. President Bush clearly understands this fact, as his choice of venue in Iraq demonstrates. We should all understand the significance of the president’s presence in Anbar. With a little good fortune and the continued pursuit of a successful strategy, this visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror.

— Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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