The conventional American wisdom on the Anbar Awakening was that it was a turning point in the war in Iraq. When a few tribes in central Anbar decided to rise up against the insurgency in 2006 it eventually expanded across the province, and was duplicated by the Americans during the Surge in 2007. It was such a success that the U.S. attempted to replicate it in Afghanistan. In effect this became a mythos of a tribal revolt. It held such sway that when the insurgency made a return in Iraq in 2014 with the Islamic State there were people in the U.S. calling for arming the tribes. Carter Malkasian attempted to upend that entire narrative in his book . Malkasian argued that the Awakening was actually a fleeting success as shown by its quick disillusion in 2007, and its inability to maintain security in Anbar, which allowed the return of IS a few years later. This is an interview with Malkasian about his ideas on the Awakening and U.S. intervention.
1. Due to the Anbar Awakening a whole industry developed in America writing and analyzing tribes in Iraq and how the Awakening was a turning point in the war to be celebrated, emulated, and eventually repeated in Iraq. What was your counter view on this history?
So, to be fair, I was kind of part of that industry. I studied the tribes both before and after the Awakening. I think if I had written a book back then it would have been pretty celebratory.
For me, a truly contrary view came after having been away from Anbar for years and seeing other wars. It was only in 2015 that I traveled back to Iraq and Anbar and saw the Islamic State and the remnants of the Awakening. You just couldn’t look at the Awakening the same way. The Awakening was still a dramatic event but it had not lasted. Laid bare were its weaknesses and faults.
In the light of time, the Awakening appears as an example of how even the most impressive successes of foreign intervention are subject to deeper political and cultural dynamics. The Awakening suggests we should be wary of believing we can change those dynamics. That is my contrary view.
2. You wrote that Iraqi politics and culture were more powerful forces than U.S. influence. How did that play out when the Awakening sheikhs got involved in government and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began focusing upon Anbar?
Iraqi politics and culture endured and the successes of the US intervention did not. To be fair, the United States drew down and then got out. But that does not change the fact the successes were not self-sustaining.
What happened was partly that tribal politics reasserted themselves. Each shaykh had his own interests and competed with the others for money and political power. At first it didn’t affect security because all of their police and militia still tried to keep out terrorists. Over time, though, security eroded too. Political rivals were loath to cooperate and went their different ways when the Islamic State arose.
Equally if not more potent, sectarian tensions widened an opening for the Islamic State. Even before the United States left, Maliki began marginalizing the Sunnis, going after their politicians, disarming Sons of Iraq militias, and upending the pro-Sunni results of the 2010 presidential election. Real fear underpinned these policies. The defensiveness of Shi‘a politicians and parties in the wake of decades of Sunni oppression—a belief that the Sunnis were plotting to do it again—propelled Maliki to ill-advised lengths. The Shi‘a political leadership feared a Sunni resurgence because of Saddam’s and AQI’s histories of violence. This fear was a powerful force against Sunni-Shi‘a reconciliation. The effects were profound. Anbar Sunnis protested against the government with fury, causing the government to cut down their support of the Awakening shaykhs. Many Sunnis went to work with the Islamic State.
3. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, withdrew its military in 2011, tried to treat Iraq like any other country, and then was forced to return to support Baghdad against the Islamic State in 2014. Do you think the U.S. is going to get it right this time paying enough attention and making the right types of commitments to support the Iraqi government?
I know no one wants to see the Islamic State return and a whole lot of effort is going into making sure that never happens. Over the long-term—say 10 or 20 years—it is harder to say. It is kind of a strategic question that goes beyond Iraq. Is the possibility of terrorism coming out of Iraq worth staying there for years? If it is, we should think about a robust diplomatic presence, a residual counter-terrorism force, and a continued training and support to the Iraqi military. Even this depends on what the Iraqi government wants. We cannot stay without their blessing.
4. America has a history of fighting wars and intervening in other countries, learning important lessons and then forgetting them. Vietnam was a perfect example. What do you think are the lasting take aways the U.S. must remember from Iraq?
I think there are quite a few lasting takeaways. Let me give you five.
First, do not expect changes or successes to be permanent. Political and cultural dynamics are powerful. If we want change to stick, we need to be prepared to stay long.
Second, beware of surges or the seductive idea of enabling the Iraqis (or Afghans or Kurds or whoever) to stand on their own. Surges invest a lot of resources into changes that may not last without those resources. And troubled states have difficulty standing on their own without outside support. We hoped in both Iraq and Afghanistan that our actions would enable their governments to stand on their own—it was a justification of both surges—to little avail.
Third, staying long is expensive. Consequently, in most cases, we will want to be cheap and light. There are times when a full-blown intervention of tens of thousands of troops over decades has been warranted. Keeping large numbers of forces in place, however, has only been acceptable when the stakes are very high, such as the Philippines, Germany, Japan, or South Korea. The stakes of the Middle East and South Asia have always been more ambiguous. In places like Iraq the acme of good strategy is to deploy the lightest force possible. Even so, year after year expenses are bound to mount. The cost of a single deployed soldier ran to around $750,000 per year in Iraq. Intervention, even light, is still a costly affair.
Fourth, we should think carefully before intervening in the first place. It may be better to manage a problem from a distance than to jump in and fix it.
Fifth, keep a moral compass. One of the best things the Marine generals did was try to limit human rights abuses, something they took a lot of flak for at the time. In retrospect, it looks responsible. The very fact successes in these kinds of wars can be fleeting means we should jealously guard our own ethics and morals.