The January 2009 issue of the Washington Quarterly has a report on the Anbar Awakening by John McCary entitled “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives.” McCary is a defense consultant who was deployed to Anbar in 2003 as a U.S. Army intelligence officer. In 2006 Anbar was considered one of the most violent and deadliest provinces in Iraq for Iraqis and Americans alike. Some in the military were writing it off as a lost cause. Then there was a huge turn around when several tribes in the area decided to turn on Al Qaeda in Iraq. This group has collectively become known as the Awakening. McCary’s main argument is that this change did not follow traditional counterinsurgency tactics nor was it the result of the troop increase in 2007 known as the Surge nor Al Qaeda in Iraq’s violence. Rather it was due to a transformation in the tribes’ perceptions of who their allies and rivals were.
In traditional counterinsurgency operations military forces focus upon protecting the population so that they change loyalties to the government. In Anbar this did not happen. It wasn’t the general populace that turned, but several sheikhs who led their tribes into an alliance with the United States. McCary also doesn’t believe the Awakening grew out of the Surge either because the tribes began turning on Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, a year or two before any extra troops were sent. Many have also pointed to the Islamists’ brutality as a turning point, but the author doesn’t buy into that argument either because the province has a history of violence. Rather McCary puts forth two reasons why the tribes of Anbar decided to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq. Both involved a change in perceptions. First, the tribes came to see Al Qaeda in Iraq not as facilitators who were there to help them fight the Americans, but as foreigners who were attempting to dominate Anbar. Second, the sheikhs went from believing the U.S. was an occupier trying to upset Iraq’s institutions, to an ally who was supporting the province’s traditional power structures. Basically the Anbaris went from seeing the U.S. occupation as their main threat to believing it was Al Qaeda in Iraq. This began in 2005 when the Islamists began taking over the sheikh’s businesses, imposed a foreign version of Islam, and tried to assert their political domination over the Sunnis of the province.
The tribes of Anbar and Al Qaeda in Iraq originally joined together over a mutual cause, opposition to the United States. After the 2003 invasion, many Sunnis saw the U.S. as a foreign occupier bent upon destroying Iraq’s institutions. Promoting democracy, setting up a new Shiite-Kurdish dominated government in Baghdad, getting rid of the military and deBaathification destroyed Iraq’s old order. The country’s Sunnis saw these actions as an existential threat to their identity and power as they had been the ones on top. To fill the vacuum, the people of Anbar turned to their tribes, who in turn began fighting against the Americans. Al Qaeda in Iraq presented themselves as a group that could provide organization, money and tactics in this battle.
This proved a deadly combination. Anbar became the heart of the insurgency, and one of the most deadliest parts of the country. The situation was so bad that in August 2006 the head of Marine intelligence in Iraq wrote a report saying that Anbar was a lost cause. The paper said, “We haven’t been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically – and that’s where wars are won and lost.” That political loss came as a result of the alliance between the tribes and Al Qaeda in Iraq who made the provincial government unworkable, reconstruction untenable, and military operations fruitless. This dire warning however, did not pick up on subtle divisions that were happening between the Anbaris and the Islamists.
The first step in the break between the tribes and Al Qaeda in Iraq was when the insurgents began taking the sheikhs’ money. The Islamists needed local funding for their operations, which led them to move on the tribes’ traditional operations of smuggling, extortion, and kidnapping. Al Qaeda used violence and intimidation against the sheikhs to muscle in on their businesses. This resulted in the murders of several prominent tribal leaders in Anbar.
This has often been cited as a turning point for the tribes. McCary doesn’t believe that argument however. Anbar has had a long history of violence by the tribes. In fact, captured Al Qaeda in Iraq documents might actually point to the tactic working for the insurgents. In December 2005 for example, Sheikh Naser Abdul Karim al-Miklif, head of the Albu Fahad tribe was killed by Al Qaeda in Iraq after meeting with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and other tribal leaders about cooperating with the Americans. His murder has been cited in several reports as turning his tribe against the insurgents when in fact captured letters later showed that sheikhs from the Albu Fahad went to cowtow to Al Qaeda in Iraq afterwards pledging their loyalty and support. To McCary, it wasn’t the intimidation that was getting under the skin of the tribes, but rather the loss of their businesses to the Islamists. This was the first step in a change in perceptions about Al Qaeda in Iraq from an ally to a threat to tribal power.
The next nail in the coffin of the alliance between the two sides came when Al Qaeda tried to assert their political control over Anbar. On October 15, 2006 the Islamists announced that Anbar was part of their new Islamic State of Iraq. Al Qaeda was moving from an insurgency bent on expelling the American occupiers to trying to take over the region. Al Qaeda was also attempting to enforce their strict form of Islam upon Anbar. All together the Islamists were trying to impose their will over the economic, social and political life of the tribes, which began turning some of the sheikhs against them. The mutual alliance between them was breaking down as Al Qaeda in Iraq was increasingly becoming a rival to the authority of the tribes, which was the original motivation for them to turn against the Americans.
A third factor that McCary brings to the table that has often been overlooked was the political debate then going on in Washington. Before the 2006 Congressional elections, a debate began over whether the United States should withdraw from Iraq or not. That position was a major talking point by the Democratic Party against the Republicans. In Iraq, the American discussion was noted, and was another factor in changing the perceptions of the tribes. It made them think that the Americans were eventually going to leave. To some sheikhs, the Americans were no longer seen as a long-term threat. That opened the door to a few taking a step towards the U.S. as a short-term ally against the increasing power of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In 2005 and 2006 two sheikhs began turning on the Islamists. First was the former governor of Anbar Fasal al-Gaoud who formed the Salvation Council. Gaoud had been appointed head of the province by the Coalition Provisional Authority, but lost his office in the 2005 election. His decision to work with the U.S. after the invasion cost him many of his tribesmen who abandoned him for the insurgency. Later that year Gaoud formed the Albu Mahal Desert Protectors to patrol the Syrian border around the city of Qaim to interdict foreign fighters and supplies coming in to Iraq. His group was destroyed by an indiscriminate U.S. military operation that went after Gaoud’s forces along with insurgents. Gaoud left the scene for a period before returning in 2006 when he helped form the Anbar Salvation council to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq. They assassinated him in June 2007 as a result. The other sheikh was Abd al-Sittar of the Abu Risha tribe. Sittar ran a criminal operation in Anbar after the invasion, which Al Qaeda tried to take over. In 2005 Sittar tried to form an alliance with the nationalist Islamic Army of Iraq to fend off the Islamists, but it failed. Al Qaeda in Iraq then killed Sittar’s father and several of his brothers for their defiance and to seize Sittar’s business. In September 2006 Sittar announced the Anbar Awakening to oppose the insurgents. He too was killed in September 2007. Gaoud and Sittar were the first of many sheikhs to see Al Qaeda in Iraq as their long-term enemy, and change their opinion of the U.S. to an ally who could assist them to expel the Islamists.
At the same time, the U.S. was changing its tactics in the province. First, the Marines and Army stopped trying to work through the government, which barely existed in the province. Instead, they would work with the tribes to try to co-opt them. This started with the Marine commander for Anbar General John Allen and Army Colonel Sean MacFarland in Ramadi. MacFarland decided to work with the tribes in Ramadi by offering them jobs in the security forces, something that was forbidden before. That led to 3,000 new police in the city by the time he left in February 2007. Allen stopped the normal bidding process for reconstruction projects in Anbar that denied tribes a major form of patronage to maintain their power. Instead, contracts were given to the sheikhs who then doled out the jobs and money to curry favor and keep the loyalty of their tribe. In turn, the sheikhs provided men for the police and to maintain security in their areas. General Allen even went to tribal leaders who were living in exile to get them to come back to help stabilize Anbar. These actions helped change the perceptions of many Anbaris of the U.S. as an occupier who was trying to dominate the country and disrupt its institutions and traditions, to one that was supporting tribal power and authority.
This was the origin of the dramatic change in Anbar. It went from a province some in the U.S. military considered to be lost, to one where Al Qaeda n Iraq was denied fighters, money, and a safe haven. This transformation began in 2006 with Gaoud and Sitter, a year before the additional Marines arrived in Anbar in February 2007. It wasn’t the surge in troops that transformed the province, but the perceptions the tribes held of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the United States. Al Qaeda over played their hand, which gave the sheikhs an incentive to switch sides. U.S. commanders in Iraq, frustrated by years of failure, also changed their tactics to embracing the tribes. It took both sides to alter their views before they could work together.
McCary finishes his paper with some lessons learned and what Anbar’s immediate future might be. First, he suggests that forming alliances with locals depends upon their perceptions and what incentives they have to work with the United States. Simply showing up with military force won’t change their minds, they have to want to cooperate with the Americans. Second, McCary notes that the changes in Anbar are not over. The sheikhs now want to exploit their new stature. They want to rebuild the province as well as gain seats in the provincial and national governments. This is a positive step as former insurgents now desire to participate in the political system they were fighting against. At the same time, this has led to new rivalries. As noted before, the tribes have split on the eve of the January 2009 elections. Some have decided to work with the ruling Iraqi Islamic Party, while some are still opposed to them. This will probably lead to a divided rule between the two parties rather than a tribal victory. Finally, McCary believes Anbar was an example of a transformation of the insurgency, not a countering of it. Instead of having the fighters defeated, they have simply changed sides. U.S. commanders on the ground, going against their superiors’ orders, made up this policy. Their success however, led to it being imitated across central and northern Iraq with the Sons of Iraq when the Surge got under way in mid-2007. U.S. military policy had been largely unsuccessful in Anbar beforehand, so it took some spontaneous and imaginative tactics to break the status quo.
A similar tribal policy is now going to be attempted in Afghanistan by the U.S. military. McCary’s warning is that it is not U.S. money or troops that changed Anbar, but rather the Iraqis’ changing their perceptions of who their allies and foes were. The agency of the locals is what needs to be addressed first, and then the Americans have to adapt and provide them with incentives to cooperate with them.
For more on the Awakening see:
The Anbar Awakening Splits
Iraqi Weekly Interviews Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman Of the Anbar Awakening
Finding A Historical Precedent For The Sons of Iraq, But Not A Solution
A More Complicated Picture of Iraq’s Tribes
Anbar Under Iraqi Control, But Political Disputes Continue
Anbar Dispute Between Sunnis Growing
The Demise, But Not Death of Al Qaeda In Iraq
Loyd, Anthony, “Murder of sheikh provokes Sunnis to turn on al-Qaeda,” Times of London, 2/10/06
McCary, John, “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives,” Washington Quarterly, January 2009
Ricks, Thomas, “Situation Called Dire in West Iraq,” Washington Post, 9/11/06
Smith, Major Neil and MacFarland, Colonel Sean, “Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point,” Military Review, March-April 2008
Zeidel, Ronen, “A Harsh Readjustment: The Sunnis And The Political Process In Contemporary Iraq,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, March 2008
Iraq boosted its oil exports in February 2021 to coincide with a 14-month high in petroleum prices. That resulted in high revenues for the g...
Dr. Michael Izady of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs recently gave an interview to the Swiss-based International Relat...
While the total number of security incidents went down from September to October in Iraq, Islamic State operations in the country have slowl...
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Cmdr Qaani has been in Baghdad twice recently to try to talk pro-Tehran groups out of targeting Amer...