The fateful events in Al Anbar province during 2006 and 2007 illustrate that seemingly simple events in 4GW can mystify even experts. The specifics are clear. By the summer of 2006 local elites in the largely Sunni Arab province in Iraq had established local control against the efforts of the Shiite-dominated central government and Coalition forces. At the same time they began fighting their closest ally, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Experts offer different explanations for this split; there may be no one master narrative. Perhaps the tribal leaders no longer needed these pushy Islamic extremists as shock troops.
At the same time Americans’ support for the war was rapidly fading. At the request of Congress, the Iraq Study Group (aka the Baker-Hamilton Commission) was formed in March 2006, reporting in December. Drastic steps were necessary if the American Expedition to Iraq was to continue.
In September of 2006 the Anbar Salvation Council was created, and the stars had aligned for a deal. The terms, however informal, were clear.
The US military ceased operations against them.
The US ceded full control of their territories to them.
The US paying, training, and arming their militia.
The US began directing funds through the tribal leaders for rebuilding their communities.
The Sunni Arabs in return agreed to continue fighting the Islamic extremists, with whatever timing and intensity they consider appropriate.
They gave no formal promises of allegiance to either the Iraq National government or to the US.
We surrendered this theater of the war; they won. But the word “surrender” has too much baggage for anything but shock value. Technically, in the context of the Iraq War, this was a tactical retreat. As Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, USA, retired) said in his statement to Congress on 8 February 2008 (this is a must-read for anyone following the war):
And what the Sunni leaders want and what they are getting is both independence from the hated Shi’ite-dominated government with its ties to Tehran and money; lots of money. Meanwhile, the Sunni leaders who sit on the Awakening Councils are telling the Arab press that they defeated the American military that is leaving and paying reparations.
He provides this interview excerpt as supporting evidence:
Question: [Al-Arab al-Yawm] “Do you believe that the Americans will withdraw just like that without any resistance?”
Answer: [Al-Abdallah] “I confirm 100 per cent that their withdrawal in itself is the result of the honorable national Iraqi resistance, which has been confronting them since the first day of the occupation to this day.”
Whose assessment is correct? Consider this: what more could the Sunni Arab leaders have obtained if they had defeated our forces in open combat (which was, of course, impossible)? Or, consider the pros and cons of this deal. For the Sunni Arabs of Al Anbar, it is a win-win. They get much, give nothing.
The US gives much to the Sunni Arabs and gets little. This deal undercuts our key strategic goals and benchmarks in Iraq — to create a strong and friendly Iraq State. The Sunni Arabs we pay were and are (collectively, in general) insurgents to the current Iraq government. Nothing we are doing changes that; probably the opposite is true (funding and arming them strengthens their will to resist).
On the other hand, artful tactical retreats have won wars in the past. Cutting a deal in Al Anbar province provides several short-term benefits.
It allowed us to shift the focus of our efforts (schwerpunk) to Baghdad, which is in many ways the center of Iraq.
Like any well-executed retreat, it reduced the fighting in this theater. Fewer US casualties, fewer civilian casualties — both good things (although neither significantly affects the dynamics of the war itself).
In Spring 2007 the US government initiated a campaign to convince the American people that almost everyone we fight in Iraq is Al Qaeda. Its success allowed the “Anbar Awakening” to be seen as a victory, gaining new allies in our fight against Al Qaeda. This good news was sorely needed to boost home front support for the war, so essential in 4GW.
Only time will tell if this tactical retreat created strategic benefits for us. Does this mark the end of our attempt to build a strong Iraq state, and a shift to new strategic goals (such as divide, pacify, and rule)?
The third item describes the big wins: two successful information operations conducted in America. The contents of both are largely false. After all, the deal struck in Anbar acknowledges that our primary effort in Iraq, to build a strong State, is failing. Also, US government sources have consistently reported that “Al Qaeda” represented a small fraction of the insurgents in Iraq (e.g., composition of prisoners in Iraq, and this Washington Post account of CIA Director Michael V. Hayden’s briefing to the Iraq Study Group on 13 November 2006).
There are two explanations for these wins. First, DoD has a long history of successfully using information as tool of war — at least when wielding this skill against the American people (in a good cause, of course). This explains in more detail. Second, perhaps our easy acceptance of these stories is not odd considering how the “success in Anbar” narrative suits our world view. Whatever happened there “must” be about us, as seen in the common explanations of events: our negotiating skill, our mastery of COIN, their recognition of our power and inevitable victory, our goodness vs. the enemy’s evil, etc.
What are the consequences of seeing a defeat as victory?
First, there is the danger that decision-makers come to believe their own propaganda. Faulty analysis leads to bad decisions. For example, tactical retreats provide opportunities to withdraw. The belief that we can always easily leave is comforting but sometimes fatal (as the Athenians learned at Syracuse in August 413 BC).
The victory narrative has built public support for the war, but probably also raised expectations. Let us hope that nothing happens in Iraq to disturb this optimism. Otherwise the American Expedition to Iraq might suffer the same fate as American forces did in the Vietnam War, where the Tet Offensive destroyed the public’s illusions — whether rightly or wrongly hardly matters now — and led to a long, painful defeat. For more on that see How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other.
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Go here to see an archive of my posts about the Iraq War.
Update: John Robb (as usual) has some powerful and relevant thoughts on the Anbar Awakening at “Open Source Counter-insurgency?”
Update: this post might explain, to some extent, the differing evaluations of the same events in Anbar: Today’s ABCD’s: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy.