How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
One of the United States’ greatest successes in the Iraq war was in Anbar, where U.S. military forces and a remarkable tribal uprising inflicted a stunning defeat upon al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the forerunner of today’s Islamic State (or ISIS). From shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 until 2006, Anbar, the country’s westernmost province and a Sunni stronghold, was the center of an entrenched insurgency, which by early 2006 was threatening Baghdad. Then in the fall of 2006, just as U.S. leaders were considering the prospect of defeat, Sunni tribes in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, formed a movement to partner with the Americans against AQI. This movement came to be known as the Anbar Awakening. Over the course of seven months of heavy fighting, the tribes, together with U.S. forces, overcame AQI in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar. The awakening spread to the rest of the province and then to elsewhere in Iraq. AQI was pushed back, violence dropped, and the country witnessed a period of uneasy stability.
In the years that followed, the Anbar Awakening came to be seen as a turning point in the Iraq war and a model for how to defeat insurgents and terrorists. The U.S. officers of the time, including General David Petraeus and Colonel Sean MacFarland, enjoyed well-earned acclaim, while military strategists, analysts, and policymakers hailed the policies used in Anbar—such as increasing troop presence and empowering local tribes—as a leading example of how to conduct a counterinsurgency. There were widespread calls from politicians, generals, and analysts in subsequent years for the United States to attempt a similar “awakening” with the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan, and the idea of working with tribes has influenced U.S. policy debates over how to handle the Syrian civil war. Anbar had become the foremost lesson in how counterinsurgency, and U.S. intervention writ large, could succeed.
Yet from today’s perspective, the victories of Anbar look fleeting. In January 2014, after years of preparation and growth, AQI’s successor, ISIS, conquered most of the province. The tribes that had formed the awakening movement were too divided and isolated to mount an effective resistance. From Anbar, ISIS went on to take Mosul and the rest of Sunni Iraq. Almost everything the United States had fought for from 2003 to 2007 was lost. And with Baghdad in danger, U.S. troops found themselves back in Anbar trying to help the Iraqi government recapture the province. Why did an apparent success turn out to be so fragile?
The insurgency in Anbar started in 2003, shortly after U.S. forces arrived in the country. After the rapid collapse of the Iraqi government and the Saddam-era military, the province became the center of intense Sunni resistance to American forces and the U.S.-backed interim government in Baghdad. In 2004, U.S. Marines took responsibility for Anbar, waging two battles that year in the city of Fallujah and shepherding the province through elections in 2005. Still, the insurgency raged on, increasingly dominated by AQI and its leader, Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist whose sheer aggression, complemented by a certain style—black clothes, long black hair, and a black beard—drew Iraqi and foreign fighters to his cause. Under Zarqawi’s leadership, AQI embedded itself deep in Anbar society and won popular support, thanks not only to its Islamist politics and anti-occupation stance, but also to its access to money and weapons, which it got from black-market and international financing. AQI’s message was clear and simple—expel the United States and establish an Islamic state in Iraq—and resonated with the local populace as much as did competing ideals such as tribalism, nationalism, and democracy.
By the first months of 2006, it had become evident to U.S. generals in Anbar that things were not going well. AQI was holding fast to Ramadi. Few Iraqis from the province were willing to join the police or army. U.S. casualties were mounting, mostly from IEDs. And the situation elsewhere in Iraq was deteriorating as well—civil war had broken out in Baghdad following Zarqawi’s February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a Shiite holy site.
In the summer of 2006, however, something unexpected happened. A small set of tribal leaders in Ramadi stood up against AQI, mobilizing their own militias and sending their tribesmen to join the police. The most famous of these leaders was Sheik Abdul Sattar of the Abu Risha tribe, who announced on September 14, 2006 the formation of sahawa al-Anbar (or the “Anbar Awakening”), a tribal movement opposed to AQI and other foreign-backed terrorists.
What made these leaders decide to stand up against the insurgency? Publicly, they spoke of the need to bring peace to Ramadi and said they were tired of AQI’s violence. Sattar, for instance, said in a September 2006 interview that the “terrorists claimed that they were fighters working on liberating Iraq, but they turned out to be killers. Now all the people are fed up and have turned against them.” But the reality was less idealistic. AQI was brutal, but it had real support in Anbar, and the resistance to it began before it had committed its worst atrocities. The problem for the tribal leaders was that AQI was threatening their position in society—it had begun to push them aside, edging in on their territory and cutting into their smuggling business. A willingness to believe that Anbar rejected AQI for its violence, moreover, partly explains why Western observers were so surprised by the organization’s return in the guise of ISIS.
Once the awakening had begun, U.S. leaders in Anbar, especially MacFarland, the Army brigade commander in Ramadi, decided to back it, recognizing the bravery of the tribesmen and the value of a local ally against AQI. As the commander on the ground, MacFarland’s initiative was vital, as the tribal leaders—a small elite with limited resources—would not have been able to survive on their own. To support them, MacFarland arranged for police stations to be opened in their territory (manned by new tribally recruited police and advised by U.S. soldiers or marines) and condoned the deployment of tribal militias to augment the growing police forces. In certain cases, he posted U.S. soldiers and even tanks to watch over the tribal leaders’ homes. MacFarland and the Marine leadership in Anbar also funneled civil affairs projects, such as rubble clean-up, through the tribal leaders, so that they would have the funds to buy their tribesmen’s loyalty. The U.S. military spent $10 million on such projects in Ramadi from August 2006 to March 2007, compared to only $5 million between August 2005 and July 2006. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Robert Neller, who oversaw Iraqi army and police in Anbar, worked tirelessly to get Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government to follow through on its promise to pay and equip the new police, ultimately succeeding around the end of the year.
U.S. troops in Anbar began to use innovative tactics as well. Instead of sticking to large bases, they set up neighborhood outposts throughout Ramadi, from which they conducted patrols. The number of outposts and bases in Ramadi grew from 13 in late 2005 to over 50 by March 2007. The change enabled U.S. forces to cover much more ground and constrain AQI’s freedom of movement within the city. U.S. forces also partnered with Iraqi army units and the police, living and working with them in their posts. The Americans and Iraqis depended on and complemented one another: Iraqi police needed U.S. troops’ firepower and tactical skill while U.S. troops needed Iraqi police to man the increasing number of outposts and to identify and locate insurgents. This cooperation epitomized good counterinsurgency tactics.
As the police and the militias endured AQI’s attacks, the awakening grew and grew, eventually encompassing nearly every tribe in Ramadi. AQI’s losses increased as more tribes began to oppose them, the police force expanded, and U.S. troops spread through Ramadi. Most of this success preceded the “surge,” or increase in U.S. troop deployment, which reached Anbar in February 2007 and contributed only 700 troops to the 4,600 Americans in the city. By the end of March 2007, AQI had reached the end of its rope and pulled out of the city. Over the next three months, as tribes outside Ramadi joined the awakening, AQI cadres retreated from Anbar cities and towns to the desert or distant villages.
The idea of an awakening spread beyond Anbar to Baghdad and other provinces. Sunni leaders from across the country learned about what was happening in Anbar. Under the direction of General Petraeus, U.S. forces paid Sunni tribes, resistance cells, and neighborhoods to form militias and fight AQI. These Sunni militias were dubbed the “Sons of Iraq.” The roughly 100,000 of them who participated in the awakening helped to turn the tide against AQI throughout Iraq.
After mid-2007, Anbar province experienced a degree of calm that was surreal to those who had been there a year or two earlier. Americans could walk the streets without body armor. Shops and restaurants opened up in Fallujah and Ramadi, in what were former war zones. Reconstruction work accelerated. Improved explosive devices and suicide bombers never entirely disappeared, however. In fact, an IED went off on Sattar’s own property on September 14, 2007, killing him just ten days after he met with U.S. President George W. Bush. At the time, however, the tribal movement was strong enough to carry on without their leader.
Yet that strength—and Anbar’s stability—proved short-lived. The trouble began with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which was completed on December 18, 2011. With the troops went the money, advice, and training that had enabled the tribal leaders to control the province. Ironically, the success of the awakening had convinced many generals and politicians alike that Anbar could hold on its own.
The history of Anbar from 2003 to the present is the foremost example of how ephemeral the success of intervention can be.
After the U.S. departure, the Iraqi government became progressively more anti-Sunni. Although sectarianism had been evident throughout the time of the awakening, Maliki and the Anbar tribal leaders had reached a modus vivendi that shielded the province from its full force. Once the Americans were gone, however, Maliki began arresting Sunni politicians. In December 2012, government forces raided the home in Baghdad of the Iraqi finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, an Anbar native and Sunni hero who had treated wounded Iraqis at the Fallujah hospital during the worst days of 2004. The raid sparked protests throughout the province, which persisted over the next year and sometimes led to clashes with the army. Most of Anbar’s tribal leaders backed the protests, yet in doing so they weakened their own control. They depended on the government for money, salaries, and privileges, but the protests forced them to choose between abandoning these perks or being discredited in the eyes of their tribesmen. And by accepting the legitimacy of mass political activity, the tribal leaders implicitly undermined their own authority. This enabled AQI supporters who had formerly been under the tribal thumb to come out, rally the people, and implicitly challenge the leaders who were now bereft of government support.
In this environment, AQI reemerged as ISIS, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at its helm. The group’s fighters appeared in the streets of Ramadi, Fallujah, and various towns. Their leaders called for protesters to take up arms against the government. Given the enmity toward the central government, the tribal leaders initially did nothing. As one recently told me: “The question of 2013 and 2014 that every sheikh faced was: ‘Is fighting the Islamic State a possibility if doing so is in support of a Shiite government and against Islam?’”
In December 2013, clashes between tribal militias and the Iraqi army spun out of control after the arrest of Ahmed al-Alwani, another Anbar politician. Two days later, Maliki sent the army into Ramadi; tribal militias repulsed it. On January 1, ISIS launched its own attack. Cells within the province’s cities seized control while convoys of pickups, loaded with hundreds of fighters, drove in from the desert and outlying villages. The Iraqi army again performed poorly. Soldiers often fled and abandoned their weapons, equipment, and vehicles, sometimes shedding their uniforms and donning civilian clothes to avoid being targeted.
At this critical moment, the tribal leaders succumbed to the internal fractures that are the curse of tribalism. A few realigned with the government in order to fight ISIS; others aligned with ISIS against the common government enemy; still others tried to stay out of it. Without a united opposition, ISIS overran police checkpoints and stations throughout the province, seizing Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. And although the remnants of the tribal movement fought on after the battles of January 2014, their resistance diminished, and was in any case not enough to prevent ISIS from taking large parts of Anbar. U.S. military operations resumed after the ISIS swept into Mosul in June 2014, with U.S. Marines returning to Anbar’s al-Asad air base in late 2014. Their job was to train and advise Iraqi army units, coordinate operations, and, most importantly, arrange U.S. air strikes. Eventually, with U.S. support, and after a series of protracted battles between December 2015 and June 2016, the Iraqi government was able to recapture Fallujah and Ramadi. ISIS was still in Anbar, but the threat had become manageable.
The Iraqi government’s ability to eject ISIS from Fallujah and Ramadi, however, cannot mask the fact that in Anbar, the accomplishments of 2006–07 had crumbled. ISIS had controlled much of the province for over two years, posing a credible threat to the United States, and U.S. troops had been forced to reenter the province—the very thing the awakening was supposed to have prevented. Years of effort and sacrifice had come close to naught.
Today it looks as if the Anbar Awakening (and U.S. efforts to support it) yielded, over the short term, a temporary and uneasy stability. Over the long-term, it provided for some residual opposition to ISIS, but not enough to defend territory. This is a much more modest assessment of the impact of the awakening than the traditional one, which sees it as a lasting tipping point in the fortunes of Iraq.
That is not to say that the history of the awakening is devoid of value. U.S. commanders’ ability to adapt and experiment led to real, if temporary, successes. The awakening also offers a wealth of insights into how outside powers can work with tribes, such as by allying with them against common enemies; building trust with their leaders; and providing the necessary resources to keep them resilient. Woe to the general who sends men and women to fight terrorists without generous funds. Above all, the awakening should draw attention to the moral problems that come with empowering tribes. In an insurgency or civil war, tribes can be especially prone to seek power and exact vengeance against rivals, leading to the killing or torture of innocent people. The United States can inadvertently abet such behavior when working with tribes. During 2006 and 2007, Marine generals in Anbar tried to prevent such abuses by forbidding the arming or paying militias. Future partnerships with tribes require similar vigilance, at the very least.
Although valuable, these lessons of bygone glory are somewhat out of step with the perspective of today. From 2007 until 2012, the dominant view was that Anbar was the foremost example of how counterinsurgency and U.S. intervention can succeed. This interpretation has been disproven by the defeats of 2014. The awakening, and U.S. military success in Anbar more generally, can no longer seriously be used to justify how military intervention in broken countries can lead to quick and lasting success—even an intervention with the right methods and numbers to carry them out.
Instead, the history of Anbar from 2003 to the present is the foremost example of how ephemeral the success of intervention can be. The awakening was considered the leading model of intervention and counterinsurgency, yet the key to a long-lasting resolution was, as we now know, ultimately dependent on deeper cultural, sectarian, and religious forces. In the end, these forces proved insensitive to the impact of a few years of U.S. presence. And if this is true of Anbar, why should we expect anything different elsewhere? Anbar shows us that intervention will always be a costly, long-term project if it is to work, and that it may only be sustainable through a prolonged commitment of troops. Anbar deserves to be remembered because it seems to have come so close to proving otherwise. It is a sober definition of the limits of success.
The lessons of Anbar should give pause to any general, secretary of defense, senator, or commander-in-chief. The prospect of protracted costs should devalue the expected gains from intervention, often deterring the endeavor entirely. For a global power such as the United States, living with instability somewhere in the world may be better than the financial and human costs of addressing it. In cases where the dangers of doing nothing are too great, U.S. leaders should understand that military commitment is likely to be severely prolonged and encourage strategies that are manageable over the long term. And in the case of withdrawing from an intervention, they should remember that the host nation is unlikely to sustain successes made possible through the support of an outside power, and may be unlikely to survive. Realism at the end of intervention, then, is almost as important as realism at the beginning.