Guest Authors

(Re-) Creating Anbar's Awakening


By Gabriel Ledeen

28 March 2009

Signaling his commitment to campaign promises of a "surge" in Afghanistan, President Obama recently authorized the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to reinforce our flagging efforts. While he is still awaiting the official "strategic review" of the war, the president undoubtedly believes that the additional troops are necessary to counter the resurgent Taliban in much the same way that our surge in Iraq succeeded in quelling violence and securing the apocalyptic Baghdad.

Such a comparison, with especially significant strategic implications, requires a more thorough understanding of our Iraqi successes than currently exists. The differences between Afghanistan and Iraq are myriad and meaningful -- that is clear -- but the focus on implementing our newly recast counter-insurgency doctrine in the "other" war should give us reason to consider what exactly we did to turn the tide in Iraq. As most now recognize, the change began in Iraq's most infamous province, al Anbar. The popular consensus regarding Al Anbar contends that the tribal movement known as the "Awakening" was an impromptu rejection by Sunnis of Al Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) brutal methods and radical rule. This consensus is wrong, or at best, only partially right.

I saw this dramatic transformation as a Marine officer deployed to Haditha in 2006 and Karma in 2007-2008. The Anbar Awakening was not a spontaneous uprising against the horrible brutality of the insurgents. Rather, it occurred and succeeded due to the conditions created by U.S. forces who steadily built the foundation for Anbar's stability. Through dynamic security operations, complex relationships with tribal leaders, and consistent moral authority, we successfully separated the population from the insurgency, demonstrated our potential for victory, and earned the support of Iraqis yearning for peace. It was only after we established these conditions that the Sunni sheiks could urge their tribes to awaken and stand together with U.S. forces against the AQI terrorists.

When I arrived in the Haditha area of Al Anbar in March of 2006, the local Sunnis had substantial reasons to distrust the U.S. military. The U.S. had dismantled the old Sunni dominated Iraqi Army, Shi'ites dominated the new government, and there was no cooperation from Baghdad. The Sunnis concluded that they had little hope for the future under Coalition/Shi'ite rule. We had been unable to protect those who worked with us as AQI's murder and intimidation campaign grew to horrific levels. Sunnis couldn't choose between the apparently impotent Coalition and the vicious insurgency and were paralyzed by uncertainty. As Marine General Mattis told author Bing West for his book The Strongest Tribe, "Not one man in a hundred will stand up to a real killer. It's ruthlessness that cows people." Our ruthless enemy used fear as a weapon; we needed to give the Iraqis reason to hope.

The most critical condition required for the emergence of the tribal Awakening movement was a dynamic and effective security infrastructure. American military forces could not achieve such an impact alone, due to inadequate force levels and an inability to effectively distinguish insurgents from civilians. Good security required the active participation of screened and trained local Iraqi police and army units, partnered with U.S. forces, focused in the population centers.

We increased our presence in these population centers by establishing combat outposts and remaining in neighborhoods for duration operations. Our Marines patrolled continuously, which disrupted the enemy's freedom of movement and fostered relationships with the local population. We partnered with Iraqi Army units to develop them tactically and to mentor their leaders. Our embedded Military Training Teams lived with the Iraqi Army, developed close personal ties and fought side by side with them as the lessons gradually took hold. When locals were afraid to join the police force, we went outside the area and brought in Iraqis who had previously fled to help us retake control. We built and provided protection for new police units, and together began a concerted offensive against insurgents who soon had nowhere to hide.

Security was a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in Anbar. Other key conditions included empowering tribal leaders, maintaining moral authority, and cultivating confidence in our long term objectives and capabilities. Our commanders set a grueling operational tempo and we established these conditions day-by-day. We involved tribal sheiks in decisions and the distribution of projects and funds. We made them choose between us and the insurgents by rewarding those who worked with us and marginalizing those who did not.

Marine leaders insisted on maintaining moral authority and ordered Marines to act with kindness and compassion towards Iraqis whenever possible. "First, do no harm", and "Seek first to understand" were maxims that reinforced our respect for the humanity and dignity of the Iraqi people. We tried to improve their lives and give them hope in the future, as AQI murdered their neighbors to keep them in fear. Through our actions we convinced the Iraqis that we were there to provide them a chance for a better life, and through our persistence we showed them that together we were capable of succeeding.

As we developed these conditions, AQI became more desperate to regain control of the shifting population and increased the intensity of their murder and intimidation campaigns. When the enemy became more desperate they became more vulnerable. Through adaptive tactics, burgeoning local support, and increasingly effective Iraqi forces, we were able to damage their operations and separate them from the population. In their desperation insurgents turned against the population, and thereby gave the tribal sheiks the final push they needed to stand with us against the terrorists. This is indeed a model for counter-insurgency operations, as those of us who participated in it well know. Describing the Awakening movement as a miraculous Sunni uprising blinds us to the lessons we ought to have learned, and degrades the understanding we should be cultivating and applying to all theaters of this long war.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Cahoon · 12 years ago
    Mr. Ledeen's speaks with the authority only one who risked it all can have. Our son was a Corpsman assigned to Marine EOD in Iraq. We were in constant fear of his and his buddies perilous situation, yet through it all my son was proud of his role in helping them have a chance at freedom. Now he is being sent to Afghanistan. His returning comrades describe it as being multiple times more challenging that Iraq was, on many levels.

    In any case reading this article just reinforces my skepticism of what our political leader's seeming inability to either "get all in or get all out". These people actually attacked us at home and we should either give our military leaders on the ground all they need to succeed or just get out and suffer those consequences, but not to put our undermanned troops (our sons and daughters) in a no win situation.

    Mr. Ledeen, thank you for your service and sacrifice.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    OldSoldier54 · 12 years ago
    Great article, sir.

    I don't know how easy it will be to replicate success in Astan with NATO there sitting on their butts, burning up supplies. That, coupled with the current POTUS's predilection for not keeping his word are going to make it a lot harder than it needs to be, IMO.

    Time will tell, I hope and pray for the best outcome and for you all to come home safe and whole.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert · 12 years ago
    Marines have long fought counter-insurgency operations in this manner. When the Marines in Anbar realized the Army's plan wasn't working and in fact was getting Marines killed at a horrific rate, they did what Marines always do, they improvised and overcame.
    After Anbar was pretty well secure, the Marines offered a solution to Afghanistan. They wanted to pull the Marines out of Iraq and replace all forces in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps Air-Ground team in Divisional Strength.
    After the Marines embarrassed the Army brass in Anbar, they couldn't swallow the potential of the Marines pulling their fat out of the fire once again.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jono39 · 12 years ago
    Ralph Peters thinks the proposals are a recipe for disaster as well. He has a superb column this weekend making the argument that AlQ is not the Taliban. I wholeheartedly agree. We need to focus on Iran and its plans for bombs, its invovlement with Venezuela to attack our Mexican border, moving weapons into our neighbor via Nicaragua. We are giving foreign aid to Pakistan, to Egypt, to Israel, to other Arab countries? Why?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nancy Kennedy · 12 years ago
    Let's compare apples to apples... the U.S. deployed around 160,000 troops to Iraq at the peak in 2005 (based on info. available on the internet.) The "surge" came later after troop levels had been reduced to around 100,000 to 115,000. Currently, we have 8,000 (est.) troops deployed in Afghanistan total! That's it! Obama will supposedly add 17,000 to that bringing the total to 55,000 troops. To me, this seems Vietnam-esque. Its a trickle when we need a flood. Our government is not acting like it wants to win in Afghanistan. Maybe because the current administration doesn't want America to win. The Obama administration actually despises America and everything we stand for and believe in. So why would they take the necessary steps to make America victorious (and even more importantly, the Afghan people who desparately need a better way of life)? Sorry to be the "buzz kill" here but that is the reality we are dealing with.

    Love the work you do, Michael. Keep it up! I will always support you even if I occasionally disagree with your opinions. But that's American, isn't it? Praying as always for your safety and well-being.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bdhale · 12 years ago
    I have worked in education for 22+ years, and I am constantly amazed at the overall view taken by many in the field that our country is always wrong, our military is evil, and the Marines are a bunch of apes that only want to destroy things. Gabriel Ledeen has once again shattered this, as have the many young people that joined the Marines and return, calling those people 'Sir' that they used to give such trouble to. Very intelligent article, that will, of course, be discounted by those in the present administration that may read it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hank Kistner · 12 years ago

    Thank you so much for your years of wonderful work bringing the light on Iraq. God bless you! The truth sets free and you are the means by which truth succeeded. How amazinglyl wonderful have our forces been! Their conduct is an everlasting glory to our nation and considering the general decadence of our nation, an astonishing wonder. You are one of two who have documented and chronicled this epic saga of righteous heroism and wisdom. Thank you! I doubt the history of the world has a story to rival this one. No military has ever conducted itself with such savy strength and goodness.
    And praise to President Bush who steadfast stood alone against the world providing the necessary authority. His name goes down with the most honorable of the ages in my book, and I think my book will long outlast those others. Damn them! As for your comments re Afghanistan and the lessons of Iraq, you are the expert. You are surely right. I start to think Obama has good intentions but does he have the character to do what is necessary amidst the howlings of the hienas of the left. I doubt it. Character like Bush has comes maybe once a millenium, I fear. Nevertheless I like him (Obama) and I pray for him.
    Hank Kistner
  • This commment is unpublished.
    camodeerhunter · 12 years ago
    The Obama administration I believe is taking the wrong path also. The warring tribes of Afghanistan have been fighting since the bibical times and it will not cease until they are shown that they can trust each other. This will not be accomplished by force but by trust. If we show the tribal elders that we are there to help them help themselves and win their trust so they will help us rout out the AQI's then and only then will we make progress in Afghanistan. Yes, it will take money and if it is used wisely we can start getting some control in the heavy fighting provinces where the AQI's are strong.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Carl T · 12 years ago
    Your firsthand observation is refreshing but not unexpected. My son is a Marine and we watched him go from a troubled kid into a man. The knowledge of killing when necessary comes with the better options of helping the Iraqi's develop their own future. My family is very proud of how our troops (the surge) performed and now it is up to Iaq to build their country.
    Thank you and Semper Fi
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Timaay · 12 years ago
    It is refreshing to hear clear and concise explanations for victorious war strategy. Would that the Obama Administration have such clarity and insight....
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack E. Hammond · 12 years ago

    THE GAMBLE that deals with the Awakening movement and The Surge by Thomas Ricks (ie it seems everyone in the US military co-operated with the book) starts with the Marines in Haditha. That was the wake up. What happened (no matter that command influence in the US short circuited the prosecution) caused them to realize that we were not only make war on AQ, but the whole Iraqi population. The book starts with a whole 1st chapter on that night. And why if we did not change, it would not only cause us to loose Iraq, but cause a change in the US military for the worst, similar to the French Army in Algeria. To his credit, then Marine Commandant Hagee realized the danger and moved fast, even flying to Iraq to talk to his Marines.

    Jack E. Hammond

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack E. Hammond · 12 years ago

    I know I am going to catch it with this comment. But the Marines were on the wrong track in Iraq as much as the US Army was. In fact the first success pre-Surge success was US Army's with Colonel MacFarland in Ramadi. It was Ramadi that suddenly got some attention with some saying "Hey, maybe there is a way."

    And always remember it was USMC General Pace (then CJCS) who retired General Keane had to do an end run around to get support for General Petraeus.

    And you don't have to take my word for it. A person with no better authority than General Mattis stated so. And he is USMC.

    Finally, I know things went badly in Iraq from 2004 till 2007. But to say two plus two is five instead of four is not right. Especially if that five is at the expense of those that did see that the right thing was done in the end.

    Jack E. Hammond


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