Academic journal article Military Review

The Anbar Awakening in Context ... and Why It Is So Hard to Replicate

Academic journal article Military Review

The Anbar Awakening in Context ... and Why It Is So Hard to Replicate

Article excerpt

The takeover of large swaths of Iraq by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014 may invite new interest in the possible relevance of the Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)-era phenomenon known as the Anbar Awakening. In a remarkable turnaround--in the general time frame between spring 2005 and spring 2007--local Iraqi tribal forces converted from being enemies of U.S. forces to U.S. allies in the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and its domination of Anbar Province where it had become most entrenched. Organized tribal resistance to AQI, which had already begun in pockets of Anbar prior to obtaining U.S. support, was a process that emerged from a confluence of factors within a specific set of unique circumstances. Tribal forces did the majority of the fighting throughout the province and brought a critical mass of the Anbar population into Iraqi government agencies (e.g., Ministry of Defense units and police precincts), and a political party called Sahawa--at least for a period. (1)

Even before 2014, the Anbar Awakening had engendered enduring interest by Western military and intelligence personnel as well as policy discourse over the outcome of OIF. For serious students of the movement who survey the literature produced on the subject, it becomes quickly apparent that one must appreciate the unique conditions that prompted these local figures and their constituents to reject AQI in the particular place, time, and manner in which they did, and that such conditions were requisite for the subsequent relationship they developed with U.S. forces.

Irrespective, debate continues over exactly what happened as the Awakening unfolded. Some authors have sought to assign ultimate credit for the success of the Awakening to a particular service, unit, or person. Others have attributed success to a darker side--a U.S. alliance with unsavory figures, some who had been insurgents fighting coalition forces until expediency enticed them to work with U.S. armed forces. Some accounts have depicted the Awakening as a failed process aimed at national reconciliation, while alternate interpretations have characterized it oppositely as primarily a Sunni challenge to the Shia-dominated Iraqi central government. While opinions differ, the most significant discussion of the debate concerns the extent to which the Awakening can be a template for replicating the establishment of local defense forces to counter insurgencies. (2)

The problem with using the Awakening as a template for developing counterinsurgency programs elsewhere is that studies of the mechanics of providing support and training often isolate the Anbar Awakening from its historical and cultural contexts that made tribal forces receptive to U.S. support. This begs the question, "Can we apply similar principles again in other circumstances?" I assert that the answer is yes--as long as we are realistic about what the Awakening was and was not, and as long as we account for differences in culture and situational context in such efforts.

Observations on the Anbar Awakening

The synthesis of observations provided in this article are intended to build a greater appreciation for the Anbar Awakening's place in history and to sharpen the way we think about the extent and limits of its potential applicability to other situations.

In the Anbar Awakening (Sahawa), the United States did not create something--it co-opted an indigenous trend. For example, the United States did not create the anti-AQI force that first emerged in western Anbar in 2005. Rather, the U.S. military and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense opportunistically backed an Albu Mahal-led tribal force, which had lost its control over an important town and trading route and had taken the lead on its own to promote general tribal rebellion against AQI. The United States essentially deputized the resisting tribes as an ad hoc military unit and worked with it to fight AQI and reclaim lost land from AQI-affiliated rival tribes. …

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