TWQ: The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives - Winter 2009

Until 2007, the most violent region of insurgent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq had been al Anbar, the largely rural, expansive western province  stretching from the outskirts of Baghdad to Iraq’s lengthy, mostly unsecured desert borders with Sunni-dominated Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. In what is most easily described as a marriage of convenience, Sunni insurgents and foreign Sunni al Qaeda fighters in al Anbar had formed a strategic and tactical alliance against what was perceived as an occupation by the United States or, more pointedly, against the occupation of a Muslim land by a largely Christian force, a deep affront  to traditional Muslim values harkening back to the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Iraqis in al Anbar provided local knowledge, logistics, and  up to 95 percent of the personnel, while experienced foreign al Qaeda fighters provided training, expertise, and financing. The pitch was simple: “We are Sunni. You are Sunni. The Americans and Iranians are helping the Shi‘a – let’s fight them together.”

Yet, as al Qaeda continued its campaign of deadly intimidation, and slowly but surely began taking control of money-making activities traditionally held by the tribes, this alliance began to wear thin. As early as 2005, tribal leaders in al Anbar began quietly forming working alliances with U.S. military forces against al Qaeda. Then, in September  2006, an Iraqi-led coalition of Sunni tribal sheikhs in al Anbar publicly announced their split with al Qaeda and began working with U.S.  military forces to oust the foreign-led terrorist group. These tribal sheikhs, with hordes of dedicated armed militiamen at their disposal, combined with U.S. forces to oust al Qaeda from the region in literally a  few months, succeeding in a task that had eluded U.S. forces for four hard-fought years. Today, al Anbar is one of the least violent regions in all of Iraq. U.S. Marines stationed there are known to complain of a lack of things to do because there are so few firefights and incidents to which they must respond.

The U.S. military’s new approach toward courting Sunni tribal leaders and the sheikhs’ newfound appreciation of the United States as an ally combined to produce dramatic regional changes in record time. The success in al Anbar has been heralded by military commanders, politicians, and analysts alike, with subsequent similar efforts in other regions of Iraq meeting with varying degrees of success. The strategy of building alliances with local tribal leaders and reconciling  with former fighters has been mentioned by newly appointed head of U.S.  Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus, as an important option in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan against the resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda. The alliance and allegiance of tribal leaders, both Sunni and Shi‘a throughout Iraq, is tenuous but remarkably effective at reducing violence. Although it remains to be seen whether these tribal militias can be successfully converted to state-run security forces or a  civilian sector job force, the hard-earned lessons from both sides on how to form an alliance to reduce violence and root out destabilizing extremists certainly merit closer examination.  

John A. McCary