Iraq’s Flawed Liberation of Fallujah
A decade ago, I was on the front lines in Anbar Province as U.S. forces developed the blueprint for defeating al Qaeda. Today, the Iraqi government is ignoring all the lessons we learned.
Jihadis proclaim a caliphate! Can the terrorists be defeated? Anbar province is in ruins! These headlines from 10 years ago could easily appear today. As a battalion commander in Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi at the beginning of what would become known as the Anbar Awakening, I was on the front lines of the last fight against Sunni jihadis — and saw firsthand what it took to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq.
Iraq desperately needs to relearn the lessons from that era to win its war against the Islamic State. Today, Ramadi lies in ruins after a combination of Iraqi forces supported by U.S. air power, some Sunni tribal fighters, and Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces wrested it from Islamic State control. The city of 400,000 people was destroyed in order to liberate it — and now Fallujah faces a similar fate, as Iraqi forces pushed farther into the city over the weekend. The limited reporting coming out of the area tells a story of atrocities against civilians from both the Islamic State and Shiite militias.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. Here are three lessons I learned in Ramadi that should inform the fight against the Islamic State today:
Killing off terrorist leaders is only a short-term fix. The day my battalion took charge of the western approaches to Ramadi in June 2006, coalition forces killed the emir of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in an airstrike. Zarqawi was both ruthless and media-savvy: In the months before his death, he posted videos of the beheadings of Westerners and Iraqis alike on the internet, striking fear into the Iraqi population and elevating the stature of his organization. Coalition forces had no answer to his media blitz, and success bred success. Jihadis worldwide flocked to al Qaeda in Iraq, throwing the country further into chaos.
In Ramadi, we saw the enemy fighting us as being divided between two groups. There were secular Iraqi Sunnis who had been disenfranchised by the Coalition Provisional Authority’s disastrous de-Baathification policies; we called this group the mujahideen. Then there were the religiously motivated fighters drawn by the global jihad. By the time we arrived, the mujahideen were under the control of the ruthless men of al Qaeda in Iraq. The locals were more scared of a Shiite-led and Iranian-dominated Iraqi government than rule by Sunni jihadis, and begrudgingly accepted the latter’s rule while looking for a way out of the situation.
Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, is remembered by history as a substandard evil mastermind. In his defense, however, his tenure as leader of al Qaeda in Iraq was wrecked by two events that nobody could have easily foreseen. First was the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council, under the leadership of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, which coalesced Sunni tribal leaders to confront the jihadis. This required rebuilding both political and security institutions, like the city’s broken police force, which proved exceptionally competent in rooting out terrorists. Abu Risha would speak to Iraqis in a tone that coalition forces were unwilling or unable to use, stiffening the people’s resolve by quoting the Quran and telling them the streets would run red with the blood of their enemies. The rhetoric of the Awakening Council helped rally the people of Ramadi, then Anbar province, followed by the nation — both Sunni and Shiite — around a vision of a more peaceful and democratic Iraq.
The second setback for al Qaeda in Iraq was the “surge” beginning in January 2007, when President George W. Bush increased the number of troops across Iraq when American popular opinion called for a pullout from the conflict. This new military offensive capitalized on the political success of the Anbar Awakening and reinforced it across the country. Masri and his organization would continue to fight coalition troops and terrorize Iraqis for three more years. But by the time of his death in 2010, the coalition’s price tag on Masri’s head had dropped from $5 million to a paltry $100,000. Al Qaeda in Iraq was on the run, with only a few true believers scattered throughout the country.
Fast-forward four years after Masri’s death, however, and al Qaeda in Iraq had become more lethal than ever. The organization captured Fallujah and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as part of a two-country blitz that would see their influence spread farther than ever before. Today, the successor organization’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proven himself even more capable, more ruthless, and more media savvy than his mentor, Zarqawi.
The Iraqi government is now trying to retake Anbar without many of the tools that U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies possessed in 2006 and 2007. It lacks a strong counter-narrative to the jihadis, which the Awakening Council previously provided. Most critically, it lacks a strong local force of Sunnis supporting the government, due to the well-documented sectarian behavior of Iraqi leaders in Baghdad since 2011. While the Iraqi government may be successful in the short term in pushing back the Islamic State — and might even succeed in killing Baghdadi — these weaknesses suggest that it will struggle to contain whoever replaces him.
Before there can be peace, there needs to be a political solution. In 2006, we had a lofty but clearly defined mission: to establish a democratic, safe, and secure Iraq. By operating from small combat outposts, working with local leaders, and re-establishing the Iraqi security forces, specifically the local police, we were able to turn the tide in Anbar Province. Within a year of our arrival, the provincial capital of Ramadi went from the most dangerous city in the world to being safe enough for Iraqis to run a five-kilometer race down Route Michigan, formerly called “IED Alley.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, would wreck the atmosphere of inclusiveness we had worked so painstakingly to create. The day after the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011, Maliki repeated the worst of the CPA’s actions and began alienating the Sunni minority by trumping up charges against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, purging competent Sunni leaders from the military and government positions and sending the Iraqi Army into Anbar province to kill “terrorists” — which by his definition meant Sunni. The rise of the Islamic State is directly attributable to Maliki’s ill-fated decisions during this period.
The beaten-down remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq seized the opportunity. The people of Anbar province again faced a choice: Side with an Iranian-controlled Shiite government in Baghdad they believed was hellbent on oppressing them, or throw in with the devil they knew — the Sunni jihadis.
Baghdadi and his followers expertly seized on regular citizens’ grievances to expand their power. When Fallujah fell to the Islamic State in January 2014, there were only a few hundred die-hard jihadi fighters in the city. They were battling both the Iraqi government forces and Awakening Council tribal forces, who were amid a year-long, mostly peaceful rebellion against the Iraqi government. Sadly, some Sunni tribal forces — having grown impatient with the peaceful methods of the Awakening Council — later joined with the Islamic State to resist what they saw as an illegitimate government in Baghdad.
By the time Maliki resigned the following August, the Islamic State controlled large swaths of Iraq. The new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, came to power with the promise of creating a more inclusive government, but has been unable to alter the perception that the Baghdad government is unresponsive to the interests of Iraq’s ethnic minorities, especially Arab Sunnis. Judging from the way the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr recently stormed the Iraqi Parliament, Abadi still has work to do in establishing his legitimacy among Iraq’s Shiite community, much less its Sunnis.
It’s telling that Abadi recently had the Iraqi military change course from expelling the Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, to clearing Fallujah — a shift that isn’t a military necessity but seemingly an attempt by Abadi to shore up support with his Shiite base, which is bent on retribution against the Sunnis for centuries of oppression and fundamental religious differences.
Bringing stability to Iraq is a long-term commitment. Iraq’s problems cannot be solved on the timeline of American election cycles. We have been attacking Iraq on and off for the past 25 years, starting with Operation Desert Storm and now with Operation Inherent Resolve.
Defeating the Islamic State is a worthy goal, but what happens then? An Iran-dominated Iraq will serve as a breeding ground for Sunni jihad and help ignite a regional Sunni-Shiite sectarian war. Just as defeating al Qaeda in Iraq or killing Osama bin Laden only made the threat shift forms, the defeat of the Islamic State could only lead to a new jihadi group taking its place. After all, modern jihad started with a half-dozen or so veterans of the Afghan war sitting around a table in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1988 and has grown into a worldwide movement.
The United States needs to recognize that the jihadi problem is not going away. Defeating it will require a sustained commitment by an international coalition — specifically one that includes Muslim nations — to stop the cancer from growing. This is what happened on the micro-level in Ramadi in 2006 and 2007. Establishing a similar project across Iraq will take years — just as stabilizing Germany, Japan, Italy, and South Korea in the 20th century took decades.
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