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Excerpt From ‘Illusions of Victory’: Here’s Why the Iraqi Awakening Broke Down

In Iraq, the U.S invasion toppled over society and let sectarian dynamics run their course.

(Cover of Illusions of Victory by Carter Malkasian. Publisher: Oxford University Press. )
(Cover of Illusions of Victory by Carter Malkasian. Publisher: Oxford University Press. )

Today, study of why the awakening succeeded is overshadowed by the rise of the Islamic State. Indeed, rather than understanding the causes of success, the greatest value of studying Ramadi and the awakening is understanding what happened eight years later. Study illuminates why the great victory collapsed. Three reasons stand out. Each can be detected in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

The first and most obvious is that Maliki’s government turned against the Sunnis. The defensiveness of Shi’a politicians and parties in the wake of decades of Sunni oppression — a manifestation of the sectarian divide — propelled Maliki to ill-advised lengths. By striking at key Sunni politicians and political interests, he endangered Anbar’s political representation and created a fatal rift between the tribal movement and the government. Maliki tried to mitigate the rift by appeasing Anbar leaders in 2012 and then trying to help Ahmed al-Rishawi in 2014. He failed. His actions induced a popular reaction that peeled away tribes and gave the Islamic State space to grow power­ful. Consequently, the government found itself fighting the tribes at the moment of the Islamic State assault. Without the tribes, the army lacked numbers and popular support. Without the army, the tribes lacked heavy firepower. Divided, they fell…

The second reason that the Islamic State could conquer Anbar is that the awakening movement could neither sustain nor hold itself together. The tribal leaders were a small elite that needed both money and guns to quiet most of the population. Their personal resources — based on the black-market and business — were limited. Once U.S dollars and forces disappeared, their ability to keep Sunnis behind them and prevent the Islamic State from regaining ground diminished. The level of power that they could self-sustain was insufficient. On top of this, the tribal leaders feuded and competed with each other. These feuds were in the nature of the tribal system. When confronted with the Islamic State, the propensity was toward division rather than coming together for the sake of a common good. The tribes went their own way. Unity had been their last hope of holding out against the Islamic State…

The third and last reason for the conquest of Anbar is that AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) and then the Islamic State enjoyed a critical mass of Sunni support. The Islamic State proved to have sufficient roots and appeal in Anbar to hold its own against the tribes and the government. The movement could endure, gradually re-energized by the sectarian strife and Syrian civil war, until its adversaries imploded.

The depth of support for AQI was grounded in 2005 and 2006. During those years, AQI rose up on its own and overwhelmed the tribes. The net­work managed to dominate Ramadi, gaining widespread support from locals. AQI gathered this momentum naturally, with limited outside help, thanks in part to ideology. Sunnis may have questioned the AQI version of Islam, but jihad against the infidel appears to have been inspiring. The appeal to Islam drew followers just as kinship drew people to the tribes. The difference was that Islam held universal legitimacy whereas kinship pertained solely to a tribesman’s tribe. On this score, AQI, with its unre­lenting commitment to jihad and young energetic imams, outbid the more secular resistance and the tribal leaders, who were rarely known for their piety. Tribal links and shaykhly authority had difficulty competing until U.S commanders started empowering the tribal leaders—a fact that Americans forgot in the exhilaration of the awakening when the tribes appeared victorious. In reality, AQI had a sustainability that surpassed that of the tribes.

The larger lesson is that internal cultural, historical, and social dynamics — sectarian divides, age-old tribalism, and the influence of groups claiming Islamic legitimacy — could not be re-directed in the span of a few years. The very name “the awakening” imagines an event that sets history on a better course. I remember well the sense among American civilian officials and military officers in 2007 that the people of Anbar had awoken to the dangers of extremism and decided to stand up for them­selves and against violence. Today, the awakening seems to have changed very little. It appears to have succumbed to the very sectarian, tribal, and religious forces that many thought it had overcome.

The awakening and its aftermath also serve as a reminder that inter­vention has a strong potential to cause instability and harm. In Iraq, the U.S invasion toppled over society and let sectarian, tribal, and religious dynamics run their course. The United States had neither the patience nor the endurance to wrestle with these dynamics over decades in order to enforce some kind of stability or insure its own glorious victories. The people of Anbar would have been better off had the United States stayed out of Iraq in the first place.

Excerpted, with permission, from Illusions of Victory by Carter Malkasian. Copyright 2017, published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1