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Finding A Winning
Counterinsurgency
Strategy

By Andrew Peters

 

On March 23, 2003, America began the invasion of Iraq.  What was supposed to be a quick and decisive victory eventually turned into one of the longest wars in American history.  By March of 2006, it was so clear that the war was being planned wrongly that six former generals who had served in the Iraq theatre were calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation.  On November 8, 2006, President George W. Bush acknowledged some mishandling when he announced the appointment of Robert Gates saying, “He’ll provide the department with a fresh perspective and new ideas on how America can achieve our goals in Iraq.”

However, a new perspective on counterinsurgency strategies had already taken hold in many parts of the Defense Department.  One part of this new counterinsurgency doctrine was an “Awakening Movement” which began when tribes turned to the United States for economic and military assistance to fight the terrorists and install law and order back.  This strategy incorporated cultural and economic incentives as a way to bring the country on the side of the Americans.  It paid salaries to militias to work for the government as part of the “Sons of Iraq.”  Tribal leaders (sheiks) were given economic incentives to join the American cause and turn against the extremists in Iraq.  These incentives drastically improved the situation in Iraq almost instantaneously.  As the United States created incentive structures that led tribal Sheiks to ally with the coalition forces, al Qaeda was abandoned by their local support and became incapable of fighting coalition forces effectively.

As security improved in Iraq, President Bush and Secretary Gates announced a “surge” of 20,000 troops to be sent to the country to clamp down on the insurgency in early 2007.  Between January of 2007 and January of 2008, American casualties decreased 54 percent. Over the next year they decreased another 60 percent. As a result of the surge and local support, the economy of Iraq picked up and the government and civil services started functioning again. This article will look at the historical record and find the reasons for these results, specifically focusing on Anbar Province where the awakening and troop surge were particularly important.

The first attempt at an alliance between a sheik and the United States in early 2005 did not go very well.  Sheik Fasal al Gaood came to the American Military early that year with a proposition: let the members of his tribe help rout al Qaeda in the city of Qa’im on the Syrian border.  McClatchy Newspapers surmised that this was likely a way to get patronage jobs for his tribesman.  It also would have given him and his tribe an opportunity to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq from Syria, thus giving him more opportunities for the black market activities that enriched these tribes in the pre-occupation years.  Unfortunately, despite the great potential of a US-tribal alliance, the battle at Qa’im, known as Operation Matador, was a failure.  The offensive was uncoordinated, and many Marines appear not to have even known about the alliance.  They destroyed large, friendly sections of Qa’im and alienated many civilians.  It would take more than a year before a successful alliance was formed in Anbar in September 2006, when al Gaood and others joined forces, creating the Anbar Salvation Council.  Sadly, because of his efforts to help the United States, al Gaood was assassinated by al Qaeda in June 2007.  McClatchy wrote in his obituary, “Whether he was an opportunist eager for the rewards of American friendship, a patriot dedicated to cleansing al Qaeda from his area or both, al Gaood didn’t abandon his tribal strategy for restoring calm to Anbar.” 

A more successful attempt occurred in 2006 when Col. Sean MacFarland was sent to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province.  By this time Ramadi was a hotbed of insurgency, and the United States had all but pulled out of the city, leaving Iraqi security forces to fight the battle themselves.  Col. MacFarland refused to accept this and began to think about the city in a different way.  He was the perfect commanding officer to forge an alliance between the United States and the tribes.  He was lucky to be put in a city where a tribal sheik was also becoming tired of fighting al Qaeda. In September of 2006, Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was sick of al Qaeda and called a meeting of sheiks to discuss the matter.  Over 50 showed up.  Col. MacFarland was at the meeting and later equated it to July 4, 1776 when the United States declared their independence from England.  The Awakening Movement was essentially founded at this meeting and a decrease in violence soon followed. 

Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was a Sheik of the Dulaimi tribe in Ramadi. However, he did not have purely altruistic reasons for allying with the United States.  “Sattar himself was a smuggler and highway robber, and a fairly minor sheikh...Sattar had previously been willing to work with al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but began to clash with the group as it muscled on his illegal revenue.”  The Washington Post says that many regarded him as a “warlord and a highway bandit, an oil smuggler and an opportunist.”  It also points out that Abu Risha was likely allied with al Qaeda in the early years of the war until that became bad for business.  Despite his personal flaws and previous business interests, “Sattar and his new alliance were soon supported by the coalition. The US military helped to protect Sattar, and the government of Iraq embraced him, albeit reluctantly, as well.  Sattar eventually was made the counterinsurgency coordinator for the province, his tribesmen joined the Iraqi Police around Ramadi in droves, and his militias were formally deputized as ‘Emergency Response Units’. A blind eye was turned to Sattar’s extralegal revenue generation.”

If Sheik Sattar was the Iraqi face of the Anbar Awakening, then Col. Sean MacFarland of the US Army was the American face. In the March-April 2008 edition of Military Review Col. MacFarland and Maj. Niel Smith wrote an article titled, “Anbar Awakening: The Tipping Point” which gives their account of what lead to the success of the movement. It begins by acknowledging that, “When we arrived in Ramadi in June 2006, few of us thought our campaign would change the entire complexion of the war and push al Qaeda to the brink of defeat in Iraq.” However, they did just that by creating relationships with Sheiks such as Sattar who could provide police forces and pacify the population. MacFarland and his group understood the tribal relations within Anbar. They did not overstep their boundaries or do anything to antagonize the powerful sheiks whose support they desperately needed. MacFarland writes, “We designed our information operations (IO) efforts to alienate the people from the insurgents while increasing the prestige of supportive tribal leaders. We also made friendly Sheiks the conduits for humanitarian aid efforts, such as free fuel disbursements. Wherever we established improved security, we established civil military operations centers (CMOCs) and began the process of restoring services to the area” This was very different to the previous counterinsurgency strategies that often were undermined by disturbing the hierarchical culture and alienating powerful sheiks. In Anbar, the Americans accepted that in order to have the Sheiks provide security, they would have to be compensated with rewards and prestige.

The main goal of the awakening in Anbar was to encourage the sheiks to build a local police force known as the Sons of Iraq (SOI). A police force and national army are very different things. A police force is recruited from the neighborhoods they are going to patrol and shares the same culture and values and the residents. To recruit police from the locals it was necessary that the local sheiks received something in return. MacFarland goes on, “Our desire to recruit local Iraqis into the IP (Iraqi Police) was the catalyst for the Awakening movement’s birth in September 2006…In the bargain, the Government of Iraq would assume the burden of paying their tribesmen to provide for their security. The situation was a winner any way you looked at it. The tribes soon saw that instead of being the hunted, they could become the hunters, with well trained, paid, and equipped security forces backed up by locally positioned coalition forces.”

By 2007, the coalition and central government was pouring millions of dollars in to Anbar for reconstruction and security projects that Abu Risha oversaw in his new position as counterinsurgency coordinator for the province.  After almost four years of an insurgency, the population started supporting the security forces. Carter Malkasian, a military adviser on security forces in Anbar, points out, “In return for backing the police, the Iraqi government gave local Sunni leaders greater military, economic, and political power. Doing so was a necessary step in inducing Sunni leaders to support the police, and it enabled those leaders to get more members of their community to join the police and stand against AQI. In Ramadi, Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki backed Sittar and openly met with the leaders of his tribal movement.  The government effectively granted Sittar economic power by turning a blind eye when he regained control of criminal activity along the highways near Ramadi, which AQI had disturbed. At the end of October 2006, the Ministry of the Interior granted Sittar authority over security in Al Anbar and permitted his movement to create three “emergency” battalions, totaling 2,250 men. This was a huge concession. For all intents and purposes, the government was permitting Sittar and his movement to have their own militia. These three emergency battalions were particularly useful for Sattar.  It gave him a patronage army by allowing him to employ people who were illiterate, underage, or overweight and thus ineligible for other forces. MacFarland says that the most frequent disqualifier for service in the police was illiteracy. These battalions gave them a chance to serve with their tribesmen. By November 2006, just two months after the Awakenings first meeting, there were nearly 3,000 men in the police, in training, or on awaiting shipment. This was thirty times the number just six months earlier in May. They were paid a salary of about $300 a month, leading to positive economic benefits for the entire community. It should be noted that in exchange for providing these police forces, Sheiks took a commission of their salaries sometimes as much as 20 percent. But that is a price of doing business in Anbar.

As expected, the police were much more effective at fighting the insurgency than the Army. In the January-February 2010 issue of Military Review, Col. Anthony Deane, who served in Iraq, listed some of the many advantages. “Police recruiting could quickly provide success on a number of lines of effort. First, we would increase the economic development by providing respectable jobs to young men, thereby lessening the likelihood of Al-Qaeda paying them to attack coalition forces. Second, we would build the government’s legitimacy by having the government pay the Iraqi Police salaries, making the populace less likely to dismiss the government as unrepresentative. Third, we would improve security by having buy-in of the local population in their own security. The locals knew who belonged in their area and who was doing harm to the coalition. They could identify the enemy when U.S. forces were simply incapable of doing so…” Col. MacFarland gave even more reasons, “Our ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] cell understood the importance of paying the new police to prove that they were respected and their service valued. As a collateral benefit, the growing IP [Iraqi Police] force also created a small engine for economic development by providing jobs in addition to security for the local community.” The Iraqi police were also able to gain valuable intelligence because of their local connections and relationships in the community. They were also much more knowledgeable about the neighborhood which gave them an advantage over al Qaeda. Because Anbar society is so tight knit and the geography is so challenging al Qaeda needed this local support to prosper. One Sheik summarized this logic at a meeting of a tribal alliance he took the microphone and announced, ‘‘If it was not for the coyotes among us, no one would have been killed, kidnapped, or bombed. You know who among you brought the Yemeni with the suicide vest.’’

The awakening had such a good first year that in September 2007, the central government pledged $70 million for rapid economic reconstruction and $50 million in compensation for destroyed housing in Anbar Province.  6,000 new civilian jobs were approved for the province as well.  In addition, the government promised to reopen an oil refinery, accelerate the building of an electric plant and create two free-trade zones on Anbar’s border with Syria and Jordan.  In late 2007 the Army announced the Sons of Iraq program was going so well that they wanted to expand it by about 10,000 people before they turned over the program to the Iraqis in 2008. The Sons of Iraq could not muster about 100,000 people. For 2008, the United States also contributed about $150 million to sponsor tribal proxies. It is no surprise that as money and police poured into the province, the violence continued to plummet.

It is unclear exactly how the Sons of Iraq will impact Iraq’s future stability. Before the March 2010 elections, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made Iraq’s security a key plank in his platform. To this end, money was allocated to pay the salaries and find job placement for all of the former SOI members, which the government says totals 96,000 people. As of January 2010, almost 50,000 of them had been integrated permanently into the government. 15,000 had joined security forces such as the police and army, and 33,000 had found work in other government ministries.

To complement the awakening, a surge in troop levels was devised to protect the sheiks and destroy the remnants of al Qaeda. In January 2007, President Bush announced the troop surge in Iraq. On January 23rd in his State of the Union Address the President specifically alluded to Anbar when promoting the surge saying, “We’re carrying out a new strategy in Iraq…we’re deploying reinforcements of more than 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Iraq. The vast majority will go to Baghdad, where they will help Iraqi forces to clear and secure neighborhoods, and serve as advisers embedded in Iraqi army units. With Iraqis in the lead, our forces will help secure the city by chasing down terrorists, insurgents and the roaming death squads. And, in Anbar province -- where Al Qaida terrorists have gathered and local forces have begun showing a willingness to fight them -- we are sending an additional 4,000 United States Marines, with orders to find the terrorists and clear them out.” These extra troops allowed the United States to enter cities that they had all but abandoned. Weapons stashes were found at accelerated rates. This meant there were fewer weapons for al Qaeda and made the cities and security forces safer. Most importantly, people were able to take their cities back from the terrorists.

By the fall of 2007, violence was down to 20 percent of what it had been a year earlier in some areas. A Department of Defense Press Release in July 2007 states, “The security situation in Anbar province has greatly improved in recent months, thanks to additional U.S. troops provided by the surge and the growing presence of trained and vetted Iraqi soldiers and police... Statistics show that daily insurgent-generated violence, as measured by small-arms, mortar and improvised-explosive-device attacks, has decreased in Anbar since this time last year...”

As of April 2010, Anbar is one of the safest provinces in Iraq. In the third quarter of last year there was an average of just over 1 attack a day. But the decrease in violence is useless unless it is accompanied by political stability. Al Qaeda still operates and the threat of sectarian violence is still very real. But the March 2010 national elections give hope for the future. The two leading party lists, Allawi’s nonsectarian alliance and al-Maliki’s Shiite Party of State, both denounce sectarianism and claim to represent Iraqi nationalism. Additionally, lists that were associated with sectarianism, Iran, or American interests did poorly. The elections did have problems, however, such as allegations of former Ba’athists on Allawi’s list and voter fraud by al-Maliki’s list. However, violence has not increased yet as a result of the election which is cause for hope.

President Barack Obama campaigned on the promise of withdrawing troops from Iraq. This plan is behind schedule, but will be starting soon. This spring, 10,000 troops are supposed to leave the country every month for five months, halving America’s military presence. The remainder should leave the country in 2011. After that deadline, Iraq’s security and political future will be up to them. In 2007 when Iraq was preparing to take over the Sons of Iraq program, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said of national security, “It is an Iraqi responsibility, this is the right thing to do, it is not an American responsibility.” Indeed, Iraq is now the Iraqi’s responsibility. We can only hope our strategies over the last couple years have left the country stable enough to have a promising future.