#Reviewing Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening Story

Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State. Carter Malkasian. NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a litany of innovative ideas and programs: Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Agricultural Development Teams, Cultural Support Teams, and Village Stability Operations, to name just a few. The Anbar Awakening is arguably the most successful of all of the population-centric counterinsurgency movements. It helped spur the marginally successful Afghan Local Police (ALP) program. Despite its success in beating back Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in Anbar and helping spur the Iraq-wide Sons of Iraq (SOI) program, there has been a long debate over the Anbar Awakening narrative.

The conventional Anbar Awakening narrative goes something like this: In 2005, The American military was on the verge of defeat in Anbar due to its own cultural missteps and a tenacious AQI. In 2006, after suffering historic mid-term losses in Congress, President George W. Bush fired Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and replaced him with steely-eyed realist Robert Gates. Gates, in turn, pushed Gen. George Casey aside in Baghdad for Gen. David Petraeus, who had led the writing process for a new DoD counterinsurgency manual. Petraeus began implementing what came to be called population-centric counterinsurgency and this new revolutionary method immediately bore fruit in the sands of Anbar. American heroes like Capt. Travis Patriquin were able to make inroads with disaffected Sunni tribes who perceived that al-Qaeda in Iraq besmirched their honor. These tribes rose up against the jihadists, starting a ground up movement that spread like wildfire, leading to the defeat of al-Qaeda and the stabilization of Iraq.

Carter Malkasian’s Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State examines this fabled story, while also addressing broader questions on the efficacy of America’s counter-insurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carter’s previous book, War Comes to Garmser, is one of the finest books about America’s war in Afghanistan and is a perfect tribute to the Vietnam classic, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province. Carter was a civilian advisor with the Marine Corps in Anbar and later served as Gen. Joseph Dunford’s political advisor in Afghanistan during Dunford’s tenure as the ISAF Commander. Carter’s time in Iraq left him with first-hand knowledge of many of the tribes he writes so eloquently about.

Malkasian’s book traces the origins of the awakening movement. Malkasian argues the United States attempted to foster tribal movements in Anbar prior to the awakening.  However, they repeatedly failed because senior tribal leaders were either supporting Sunni national resistance groups, like Harith al-Duri’s Association of Muslim Scholars (1920th Revolution Brigades), or were too frightened to be associated with the United States. He reiterates that the awakening movement had already gained significant traction before Petraeus took over in Iraq. In fact, Petraeus’ fabled surge didn’t add any Marines into Anbar, but instead extended the tours of those already on the scene.

Former emblems of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, showing the growing Islamic influences over time. | Wikimedia Commons.

Former emblems of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, showing the growing Islamic influences over time. | Wikimedia Commons.

This is an important point that adds much-needed context to the Iraq War narrative. Far too often Petraeus has been credited for bringing counterinsurgency to Iraq.[1] It was Gen. Casey who erected the first counterinsurgency academies in 2006.[2] Then Colonel H.R. McMaster, today a Lieutenant General serving as National Security Advisor, implemented sound counterinsurgency practices in Tal Afar prior to Petraeus’’ arrival.[3] In short, Petraeus didn’t bring COIN to Iraq, though he may have done a better job of implementing it.

Malkasian makes a compelling argument that the Anbar Awakening’s achievements are related to three developments. First, the fallout between al-Qaeda and some of the Sunni tribes provided an opening the Americans deftly exploited. This portion of the story is also prone to exaggeration. Al-Qaeda did commit atrocities against the tribes that rose against them. However, those very tribes committed barbaric acts too. Many of these tribes rose against al-Qaeda because they saw a chance to increase their power in Anbar, not just because their honor was defiled. The al-Rishawi tribe, a minor Sunni tribe, saw their power rise exponentially by aligning with the United States. They reaped the benefits and temporarily restructured the tribal dynamics in Anbar. Sunni tribes who turned against al-Qaeda, like sovereign nations, acted out of self-interest. Second, American troops played a critical role in the movement’s success. The Marines and the Army did the bulk of the fighting. This allowed locally recruited Iraqi police to cultivate trust with disaffected locals. Lastly, the awakening movement succeeded due to the tribes’ cohesion. Earlier efforts faltered due to infighting. If these tribes had dissolved or descended into jockeying for post-war spoils, the movement would have faltered. 

Many of these tribes rose against al-Qaeda because they saw a chance to increase their power in Anbar, not just because their honor was defiled.

One of the issues with the popular narrative of the Anbar Awakening is that it glossed over the amount of support that al-Qaeda originally had in Anbar. Malkasian astutely notes that if al-Qaeda had been more pragmatic, they probably could have splintered the awakening in its infancy. American blindness to al-Qaeda’s popularity led to overconfidence in Iraq’s stability, despite the inherently fickle nature of tribal politics. As the author highlights, the minor tribes who benefited from the awakening tried to cement their newfound power, leading to an inevitable rebalancing of power among the Anbar tribes. Unfortunately, this bickering began to wear down the cohesion that was needed to blunt the rise of the Islamic State.

Malkasian should have provided readers with more context on the rise of the Islamic State. He only devotes one chapter in his book to this issue.  Although the author highlights Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni moves against former Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi and former Minister of Finance Rafi al-Issawi after the United States withdrew its forces in late December 2011, Maliki’s obsession with rooting out the Baathists began far earlier. For example, as early as 2008, Maliki began using his own shock troops to arrest Diyala’s Sunni provincial council members. Maliki’s anti-Baathist policies generated resentment within the Sunni community, resentment that ISIS would later capitalize on in Al Anbar especially.

Carter Malkasian (center) talks with Dan Marston (right) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Carter Malkasian (center) talks with Dan Marston (right) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Maliki also easily sidestepped potential landmines by splitting his Sunni political rivals. I saw this repeatedly during my tour on a Diyala Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2010. Diyala’s Sunni political leaders were too busy jostling for political control and were easily divided by Maliki’s patronage. Countless Sons of Iraq leaders, who were offspring of the Anbar Awakening movement, complained to us repeatedly that provincial leaders did nothing to help them press their issues in Baghdad. In short, the rise of ISIS isn’t just about the staying power of the Anbar Awakening movement, but it is also about Sunni political weakness.

The Illusions of Victory also suffers from a lack of graphics. Malkasian effortlessly moves from one tribe to the next in a single paragraph, showcasing his encyclopedic knowledge of Anbar’s complex tribal networks. However, there are no easily accessible charts that could act as a compass for overwhelmed readers. A simple timeline depicting when certain tribes broke with AQI would also have been immensely helpful.

Despite these issues, Malkasian’s book largely succeeds in analyzing the rise of the Anbar Awakening movement and diagnosing its ultimate failure. Although this book isn’t on par with War Comes to Garmser, it is one of the first salvos in what is likely to be a lengthy battle over the history of the Iraq War and adds much needed context to an often over-hyped story. Malkasian’s efforts are to be commended. His book should be read as a cautionary tale for policy makers and senior officers who often see tribal militias as an easy fix to complex problems. The story of the Anbar Awakening is remarkable without hyperbole. American forces showed tenacity and not only outfought their adversary but also politically outmaneuvered them in a foreign culture. That is a feat that has not been repeated in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Will Selber is an Air Force Foreign Area Officer and a former Afghan Hand. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.

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Header Image: Approximately 1000 tribal leaders, government leaders, Iraqi military leaders and senior Army leaders gathered together at the second installment of the Northwest Baghdad Regional Security Summit at an Iraqi Police station in Nassir Wa Salam, Iraq, Dec. 6. 2007 | U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. William Greer, 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Combat Camera


[1] Victor Davis Hanson, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost—from Ancient Greece to Iraq, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[2] Thomas Ricks, “U.S. Counterinsurgency Academy Giving Officers a New Mind-Set,” Washington Post, 21 February 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/20/AR2006022001303.html.

[3] George Packer, “The Lesson of Tal Afar: Is it too late for the Administration to correct its course in Iraq?” The New Yorker, April 10 2006, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/10/the-lesson-of-tal-afar.