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September 2, 2008


Understanding Iraq Through Anbar's Lens

With Anbar Security Handed To Iraq, A Look At Iraq In Plain Terms

By Steve Schippert | September 2, 2008

On Monday, control of Anbar province and responsibility for security there was handed over to Provincial Iraqi Control. This is a profoundly remarkable event, as al-Anbar province – the onetime headquarters for al-Qaeda in Iraq – was seen by many as lost due to security and political conditions on the ground.

And with Anbar now handed to Iraqis to manage security, it is appropriate to take a larger look at Iraq, and one from an Anbar-centric perspective. For Anbar was considered the tallest task of all less than two years ago. And what happened there to turn it around should be considered and applied where it can and in the manner that it can elsewhere -- in and beyond Iraq -- going forward.

Iraq Awakening: The Ground-Up Security Evolution

An otherwise sadly commonplace July story in the New York Times was actually illustrative of the current situation in Iraq. It clearly demonstrated that al-Qaeda in Iraq is still capable of executing deadly bombings, but was less clear in demonstrating how and why al-Qaeda is now unable to coordinate its terrorist operations, regularly communicate, and is wholly incapable of taking control of swaths of territory and entire Iraqi towns and villages as it once did.

In late July, the Diyala province city of Baquba north of Baghdad was rocked the second time in a month with an explosion so forceful that it was thought to have been a car bomb. But it appears, once again, that this attack was also a massive suicide vest - this time worn by a female terrorist. In late June, the target was Iraqi police officers in Baquba. But in the July attack, the target was al-Qaeda in Iraq's even more menacing foe, the Iraq Awakening.
What is the significance of Baquba? It became al-Qaeda's alternate headquarters north of Baghdad after being driven out of Ramadi and the rest of Anbar province.

Comprised of Iraqi sheiks and their tribesmen known as the Sons of Iraq, the Iraq Awakening [See clarifying note below] - which grew from the original Anbar Salvation Council - remains al-Qaeda's most important target and reviled enemy. It was these otherwise ordinary Iraqis who made the stand in Ramadi which changed the Iraqi terrain and reversed al-Qaeda's fortunes and Iraq's.

For the old rule still applies: A cornered dog is the most deadly one to encounter. And Iraqi's in Ramadi were just that: Cornered dogs with nothing left to lose, surrounded by a superior and sadistic irhabi (terrorist) enemy who had executed entire families that dared oppose - or fail to support - al-Qaeda.

Where once al-Qaeda ruled with quaking fear, the tables have been turned. Completely. Nothing illustrates this reality more than the handover of Anbar to Iraqi control this week. Where Iraqis once dared not speak certain things in public because brutal al-Qaeda and their ruthless allies seemed potentially everywhere, now the opposite is true.

The Scattered Dogs of al-Qaeda in Iraq

Al-Qaeda is now a withering group, driven from edge to edge by a population no longer at their mercy and no longer afraid to stand up, confident that American and Iraqi forces arrived to stay, to protect them.

Without sanctuary, lacking coordination, choked from resources and facing a crushing loss of confidence and support from al-Qaeda's senior leadership within its global headquarters in the wild frontiers of Pakistan's mountain ranges, al-Qaeda in Iraq faces desperation and dire straits.

They are clearly still capable of deadly attacks, with suicide vests so powerful they are being mistaken for car bombs. However, while the loss of life and injury to Iraqis in each bombing is difficult to endure, for al-Qaeda, the whole of their desperate efforts is less than the sum of its parts. Tactical successes with strategic insignificance.

For, unlike the Iraqi citizens of Ramadi who stood, fought and died in defiance of al-Qaeda like cornered dogs with nothing to lose, al-Qaeda is now instead an organization of scattered dogs, with no human concentration let alone haven from which to spring.

And this is how a counterinsurgency strategy transitions to one of counterterrorism.

Insurgency v. Terrorism

You see, an insurgency is an organized armed opposition that poses a threat to a sovereign government. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, among other disparate groups, sought to topple the Iraqi government by rendering it ineffective and moot, perceived as unable to defend its people.

Terrorism is a tactic - the tactic of choice for al-Qaeda - that is employed to target the civilian population in order to intimidate and deter grassroots opposition to the insurgency efforts as well as to recruit or conscript fighters. In order to win the insurgency and thereby defeat America, al-Qaeda was required to freeze the Iraqi population with mortal fear through terrorism, which it attempted to do through bombings, public crucifixions, torture, rape executions and the like.

Terrorism is a vital part of the insurgency, not the other way around. For instance, without the insurgency, terrorism can live on, and does elsewhere, for it is an act. But without the ability to coordinate and perpetrate pervasive waves of terrorism, the insurgency in Iraq is dead. How else would groups instill fear and impact events and policy?

Moving Forward with Lessons Learned

This is where we are today. Al-Qaeda, and any other terrorist group, is well capable of pulling off the spectacular attack. And it will undoubtedly make discouraging headlines in print and on television. But what they are no longer capable of doing is coordinating for waves of attacks to stagger a population into abject fear and intimidation. Nor are they capable of taking and holding entire villages, conscripting young male adults and slaughtering the families of those who refuse. That is where Iraq was in 2006 and very early 2007. No more.

How welcome it is to have the problem of what to do with upwards of 70,000 armed 'Sons of Iraq' now that their respective neighborhoods are relatively quiet and peaceful. Barely over a year ago, the alternative was the prospect of their towns and cities surrendered to al-Qaeda's terrorist enslavement and outright American defeat there. When considering the challenges today and tomorrow, this perspective must be applied.

Was it 'The Surge' that brought such a dramatic change and reversal of fortunes? If you think of 'The Surge' as a troop count, then no. But if you think of 'The Surge' as a conscious decision to change strategies and leave our bases and protect entire swaths of the Iraqi population from al-Qaeda, and thereby giving them the confidence - and armed support - necessary to fight back for their streets, neighborhoods, towns and cities, then yes. It was 'The Surge.'

If we properly apply the lessons learned in Iraq and account for cultural and other unique differences, the same basic human factors that caused the Iraqis to feel confident enough to rise up and defeat a terrorist insurgency campaign are the same basic human factors which will ultimately defeat terrorists in other insurgencies elsewhere.

Like, say, in Afghanistan.

[Note: To demonstrate how easy it is to conflate the Sons of Iraq with the Iraq Awakening political movement, my own words above fail in this regard. I wrote: "Comprised of Iraqi sheiks and their tribesmen known as the Sons of Iraq, the Iraq Awakening - which grew from the original Anbar Salvation Council..." This is regrettable on my part and something I will discuss in detail shortly. For now, I should simply say in clarification that the Sons of Iraq (SoI) are those that comprised and comprise the 'neighborhood watch-like' very localized groups. And that the term 'Sons of Iraq' is used by the American military to describe them, not by the Iraqis, generally. The Iraq Awakening is a political movement, and yes many of the 'Sons of Iraq' are a part of that organization. But many of them are part of rival political organizations, such as the Iraq Islamic Party, which has been the elected political authority in Anbar since the 2005 elections. I regret making the same error in language above that I have privately criticized others in making, most notably the New York Times. I noticed this and failed to edit for clarity before publishing. My apologies to readers. More on this important distinction soon.]

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