It’s an Anbar Thing (not an AQ or U.S. thing)
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News of al Qaeda’s dramatic return to Iraq’s Anbar Province last week has reopened many old wounds. After years of brutal fighting there that bought an uneasy peace, many Americans are wondering what it all was for. The apparent “fall” of Fallujah to fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) strikes an especially bitter blow for many American veterans, not to mention the Iraqi troops they fought alongside and the Iraqi civilians they protected. According to Iraqi police sources, ISIS also holds significant ground in Ramadi and has taken the blood-soaked town of Karmah that lies between Fallujah and Baghdad. Perhaps the most chilling report is that insurgents attacked an Iraqi army convoy on the Baghdad-Fallujah highway, taking three tanks and demonstrating the intent to once again isolate Anbar from the rest of the country.
This has all the makings of a great made-for-TV foreign policy debacle: al Qaeda as the catch-all boogeyman, a wasted sacrifice/let down the troops narrative, and best of all, the accusation that this is all America’s and especially President Obama’s fault. “Power Vacuum Lifts Militants,” the headlines will read, neatly tying in the upheaval in Anbar with the chaos in Syria and growing violence in Lebanon. By leaving Iraq and not acting decisively in Syria, the United States has left a vacuum that is being filled by militants playing out a proxy war between an emboldened Iran and a fearful and rankled Saudi Arabia. Maps are being redrawn, Sykes-Picot is unraveling, and the great Sunni-Shi’a showdown has come.
While some—though certainly not all—of this may be true in a more nuanced telling, we Americans must disabuse ourselves of the notion that everything that happens in the world comes to pass because of something we did or failed to do. Second, we have to stop telling current events in the voice of a high school history book, where by necessity anything worth telling has to be part of, and determined by, the broad trends of the day and the region. High school history books aren’t a place for nuance and specificity…nor is our current foreign policy narrative. Instead, we must look past ourselves and the shiny events of the day to understand the local and specific conditions that shape even the most important events.
Turning back to Anbar, there is no denying that the al Qaeda resurgence in Iraq in the form of ISIS is linked to the war in Syria and thus to larger regional dynamics playing out there. Yet, the ISIS flare-up in Anbar is only a symptom of the much deeper and specifically Iraqi problem: the meltdown of the long-simmering standoff between the Anbari tribes and the Nuri al-Maliki government. The ISIS swoop into the Sunni triangle is a move by a margin player sensing a moment of opportunity. Furthermore, while many Anbari tribes have vowed to fight the ISIS interlopers to the death, this does not mean they are truly allied with the Maliki government. Therein lies the root issue.
Anbar is the Sunni heartland of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein once garnered a great deal of his support—especially after the broader base of his regime was weakened considerably by his disastrous adventures in Iran and Kuwait. While Hussein ensured that a disproportionate amount of resources went to key areas, key tribes, and key individuals in Anbar, the desert redoubt was nonetheless an economic backwater with precious few resources and almost no industry. Separated from their economic lifeline to the capital by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and cashiered by de-Ba’athification shortly thereafter, military and civilian officials in Anbar saw little good in the coming new order. Some took to guerrilla tactics immediately. It soon became clear that the political process would empower well-established Shi’a religious parties. These parties aimed to cut Anbar and its elites off from the rest of the country’s resources and to pursue them for the wrongs of the previous regime. Facing a future without reconciliation, Sunnis’ simmering unrest turned to full-blown insurgency, and then to civil war. (The below summary of events through 2009 and the details therein are drawn from my book, Iraq in Transition).