Waking Up to the Truth About the Sunni Awakening


Martha L. Cottam, Joe W. Huseby, Bruno Baltodano, Confronting al Qaeda: The Sunni Awakening and American Strategy in al Anbar (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016)


The campaign to retake Mosul is well underway with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) consolidating gains in the eastern districts of the city. And despite stiff resistance and the potential for infighting among the anti-ISIL coalition, which ostensibly could stall the advance, the city will most likely be liberated by early 2017. So with ground forces making progress and Mosul’s fall certain, observers have turned their commentary to the day after the Iraqi flag flies again in its second largest city, and rightfully so. The politics of Ninewa province, frozen in time due to ISIL’s conquest, can begin in earnest once again. But irrespective of whether Mosul falls at the end of this year or early next, for better or for worse, it will be the policies of a new U.S. administration that will ultimately influence Iraq’s trajectory toward a more, or less, stable nation.

But before the Trump administration decides on a cabinet and chooses which policies to keep and which to discard, we should reconsider some legends and narratives that have led to certain solutions offered up by the American foreign policy establishment for the future of Iraq. One such narrative that bears reexamination, and has even influenced counterinsurgency efforts in other theaters, is the apparent success of the Sunni Awakening (Sahwa), in which Sunni tribes formally partnered with U.S. forces to fight Al Qaeda in Iraqin 2007. The accepted narrative of this movement has had a profound impact on the establishment’s proposals for Iraq and, similarly, on views about the future of Sunni political autonomy in certain provinces of the country. For example, it underpinned major aspects of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s counter-ISIL policy proposals and those of her reported pick for secretary of defense, Michele Flournoy. Each advocated directly arming Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes if need be and “[leveraging] the creation of a Sunni hold force to increase the possibility of a power-sharing outcome between Baghdad and the Sunni minority.” Furthermore, it clearly informed the views of John Bolton, currently under consideration for secretary of state, when he called for the creation of a “Sunni-stan” to be carved out of Iraq and Syria in a 2015 New York Times op-ed.

This troublesome narrative, first disputed by Douglas Ollivant in 2011, describes how a U.S. troop-surge, armed with tactics derived from a new counterinsurgency manual, recruited the Sahwa out of Iraq’s hostile Sunni population in 2006 and 2007 leading to the decimation of al Qaeda in Iraq by 2009. Iraq, by that point, appeared to be largely stabilized and the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq were chased underground into non-relevance. The precipitous U.S. withdrawal in 2011 allowed Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who had previously stymied the integration of the Sahwa into the ISF, to dismantle these necessary allies. This act turned out to be a crucial stepping stone for the return of al Qaeda in Iraq as the Islamic State, or ISIL.

However, this simplistic telling misses key aspects of the Sahwa story, which then leads to ill-considered policies. For starters, the Sahwa was a bit more complex than the “tribal uprising” that we tend to depict. As the Sahwa movement spread outside of Anbar in 2007, it witnessed the integration of large numbers of former Sunni nationalist and Islamist insurgents who were under tremendous pressure from Shia militias and were fighting their own war with the Islamic State of Iraq. A comprehensive story of the Sahwa includes, at the very least, mention of the psychological effect on Sunni Arab calculus of this crushing sectarian civil war waged by Shia militias that had reached a peak in 2007. Knowing who filled the Sahwa’s ranks during this period and their intentions and allegiances when siding with U.S. forces is critical to understanding both how and which elements of the later Sahwa disintegrated and further explains Baghdad’s reactions. These are just some of the important nuances missing from the fuller story that should make us reconsider the legend.

A recently published book titled Confronting Al Qaeda: The Sunni Awakening and American Strategy in al Anbar is a good place to start for interrogating our understanding of the movement. In the book, Cottam and Huseby trace the factors that influenced the strategic choices by the majority of relevant actors of the Anbar Sahwa — tribal leaders, administration officials, and military leaders alike — from the beginning of the Iraq War through the formation of the Anbar Sahwa and finally the withdrawal of U.S. forces. After all, Anbar was critical to the larger movement as its birthplace and the inspiration for what spread to other Sunni areas like Babil, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, as well as Baghdad.

The fact that there was a Sahwa at all is amazing after the Bush administration’s poor start in Iraq and the prevailing view among Iraqi Sunnis of the United States as a font of mistreatment, bias, and imperial incompetence. Simply put, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. military were seen as direct threats to the Sunni way of life. So, the tribes sought an ally and, according to Sunni tribal chiefs, Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq quickly assumed the role of protector against the occupiers. Eventually, this alliance suffered, as al Qaeda in Iraq could only moderate its Salafi-jihadist political agenda and desire for political domination for so long. Distrustful tribesman began to rebel against this real and greater threat to the tribal system, starting with the Abu Mahal in Al Qaim in 2004 (nearly three years prior to the surge) and reached out to U.S. forces for assistance.

As the Sunni conversion was underway, U.S. forces underwent their own, which was brought about by the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq amidst a civil war. Meanwhile, U.S. forces found glimmers of goodwill and an effective approach in Tal Afar, Ramadi, and elsewhere as they haphazardly and inconsistently experimented with different tactics and strategies. The two sides, both at a crisis points, discarded previous perceptions, found allies in each other, and teamed up to fight al Qaeda in Iraq.

But the process to collectively arrive at these realizations took nearly three years and both Anbar’s tribes and the coalition had to be willing to rethink their assumptions about the other. In contrast, al Qaeda in Iraq was far too mired in its Manichaean ideology to permit new information to change its view. Had the group made accommodations with the tribes’ way of life, the Sahwa would most likely have been stillborn. It appears the organization has only barely learned this lesson: acting benevolently to the citizens of Mosul in the first two weeks of its takeover in June 2014, posing this time as protector against Maliki’s sectarian tactics, before revealing its Salafi-jihadist state-building enterprise and carrying out a number of massacres. However, its contemporary in Syria, Fatah Al-Sham, seems to have learned the lesson that ISIL has not and, worryingly, may have more staying power. Meanwhile, ISIL remains too rigid to accommodate and again finds itself under attack from within and without by a patchwork of allies.

But despite the on-going progress against ISIL, the coalition still has its work cut out for it. The addition of some variation of a Sahwa-like organization to this mélange of allies and its permanent integration into Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) may be crucial to reassure Iraq’s Sunni Arabs against the return to sectarian authoritarianism and prevent yet another resurgence of the Salafi-jihadist would-be-state. Yet, how such a force is created and integrated into Iraq’s broader security apparatus is critical. It cannot be properly accomplished without an appreciation for the deep seated distrust in Iraqi society (especially after the Camp Speicher massacre), its stubborn conspiracies, and entrenched political identities, which all can be understood only through a sophisticated command of Iraqi history — to include recent history.

And here the nuanced story of the Sahwa has a specific role to play as a cautionary tale. The Sahwa’s eventual integration into Iraq’s security forces was anything but certain after having been nurtured and reared to adulthood by U.S. forces outside of government control. The Sahwa ultimately failed not because of Maliki’s sectarian policies — a symptom of a bigger problem — but because of the perceived political threat it posed to the Baghdad government and the profound lack of trust between the parties.

With this deep distrust in mind, a change from the Obama administration’s seemingly sluggish policy, which prizes coalition building over more expedient (unilateral) action, should be carefully considered against the risks of long-term failure. Even though the Baghdad government is obstructionist and a change in policy in the next administration might seem sensible, more “hawkish” action would inevitably result in a similar miscarriage of events. And while the prospect of further external attacks — whether directed or inspired — is truly terrifying for citizens not only in Europe and the United States, but in Turkey and the broader Middle East, only a deliberative policy, like the current one, that takes into account local Iraqis’ present-day multifaceted fears, mistrust, and individual attitudes can usher Iraq through a reconciliation into a more stable future. Perhaps this aspect of Obama’s anti-ISIL strategy is worth keeping.


Nicholas J. Kramer is a U.S. Army officer currently serving as a Foreign Area Officer, specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. He is a Special Forces officer with service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has advised Iraqi soldiers, Afghan Special Forces, and the Afghan Local Police (ALP). He recently graduated from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in Monterey, California. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. William Greer, 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Combat Camera