What Do We Really Know About the Anbar Awakening?


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


In September 2006, Abu Sittar declared the birth of the Anbar Awakening to the world. While releasing the group’s manifesto, he claimed 30,000 men from 25 Sunni tribes were prepared to fight against al-Qaeda. The Re-Awakening of Al Anbar Conference quickly followed Sittar’s announcement and created a platform closely based on his proclamation. The U.S. military greeted the events with cautious optimism, hoping the Sunni population was finally willing to turn against al-Qaeda.

Sittar came to prominence during a turbulent time in Iraqi politics. He and a group of tribal leaders sensed an opportunity to increase their power in the chaos caused by Saddam’s fall, al-Qaeda’s penetration of Sunni politics, and the increasing power of Shia politicians. Despite the 25 signatures on their manifesto, at its start the Anbar Awakening was essentially an opportunistic commitment from three families hoping to increase their tribes’ power.

Illusions of Victory inverts the usual dramatis personae in its telling of the Anbar Awakening. Sittar and other Iraqi tribal leaders replace American military personnel as the main characters in Carter Malkasian’s description of Sunni tribes’ decision to fight al-Qaeda. The account focuses on Iraqi decision-making and the importance of local politics and power struggles. The prominent role played by individual leaders reveals flaws in America’s understanding of counter-insurgency and the personnel policies that support it.

Several stories have grown around the Anbar Awakening and the subsequent incapacitation of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Many explanations try to find a single cause, crediting either the U.S. troop surge or Sunni tribes’ rejection of al-Qaeda’s heavy-handed practices and extremist beliefs. While acknowledging that both American and Sunni actions were essential, Malkasian seeks to debunk the claim that Sunni tribes rejected al-Qaeda because of its heavy-handed actions and extremist beliefs.

First, he rules out that al-Qaeda’s violence against Sunnis inspired the Awakening. While al-Qaeda sought to intimidate or kill anyone who worked with coalition forces and anyone collaborating with the Iraqi government, they murdered relatively few Sunni civilians outside those categories. Shia death squads and the Iraqi government killed far more Sunnis. In that context, many Sunnis came to view al-Qaeda as one of the few people on their side. Nonetheless, stories of al-Qaeda violence against Sunni civilians became “rumor that American ears anxiously accepted.”

Next, Malkasian makes the uncomfortable claim that al-Qaeda’s beliefs were actually somewhat popular in many areas. The group was able to consistently recruit fighters before the Awakening and after the rise of the Islamic State. Their pay was not competitive compared to private-sector jobs, and certainly did not compensate for the risk taken when attacking coalition forces. Instead, the ideological appeal of a jihad against invading infidels allowed religious leaders to recruit young men to al-Qaeda’s cause. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the Anbar Awakening was the result of a rejection of al-Qaeda’s extreme ideology.

Instead, Malkasian argues the Anbar Awakening was driven by the plans of weaker Sunni tribes to capitalize on the power vacuum created by al-Qaeda’s displacement of tribal leadership. Al-Qaeda replaced tribal loyalty with ideological fervor, disrupting tribal control of smuggling routes and their financial benefits. Abu Sittar and his compatriots, upset by al-Qaeda’s disruption, also sensed an opportunity to increase their own power by allying with American forces.

Illusions of Victory is tightly focused on the events of the Anbar Awakening and the rise of Islamic State in that part of Iraq. Malkasian rarely addresses events outside of Anbar. He occasionally touches upon Iraqi national politics, particularly the increasing sectarianism of the Maliki government. He even more rarely focuses on American domestic politics. This may create a slightly confusing narrative for readers with minimal exposure to the events in Iraq. However, combined with Malkasian’s straightforward writing style, he is able to portray events in depth without confusing or boring the reader.

Malkasian’s book holds up well against other accounts of the war in Iraq. The author stays true to the granular approach to local politics he used in War Comes to Garmser. This provides a refreshingly Iraq-centric approach to understanding the Anbar Awakening, a distinctly Iraqi phenomenon. In some ways, Illusions of Victory belongs to the same family as Emma Sky’s excellent Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. Both accounts focus on the importance of local politics, and the key role an individual’s ambitions play in them. They both lie in stark contrast to most literature about events in Iraq, which focuses on U.S. efforts to the detriment of understanding Iraqi politics. The books also give some credit to the larger narrative often used to describe events in Iraq, such as the Sunni-Shia divide, or the breakdown of human services. Both, however, recognize that individual ambitions, family ties, and pride were at least as important as the narratives Americans often use to describe the events that took place during this period in Iraq.

Ultimately, Malkasian leaves readers with several doubts about the Anbar Awakening. Readers will doubt that al-Qaeda was as unpopular with the Sunni population as is commonly depicted. They will doubt that coalition forces were the main characters in the story of the Anbar Awakening. Most of all, readers will doubt the United States can replicate and sustain its tactical successes in Anbar either on the strategic level or in other war-zones like Afghanistan.

Though less explicitly, he also indicates that counter-insurgents need to understand local political dynamics at the individual level, not just within the broader context of cultural traits or national trends. Unfortunately, the U.S. military’s personnel policies during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not support developing granular knowledge of local populations Malkasian indicates was crucial for the success during the Anbar Awakening. A combination of one-year deployments, units that rarely deploy to the same area, and a lack of emphasis on language and culture training hamper American efforts.

Deployments to Iraq, while difficult and exhausting for most service members, were still not long enough for troops to develop local knowledge and relationships. Army units typically deployed to Iraq for one year to 15 months. Other services’ deployments were even shorter, ranging from six to nine months. Most units spent a significant portion of their tours becoming familiar with their environment or preparing for the next unit’s arrival, and a small amount of time exploiting their knowledge of local politics. Iraqis also knew long-term deals might be unreliable, as the next unit, which would be there in less than a year, might renege, or even be unaware of the arrangement.

Unfortunately, year-long deployments are already exhausting. Extending deployment times will likely create other problems that overwhelm any benefits derived from increased local knowledge.

A more resolvable issue is that American units rarely return to the same area they previously deployed to. Several years ago, I helped train an allied unit preparing to deploy. They were deploying to the same area their unit had previously occupied. During their time home, they had remained in contact with the overseas unit, receiving constant updates about local personalities and violent activities. Their depth of knowledge was greater before they deployed than most American units had at the end of their tours. I felt compelled to compare it to my first deployment, when I had spent a huge amount of time simply determining the names and locations of key leaders.

American units will benefit significantly from deploying to areas their personnel are already familiar with whenever it is feasible. While the rapid personnel turnover most units experience when they return to the United States will mitigate that benefit, the remaining personnel’s knowledge of the area will spread to new personnel, and some relationships with local leaders will remain, smoothing the transition for all parties.

Tellingly, both Malkasian and Sky went to Iraq either fluent or somewhat familiar with Arabic. While the U.S. military increased the emphasis it put on language and cultural training during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has not adequately incentivized language proficiency. With a few notable exceptions, the American military’s language and culture training for most personnel has consisted of short bouts of instruction given to large groups or online lessons. While that has reduced miscommunication in some ways, that level of education will not help soldiers and marines develop the relationships Malkasian indicates are important.

The military should incentivize language proficiency effectively. While military personnel do receive a stipend for some languages, in most cases this serves as a bonus for those who join the military already speaking a second language or are fortunate enough to attend language training on the military’s time and budget. Instead, the military needs to tie language proficiency to performance and promotion. We already have systems that measure language proficiency. If we can tie performance evaluations to running quickly, we can do the same with language proficiency.

Illusions of Victory is worth reading for anyone interested in understanding both the United States’ biggest counter-insurgency win during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and why we were unable to translate it into a larger, long-term success. Malkasian’s writing style is not meant to be entertaining, but he quickly and efficiently conveys his point, and challenges much of the narrative that has grown around the Sunni Awakening.

The implications from his story serve as a challenge to American policymakers and military leaders. Can the United States defeat insurgencies in other countries? Why did we pry what seemed like victory from the jaws of defeat, then let it turn back into to defeat? Do the military’s personnel policies support counter-insurgency’s actual requirements, and should they? Unfortunately for both the policymaker and military leader, Malkasian’s account of events in the Anbar Province is unable to answer any of these questions. They are worth asking nonetheless.


Justin Lynch is an Army officer who has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and a member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone.

Image: U.S. Marines