Small Wars Journal

How the West Was Won

Thu, 02/28/2008 - 7:15am
How the West Was Won

By Cavguy

This is news the world doesn't hear: Ramadi, long a hotbed of unrest, a city that once formed the southwestern tip of the notorious "Sunni Triangle," is now telling a different story, a story of Americans who came here as liberators, became hated occupiers and are now the protectors of Iraqi reconstruction.

- - Ullrich Fichtner, "Hope and Despair in Divided Iraq," Der Spiegel, 10 August 2007.

Colonel Sean MacFarland and I teamed up to provide a firsthand account of the "Anbar Awakening" in this month's issue of Military Review. The article details the efforts of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Ramadi, Iraq from June 2006 to February 2007. Transferring from Tal Afar into the most violent city in Iraq at the time, the Ready First designed a campaign plan that sought to set the conditions for a tribal alliance, and rapidly exploit success through developing local governance and security forces. Supported by the 1st and 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force leadership, the plan was successfully executed and achieved results beyond anyone's expectations. This success in execution was carried forward to greater success by the actions of our follow-on unit, 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division.

The article describes the key facets of the plan -- population security through combat outposts, combat operations against Al Qaeda insurgents, tense negotiations with tribal sheiks, and a few key individuals and decisive combat actions that shifted the tide of conflict and began the transformation of the nation.

Many recent opinion pieces speculated on the reasons for the Awakening, or the wisdom of supporting a Sunni tribal movement that has the potential to destabilize the central government. Others have attributed its existence to the success of the "surge" of additional troops into Iraq. Others simplify the narrative to some form bribery or protection money paid to sheiks to stop the killing of American soldiers. There are grains of truth in each, but each is mostly inaccurate in its characterization of what happened in Anbar.

One common narrative, championed by retired Colonel Douglas McGregor, throws stones at the execution of the Awakening. Those who support this narrative thus far have been unable to articulate realistic alternative plan executed under the resources and political climate present in mid 2006. Some worry about the impacts of an organized, financed, and equipped tribal based organization providing the backbone of security in Anbar province. Those deriding the entry of the US into alliance with local leaders should approach the following questions. Is Iraq less secure with a stable Anbar than one in chaos, dominated by Al Qaeda in Iraq fanatics? Are the Iraqi people and Anbari citizens less secure? Is there less potential for national reconciliation with a Anbar temporarily secured? Do we have fewer options at every level -- strategic, operational, and tactical, than we did in Fall 2006? In my opinion, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding "no". The Awakening is not and was never envisioned to be an endstate, but a means to provide the stability necessary for progress at the national level to reconcile grievances and develop legitimate local institutions.

Likewise, the major actions that enabled the "Awakening" pre-date the execution of the surge, publication of FM 3-24, and the arrival of General Petraeus to Iraq. Attributing the success in Ramadi to the "surge" would be erroneous. However, the change to population centric tactics, patrol bases, and local security alliances that the Ready First and some other units had used in 2006 were systemically spread and adapted to local conditions throughout Iraq under the leadership of General Petraeus and General Odierno. The additional forces in the surge coupled with new tactics and doctrine enabled the transformation of Baghdad and several other provinces. The actions of the Ready First in Ramadi and 3d Armored Cavalry in Tal Afar were validation and prototypes for the change in tactics that accompanied the surge, and validated the principles that now embody FM 3-24.

Finally, those who allege the Anbar sheiks were simply "bought off" are guilty of the worst form of oversimplification and lazy analysis. While monetary incentives were certainly (and appropriately) used, the Awakening was at its core borne out of the frustration of the Anbari people with three years of war, chaos, and a growing Al Qaeda fundamentalist organization that terrorized the local populace into submission. Anbari homes are now safe with security provided by and from the local population, backed with American and Iraqi government training and assistance. The monetary support to this effort involve is a fraction of the alternative cost in lives, equipment, food, fuel, and ammunition to fight a violent insurgency.

Ultimate success of the Awakening will be determined far outside the scope and influence of military units, and its long-term viability is directly tied to the fortunes and future of Iraq. Most units in Iraq are now operating along the concepts used by our Brigade in Ramadi to great success. I hope this article can depict the ground level view of how we watched the Awakening unfold, and provide some insight as to how it was facilitated by the unit on the ground.

As a final thought, the evolution of this article's content sprang from a discussion on Ramadi on Small Wars Council last September. The community here was critical to refining the ideas that brought together this final product. Thanks to the SWJ editors for providing such a useful and interactive forum for ideas.

Cavguy is the Small Wars Council screen name of Major Niel Smith, of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He currently is assigned to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center as an operations officer. He has served almost 29 months in Iraq during two tours with 1/1 AD and 2-37 Armor, serving as a company commander, battalion staff officer, and brigade staff officer in Baghdad, Najaf, Tal Afar, and Ramadi. The opinions stated in this post and this are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Combined Arms Center or the Department of Defense.


SWJ Editors Links

How the West Was Won - Abu Muqawama

Discuss at Small Wars Council


Norfolk (not verified)

Fri, 02/29/2008 - 9:54pm

To paraphrase Ho Chi Minh, it is too soon to tell clearly what has led to the present turnaround in the fortunes of the CF in the Iraq War. That said, this is a superb work on an exceptionally difficult and complex operation - that succeeded beyond anyone's rational expectations. The account of operations in Ramadi (as well as in a few other areas) should, quite deservedly, be disseminated throughout the U.S. Armed Forces as examples of what can and should be done (cirumstances dependent of course) in COIN operations in some of the most difficult political and urban environments. The Armed Forces of other countries should pay close attention to these and similar bitterly-won lessons, set aside their own national prejudices (ie. the U.S. can't win at COIN, but "WE - fill in the blank - Army" are of course the experts and are so much better than those Americans), and take them to heart.

Excellent work Major Smith and Colonel MacFarland.

Rob Thornton

Fri, 02/29/2008 - 3:44pm

History as perspective

There is the dichotomy. On the one hand, you can look back and see a thing(s) in a biased and deterministic manner. Certainly there is danger in that. On the other, you can look forward and see the future as contingent on your actions - e.g. what I do now and tomorrow will matter; and I have the responsibility to act.

I think you can also make the case looking backwards (at anything complex) that certain events were also contingent upon a given action - again, those interactions in some way changed the conditions (just maybe not always in the way we observed them to be). It may be that the only motivations for action that you can really come close to discerning are your own, but that is where judgment and reason must be exercised.

I think the article as perspective does pretty well at telling the history as they saw it and interacted with it. Should we acknowledge that bias is a human trait and always present? - yep. Should that keep us from considering the possibilities of contingent action? - nope. When the history of the Iraq war is written (and later re-written... ..), I suspect it will have its own bias, replete with the current cultural and political norms that appeal to its marketing, or possibly the rejection of said norms by mavericks - seldom have I seen it in truly neutral sense.

For the purpose of its publication here, Id say it is as noble as any. I appreciate them sharing it and think in terms of the audience who reads here, they will not hesitate to dispute reports inconsistent with their own professional experiences.

Best, Rob

Gian P Gentile

Fri, 02/29/2008 - 2:42pm

Consider this representative quote from the second paragraph of Colonel MacFarland's and Major Smith's important and well written article:

"When we arrived in Ramadi in June 2006, few of us thought our campaign would change the entire complexion of the war and push Al-Qaeda to the brink of defeat in Iraq."

The assumption of positive knowledge of causation that permeates this article is breathtaking to say the least. In this article almost every critical turn of events in Anbar after June 2006 was directly due to American military power as applied by the Ready First Brigade.

As a student of history I am naturally a skeptic when it comes to mono-causal explanations of complex historical problems. But then the history of the Iraq War has yet to be written.

Neil - congrats on "coming out."

And now the staff and fac have a resource on blogging to talk to.

Something they dearly need, based on my email!