Small Wars Journal

Can the Anbar Strategy Work in Pakistan?

Fri, 12/21/2007 - 6:26am
Can the Anbar Strategy Work in Pakistan?

By Clint Watts

Afghan and Arab fighters defeated the Soviet Union by pursuing a strategy that mobilized tribes to entangle a foreign occupier in a hostile land. In rugged terrain, Soviet conventional forces lost their initiative to a ruthless insurgency campaign. Through a decade of fighting, the Soviets ultimately died from a thousand cuts. They entered Afghanistan a world power and returned home demoralized by Muslim guerrillas, hastening the collapse of their regime.

In the 1990s, Osama Bin Laden decided to use a similar strategy against the United States. Spurned by his homeland of Saudi Arabia and vexed by the presence of infidels on holy soil, Bin Laden hoped to provoke the United States into a protracted entanglement in the Middle East. This entanglement, he thought, would increase al-Qa'ida's prestige and recruitment, unify all Muslims, and ultimately exhaust the United States and lead to its withdrawal from the region.

In Somalia, Bin Laden's first attempt to mobilize tribes on his own against the United States failed. While headquartered in Khartoum, Bin Laden deployed advisory teams to Somalia from 1992-1994. Through training, finance and religious indoctrination, al-Qa'ida's insurgency cadres attempted to align the Muslim tribes of Somalia in a common effort to repel Western aid and military intervention. Instead of waging jihad on Westerners, however, al-Qa'ida found itself engulfed in an entanglement of its own, squandering precious resources and trapped in a chaotic morass of state failure.

Al-Qa'ida's venture in Somalia failed for three reasons. First, al-Qa'ida did not understand the local tribal power structure. Bin Laden's cadres found themselves trapped in a web of overlapping alliances in which Somali clans and militias routinely switched sides and were far more interested in focusing on the 'near enemy' of a rival clan over the 'far enemy' of the west. For African Somalis, simply surviving in a failed state took primacy over an ideological battle between outside Arabs and unknown Westerners. Second, al-Qa'ida's brand of Salafi Islam clashed with the local variant of Sufi Islam. Somalis were uninterested in the oppressive Salafi preaching of Arab outsiders over the mystic Sufi strain of Islam worshipped in their society for centuries. Third, al-Qa'ida underestimated the costs of supporting an insurgency in interior Africa. Time and again, al-Qa'ida operatives failed to marshal sufficient resources—water, equipment, weapons—to maintain the loyalty of Somali tribes.

Al-Qa'ida has lost Iraq for the same reasons. First, Iraqi Sunni tribes have turned against the foreign fighters since their presence sustains the U.S. occupation. Second, Iraqi Sunnis were turned off by the restrictive practices of Salafi Islam which al-Qa'ida members implemented in areas they controlled. Third, with the shift in U.S. strategy, the increased intelligence and military action from Sunni tribal alliances, and the more stabilizing efforts of surrounding countries in the region, it has become logistically difficult for al-Qa'ida to maintain a fighting force in Iraq.

Recent U.S. success in defeating al-Qa'ida in Iraq has prompted policy makers and military planners to export this strategy to other theaters, specifically the tribal areas of Pakistan. However, the U.S. should ask itself three questions before continuing: Will the tribes of Pakistan's frontier provinces turn on al-Qa'ida? Probably not. Unlike Somalia and Iraq, al-Qa'ida has operated in the tribal regions of Pakistan for more than two decades and today it is part of the region's fabric, not an outsider. Will the ideology of al-Qa'ida clash with Pakistani tribes? In the past it may have, but today there is a greater overlap between the Deobandi strain of Islam that the Taliban follows and the Salafism of al-Qa'ida. Third, will financial and military inducements to Pakistani tribes translate into pressure on al-Qa'ida's logistics? Unlikely. The tribes in Waziristan have already withstood six years of pressure from Musharraf and al-Qa'ida has more than twenty years worth of supply networks in the region.

The U.S. is correct to seize upon any opportunity to dislodge al-Qa'ida from Pakistan's tribal regions, especially if it involves the use of surrogates. However, it should not use a blanket strategy of alliances with al-Qa'ida's hosts if the social, cultural and geographic conditions make its chances of success unlikely. If it does, U.S. forces might be the ones entangled, stretched logistically, and in conflict with the local ideology. As al-Qa'ida in Somalia and Iraq has learned, this is a bad place to be.

Clint Watts is a former US Army Infantry Officer, FBI Special Agent and Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He is Co-editor and Co-Author of Al-Qa'ida's (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa and Program Manager for the FBI-Combating Terrorism Center Education Initiative and Combating Terrorism Center Harmony Program which declassifies and publishes studies based on al-Qa'ida's internal documents captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.


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I have argued similarly in the post:…

It has become in vogue to characterize the Anbar narrative as the "awakening," and nothing more than this, as if it was all about getting a tribe to "flip." To be sure, we needed Captain Travis Patriquins observations sooner than we got them, and I have argued almost nonstop for greater language training before deployment and payment to so-called "concerned citizens" and other erstwhile insurgents. You can qualify expert on the rifle range, but if you cant speak the language, youre going in 'blind (to play on words).

But just to make it clear, to see the Anbar narrative as all about tribes "flipping" is an impoverished view of the campaign. Its a Johnny-come-lately view. Hard and costly kinetic operations laid the groundwork for the tribal realignments. Sheikh Sattar had to have his smuggling lines cut and dismembered by specially assigned units conducting kinetic operations in order to 'see the light and align with U.S. forces. Then, a tank had to be parked outside his residence to provide protection against the insurgents in order to keep him alive and aligned with the U.S.

The pundits talk about the tribes, but the Marines talk about kinetic operations inside Ramadi to provide the window of opportunity for the tribes to realign their allegiance:

To be sure, the tribal alliance is a large part of the Anbar victory, but force projection (not force protection) was the pretext for the Anbar awakening. We simply cannot do COIN on the cheap. I hope that no one exists who believes that we could have waltzed into Anbar three years ago, without the pretext of force projection, and sat down with the tribes and verbally persuaded them to join "the cause?" Perhaps we could have done it (won) sooner (perhaps two years), and perhaps we could have done it without quite the heavy losses (if we had been prepared for IEDs and snipers a little better), and perhaps it could have been more efficient had we understood the culture and language better. But make no mistake. The strong horse gets the bet. There is no value in weakness in this part of the world. And the Anbar campaign must not be seen as the consequent of any revised strategy or the surge. It did not result from any of this, but was ongoing for three years separate from what happened in the balance of Iraq.

Export the strategy? Of course, but an understanding of the strategy is necessary in order to export it. SF operators and talk didnt win Anbar. Force projection won Anbar.

COIN in Pakistan begins in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan / Afghanistan border. Unless and until we devote the troops and effect the force projection to let the people in these AOs know that we are serious about the campaign, there will be no success. The troops needed to conduct COIN in this campaign are currently in Anbar, or at Camps LeJeune or Pendleton.

Conclusion: This is a good article, and serves as yet another warning to the Pentagon thinkers and planners that there are no strings to pull, no buttons to push, and no magic words to speak. 'Abracadabra plus the right formula just doesnt work, and leaves us where we were before. COIN requires boots on the ground. How many more warnings will have to be issued?