Small Wars Journal

Militias, Sahwa and Shared Interests: Insights for Doctrine

Mon, 10/21/2013 - 9:30am

Militias, Sahwa and Shared Interests: Insights for Doctrine

Michael Bush


Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine used by the U.S. has little to say about the subject of militias.[1]  However, these forces have been formed, trained, and resourced as part of recent U.S. operational strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflicts and have been used at various times and places throughout history.  While some might view the recruitment, organization, resourcing, and training of indigenous paramilitary forces as the exclusive domain of Special Operations Forces (SOF), in Iraq in 2006 Army and Marine brigades (with assistance from SOF as well as other organizations) empowered these forces to secure their own homes and neighborhoods from the predations of insurgent organizations.  The Anbari home guards inspired a national movement of localized militias who primarily partnered with a variety of conventional units from 2006 through 2011.  U.S. experience with these home guards, also called Anbar Sahwa,[2] has generated a significant body of literature which can be used to inform existing doctrine.  Therefore, by discussing current COIN doctrine via FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency and examining U.S. involvement in the Sahwa, recommendations will be made for adjustments to formal COIN doctrine.  Militias (or paramilitary forces or home guards) can be essential assets to the establishment of security in coordination with effective counter-insurgency strategy, but they come with risks and must be carefully understood and managed.  This is critical because, as recent scholarship indicates, when militia or paramilitary forces are competent, COIN forces are more likely to prevail in accomplishing their objectives.[3]


U.S. formal COIN doctrine in FM 3-24 presents a somewhat confused picture regarding militias.  In Chapter 6, “Developing Host-Nation Security Forces,” FM 3-24 indicates “home guard units,” identified as “part-time, lightly armed, local security forces under HN [host-nation] governmental control,” can provide security to the populace through guarding installations and checkpoints, thus enabling HN military and police forces to conduct other activities.[4]  In Chapter 3, “Intelligence in Counterinsurgency,” FM 3-24 cautions that if a HN government is weak and violence is high, local nationals may organize themselves into armed militias to provide local security.  Because they can exert more influence than the central government, stimulate or broaden an insurgency, and jeopardize law-and-order, intelligence sections must track militia activities as they do those of insurgents, and commanders must plan to disarm them.[5]  There isn’t anything else in FM 3-24 which is specifically related to militias. 

Militias figure only somewhat more prominently in the current FM 3-05.202 Special Forces Foreign Internal Defense Operations.  FM 3-05.202 directs SOF forces to assist HN forces in building local security forces, including police forces, under the control of the HN government, though this is recommended only if no competent police force already exists.[6]  The Army’s older Foreign Internal Defense (FID) manual, FM 31-20-3, Foreign Internal Defense Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Special Forces, published in 1994, included an entire appendix on the subject of  “Civilians Self-Defense Forces,” including discussion of recruitment, training, exploitation of intelligence, legal concerns, leadership selection, organization, operations and missions, procedures in rural areas, and fairly extensive discussion of other issues related to the establishment of local militias.[7]  It is unclear as to why the more current manual has been purged of such data.   The joint document, JP 3-22 Foreign Internal Defense, fails to mention the subject of militias in any significant way.[8]  FM 3-24.2 Tactics in Counterinsurgency does not reference militias, either, missing what seems like an opportunity in Chapter 8, “Support to Host Nation Security Forces.”  While FM 3-24.2 uses a few sentences to outline constabulary forces as well as paramilitary forces, it is overly perfunctory and lacks rigor.[9]

As such, U.S. forces lack clear doctrinal data on the conditions in which these militias can be stood up, what role the U.S. should play in controlling militias, and how the U.S. can facilitate the integration of the militias into the government.

The Anbar Sahwa

The evolution and development of the Sahwa in Anbar province in 2006 can provide instructive lessons by which U.S. forces can gain insight into exactly those issues.  The evolution of the Sahwa movement, a provincial movement linked to a small number of second-tier tribal sheikhs in Anbar, to the Sons of Iraq (SOI), a nation-wide movement that was widely credited with reducing violence across the state, is an example of a merging of interests, dynamic leadership, and an application of COIN principles across tactical, operational, and strategic domains.

Tribal society was quite powerful in Iraq at the time of 2003 invasion, a fact probably not truly understood by most U.S. planners.  Though the Ba’ath Party railed against tribalism as a vestige of backwardness,[10] Saddam Hussein increasingly relied on the tribes through the 1980s and 1990s to maintain his hold on power.  He needed the tribes to counter-balance the power of other institutions, such as his intelligence services and the branches of the military, and the tribes assumed formal influence that was eventually co-opted into the state with the creation of the Office of Tribal Affairs.[11]  When significant portions of his population revolted against him after the disastrous 1991 invasion of Kuwait, several tribes rose up to support Saddam and his regime, fighting against other tribes and putting them down.  Saddam reciprocated this support by appointing tribal leaders as provincial officials and ceding certain tax-collection, educational, and dispute resolution responsibilities to tribal authorities in some locales.[12]  He publically courted these officials in Baghdad and rewarded them with weapons and vehicles in the expectation they would use them not only to support his regime, but also to establish local security.[13]  Some tribes were so empowered they preyed upon citizens of the regime with relative impunity; in Anbar province, in particular, certain roads were notorious for being controlled by smugglers and thieves from the Dulaymi tribe who would stop travelers in “broad daylight.”[14] Saddam created networks of patronage between himself and the tribes,[15] but by doing this, he empowered another group of elites, outside of the government, who competed for and exerted their own level of control inside the Iraqi state.  When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the tribes leveraged tremendous influence among many Iraqis, especially in Sunni-dominated regions (like Anbar province).    

A variety of factors which lie outside the scope of this paper led to the explosion of the anti-U.S. insurgency in mid-to-late 2003.[16]  As the years passed, the insurgency grew in size and virulence.  In 2006, the raging insurgency turned its attention increasingly to the local population, targeting minority groups and ethnic enclaves in a tit-for-tat battle for control of the population.  Unemployment, lack of social services, dysfunctional government, and degraded infrastructure frustrated Iraqis who desperately desired security, opportunity, and good governance.  The population, disappointed by the inability of U.S. forces and/or the Iraqi government to provide critical functions, turned to a variety of social actors, including the tribal sheikhs.[17]  These sheikhs, who previously received patronage from the Saddam regime in order to maintain local power,[18] needed to get it from somewhere else.  Much of the population supported the insurgency, either tacitly or explicitly, as did the sheikhs themselves.[19]  In Anbar province (and other locations), ultra-conservative Salafist groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), flush with cash, were willing to provide that patronage, providing “money, jobs, social mobility, and an ideological appeal.”[20]  AQI assumed a “carrot and stick” strategy, assassinating the sheikhs and government leaders who did not support AQI, providing tangible support to those who did, and conducting a massive intimidation campaign against the general population.  Part of this campaign entailed destroying the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces in Anbar.  By late 2006, AQI exerted such influence it was recognized by the Marines as the most dominant social force in Anbar province.[21]

Why did the Sahwa occur then in late 2006?  Some scholars have asserted that the Sunni population, exhausted by years of conflict with the U.S. and further fatigued by the especially bloody sectarian conflict during 2006, perceived that they were at war with the Shia community, and they decided to align themselves with U.S. forces in order to bolster the strength of their community.[22]  There is little empirical evidence to support this assertion,[23] at least in Anbar, and it doesn’t account for the fact that some Sunni tribes in Anbar were attempting to align with U.S. forces to defeat AQI well before 2006.  Furthermore, the population in Anbar was estimated to be as high as 99 percent Sunni and obviously experienced very little of the tit-for-tat killings between Shia and Sunni which plagued other locations like Baghdad.  It doesn’t seem rational that sectarian concerns would have been particularly motivational to a population that was largely unaffected by the sectarian violence sweeping the rest of the Iraqi state.

A more compelling explanation is that the interests of the tribes and AQI diverged.  Anbaris grew increasingly disenchanted with AQI policies, including the marriage of local women to AQI fighters[24] and harsh measures taken by the Salafis to enforce extremely conservative sharia law.[25]   AQI overreached by attempting to control the entire insurgency—which, being mostly composed of nationalists and tribesmen, increasingly resented AQI’s tactics and propaganda, eventually coming to public confrontation.[26]  Most insurgents closely identified with tribal networks in Anbar province,[27] and it seems likely that AQI leaders in the province, perhaps even more than the U.S. by 2006, failed to grasp the power of these local tribal affiliations. 

Perhaps most importantly, the tribal elites found themselves not only in competition for social control in the rural towns and villages,[28] but also in direct competition with AQI in terms of revenue-generating activities.  The tribes historically controlled the black market and AQI’s efforts to fund itself placed it as a competitor in the same markets as the tribes.  As such, AQI’s activities increasingly interrupted the already shaky sources of revenue, and therefore, patronage, that the tribal elites controlled.[29]  A number of small-scale resistance groups, organized in a largely tribal manner, came into existence before the Anbar Sawha in 2006, but for the most part the Sunni insurgency, largely led by AQI, defeated them and they never gained national traction.[30]  The more the population attempted to distance itself from AQI, the more AQI responded with heavy-handed violence, especially against the elites.

During the summer of 2006, an underground counter-insurgent organization sprung up which left the corpses of AQI fighters littered across Anbar province; it was rumored this group had links to the CIA, and that future members of the Sahwa were also involved in this organization.[31]  They had gone to religious authorities to gain a fatwa condoning attacks against militants.[32]  The tribes were already in revolt against AQI.  They only needed a reliable partner with resources. 

Early in the conflict, U.S. forces were constrained by U.S. policy, which relegated tribes to the sidelines and forbade autonomous militias.  Nonetheless, some U.S. forces had partnered with tribal forces, with limited success (notably the Albu Mahal and Albu Fahd tribes).  By late 2005, Marines and other U.S. forces, especially in Anbar, recognized that the tribes offered a strategic force that could be tapped.[33]  It was in this environment that the 1-1Armored Division (AD), commanded by Colonel (COL) Sean MacFarland, arrived in Ramadi in May 2006.

Empowered by Marine leadership who designed and resourced a strategy of “clear-hold-build,” who viewed Ramadi as a center-of-gravity, and who saw that police development was a critical factor to future success,[34] COL MacFarland and 1-1AD sought to build up local security forces at the same time they conducted a highly kinetic fight against AQI in the streets and neighborhoods of Ramadi and the towns neighboring it.  They purchased or rented local homes and fortified neighborhoods, telling elites as well as locals that they were not leaving Ramadi until the insurgents were dead and fighting had ceased.[35]  The 1-1AD put particular emphasis into building up the local police, who were incredibly undermanned, under-resourced, and unmotivated.  In fact, recruits in July 2006 alone more than equaled the existing number of police in Ramadi at that time,[36] and more than 4000 tribesmen joined the Iraqi Police (IP) in the last half of 2006.  The new IPs were vouched for and selected by the tribal elites and received a special dispensation to stay and serve their tours in Ramadi, rather than serving elsewhere in Iraq.[37]  This was critical because locals were more likely to understand the nuances of social networks in the region, ostensibly making them better police officers; such a policy also ensured the power exerted by the tribal leaders was tangible and positive, which was well understood by local people and especially those entering the police forces.

To accomplish these goals regarding security and the development of the police, 1-1AD established close relationships with the local tribes, which MacFarland recognized as “key terrain.”[38]  Even after building up the police, a security “gap” remained, so MacFarland allowed the local tribal elite to maintain groups of armed men organized into “auxiliary” police units and put particular effort into cultivating close personal relationships with the tribal leaders, empowering a subordinate, Arabic-speaking and ex-SOF CPT Travis Patriquin, to build the rapport between 1-1AD and the tribes so that it developed fruit.[39]  MacFarland was careful to facilitate the business interests of the tribes, noting that the ability of the tribes to make money had been degraded through the course of the war.[40]  Contracts to construct or renovate markets, businesses, utility services, military facilities, roads, schools, and hospitals employed tribesmen and fueled economic development.[41]  These tactics—radically increasing the size of local security forces, authorizing militias, and funneling contracts through the tribal leaders--drained the insurgency by putting many young men to work, including many less motivated fighters who may have been aligned with AQI.[42]  Many of these individuals partnered with U.S. forces and ISF in order to hunt down AQI personnel.  By the spring of 2007, attacks had dropped over 80 percent from the summer of 2006.[43]

After the murder and desecration of a tribal leader by AQI fighters on September 9, 2006, Sheik Satter Abu Risha held a meeting in his home with local tribal elites, the U.S. military, and the Anbar governor.  At this meeting, 11 of Anbar’s 21 tribes allied with him (mostly smaller tribes, which would pose difficulties later), declared themselves the Al-Anbar Emergency Council, and announced they were fighting AQI.  They approved a platform which included manning security forces in Anbar with Anbaris who were approved by the tribes, returning to “honorable status” all sheikhs who rejected AQI, providing tribal security on roads and highways, and opening dialogue with ex-Ba’athists.[44]

By arming and stationing tribesmen on the streets and vetting contracts not just through Iraqi officials but also through the tribes, the tribal elite received sources of patronage by which they could retain their power as arbiters, defenders, and providers for their tribes.  The tribal elites had gained a powerful ally through which they could fight AQI’s attempts to exert control of the underground markets and Anbari society.  Local security forces were dominated by Anbar tribesmen, selected by the tribes themselves.  U.S. forces in Anbar province had found a method by which they could reduce violence and gain operational and strategic space and time in order to enact governance, security, reconstruction, and economic developments. 

It must be noted that the Sahwa would have been unlikely to expand out of Ramadi if it was not for the relentless work of U.S. forces, including Marine General John Allen, who conducted negotiations with Iraqi sheikhs in Jordan in order to expand the influence of tribal networks throughout Anbar outside of Ramadi.[45]  This is because the paramount sheikhs of the largest tribes in Anbar were not necessarily affiliated with the Sahwa (since it was formulated by smaller, less influential sheikhs like Sheikh Satter Abu Risha).  Once the largest tribes joined the movement, the central government in Baghdad rapidly acquiesced to the demands put on Baghdad by the Emergency Council, at least partially because of close U.S. cooperation and support for the Sahwa, but also because local Iraqi security forces had already worked with the Council and argued it was essential to the stabilization of Anbar.  By the spring of 2007, Nouri Al-Maliki and General David Petraeus flew to Ramadi together to meet with Satter and the sheikhs of the Sahwa, followed only a few weeks later by Satter’s meeting with President George W. Bush.[46]  Baghdad promised to incorporate the Sahwa into the Iraqi security forces and took over funding for the program in 2008 (the U.S. had been paying for the Sahwa fighters, as well as the SOI movement that followed it, until then).

Lessons Learned

Many lessons can be extracted from the case of the Sahwa.  It must be noted that the Sahwa forces, and the follow-on SOI militias, closely resembled the “home guards” discussed in FM3-24.  From the starting point of “home guards,” then, the Sahwa will be discussed.

Militias, as representative arms of a constituency, must represent their constituents.  It is therefore best if the militia is the idea of the group who stand to be protected by it.  Even so, tactical conditions must support the existence of the militias.  For example, the sheikhs in Anbar province approached 1-1AD immediately with requests for armed militias, which 1-1AD initially refused.  Only after neighborhoods had been cleared, insurgents killed, U.S. and tribal relationships established, agreements put in place to support the development of ISF, and contracting projects planned, were the Sahwa forces allowed to be stood up.  These militias, programs similar to which vulnerable organizations which had been tried (and defeated) before, needed operational time and space to be established first in order to be able to stand on their own. 

The relationships which the U.S. forged with the Iraqi tribes were based on calculation of interests.  In 2006, the U.S. looked the other way when it came to profit-making activities pursued by the tribes[47] and had little interest in manipulating traditional tribal social dynamics.  Rather, U.S. forces were interested in security and economic and political development.  The tribal elites were interested in securing their financial interests, in loosening the shackles of extreme Salafi-influence sharia, and in bringing forms of patronage to their tribesman.  The Iraqi government under Maliki was desperate for political progress and a reduction in the Sunni-on-Shia violence, and therefore agreed to almost anything that the U.S. supported and which they hoped would lead to an improvement in these things.  Each of these three groups had different interests.  It is critical that in the future U.S. decision-makers understand the interests of the individuals with whom they are hoping to align with so they can ensure they pursue policies which appeal to those interests.  It is difficult to understand interests without understanding cultural precepts, and generally personal relationships must be established in order to identify such interests.  Mutual interests, no matter how material or calculating, provide incentives by which effective alliances can be cemented.

The U.S., as the strongest power on the battle-field, must be prepared to train, protect, and support the militias with combat, logistical, administrative, and even political support, but these militias cannot be U.S. militias.  These forces are vulnerable to predation and infiltration, since they are often the first visible and local line of defense against insurgents, so it is in the interests of U.S. forces to support militias as aggressively as they can.  That being said, U.S. forces may operate in locations where the population is pre-disposed to view U.S. security efforts with suspicion.  Therefore, militias must be organized and led as much as possible by local elites.  Only then will the militias have local legitimacy as well as the authority to exert true security and intelligence-development capabilities. 

Additionally, U.S. forces must be cognizant of the extreme danger these forces can pose on the battlefield to both U.S. forces, local and state-level power structures, and even the local population.  In some cases, members of SOI units were involved in predatory behavior against the Iraqi populace,[48] and individual and group allegiances often laid well outside a commitment to the state.  That is, individuals in these groups may answer to power local or regional elites, rather than to the state, and may impose friction when it comes to the state imposing appropriate authority locally.  Furthermore, indigenous armed forces, who may lack uniforms, significant unit-level training and/or cohesion, or communications capability, may become targets for both insurgents and overzealous U.S. units who aren’t aware of the existence of these units, and the potential for fratricide incidents (whether “blue-on-blue,” “green-on-blue,” or “blue-on-green”) is therefore much higher when working with militias.  Finally, it must be noted that the allegiances of the members of these units can often be in question, and militia leaders must be carefully vetted by U.S. forces to ensure relatively competent but also reliable leadership. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, militias cannot be stood up without the consent of the HN state government, nor without precise planning and coordination between the U.S., the militia, and the state regarding not just administrative details like pay, but also other important issues like representation of the militia to the government and legal authorities of the militia.  Unless the state understands and agrees to the existence and rules governing the militia, a militia is just another collection of armed men on the street—and is likely to be targeted like those groups (i.e., insurgents).  Coherent and comprehensive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs must be detailed and agreed to by all associated parties—and they must be understood and supported from the strategic to the tactical level of U.S. command.  It is critical that militias are carefully and responsibly integrated into the state, because armed groups pose enormous dangers to the legitimacy and control exerted by states—especially by developing states.[49]  The fact that Sawha forces continue to be utilized by the Iraqi state even today[50] testifies to their operational and tactical effectiveness as well as to the careful management organized by U.S. and Iraqi governments in supporting the Sawha.

These points relate to U.S. performance not just in Afghanistan today, but in future conflicts, as the existence of militias on the battle-field has been a common phenomenon throughout the globe and throughout history.  The problems posed by weak governments, poor resource extraction, cultural clashes, and inequitable wealth distribution seem likely to continue to fuel conflict especially within the borders of numerous states.   These themes can, therefore, inform counter-insurgency doctrine and strategy for future conflicts where inevitably militias emerge.

End Notes

[1] For the sake of this essay, “militias” are identified as a primarily political institution (rather than primarily military institutions) which is part of a strategy of local rule and state-building.  The goal of a militia is population control.  They are sometimes called paramilitaries, death-squads, or home, civil, or village guards.  See Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 107.

[2] “Sahwa” is loosely translated as “Awakening” in Iraqi Arabic and has been associated with militias raised not just in Anbar province but eventually across the state.

[3] Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, Beth Grill, and Molly Dunigan, Paths to Victory: Lessons from Modern Insurgencies (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2013), 184.

[4] Department of the Army, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 212.

[5] Department of the Army, FM 3-24, 112-3.

[6] Department of the Army, FM 3-05.202 Special Forces Foreign Internal Defense Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2007), pages A-10 and A-11.

[7] Department of the Army, FM 31-20-3 Foreign Internal Defense Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Special Forces (Washington, D.C: Department of the Army, 1994), D-1 through D-19.

[8] U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Pub 3-22: Foreign Internal Defense, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2010).

[9] Department of the Army, FM 3-24.2 Tactics in Counterinsurgency (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2009), 8-1 through 8-24.  Pages 8-11 and 8-12 discuss some tactics regarding host-nation security force construction.

[10] Amatzia Baram, “Neo-Tribalism in Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Tribal Policies 1991-1996,” International Journal of Middle-East Studies 29 (1997), 1.

[11] Kimberly Marten, Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 154.

[12] Eric Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 239.

[13] Robert Looney, “Beyond the Iraq Study Group: The Elusive Goal of Sustained Growth,” Strategic Insights 4:2 (March 2007), 6.

[14] Faleh A. Jabar, “Sheikhs and Ideologues: Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Tribes under Patrimonial Totalitarianism in Iraq, 1969-1998,” in Faleh Abdul-Jabar and Hosham Dawod, ed., Tribes and Power: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Middle East (London: Saqi, 2003), 96.

[15] Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 162-3.

[16] Many authors cover this subject, though few concur on the details.  Gordon and Trainor discuss the U.S. decisions and policies that led to the generation of the insurgency in Cobra II (especially Chapters 23 and 24); Hashim details the perspectives and motivations of the Iraqi people as well as the strands of the insurgency in Chapter 2 of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency. See Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (New York: Vintage Books, 2007); and Ahmed S. Hashim, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[17] Rad Al-Hamdani, interview by Ilhami Al-Maliji, “Suqut Baghdad al-sari mufaja’a mudhhila!” [The Rapid Fall of Baghdad Was a Stunning Surprise], Al-Ahram (Cairo), 3 July 2004, cited in Norman Cigar, Al Qaeda, the Tribes, and the Government: Lessons and Prospects for Iraq’s Unstable Triangle, (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2011), 3.

[18] Ahmed S. Hashim, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 106.

[19] Richard H. Schultz, Jr., The Marines Take Anbar: The Four-Year Fight against Al Qaeda (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 108.

[20] John R. Ballard, David W. Lamm, and John K. Wood, From Kabul to Baghdad and Back: The U.S. at War in Afghanistan and Iraq (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 154-5.

[21] “Appendix A: COL. Devlin’s Intelligence Assessment,” in Tom Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), 331-335. It must be noted that in the same document COL Devlin argued an Anbar-based paramilitary force might pose an effective alternative to Baghdad-controlled forces, though he does not reference the movement taking place in Ramadi at that time.

[22] For instance, see Ballard, Lamm, and Wood, From Kabul to Baghdad and Back, 158. 

[23] This author suspects there may be evidence to support this assertion, but it is either classified or simply hasn’t been professionally gathered, collated, analyzed, and published.

[24] David Kilcullen, “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt,” Small Wars Journal, August 29, 2007.

[25] Amit R. Paley, “Shift in Tactics Aims to Revive Struggling Insurgency,” Washington Post, February 8, 2008.

[26] Steven Simon, “The Price of the Surge,” Foreign Affairs 82:3 (May/June 2008), 61.

[27] Bing West, The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition, 2009), 10.

[28] Cigar, Al Qaeda, the Tribes, and the Government, 11.

[29] John A. McCary, “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives,” The Washington Quarterly 32:1 (January 2009), 47.

[30] Examples of early armed groups include a militia raised by a desert tribe near the Syrian border in 2004, the “Hamza Brigade” in early 2005 (a combination of tribesmen from several tribes), the “Desert Protectors” (largely composed of ex-Hamza members) in mid-2005, and the Anbar People’s Council, largely composed of member of the Fahd tribe and linked to the 1920’s Revolutionary Group, a nationalist insurgent organization. See Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey A. Friedman, and Jacob N. Shapiro, “Testing the Surge: Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?” in International Security 37:1 (Summer 2012), 18-20; West, The Strongest Tribe, 101-102.

[31] William Doyle, A Soldier’s Dream: Captain Travis Patriquin and the Awakening of Iraq (New York: New American Library, 2011), 139-143. 

[32] Joel Wing, “Understanding Anbar Before and After the Awakening, Part IV, Sheik Wissam Abdul Ibrahim Hardan,” Musings on Iraq (blog), September 17, 2013,

[33] Schultz, The Marines Take Anbar, 112-3.

[34] Schultz, The Marines Take Anbar, 154-5.

[35] Neil Smith and Sean MacFarland, “Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point,” Military Review 88:2 (Mar/Apr 2008), 42, 44-5.

[36] Anthony E. Deane, “Providing Security Force Assistance in an Economy of Force Battle,” Military Review 90:1 (Jan/Feb 2010), 84-6.

[37] Smith and MacFarland, “Anbar Awakens,” 42.

[38] Ibid., 52.

[39] Ibid., 47.  CPT Travis Patriquin became close friends with several of the most dynamic figures within the tribes, including Sheik Satter Abu Risha, who essentially served as the face of the Sahwa; Patriquin’s bushy Iraqi-style mustache, fluent Arabic, self-confidence, and gregariousness led to him being treated as a brother by many within the tribes.  Doyle’s A Soldier’s Dream is an excellent discussion of the role Patriquin played inside the Sahwa.

[40] Tony Perry, “One Man’s War: Sunni Sheik’s War on the Insurgency,” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2007.

[41] MG John R. Allen, “Turning the Tide, Part II,”  interview by CW4 Timothy S. McWilliams, in McWilliams and LTC Kurtis P. Wheeler, Al-Anbar Awakening, Volume 1: American Perspectives, U.S. Marines and Counterinsurgency in Iraq (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University, 2009), 230; Cigar, Al Qaeda, the Tribes, and the Government, 39.

[42] Cigar, Al Qaeda, the Tribes, and the Government, 6.

[43] Brian Katulis, Peter Juul, and Ian Moss, “Awakening to New Dangers in Iraq: Sunni ‘Allies’ Pose an Emerging Threat,” Center for American Progress, February 2008, 4.

[44] Michael E. Silverman, Awakening Victory: How Iraqi Tribes and American Troops Reclaimed al Anbar Province and Defeated al Qaeda in Iraq (Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2011), 75.

[45] Marten, Warlords, 169.

[46] Ibid., 170.

[47] James Russell, Innovation, Transformation, and War: Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Redwood City, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2010), 61.

[48] Christopher Torchia, “Iraq Sentences Militia Leader to Death,” Associated Press, November 19, 2009.

[49] This issue—the mostly negative effects posed on the developing state by militias and armed groups--poses lively discussion in scholarly “state-building” literature.  See Robert Rotberg, When States Fail: Causes and Consequence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) or Roland Paris and Timothy D. Sisk, The Dilemmas of Statebuilding: Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations (New York: Routledge, 2010) for particularly insightful statist discourses relevant to the questions associated with developing states and armed groups.

[50] Ammar Karim, “As Violence Worsens, Iraq Again Turns to Sunni Tribes,” GlobalPost, August 25, 2013,


About the Author(s)

Major Michael Bush, U.S. Army, is currently a capabilities development officer at the Intelligence Center of Excellence at Fort Huachuca, AZ.  He holds a B.A. from Wartburg College and a M.A. from Naval Postgraduate School.  During his career, MAJ Bush has served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the 172nd Infantry Regiment (Separate), the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), and at the National Training Center.  His experience includes two combat tours in Iraq.



Wed, 10/23/2013 - 9:47pm

Absolutely concur with the need to do an in-depth study of the SOI. Something along the lines of interviews with 100+ SOI from outside of Anbar, 100+ Sahwa/SOI from within Anbar, 50+ ANP and ANA, and 100+ tribal leaders, elected politicians, and appointed leaders in the Maliki government, including Maliki. It would also be incredibly useful to sit down and conduct interviews with 100s of "insurgents," criminals, and terrorists who were imprisoned from 2006 to 2008 to get their perceptions not just of U.S. efforts (including the "Surge") but especially SOI, Sahwa, and other threads within the insurgency that may have been important. For instance, the influence of JRTN after this time-period poses a number of troubling questions (the answers to which may help inform potential strategies against their continued influence in Iraq, circa 2013). The vast majority of the published data and commentary on the Sons of Iraq and associated COIN initiatives is from the American side.

(At least) one thing missing from the above: the effect the lethal targeting efforts by JSOC (hinted at in McChrystal's autobiography) had on the insurgency in Anbar and elsewhere at this time. What kind of effect, if any, did Zarqawi's death (as well as the deaths/detentions of high- and medium-level leaders in the insurgency) have on the Iraqi populace as well as leaders--and especially on the leadership of the various strands of the insurgency?

(Of course, that question has nothing to do with the doctrine issue).

Very much liked your article. Would just like to add a few comments about the views of the tribes in Anbar. 1st while Anbar was overwhelmingly Sunni that does not mean that it escaped the sectarian war in Iraq. Several hundred Shiite families fled Anbar and went to Baghdad and Najaf. Also over 8,600 Sunni families fled Baghdad and central Iraq and went to Anbar. Kurdish families from northern Anbar were forced out of the governorate as well. 2nd many of the sheikhs, former Baathists, military men, etc. in Anbar greatly feared Iran would take over Iraq after the 2003 invasion. They did not distinguish between actual Iranians and the Shiite religious parties such as Dawa, the Supreme Council, etc. If you read the second volume of the Marine History of the Anbar Awakening this theme gets brought up again and again. One sheikh for example said that the Anbar Awakening needed to spread out to other provinces to combat the Iranians and their Shiite allies in the militias. I would agree that the cause of the Awakening was mostly an internal Anbar affair having to do with differences between the sheikhs and the insurgents, but the tribes definitely knew and feared what was happening in the rest of the country as well.


Mon, 10/21/2013 - 12:06pm

I think this is a critical piece of the Iraq puzzle that simply doesn't get enough attention. Working with the SOI in SW Baghdad Province I remember a local once telling me that the name of the local Carghuli tribe came from an old Turkish word from when the Ottomans used them to protect a major road going through the region (the closest Turkish word, korucu, means protector, but I don't claim to have done any linguistic analysis). True or not, the idea that an external power can/should form a formal relationship with a local player to ensure security isn't revolutionary. Indeed, the 3-6 man teams manning an excessive number of SOI checkpoints on the roads between Yusufiyah and Fallujah, roads that used to be IED nightmares, does bring to mind the thought that the very men at the checkpoints were the ones previously implanting the IEDs for a different employer.

It is also an interesting study in change of perspective, as the folks that first faced the potential of a sanctioned militia had to break the mental straight-jacket of the centralized State authority paradigm. An in-depth study of year-one of the SOI is sorely needed!

The Iraq troubles 2004-2010 were complex, to say the least. Solving the Sunni domestic vs. Sunni foreign via the Sahwa may have brought the deadliest part of the troubles for US forces to an end (although for the common Iraqi, the Sunni vs. Shia was by far the deadlier conflict). But there is a deeper implication here; that though we certainly capitalized on the Sunni in-fighting, we categorically lucked out.