Reviewing the Iraqi Surge and Awakening

Book Review: Carter Malkasian, ‘Illusions of Victory’, Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. 280.

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 4 July 2018

Carter Malkasian sets out in Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State to upend the conventional understanding of the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) movement, known at the time as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), in Anbar province of western Iraq.

Malkasian was a Marine who served in Iraq between 2003 and 2006, most of the time in Anbar as an advisor on counterinsurgency. The book draws on these experiences, though Malkasian left Iraq just before the formal onset of the Anbar Awakening. Focused on the local, in conformity with Malkasian’s (convincing) argument that the Iraqis matter most in this story, the book is concise.

There are seven short chapters, covering: the arguments over the historiography of the Awakening; the gradual takeover of Anbar province by the jihadists between 2003 and 2006 and the reasons for that, related to the tribal system, demographics, and public opinion; the stirrings of tribal and insurgent resistance against IS and why it failed; the US adaptations and offensive operations in Ramadi in the second half of 2006 that coincided with the beginning of the Awakening and preceded the Surge of US troops in 2007; the Awakening’s apparent success after its beginning in September 2006 and the clearance of Ramadi in March 2007; the revival of IS and the collapse of the Awakening movement; and the lessons to be drawn.


One of the takeaway messages from Malkasian is that the Sunnis of Anbar had a lot more sympathy with IS—at least if the alternative was either Americans or an Iranian-influenced Shi’a-led government—than many histories of the Awakening suggest. Even during the ‘strongest periods of Ba’ath secularism, religious leaders had maintained an enduring influence,’ Malkasian writes. ‘Compared to the fragmented nature of tribes, Islam was unifying. Compared to secular strongmen and nationalism, Islam was permanent’.

The insurgency gathered around the mosques and the Imams after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and it was the Ba’ath regime that laid the groundwork for this to happen. First, as Malkasian notes, the ‘modernising’ policies of the early Saddam years worked, breaking the power of the Sheiks (tribal leaders) and leading to urbanisation. In the cities, Imams drew congregations that overshadowed the sheiks. Second, as Saddam Islamised his regime from the late 1980s onward, one crucial aspect was the extension of patronage to more junior clerics, altering the fabric of the Sunni areas by making them more religious and empowering mid-level Imams as social leaders.

This was the situation the US and her allies found in 2003, and it eased IS’s rise. The jihadist networks had been building in Iraq long before the invasion, and in the aftermath, when they presented themselves in Islamic terms to a population enraged at the loss of primacy and the intrusion of infidel foreigners into their midst, they found a receptive audience that had been increasingly framing its identity in sectarian and religious terms.


Related to this, Malkasian notes that the triggers for the tribal uprising against IS were rather less romantic than some descriptions, including their own, would have one believe. Power and honour played crucial roles. Power took informal shapes, notably controlling the smuggling routes to Jordan and Syria. There were more formal avenues, too. The governor of Anbar province was Ma’amun Sami Rashid al-Alwani, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected at a popular level as insufficiently Islamist and rejected by the tribal leaders as a competitor. Tellingly, the first demand of the Awakening charter was al-Alwani’s removal. More broadly, the battles at Fallujah in 2004 had devastated the more local ‘resistance’ groups in Anbar; many of the tribal leaders fled to Jordan and a number of insurgent groups buckled and joined IS.

This left a vacuum for smaller tribes to exploit. In stepped Abdul Sittar al-Rishawi and his brother Ahmed from the Albu Risha tribe, backed by Khalid Arak Ehtami and his son, Tahir Bedawi, from the Albu Ali Jassim tribe, and Hamid Farhan al-Hais and Colonel Tariq Yusef Muhammad from the Albu Thiyab tribe. Notably, all of these men had early problems with ever more IS dominated insurgency. Col Muhammad, for example, had run afoul of the Saddam regime in the 1990s, and was thus at some emotional distance from a resistance movement at ease with a Ba’athist restoration. From this small cadre of just a few hundred the Awakening movement grew.

Read the rest at Fathom Journal

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