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The Ghosts of Anbar, Part I of IV

Counterinsurgency December 2006 FM 3-24
MCWP 3-33.5

To know a man, follow his tracks.

Anbar Province
June, 2007

Iraq and this part of the world are complicated in the way, and by the way, that dysfunction always is “complicated.” Worse, in this labyrinth of history, where recent rumors have as much cache as ancient myths, facts fade quickly into mirage, granting mistakes and missteps a kind of perverse permanence. Fertile ground for paradoxes.

British Cemetery at Habbaniya, near Fallujah.

Our Anbar-war can be said to have begun after the invasion in 2003, and for most of its duration, Fallujah has been the crucible Anbar city. In the beginning, in this city of mosques, the people of Fallujah had not resisted. But friction bred of perceived injustices seethed steadily, until the light fighting of 2003 exploded early in 2004, when on the final day of March in that year, four contractors were murdered and mutilated in Fallujah. The spokesmen for the killers called it an act of revenge, justice even. They called the murdered contractors mercenaries; their charred corpses dangling from what Soldiers and Marines now call “Blackwater Bridge.”

On April Fools’ Day of 2004, our war in Anbar burst its container.

Fallujah fumed into a dark thundercloud arching bolts straight into the American heart. “Fallujah” mutilated our people. “Fallujah” mocked us, with its exuberant mob dancing dangerously near our darkest fears, and a chill walked across America. Throughout the summer and into the fall, the calls to flatten Fallujah grew louder, as hard to ignore as the reality of an insurgency that was far from gasping its final breaths. Explosions all over Iraq heralded the rise Fallujah as the center of commerce for insurgents who relied on the production line of car and human bombs assembled in the City of Mosques.

For a time, Fallujah garnered nearly 100% of the media battle-stage. A speck of a city in a dysfunctional country standing toe-to-toe with a Super Power whose guns were hot and loaded. In the eyes of many, Fallujah was the frog strangling the stork, the defiant mouse giving the finger to the eagle, or more nobly, the Tankman of Tiananmen Square. The fact that Fallujah’s “defiance,” like the attacks on 9/11, was delivered in the form of celebratory murder was carefully omitted from the publicity campaign. (Hollywood press agents have nothing on al Qaeda’s media squad.)

By the end of the 2004, a phantom fury annihilated Fallujah, and Mosul fell. When we crushed Fallujah, Iraq burst into flames.

Any premature history of this war will be as simplistic as a woven carpet, but some patterns are clear even today: crushing Fallujah backfired. If only because the timing assured a near total Sunni boycott of the first and most important national election, the start of nation-building politics, the same process that is now so widely acknowledged as the only path to a secure and self-sufficient Iraq.

For Anbar, the war remained unabated through 2005 and 2006. For the rest of Iraq, Anbar was a blood infection pulsing poison into places not well-enough tended to resist.

Anbar was the special provenance for al Qaeda, the one place in Iraq they could establish and maintain a robust and largely unchallenged dominance. To achieve this, al Qaeda had used the stick of terrorism and the carrot of promises to gain allies. A lot of carrots, actually, in the form of promises that they would cast out the Americans, and reward the people of Anbar with ministries in the new government.

There are so many ghosts here, stacked in holding pattern above the desert.

Many Vietnam veterans fear that our leaders never learned the lessons they paid dearly for. And mostly they are right. However, some of our officers—like James Mattis and David Petraeus—have studied the lessons of Vietnam in great detail. But for a long time, although these two officers realized we were in the middle of an insurgency, it was tantamount to “un-American” to call insurgents insurgents. They were “dead-enders,” and since there was no insurgency, there was scant need for counterinsurgency warfare. Had these two officers been running this war from the beginning, it probably would be finished by now.

It took enormous guts to take the job at this stage of the war, when it’s like an airplane with one of the wings blown off, and there is this pilot in the back of the airplane who easily could have parachuted out the back—where some of the others already have gone—but instead he says, “I can still fly this thing!” Had David Petraeus jumped and landed safely, he’d still have been one of the few who could land with a sterling reputation after his previous commands here. If this jet crashes while Petraeus is flying it, we will always know that the best of the best did not jump out the back; he ran to the cockpit.

Despite that Petraeus has the cockpit as under control as it can be, the jet is still nosing down. The only way this is going to work is if the majority of the subordinate commanders, and our troops, are applying the difficult lessons of counterinsurgency. Lessons that we failed to apply for most of the first few years of this war. Lessons our Vietnam veterans paid for in full. Lessons lost on others from wars here long ago and seldom mentioned these days. Lessons whispered by the Ghosts of Anbar.

The paradox of counterinsurgency requires almost a leap of faith.

Ironically, in Anbar al Qaeda has become our best ally for killing al Qaeda. They’ve managed to do this directly, just by being al Qaeda. Despite the promised carrots, what al Qaeda consistently delivered here was mostly stick, and with a special kind of hypocritical contempt that no sensible person would believe possible. (Not unlike the notion of baking the children of resistant parents or ordering shepherds to diaper the corrupting genitals of goats.)

Al Qaeda has a management style—doing drugs, laying up sloppy drunk, raping women and boys, and cutting off heads, all while imposing strict morality laws on the locals—that makes it clear that they have one set of principles for themselves, and another for everyone else.

In that kind of scheme, it didn’t take long before people in Anbar realized that any benefits from al Qaeda having control would not be distributed equally. Once that realization spread, the tribal sheiks—almost all Sunni—had to consider the alternatives.

Shattered headstones, like broken promises, warn of restless ghosts.

The sheiks of Anbar turned against al Qaeda because the sheiks are businessmen, and al Qaeda is bad for business. But they didn’t suddenly trust Americans just because they no longer trusted al Qaeda. They are not suddenly blood allies. This is business, and that’s fine, because if there is one thing America is good at, it’s business.

This conflict is often cast as either a battle between good and evil, or as a clash of religious ideologies, perspectives that fill cemeteries with brave souls willing to die for something they believe most fervently.

Reframed thus from a position of strength, this stage of the Anbar-war is more a sort of business transaction, where alliances beneficial to all sides—except al Qaeda—are formed. From this perspective, there is now a moment of genuine ground-floor opportunity in Anbar, if the people here can see that by doing business with the Coalition, everyone benefits—except al Qaeda, an exclusion that most can live with.

But in Anbar a perspective less lofty but infinitely more practical has evolved which acknowledges that first and foremost, peace is better for business, and self-interest is a more reliable motive for cooperation than is self-sacrifice.

From a distance, this seems both obvious and uncontroversial. But on that ground floor things are less pristine, because some of our new business partners were only recently actively trying to kill our Soldiers and Marines. Some may even have danced beneath Blackwater Bridge.

Following a path seemingly fraught with potential dangers may turn out to be surest route home for both Americans and Iraqis, despite the distance between our ultimate destinations.

Knowing all this made an offer to embed with Marines in Anbar irresistible. So I headed out to Fallujah and requested to speak with Colonel Richard Simcock II, the Marine Corps Commanding Officer for Regimental Combat Team 6, whose current responsibility includes Fallujah. I wanted to see for myself just how strange our bedfellows had become.

End of Part One.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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