Illusions of Victory (Book Review)

By Conrad C. Crane Joint Force Quarterly 89

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Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State
By Carter Malkasian
Oxford University Press, 2017
$27.95 280 pp.
ISBN: 978-0190659424

Reviewed by Conrad C. Crane
Conrad C. Crane is Chief of Historical Services at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at the U.S. Army War College.

Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State
Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State
Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State

In Enforcing the Peace: Learning from the Imperial Past (Columbia University Press, 2006), Kimberly Zisk Marten recounts the dismal record of Western military interventions that could achieve temporary stability but not foster any lasting political change. Her solution is to lower expectations while extending presence; outsiders cannot shape the course of internal political change but can maintain security for the lengthy period required for equilibrium to be restored after a society is disrupted. The team writing the new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine for the Army and Marine Corps in 2006 was quite aware of this dilemma and that success in COIN is always a long and costly process. The team listed long-term commitment as one of its most important principles.

At the same time those ideas were being incorporated in what would become doctrine in Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, the war in Iraq was beginning to turn with a movement that would be called the Anbar Awakening. Sunni tribes in that province rose up to resist al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and, along with Soldiers and Marines, eventually expelled those foreign fighters. This result was touted as one of the great successes of the new American approach to counterinsurgency, and a model for future operations. Yet it did not take long after the United States pulled its forces out of Iraq in 2011 for the province again to fall under the influence of violent outsiders, this time from the so-called Islamic State (IS). Carter Malkasian—both a practitioner and chronicler of COIN whose War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (Oxford University Press, 2013) is a modern classic of the genre—has again applied his astute analysis to another region unsettled by an insurgency. He concludes that the Anbar example should be a cautionary tale for anyone who believes the United States can create any kind of a lasting peace with just a short military intervention or change a regime and expect its replacement to stand on its own in just a few years.

He describes his work as “a short book burdened with details.” It is a quick read, but clear in its trajectory. He begins by describing the origins of the conflict in Anbar from 2003 to 2005, with particular focus on tribal dynamics. He then concentrates in great detail on the battle for Ramadi from 2005 through the Awakening and collapse of AQI, much from personal experience. He concludes by describing the rise of IS and what lessons can be drawn from the disappointing experience. Throughout, his narrative is informed by many insights about the roles of key individuals on both sides in shaping the course of events, shaped by first-hand observations.

The two most common explanations for the Anbar Awakening have been that it was the result either of enlightened American leaders who used innovative new tactics, or that AQI incited the tribal resistance with its own brutality. Malkasian argues that both were necessary for the success of the movement, but there were other important factors as well. One was that as AQI’s power grew, it challenged and marginalized tribal leaders, who then were motivated to regain their positions of influence in a “violent mafia-esque struggle.” Another important condition that is most often overlooked was the “esprit de corps and cohesion within the tribes opposing AQI” during the period of the Awakening. Previous efforts to oppose al Qaeda had failed, but this time losses did not break the resistance, and they persevered through tough trials because of individual determination and social bonds.

Malkasian provides three reasons for the eventual rise of IS and reversal of the success of the Awakening. The first two are directly related to the U.S. withdrawal, which included diplomatic and financial support as well as military forces. Without any outside restraint, the Nouri al-Maliki government quickly moved to marginalize and abuse the Sunni tribes in Anbar. And the tribes fragmented. Without American resources they could not provide goods and services to their people or sustain security forces, while traditional competitive infighting further reduced their strength. IS was not only able to exploit those divisions, but it also took advantage of widespread Sunni popular support for their view of Islam, just as AQI had.

There is much in this short book for military and political leaders to ponder. Despite the apparent success of the Anbar Awakening, in the end the result there must just be added to the long litany of failed Western military interventions that Marten describes. Just as the FM 3-24 team realized, Malkasian argues that policymakers must understand that any American military intervention will have to be lengthy to accomplish any lasting result—and should be planned accordingly. Perhaps a few thousand troops and some money, as some have argued, would have kept Anbar stable and avoided the rise of IS there. He also cautions, however, that “the course of an insurgency, an internal conflict, or a civil war may be determined by unmalleable internal dynamics more than the actions of an outside power such as the United States.” JFQ