Iraq can learn from Marines as war moves to Anbar
Battle plan requires alliance with Sunnis
Baghdad’s Shiite-run government has begun its second major counteroffensive against the Islamic State, this time choosing western Anbar province, where the U.S. Marine Corps years ago showed that the path to victory requires an alliance with Sunni tribal chiefs.
The government’s just-completed retaking of the city of Tikrit was carried out principally by Iranian-led and -equipped Iraqi Shiite militiamen. In Anbar, Sunni sheiks have made it clear that they do not want Iranian operators or proxies on their territory.
It falls on the beleaguered Iraqi army to dust off and follow a playbook for defeating terrorists there. The Marine Corps in the mid-2000s wooed and organized Sunni tribal fighters to take on and expel al Qaeda insurgents. The battle plan became a template for an Iraq-wide campaign known as the U.S. troop surge and “Sunni Awakening.”
Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists returned and captured much of Anbar in January 2014. This time, they showed up under a different name, the Islamic State, and a new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi cleric who got his start as a vicious terrorist in Anbar’s city of Fallujah in 2004.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who meets in Washington this week with President Obama, ordered the counteroffensive Wednesday. He immediately traveled to an air base in Anbar and was photographed handing out rifles to local fighters whose leaders have long complained that Baghdad refuses to ship the equipment they need.
Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution, said American advisers had been arguing to go into Anbar before Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s old neighborhood — because Sunni opposition to Shiite rule remains deep-seated.
“It’s a good way to take smaller bites, use them to ‘blood’ the army, work out any problems and use the time to work out better arrangements with the Sunnis before going after the daunting challenge of Mosul,” Mr. Pollack said, mentioning Iraq’s second-largest city, now under Islamic State rule. “I think it is very smart. And Abadi will hopefully get a bunch of wins under his belt that will create a sense of momentum going his way.”
Mr. al-Abadi said Tikrit is now in government hands. But the victory remains uneven, with reports of Shiite-on-Sunni atrocities, looting and burnings.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, typically launches suicide bombing attacks on cities it does not control, such as Baghdad. It also has shown that it can dispatch its fighters on other objectives, such as smaller towns or oil refineries, to keep the U.S.-led coalition off balance.
But it is clear that Mr. al-Abadi is a wartime prime minister who plans to take the fight to the terrorists as often as possible.
“I think making a move in Al Anbar is smart and sophisticated,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who was in charge of training Iraqi troops. “It forces ISIS to look in more than one direction. It shows an ability to campaign in more than one area of operation. A move in Al Anbar also is a demonstration by Prime Minister Abadi that he takes the Sunnis seriously and he wants to be the leader of all Iraqis. This is important on the political front as it is on the security front.”
Anbar presents new challenges. Tikrit was a smaller war theater inhabited by Shiites and Sunnis. Anbar is a Sunni stronghold and is home to several cities and towns along the Euphrates River Valley. The valley is a wellworn artery for Islamic State fighters to flow into and out of Iraq.
Gen. Dubik said one of many tests is whether Iraq can shut off the Islamic State’s resupply lines.
“It will require greater coordination among airstrikes — close and deep — Iraqi counterterrorist units, Sunni tribal fighters, Iraqi Security Forces, and a variety of tribal and political leaders,” said Gen. Dubik, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
In other words, the Iraqi forces and U.S. advisers moving into Anbar must learn from the Marines’ actions in the mid-2000s.
Template for victory
One of the most comprehensive analyses of how Marines turned a possible defeat into a victory in Anbar in 2006 and 2007 is found in research by Tufts University professor Richard H. Shultz Jr. He wrote a paper for the Center on Irregular Warfare & Armed Groups at the U.S. Naval War College and published the 2013 book “The Marines Take Anbar.”
Al Qaeda held a firm grip on much of the province, where there were more than 500 violent attacks each month on civilians and coalition forces.
Wrote Mr. Shultz in his paper: “To fight successfully in the irregular warfare setting of Iraq’s Al Anbar province, Marines needed a cultural understanding of the local population, how they perceived and thought about their world, and the ways in which they organized social and political relations to survive in it. But the Marines deploying to Anbar in March 2004 were not equipped with such an appreciation.”
Marine commanders realized they needed a more thoughtful approach that involved a quick education on Islamic history.
Most important was the fact that the province’s Muslims are predominantly Hanifas, which is considered a moderate form of Islam, much more so than Salafists, whose hard-line views fuel al Qaeda jihadis.
The Marine’s campaign centered on three initiatives: rid an area of al Qaeda, sustain it and then rebuild; engage Anbar’s Sunni tribal sheiks and persuade them to join Iraqi forces; and develop intelligence for precise attacks on al Qaeda’s network cells.
“There’s a playbook on how to win Anbar, and it was written by the Marine Corps,” said Joe Kasper, chief of staff to Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “There were a lot of lessons learned from the Marines’ experience, and the Iraqis should look to apply those lessons, now that the U.S. is not the ground lead.”
The Marine Corps’ plan emerging in 2006 looked a lot like the historic troop surge that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus launched a year later.
Marines on their own broke the mold.
Applying lessons learned
“The events of 2006 reveal that holding territory is essential in this kind of war,” Mr. Shultz wrote in his 2012 report. “It is the foundation for a successful counterinsurgency strategy. You must be able to secure the ground where the population lives. [The Marines’ counterinsurgency-]based operational plan cleared the insurgents out of the populated areas and then secured that territory through combat outposts. In doing this, it demonstrated to the people of Anbar that engagement was for real.”
Mr. Shultz, a professor of international politics at Tufts’ Fletcher School, told The Washington Times that the Iraqi government “absolutely” can take lessons from the Marine Corps doctrine in Anbar.
The problem is, he said, the sheiks from 2006 to 2008 were dealing with the smarts and professionalism of Marines and leaders such as retired Gen. John Allen, who became a specialist in tribal outreach.
Today, they must deal with a suspect Iraqi army that has shown poor leadership, a limited ability to fight and a reluctance to supply weapons.
“The Marines were very smart in that they understood you had to work with the sheiks and the tribes,” Mr. Shultz said.
“You could never take into Anbar Shia militia commanded by Iran’s Quds Forces. That’s the problem,” he said. “Who is going to work with and win over these tribes and sheiks? So that is really the problem.
“The Iraqi army looks pretty awful. What do they bring to the table?” Mr. Shultz said. “When the Marines made the alliance, they brought a Marine Corps [Expeditionary Force]. That’s a different kind of force than the Iraqi military. Would you bet the house on the Iraqi military?”
The Washington Post reported from Baghdad that government troops faced stiff resistance in Ramadi and in nearby towns over the weekend.
The Post quoted an association of Sunni Anbar clerics as telling the Abadi administration to keep Iraqi Shiite militiamen out of their towns.
“The tribes are capable of liberating all of Anbar if they are armed and supported,” the statement said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived last week to distribute weapons and support security forces and Sunni volunteers at a camp in Habaniyah, west of Baghdad. After victory against Islamic State militants in the city of Tikrit, Iraq set sights on western Anbar province for its second major counteroffensive against the Islamic State.