Iraq can learn from Marines as war moves to An­bar

Battle plan re­quires al­liance with Sun­nis

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCARBOROUGH

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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