Progress slow, but Obama still betting on Iraq ‘awakening’
The Obama administration admits its push for a “Sunni Awakening 2.0” to break the Islamic State’s grip on Iraq’s western Anbar province has gone more slowly than hoped, but officials say they’re not giving up on the effort.
Critics say the strategy so far hasn’t come close to replicating the success of the first awakening, which roughly coincided with President George W. Bush’s “surge” in early 2007.
Under President Obama, there were no U.S. combat troops bolstering the current drive, while many tribal leaders key to the first awakening were assassinated when the American forces left Iraq between 2008 and 2011.
“It has been a very slow and painful process, and everybody would like to see this move more quickly,” one U.S. official involved in the current effort acknowledged Tuesday. “But we’re also realistic about it — we knew this was going to be a multiyear campaign when we started it.”
U.S. officials say the Anbar campaign is more focused on trying to establish a long-term Sunni tribal force that is paid by the Iraqi government and can hold territory once it is finally seized back from the extremists.
But there is no clear indication of when that might be, leaving some to wonder whether the overall “Awakening 2.0” strategy has fallen so flat over the past year that the administration has effectively abandoned it.
While the Pentagon claims “thousands” of Sunni tribal fighters have come online and are now operating in concert with Iraqi government security forces, the goal of luring Anbar’s sheiks into a new “awakening” may well have been doomed from the start.
The Islamic State “surgically killed nearly all of the awakening’s key leaders,” said Craig Whiteside, a former U.S. Army officer who worked with tribes in Anbar during the mid-2000s and now teaches at the U.S. Naval War College in Monterey, California.
Operatives from the Islamic State in Iraq, also known as ISIS and ISIL, “collected intelligence on the tribes in Anbar, figured out who was holding the awakening together and then murdered them,” Mr. Whiteside said in an interview.
Mr. Whiteside said his research found that Islamic State operatives killed some 1,345 awakening members and leaders between 2009 and 2014.
“I’m guessing we figured out pretty quickly that the Islamic State had been taking steady measures since 2008 to inoculate against this ‘redo the awakening’ strategy,” he said. “In a perfect world, the Sunnis would probably say, ‘Yes, we’d rather work with the Americans and reconcile with the Iraqi government than be aligned with ISIS,’ but they can’t because the Islamic State has established control not only over their areas but also over their families.”