Illusions of Victory
The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State
Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, 280 pages
Book Review published on: August 3, 2018
We have come to see the years 2006 through 2007 as a turning point in the U.S. war in Iraq. During 2006, sectarian violence and attacks on coalition forces had reached unprecedented levels, and the war seemed unwinnable. Yet, by late 2007, the violence had diminished dramatically, and the prospects for peace and stability in Iraq seemed promising. What had caused the war’s remarkable transformation? Five more brigade combat teams, the leadership of David Petraeus, the Anbar Awakening, special operations success in beheading al-Qaida in Iraq, a new counterinsurgency doctrine, or the stand-down of Sadr’s Mahdi army? Participant, pundits, and professional historians have all weighed in on the question, and we’re still not sure.
That’s why Carter Malkasian’s new book, Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State, is so important. Malkasian is both an Oxford-trained professional historian and a participant; he served two extended tours in Anbar Province between 2004 and 2006 as a civilian advisor to the Marines. These credentials give his analysis of events in Anbar Province, the Awakening and subsequent Surge, a special credibility.
Key to his narrative is his belief that the Anbar Awakening was far more fragile than U.S. leaders realized. By the same token, he believes we badly underestimated the popular appeal of the message offered first by al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and later by the Islamic State. Moreover, he believes we have overlooked the key role of three small, low-status tribes—the Albu Risha, the Albu Ali Jassim, and the Albu Thiyab—in serving as the essential core of the uprising against al-Qaida. Their cohesion and willingness to fight were essential in turning around the situation in Ramadi, which, by 2006, became the key to the campaign in Anbar Province. While the motivation of the three tribes was a complex mix of revenge, power, honor, and greed, the manpower they provided to the local militias and police was essential to turning the tide against the AQI.
If Malkasian highlights tribal dynamics in shaping the campaign, he also cites roles of key individuals. Some are fairly well known like Col. Sean McFarland, whom the author calls, “a signal figure in the battle for Ramadi, the awakening, and the later campaign against the Islamic state.” Another is Abdul Sittar al-Rashawi of the Albu Risha tribe, the most dynamic and influential leader among the Awakening tribes. Others like Col. John Gronski are relatively unheralded. Malkasian gives Gronski, an Army National Guard officer, credit for making some of the earliest efforts to enlist the support of local tribes. As a group, these men, along with resourceful Marine and Army officers and determined tribal allies, led a long, grinding battle of attrition that finally bore results by late 2007.
Yet, if the story has heroes, it does not have a happy ending. When the Islamic State reached Ramadi in 2015, they found an Iraqi army garrison that had wasted away, a divided tribal network, and a population that was fully alienated from the Maliki government. It was an easy victory for the men carrying black flags. And this, argues Malkasian, is the tragedy of Ramadi and Anbar. Only a punishing U.S. bombing campaign enabled the Baghdad government to recapture Ramadi in 2017. When the smoke cleared, the province was physically devastated and militarily dominated by Shia militias. Malkasian concludes that Anbar Province was far worse off than it had been when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.
Illusions of Victory is strongly recommended for those who would seek a deeper understanding of our long, painful involvement in Iraq. As a useful introduction to the book, I encourage potential readers to find the Russ Glenn’s interview/article, “LTG MacFarland: Insights on Illusions of Victory and Iraq,” in the Spring 2018 edition of Parameters.
Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas