"A cautionary tale": The fall of the sheik behind the Anbar Awakening

The Obama administration announced an “adjustment” to its ISIS strategy yesterday, sending 450 military advisers to train Iraqi forces, specifically tribal fighters in Anbar. The move intends to encourage the Sunni tribes in Anbar to rally to the Baghdad flag and align with the US in its fight against the so-called caliphate. The problem with this plan is that the Sunni tribal leaders did just that in 2006-8, under the leadership of Sheik Ahmad Abu-Risha al-Rishawi, who delivered a large coalition to the US and fought al-Qaeda in Iraq to the edge of extinction.

Where is Sheik Ahmad now? Thanks to American betrayal, nearly anywhere except Anbar. Eli Lake’s profile of the most important US ally in western Iraq during the Awakening points out where the US lost the war, and why this “adjustment” is doomed to failure:

For nearly a year now, the U.S. has committed to training and equipping the tribal forces that had success in 2007 and 2008 against the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. But in 2015, many of the tribal leaders that risked their security to fight al-Qaeda back then have either been killed or are in internal exile. Those that remain in Anbar Province have largely been cowed into supporting the Islamic State. …

Nearly every major U.S. political figure visiting Iraq in 2007 and 2008 flew out to Anbar to meet with the man leading the revolution against al Qaeda. Obama himself even met with Ahmad in 2008  when he visited Iraq while still a senator.

But the sheik’s fortunes began to decline after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. Many of the Anbari fighters, known as the Sons of Iraq, were never paid by the Iraqi government, then led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. What’s more, Sheik Ahmad told me in 2012 that his contacts with the U.S. government stopped after the last troops pulled out. The sheik still publicly aligned himself with Maliki and the central government, even thought that government was failing to provide basic security in western Iraq.

These failures by  the Baghdad government created the conditions for the Islamic State’s take over of Anbar. According to research from Craig Whiteside, a professor at the Naval War College and a former U.S. Army officer who worked with tribes in Iraq, al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State continued a campaign to assassinate tribal leaders even in 2009 and 2010, when the group was widely considered to be finished.

It wasn’t finished, but at the time it was reduced to a fringe terror group only capable of small operations. It certainly couldn’t hold significant ground, not while Ahmad and his coalition of tribes had the US as a partner and the Baghdad government under its influence. The surge of troops gave the US enough strength to convince the Sunnis in Anbar that the future was with a multi-sectarian government in Baghdad with their contributions and influence guaranteed by the Americans.

The withdrawal in 2011 changed all those calculations. Maliki locked them out, destroying Ahmad’s credibility with the other Sunni tribes. The persecutions and exclusion that followed broke the alliance with Baghdad, and AQI/ISIS began to gain influence and fighters as Iraq quickly descended back into sectarian conflict. Finally, within three years, AQI/ISIS gained enough strength to become a marauding terrorist army, capable of holding ground and picking off tribal leaders for maximum political gain. Sheik Ahmad was fortunate; the only thing of his assassinated was his credibility, along with that of the Americans in Anbar.

Simply landing 450 “advisers” in the middle of the mess created by the precipitate American withdrawal won’t solve the core problem, which is that no one trusts the Obama administration as a partner. Obama bailed on the American commitment to Anbar tribes when it became politically expedient for him to do so, and the tribal leaders in Anbar won’t rush to put their necks on the line to do America’s bidding without large numbers of Americans on the ground fighting with them, and Americans guaranteeing Sunni access to power in Baghdad for a long time to come afterward.

This is an “adjustment” that only postpones momentarily the reality of the choice Obama has to make about ISIS: to fight or to cut and run. Sunni tribal leaders are likely to bet on the latter based on personal experience. Don’t expect to see too many tribal fighters in class.