Lessons from the Iraq War

When the Marines took the Anbar province in 2007, it was with brains as much as brawn, argues Fletcher’s Richard Shultz in a new book

In March 2004, U.S. Marines were deployed to the Anbar province in western Iraq for what was termed a “stability operation.” The province soon became ground zero for organized insurgent resistance to the U.S. military, centered in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. It caused some to wonder if America might lose control of the war.

How the Marines managed to eventually take control of the province and turn around the war effort in Anbar is the story that Richard Shultz tells in his new book, The Marines Take Anbar: The Four-Year Fight Against Al Qaeda (Naval Institute Press). Shultz, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School, points out that the lessons learned in Anbar apply to all “irregular warfare” the U.S. may face in the future.

These “irregular” 21st century conflicts are among peoples, not between nations. They involve the rise of groups of insurgents, terrorists, militants and criminals that capitalize on the weaknesses of failing states to control populations and territories through assassinations, roadside bombs, suicide attacks and other unconventional means.


“I think it’s important we have a literature on this war [in Iraq] that is not just focused only on policies, but also on the strategies that worked on the ground,” says Shultz, the first scholar given access to the full military archives on the fight against Al Qaeda in the Anbar province from 2004 to 2008. “What Anbar tells you is you’ve got to gain control by creating stability with the population on the ground—separating civilians from insurgents and winning their trust so they work with you to oust external forces.”

It is a roadmap for the future, he says, because America’s worldwide interests will inevitably mean involvement in more non-traditional conflicts.  “We need to learn how to limit the duration of conflicts so we don’t become war weary and cynical and move toward isolationism,” says Shultz, who is also director of research at the National Strategy Information Center in Washington, D.C., which addresses security in the United States and democracy and the rule of law abroad through education and research. “We have to learn how to get effectively into a regional conflict when we must, and effectively get out again without leaving a destabilized region.”

Turning the Tide

By 2005, violence across Anbar had escalated, and many predicted U.S. defeat. There were reports of about 400 violent events each week, including bombings and armed insurgent attacks on military and civilian populations. But defying all expectations, by the fall of 2007, the violence had declined drastically. By February 2008, attacks had dropped to just 50 per week, and that summer, there were only eight or nine weekly incidents.

What happened to turn the tide, says Shultz, was rejecting what one diplomat called the Wizard of Oz concept: “We go in, we kill the wicked witch, the munchkins jump up, they’re grateful, and then we get in a hot-air balloon and we’re out of there,” he writes.

Instead, the Marines realized that to control the situation, they must understand tribal, Islamic and Arab culture to work with Iraq’s tribes that for centuries had been the region’s controlling powers. This meant  treating the people with respect.

Unfortunately, before the Marines moved into Anbar, the message from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad was that the tribes were backward and primitive, Shultz says.

“They were not to be engaged but eschewed,” he writes. “Rather than respect, the tribes of Anbar were witnessing disdain for their traditional way of life.”

The Marines needed the tribes as allies against Al Qaeda and insurgent forces in the region. In 2005 some were helping the insurgents, and others remained neutral. But by showing respect for their leaders and demonstrating allegiance to tribal codes of honor, justice and respect for God and religion, the Marines were able to win their allegiance.


Richard ShultzRichard Shultz

This took learning and adapting as they worked with the tribes on the ground. While most credit President George W. Bush’s 2007 “surge”—deploying an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq—with turning around the war effort, Shultz says it was not the numbers but these new strategies that won the day. The Marines realized “there is no one-size-fits-all in responding to wars among people,” Shultz says, and their work became a model for others to follow. Many of these lessons have now been codified in Marine counterinsurgency manuals.

The tipping point, Shultz says, came in 2006, the year Marines began winning over tribes. That year, Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, was known as the most dangerous city in Iraq, Shultz writes. Yet by September 2007, Ramadi held its first 5K road race in years without incident. “If they had done so a year earlier those runners would have been lucky to make it off the starting line before Al Qaeda shot many of them dead.”

“This remarkable turn of events came about because of the course of action initiated by I MEF [First Marine Expeditionary Force] as it took over the Anbar AO [Area of Operations],” Shultz writes. Through showing respect and demonstrating they appreciated the tribes’ codes of honor, they had made them allies in restoring stability and setting the conditions for peace.

Irregular Wars

The days of wars between nations are largely behind us, Shultz says. In the future, these modern “irregular wars” will require new tools and capabilities: an understanding of the culture and the complex and diverse nature of armed insurgency groups; skilled military advisors to ensure ongoing stability; and accurate intelligence about local culture, politics and traditions that may indicate a population’s response to conflict. The odds are high that the U.S. will need to employ these new methods more consistently, says Shultz, as Al Qaeda and related groups continue their fight for power over weakened states.

“They are going to take advantage of weak states,” says Shultz. About half of the world’s nations fall into that category, “and some are very weak, like Mali, Libya, Syria. In these places, there is no controlling government, and various types of armed groups including Al Qaeda take advantage of the chaos,” Shultz says.

Good intelligence will lead to success. Lack of intelligence in Iraq led American policymakers to ignore the possibility of prolonged armed resistance. “If we are intervening in a country, we must always consider resistance and prepare well for it,” Shultz says. And we must not leave too soon—as he thinks we did in Iraq—before a nation has fully stabilized, lest it again become “vulnerable to criminal groups, militias, insurgents and Al Qaeda elements,” he says.

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