The Limits of Replicating the “Anbar Awakening”


Over the past six months, a number of analysts have attempted to dispense with the facile analogy of the Iraq surge to the Afghan surge and dissuade policymakers from grafting the success of Iraq on to US strategy in Afghanistan. Aside from the contextual differences which Filkins, Olson, McCary, and others have pointed out, there are some fundamental clarifications that need to be made on the Iraq surge, specifically the flipping of the Sunni tribes, known as “the Anbar Awakening.”
For one thing, this needs to understood as a tremendously lucky break that the US capitalized on, not something purposefully induced. As Bing West writes, “Why the Awakening happened in the fall of ’06 has a large element of mystery.” Moreover, the timing and motives of the Anbar Awakening have not been fully understood by most policymakers and analysts. The “flip” began six months before the US surge and had less to do with the conventional explanation of al Qaeda’s radicalism than for reasons of political-economy.
RAND political scientist and recently appointed Assistant Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, Austin Long, pointed out over a year ago in Survival that it was not al Qaeda’s violence but its encroachment on Anbar tribes’ revenue streams — principally smuggling and highway robbery — that drove a wedge between groups and the success of the tribal strategy:

…Perhaps most importantly, al- Qaeda in Mesopotamia was competing for control of revenue sources – such as banditry and smuggling – that had long been the province of the tribes. Under this interpretation, the tribes did not change sides in response to violence towards civilians or their Anbar kinsmen, as press accounts have suggested. While this violence was not irrelevant, it does not appear to have been the central motive for the shift. For example, some began fighting al- Qaeda in Mesopotamia at least as early as the beginning of 2005, well before most of the violence towards civilians and tribesmen in Anbar occurred. The primary motive was not moral; it was self-interested.
In fact, it can be argued that much (though far from all) of al-Qaeda’s violence against Sunnis in Anbar was intended to coerce the tribes back into alignment with the insurgents. Certainly this was the intent of attacks on selected tribal leaders. In other words, al-Qaeda’s violence was principally an effect of shifts in allegiance rather than a cause. (p. 77-78).

Applying this model to Afghanistan will be difficult as it will rely on the natural divergence of self-interested factions of the Taliban. This seems to place an unreasonable amount of faith in good fortune, particularly since the Taliban are so well entrenched in the South. To model the Anbar Awakening, US forces might simply have to wait for their lucky “break” — that is for self-interested groups to break away from the Taliban’s ideological core — and then partner with unsavory opportunists like Pashtun nationalists or narco-warlords.
Fissures might be induced by altering incentive structures, but at what cost, and what tradeoffs? For instance, would higher buyouts for the opposition create perverse incentives to join it? Moreover, given the history of defecting alliances in Afghanistan, how long will new alliances remain stable? Long enough to build a nation and modern state which has arguably never existed in Afghanistan?
Long goes on to conclude the Anbar Awakening strategy may not last past short-term security gains and may in fact backfire in the medium term. At best it is a stopgap measure, at worst, it sows the seeds for future state failure and civil conflict by creating competing nodes of military power rather than centralizing it. Even if the causes for success were better understood, this hardly seems the model for stabilizing Afghanistan.
— Sameer Lalwani


7 comments on “The Limits of Replicating the “Anbar Awakening”

  1. Don Bacon says:

    SL: “this hardly seems the model for stabilizing Afghanistan”
    Than that’s what will be done, ‘cuz it’s US policy to DEstabilize, obviously. Instability (as in Iraq) requires a continuing US presence with its extended war profiteering. Who could ask for anything more?
    As kotzabasis says, there will probably be a US attempt to divert the opium revenue stream from the Taliban to Karzai, his tribal allies and US criminals (military and otherwise) but this will meet stiff resistance from the Taliban and their Pakistan/ISI friends. (We need some advice from Mexicans on this.)
    Afghanistan now produces 93% of the world’s opium, which is used to make heroin and morphine. 98% of the crop is grown in the south and west of the country, where it finances the Taliban. In southern Afghanistan, 73% of all households are involved in the production of opium — and roughly everybody else supports these households. Afghanistan has replaced the “Golden Triangle” of Burma and Laos as the center of world opium production.
    The United Nations estimates that Taliban earned $300 million in opium profits last year, which is chicken-feed compared to the cost of the war. (A $97 billion — that’s with a “b” — supplemental budget for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars currently awaits final congressional approval.) We would succeed more quickly and at lower cost by simply buying the entire Afghanistan opium harvest, except that would cut off the revenue stream which some hope and expect to profit from. There’s even more profit in opium than there is in war, after all.


  2. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Check this shit out. It seems these slimeballs in the administration of “change” are using the same sleazy tactics Bush used in sneaking shit in under the radar. Heres the posturing fraud Obama having Rahm slime one in behind our backs….


  3. rich says:

    Max Blumenthal films young American-Israelis in Jerusalem.
    Gershom Gorenberg on ‘natural growth’ of settlements at the link below. I’ve written here before about this: about the administrative machinery of state and the momentum of business that incentivizes and backs up settlements as a tool for displacement of legitimate Palestinian residents.
    ” The U.S. demand was ‘immoral,’ Schneller said. He refused to agree to what he termed “an edict forbidding my daughters to give birth to my grandchildren.” And Schneller belongs to a party that refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition. Members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet have been more caustic. Science Minister Daniel Hershkowitz said that Obama’s demand was akin to ‘Pharaoh’s demand that all firstborn sons be thrown into the Nile River.’
    To call this nonsense would be too forgiving. It is one part of the multilayered lie about “natural growth” of settlements.
    Barack Obama has not demanded that women in settlements stop having babies. Rather, he has insisted that Israel stop construction in settlements, in line with its commitments under the 2003 road map for peace — in line, in fact, with American opposition to settlement building since 1967. Consistent with the road map, and with the 2001 report written by George Mitchell, now Obama’s Middle East envoy, the president has rejected Israeli insistence that construction continue to allow for “natural growth” of the settler population.
    The deliberate twisting of Obama’s stance is aimed at both a domestic and American audience. And it has confused some otherwise astute observers. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York and chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, said in press statement on Tuesday that he supported a settlement freeze but not one that “calls on Israeli families not to grow [or] get married. Telling people not to have children is unthinkable and inhumane.”
    Don’t worry, Mr. Ackerman: The president is not talking about universal contraception for Israeli settlers.”
    Note the rhetoric equates limiting territorial expansion with genocide. Hardly moderate or reasonable, and profoundly dishonest and Orwellian in tone.


  4. kotzabasis says:

    There is a great possibility of replicating the Surge in Afghanistan with the following economic-political-military strategy: To shift the estuary of the stream of revenue from narcotics from the Taliban’s and narco-lords’ mouths to the government mouth with the aim to feed the hungry mouths of the tribal chiefs of Afghanistan. That is, to nationalize the poppy industry and make the tribal chiefs of Afghanistan the direct equity holders of the income that accrues from the production of opium. Such a policy will create a powerful self-interest and lead to a Tribal Chief’s Awakening that will be more widespread and potent than the Iraqi one, since it will mobilize the whole country, through its tribal chiefs, against the Taliban and the narco-lords. Thus U.S. forces will not have to go to a wild goose chase of serendipity to get “their lucky break.”
    This idea was floated by me in a paper of mine on October 2008. The link below will take you to it.


  5. anna missed says:

    This angle on things has been out there for a while, but propaganda requirements have demanded the surge take all the credit. Except that now propaganda also demands the surge be bagged up and muled to Afghanistan via McChrystal – to which he obliged in testimony yesterday before the Senate. And while he may not want to call it the surge, the mission to “seperate” AQ from the local tribes/Taliban is basically the same idea. The trouble is, is that unlike Iraq, where AQ had no history or sources of revenue – while in Afghanistan there is a long history (with AQ) dating back to the soviet occupation, which also firmly established financial stability to the extent that AQ were a funding bonanza to the Taliban, as opposed to the reverse. All of which makes moving the Iraqi template surge to Afghanistan a structural and tactical impossibility. But trying it just the same, will buy them another year or two, which is probably what they really want.


  6. JohnH says:

    Sharing the wealth with the people–what a concept!!!
    Only problem is that making Iraq safe for Big Oil flatly contradicts that policy. It impinges on Big Oil’s constitutional right to maximize its profits, regardless of the cost to the locals.


  7. Mr.Murder says:

    Bribery- we paid both sides off to end the fighting. Bribes for everyone!!!
    Oh, tax cuts for billionaires will not let us do that?
    It’s okie-dokie, we can just borrow MORE from China instead! All paid for!


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