The Marines Take Anbar: The Four Year Fight against Al Qaeda

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By: Richard H. Shultz Jr.

The Marines Take Anbar: The Four Year Fight against Al Qaeda. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 293 pp.$39.95. ISBN: 978-1612511405. Ebk.: 288 pp. 1953KB. $19.99. ASIN: B00BKRX07W.

Volume: 2 Issue: 1

January 2014

Review by:

Shak Hanish, PhD

National University

San Diego, CA

The Marines Take Anbar: The Four Year Fight against Al Qaeda is a well written volume on Marines fighting insurgency in the al-Anbar governorate (province) in Western Iraq from 2004 to 2008. Al-Anbar is a dominant area of tribal Sunni Arabs.

The book describes and analyzes the fight against mainly foreign terrorist groups that infiltrated the area, and made it a front line fight by American troops in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. The author considers the battle for al-Anbar among the best battles in the history of the Marines, and their success a major turning point in the Iraqi war which changed events and paved the way for fighting in Baghdad later in the year. The book highlights all the crucial details of how Marines adapted and improved as they applied lessons from past mistakes.

In March 2004, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) was deployed to al-Anbar Province, and found itself in a bloody war with al-Qaeda. This campaign culminated in the spring of 2006, when the Marines were faced with a sharp rise in violence. When new counterinsurgency initiatives were adapted (with the help of local tribal sheiks), the Marines gained the upper hand, and two years later, victory was accomplished.

This book of seven chapters begins with an overview of Anbar Province. The author emphasizes that in order to fight successfully, Marines needed a cultural understanding of the native population. The early Marines deployed in March 2004 were not equipped with cultural knowledge, but in the following four years, they acquired an understanding of the province.

In Chapter 2, the author describes the post-conflict and the failed campaign to eliminate violent opposition to the American presence in the area where the opportunity for al-Qaeda was suitable. In the beginning, the Marines found themselves in “the fog of war” (p. 3), suffering from al-Qaeda’s attacks. In 2005, the situation worsened, but the Marines were learning and becoming more knowledgeable, which prepared them for the 2006 campaign plan of counterinsurgency. The new strategy consisted of the phrase “clear, hold, build” (p. 119) to engage tribes, which changed the situation on the ground. In doing so, the Marines added a new entry—al-Anbar—to the long list of the “Corps’ other historical triumphs at Belleau Woods, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Inchon, Chosin, Khe Sanh, and Hue City” (p. 4).

The volume details the tribal engagement strategy of the Marines that was to: first, know the tribes’ history and how important that history is to the Sunni tribes of Anbar. The author explains how overthrowing Saddam constituted a loss of their special status, and that the Shi‘a would take revenge on the Sunni who had dominated the Baath regime.

Another lesson drawn from the conflict was to understand that “the Sunni tribes of the Dulaymi confederation are made up of proud people who demand respect” (p. 29), and should not be underestimated. To the Dulaymis, the United States was an invader and occupier that had to be resisted. Prior to the Marines moving into al-Anbar, the message coming from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad was “hardly one of respect for the folkways and traditions of the tribesmen of the Sunni Triangle” (p. 29). They viewed them as backward and primitive and not to be part of the CPA’s new Iraq.

The third lesson was to learn, accept, and emulate the code of values and beliefs that guide the tribes’ behavior and ways of doing things. Most important to that system of principles was honor. The fourth lesson, according to the author was to “understand the system of prescribed methods used to bring to justice those who violate honor” (p. 30).

The fifth lesson was that it is a male-dominated society and that demonstrating manliness is another one of those enduring aspects of the tribes’ code of values. Other important principles mentioned included hospitality, generosity, careful etiquette, and civility.

The sixth lesson was to know that religion is likewise very salient to the Sunni tribesmen of al-Anbar. They all follow the same two primary sources, the Qur’an and the Sunna. The seventh lesson was to know that the tribes of the Dulaym confederation are political actors and have a strong political identity. And the eighth lesson to understand that a core principle of these confederation affiliates is group solidarity that begins at the family level, and moves up through the clan and tribes to the confederation. The traditional Bedouin ways of fighting became important attributes of tribal and Arab culture that were passed on from one generation to the next.

The ninth learned lesson was for Marines to be open to working with tribal leaders, even though they would not conform to modern concepts. This resulted in the establishment of the Sunni Awakening that was a work with key members of the community specifically with the influential Sheikh Sattar who was able to encourage key tribal leaders to become engaged. Here, credit should be given also to the U.S. Army and Navy troops who contributed to the success in al-Anbar. The tenth guideline was to never think that the tribesmen of the Duraymi confederation want to adopt Western ways and become like the West.

The author concludes that in the 21st century’s irregular conflict, “the center of the gravity is the population” (p. 236). Therefore, providing security to local people and protecting them from armed groups is crucial to winning the war. This is what America did when providing infrastructure to accompany fighting the insurgency.

The book idea came from a general who was the president of the Marine Corps University; the grant for the book was provided by the Marine Corp Heritage Foundation. The primary resources were provided by Marine affiliate institutions. This fact can make the book appear biased toward Marines by presenting only one side of the story, and possibly ignoring others.

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