behind the news

What do the "surge" and the "Anbar Awakening" have in common?

Not much
August 27, 2007

There’s an odd paragraph in Walter Pincus’ Washington Post column this morning that deserves some unpacking. Writing about a Defense Department study called “Iraq Tribal Study: Al-Anbar Governorate,” that looked at the tactic of arming Sunni tribes to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Anbar province, Pincus says that “Today, the support of Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaeda in Iraq is hailed as one of the few successes from the U.S. troop increase this year.”

The “Anbar Awakening” is undoubtedly a bit of good news–even if in the long run, arming Sunni groups might not be the best idea, given the antipathy Sunnis have for both Iraq’s Shiite-led government, and the American occupation–but to credit the fact that Sunni tribes are beating back al-Qaeda to the “surge” of American troops in Iraq is just plain wrong, and it’s surprising that Pincus, who is one of the best defense reporters out there, would phrase it this way.

I noted back in May that the story of the “Anbar Awakening” had been reported for months, and the effort was picking up steam last year, well before 30,000 more American troops arrived on the scene.

Kevin Drum noted something similar on Friday, reminding readers that “The Sunni tribes began turning against AQI nearly a year ago…before the surge started. They did it before Gen. Petraeus was even a gleam in George Bush’s eye.” Drum points to an April article in the New York Times, in which Kirk Semple wrote that “The turnabout began last September, when a federation of tribes in the Ramadi area came together as the Anbar Salvation Council to oppose the fundamentalist militants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.”

Of course, it’s been widely reported and remarked upon that the Sunni tribes are able to turn against al-Qaeda in large part because American troops are there to back them up. But the fact remains that the tribes took up arms months before the flood of more troops this past spring. Marking the “Awakening” on the plus side of the surge’s ledger–which is itself only a couple months old–is a dangerous bit of historical revisionism, before the history has even had a chance to be written.

Paul McLeary is a former CJR staff writer. Since 2008, he has covered the Pentagon for Foreign Policy, Defense News, Breaking Defense, and other outlets. He is currently a defense reporter for Politico.