In September 2006, thirty tribes in the Anbar Province in the west of Iraq formed the Anbar Awakening, an alliance to fight Al Qaeda (AQI) militants. Anbar is the province that contains Fallujah and Ramadi, both former hubs for Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist militants. The Awakening succeeded in driving militants out of many of their former strongholds.
Many Iraqi citizens living in Baghdad at the time, including me, supported that initiative. So did top military commanders. The positive results could be seen day after day. As AQI edged toward defeat, the number of suicide bombings—and other incidents of sectarian violence—declined dramatically. “This was a critical first step toward establishing a working relationship among the Iraqi capital and its provinces,” declared the Institute for the Study of War.1
The Awakening coincided with the U.S. “surge,” whose counterinsurgency strategy largely ended the ongoing insurgency led by Sunni extremists and others. Unfortunately, none of that lasted very long. In 2011, the Obama administration agreed to continue the U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) deal, which had been signed by the preceding U.S. and Iraqi administrations and called for the near-total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The Shia-led government of Iraq, no less than its allies in Iran, saw that as a demonstration of American weakness and lack of commitment. U.S. withdrawal removed support from the Awakening movement. Awakening groups soon disbanded, blunting any prospect that they might evolve into a separate military force that could become a threat to Shia militias or Iraq’s Shia-dominated government.
The result was a huge vacuum in Sunni-dominated provinces that had only recently served as headquarters for extremist Sunni militias. Now there would be no one to challenge these Sunni radicals—except the Shia-dominated Iraqi army and Shia militias such as the Mahdi Army and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
Inevitably, this led to ever greater sectarianism. Sunni tribal forces disengaged from the fight against extremism within their own communities, helping to create the environment in which brutal terrorist groups such as ISIS could thrive.
ISIS (or ISIL, or “the so-called Islamic State,” or Daesh) is best understood as Al Qaeda 2.0. ISIS features a bit more emphasis on controlling land and on apocalyptic end-of-days warfare. But ideologically speaking, today’s ISIS and the AQI of the mid-2000s are very close, at least in Iraq.
I look back to 2007–2008 with some bitterness. At that time, we had the illusion that AQI was “defeated” and that the war against them had been “won.” But in reality, it was only the illusion of winning. The moment favorable conditions were restored—a sectarian pro-Shia Iraqi government; funding from neighboring Sunni countries; and the wholesale export of Salafist ideological narratives, funded by millions if not billions of dollars from Sunni-dominated countries in the Gulf—another, even more brutal, terrorist group took root.
Today we are seeing the same thing. The forces fighting against ISIS in Iraq are largely Shia-dominated militias such as the PMF, Iraq’s Shia-dominated army, and the Kurds, who sometimes have different regional interests.
While I applaud recent tactical victories against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and look forward to the recapture of Raqqa before long, the conditions that will support other ISIS-like, AQI-like groups are still in place.
The only way we can enduringly defeat terrorist groups is to remove the conditions that allow them to thrive. That means overcoming the sectarianism, grievances, sense of hopelessness, and most importantly the ideological narrative that these terrorist groups believe in and are pushing for.
Unless we win that battle, before long we will face an ISIS 2.0. We can only hope, without any particular confidence, that if it arises it will be less brutal than its predecessor.