Judging from David McCormick’s book review in the Weekly Standard, the new oral history Al-Anbar Awakening looks like an excellent through-the-participants-eyes understanding of what the Awakening was and wasn’t. And that goes a long way toward clearing out historical dross over the surge. Good for the Standard for printing this:

The second volume of Al-Anbar Awakening features American perspectives. It is no exercise in self-congratulation. According to Major General John Kelly, commander of Coalition forces in western Iraq from 2008-2009, “No single personality was the key in Anbar, no shiny new field manual the reason why, and no ‘surge’ or single unit made it happen.” One of the consistent themes of this volume, however, was the effectiveness of population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine that aimed to neutralize the enemy’s influence over the local inhabitants. Success demanded acute cultural awareness that would allow soldiers and Marines to identify and exploit fissures within Anbari society.

Without having read the volume, that strikes me as a judicious understanding of what the surge was and wasn’t: a strategic decision on the part of David Petraeus and his coterie to nurture and cultivate the Awakening — essentially, to not get in the way of an emerging fracture with the Iraqi insurgency. Not the creation of that fissure, the exploitation of it. Frankly, given years of failures in Iraq, and the demonization of Sunni Iraqis borne out of American frustration, that decision was neither pre-determined nor insignificant. Such a context locates Petraeus’ achievements properly: he was smart enough to recognize an opening and seize it; the initiative itself was external to the U.S. as an actor in Iraq, borne out of al-Qaeda’s remarkable proclivity at squandering its opportunities through its conspiratorial and bloodthirsty fanaticism.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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