President Bush’s announcement of “the Surge” in 2007 defied conventional wisdom. Congressmen, diplomats, and journalists all argued that Iraq was spiraling into civil war, and that there remained no military option to return it to stability. The push to flood troops into Iraq and, especially, its Sunni hinterlands, reversed the course of the war.
The surge was not only a military strategy, however; it played on complex tribal relationships in Iraq’s “Sunni Triangle,” the area roughly between Baghdad, Tikrit, and Ramadi. Al Qaeda initially found support among Iraqi Sunni Arabs who felt disenfranchised by the loss of influence following Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Al Qaida overreached, however; its tendency to run roughshod over local tribal customs created a backlash. Sunni-dominated Awakening councils emerged, which abandoned the insurgency to join forces with surging Americans troops. Al Qaida, in turn, rebounded somewhat by exploiting tensions between the Awakening Councils and the Shi‘ite-dominated central government in Baghdad.
Cigar, director of regional studies at the Marine Corps University, tackles his subject masterfully. Whereas many academics fail to master foreign languages, Cigar bases his study almost entirely on primary Arabic sources. While many Middle Eastern professors prioritize theory and polemic over fieldwork, Cigar’s practical experience in staff positions and in Iraq puts him head and shoulders above others who have tried to tackle the same subjects.
He makes a solid case that the interplay between Al Qaida and the Sunni tribes illustrates both how local resentment of Al Qaeda can undercut the group’s effectiveness, but also how Al Qaeda has been able to learn from mistakes and adjust on the fly. Rather than simply react to Al Qaeda, Cigar shows how a nuanced U.S. policy can shape the terrorist group’s operational environment and make it harder for it to function.