A Profile of Iraq's Anbar Province Army Colonel Sean MacFarland played a key role in the military's efforts to stabilize Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province. MacFarland returned from Iraq earlier this year; he discusses what the military is doing in Anbar, and weighs in on the region's political influence in Iraq.

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14566803/14566794" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein, perhaps the most troublesome area in Iraq has been Anbar province. It's a vast part of the country, mostly desert that runs from Baghdad all the way to the borders of Syria and Jordan. It holds about 5 percent of Iraq's population - almost all of them Sunnis - and it's been the heart of both the Sunni insurgency and the base of operations for al-Qaida in Iraq. Its major cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, have seen ferocious fighting.

And today, the Bush administration argues that Anbar is the best example of success in Iraq and the model for a new bottom-up approach that could lead to elusive political reconciliation. That approach was born in the streets of Ramadi when soldiers and Marines, under the command of Colonel Sean MacFarland, adopted innovative military and political tactics.

Colonel MacFarland joins us in just a moment. If you have questions for him about what happened in Anbar and why, how successful it's actually been, and whether it's a model for the rest of Iraq, give us a call: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the program, African-American bloggers, Jena and the symbolism of the noose.

But first, the Anbar awakening. Colonel Sean MacFarland joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Colonel SEAN MacFARLAND (U.S. Army; Commander, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division): Oh, thank you for inviting me, Neal.

CONAN: What was Ramadi like when you first got there?

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, it was a pretty dangerous place. The streets were very dangerous to venture out into and, of course, anytime we moved out into the streets, we had to take a great deal of precaution, set of conditions to protect ourselves. The enemy was able to move around at will throughout most of the city. There were very few Iraqi security forces and even fewer Iraqi police anywhere to be seen in the area. So usually, it was Marines or soldiers venturing into the city on very specific patrols. But, by and large, the enemy held sway.

CONAN: And there were no-go zones?

Col. MacFARLAND: Definitely, there were no-go zones. We could get into most areas but, again, it took a lot of preparation to get in there.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And when you say the enemy, who do you mean?

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, there were various flavors of enemy in Ramadi, and that's true throughout Iraq that there are different forms of the enemy to fight. At the very top of the pyramid, of course, was al-Qaida in Iraq, dominated by foreigners for the most part from Syria and elsewhere. And then below them, you have the homegrown version of al-Qaida called the JTJ. It was their acronym. But they were the, basically, locals who had drunk al-Qaida's Kool-Aid and believed in what al-Qaida's goal was, which was to create a caliphate with its capital in Iraq, in Ramadi to be specific. And then below them, you had the former Baathists. Ramadi was populated by a large number of former military, former government Sunnis.

CONAN: This was the group that was privileged under Saddam Hussein, the people felt most dispossessed by his departure.

Col. MacFARLAND: That's right. And then below them, you had - just criminals. And there was a fair amount of organized crime going on at that time.

CONAN: You've said - I've read that you've said you felt like a drowning man ready to try anything.

Col. MacFARLAND: That's a pretty accurate description. I'll stand by that. There was really no place to go but up, it seemed to me, when we got to Ramadi, and I was willing to try whatever seemed to make sense in order to advance our objectives.

CONAN: What you did try was to establish posts outside of the guarded base, posts that were exposed - this was a risky strategy - but yet established U.S. presence in much bigger part of the city than it had before.

Col. MacFARLAND: That's right. The - as I said, the city of Ramadi saw no permanent coalition or Iraqi security force presence within it. And it seemed to me that before we could consolidate unto larger FOBs, forward operating bases, we had to first establish the Iraqi security forces inside the city and, of course, we had to go in there with them because we owned all the enablers. And the Iraqi army…

CONAN: Enablers, in other words, forward air controllers, artillery, things like that.

Col. MacFARLAND: Tanks. Exactly right. And the Iraqi army was very newly formed and they certainly were nowhere near ready to do that, and there were no police. So we went in with Iraqi army elements accompanying us and established combat outposts inside the city that were comprised of U.S. and Iraqi forces working side by side. And our intent was to stay there long enough to establish the Iraqi army initially and then the Iraqi police inside the city, and then first pull off the coalition - the U.S. forces - and then the Iraqi army, leaving only the police behind. So that was the model that we were after.

CONAN: And it had an unintended consequence, because watching this were the local sheikhs.

Col. MacFARLAND: That's right. They were interested observers, obviously. And, as I said, there were very few police, and we wanted to turn these combat outposts over to police stations but we had to develop some police to begin with. So we're talking to the sheikhs to see if we could get any of their young men to join up with the I.P.s, as they're called. And that's how we've first made contact with the sheikhs.

CONAN: And this relationship developed until one day, finally, there were agreements that if you could - if you would donate - if a hundred men from your tribe would join the police, they could stay in the area. They would not be shipped off to another city, for example.

Col. MacFARLAND: That's right. My deputy commander, a guy named Lieutenant Colonel Jim Laettner(ph), came upon the idea of a bargain with the Iraqis, with the Iraqi sheikhs and said, hey look, if we were to put one of these new police station - we're looking at building a new police station. You help us put it where you think it'll do best, then would you be willing to man it? And they said, well, of course, because then you and the government of Iraq would be training and equipping the people that are securing our families.

And that was their main concern was protecting their families against the terrorist thugs in al-Qaida. And if we were able to help them do that, that was the beginning of a partnership. So we established a police station in an area called Jazeera, which was north of the Euphrates River from Ramadi, and that was manned by former police officers from the local tribes up there who didn't require any training because they'd already been trained.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And this led to a broader cooperation with the sheikhs.

Col. MacFARLAND: It did. And again, kind of an unintended consequence because this first police station was mainly drawn from the tribes north of the river, and it was attacked by a large truck bomb and killed and wounded a number of the police that were there. But they refused to abandon their post because they were defending their own families. And to top it off, al-Qaida also went after the sheikh of the tribe…

CONAN: Of that particular tribe. Yeah.

Col. MacFARLAND: …and murdered him and left his body where it couldn't be found for some period of time - about four days. That incensed the other sheikhs because that's a great insult in their culture.

CONAN: And then, it follows what's been described - you described as a Spartacus moment.

Col. MacFARLAND: It is. And I can't take credit for the Spartacus comment. My boss, General Sattler, a great Marine, came up with that. But it was a Spartacus moment because Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha said - stepped forward and said, no, I'm Spartacus, after Sheik Abu Ali Jassim was dead, and I'll take over what he was attempting to do, which is form the sons of al-Anbar and the sons of Ramadi into - bring them into the Iraqi security forces.

CONAN: If you haven't seen that Kirk Douglas picture, the Romans captured the slave army and say who is Spartacus? Which one of you is Spartacus? And they all stand up and say I am Spartacus, so…

Col. MacFARLAND: That's right.

CONAN: And once they've stood up - well, let's get some callers involved in this conversation if it's all right with you. 800-989-8255. We're talking with Army Colonel Sean MacFarland, who was in Ramadi at the moment of what has been called the Anbar Awakening. And let's see if we can get S.J. on the line. S.J. is calling us from Anchorage in Alaska.

S.J. (Caller): Hi, Colonel. Thank you so much for being on this program. It's great to hear perspective from someone who's actually been there day in and day out.

My question had to do with how you would answer the criticisms that what we're doing - what we've been doing in Anbar, although successful right now, may not be in the long-term? That we're - by supporting past enemies, we're supporting potentially future enemies as well?

Col. MacFARLAND: That's a fair question and it's a good one. The sheikhs have crossed the Rubicon. There's no turning back for them. They have broken with al-Qaida for good and al-Qaida is not going to forget their grudges against these sheikhs. They've lost family and friends - the sheikhs have - and they are determined never to let that happen to them again.

And so they've made common cause with us, and to turn back - to turn their back on the coalition or the Iraqi security forces at this point would be basically suicide for them.

CONAN: Yet, that young dynamic sheikh whose charisma was so important to that Spartacus moment and to the change, he himself was assassinated just last week.

Col. MacFARLAND: Yes, he was. He was a courageous man, and I have a great deal of respect and admiration for him. A lot of people say, well, he was not a choirboy before we found him and began working with him. And I went to Catholic schools and a nun has used to tell me that every saint had a past and every sinner has a future.

And Sheikh Satar had a past, to be sure, but he was looking towards the future. And what he told me was that he wanted al-Anbar to become like Germany or Japan after the Second World War, with a permanent U.S. presence to protect the people and to help develop the economy and the infrastructure there.

CONAN: Hmm. Just to follow-up on S.J.'s point, some people say in the Iraqi -some of elements of the Iraqi national police and indeed some elements of the Iraqi army, the United States is helping to train and equip a Shia militia and some fear that in a sense, if there's a civil war to come, your tactics may have helped supply and train a Sunni militia.

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, the folks that we're training in al-Anbar are, at best, home defense. I mean, they're policemen. And they're not really the kind of force that can pick up and move to another part of the country to fight with anybody.

They may be able to defend their homes against outsiders like al-Qaida or perhaps even a Shia militia who may come out there on a raid like the Jaish al-Mahdi or somebody like that.

CONAN: The Mahdi Army is with them.

Col. MacFARLAND: The Mahdi Army, but they are certainly not going to go into Baghdad and attack anybody.

CONAN: S.J., thanks very much for the call.

S.J.: Great, thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking about Iraq's Anbar province, what happens there, and what it means for Iraq and the United States. More with Army Colonel Sean MacFarland in a moment, and the results of a recent poll of residents of Anbar and what they think about life in the region and how it's changed or not. 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Much of the recent debate on Iraq has focused on one region - Anbar province. It's often held up as an example of success in Iraq. Our focus today is on what happened on the ground in Anbar, what it means, if it's a model for the rest of the country.

Army Colonel Sean MacFarland was in Ramadi when things started to change for the better. He is given much of the credit for developing a new strategy to work with the tribes and tur them against al-Qaida. He's with us here in Studio 3A.

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's see if we could get another on the line. And this is Michael, Michael calling us from Boulder, Colorado.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, thank you. First, I would like to thank your guest for he and his soldiers' courage and working in our behalf and for the opportunity to ask him about this very important subject. My concern is pretty much embodied in the title of your - of today's program and that is - al-Qaida was not in Iraq in the way they're in Anbar now before we invaded.

How do we know that what the sheikhs are doing are in alliance with us is not merely expedient? And how do we know that it is a model for a truly united Iraq, which will overcome all its significant historical and religious internal divisions?

CONAN: Yes, Colonel, you could see this as a model of sort of Anbar nationalism. Is it - are they developing relations with the government in Baghdad specifically with the Shias?

Col. MacFARLAND: Thanks. Absolutely. I'll tell you, many times I was with Sheikh Satar and he would get two to three cell phone calls from Prime Minister Maliki while he was talking to me.

So he was working with the government of Iraq. His idea was to bring the tribal forces into the government. And what he wanted to do was to make the tribal awakening movement a part of the government and a part of the political process, and he was taking steps in that direction.

CONAN: Yet, as you know, there's a great deal - need for money and reconstruction aid in Anbar as in other parts of the country, money that's been promised and not been forthcoming from the central government in Baghdad.

Col. MacFARLAND: And that's one of the reasons why they want to become part of the political discussion. The Sunnis missed a golden opportunity when they boycotted the provincial elections and basically opted out of the government process, and they regret that. And they see their mistake and now they want in.

The Shias took advantage of that and now they have the largest say in the central government. And that served as an abject lesson for the Sunnis. And I'd also like to say, although every part of Iraq is very different from every other part of Iraq, and everything is changing all the time, there is a burgeoning of this awakening movement.

We're seeing it in, not only in other Sunni provinces, but also in Shia movements, which is something that Satar was predicting almost a year ago to me when nobody believed him, and I was even a bit skeptical that the tribal system cuts across the sectarian lines in Iraq.

CONAN: Tribes are not exclusively Sunni or Shia.

Col. MacFARLAND: That's right.

CONAN: And that might speak to other rural areas of the country, though, Ramadi is a city of some 300,000. But nevertheless, does this hold in Baghdad?

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, the tribal structure does break down in large metropolitan areas. And Ramadi, being close to half a million, had a pretty sizable center of the city that was not tribally affiliated very strongly. And it took us a while to kind of jump over that firebreak and keep the tribal movement going to the east side of Ramadi from the west side. So that is a challenge.

And that's why everything's a little bit different. And then Baghdad - a different approach is necessary, different leaders have to be engaged in order to, you know, facilitate a reconciliation.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Michael. There's another problem, though, that in the past there have been some elements of American and various other forces that have had some kinds of success in various places that - then the units rotated out, the leadership changes, and the policies are different, and success that was there before evaporates.

Col. MacFARLAND: That's true, but one of the great things about the way Ramadi was structured was I left three of my battalions behind that were inherited by the brigade combat team that replaced me. In fact, two of those battalions are still there. So what was going on under my watch is still going on and expanding.

So there was this carryover of institutional knowledge that has helped keep things progressing in the right direction.

CONAN: And it's also been a risky proposition. There have been a lot of American casualties.

Col. MacFARLAND: There were a lot of American casualties, particularly when my brigade combat team was there. The number of casualties in Ramadi has dropped off precipitously and they've gone from - I was - when I was there, we were losing about 10 soldiers or Marines a month. And that's dropped down to a very negligible number. They'll go for a month sometimes without any casualties or without any killed.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Joining us now is Gary Langer. He's director of polling for ABC News. He's done extensive polling of residents in Anbar province. Today, he joins us from the studios of Deutschlandradio Kultur in Berlin, Germany. And it's nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. GARY LANGER (Director for Polling, ABC News): Good to be back.

CONAN: And thanks for taking a part of your evening out to speak with us. And we've been talking about the U.S. military working with local leaders in Anbar province and reductions in violence. What about the people living there? According to the polling data that you've collected, people have not necessarily noticed a drop off in the violence.

Mr. LANGER: You know, there are so many improvements in Anbar in terms of public attitudes about conditions and the violence there. But they're spotty, they're sporadic, they're inconsistent, and the big picture is not improved in that province. So it's, at best, a mixed report and in many cases a negative one.

And I think we have to differentiate between the alliances made between the U.S. military and the local leaders there, and the hearts and minds of the public in Anbar, which seem to be moving in much less in the same direction.

So the good news is, for example, that some folks in Anbar rate their local security positively. Unfortunately, it's still only fewer than three in ten, closer to - about three in ten.

CONAN: But it was zero before.

Mr. LANGER: And it was zero before, so that's an improvement. On the other hand, there are at least six in ten who don't rate their security positively. And the United States doesn't get any credit for it. There's still broad rejection of the U.S. presence in Anbar, a really overwhelming rejection of the U.S. presence.

Don't forget these are Sunni Arabs, the group that was dispossessed by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It's been the center of anti-American sentiment in Iraq and indeed it still is.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It's also notable that al-Qaida is not popular either.

Mr. LANGER: Well, that's true. Our enemies' enemies, I've said, are not necessarily our friends. Al-Qaida is enormously, almost unanimously unpopular in Anbar in most of its activities, including the recruiting of foreign fighters, their trying to gain control of local areas, mounting attacks on civilians - all these are almost unanimously unpopular activities of al-Qaida.

The one activity of al-Qaida that gets support by a majority of residents in Anbar province is attacks on U.S. forces, and that I think it underscores the vast unpopularity of the United States, as well as al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida is despised in Anbar province, it's fair to say, but I don't think the U.S. fares much better.

CONAN: Can you tell us just a little bit about methodology? Clearly, Anbar province is not one of those places you can walk around with a clipboard.

Mr. LANGER: Well, actually, you can if you're an Iraqi, particularly if you're a local Iraqi. This survey was conducted across Iraq using local interviewers in each province. We have - the firm we work with has a center where trained interviewers worked from and do their interviews locally, so they're able to move around.

They know the area, so they can get across safely. They also know the sort of administrative protocols, so they can they stay out of trouble as they're doing their interviews. So it's all local interviewers, but doing supervised interviews and back-check interviews with a good deal of credible data coming out.

We did an over sample in Anbar province, indeed, to increase our sample size there in both of our last two polls with the same methodology otherwise, so we can compare data over time. And broadly, what we see is two-thirds in Anbar say their own lives is going not just badly, but very badly; two-thirds expect their lives to get worse and their children's lives to get worse as well in the years ahead.

Really, a broad negativity there borne of this lack of influence that Sunnis across Iraq, but particularly in Anbar feel, given the overthrow of Saddam Hussein those years ago.

CONAN: And also, we were talking about these alliances with the local sheikhs. According to your polling data, they are not tremendously popular either.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah. I would say I think an interesting to point to make is that in our survey, only 23 percent in Anbar expressed confidence in their local leaders, which is the second lowest that we saw in any province in Iraq, because it was only lower in Diyala province, another where the administration is talking about making some advances militarily.

It seems there that the hearts and minds have been followed. I should say as well that not only is the problem in Anbar the lack of popularity, the rejection of United States, but also there's not a lot of progress that we see in terms of public attitudes. In the sense of reconciliation in Iraq itself, the enormous disapproval of the current government - 72 percent in Anbar say it's doing very badly. It's the worst rating for the national government of Iraq we saw anywhere in the country - 100 percent disapproval for the Shiite-led government for the prime minister, 82 percent in Anbar. Again, the most in the country say the national assembly is unwilling, in their view, to make the necessary compromises for peace.

CONAN: I wonder, Colonel MacFarland, if those results surprise you?

Col. MacFARLAND: Actually, they don't because you have to understand that when a pollster knocks on your door in Iraq, your response to them is perceived by most Iraqis as a life and death decision, you know? You don't know who that pollster is, who he talks to, who he's been intimidated by.

So if you give the wrong answer to a pollster, certainly under Saddam's regime, so you have a lot of conditioning to overcome. And then, with al-Qaida recently driven from the area - but who knows if they're completely driven out - there may be still some folks sympathizing to - with al-Qaida still on the area.

If you tell them that you don't like the coalition and you don't like the government and you are against Maliki, well, there's really no downside if you do that. Your family is going to be safe, because if you're an honest pollster and believe in democracy, well, that's your expression of your opinion, and that's okay.

But if you're a different kind of pollster and you're just, you know, trying to get a sense for who to come around later to intimidate and you have - and you're going to pass results on to al-Qaida, then if you give the wrong kind of answer and say, yeah, I support the coalition, you could have a knock on your door later that night. And it won't be somebody with a clipboard, it may be somebody with a knife.

So I am amazed that, you know, 30 percent of al-Anbaris had the courage to come forward and say, I support the coalition, because al-Qaida was only recently driven from that area. So, you know, kudos to those 30 percent who had that courage. And that, to me, I think, is a tremendous improvement.

CONAN: Hmm. Gary, is that something that you try to correct for in your polling?

Mr. LANGER: Well, the best we can do, for one, is we use - as I mentioned, when we started talking - local interviewers, where they are interviewers, are based in Anbar, trained in Anbar, Anbar natives, well-trained and well-supervised. But I think that vastly increases the comfort level.

What you get when people are intimidated or afraid to cooperate in a survey is non-cooperation. They'll simply decline to participate. And we had really a quite good cooperation rate, 65 percent, in this survey, which is far better than we get in U.S. surveys.

I think the data speak for themselves. It's a difficult country. There are difficult conditions there. I think freedom of expression is one thing that Iraqis have obtained. And when we compare our results across the country, there are Sunni and Shia areas across the country where we have different results than we see in Anbar.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're talking with Gary Langer who's the director of polling for ABC News, and with Army Colonel Sean MacFarland, about Anbar province. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Bob(ph), Bob's calling from Cleveland.

BOB (Caller): Yes, thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please. Bob?

BOB: Hello?

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead.

BOB: Yeah. My question for the colonel is the following. The Petraeus report used Anbar as an example of success. Well, my question is did what happened in Anbar really have anything to do with the surge? Or was it the adoption of classical countersurgency techniques, which have been proven to work elsewhere rather than the build up of troops?

CONAN: Colonel MacFarland?

Col. MacFARLAND: I think it had to do with both. We did adopt classic counterinsurgency tactics, although the manual wasn't out at that time. So, we did a little bit of trial and error there.

CONAN: That's the new manual written by General Petraeus.

Col. MacFARLAND: That's right. But the addition of some two battalions worth of Marines to al-Anbar, and along with a Marines expeditionary unit, almost the brigades' worth of combat power went to al-Anbar as part of the surge. And that gave the Marines expeditionary force out there a great deal more of tactical and operational flexibility, and they were able to exploit success. And rather than play Whac-A-Mole or just chase the enemy around al-Anbar, they were able to put enough pressure in enough pressure points to drive the enemy completely out of the province.

CONAN: Yet, that breakthrough, the political breakthrough that we were talking about earlier, that really happened before the surge.

Col. MacFARLAND: It did. The tribal awakening began in September 2006. And we were seeing steady progress - really a decline in enemy attacks began in right after Ramadan in November of 2006 and continued on a steady downward trend. But that trend - normally in the springtime, you begin to see a turnaround and the enemy comes back out in strength, and that never happened. It continued on a downward trend, and I think the surge was the reason for that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks very much for the call, Bob.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: And Gary Langer, I just want to ask you. In terms of what people paint the picture that you could get from the polls - the picture that people paint of their ordinary lives - that seems a little depressing thing quite frankly.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah. Indeed. We have to understand, I think, that when the military measures its progress in Anbar, these reductions in attacks and the suicide bombs and the rest are the metric it uses. And it's a critical one from a military perspective.

In the lives of ordinary Iraqis and ordinary residents of Anbar, there are a lot more elements that go into your basic sentiment about the U.S. military and the national government as well. The supply of basics such electricity, clean water - and we have a cholera outbreak now, as you know, in Iraq. Fifty-eight percent in Anbar rate their clean water supply not just as bad but as very bad; jobs: 61 percent, highly negative; medical care: 61 percent as well; local government: 72 percent. There is - they're doing a very bad job.

Down the line, the supply of fuel, the ability to move about freely -significant majorities, in all cases, rating these not only negatively but extremely so, and that fuels this broader discontent that we see across the board.

CONAN: All right. Gary Langer, thank you so much for being with us today. We appreciate it.

Mr. LANGER: You bet.

CONAN: Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News. Today, he joined us from the studios of Deutschlandradio Kultur in Berlin, Germany. And Colonel MacFarland, thank you so much for coming in and speaking with our audience.

Col. MacFARLAND: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Sean MacFarland is a colonel in the United States Army. He served in Anbar province during 2006 and 2007. He was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.