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, Grenoble, July 2010

Anbar awakening

This is an example of a type of counter-insurgency strategy that was used successfully in Iraq due to shift in approach. However attempt to transfer this approach to other contexts show that its success in Iraq may have been due to contextual factors.

The theories and assumptions behind the counterinsurgency strategy that led to what was known as the ‘Anbar Awakening’ were that the choices by actors in conflicts are generally based on pragmatic calculation. “This proposition is based on the assumption that when people are able, they will maximize their personal or their immediate community’s material interests and political power.”

This strategy reflects an emphasis on stability and peace, putting such agendas as democracy and human rights as relatively low priority. In this approach creating alliances with the local population, specifically local leaders, becomes more important than immediately recreating the institutions of liberal democracy. “Where counterinsurgency is freed from the requirement that state-building proceed according to a rigid blueprint, pragmatic alliances are possible with pretty much any group that is prone to pursue parochial goals of power or wealth.”

The recorded drop in civilian deaths between 2006 and 2009 seems evidence of the relevance of this strategy. Alliances between US forces and local leaders that had previously supported insurgents developed into what is called the ‘Anbar Awakening’. This approach, which stresses the importance of ‘bottom-up’ state building, has a focus on trying to reinforce any local authority that can manage conflict and provide security. In this way the American military entered into relations with local leaders by providing a kind of patronage, providing protection and backing to its allies where the state could not. However, this can be a problematic approach as it opens up the possibility of long term foreign military presence, something that is not necessarily in the interest of the intervening governments, and which complicates exit from the conflict.

Contextual factors that would have helped the success of this ‘bottom-up’ approach in Iraq are the history of pragmatic alliances that would have been necessary to survive Saddam’s regime, and the relative inadaptability to local conditions of the foreign insurgents in this conflict. Unfortunately, the central assumption of the centrality of pragmatism within conflict used in the Anbar counterinsurgency becomes less relevant where the insurgency in question has its own state-building project and has mobilised a social movement against the state: “Counterinsurgency, American style or otherwise, cannot match the ideological appeal of insurgents in this kind of situation…it is hard to organise people around a project of incremental reform of government and greater openness to global markets with a distant promise of economic improvement.”

Pakistan is a good example of this second type of situation, where the distant and corrupt elites are the target of rebellion, and where the insurgent groups are not only an armed movement but also offer social services, education, protection and access to courts and justice. As well as the ideological factors involved in this conflict, the provision of services by insurgents and their importance in local networks makes it unlikely that any pragmatic calculation will turn against them. Within this context, outsiders become interlopers and a target for dissatisfaction rather than providers of patronage.


  • Reno, W.The Evolution of the Project of Building Other People’s State paper presented at the conference ‘Post-crisis State Transformation: Re-thinking the Foundations of the State, Linköping 1-5 May 2009.

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  • This concept definition was developed as a result of the work carried out in the international conference Post-crisis state transformation: Rethinking the foundations of the state in Linköping, Sweden held 1-5 May 2009. This conference was run by Modus Operandi in collaboration with the Université Pierre Mendès France (Grenoble, France) and the European Science Foundation.