A military-affairs correspondent for USA Today chronicles the story of the fight for Ramadi, Iraq.
By 2006, Ramadi was the country’s most dangerous city, averaging more than 20 attacks per day. Suffering from an ineffectual provincial government and no police force, the population cowered under al-Qaeda control, unprotected by U.S. soldiers, themselves victims of sniper fire and roadside bombs. Charged with quelling the insurgency, the cerebral, introverted Col. Sean MacFarland formed an unlikely alliance with the swashbuckling Sheik Abdul Sattar Bezia al-Rishawi, head of a small tribe fed up with al-Qaeda brutality. Reaching out to other tribes, Sattar, who had lost multiple family members to terrorist attacks, announced a kind of declaration of independence from al-Qaeda—an uprising later dubbed “the Awakening”—and declared his willingness to join the Americans to fight the common enemy. With his command having virtually written off Ramadi, MacFarland chose to overlook Sattar’s unsavory smuggling career and dared to accept this offer that jeopardized the American policy of backing Iraq’s shaky civil government. Michaels, a former Marine infantry officer, explains how these two very different men, working under the radar and against the prevailing narrative that the Iraq war was lost, flipped the populace against the hardcore militants and restored something resembling order to the city. The author sprinkles his account with brief profiles of other military men—particularly the unorthodox Capt. Travis Patriquin, beloved by the Iraqis—who figured prominently in the turnaround, but focuses on the strategy, counterinsurgency principles later institutionalized throughout the country by Gen. David Petraeus. In simple prose occasionally marred by repetition, Michaels explains how taking sides for the tribes was never a matter of ideology but rather of self-interest. Before joining the Americans, they required the demonstration MacFarland so skillfully provided—that American forces would stay and win.
Best-suited for military-history buffs, but a serviceable account for general readers looking to understand an extremely confusing, frustrating war.