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Book Talk: A Chance in Hell: The Men Who Triumphed Over Iraq's Deadliest City and Turned the Tide of War

June 30, 2010 // 12:00pm1:00pm
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International Security Studies
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In 2006, the capital city of Al Anbar Governorate, Ramadi, was in shambles—full of rubble, suffering daily suicide bomb attacks, and controlled by the militant group Al-Qaeda. By September 2007, however, President George W. Bush was visiting the province and hailing Ramadi as a great success story for the United States in Iraq. In a discussion of his newly released book, A Chance in Hell: The Men Who Triumphed Over Iraq's Deadliest City and Turned the Tide of War, Jim Michaels documented Ramadi's dramatic transformation and how in only one year the U.S. military had successfully allied itself with local leaders in order to stabilize a volatile and dangerous region.

On June 30, 2010 the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a book talk with Michaels, a former public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a reporter for USA Today, to discuss his recently published work. Robert Litwak, Vice President for Programs and Director, International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Noting that he does not claim to provide a first-hand account, Michaels described his historian's approach to documenting the battle for Ramadi as one that relied heavily on interviews with people as disparate as General David Petraeus and local tribal leaders. He also explained that he focused on a single unit in order to provide a more personal view of the war, arguing that it is from individuals that we can distill the most lessons.

Michaels provided a sweeping summary of his book by describing how two individuals, Colonel Sean MacFarland of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division and Sheikh Abdul Sattar, worked together to oust Al-Qaeda and provide security for the Ramadi people. Ordering a tank-heavy operation into Al-Qaeda strongholds, MacFarland went beyond the orders to "keep a lid" on Ramadi and instead enshrined "peace and prosperity" as his goals for the city. With heavy causalities on both sides, the battle for Ramadi had reached a stalemate by the summer of 2006.

Sattar, a minor sheikh with a checkered past that included oil smuggling, was impressed by U.S. resilience against Al-Qaeda, a group that murdered several of his family members. In September 2006, Sattar along with several other tribal leaders, declared war on Al-Qaeda and expressed willingness to work with U.S. troops. MacFarland made a decision that helped turn the tide of war and accepted Sattar's offer.

As Sattar led the tribal security force, sometimes called "Sons of Iraq," to victories throughout the city, more individuals, households, and neighborhoods began to join the resistance against Al-Qaeda. Although American soldiers were still dying, local security improved. General Petraeus later institutionalized this successful strategy by insisting that troops form contacts with tribal leaders and establish local security forces.

After discussing the stabilization of Al Anbar, Michaels turned to the lessons that we can glean from Ramadi and potentially apply in Afghanistan. Listening to the situation on the ground presented to them, policy-makers must try to avoid politics when faced with key wartime decisions. Additionally, soldiers should form relationships and start the fight locally with the help of invested citizens. Finally, Michaels argued that both officials and the public need to be wary of judging failure in terms of lives lost. While hard to distinguish immediately, he indicated that the tipping point is often found in the midst of heavy causalities.

By Kate Connelly, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program

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