Dispatch September 2008

Decency, Toughness ... and No Shortcuts

Bing West offers an in-depth consideration of what led to the turnaround in Iraq

The Iraq war has faded as an item of interest to the national press because the violence has plummeted, while a consensus has formed that the American military learned from experience and now knows what it’s doing. In 2006, we were losing the war; today, the military trajectory is encouraging, and U.S. forces are slowly withdrawing. During my 15th trip to Iraq in August, for the first time I didn’t hear a shot fired. In several cities, I walked into markets with only a few American soldiers, and was immediately surrounded by Iraqis eager to talk about the economy, security, politics, whatever.

Normality? Nowhere close. Concrete barriers (designed to restrict the flesh-ripping radius of suicide bombers) were still in place, enclosing neighborhoods in Baghdad and a dozen other cities. Car bombings and criminal kidnappings persisted, as did battles against disparate al-Qaeda cells and Shiite insurgent gangs incited by Iran. Still, Iraq was not engulfed in civil war. The Sunni resistance had largely collapsed. 

A sure sign that the war in Iraq has turned around has been the rush to take credit. Victory has a thousand fathers. This would seem a harmless parlor game, were Afghanistan not looming. Military success in Iraq is sure to lead to lessons to be applied in Afghanistan. Let’s make sure we pick the right lessons.

What did cause the turnaround since 2006? Three competing explanations have popped up. Some have claimed that covert operations, involving the use of top-secret technical devices, are what drove the insurgency’s leaders from Iraq. Others attribute the turnaround to Bush’s decision in January 2007 to add 30,000 more troops. And still others suggest that it is the brilliance of General Petraeus, who took command in Iraq in February of 2007, that we have to thank for the improvements.

There is some truth to each of the three explanations. But all fall wide of the mark. The foremost reason for the turnaround is that the Sunni population switched from attacking American (and Iraqi Army) soldiers to aligning with them against al-Qaeda. What prompted that switch was the behavior of the American soldiers contrasted with that of the al-Qaeda fighters.

Beginning in 2003, the Sunnis had welcomed or at least accepted al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The rate of infiltration from Syria, primarily into western Anbar Province, was about 100 to 200 a month in 2003 through late 2005. This small minority proselytized among the dozens of local resistance cells, many of whom were initially Baathist-led. AQI recruited the weak-minded and especially the criminal elements. Waving the banner of jihad, AQI killed Americans and Shiites. They then began to expand the range of their targets, going after all foreigners associated with the fledgling Iraqi government (truck drivers from Jordan, aid workers, etc.), then Sunnis who worked for the government, then Sunnis suspected of betraying al-Qaeda members, then Sunnis who objected, and so on.

In 2003-2004, the Americans were the robo-cop outsiders, tough in battle but not understanding of the environment. Battles like Fallujah alienated the Sunni population. Americans won every battle, but al-Qaeda always returned after the Americans left.

By 2005, AQI had solidified its hold over the Sunnis, based on terror rather than religious or tribal solidarity. At the same time, the Americans were learning to act with restraint, while still prevailing in every test of strength. The U.S. military also finally convinced the State Department to allow colonels and generals to meet with the resistance. The American message to the Sunni resistance leaders was simple: Why are you fighting us? We bring you contracts and protection. We act as a buffer and an ombudsman with the Baghdad government. You Sunnis have it backwards. You roll over for the AQI who are killing you, and you ignore or abet attacks against us, when we are looking out for your best interests. Well, one day we will be gone and you will have al-Qaeda as your undisputed masters. Drive out AQI while we are still here to help.

That message eventually got through. In late 2005, a dozen prominent sheiks in the Ramadi area tried to organize against AQI. Their movement was blasted apart by suicide murderers and assassins. The basic operational approach of the Marine Expeditionary Force in Anbar was to deploy in company outposts in the villages and cities and daily conduct hundreds of foot patrols. This was called a “clear and hold” strategy. But Al-Qaeda hadn’t been cleared; its covert cells controlled the population in Anbar.

By mid 2006, it seemed that Iraq was lost. Shiite death squads, backed by the Iraqi police, were killing and driving Sunnis from Baghdad. AQI was blowing up Shiite markets inside Baghdad and had a stranglehold grip over the population in Anbar, Diyala, and the belt of farms south of Baghdad.

Yet the turnaround had begun. There were always two distinct fronts in the war. The western front was Anbar, the linkage to Syria and stronghold of the insurgency, home to a million Sunnis with a tradition of rebellion. Through 2006, Anbar accounted for 40% of American casualties. The eastern front was Baghdad and the belt of farmlands encircling it, home to about five million Shiites and three million Sunnis. It too accounted for about 40% of American casualties. On the western front, the American units patrolled  from many small outposts; on the eastern front, American units patrolled from a few large bases.

 By the fall of 2006, the Marines had placed at least one solid security leader in each city in Anbar. Some were local police chiefs with links to the tribes; others were Iraqi battalion commanders. Then, in September, a brave and charismatic sheik, Abu Risha Sattar, initiated the Awakening, a movement demanding that the tribes turn against the AQI.

Sheik Sattar, photographed
by Bing West a week before
he was assassinated

The Awakening would not have started if the Americans had remained robo-cops, operating from bases apart from the population. Instead, the Americans on the western front were out among the people. Sattar knew the American leaders by name. The Americans parked a tank on his front lawn to protect him. I asked Sattar, later assassinated by AQI, if the turnaround in Anbar could not have come years earlier, and saved much grief. He thought for a moment, then said no.

“We Sunnis had to convince ourselves,” he said. He was the most remarkable leader I saw in Iraq.

The basic cause of the turnaround was the decency and strength of the American troops whom the Sunnis came to know on the streets. Tens of thousands of daily contacts preceded the Awakening. The turnaround came from the bottom up. The Sunnis came to hate AQI, but would not have rebelled if they did not have another side to turn to. It is incorrect to say AQI “overplayed its hand,” as if war were poker. The Americans at the squad level had shown for two years that they were both stronger and more decent than AQI.

Presented by

Bing West

F. J. "Bing" West, who served as a marine in Vietnam and as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, is the author of The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq (2008) and The Village and No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah.

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