Dispatch September 2008

Decency, Toughness ... and No Shortcuts

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

An additional contributor to the turnaround was the long drawn-out decision by President Bush to change military commanders and send 30,000 more troops into Iraq. The process of reappraising the confused U.S. strategy in Iraq began in the summer of 2006, when Baghdad was falling apart, and did not conclude until January of 2007. Bush himself was passive and indecisive. But he was well served, as was the nation, by the quiet, unassuming National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who skillfully orchestrated the president’s course of action. Hadley used his NSC staff, especially J.D. Crouch, Meghan O’Sullivan and William Luti, to pull an end run around the sluggish Pentagon. Odierno played a hand in this, as did retired Army General Jack Keane and military historian Fred Kagan. The key was Hadley.

The initiative of the NSC staff forced a long-overdue adjustment to strategy. In essence, the approach used for years in Anbar on the western front—American company and platoon outposts in Sunni villages and cities—was to be employed on the eastern front as well. As important, the president’s decision to implement the surge changed the dynamic and the atmosphere in Iraq—showing that he was determined to stay the course and increasing the size of the commitment for his remaining two years in office.

Another key factor contributing to the turnaround were the operational decisions made by the new Corps commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen Raymond Odierno, and the overall commander, General David Petraeus. Beginning in early 2004, throughout the eastern front, U.S. soldiers had pulled back to bases, rolling out for mounted patrols that left the neighborhoods unprotected most of the time. The rationale for this was twofold. First, there was the theory that Americans were irritants in an Arab society, their presence being a cause of the fighting they were trying to prevent. Second, U.S. forces were only to clear neighborhoods, which would then be handed over to Iraqi forces to hold.

The strategy under General George Casey, Petraeus’s predecessor as top commander in Iraq, had been to hand an ongoing war over to the nascent Iraqi army, while the U.S. exited as fast as possible. Although this strategy was at odds with the Bush vision of victory, it went unchallenged by the White House from 2004 until late 2006, when Baghdad was falling apart. Having put up with two successive Shiite-controlled governments that were corrupt and sectarian, Casey in December of 2006 requested two more U.S. brigades to control Baghdad. But he wanted Maliki and the Iraqi government to get into the fight, and they hadn’t done so.

Ordered by Casey in December of 2006 to design a “decisive operation” to stabilize Baghdad, Odierno introduced the “Gap Strategy.” In the absence of competent Iraqi government forces, Odierno concluded that Shiite militia gangs and the AQI were filling the gap of providing security in local areas. Odierno decided to deploy U.S. soldiers in the neighborhoods to fill that gap instead, displacing the AQI and militias. He also deployed U.S. units into the farmland belt around Baghdad to take away AQI’s lair where they prepared the suicide bombers.

Petraeus took command from Casey in February of 2007 and issued his famous dictum, “don’t commute to work.” He and Odierno made it clear that the operational concept was to clear neighborhoods and then have U.S. forces hold them, instead of simply handing the security responsibilities off to Iraqi forces. By then, the Sunni attitude across Iraq had changed, so the atmosphere was conducive to this approach. Had Petraeus and Odierno encountered the sullen resistance prevalent in Sunni communities in 2004—when the Sunnis did not want to be protected by the infidel invaders who had given power to the Shiites—they could not have protected an unwilling population from AQI.

Two former insurgents,
now members of "Sons of Iraq"
(Photo by Bing West)

American soldiers began stationing themselves in the neighborhoods instead of on large bases. Inside Baghdad, sixty-seven Joint Security Stations—equivalent to police precinct stations—were staffed by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and police. In Sunni areas, once the population saw the Americans weren’t leaving and were listening to their complaints about corrupt police and Shiite death squads, they joined the Awakening movement. Petraeus approved payment of $300 per month per man for neighborhood watches called “Sons of Iraq.” Eventually they numbered 100,000 across Iraq—many former members of the resistance—and with the American and Iraqi soldiers, they drove out Al-Qaeda.

Yet another contributor to the turnaround was the gradual disintegration of the Mahdi Army, or Jesh al Mahdi (JAM), originally led by the Moqtada Sadr. Petraeus had not deployed U.S. soldiers during the surge into the Mahdi bastions of Sadr City and Shulah in Baghdad, because killings and suicide bombings by al-Qaeda were the primary accelerant of the violence, providing the Shiite death squads with their rationale and emotional zeal. Destroying al-Qaeda was the primary U.S. goal. Dealing with most of Sadr’s militia was left to the Iraqi government. U.S. soldiers referred to “good JAM,” and “bad JAM.” The latter were ‘rogue’ groups who employed Iranian-supplied roadside bombs to kill Americans.

In 2006, Prime Minister Maliki had resisted Casey’s demands that Special Operations Forces be permitted to raid “bad JAM” headquarters in Sadr City and elsewhere. But when Petraeus took over in 2007, conditions had so deteriorated that Maliki had to relent, even though Sadr’s bloc in the National Assembly had voted for Maliki. Covert operations—Special Forces raids in the middle of the night—against “bad JAM” gained momentum.

In August of 2007, Sadr’s militia in Karbala killed dozens of Shiite pilgrims in a shoot-out with rivals. Maliki rushed to the city with reinforcements for the Iraqi army and arrested a top Sadr supporter. When Shiite opinion swung sharply against Sadr, he declared a “ceasefire,” grandly announcing that his followers would cease attacks against the American occupiers. It was an empty gesture. Most members of the JAM weren’t attacking Americans in first place.  

Then, in April of 2008, Maliki—without consulting with the Americans—rushed to Basra to attack the JAM. The Iraqi army wasn’t ready for urban combat and the attack started to fall apart. Petraeus sent in intelligence assets and air controllers. JAM reacted by launching Iranian-provided missiles from Sadr City against the homes of Iraqi officials in the Green Zone. This solidified Iraqi political support for Maliki, while JAM fighters foolish enough to venture outside with weapons showed up on American sensors and were cut down.

The JAM militia as a fighting force fell apart. Several hundred leaders fled to Iran, where they were trained in terror tactics by Hizbollah operatives. JAM, though, had lost control of Basra and of Sadr City.

By the fall of 2008, violence in Iraq had diminished sharply. Al-Qaeda, clinging to a last lair around Mosul, continued to mount suicide bombings. But it had lost control of the Sunni population. Sadr was hiding in Iran. The Americans were gradually withdrawing. An overconfident Maliki was resisting American entreaties that he incorporate at least 20,000 Sons of Iraq into the government security forces. Although stability had not yet arrived, there was no doubt the military situation had markedly improved.

This brings us back to the debate over the causes of this turnaround. Bob Woodward, for one, has come forward with his own theory in his new book, The War Within, published earlier this month.  Perhaps because much of the book is old news, at the end of the book he abruptly holds forth on why the situation in Iraq has improved. (How this turnaround relates to his research about quarrels in the White House in late 2006 is not explained). Woodward never spent much time, if any, in Iraq and did not embed with any of the units. Yet he wrapped up a devilishly complicated war in a few paragraphs that were unrelated to the preceding hundreds of pages.

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In