Dispatch September 2008

Decency, Toughness ... and No Shortcuts

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

In just one paragraph, Woodward cites four reasons for the turnaround: the surge of troops, the ceasefire by Sadr, the Awakening of the Sunnis in Anbar, and covert operations using top-secret technologies, which he likens to the Manhattan Project. It was the latter that received headlines. He asserted that U.S. Special Operations Forces had developed an extraordinary technical and operational method for hunting down insurgent leaders, spurring those leaders to flee the country. While he agreed with an interviewer that the breakthrough was on a par with the invention of the tank or the airplane, he said he felt morally obligated not to describe it.

In a letter to The Washington Post, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley countered that it was in fact the President’s decision to add 30,000 troops that had  “enabled” the other three factors cited by Woodward. Sadr had called a ceasefire, Hadley argued, because he could not prevail in the face of the surge; covert operations had improved because the surge had improved the “security context”; and the Sunnis found “the confidence to continue to stand up to al-Qaeda” because of the presence of the additional U.S. troops.

William Kristol, the conservative New York Times columnist, offered yet another explanation—that it was primarily General David Petraeus’s brilliant counterinsurgency strategy that had resulted in the improvement.

Each explanation mixes truth with exaggeration. The problem with such simplified accounts of what led to the improvement in Iraq is that they create false hope for a quick fix in Afghanistan. Woodward’s belief in a Manhattan Project-type development has the least credibility. Had there been a silver bullet, we would have used it long ago to kill Osama bin Laden. Moreover, even if the U.S. did possess secret methods for finding senior insurgent leaders, if other factors had not also been in play, the insurgency’s lost leaders would have simply been replaced by others, and the tide would not have turned.

As for Hadley’s and Kristol’s theories as to why things turned around, they do hold merit.  Bush sent a message of resolve and provided desperately needed boots on the ground, and when those troops arrived, Odierno and Petraeus knew how to deploy them to best effect.

The crucial enabler, though, was the change in Sunni attitude. This was caused by the combination of decency and toughness by tens of thousands of American grunts who had been out on the streets for years. That may sound like fluff, but it was the daily grind of the grunts—listening to complaints, arguing with Iraqi and American officials for resources, checking on suspect activity, conducting vehicle searches, uncovering arms caches, arguing with sheiks, absorbing sniper fire without blasting away—that gradually won over the Sunnis. Yes, the Sunni tribes had come to hate the al-Qaeda organization they had welcomed years earlier. But without trusting and aligning with the Americans, the tribes could not drive out al-Qaeda. On February 3, 2007, I was standing in Ramadi next to General James Mattis—the Marine’s most experienced battlefield commander—when he congratulated a group of soldiers and marines on having won in Anbar. The next day, Mattis flew to Baghdad, where Petraeus was assuming command.

The violence on the western front didn’t plummet because all sides simply tired of war. Al-Qaeda didn’t tire of controlling the streets. In the cities and hamlets of Anbar, I saw al-Qaeda adherents—locals, criminals, fundamentalists, whomever—hunted down by odd amalgams of tribal gangs cruising around in Nissans, tough police chiefs, Iraqi battalions with advisers and American battalions. Many Iraqi Army officers were skeptical and resentful of the Awakening. After all, the sudden sag in violence indicated that the tribes, not al-Qaeda, had generated most of the small-scale daily attacks. The Marine Expeditionary Force half-convinced and half-ordered the two Iraqi divisions in Anbar to put aside past grudges. Without American commanders as the interlocutors, the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni tribes would not have coalesced. Hence the Sunni tribes in Anbar in 2006 decisively engaged against al-Qaeda before the additional troops in the surge arrived.

It helped that in mid-2007 the surge brought to Anbar another 2,000 marines (with whom I traveled in the Lake Thar Thar area.) But the tide of war had already turned before they arrived. The surge was the beneficiary, not the cause of the Sunni Awakening on the western front.

However, without the additional surge troops and the Petraeus/Odierno strategy of placing U.S. soldiers in the midst of Baghdad neighborhoods, recruiting Sunni neighborhood watches and partnering with Iraqi battalions, the eastern front would have collapsed. Petraeus turned the Anbar movement into a national movement by employing the Sons of Iraq on a local basis, neighborhood by neighborhood, village by village.

But the critical precondition was the Sunni willingness to align with the Americans against al-Qaeda, due to the decent behavior of tens of thousands of American troops in 2005-2006, contrasted with the savage behavior of al-Qaeda. General Casey, who now personifies a failed strategy, was mistaken in trying to hand off the war too quickly to the Iraqis. But he deserves credit for having changed the U.S. Army’s focus from offensive operations to counterinsurgency beginning in 2005.

What, then, should one conclude about the military turnaround in Iraq as we look toward Afghanistan? First, there is no quick technical solution. Because the Taiban and al-Qaeda are supported by the tribes, no covert operation or super-secret device will separate them out. Second, a presidential decision to surge more troops will not enable a series of events that cascade to victory. In Iraq, the essential precondition for a successful surge was the shift in attitude of the Sunnis. They had grown to hate al-Qaeda and, with U.S. units beside them, were willing to fight. Since the Pashtun tribe is on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and the U.S. is only on one side with a Taliban/Al-Qaeda sanctuary on the other, the model of a “Pashtun Awakening” does not apply.

Third, counterinsurgencies are bottom-up endeavors dependent upon the behavior and aggressiveness of squads and platoons. A general like Petraeus, no matter how brilliant, can only set the mission. He cannot maneuver an army, as Grant did in the Civil War and Patton in World War II. Fourth, the military strategy in Iraq rattled down the wrong track for the same reasons as the current meltdown in the financial sector. Those at the top were out of touch and overconfident, and the fiduciary responsibility for risk assessment was foregone. In the Iraqi case, the president’s critical decision to surge more troops was made outside military institutions. After making that decision, President Bush frequently bypassed the chain of command to call General Petraeus directly. While that was understandable, it undermined the principle of dispassionate risk assessment. It is discomfiting that in the Afghanistan case, after seven years of fighting, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has just called for a comprehensive strategic review, saying he is not confident we are winning. Currently, it is not clear whether assessing risk rests with the Central Command, NATO, the Chairman, or the Secretary of Defense. And finally, if stability requires placing American advisers and/or platoons in villages until Afghan soldiers and police acquire competence, get set for a long war.

In sum, the lessons from Iraq offer no short cuts.

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


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


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.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In