Decency, Toughness ... and No Shortcuts

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

By Bing West

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.

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.

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/09/decency-toughness-and-no-shortcuts/307035/