Will the Petraeus Strategy Be the Last?

Bing West, a Marine officer in Vietnam and former assistant secretary of defense, offers a view from Iraq's restive Anbar province on Congress's recent Iraq hearings

In early September, en route to Australia, President Bush stopped at al Asad air base in Iraq’s Anbar province, bypassing Baghdad and forcing Prime Minister Maliki to take a noisy 70-minute helicopter ride to the remote base. It was Bush’s way of rewarding the Sunni tribes for turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Anbar, the heart of the Sunni insurgency, had shown a remarkable and unpredicted turnaround, with all 23 major tribes cooperating with the American military.

Critical moments occur in all wars. In April 2004, President Bush ordered the reluctant Marines to seize the rebellious city of Fallujah, then called off the attack midway when Iraqi politicians complained. The elated rebels claimed victory, a claim that was amplified by the Arab press, infusing new energy into the insurgency. Twice that same year the American military trapped the Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and twice senior administration officials let him go.

In February 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq (known by its acronym, AQI) destroyed the Shiite shrine in Samarra, and Sadr’s Mahdi Army (JAM) retaliated by rampaging through east Baghdad. Months of murders and evictions of Sunnis followed. The insurgents seemed to have succeeded in provoking a Shiite-Sunni civil war that could fracture the country and give them control of Anbar. Despite the misgivings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Bush hastily changed commanders in Iraq and rushed an additional 30,000 troops to Baghdad to staunch the bloodletting—his “surge strategy.”

In the turmoil, no one at the top levels noticed that as the Mahdi Army was rampaging in Baghdad, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s grip on the vast Anbar province to the west was weakening. For 18 months AQI—made up mostly of Iraqis—had consolidated its leadership over the Sunni insurgency by purging, in the style of Robespierre, all who questioned its authority. Abu Musab al Zarqawi had been held in awe, not least because his acolyte, Omar Hadid, chopped off the legs of suspected spies and deviants, leaving them to bleed on the street. Al-Qaeda in Iraq gained control over the insurgency in Anbar by the sword.

In September 2006, AQI killed one too many, and a young, mid-ranking sheikh, Abdul Sattar, also called Abu Risha, set out to avenge his murdered relatives. Outgunned in one encounter, he was facing an unpleasant end, when an American Army unit suddenly entered the fray with guns blazing. A quick learner, Sattar proposed a partnership with his rescuers: he would provide tribesmen willing to fight if the Americans would provide firepower and government sanction. Sattar proved to be the Sunni leader we desperately needed in Anbar. Once his own tribal lands were cleared of AQI, nearby tribes joined his movement; the Americans parked a tank outside his house as a display of support and power. Over the next year, attacks in Anbar dropped from 400 to 100 per month.

So at Asad Air Base in early September, the provincial governor, Mamoon Rashid, gave young Sattar the place of honor next to President Bush. The meeting was intended to honor the Sunni sheikhs who had driven out al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was also a not-subtle nudge to Maliki to get on with Sunni reconciliation. Maliki was scheduled to visit the province two days later to deliver an eagerly awaited supplement to the provincial budget. Nursing an eye infection, he was none too pleased by the peremptory summons.

For most of the previous two years, Maliki’s host, Governor Mamoon, had been marooned in the sandbagged government center in downtown Ramadi, kept alive by Marine sharpshooters who fired through mouse holes in the hallway above his office and defecated in plastic bags because the sewer line had been blown up, leaving a stinking lake outside the front door. Mamoon had survived three assassination attempts and gone weeks at a time without a single Iraqi visitor to his “office.”

His closest confidants were the Marines who kept him alive. When you’re with President Bush, act like you’re king of the desert, Brigadier General John Allen, who managed the coalition’s relations with the tribes, had advised him. Embrace everyone as an honored guest. Smile constantly and say nice things.

But when a genial President Bush asked how things were going, Allen’s script collapsed. We get nothing, Mamoon exploded, glaring at Maliki. We’re on the front lines, and Baghdad ignores us. Seizing the opening, the Sunni sheikhs piled it on, berating Maliki for a hundred injustices and years of neglect. Only Sheikh Sattar rose above the litany of resentments to offer thanks for the sacrifices of the American soldiers. The Anbar tribes, he said, would finish al-Qaeda in Iraq, and then go to Afghanistan to help the Americans. His speech partially defused the quarrelsome mood.

“I opened my mouth,” Mamoon later explained to the furious marines, “and the words came out by themselves.”

Two days later, a deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, arrived in Ramadi for the Anbar forum. Over a hundred sheikhs had gathered for discussions, none wearing protective armor in a city that a year earlier had echoed hourly with gunfights. Senator Joe Biden, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, and a dozen Arab and American reporters also came; Maliki and his Shiite ministers did not show up.

“This forum is being televised around the Sunni Arab world,” Adel Abuan, an Arab-American adviser, told me as the sheikhs filed into the meeting room. “But because Maliki thinks he was dissed, he blew an opportunity to show the Saudis and Jordanians that he’s a big man. The Shiite hard-liners in Baghdad may be pleased, but Maliki blew this one.”

Biden was even less charitable, saying that Maliki had released the money only under American pressure. “The American people can’t want peace more than the Iraqi people,” he lectured the sheikhs, several of whom expressed surprise at his harsh words, because they had expected to be praised for cleaning up Anbar. As he was leaving the forum, Minister Salih asked me if America was “becoming defeatist.”

This episode illustrated the contradictions in Iraq. The military progress was obvious—less fighting and more pressure on the Sunni extremists. Baghdad had released funds to a Sunni province, as promised. But the politics remain churlish, prompting some informed skeptics to doubt that reconciliation between Shiite and Sunni leaders is possible.

Five days after attending the Anbar forum, Biden welcomed General Petraeus before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After the hearings, he went on television and said, “I give the [surge] strategy no chance of succeeding. Zero.”

What is Petraeus’s strategy? How does it differ from previous strategies? And does it have a chance of succeeding?

In March 2003, we invaded Iraq. Our strategy called for the quick decapitation of Saddam’s regime by seizing Baghdad, leading to the disintegration of organized resistance. The assumption was that Iraq’s educated and moderate middle class would take the reins and proceed along the path to democracy.

When violence persisted throughout the chaotic summer of 2003, the U.S. military responded with offensive operations to hunt down the “dead-enders” (mostly Sunnis), and the Coalition Provisional Aunthority was formed, consolidating political control in the hands of the Americans and deferring Iraqi elections. The blind flailing of this second strategy antagonized more Sunnis, and during 2004, the Sunni rebellion and the Shiite militias gained strength.

Army four-star General George W. Casey took over, and by 2005 he had shifted to a third strategy, based on one counterinsurgency principle: clear critical cities of Sunni insurgents, while emphasizing that Iraqi forces must carry out a second principle—hold those cities. Two sets of elections seemed to promise that Iraqis would take care of their own security.

The transition to Iraqi forces was too rapid. In early 2006, al-Qaeda extremists bombed a key Shiite mosque in Samarra and succeeded in provoking the Shiite Mahdi militia to retaliate against the Sunnis in Baghdad. The low-level civil war that ensued exposed the uselessness and complicity of the Shiite police and the feebleness of the Iraqi army.

Facing failure in late 2006, President Bush chose to ignore the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and instead replaced Casey with General David H. Petraeus and sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops to stabilize Baghdad. Declaring that successful counterinsurgency hinged on assuring the residents that their neighborhoods would be both cleared of violent elements and held safe by competent security forces, Petraeus ordered American forces to live among the locals. “Don’t commute to work” was his catchphrase for the surge, the fourth strategy in as many years. The political goal was to dampen the violence, giving Shiite and Sunni leaders the time to reconcile, revise the constitution, hold provincial elections, and pass new legislation re-allocating oil revenues.

Congress insisted that Petraeus present an interim report on September 11 and 12. The joint testimonies of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were advertised as the most critical hearings of 2007.

Before the hearings, an unfortunate political tone was set. A lead New York Times op-ed claimed that Petraeus had “a credibility problem.” When the political action group MoveOn.org shamefully accused General Petraeus of “betraying us” prior to his testimony, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to criticize the group and instead cast a confrontational partisan tone over the hearings.

In advance of the hearings, the disrespect shown toward the military during the Vietnam era started to creep back in. This intemperate divisiveness will hurt the next president (probably a Democrat), since an American military that has been buffeted for partisan advantage will approach meetings with politicians as minefields.

What did we learn from the hearings about the current strategy?

First, Petraeus and Crocker see a long road (of five years or more) ahead. Crocker expects key legislation and formal reconciliation to move at a glacial pace. Petraeus carefully set out data showing decreasing but still considerable casualties and attacks, while emphasizing that he still believed he could accomplish the mission of stabilizing Iraq. Over the next six months, he said, U.S. forces would come down from 160,000 to the pre-surge level of 130,000. He said he would defer discussion of further reductions until he reported back to Congress, in March 2008.

It would not be surprising if Petraeus’s rate of withdrawal (30,000 troops by July ’08) accelerates. Two congressmen asserted that Admiral William Fallon, the head of the Central Command and Petraeus’s boss, was urging for a faster withdrawal rate, a view Petraeus did not deny. (Fallon is also the commander who would recommend whether to strike the Iranian facilities exporting explosives into Iraq. While Lieutenant General Odierno, Petraeus’s deputy, has repeatedly charged the Iranians with causing the deaths of Americans, Fallon remains silent, fueling speculation that he does not want to take retaliatory action.)

Second, a strategy for curbing the Mahdi (JAM) militias that control most of the streets in Baghdad was not discussed in the hearings. JAM has emerged as the major threat to stability in Baghdad. 
“After the hearings,” a key adviser to Petraeus told me, “a comprehensive anti-JAM strategy is high on our agenda. We know it’s needed.”
Petraeus is waiting to see which way Sadr, currently in Iran, is going to jump. Sadr has ordered JAM to suspend attacks for six months while he sorts out whether he’s going to fight, with aid provided by Iran, or join the political fray as a nationalist. Under pressure from American commando units, the Iranian Quds special forces have pulled back to Iran, calculating that it’s safer to train Iraqi Shiite extremists there. So while JAM must be curbed, it’s not yet clear how extensive the effort must be.

Third, the surge strategy failed in its primary objective, of changing the political dynamics. The Iraqi leaders failed to reach reconciliation agreements, despite the reduction in violence. No national leader has emerged from the sectarian ranks in Baghdad.

Crocker was tepid in his defense of Prime Minister Maliki, whose truculent, secretive management style has antagonized a range of Iraqi leaders. Crocker and Petraeus repeatedly referred to “frustration” about not moving forward. While there is no sign that the administration is trying to force Maliki out, his leadership is shaky. If he doesn’t manage his alliances better, he may be voted out long before his four-year term expires.

In the absence of an Iraqi central leadership, Petraeus has introduced a “bottom-up” model of achieving stability, pointing out at the hearings that the Anbar tribal revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq had spread to other provinces. Instead of fighting the Americans, Sunnis were turning to them for aid and advice.

“The way to leave is to stabilize the situations in each area,” he said, “and each will require a slightly different solution. In some cases, literally using cement T-walls to secure neighborhoods and then to establish a sustainable security… that Iraqis can take over by themselves.” 
The bottom-up movement began with Sheikh Sattar in Ramadi in September 2006. On September 13,, barely a week after Bush’s visit, Sheikh Sattar was assassinated by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, the first such attack in months. Most likely his route was betrayed by some trusted aide. Al-Qaeda in Iraq immediately claimed responsibility. Sattar was a true leader whose model was widely copied. He radiated genuine charisma, had forged a link with Maliki, was feared by al-Qaeda, and had reached out to the Shiite tribes, determined to bridge the hostility between Sunni and Shiite. He was the genuine article. His older brother has taken over, at least temporarily, the “Awakening Movement,” but Sattar’s leadership and vision will be sorely missed.
Sattar gave impetus to the bottom-up model. Once the American forces have driven AQI out of an area, an Iraqi battalion serves as a perimeter defense. Local Sunnis are then recruited and paid to provide a home guard in their own neighborhoods. The final step is to persuade the Interior Ministry to hire the Sunnis as legitimate police assigned to their home areas, while the Americans withdraw. 

At the hearings, Senator Biden didn’t buy the bottom-up approach. Instead, he urged a return to General Casey’s 2005 strategy of pulling back U.S. troops and quickly transitioning responsibilities to the Iraqi forces. Petraeus repeatedly demurred, saying the timing was premature and risked all the gains achieved.

In sum, we learned from the hearings that Petraeus has established a new model that hinges on local police control, a goal that I advocated several months ago in The Atlantic. This approach has been bringing security to the Sunni areas. To prevent a flare-up of sectarian killings in Baghdad, though, the rogue JAM elements that have burrowed into the social fabric of the majority-Shiite areas must be removed.

The Democrats don’t have the votes to force a rapid withdrawal. That the Iraqi politicians will have reached reconciliation agreements by March, mollifying the Democrats, seems highly unlikely. Yet when Petraeus testifies in March, if progress on the military front has continued and he recommends further withdrawals, the Democrats will be hard pressed to urge an even faster pullout. It seems likely that the presidential debate about Iraq will then focus on past mistakes, not on an immediate drawdown.

The intent of the hearings was to drive a wedge between the military and the administration. ”We trust the military to tell the truth, but not the administration,” was the message of the Democratic leadership. Apparently not understanding that, some questioners proceeded to challenge the veracity and independence of the witnesses. Many of the “questions” during the hearings were rants, with the questioners coming across as self-absorbed whiners who diminished their political cause.

President Bush was also opportunistic. In his television address on September 13, he  advanced his policies as if they’d been designed by General Petraeus. While President Bush has the virtue of wanting to prevail, spare us from politicians of both parties who seek partisan advantage by wrapping themselves in the flag.

Insisting that a professional soldier—and a professional diplomat—testify, and then attacking the policies they did not create but were duty bound to carry out, sets a terrible precedent. This hearing, with its querulous, self-pitying tone, was a bad idea badly executed. It should not be repeated in March. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is the proper official to defend administration policy.

Our military should be kept separate from political debate.