At the turn of the year, Lt. Freeze, the reconnaissance platoon leader in Diyala who on Independence Day had despaired for Iraq, revised his characterization of the country. The one word to summarize it now, he thought, would be “progress.”
That was a distinctly relative term. Baghdad was more secure, but still far from safe. Violence had decreased to the level of 2005, which at the time had seemed nightmarish, but now, coming after the horror of 2006, felt like a welcome relief. Civilian deaths were plummeting. The bloodshed that did occur now seemed to resonate less, especially because there was a new air of desperate improvisation in al Qaeda’s attacks. “None of ’em add up to anything particular,” Brig. Gen. Anderson, Odierno’s chief of staff, said of that winter’s car bombings. Baghdad had moved from the seventh circle of Hell, which Dante reserved for the violent, to the fifth, the destination of those overcome with anger and sullenness, or as the poet put it in Canto VII, “those who swallow mud.” It was a notable improvement, and it was in the right direction—but it was still a version of Hell. Al Qaeda’s usual methods of bomb delivery—cars or young men—were deterred by a proliferation of checkpoints, so it began using bicycles, women, and preteen boys to bomb Iraqis. Eventually it would perversely turn to mentally handicapped or disabled girls. In a sign of how much checkpoints run by the turned militias were impeding its operations, al Qaeda fighters also began launching sophisticated ambushes against them, in one instance wearing Iraqi police uniforms so they could get near. U.S. military operations continued, with large offensives in Diyala and Nineveh Provinces, but they had a desultory feeling of mopping up.
Iraq still was far from a functioning state. “We had a much better government in Vietnam than we do in Iraq right now,” one colonel warned ominously.
One day I was traveling from Camp Victory, near the airport, to downtown when my driver and I came to a National Police checkpoint manned by perhaps eight men. We, and our bodyguards in a chase car, waited about half an hour, and then were waved through. Fifty yards later we came to an Iraqi army checkpoint, manned by another eight men. The two checkpoints apparently were stationed closely so the police and army could keep an eye on each other. After another half-hour wait, we were through. About 200 yards later, we arrived at a bridge over the Tigris, only to find one side of it closed for repairs, pushing all the cars to the other side. There, where a police officer really could have helped, there was no one directing traffic, nor were there even lanes demarked for the two opposing directions. The river crossing felt like a civilian demolition derby, with Iraqis driving head on at each other at high speeds, flashing their lights as warnings to swerve out of the way. That was how Iraq worked in 2007.
“It’s ironic that the Iraqis, who we built up into such a threat, now seem so entirely helpless,” observed Lt. Col. Miller.
As Iraqi’s rainy, surprisingly chilly winter set in, Petraeus was pondering whether the war might change. “It’s going to continue to morph,” he said. “We think we are going to be quick enough to adjust.”
It was a time of assessment. What had we gained with tactical success? Where has the new strategy taken us? How much further do we need to go? Who are our friends, and who the foes, in reaching our goals? Was the Baghdad government part of the problem or part of the solution? Asking these questions led to reexaminations not only of the strategy but of the major players it was intended to affect: the Iraqi government, the former Sunni insurgents, and the Shiite militias. The new American strategy also had the unintended side effect of casting a new light on the tens of thousands of mercenaries—also known as “private security contractors”—that the Americans had brought to Iraq.
REVISITING A STRATEGIC ASSUMPTION
“The surge is doing what it was designed to do,” President Bush asserted in the spring of 2008. But it hadn’t done what he had hoped it would—that is, lead to political reconciliation. As Defense Secretary Gates had phrased it, “The purpose of the surge was to create enough space that the process of reconciliation could go forward in Iraq.”
On the ground in Iraq it was clear that anything resembling genuine reconciliation wasn’t occurring, and probably wouldn’t anytime soon. “We had a faulty logic, February ’07, that the surge protects the people, then government will reconcile,” Col. Bill Rapp said one day later that year. “We still haven’t seen that knitting together at the top.”
Col. Mike Bell, Rapp’s successor as consigliere to Petraeus, found pretty much the same situation obtained in mid-2008. It took him back to Petraeus’s persistent need for more time. “I think what we haven’t thought through as a government is how much time you need from improved security to a political change,” Bell said.
Despite a reputation for stubbornness, President Bush had become quite flexible as he searched for a way out of the labyrinth of Iraq. In a speech at the National War College he offered a fallback assumption. Political movement at the local level ultimately would lead to change at the national level, he argued. The goal of this new approach, he said, was “to help Iraqis make progress toward reconciliation,” which in turn would lead to freedom, human rights, democracy, and so on.
But here again, there had been little evidence of that happening. As Maj. James Powell, one of Odierno’s planners, was preparing to leave Baghdad early in 2008, he said that bottom-up moves “buy us time.” But, he added, “As I’ve heard one Iraqi say, it takes two hands to clap. At some point it has to be met by movement at the top.”
Rapp at first was an advocate of the localized alternative. But by the winter of 2007-8, he also had given up on that idea. “In retrospect, it was a dumbass thing to say.” There was something happening at the local level, he said, but “it wasn’t reconciliation, it was bottom-up accommodation, or calmness. They weren’t reconciling with anything.”
Some top Iraqi leaders dismissed the entire notion the Americans were peddling. “I don’t think there is something called reconciliation,” said Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister. “To me, it is a very inaccurate term. This is a struggle about power.” Maliki, meanwhile, began to argue almost the opposite, that the necessary reconciliation already had occurred, so there was no need to talk about it anymore.
The lack of political movement raised the unhappy question of just what it was that U.S. forces were fighting for. In the Army’s survey of the mental health and morale of soldiers in Iraq, one sergeant commented, “They are at the watering trough but choose not to drink. . . . I don’t think we’re doing anything at all—they’re not changing.” It is not too much to say that American troops were dying to give Iraqi politicians the chance to find a way forward—but that it wasn’t clear if Iraqi politicians wanted that chance.
So what were the Americans waiting for? “This is the dilemma we’re in right now,” said a senior U.S. military intelligence officer with long experience in the Middle East. “We’ve bought some time, but for what? We’re still waiting for someone to pull the rabbit out of the hat. But so far there is no indication that anything is going to stave off the breakup of the country. So right now we are in a kind of twilight zone of neither peace nor victory. But I think we are drifting toward a breakup.”
To some, that meant it was time to pull the plug. “To date the Iraqi political process has not demonstrated the capacity to deal successfully with any of these issues,” said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who was growing increasingly influential on defense issues. “And if they’re not dealt with, then you’ve got a failing state that is not helping itself.”
But to others, the failure of Iraqi politics raised the question of whether the next step was to revise the American mission—and in some ways return to the grandiose vision that the Bush administration held when it sent American forces into Iraq, that of making it a democratic beacon that would change the politics of the Middle East. “We’ve built a state, and now we have to build a nation,” Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff of the 4th Infantry Division, said early in 2008. “At the tactical level, we’ve been buying time for that to happen.”
TIME FOR MALIKI TO GO?
The impasse led to a new and grimmer understanding of the limitations of the people at the top of the Iraq government. There was a growing feeling that perhaps they just weren’t capable of doing what the Americans thought they needed to do. “We thought that once they weren’t being shot at, they could start being statesmanlike,” Col. Rapp said. “It turns out we have a bunch of guys who survived the Saddam years by being secretive and exclusive, instead of being open and inclusive.”
Some of those around Petraeus were coming to see the intransigence of the Maliki government as the key threat in Iraq, rather than terrorists, insurgents, or militias. “I think the reason that we’re in the twilight zone is the Maliki government is very dysfunctional, and unwilling to reach out to his enemies,” Mansoor said. “He has a conspiratorial mind-set, and is fearful of a coup.”
The Americans were especially antagonized by what they saw as Maliki’s footdragging on bringing in the former insurgents who had turned onto the Iraqi government payroll. An Army officer in Baghdad reported that after his unit sent in applications for local Sunnis to join the police, they were returned because they had been filled out with a nonprescribed color of ink. “The longer the Iraqi government stalls, . . . the greater the danger that tens of thousands of tough, armed Iraqis will stray,” said Wayne White, a retired State Department specialist on the Middle East.
There was an undercurrent of distrust in dealing with Iraqi officials. Top officials not only didn’t do the right thing, they didn’t seem to want to do it. “The ministers, they don’t get it,” said Campbell, the assistant commander of the 1st Cavalry Division. “They don’t know what the hell is going on on the ground.” By contrast, he said, the Sunnis, waiting to be given a place at the table by the Baghdad government, had in his view shown great patience. “You don’t want the Sunnis that are working with you to go back to the dark side.”
After years of insurgent attacks and criminal kidnappings, anyone in the Iraqi government who was still alive was viewed with some suspicion. Had he cut unsavory deals, or worse, did he have a foot in both camps? One battalion commander in Baghdad, talking about a neighborhood official, called him “a good guy,” but then wondered aloud about how he alone on the local political council had survived: “Why is he the original member who wasn’t touched?”
Americans worried that the Baghdad government would fritter away the opportunity won for it by their bloody counteroffensive of the spring and summer of 2007. “The tipping point that I’ve been looking for as an intel officer, we are there,” said a senior U.S. military intelligence officer. “We are at the critical juncture. The GOI [government of Iraq] and ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] are at the point where they can make or break it.” He was especially worried that if the top Iraqi officials didn’t make more of an effort to reach out to the Sunnis that the country would slide back into civil war. “If the Sunni insurgents are disenfranchised by the GOI, guess what? It’s game on—they’re back to attacking again.”
Americans quietly debated whether to look for an alternative to Maliki. “As I arrived, Maliki had kind of a questionable future,” recalled Col. Bell, who got to Baghdad in February 2008. “It wasn’t clear that he had the political support or the personal leadership to remain there [in office] very long.”
Arguing against Maliki was his track record. There were concerns that he might prove to be a leader who needed to have a war, who thrived on its divisiveness and feared peace for two reasons. First, any fair election would diminish his power, because greater Sunni participation in the vote would cut the Shiite hold on government. Also, an absence of violence would push to the fore the divisive questions to which he had no answers: How to divide oil revenue among the peoples of Iraq? How to decide the future of the disputed city of Kirkuk, claimed by the Kurds as their capital, but sitting on top of much of Iraq’s oil? And who really led Iraq’s Shiites, still learning how to exercise the power of the majority?
Maliki’s advocates responded that it wasn’t clear that anyone else could do better. As Kilcullen had observed, we shouldn’t blame the Iraqi officer who cuts deals with insurgents to keep his family alive, we should fix a system that can’t protect his family and so forces him into such arrangements. Maliki may be in the same position on a national scale. Also, there was fear that pushing out Maliki could return the country to the situation in early 2006, when it took five months to form a government, during which Baghdad drifted into a municipal civil war.
THE SUNNI SIDE OF THE STREET
Many American officials considered the turning of the Sunni insurgency to be more significant than either the surge or the new tactics associated with the surge. But no one knew how long the loyalty of these new allies could be retained, especially if they believed they weren’t getting a fair deal from the Baghdad government. In 2008 there were 103,000 of these armed men—a ceiling the Iraqi government had asked the U.S. military to stop at—and there were plans to absorb only 20,000 of them into the police and army. It wasn’t clear ultimately what would happen to the rest, especially if the Sunni community continued to feel estranged from the Baghdad government.
But the central government in Baghdad had never warmed to them, seeing them as little more than warlords for hire. “They are like mercenaries,” one aide to Maliki told the Associated Press. “Today they are paid by the Americans. Tomorrow they can be paid by al Qaeda.” Other Iraqi officials scorned the groups as “American militias.”
The American view was rather different. “Clearly the coalition and the government of Iraq and I think the Iraqi people realize that these are very brave, courageous people that stood up in a time of need of their country,” said Brig. Gen. David Perkins.
Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of the Marines in western Iraq, reported that more than two-thirds of the Sons of Iraq, most of them turned Sunni insurgents, in his area wanted to join the Iraqi army or police. How would the thousands left hanging react? “Despite the repeated assurances of the Maliki government, there is no evidence to date that the governing coalition has resolved its sectarian concerns” about the groups, “or begun to formulate a comprehensive plan for integration of their members,” noted Michael Hanna, an expert on Iraq law and politics.
In the short term, such a reliance on local militias didn’t appear to be such a bad bet. But what would happen to them in the long run? As Col. Jon Lehr, commander of one of the surge brigades, prepared to leave Iraq, he explained the role that the Sons of Iraq had played in improving security in Diyala Province, north of Baghdad. “From Baqubah, emanating out from Baqubah, we have conducted a strategy of clear, hold, and tactical build in a series of concentric rings,” he said. “And clearing is one thing, but holding the ground is another. And that’s where the CLC/Sons of Iraq part of the strategy is very important. You can clear an area, but if you can’t hold it, it’s all for naught.” In other words, Lehr appeared to have succeeded by turning over control of cleared areas to a force that may or may not respond to orders from Baghdad. That raised the question of whether basic problems of security weren’t being solved as much as deferred. If so, when push came to shove, there almost certainly would be far less U.S. combat power available to back up Baghdad than was available during the surge of 2007-8.
Likewise, in Tarmiyah, the rough little town where a U.S. outpost had been besieged for four hours in February 2007, the U.S. military finally cut a deal with the local Sunni sheikh and made his son the chief of the local contingent of the Sons of Iraq. But the Americans and the Iraqis seemed to have different notions of the long-term purpose of this force. The father, Sheikh Sa’d Jassim, had been accused of providing funds for al Qaeda operations in the area, but the U.S. military now chose to interpret that as simply a case of blackmail in which the victim shouldn’t be blamed. The son, Sheikh Imad, oversaw a force of 500 armed men, each paid $300 a month. “He does not seem to regard the U.S.-paid Sons of Iraq as a short-term transition, but as a long-term means to protect Sunni areas against Shiite persecution,” reporter Nathan Webster wrote in the blog “The Long War Journal.”
U.S. troops tended to praise these local allies, but some were indeed genuine thugs, despite American assurances to the contrary. The British newspaper the Guardian published a hair-raising profile of Haji Abu Abed, the former insurgent who a few months earlier had arrived at an alliance of convenience with the U.S. military in Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighborhood. The Americans dubbed his group “the Baghdad Patriots,” but it preferred to be known as “the Amiriyah Knights.” The Guardian portrayed him screaming at Iraqi bystanders while waving a pistol and shouting, “Oh people of Iraq, I had come to you with two swords, one is for mercy, which I have left back in the desert, and this one”—the gun—“is the sword of oppression, which I kept in my hand.” His men piled into cars and drove around his territory, waving weapons out the windows. On a raid looking for an alleged cache of sniper rifles, he told a boy he would cut off his head “and put it on your chest if you don’t tell us where the guns are by tomorrow.” He then tried to put his shotgun in the boy’s mouth, the newspaper said.
Nine months later, Abu Abed had fled to Amman, Jordan, after being ousted by a subordinate. His former U.S. military adviser still supported him. “Many times he had the opportunity to do the wrong thing and never did,” former Army Capt. Eric Cosper told the Los Angeles Times. “I have absolute faith in him.”
Spec. Horton, the Stryker brigade soldier who had qualms about working with former insurgents in Baqubah, later wrote that under American tutelage, “they’ve grown into a much more organized, lethal force. They use this organization to steal cars and intimidate the local population, or anyone else they accuse of being linked to Al Qaeda. The Gestapo of the 21st century, sanctioned by the United States Army.”
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the forces just south of Baghdad, said early in 2008 that he understood how tenuous the situation was. “I mean, a good portion of our concerned citizens were probably insurgents yesterday, and they could be insurgents tomorrow, and what we’re doing right now is working hard to keep them on the right side of the fence.”
The Iraqi government was less interested in that approach, and in the summer of 2008, began to talk about setting a deadline sometime in the winter for the groups to unilaterally disarm—or suffer the consequences.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE SADR
“There’s something going on above us,” an Army intelligence officer said one day in 2007. He knew there were some sort of contacts between U.S. officials and representatives of Moqtada al-Sadr, but he didn’t know the details.
This was a form of reconciliation by the United States government, which was reaching out to an anti-American leader whose followers had killed American troops in two rounds of fighting in 2004, and who continued to be a threat. U.S. policy toward Sadr resembled that of President Johnson toward FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, of whom he said he would rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside it pissing in. “Sadr isn’t going to go away,” said a senior U.S. military intelligence officer. “So how do you deal with him in a way that facilitates the continued growth of the GoI?”—that is, the government of Iraq.
“We are now meeting with them, for the first time,” Odierno said in January 2008. Of Sadr, he said, “He’s clearly moving more toward a humanitarian approach, and less of a militia.” In public comments, American commanders began to refer to Sadr as “the honorable.” Petraeus took it a step further a month later, calling him “al-Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr,” using the honorific for descendants of the prophet Muhammad.
It wasn’t clear where the talks were going, especially because the Americans had almost no sense of what was happening in Basra, the largest city in the Shiite south. One of the few reporters to venture there at this time was Solomon Moore of the New York Times, who in February 2008 found a “deeply troubled” city where doctors, teachers, politicians, and sheikhs were being kidnapped and murdered. “Most of the killings are done by gunmen in police cars,” Sheikh Khadem al-Ribat told him. A senior Iraqi police officer reported that Shiite militias had taken 250 police cars and 5,000 pistols.
“I think all hell is going to break loose down there,” said an American military intelligence officer.
THE AMERICAN MILITIA: FRIENDS OR FOES?
The last nongovernmental armed group in Iraq that was being reevaluated that winter was the genuine American militia, the 20,000 to 30,000 private security contractors who, loosely controlled and operating under a hazy legal regime, guarded American diplomats and other contractors. One of the side effects of the new U.S. strategy, founded on protecting the people, was to cast a harsh new light on the security contractors, and especially their willingness to open fire on civilian vehicles.
The heavy use of these contractors long had been an anomaly in the Iraq war. When historians look back on the conflict, one aspect on which some are likely to focus is how American forces relied heavily on contractors to truck supplies, cook food, and provide technical support. But they probably will look most closely at the armed civilians hired to provide security to State Department personnel and other American officials, as well as to many of their fellow contractors engaged in reconstruction projects. This group of mercenaries by far constituted the second largest group in the “coalition,” after U.S. forces. (Indeed, the so-called coalition continued to crumble, with the shrinking British contingent of 4,100 based at the Basra airport doing almost nothing, and the next largest troop contributor, the former Soviet state of Georgia, being forced in the summer of 2008 to precipitously withdraw its 2,000 soldiers from Iraq, where they had been operating checkpoints along the Iranian border, so they could help fight the Russians back home. Oddly, of the 24 nations in the group, some of which contributed just a handful of soldiers, 17 were former Communist states.) In the post-9/11 world, one security company, Blackwater, was paid around $1 billion by the U.S. government, much of it for work in Iraq.
Many of the private security contractors carried noticeable chips on their shoulders, the likely effect of really being responsible to no one for their behavior. One day in 2007, for example, a knot of about seven white American males stood in the airport in Amman, Jordan, waiting for one of the two daily Royal Jordanian Airlines flights to Baghdad. They were dressed in “mercenary casual”—short-sleeved shirts, multipocketed khaki cargo pants, and wraparound sunglasses on their heads. Some sported tattoos on their biceps. Two carried daypacks that had B+ and A+ stitched on them, denoting their blood types. They conversed in the distinctive acronym-heavy jargon of the U.S. military. One Kiplingesque story of desert intrigue began, “There was this TCN in the secondary QRF,” referring to a Third Country National, who ranks low in hierarchy of status in the world of mercenaries, on a Quick Reaction Force, a group that is supposed to stand ready to aid elements in trouble.
A bedraggled Jordanian baggage handler in baggy blue overalls pushed his cart up to the point where the group of Americans blocked his way. “Ex-coo,” he said deferentially, and too quietly. “Ex-coo.”
The men gazed at him as he tried to ease his cart through them. They hadn’t heard his soft voice, and they didn’t move. “Be polite!” ordered one of the Americans. “Say, ‘Excuse me’!”
The small Jordanian man looked up at the American and repeated, “Ex-coo.”
“Okay, then,” the mercenary said, and stepped aside.
“What’s up?” asked one of his colleagues.
“I’m just telling this motherfucker to be polite,” he explained. This occurred not in Iraq, but in Jordan, where the group had no legal standing or protection.
Once in Iraq, security contractors behaved even more brusquely, leading Iraqis to loathe them. The bodyguards were notorious for moving around Baghdad without regard for other cars or even pedestrians, driving on the wrong side of the road and even on the sidewalks. Ann Exline Starr, a former adviser to the American occupation authority, recalled being told by her protectors, “Our mission is to protect the principal at all costs. If that means pissing off the Iraqis, too bad.” (The Washington Post’s chief of security in Baghdad once asked me to change my shirt before going out because, he pointed out, the outfit of black polo shirt and light khakis that I was wearing resembled too much the typical dress of many security contractors.)
For some, angering Iraqis was a sport as well as a business. One widely watched video showed some contractors firing from the back of their vehicle on an Iraqi highway, hitting cars behind them, apparently for fun. “The Iraqis despised them, because they were untouchable,” Matthew Degn, an adviser at the Iraqi Interior Ministry, told the Washington Post’s Steve Fainaru about the contractors. “They were above the law.” He said that Blackwater’s Little Bird helicopters, bristling with armed men, often buzzed the ministry, “almost like they were saying, ‘Look, we can fly anywhere we want.’” (Fainaru, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the use of mercenaries in the Iraq war, also reported in his book Big Boy Rules that a Peruvian told him that among the Peruvian security guards in Iraq were former members of the Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla organization that, Fainaru noted, in Peru “had massacred thousands of peasants during the eighties and early nineties.”)
On Christmas Eve in 2006, a Blackwater man while drunk shot and killed a bodyguard for Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of Iraq’s two vice presidents. Two months later, a Blackwater sniper shot and killed three guards at the Iraqi Media Network, a state-funded television station. In May, a company team shot and killed a civilian at the gates of the Interior Ministry, provoking an armed confrontation with Iraqi police.
Few American commanders ever liked having armed men in their area who were ostensible allies yet who were not subject to American rules and laws. But in the first several years of the war, when commanders put “force protection” above all else, there wasn’t much daylight between the approach taken by the U.S. military and the private trigger pullers. Then, in early 2007, as the top priority in the U.S. mission became protecting the people, there suddenly was a huge difference between how the two types of armed Americans were acting in Iraq.
Matters came to a head on a Tuesday afternoon in September 2007, when employees of Blackwater who were guarding a convoy just outside the Green Zone shot and killed at least 17 Iraqis. The Blackwater men said they were responding to an ambush, and the company would back them up, saying they acted in self-defense. But several Iraqi eyewitnesses disputed that, and parallel investigations by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government would conclude that no one fired except the contractors. Iraqi police said the shootings occurred just outside the headquarters building of the Iraqi National Police, an area heavily protected by checkpoints in every direction, making it difficult for anyone to set up an ambush. Maliki would call the incident a cold-blooded crime. A U.S. military report, based upon interviews with soldiers who arrived on the scene and with Iraqi eyewitnesses reported that there was “no enemy activity involved,” and that many of the Iraqi civilians were wounded as they tried to drive away from the American convoy. “It had every indication of an excessive shooting,” said Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa, a battalion commander in the 1st Cavalry Division. Capt. Don Cherry concluded that “this was uncalled for.” Five of the Blackwater guards involved in the incident were indicted in December 2008 by a federal grand jury on charges of manslaughter and assault.
FROM BERLIN TO BAGHDAD
It was striking that the most thoughtful of those around Petraeus, the advisers who knew most about the region and took the longest view, also tended to be the most skeptical about political progress. Pundits back home began declaring victory in Iraq, but the closer one was to the country, the more one saw the potential problems. “There is a chance of this breaking down at a whole range of points,” Crocker said in January 2008.
Emma Sky was optimistic about security but pessimistic about politics. She flew to Washington, D.C., to deliver the keynote speech to a CIA conference on Iraq. “The psychological impact of the surge has been huge,” she said in that talk. “We have shown to ourselves and our critics that we are not defeated, and we have shown Iraqis that we are trying to help them. So there is a whole new psychological dynamic.” But, she continued, “we also have created a whole new load of risks. We have created this huge bottom-up momentum on the Shia and Sunni street.”
The purpose of the surge, she said, was to buy time and space for the government of Iraq to reach accommodation. But she had concluded that wasn’t going to happen. “What I came away thinking was, you could buy time and space for the government of Iraq, and it wouldn’t reach accommodation, because the system isn’t capable of it.” That is, the political structure of Iraq as it existed in early 2008 simply couldn’t do what the Americans were asking it to do. The best thing the Americans might be able to get from it was time while waiting for a new generation of political leaders to emerge.
Likewise, Joel Rayburn, the savvy strategist on Petraeus’s staff who had helped shape Fred Kagan’s thinking about a surge and then came out to Baghdad to work on Iraqi affairs in the context of the region, said he saw little chance of political progress. “My own view, and it is at odds with the institutional view, is I don’t see us moving forward politically.” He gave the surge “an incomplete.” The test, he said, would be provincial elections, if and when they came—not only whether they would be held, but whether they would be fair enough to achieve balanced representation.
Retired Army Col. Joel Armstrong, who also had been involved in the planning that Gen. Keane took to the White House, agreed that the theory of the surge hadn’t played out. “It hasn’t worked as well as I hoped,” he said in 2008. “There are lots of people in Iraq who want to put together a better life, but there are lots of people in power who don’t seem to want that.”
One way to understand Iraq in 2008 was through the prism of the Cold War. It took decades to be resolved, and during that time, Germany was divided, millions were deprived of their basic human rights for decades, and uprisings in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland were suppressed along the way. But full-scale war never erupted, and eventually Germany was reunited and the walls dividing people came down. The surge, said one White House aide involved in Iraqi affairs, pointed toward a similar minimal way forward. “It has shown Baghdad how a bare minimum modus vivendi can be had,” he said. “They can have their own neighborhoods and live in peace, even if it’s in Sunni ghettos.” At some point, he said, they would start blending together again—perhaps, he ventured, three years in the future or perhaps in thirty.
The Americans first had been seen as liberators by Iraqis, Barbero said, and then as occupiers. But by the end of 2007, he continued, they were more trusted by the major factions than those groups trusted each other, and were beginning to be seen as protectors and intermediaries. “I think our presence is one of the moderating forces,” agreed a senior U.S. Special Operations officer in Baghdad. “It provides a venue for discussion, dialogue.” No longer the sand in the gears, they had become the glue in the situation, perhaps the only thing holding Iraq together. As in Europe after World War II, that amounted to a recipe for keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for a very long time.
Stephen Biddle, an astute defense expert and sometime adviser to Petraeus, argued that by cutting deals with dozens of local Sunni insurgent groups and Shiite militias, the U.S. military indeed had put itself on the hook for staying in Iraq for decades. “A continued presence by a substantial outside force would be essential for many years to keep a patchwork quilt of wary former enemies from turning on one another,” he concluded.
In retrospect, the winter of 2007-8 appears to be a time of missed opportunity, when Iraqi leaders should have made great strides politically but didn’t. It was at this point that the surge began to fracture: It was succeeding militarily but failing politically.