Military history



(Spring 2008)

You know, we all feel much older than we did in 2003,” Petraeus said one day early in 2008 after being asked about the impending fifth anniversary of the war. “And not just five years older, but vastly older. It seems like light-years ago, frankly.” As he spoke he sat stiffly erect in a straight-backed chair, the better to ease the strain on his damaged pelvis. Despite being in phenomenal physical condition, the fatigue was evident on his face. He long had looked about a decade younger than his age, but now was beginning to look like what he was, a man in his midfifties carrying a heavy load.

“His patience level is much lower,” noted Brig. Gen. Joe Anderson, who had commanded a brigade in the 101st Airborne under Petraeus. “His sense of humor is diminished. He’s a bit disconnected, distant.”

One day U.S. forces lost five troops in two different bombing attacks. Petraeus, like Col. MacFarland in Ramadi two years earlier, reminded his staff of Gen. Grant’s prediction after being beaten on the first day of the Shiloh battle: “He is sitting there with a soggy cigar at the end of this terrible day, confused as all get out, and says, ‘Yup, lick ’em tomorrow,’” Petraeus recalled. For him, Grant’s terse comment symbolized the need for willpower: “I think it takes that kind of indomitable attitude and sheer force of will at times in these kinds of endeavors.” Gesturing at an aide, he said, “These guys have heard me say it a couple of times.”

Petraeus’s wasta was growing. He couldn’t know it then, but the following months would bring resolution in several areas that had been nagging him.


In March, Adm. Fallon finally went too far. The offended party wasn’t Petraeus but, significantly, the White House, as the admiral shot his mouth off in a feature article in Esquire magazine that made him look like the only thing standing between President Bush and an American war with Iran. The profile, written by Thomas P. M. Barnett, a former professor at the Naval War College, portrayed Fallon as “brazenly challenging” President Bush on whether to attack Iran, pushing back “against what he saw as an ill-advised action.” Barnett was clearly an admirer, praising the new Centcom chief as “a man of strategic brilliance” whose understanding of the tumultuous situation in Pakistan “is far more complex than anyone else’s”—a questionable assertion, given that Fallon was new to the region, while some American officials, such as Ryan Crocker, had been dealing with it for decades. Fallon clearly had cooperated with Barnett, with the author accompanying him on trips to Egypt and Afghanistan over the previous year. The article quoted Fallon as saying one day in Cairo that “I’m in hot water again” with the White House, apparently for telling Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak that the United States would not attack Iran.

But Barnett hadn’t done Fallon any favors in return. Asked about the article by e-mail, the admiral confusingly called it “poison pen stuff ” that is “really disrespectful and ugly.” He did not cite specific objections. Nor did he seem to understand during the first few days after the article appeared how much trouble he was in. Some at the Pentagon saw the quotes simply as Fox Fallon being Fox Fallon. But the article was raising eyebrows elsewhere in the government, including the White House. He might have kept his job under Rumsfeld, who barked more than he bit, and under Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who just wanted everyone to get along. But Gates and his new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mullen, were a different team. Gates spoke softly but acted quickly. A few days later, Fallon began to understand it was time to go “when the SecDef stopped taking his calls,” said a White House aide.

“Admiral Fallon reached this difficult decision entirely on his own,” Gates said in an unscheduled news conference announcing the departure. “I believe it was the right thing to do, even though I do not believe there are, in fact, significant differences between his views and administration policy.”

Not only would Fallon be pushed out of Central Command after barely a year in the job, he would be replaced by his erstwhile nemesis, Petraeus. Surprisingly, Petraeus wasn’t happy about any of this. After Iraq he had wanted to go to European Command, not Centcom. And he felt that after months of wrangling, he and Fallon had worked out a way of living with each other. Indeed, when Petraeus had briefed Fallon on his plans for Iraq after the end of the surge, Fallon had been so agreeable that after the briefing, Pete Mansoor had turned to Petraeus and said, “You know, he couldn’t be more supportive.”

By the time Fallon was on the way out, Petraeus said, “Actually we had a very good relationship.” He began the next morning’s briefing by saying to his staff, “We’re sorry to see this happen to Admiral Fallon. We want to thank him for his help to MNF-I.”

Fallon, who had arrived in Baghdad a few hours earlier and was participating in the briefing, then added, “I made a decision that it was an unnecessary distraction in a time of war, so it is time for me to move on.”

Petraeus had hoped that at European Command his wife could join him as he rebuilt NATO to deal with Afghanistan and the future. Instead he was made Fallon’s successor at Central Command, condemning him to several more years of wrestling with Iraq and the Middle East. His aides said that Petraeus actually had recommended several other officers to Gates for the Centcom post. Among the names floated, they said, were Marine Gen. James Mattis and Army Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli. But Petraeus insisted that he didn’t bring up names with Gates, but simply had said, “You know, I think that there are certainly others who could do the job.”

Interestingly, the officer chosen to be Petraeus’s deputy at Central Command was John Allen, the Marine general who reached out to the sheikhs of Anbar, following in the footsteps of his beloved Gertrude Bell.

Odierno had gone home in February to become vice chief of the army. He left Iraq with his reputation redeemed. “General Odierno has experienced an awakening,” said retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, who in 2003 had written the intelligence report critical of Odierno. “I’ve now completely revised my impression of him.” Two months later, when Fallon’s departure created an opening, Odierno was told instead to succeed Petraeus as the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

The advice Odierno prepared for his subordinates underscored just how much he had changed. His “key message” at an April 2008 conference, according to an internal Army document, was that “planners must understand the environment and develop plans from an environmental perspective vice an enemy situation perspective.” This was classic counterinsurgency thinking—that is, focus on the overall situation, and seek to make the enemy irrelevant to it. This was what David Kilcullen, the Australian counterinsurgent, had been advocating for some time, but it was almost the opposite of the approach that Odierno and most of the rest of the U.S. Army had taken in Iraq in 2003-4, when they emphasized a “kill and capture” approach.

Emma Sky, Odierno’s political adviser, had planned to put Iraq behind her as a chapter in her life. She left in February and went hiking in New Zealand to mull her future. She was thinking about settling back in London and becoming a consultant. But a few months later, after Odierno was tapped to replace Petraeus, he called her. “What possessed you to take the job?” she asked.

“You know that flag you make fun of?” he responded, referring to the American colors he and all other Army soldiers wear just below the right shoulder. He also told her with amazement that he had been at a birthday party in Texas for a ten-year-old, and the entertainment had been target practice with rifles. She thought that meant he was looking at his own country differently. “He wouldn’t have noticed that before,” she thought.

He asked her to come back for a third tour in Iraq, advising him in his new position. “I will never again do anything like this without having someone like that,” he has said of Sky. “I have a lot of respect for MI [military intelligence], but you have to have someone with a different view. It is very helpful.” She agreed to return to Baghdad, joking that if she was going to serve the U.S. military so much, someone should grant her American citizenship.

A major personnel move led by Petraeus a few months earlier also began to leak out about this time. In November he had left Iraq to come back to the Pentagon to run a promotion board to select the Army’s new brigadier generals. It was unprecedented for a commander to leave the war zone to do that, but it showed how influential he had become. Among the 40 new generals his board tapped were H. R. McMaster, Sean MacFarland, and Steve Townsend, who had commanded a highly mobile Stryker brigade that Odierno had employed as a quick reaction force in 2007. The board also was notably heavy in veterans of Special Operations, including Kenneth Tovo, who had lead a task force in Iraq; Austin Miller, a former commander of the secretive Delta Force; and Kevin Magnum, a former commander of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. One of the signs of an effective military is rewarding battlefield success, and Petraeus’s board, which was widely watched inside the military, did just that. For more than a decade, the Army had been led by post-Cold War officers—the group that did the Gulf War, the invasion of Panama, and the peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Now, a new generation of generals was emerging, the leaders of the post-9/11 Army.


At almost the same time that Fallon was defenestrated, Prime Minister Maliki surprised the Americans with an unexpected move that would alter the relationship between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. He had been watching and learning many things from the Americans. One of those things was how to roll the dice and take risks. He was ready to gamble.

The occupation of Basra, the biggest city in southern Iraq, had been a miserable experience for the British, the only major European government to stand with the Bush administration through five years of war in Iraq. At the outset, the British military had felt rather superior to the clumsy Americans. Not only did they have more experience in the Middle East, they also seemed to have a better feel for how to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign, reaching back to operations in Malaya, Kenya, and Cyprus.

But as one crusty defense expert, Anthony Cordesman, put it, “By late 2007, the British position in Basra had eroded to the point of hiding in the airport.” Daniel Marston, an American who taught counterinsurgency at Sandhurst, the British military academy, noted that it had been a humiliating experience for British officers, especially as they watched Petraeus and Odierno regain the initiative in Baghdad. “I’m not going to go into details, but the frustration . . . when I’ve been with commanders, to see how bad they were doing things, and that the Americans turned it around, was incredible,” Marston said. “There was a lot of upset, and honor was a problem in the army.” (Underscoring that unhappiness, British military commentary, so vocal at the beginning of the war in grading the American performance, fell almost silent in 2007.) Islamic extremists and thugs were running Basra, siphoning off oil revenue and inventing new ways to impose their religious rules, not just banning the sale of alcohol but also shutting down a plastic surgeon’s practice on the reasoning that he was altering what God had made.

On the evening of Friday, March 21, 2008, as the sixth year of the war began, and just before the U.S. military death toll hit 4,000, Petraeus was being briefed on a very deliberate plan to take Basra. Developed by Iraqi Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Furaiji, the Iraqi commander there, it would take months to carry out and called for the United States to provide money, machine guns, tanks, and concrete barriers. It probably would begin in September or maybe October. It certainly was seen as something that would happen in the distant future and last for months.

But Maliki had a different idea. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the national security adviser to the prime minister, interrupted the briefing with an urgent message: The prime minister wanted to see Petraeus the next morning at eleven, he said. “It’s about doing Basra,” Rubaie explained.

“Mosul, you mean,” responded Maj. Gen. Barbero, Petraeus’s chief strategist, thinking the aide had intended to refer to the largest city in the north. American intelligence had reported that some Iraqi brigades were being moved by Maliki, but the word was that they were heading north.

“No,” Rubaie said, “He means Basra. He is tired of the lawlessness there.”

So began a major turning point in the war, and even more in the course of relations between the Iraqi government and the U.S. occupation force.

The next morning Maliki told Petraeus, “I’m going to go in there forcefully, now. We’ve got to clean these people out.” He had been briefed that criminals and militias were running and looting the city, killing anyone who stood in their way and raping many women they encountered. He presented the general his plan, frequently employing the term “lines of operations,” which he had heard incessantly in briefings by American officers. “He laid out, there is going to be a tribal engagement line of operations, a political engagement line of operations, an economic/humanitarian assistance line and a security line of course,” Petraeus said. “And he talked about how he was going to go down personally with a number of the ministers—Interior, Defense, Justice—the commander of the National Police, commander of the Iraqi ground forces, and a number of others, and they were going to work these different lines of operations.”

His question for Petraeus: “Will you support me?”

In Petraeus’s mind, there was no question about that. Of course he would.

The general had worked, he recalled later, “very hard to build what I think now is a relationship of mutual trust, respect, and confidence, informed by an awareness of the demands of our different positions and the context in which we perform our different responsibilities.” He sometimes had spoken bluntly to Maliki, but, he thought, never disrespectfully. “Occasionally guys think I just went in there and had it out with him a couple of times—you don’t do that with a prime minister of a sovereign country.” Nor would it fit Petraeus’s style. Even when his relationship with Fallon was on the rocks, for example, it always remained correct.

Maliki’s decision to move precipitously was especially a shock because Petraeus and his staff had just gone through interminable briefings on Mohan’s cautious plan for Basra. Also, the Americans had understood that consideration of retaking Basra would commence only after Mosul was quiet. “I was planning to defeat al Qaeda in the north, hold the center, and not pick a fight in the south,” recalled Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who had replaced Odierno as the corps commander, in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq.

Instead, Maliki said, the operation would begin on Monday, March 24—that is, two days later. “He thought it would be quick and easy,” said Sadi Othman, who attended the Saturday meeting. “That’s what his commanders told him.” Petraeus was a bit uneasy, but didn’t try to talk him out of it. Instead he gave him advice about how to operate, how to set conditions for the assault.

On Easter Sunday, the day before the hasty offensive was to commence, powerful rockets began to rain down on the Green Zone. From that day through mid-May, more than 1,000 rockets would be fired at the Zone, mainly from the Sadr City area, making a mockery of the truce Sadr supposedly was following. By the U.S. military’s count, the attacks killed or wounded 269 people. Looking back, some officials came to believe that word had leaked inside the Iraqi government of Maliki’s intent to crack down on his erstwhile allies in the Sadrist movement. Others, such as Maj. Rayburn, a regional strategist for Petraeus, argued that such a barrage takes many days to prepare and coordinate, with stockpiling and planning, and that both Maliki’s decision and the rocket attacks from Sadr’s turf simply reflected the growing tension between the two. Rayburn’s analysis was that the Sadrists were moving to oust Maliki, not really caring who replaced him, so long as they were able to show themselves to be the kingmakers who could remove a sitting prime minister. If they succeeded, he said, “They would have looked like they have veto power, like Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

It was an unsettling moment. “I called it ‘March madness,’” Barbero said a few months later in his Green Zone office, which faces east, toward the Sadr City rocket launching sites. “Basra was going on. We had rockets coming in here. The worst case was that all of southern Iraq would go up in flames with the Mahdi Army.” The U.S. military had seen what that might look like back in 2004, when as the first battle of Fallujah got under way, Sadr’s followers began attacking U.S. and allied forces in central and southern Iraq. For several weeks the American fought a two-front war, and grew seriously concerned that the Shiite militias would cut their major supply line that stretched across the south to Kuwait. For a short period, Baghdad was entirely isolated, with every road leading into it deemed too dangerous for travel.

Assaulting Basra piled gamble upon gamble. Maliki was betting that his security forces could do it. Other political parties calculated, after some hesitation, that they should back Maliki. It was clear that the Iranians were active in Basra, which is not only the biggest city in the south but the key to Iraq’s only seaport, and so the lucrative home of much of its export trade. The Americans crossed their fingers, hoped for the best, and prepared to bail out Maliki if necessary.

The attack didn’t begin well. Iraqi troops moved surprisingly quickly, but upon arrival simply were thrown into the city, often without supplies and with the barest of orders, such as, Go take that area. Some commanders were handed bags of cash and told to buy food after they settled into the city, Petraeus said. “It was difficult to understand for a wee while whether it was a work of genius or folly,” said Lt. Gen. John Cooper, a British deputy to Petraeus who was on his second Iraq tour. “For the first few days, we were badly concerned about it—to that extent, had the prime minister bitten off more than he could chew?”

Or, as Col. Bell put it, American-style, “It was a huge mess.”

There were very few Americans in Basra, and almost none with the Iraqi units, so the American headquarters in Baghdad was almost blind. What it did hear didn’t sound good. Some 883 soldiers in the Iraqi army’s 52nd Brigade, which numbered only about 2,500, refused to fight, along with about 500 members of the Basra police. Sadr’s Mahdi Army launched counterattacks in Baghdad and in towns across southern Iraq, but not a full-scale assault that would mean the truce was entirely dead. “There were some very tenuous moments during the first forty-eight to seventy-two hours,” recalled Lt. Col. Nielsen. She began to worry that it ultimately would be a tactical victory but a strategic setback—that is, so expensive a win that it would undercut Maliki and make the United States look inept as well.

The early conclusion was that Maliki had gambled and lost. “It was ill advised and ill timed,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician. “I think Maliki had a setback and America had a setback because Iran and Moqtada al-Sadr were victorious.”

On Thursday, March 27, Gen. Austin, Odierno’s successor as the commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, flew south to take a look. “The smell of fear [in Iraqi officials there] was palpable,” said a senior Army intelligence officer who accompanied him. That night Austin ordered one of his deputies, Marine Maj. Gen. George Flynn, to go to Basra to help the Iraqi army, especially with planning and coordinating support, such as supplies, aerial reconnaissance, and air strikes. Flynn flew down the following morning and soon was joined by a group of planners. As he arrived, he recalled, “the situation on the ground was tense and uncertain.” The British were at the airport, outside of town. Maliki was downtown in a government complex that was being shelled steadily by mortars. The chief of his personal security force was killed at about this time by mortar shrapnel. Soldiers inside the compound, including Americans, hesitated even to go outside to another office because of the incessant fire, which made it difficult to communicate inside the headquarters.

The first step, Flynn decided, was to get armed Predator drones in the air to begin finding and destroying the mortar emplacements and killing the mortar teams, to get the shelling off the back of headquarters so they could begin to operate normally. The second was to get U.S. liaison troops embedded with Iraqi units, so they could report back and call on U.S. resources to help out.

By the fourth day, the hastiness of the operation began to impede Iraqi units, as nearly every unit in the fight ran low on fuel, food, water, ammunition, and money, recalled Marine Sgt. Alexander Lemons, who was deployed to Basra. The Iraqi troops to whom he was attached fed themselves by dropping hand grenades into a canal and collecting and cooking the fish that floated to the surface.

On March 30, the sixth day of the battle, Sadr ordered his followers to stand down, apparently after receiving reassurances from Maliki that the attacks on his loyalists would cease. Many of his fighters did lay down their arms. But the statement he issued was hardly conciliatory, calling the Americans and their Iraqi allies the “armies of darkness.” Word seeped out that the cease-fire had been brokered by the Iranian government, which apparently was alarmed to see the Shiite-led Baghdad government crack down on the Shiite militias that dominated Basra. “JAM [Jayash al-Mahdi, Sadr’s Mahdi Army] wasn’t really broken so much as they were chased underground,” Lemons concluded. But they were clearly on the wrong foot: Sadr’s organization began to threaten to hold a “million-man march” to protest the offensive, a tactical retreat for an outfit that a few days earlier had been willing to fight Maliki and the Americans for control of a major city. A few days later, Sadr took another step back from confrontation and cancelled the march—only to issue a blustery statement later in the month threatening “open war until liberation.”

The militias in Basra that had continued to fight began to show signs of weakness. A series of raids by Iraqi special operations troops killed or captured about two dozen of their commanders, as well as some top criminal gang leaders. Other militia captains began to flee the city, leaving behind a headless force. Then the air strikes began to kick in, shutting down most of the remaining mortar sites. Supplies began to flow into the city. Sadi Othman received anguished telephone calls from his Sadrist contacts, saying, he said, “This is crazy, we need to talk to Maliki, this is unnecessary bloodshed.” But, he said, the prime minister wasn’t in the mood to negotiate. Still in Basra, Maliki received calls from some erstwhile political opponents saying, “We are with you.”

“As those factors accumulated you could sense the shift,” Petraeus said. “The targeted operations started to really bear fruit, the Iraqi SOF [Special Operations Forces] really got some traction. You also have the negotiations ongoing, Iran realizing that they don’t want to bring the government down, so they are starting to pull on the reins. And frankly the leaders of these organizations typically do not stay and fight, and so they were starting to exfiltrate to Iran and so you have them, the Iranians and presumably Sadr, realizing that their forces are getting beaten up pretty badly, realizing that the people are frustrated with them.”

By mid-April, the crisis had passed. “We were beginning to feel pretty good,” said Flynn, the Marine general, who was still in Basra, coordinating American support. In a symbolic move, an Iraqi army battalion occupied the building that had housed Sadr’s headquarters in the city. Maliki felt so vindicated that he fired Gen. Mohan, who had developed the more deliberate plan that would have taken months. On April 19, Iraqi forces went into the “flats” on Basra’s southern side that were considered to be the Sadr City of the south, deemed hostile and nearly impregnable. They were unopposed. The battle was over, and Maliki had won it, more or less.

“Basra was a colossal failure in execution, but the decision to attack was a key step forward for the government of Iraq,” concluded Brig. Gen. Dan Allyn, Gen. Austin’s chief of staff at the American military headquarters for day-to-day operations in Iraq. “They chose to take on Shia militias for the first time. That was a courageous decision not properly prepared for.”


One of the harsh lessons of the Iraq war, as well as earlier ones such as Vietnam, has been that a military victory doesn’t necessarily translate into a political gain—which is one reason that military operations can’t be judged just in tactical terms. The reverse can also be true, that a military stalemate can be a victory for one side. That is what happened to Maliki in Basra. In military terms, the outcome was ambiguous. “It was totally unclear who won or lost on the ground,” said Lemons, the Marine sergeant. But in political terms, Basra was a clear victory for Maliki and his army, he and others said. “Every Iraqi I have spoken to since then about how the prime minister did claims Maliki proved he is a strong leader willing to crack JAM.”

Cooper, the British deputy to Petraeus, was more optimistic. “It was nip and tuck up” to the cease-fire, he said, but after that, “we got the sense that JAM had taken a pounding, and had their own logistical problems.”

The operation’s political effects were clearer. “Iraqi politics were just muddling along,” said Maj. Rayburn. “Then there was this watershed: They were forced to make a choice between the prime minister and the Sadrists. After some quick deliberation, they all decided against the Sadrists.” Also, the quality of life improved for more than a million Iraqis who lived in Basra, which effectively rejoined Iraq.

American officials came to see the operation as a psychological tipping point for both Maliki and his army. “He went into Basra an uncertain political leader with an uncertain future,” said Bell, the head of Petraeus’s think tank. “I think he emerged very different.”

“It wasn’t tactically pretty but it was a decisive and strategic move,” concluded Col. Richard Daum, a top military planner in Iraq in 2008. Sitting in his blue cubbyhole amid an ocean of cubbyholes in the headquarters complex at Camp Victory, he said, “I think Basra will be looked at as an enormous turning point. It signaled that the government isn’t going after only Sunni insurgents, but also Shias. It also signaled to the Iranians that they needed to stop meddling. And it sent a signal to the moderate Arab states. The prime minister emerged with a lot more wasta.” In the wake of Basra, several Arab nations announced they would open embassies in Baghdad, after years of resisting American pressure to take that step. A few months later, King Abdullah of Jordan would become the first head of a Sunni Arab state to visit Iraq since the American invasion. Of course, what he was looking for was the kind of breaks on oil prices that Saddam Hussein had given Jordan. But that would be a small price for Maliki to be recognized as a peer by the Sunni Arab world. In September, Syria sent an ambassador to Iraq. In October, the Egyptian foreign minister visited, along with his country’s oil minister.

“Six months ago, people were saying about Maliki, ‘He is a Shiite prime minister, he is an Iranian guy,”’ said Othman, who spent hours a day talking to Iraqi politicians. “Now, after Basra and Mosul, he is looked upon much more as an Iraqi.” The Americans were also pleased that upon his return to Baghdad, Maliki established a new government committee to gather intelligence on Iranian influence in Iraq.

The Iraqi army had surprised the Americans and gained new respect, even deference. “The lesson of Basra is that the Iraqi army has come a long way,” said Flynn, who spent a total of six weeks in Basra assisting the operation. “I don’t think they could have done this a year ago. But they also have a long way to go.”

Hammond, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division, described the battle of Basra as a transformative event for Iraqi troops. “Until then, they were a checkpoint-based security force, and that was kind of hit and miss,” he said. “It’s kind of like they found a whole new level of confidence. Even the checkpoints are different than they were a month ago—higher level of professionalism, greater pride, greater sense of purpose. I think they’ve tasted success, and they like it.”

On the American side, this led to a new readiness to defer to Iraqi officers. “I do think there is more of a willingness to engage Iraqi counterparts in a serious way, a greater willingness to see problems through Iraqi eyes, to take their advice even if it doesn’t seem to make sense,” said Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, who in 2008 was on his third tour in Iraq.

When Emma Sky, Odierno’s erstwhile politcal adviser, got back to Iraq to prepare for the change of command from Petraeus to Odierno, she headed down to Basra, where she went on patrol with Iraqi troops. “They had a terrific esprit de corps—‘This is where we fought this battle.’ It was like a glimpse into the future. It’s not the way we’d do it, but it is an Iraqi way.” She also was impressed by the new confidence she saw in the way Maliki talked and moved. “I’ve not seen him for four months, and he’s a different man. He’s growing into power.”

Other American advisers agreed that Basra fight illuminated the pathway for Iraqi forces and their American allies. Iraqi forces would lead the way, and their generals would make the big decisions—but the Americans would stand ready to provide support in key areas, such as close air support, medical evacuation, intelligence and surveillance, and communications. That was a recipe, the Americans believed, for big U.S. troop drawdowns in 2009—but also for a smaller, long-term presence built around those advisory and enabling missions. “To me, the big lesson learned is, that’s the way forward,” said Barbero.

Later in the spring, the fighting in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad was resolved in a similar way to Basra. Iraqi officials did it their way, and despite American apprehensions, it worked. At first U.S. forces were intensely involved as they bit off an arc of southern Sadr City, targeting the portion that had been the launching point for most of the rockets and mortar shells that were raining down on the Green Zone. In several weeks of combat, at least 200 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, many of them members of the launching teams. But in mid-May, Maliki’s government cut another deal with Sadr. Rather than conduct a joint U.S.-Iraq assault on the heart of Sadr City, the Iraqi forces negotiated their entry, and went in alone, slowly and with permission. It was a sharp contrast to 2006, when Maliki had ordered the Americans to stop raiding into Sadr City or even to put up checkpoints at its entryways. Apparently under orders from Sadr, residents greeted them with flowers and Korans—an ironic echo of the Bush administration’s view that American troops would be met with bouquets in 2003. Hammond, the division commander, said he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the negotiated entry, but said, “They’re doing it their way. They’re not looking for my approval.” He said he wasn’t issuing orders to Iraqi commanders, but instead advising them—and often seeing his advice rejected. “More often, I have to fight for my point of view,” he said. His forces played an overwatch role, establishing Joint Security Stations on all four sides of the city. Two aerostat balloons were lofted alongside the city to provide 24-hour surveillance. In addition, said Hammond, at any given time, five Predator and Shadow drone aircraft and four Apache attack helicopters were orbiting above the city, ready to fire missiles at any rocket or mortar teams that emerged.

By June a new Sons of Iraq program began in the huge slum. But Sadr’s men continued to fight in quiet ways. In June Brig. Gen. Jabar Musaid, who had been head of Basra’s military intelligence operations during the crackdown there, was shot to death in east Baghdad.

In June 2008, Austin, the new corps commander, noted that, “For the first time, the government has positive control of the three strategic nodes—Basra, Mosul, and Baghdad.” It was indeed an accomplishment, even if it came during the sixth year of the war. At Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only port, just south of Basra, the amount of cargo arriving daily tripled from the spring to the summer.

By the summer of 2008, the American military actually was ahead of its schedule. “Where we are now is where we thought we’d be in January of next year,” said Col. Bell. That is, the security situation was about what they had hoped to be able to turn over to the next American president. Petraeus winced when he heard such open talk of timetables, but others confirmed that they were indeed ahead of their secret plan at that point.

By June a new worry began to grow about Maliki: that he was overconfident and didn’t fathom just how much essential support he was getting from the Americans, especially from the nightly Special Operations raids that were keeping al Qaeda in Iraq from reforming and being able to launch a new wave of attacks in Baghdad. During June and July 2008, the terrorist organization, still on its heels, suffered a new round of losses from a series of raids along the Tigris River Valley. In one operation near Tikrit, U.S. forces not only captured several people but also found suicide vests and a readied car bomb. In nearby Bayji they captured the man who housed incoming foreign fighters. In Mosul, they killed a leading figure and captured more than $100,000 and more suicide vests.

Maliki, feeling his oats, began to distance himself from the Americans, and especially from the Bush administration. In midsummer he appeared to endorse Senator Obama’s plan to get American combat forces out of Iraq within a year or two.

“It’s been a good thing and a bad thing,” Gen. Odierno said later in 2008 of Maliki’s victory in Basra. The benefit, of course, was that the side allied with the Americans won. “The bad point is, it’s a bit of an overestimation by Maliki of how it happened.” Odierno eventually put together a briefing for the prime minister to teach him just how much the United States had helped win the battle of Basra and continued to support Maliki in hundreds of ways every day.


“Nothing succeeds with the American public like success,” Petraeus had written in his 1987 doctoral dissertation at Princeton, about the influence of the Vietnam War on the thinking of the U.S. military leaders about how to use force.

But in his second round of congressional testimony, in April 2008, he would find that limited success doesn’t sell as well. In September 2007, he had been able to testify that the war was being turned around, and so had stymied Democrats advocating a swift pullout. Seven months later, as far as Washington was concerned, the tactical gains of the surge were old news. Now it would be the turn of congressional Republicans to feel frustrated. They had given him time, and now they wanted to hear more about how that success was going to get the United States out of Iraq. He had little for them in that regard. Instead, he was looking to freeze the U.S. military presence near the level of 130,000, where it had been in 2006, before the surge began. On top of that, he was telling Republicans that the light at the end of the tunnel wouldn’t be the bright beacon of democracy that the Bush administration originally envisioned as the payoff for invading Iraq. Reflecting the lowered goals of the U.S. effort in Iraq, Petraeus pointedly called himself a “minimalist.”

Unlike the previous September, this time members of Congress knew from the outset what they would be getting. Even before the hearings began, Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, posed the basic question: “How do we get out of this mess?” The answer, of course, was: We don’t. This was not something they wanted to hear.

Lawmakers must have sensed Petraeus wasn’t going to be of much help in assuring them that the American commitment to Iraq wasn’t open-ended, because they gnawed at the issue throughout the hearings. “I still have a hard time seeing the big picture and what constitutes success,” fretted Republican Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona. “That’s not just one side of the aisle with those kind of concerns. Many on this side of the aisle have that as well.”

“The people of the United States have paid an awful price,” noted Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California. “It’s time for the Iraqis to pay that price for their own protection.”

Senate Republicans were no happier. Bob Corker of Tennessee said, “I think people want a sense of what the end is going to look like.”

“Where do we go from here?” asked Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican but a longtime skeptic of the war.

Senator George Voinovich of Ohio said, “The American people have had it up to here.”

“We’re a generous people,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, another new Republican, “but our patience is not unlimited.”

Welcome to the club, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, seemed to say. Petraeus’s plans to draw down U.S. troops to pre-surge levels, he asserted, were “just the next page in a war plan with no exit strategy.” He was more or less correct: While there was an exit strategy, the exit was years away, in fact so far in the future that it was hard to discern.

As for presidential candidates, McCain seemed most detached from reality, essentially not listening to Petraeus and instead laying out a concept for an ending that seemed unreachable. The day before the hearings began, he described Iraq in terms that were eerily similar to how the Bush administration had described it on the eve of the invasion, as a country that the Americans would transform and turn into an engine of change for the entire region. “The fact is, we now have a great opportunity, not only to bring stability and freedom to Iraq but to make Iraq a pillar of our future strategy for the entire region of the Greater Middle East,” he had told the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “If we seize the opportunity before us, we stand to gain a strong, stable, democratic ally against terrorism and a strong ally against an aggressive and radical Iran.”

At the hearing, McCain summarized his view: “We can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success. Success, the establishment of a peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state that poses no threats to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists, this success is within reach.”

McCain’s grand vision was not only at odds with the more restrained goals in Petraeus’s campaign plan—simply of “sustainable security”—but verged on fantasy. It resembled President Bush’s 2003 rhetoric, but flew in the face of five additional years of painful evidence about the imprudence of that grandiose approach. It was unlikely that Iraq would wind up a strong or genuinely democratic nation, with not only elections but also rule of law and respect for the rights of its minorities. There was even less chance that Iraq would be an ally against Iran, given that the Shiite politicians that the United States had helped to power had taken refuge in Iran during Saddam’s time, and had maintained close ties even during the U.S. occupation. Rather, the best case scenario was that in the long run, Iraq would calm down, be mildly authoritarian, and probably become an ally of Iran, but, with luck, not one that threatened the rest of the Arab world.

Senator Clinton asked sharp questions that underscored the vagueness of Petraeus’s answers. You keep on saying that your decisions will be based not on time but on conditions, she said, so please describe those conditions. Petraeus didn’t, instead describing how he would measure the situation. His response is worth quoting at length for its masterful evasiveness:

With respect to the conditions, Senator, what we have is a number of factors that we will consider by area as we look at where we can make recommendations for further reductions beyond the reduction of the surge forces that will be complete in July. These factors are fairly clear. There’s obviously an enemy situation factor. There’s a friendly situation factor with respect to Iraqi forces, local governance, even economic and political dynamics, all of which are considered as the factors in making recommendations on further reductions. Having said that, I have to say that again it’s not a mathematical exercise. There is not an equation in which you have coefficients in front of each of these factors. It’s not as mechanical as that. At the end of the day, it really involves commanders sitting down, also with their Iraqi counterparts and leaders in a particular area, and assessing where it is that you can reduce your forces so that you can again make a recommendation to make further reductions. And that’s the process. Again, there is this issue, in a sense, this term of battlefield geometry. And as I mentioned, together with Ambassador Crocker and Iraqi political leaders, there’s even sort of a political-military calculus that you have to consider, again, in establishing where the conditions are met to make further reductions.

It was as if, after being ambushed by Clinton in the September hearings, Petraeus had crossed her off his list. He wasn’t prepared to engage with her except at an unhelpful, arm’s-length distance. Mess me around, he seemed to be saying, and all you’ll get from me is empty but correct answers. (Meanwhile, Senator Roger Wicker, a new Republican from Mississippi, managed to get in a subtle dig at Clinton, throwing back at her that loaded phrase from last September. “There is no question that the situation is better now,” he lectured. “It’s better than when the surge began and it’s better than in September. It would take a major suspension of disbelief to conclude otherwise, to conclude that things are not much improved.”)

Senator Obama was much more focused in his questions than in the September hearing, when he had rambled. Obama this time seemed to be thinking like someone who might have to make real decisions in a year’s time. He wanted to know two things: If we are never going to totally eliminate support for al Qaeda in Iraq and we are never going to totally eliminate Iranian influence, then what are we really trying to do with those two issues? Or, he asked, are we going to try to stay there for two or three decades, until everything is really solved? “I’m trying to get to an end point,” Obama said. “That’s what all of us are trying to get to.”

Obama’s bottom line wasn’t really much different from that of Petraeus and Crocker. If we wanted to entirely eliminate al Qaeda and have a solid Iraqi state, we’d be there for decades. “If on the other hand,” he said, “our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo, but there’s not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence; there’s still corruption, but the country’s struggling along but it’s not a threat to its neighbors and it’s not an al Qaeda base; that seems, to me, an achievable goal within a measurable time frame.” That was what the campaign plan called “sustainable security.”

Crocker’s message was even starker. He used the hearings to raise concern about what he termed the “Lebanonization” of Iraq—this is, the weakening of the government, the division of the people into sectarian groups, and the rise of militias that rival the government in reliable firepower. Also, in both Lebanon and Iraq, Iran played an active role, supplying and training certain armed groups. “Iran is pursuing a Lebanonization strategy,” Crocker said. And if the U.S. left Iraq quickly, he added, “Iran would just push that much harder.”

The evocation of Lebanonization raised the haunting possibility of the American war in the Middle East continuing for decades. A generation of Arab fighters had taken on the United States presence in Iraq, and some had survived to go back home, reported the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid. “Iraq is a badge of honor for every Arab and Muslim to fight the American vampire,” he was told by Abu Haritha, the nom de guerre of a man who was wounded while fighting in Fallujah and then returned home to his home in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city. Crocker’s warning was effectively dismissed by the members of Congress quizzing him and Petraeus, despite the ambassador’s persistence and his familiarity with both Lebanon and Iraq. It was as if no one even wanted to hear it.

After the hearings, I asked Petraeus over a lunch why he hadn’t taken more risks and simply laid it out plainly, saying something like this: Look, the best case scenario is we’re going to be there a minimum of another three or four years, though I think with about half the troops we have there now, and with fairly steadily declining casualties. This isn’t a lead-pipe cinch, but I think it is plausible, and it sure beats any alternative I can see. He responded that he thought he had said that, more or less.

I didn’t think he had made that clear. But some military professionals disagreed, saying that they had heard that message. This didn’t necessarily make them hopeful. Retired Marine Col. Robert Work, an insightful former adviser to the secretary of the Navy, observed that Petraeus subtly had shifted from a conditions-based strategy to a time-based one:

We have given up on having a shining beacon of democracy in Iraq. We want a nation that is relatively stable, not a threat to its neighbors, and can protect its borders. We have also largely given up on sectarian reconciliation; we now simply hope for some type of sectarian accommodation that will reduce the likelihood of widespread sectarian conflict when we leave. Crocker and Petraeus cannot describe the conditions for this except that it will take time. Every gain is potentially reversible, for far into the future. Our condition for leaving is now simply: We’ll wait and hope that through the passage of time for bottom up accommodation and the formation of a functioning state. We’ve planted the seeds and will know the time to leave when the flower blooms. Unfortunately, we cannot tell the American people how long this particular flower takes to bloom. In the meantime, as part of our time-based strategy, we will expend the majority of our time, money, blood, sweat, and tears building up Iraqi security forces, not the government or the society. We leave that for natural development; it is funded and resourced in a relatively paltry fashion. This seems to me to be a highly risky strategy. It is arming all three of the major sectarian groups to the teeth.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales Jr., a former commandant of the Army War College, thought the strategy was even riskier than Work did. Petraeus was caught in a fundamental contradiction, he thought: Petraeus had the correct strategy, but was on thin ice because time was running out on it. “The counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Petraeus is the right one and cannot be substantially altered,” Scales said. But, he continued, “The crucible of patience among the American people is emptying at a prodigious rate and very little short of a complete shift in conditions on the ground is likely to refill it.” On top of that, by early 2008 the Iraq war had cost roughly $650 billion, at minimum. That price tag would grow even more significant as the U.S. economy slipped into a recession and a burgeoning financial crisis.

It appeared that Obama might be the person who would have to address the contradiction. After securing the Democratic nomination in early June, he used part of his victory speech to talk about Iraq, beginning with a comment that echoed Kilcullen’s crack that just because you invade a country stupidly doesn’t mean you should leave it that way. “We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in,” Obama said. “ But start leaving, we must. It’s time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their future.”

Bush certainly understood the point Petraeus had been making. The two had breakfast after the April hearings, along with Crocker. “I’ve told him he’ll have all the time he needs,” the president said afterward.


Before he moved to his new post at Central Command, Petraeus had to continue to plan in Iraq. In June 2008, his strategic planners began working on the following year. He told them to begin thinking about a transition from a mission of “securing the population” to one of “sustainable security.” They already could see four hurdles ahead. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan would start this year in September, and in every year of the war it had brought a spike in violence. Second, the better security was in Baghdad, the more refugees would return home from Jordan and Syria, where many of them were running out of money. Their homecomings promised to provoke sectarian fighting and test Iraqi forces as Sunnis returned to neighborhoods that had been cleansed by Shiite militias that had taken possession of Sunni houses. Provincial elections almost certainly would increase violence. The planners also knew, finally, that the American election would be closely watched in Iraq, and that there might be violence intended to influence American voters. That election could go a long way toward determining the future U.S. mission in Iraq: Under Obama it would be to reduce the presence, while under McCain it would be to prevail and help confront Iran.

For years, the U.S. military had fretted about “mission creep.” Beginning with the Somalia operation in 1992-93, top commanders worried that once U.S. forces were committed to a situation, the tasks assigned them would continually expand, from security to providing a variety of services to standing up a government, until they were mired in what was derogated as “nation building.” Many in the military had listened with relief with George W. Bush had denounced this tendency during the 2000 presidential election campaign, saying it was not a proper use of the armed forces. “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation building,” he said during a debate with Al Gore, the Democratic candidate. “I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” Then, of course, he went on to invade Iraq and inadvertently launch perhaps the most ambitious and expensive nation-building effort in the history of the United States.

In Iraq in 2008, the U.S. military would face a new variant of the mission creep problem. As the 5 brigades sent for the surge began to go home, commanders were facing “force shrinkage.” That is, the mission would remain the same—ensuring that Iraq was developing sustainable security—but there would be fewer and fewer U.S. troops available to carry that out. The key would be to “hold” (under “clear, hold, and build”) with less combat power. But to make that happen, Iraqi forces would have to shoulder more of the burden. Always wanting to take it slowly, Petraeus recommended holding the troop level in Iraq to about 15 combat brigades until it was clear how provincial elections were going to play out. Pushed by the Joint Chiefs, he ultimately agreed to a compromise under which one brigade would leave in January 2009 without being replaced, but another one would be on tap to replace it if needed.

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