Military history



(Fall 2008)

When he delivered his victory speech on the night that he was elected president, Barack Obama alluded to the war twice. Both references were telling and, though his powerful speaking style smoothed it over, somewhat contradictory. The first mention underscored his ambivalence about the war. It came in his list of the problems his administration would face, including “two wars”—and then, in a pattern he has shown in the past, he immediately raised a competing domestic need, in this case the difficulty Americans face in paying their bills for health care, mortgages, and college tuitions. The second allusion, less noted, came when the new president-elect was sending explicit messages to the world. “To those who would tear the world down,” he vowed, “we will defeat you.”

Looming before him that night was the knowledge that upon taking office, he would face an almost immediate dilemma, torn between what his supporters expect and what his generals advise. Newly confident Democrats want him to follow through on ending the war. This was brought home when Gordon Smith, the emotional Oregon Republican who had broken so dramatically with President Bush over the Iraq war, was narrowly defeated in his bid for a third Senate term. Smith was downed by Jeff Merkley, who in his own victory speech gave a hint of the troubles Obama may face in reconciling his goals for getting out of Iraq while defeating terrorism. Merkley was far clearer than Obama was about where he stood on Iraq. “That bold agenda for change involves ending this war in Iraq and bringing our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives, home,” he told his followers unambiguously.

Public sentiment is likely to flow in the same direction. “A democratic republic fighting an unpopular war, with limited war aims, for an unlimited time period is a bad combination,” commented retired Navy Capt. Rosemary Mariner, an expert on national strategy.

But like Congress, the military has also gone through some major changes recently. Chastened by the performance of its leaders in the first part of the war, the Army is no longer chasing the chimera of “rapid, decisive operations.” As Col. Karlton Johnson, an official in the Iraqi training and equipping program, put it one day in the summer of 2008, “We’re not looking at doing things fast. We’re looking at doing things right.” The new president’s front-line military advisers, most notably Petraeus and Odierno, are likely to tell him that doing the right thing, including defeating “those who would tear the world down,” is going to take much longer than he likes, and with more fighting than he wants.

By the time Obama made that vow in Chicago, the sun already had dawned on a pleasant, sunny, California-like day in Baghdad. There were more soldiers smiling and more black soldiers watching television news than is usual, but it felt much like any other day in the war. Soldiers stood guard duty in watch towers, conducted foot patrols, trained Iraqi counterparts, and piloted Black Hawk helicopters over the city. Some staff officers reviewed details of how to ensure that the Iraqi government paid the Sons of Iraq on those groups’ first payday on the Baghdad payroll. (Discussing that exercise, Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, commander of American troops in Baghdad, invoked the film Jerry Maguire: “I keep on telling my guys, like that Tom Cruise movie about sports agents, ‘Show me the money!”’) Long-term planners were looking at the run-up to Iraqi provincial elections at the end of January. It all felt like the previous day—yet the war had changed overnight. It now was effectively Obama’s war. It may change him more than he changes it.

Obama indicated during the campaign that he doesn’t view Iraq through the lens of Vietnam. “The Vietnam War had drawn to a close when I was fairly young,” he said. “And so that wasn’t formative for me in the way it was, I think, for an earlier generation.” Rather, the Iraq war seems to have taught Obama several lessons, among them to be wary of the unilateral use of force. For all his idealistic rhetoric about hope, he also seems to be essentially a realist about Iraq, willing to limit the American commitment by stating during the campaign that “Iraq is not going to be a perfect place.” Yet he also said that as long as the Iraqis made some political progress, he would plan to keep troops there to pursue al Qaeda, protect the embassy and other American personnel, and train and support Iraqi security forces. “I have never talked about leaving the field entirely,” he explained. “Nobody’s talking about abandoning the field.” Rather, he said in a December 2008 press conference, he expects “to maintain a residual force” in Iraq.

Depending on the amount of support provided to the Iraqi forces, the mission as described by Obama could be surprisingly large, requiring anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 troops.

Military planners have been mulling the shape and size of the “postoccupation” force ever since it became clear in mid-2007 that the surge was working tactically. Such a long-term presence would have four major components. The centerpiece would be a reinforced mechanized infantry division of 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers assigned to guarantee the security of the Iraqi government and to assist Iraqi forces or their U.S. advisers if they get into fights they can’t handle. Second, a training and advisory force of close to 10,000 troops would work with Iraqi military and police units. In addition, there would be a small but significant Special Operations unit focused on fighting the Sunni insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq. “I think you’ll retain a very robust counterterror capability in this country for a long, long time,” an American official in Iraq said in 2007. Finally, the headquarters and logistical elements to command and supply such a force would total more than 10,000 troops, plus some civilian contractors. Again, this would amount to a long-term commitment in the area of 35,000 troops.

Interestingly, that is about the figure that Gen. Odierno cited in my last interview with him for this book in November 2008. Asked what the U.S. military presence would look like around 2014 or 2015—that is, well after President Obama’s first term—Odierno said, “I would like to see a . . . force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000,” with many training Iraqi forces and others conducting combat operations against al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies. To justify such a force, Odierno or Petraeus could read back to Obama the statement the candidate made in July 2008, not long before that trip to Iraq: “My 16-month time line, if you examine everything I’ve said, was always premised on making sure our troops were safe,” Obama had told reporters in North Dakota. “And my guiding approach continues to be that we’ve got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable.” Indeed, they could argue that that last word is overambitious, because it will be a long time before anyone can confidently call Iraq stable.

Obama is likely to find Odierno and other generals arguing passionately that to come close to meeting Obama’s conditions of keeping the troops safe, keeping Iraq edging toward stability, and keeping up the pressure on al Qaeda and other extremists, he will need a relatively large force for many years. In addition, they will argue that adhering to any timetable will risk giving up the security gains already made. “Now is not the time to take your foot off the gas,” said Gen. Swan. “If you assume the war is won, that would be a faulty assumption. We’ve got the bad guys down. Don’t let them get back up.”

Clearly Odierno has been mulling what he will say when he sits down with Obama. Just before the election, Odierno said in my interview with him that one of the points he would make to the new president would be “the importance of us leaving with honor and justice. . . . For the military it’s extremely important because of all the sacrifice and time and, in fact, how we’ve all adjusted and adapted.”

For Obama to reject such an argument, made by soldiers such as Odierno who have seen their own children fight and bleed, would risk a confrontation with the military early in his administration perhaps akin to but more contentious than President Clinton’s battle early in his first term over gays in the military. Like Clinton, Obama also would face the prospect of a de facto alliance between the military and congressional Republicans to stop him from making any major changes. My bet is that Obama and his generals eventually will settle on what one Obama adviser calls “a sustainable presence”—and that that smaller force will be in Iraq for many years.


As Obama prepared to take office, Iraq faced its own electoral upheaval, and in its own rough fashion. Elections feel different in Iraq than they do in the United States, where they tend to mark the end of contention. Few outsiders know the politics of Iraq as well as Ambassador Crocker. Asked in November 2008 what one word best describes Iraq, he didn’t hesitate: “fear.” Among other things, that shapes campaigns and their aftermaths.

In late 2008, a new form of terrorism was becoming popular in Baghdad, using small magnetic “sticky bombs” that were attached to the bottoms of automobiles. The goal of the bomber wasn’t mass murder, but rather targeted assassination of individuals. Perversely, this new form of killing was a sign of political ferment. Another round of electoral politics was getting under way, with provincial elections likely in early 2009, and the bombings were effectively a form of Iraqi primary system.

If events go according to the revised schedule devised by the Iraqi parliament—and in Iraq that is a major condition—then 2009 will be the year of elections in Iraq. The first round is supposed to be provincial elections, which have been postponed repeatedly but are supposed to come early in the year. Next comes a round of district voting. Finally, the end of the year may bring national elections.

Americans tend to view elections in Iraq as goals to be reached. In Iraq, they are better seen as tests to be passed. That is, the important thing is not just doing them, but doing them well. The next round of elections, noted Nazar Janabi, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “marks the beginning of a vital transition that could lead either to a unified democratic country or to a fractured sectarian one that is prone to foreign influence.”

Holding fair elections is only the first step. The next question will be whether they are perceived as legitimate, especially if the new parties emerging for the election suspect, rightly or wrongly, that they’ve been cheated in the counting of votes. Following that will be the issue of whether and how those ousted by the vote give up power. Finally, those elected will have to learn the ropes and begin governing.

Odierno said his major concern is not so much the period leading up to the elections but rather the 60 to 90 days after them. “I still think the major parties will be the people who are successful in the elections. And so what I worry about is those who feel they’ve had these new movements, how much effect will they gain from these elections? I think it’s going to be less than they expect.” Significantly, some of those newcomers are leaders of the Sons of Iraq, who not only have local support, but also are a paramilitary force.

A suspicious election could be especially damaging in Anbar, where the turning of the insurgency began. “One particularly ominous aspect of Anbari politics is the continuing influence of high-ranking former regime officials,” observed Navy Reserve Lt. Cdr. Jon Lindsay, who served in Anbar Province in 2007-8 and who in civilian life is a political scientist at MIT. If they feel spurned by the electoral process, they have not only alternatives but, Lindsay noted, the means to pursue them. “Considerable Baath resources remain available to support an attempt to regain what they see as their right to govern Iraq.”

The rank and file of the Sons of Iraq presents its own problems. Current plans call for only 20 percent of its membership, which peaked at 103,000, to move into the security forces, with the remainder who didn’t go into the private sector getting government jobs of some sort. But as Emma Sky noted in late 2008, “These jobs don’t exist.” This raises the prospect of tens of thousands of armed men, many of them former insurgents, feeling rejected twice by the Baghdad government—first politically and then economically. Sky’s hope was that some of the leaders of the militias would be elected and then “be in a position to offer their guys jobs, contracts and bribes.” American generals also said that if Baghdad didn’t pay the militiamen, they would. But it isn’t clear how long they can fulfill that promise, which costs more than $20 million a month.

“These guys will keep their AKs under the bed,” Lt. Gen. John Cooper, a British deputy to Petraeus, observed early in 2008. “They haven’t come to a moral conclusion that violence is wrong.”

FINALLY, A MAJOR DESTABILIZING factor in Iraq in 2009 will be the smaller size of the American military presence. Counterintuitively, the effects of drawing down troops will become more pronounced with the passage of time. When the surge ended in mid-2008, the first areas left relatively uncovered by a U.S. military presence were the safest, most dependable parts of Baghdad. As more soldiers are withdrawn and the U.S. presence falls below pre-surge levels, the pullouts will become riskier. “We’ve taken on the easy places,” Odierno said. “The next ones get tougher because they become the mixed regions and the areas where it is more difficult. So I would say we’ve kind of taken the low-hanging fruit here in terms of where we’ve withdrawn our forces. Every decision now gets a bit more difficult.” Every decision also may underscore the differences in the views of Obama, on the one hand, and of Petraeus and Odierno on the other.

Current U.S. long-range plans envision radically reducing the U.S. presence in Baghdad beginning in the summer of 2009 and accelerating in the fall and winter. At the same time, a series of volatile elections will be held. By the end of the year, said Odierno, we could enter a time of particular danger. “We’ll probably see it a little bit in the summer of 2009 and then, really, at the end of 2009 and 2010 will be the real test probably.”

For all these reasons, 2009 could prove to be a particularly difficult year in the war. “In many ways the entire war was a huge gamble, risking America’s future power and prestige on a war that, at best, is likely to be inconclusive,” commented Shawn Brimley, a former Canadian infantry officer who became a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security. He predicted that Bush’s gamble will force Obama into a series of his own gambles and trade-offs—between the war and domestic needs, between Iraq and Afghanistan, between his political base and his military.

In sum, the first year of Obama’s war promises to be tougher for America’s leaders and military than was the last year of Bush’s war.

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