Like a summer thunderstorm tapering off, American losses began to drop sharply in July. From a distance it all still looked like a solid wall of thunder and lightning, but those underneath it began to see patches of blue. In some neighborhoods, the streets were growing more crowded. More shops were open. Parents were allowing their children to play outside. The biggest change was the general absence of the clatter of gunfire and the roar of bomb blasts, which a year earlier had been common in Baghdad. There were five major reasons for this change. First, and most obvious, was the new force posture of putting troops out among the people and giving them the mission of protecting those people. Eventually there were some 75 outposts established across the city, and their presence was beginning to produce benefits. Much of the city was beginning to feel safer.
Second was that by the time they got there, the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad had been largely completed, with some neighborhoods that once were heavily Sunni becoming overwhelming Shia. Shiite militias patrolled their streets and sometimes rented out the houses from which Sunnis had been driven. “Now that the Sunnis are all gone, murders have dropped off,” said Capt. Jay Wink, the intelligence officer for a 1st Infantry Division battalion that was operating in one newly Shiite neighborhood in southwest Baghdad. “One way to put it is they ran out of people to kill.”
Third, and later in the year, came the declaration of a cease-fire with the Americans by Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric.
There was also a less noticed fourth reason: For the first time since the invasion, U.S. forces were all pursuing the same goal in the same way. Putting out an official document is one thing; getting commanders and their troops to actually implement it is another. For example, when Gen. Kinnard surveyed his peers who had served in Vietnam for The War Managers, one senior general, asked about how a newly issued campaign plan had affected his operations, responded, “I never read them, it would only confuse me.”
Odierno’s great accomplishment may have been making sure that all his forces were dancing to the same tune and at the same time. Rather than permit each of his subordinate units—divisions or brigades—to carry out their own operations independently, he coordinated and even synchronized them, especially after the last surge brigade arrived as summer began, so that insurgents and terrorists couldn’t just shift to quieter areas where there was less pressure. “In July, Odierno had all his forces, and he was able to put down the hammer, keep the squeeze on, everywhere,” said Keane. “He just kept hammering and hammering and hammering.”
Unity of effort radically increases the effectiveness of military operations. The new counterinsurgency manual was officially issued only in December 2006, but within months it was being implemented on the streets of Baghdad. That was a sharp contrast to the first years of the war, when every unit pursued its own fight, often in very different ways, said Col. James Rainey, who had been a major in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, then commanded a battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2004-5, and then returned in 2008 as the G-3, or director of operations, for the 4th Infantry Division. “The biggest difference is, we have doctrine now,” he said, “Everyone’s doing it now, protecting the population.” That was also a much more concrete mission than “stop the insurgency,” an order that only raised a series of additional definitional questions, such as what the insurgency was and what tactics were appropriate in countering it.
Listening to Rainey, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, the division commander, added, “Petraeus’s view of counterinsurgency changed the way we all look at it.” That was an overstatement, as Petraeus was not alone in developing the new manual on counterinsurgency. Yet Hammond’s basic point was correct: It is rare for a single person to have as dramatic effect as Petraeus did on how a large institution operates, and especially in how the U.S. Army wages war.
Illustrating how the new view permeated the force, Craig Coppock, who led an infantry platoon in Iraq in 2006-7, compiled a “Counterinsurgency Cliff Notes” for his peers. In this seven-page essay, lessons from the Vietnam War, from the French campaign in Algeria in the 1950s, and, most of all, from earlier in the Iraq war are woven together. The innovations of past years that had been considered only by dissidents now were becoming common sense. Once Army commanders had thought shows of force were the way to impress the locals and so prevail. Now Coppock admonished, “Use minimum force. Basically, try not to break stuff or kill anyone you don’t have to.” While top American officials had let the lynching of four U.S. contractors provoke them into ordering an attack on Fallujah in the spring of 2004, the young officer warned, “Avoid emotional responses to an operational event. . . . Knee-jerk reactions waste energy, effort, and are in most cases counterproductive to COIN strategy.” And while the Army had spent years improving the anti-bomb properties of Humvees, Coppock instructed soldiers instead to get out of their rolling cocoons: “You should be out on foot in your AO [area of operations] every time you roll out of the wire.” (Coppock also spoke with the tone of hard-won wisdom: “Never leave your AO the same way you went in.”)
A SEPARATE PEACE
The fifth—and by far the most controversial—reason for the decline in violence was the turning of parts of the Sunni insurgency. This may have been the biggest gamble Petraeus took as the commander of the war in Iraq. He was going behind the back of the Baghdad government to put its enemies on the American payroll. Strikingly, he didn’t seem to think he needed to get clearance from the American government, either. When asked about how he had gotten the president to agree to the program, he indicated that he hadn’t asked Bush about it. “I don’t think it was something that we needed to ask permission for. We had the authority to conduct what are called security contracts, and that was how we saw these.” But, he added, “to be truthful we didn’t see it growing to 103,000”—its peak in 2008, and a huge addition to the firepower the U.S. military could bring to bear in and around Baghdad. At its height, the monthly payroll was $30 million, which sounds like a lot but amounts to a few hours of what the war costs the American taxpayer twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.
Some experts, such as retired Gen. Abizaid and Stephen Biddle, a sometime adviser to Petraeus, argue that the change in the loyalties of Sunni fighters was the single most important cause of the improvement in security in 2007. It had begun before the surge, in the fall of ’06, with the deals Col. MacFarland was cutting in al Anbar Province.
“It reached critical mass in Ramadi, and set off a chain reaction up the Euphrates River Valley,” Petraeus said. The turning accelerated during the winter and spring of 2007. The membership rolls of these new neighborhood militias exploded later in the year, going from a few thousand to more than 60,000 by the winter, and then to 103,000, the majority of them Sunni and many of them former insurgents. They were not supporters of the Baghdad government, but they were allies of the American effort—at least, most of the time.
In simple manpower terms, this was a huge bonus to the Americans. As Gen. Keane put it, tens of thousands of fighters who had been trying to kill Americans now “were not shooting at you. That helps a lot when you only have thirty thousand of your own additional troops to address the problem.”
It was effectively a second marriage for both sides, which had become estranged from their original partners. The Americans weren’t quite divorced from their allies in the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, which wasn’t interested in a program of centrally driven reconciliation, but there was a new distance between the two. The Sunnis had split from al Qaeda in Iraq, rejecting its program of violent religious extremism. “The possibility of forming a de facto alliance with the tribes emerged only once the Sunnis had themselves become disenchanted with AQI, and once the United States had also grown equally disillusioned with the prospects of achieving a ‘top down’ process of reconciliation through the auspices of the al-Maliki government,” commented Australian political scientist Andrew Phillips.
The turned insurgents at first tended to refer to themselves as “the Sunni Awakening.” Tellingly, Petraeus and other American officials used a variety of euphemisms, as if not to face head-on the sensitive reality that they were negotiating cease-fires with the enemy. Some units initially used terms such as “security contractors,” “neighborhood watches,” and “provisional security forces.” Then the official name became “Concerned Local Citizens,” until that Orwellian term was dropped for something marginally more realistic, “Sons of Iraq.” There was a small irony in this last term, because until Petraeus and Odierno took command, American officials often had labeled insurgents “Anti-Iraqi Forces,” even using the acronym “AIF” in briefings. Now those fighters had gone from being deemed to be against Iraq to being its progeny.
The cease-fires didn’t quite amount to an amnesty, because there was no explicit forgiveness. But there was an implied one. Nor were they surrenders, because the fighters remained armed, and in some cases were given new and better weapons. They also went on the American payroll at about $10 a day per man, hardly a punitive step. The CIA paid bonuses to favored sheikhs. In reality these were paid truces of an uncertain duration and with a limited writ. The insurgents hadn’t come over to the American side or even necessarily endorsed American goals. Maj. Mark Brady, a reconciliation specialist with the 1st Cavalry Division, noted that one Sunni leader said to him, “As soon as we finish with al Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists.”
But the turning proved the answer to the sticky problem seen in Baghdad in 2006 of U.S. forces being able to clear but Iraqi forces being unable to hold. That was especially true in Sunni areas, where Iraqi forces tended to be seen as tools of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. The answer: Have the Sunnis do it themselves.
At first, this new policy of paying off a former enemy was largely being done without informing the Baghdad government about it. “In the initial months, we weren’t even telling them [Iraqi government officials], we were just doing it,” said Emma Sky. Upon learning of the talks, she added, officials in the Baghdad government “accused us of creating a Sunni army that could lead to warlordism and possibly to a civil war.” These were concerns that would remain alive for years.
During the spring many Iraqi commanders resisted meeting with the former insurgents who were volunteering to turn sides, said Col. Green, chief of operations for the 1st Cavalry Division. “They hadn’t received any orders from the Iraqi government,” he said. But soon, he said, many Iraqi battalion and brigade commanders began to work with the groups, even without direction from Baghdad. “They were finding ways to accommodate it, to share information, to deconflict the battlespace, even though they hadn’t had orders,” he said.
Nor were the front-line troops being asked to work with their former enemies told much about the changeover. Cpl. David Goldich, a smart young Marine in al Anbar Province, recalled simply seeing local guys showing up with weapons and setting up a rudimentary checkpoint on a main road. To a Marine eye, they didn’t look impressive—“unshaven men wearing civilian clothes carrying rusty AK-47s milling about,” he wrote. But he soon concluded that “they are worth their weight in gold. . . . an amazing force multiplier that denied the enemy freedom of movement in a manner we could not.” They spoke the language, they knew the area, and they knew who wasn’t from it. Higher-ups wouldn’t approve giving supplies to the new guards, so Goldich’s unit decided to help them out and scrounged weapons and food for the men and bullet-proof glass and concertina wire for their checkpoints. “What we gave them we stole from base, and probably would have been punished if caught,” he recalled. (Goldich, who graduated from the University of Virginia before enlisting, also showed a far greater understanding of counterinsurgency than the Marine chain of command had after the Haditha incident. He took more risks, such as sometimes approaching Iraqis without carrying a weapon, because he thought it would help his unit achieve its mission. “My job is to defeat the enemy, not protect myself,” he reasoned.)
Later in the spring, the process became more formalized. Odierno established a “reconciliation cell” in his headquarters to track the turnings and to advise commanders on how to do it. This was partly because commanders were asking for guidance about who they were allowed to talk to, whether they should treat with insurgent leaders, and how to respond to those leaders’ requests for money, weapons, and official support. Odierno laid down some informal guidelines: Don’t talk to war criminals. Don’t give them ammunition. And if they ask you to stop doing raids in their area, tell them you can’t promise that. Powell, the planner, recalled that “General Odierno’s guidance was, ‘We are going to be striking deals with people who have killed American soldiers. That may turn your stomach, but that’s the way forward.’ ”
Once brigade and battalion commanders grew comfortable with the process, “it really started to catch on,” said Brig. Gen. Mark McDonald, who was overseeing the new cell. The new opening with the Americans offered the Sunnis a way out from their unhappy alliance with al Qaeda. It is probably no coincidence that in April, as the top American commanders threw their weight behind the turning, the Islamic Army, a group of Sunni insurgent militias, posted on jihad websites a nine-page letter denouncing al Qaeda. It complained that al Qaeda had killed more than 30 of its fighters that spring. Abu Mohammed al-Salmani, a member of the group, said that the terrorist organization was killing far more Sunnis than the Americans were. “People are tired of this torture,” he told a reporter. “We cannot keep silent anymore.”
But as the turning edged closer to Baghdad, the central government grew more vocal about the deals being made. Maliki began sending alarmed messages asking exactly what the Americans thought they were doing. “They are trusting terrorists,” charged Ali al-Adeeb, a prominent Shiite politician. “They are trusting people who have previously attacked American forces and innocent people. They are trusting people who are loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein.”
“It’s like raising a crocodile,” Saad Yousef al-Muttalibi, a member of the Maliki cabinet, told the Washington Times. “It is fine when it is a baby, but when it is big, you can’t keep it in the house.” The Baghdad government feared that the American government was going to feed baby crocodiles for its own purposes and then leave Iraq—just as the reptiles were beginning to snap at Baghdad. Later in the year, Maliki’s Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, would issue a statement condemning the American embrace of “those terrorist elements which committed the most hideous crimes against our people” and demanding “that the American administration stop this adventure.” Other Shiites charged that after the Americans left, there would be two armies in central Iraq—one loyal to Baghdad, and one not.
There also was some suspicion that that was precisely the American plan—that is, create a balancing force of Sunnis to deter the Shiites from wholesale suppression of the Sunnis once the Americans were out of the way. Petraeus flatly denied that the new groups were a helpful counterweight to the Baghdad government, but planners below him were perhaps more candid. “As their growth grows, the national government will be in jeopardy,” said Lt. Col. Jeff McDougall, one of Odierno’s senior planners. “So it’s a forcing mechanism,” he said, posing a useful “or else” to the Shiite political leaders in Baghdad.
Even neutral observers had some qualms. Patrick Porter, an Australian military historian, later would call the new American allies in Iraq “a coalition of gangsters, tribal leaders and opportunists.”
Not all American military officials were comfortable with the approach, worrying that the short-term security gain obtained would create long-term political problems. “What we’re doing is creating a secessionist state out west,” said a senior U.S. military intelligence official. “The Anbar tribes will be capable of keeping order, and also of keeping a Shiite-dominated army out of Anbar.” In other words, argued retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, the Americans were avoiding military defeat by embracing political failure.
Some American troops were antsy about working alongside men who had fought them, and probably killed some of their comrades. “If Jack Bauer doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, why does the American army?” asked Spec. Alex Horton, a young Texan who served in Baghdad and Baqubah in late 2006 and early 2007.
Horton reported a cold exchange between a member of his platoon and a turned insurgent. “Do you want to kill me?” the American soldier asked.
“Yes,” replied the Iraqi, who had been a member of the 1920 Brigade, an insurgent group that broke with al Qaeda in 2007. “But not today.”
But most American commanders liked what they were seeing. Some, in fact, soon seemed to grow more comfortable with the former insurgents than they did with the Iraqi police.
One day in late May in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriyah, some local militiamen painted a sign on a wall, “Down with al Qaeda, long live the honest resistance.” It was a classic ploy: Members of al Qaeda angrily arrived to paint over the disrespectful graffiti, only to be greeted by an explosion that killed three of them. Al Qaeda sent in reinforcements, who were caught in a firefight that lasted several hours, killing another nine al Qaeda members.
A few days later, on May 29, Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, commander of the American battalion operating in the neighborhood, got a call from a local religious leader. “We’re going after al Qaeda,” he said. “What we want you to do is stay out of the way.” It was in effect a replication of what MacFarland had experienced in Ramadi nine months earlier.
The next day at noon, loudspeakers in mosques broadcast a call to attack local members of al Qaeda. Black-clad militiamen began moving through the streets. Kuehl was inclined to stand back and watch the situation unfold. But after al Qaeda counterattacked the next day and surrounded the militia members, he had second thoughts, and dispatched Stryker armored vehicles to rescue the militiamen. It was a confusing fight for his troops, because both sides were wearing similar outfits and wielding AK-47s and other weaponry. (Soldiers frequently identify the enemy not by sight but by the sound of their guns.) The Americans were impressed with the tactical skills of the militiamen. “These guys looked like a military unit, the way they moved,” Capt. Andy Wilbraham told the Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow. “Hand and arm signals. Stop. Take a knee. Weapons up.” The leader of the militia was a former Iraqi army captain who called himself Haji Abu Abed.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Upon meeting your insurgent enemy, Kilcullen had told American officers, you will be surprised: “Your worst opponent is not the psychopathic terrorist of Hollywood, it is the charismatic follow-me warrior who would make your best platoon leader.”
He was right. In July 2007, for example, Col. Martin Stanton, chief of reconciliation at Odierno’s headquarters, met with some newly former insurgents outside the ragged little town of Mahmudiyah, one corner of the area south of Baghdad that American troops had dubbed the “Triangle of Death.” They were in farmlands, he said, “but these guys didn’t look like farmers. They were lean, tough, in their twenties. Their answers were crisp. Their weapons were clean and well oiled. . . . These are serious men, disciplined. They were very polite. They weren’t effusive.” That impressed him: They were acutely aware of how strong they were, and they weren’t kowtowing. They clearly didn’t feel they had lost the fight. His analysis was that “here was an enemy that, for reasons of their own, have come forward. . . . We had not defeated the Iraqi insurgents. What I took from that meeting was that they were still a going concern, but they were willing to take a chance with the Americans.”
Biddle, the sometime adviser to Petraeus, was even more impressed by the former insurgents he met a few months later in Arab Jabour, south of Baghdad. “They were by far the most professional military organization I’d seen in Iraq, aside from the Americans and the British,” he recalled. “They had a military bearing. They stood up straight. Their shirts were tucked in. I was simultaneously impressed, and glad that it was daylight.”
The Americans also were willing to be forgiving on motives, in part perhaps because it made it easier to work their with former enemies. Lt. Col. Mark Fetter, another officer working on reconciliation issues, said that in his experience, insurgents were young men who “have got to eat. There are so many we’ve detained and interrogated, they did what they did for money.”
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the U.S. division just south of Baghdad, summarized, “They’re honorable men and they want to take care of their families.”
The Americans learned a lot from their new friends. The police chief of Fallujah, Col. Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie, wanted to deter the manufacture of car bombs, so he ordered his force to monitor car mechanics’ shops, where the bombs were assembled, and also to count the oxygen tanks at the hospital, because the canisters were used as bombs. He knew to take those steps because he was a former insurgent. The downside was that along with his knowledge, he had brought his Saddam-era attitudes. While he insisted he didn’t torture prisoners, he did concede that he sometimes had them beaten. “Iraq obeys only force,” he explained to the Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan. He also said he had come to a better understanding of the U.S. presence: “I have realized that Americans love the strong guy.” His view of his country’s political future was equally blunt: “No democracy in Iraq. Ever.” Two months later, he would be given new reason for his harsh view of life in Iraq: Insurgents executed his uncle, a school principal, apparently in the hope that Zobaie would attend the funeral. The police chief cautiously stayed away, but a boy walked into it wearing a suicide vest, and many of his relatives were among the 23 dead.
If there was a question about motives, it was asked more of the Americans by critics of the process, who worried that the Americans were just paying the insurgents to stop fighting without any plans to ensure that the payments would continue as long as needed. One critic of the surge, Col. Gian Gentile, a thoughtful officer who commanded a battalion in Iraq in 2006, called the deals with militias “cash for cooperation.” He skeptically asked, “Have they really sided with us? Or, are they siding with their own side and using us and our money to prepare for a bigger fight down the road they know is coming?”
One officer involved in reconciliation issues, Maj. Brady, agreed that at least some insurgents were doing just that. “They watch TV,” and so are aware of the American political debate over leaving Iraq, he said. His guess was that they had decided “to get themselves into a position to defend themselves, if there is going to be a civil war. They are coalescing their forces.”
But others involved in the policy said such criticisms didn’t grasp what was happening. Foremost, said Mansoor and others, was the ability of Americans to help protect people, which turned groups and especially the sheikhs leading them. These men were angry with al Qaeda, and had asked the Americans to shield or help them. “You don’t get public rejection of al Qaeda if the people don’t feel secure, if they are going to get their heads lopped off,” said Rapp. “Our having troops in the population gives them confidence to do that, and that helps the Awakening spread.” Thus the surge reinforced and spread the turning of insurgent groups.
Months later, U.S. troops on a raid in southern Salahuddin Province found the revealing diary of a regional leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. The repeated theme of his entries in the fall of 2007 was how the flipping of the insurgency was eroding his group. “There were almost 600 fighters in our sector before the tribes changed course,” he wrote. “Many of our fighters quit and some of them joined the deserters.” Now, he said, he had “20 or less” fighters deemed reliable—and he wasn’t even sure about a few of those who seemed to be avoiding him. One former member kept possession of some 2,000 C-5 rockets and a sophisticated RPG-9 grenade launcher, he complained. “We have to keep trying with him to get our weapons and ammunition back,” he noted.
He had plans for revenge on those who had abandoned him. “We were mistreated, cheated and betrayed by some of our brothers who used to be part of the jihadi movement. Therefore we must not have mercy on those traitors until they come back to the right side or get eliminated completely.”
THE INSURGENT WHO LOVED TITANIC
Capt. Samuel Cook, who was commanding the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s C troop in the northern Tigris Valley in Salahuddin Province, a bit north of where that diary was discovered, had been pursuing the local leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, whom he considered a “very passionate, eloquent speaker, well educated.” The terrorist leader offered to talk, and Cook took him up on it. “He was tired of being on the run, and he no longer believed in what he had once been preaching,” Cook said. He provided information on the whereabouts of a higher al Qaeda leader for the province, who was killed in a firefight two weeks later.
He also told them that al Qaeda in Iraq had three major sources of funding: crime, the Kurds, and the Iranians. Cook would use this information adroitly, asking local Sunni insurgents why they thought al Qaeda was their friend, if it was on the payroll of the dreaded Persian power. The insurgents, who had affiliated with al Qaeda as the surge began to hit them, also were growing tired, Cook recalled.
Cook had a light touch. In December 2007, he sent a letter to the community wishing them a happy Eid al-Fitr, a festival that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and one of the most significant Muslim holidays. At the beginning of the Eid feast, he met with the al Qaeda man, telling him that he had enough evidence to detain him. The man responded that Cook was wading into a fight between tribes, implying that he didn’t understand the situation. Cook countered, “We have far too many reports from people in your own tribe to make this a tribal affair.” Cook then told the man and some sheikhs who had waited outside that the reconciliation process is not easy and that the al Qaeda man and he disagreed on his guilt, but that out of respect for the Eid holiday, he wouldn’t detain him at this time. As Cook hoped, those three actions—the letter, the meeting, and the show of respect—persuaded other insurgents to come see the thoughtful American.
One man who came in to talk was Sarhan Hassan Wisme, a local legend, described by Cook as “the Robin Hood figure at the height of the insurgency in 2006.” Sarhan boasted of having planted more than 200 bombs for attacks on U.S. troops, a claim he later happily repeated to Cook. His other specialty was killing locals who cooperated with the Americans. “The thing that intrigued me about him is that he was not afraid to tell us exactly what he had done to U.S. forces—proud of it almost.” The Americans had raided his house six times but never caught him.
Cook, an inquisitive man who grew up partly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where his father was a professor of religion, had several extensive conservations with Sarhan, beginning on the first day of 2008. These meetings weren’t deemed official interrogations because Sarhan wasn’t in custody and was told he was free to leave at any time. Cook didn’t want to capture one man; he wanted to turn his entire organization, or destroy it, if that became necessary. To ensure his knowledge was accurate, Cook had a soldier sit quietly in the room and take verbatim notes.
“Captain, you just make me out to be a very bad man, saying I have murdered, raped, and stolen,” Sarhan protested, according to those notes. “I fight only the Americans, and all of Sharqat is my witness.”
“What about car bombs?” Cook asked.
“If you have witnesses that I was part of a car bombing, then you can kill me right now,” the insurgent responded indignantly.
“You are part of a group and ideology that is destroying Iraq,” Cook said, not willing to cede any moral ground. “We have enough evidence to shoot you on sight. . . . When you leave, unless this meeting goes very well, I will still try to kill you.”
During several more meetings in January, Sarhan told Cook his life story. He worked at a fertilizer factory in nearby Bayji, home of a major oil refinery, and obtained some of his bomb-making materials there. He had started attacking the Americans in the spring of 2004, motivated by news of the American abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. He insisted that he attacked only Americans, not the Iraqi army or police. That wasn’t just a matter of ideology. His organization, the Islamic Army, had thoroughly infiltrated the police, who actually became quite helpful, warning him by cell phone when there was an American patrol coming to the town, one reason he was never found at home. Indeed, he said, one police major had donated his sniper rifle to the insurgents. He explained that the local police colonel had an agreement: “As long as JAI [the Islamic Army] does not attack Iraqi police or the Iraqi army, they are free to attack coalition forces.” Also, he said, the city council chief had an understanding under which contracts given by the Iraqi government and the U.S. military for local projects were steered to members of the insurgency, or at the very least made sure it employed them.
In January 2007, he had affiliated with al Qaeda after hearing its local mufti speak about the need to unify because the Americans were retreating from Iraq, and the insurgency had to stand as one to oppose the inevitable Persian attempt at domination. Here he hesitated. “There are things I don’t want to talk about because if we do talk about them, you may kill me,” Sarhan said.
“You are here as a guest and I will honor that,” Cook reassured him.
As the two men got to know each other better in subsequent meetings, their discussions would meander, as Cook sought to understand his onetime and perhaps future adversary. Hedging his bets, he used his company sniper team as his bodyguards during some meetings so they would get a good look at Sarhan in case they needed to shoot him in the future. The two men talked about Sarhan’s children, who were playing “Mujahadeen and Americans,” instead of the traditional “Cowboys and Indians.” Cook knew that Iraqis of all stripes loved American movies, particularly the 1997 epic Titanic. Sarhan told him that he didn’t watch any American movies, that they were products of the devil. Cook jokingly asked him if he liked Titanic, knowing it was enormously popular in Iraq. Why, yes, the insurgent confessed. He recounted watching it seven times and crying every time at the ending, as Kate Winslet lets the dead Leonardo DiCaprio slip into the freezing North Atlantic.
When Cook asked about another local insurgent cell, and whether they were responsible for the kidnapping and murder of five Iraqi soldiers four months earlier, Sarhan was contemptuous. “No, they couldn’t kill a chicken,” he sneered.
The exchange that struck Cook most was one in which he didn’t speak, but instead listened to a conversation between two Iraqis. In mid-January he brought Col. Ismael, a local Iraqi police commander he respected enormously, to sit down with Sarhan. Both were Sunnis, and in fact from related tribes, but had never met. “They are tribal cousins, and both chose very different paths to deal with the crushing loss they felt after the invasion,” Cook said. Their dialogue, which Cook recorded, does indeed read like a David Mamet version of recent Sunni history, as they jab and parry about the dilemma of feeling squeezed between two enemies, the United States and Iran.
“You know that your jihad is all bullshit,” Ismael asserted. “You cooperate with Iran”—a cardinal sin for a Sunni. “You know Iran is our number one enemy.”
Sarhan hit back: How could you call yourself an Iraqi yet cooperate with the American occupiers? “You are sworn to defend your country, is that right?”
“Yes, I defend my country,” said Ismael, who had been a colonel in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein and was wounded in Iraq’s war with Iran. “But you know the result of that. It is Saddam Hussein.” He pushed Sarhan to consider the consequences of an American departure. “You know if U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq, Iran will come. Their occupation will be intolerable.”
Sarhan was ready to take them on. “Then we will fight Iran and force them to withdraw from Iraq as well.”
“You are not thinking!” chided Ismael. “They will destroy this country!”
Ismael repeatedly attacked Sarhan on the issues of dignity and respect, the core values of Iraqi culture. “A lot of people are talking shit about you.” People in town were saying things behind his back, he said. “They say to you, ‘Hi, you are doing a good job of fighting the Americans,’ but when you leave, they say, ‘Let him go to Hell.’ . . . They make fun of you and talk about how you fucked up Iraq.”
Ismael knew his man. “Sarhan is a cold-blooded man, but I could see his eyes tearing up while Ismael lectured him,” Cook wrote in a patrol report. His interpreter told him after the meeting that as he had listened, he had “relived all the pain of the last five years.”
But Sarhan still wasn’t quite persuaded to give up. The Iraqi policeman who had arranged the first meeting with Sarhan informed Cook that the situation in the town was growing more dangerous. In late January, Iraqi police found a propane tank that had been rigged to explode and was being taken to Cook’s outpost. Also, a former coworker of Sarhan’s from the fertilizer factory was caught looking for a photograph of Cook, apparently to help in planning a sniper attack on the meddlesome American commander. More reports came to Cook that the insurgency might be preparing a new round of attacks—this time under Sarhan’s leadership. Cook had Sarhan brought in and tried to persuade him to give up. The insurgent agreed, but as a matter of pride, insisted that he be arrested not by the Americans but by the Iraqi police. On February 4, after a few more meetings, Sarhan finally turned himself in.
The effect of the turning of the insurgent groups was extraordinary, “the game changer,” Cook concluded. “The mufti for al Qaeda who had been so potent in his rhetoric against us gave the opening remarks at the reconciliation conference in mid-February in front of over a thousand people. He was now telling most of his erstwhile colleagues in the insurgency why it was time to lay down their weapons.” In the following days, 184 people came in to “reconcile” and be given parole. “It was a mass surrender in effect,” and it later spread to the rest of Salahuddin Province, Cook said. In order to be deemed “reconciled,” insurgents were required to:
• state publicly their commitment to lay down their arms,
• turn in all weapons,
• promise to help provide security,
• come in with a guarantor, who becomes subject to arrest if the insurgent can’t be found, and
• be ready to come in any time they are summoned.
They had seven days to consider those terms, after which they would be targeted. Most obeyed these rather strict rules of parole, Cook noted, and those who didn’t were arrested.
The rounds of conversations that followed “flipped the light switch on and allowed us to see the insurgency, the leaders, the structure, their tactics, everything,” said an amazed Cook. American tactics and practices immediately improved in myriad ways. For example, the new commander of the turned insurgents, now working with the Americans, strongly recommended that Iraqi police not be permitted to keep cell phones at checkpoints. He also named the Iraqi police officer who was responsible for keeping top insurgent leaders informed about the whereabouts of planned American raids. One such leader would tell Cook later about being warned and so hiding in a prepared hole next to his sister’s house, where a cow conveniently sat while the Americans looked for him.
Cook’s bottom line was that many low-level fighters had joined the insurgency for the money. By taking them away from al Qaeda and putting them on the American payroll, he said, the huge economic advantage of the United States was finally brought to bear in Iraq. “They could not compete with the sheer volume of cash we were able to put in people’s hands,” he said. Payments of $300 a month each to 1,500 local security guards amounted to nearly a half million dollars a month, he noted. “Instead of devoting twenty-five to fifty percent of my combat power to route security—patrols, sniper outposts, et cetera, I have been able to spend my time hunting—intelligence gathering, raids, overwatching enemy houses with snipers.”
Having former insurgents as guides also meant there was suddenly much more information on which to act, both because the insurgents were talking but also because they were no longer violently preventing civilians from doing so. Indeed, there were so many new informants that it made it difficult for the remaining insurgents to pinpoint the origins of the new American intelligence. They “knew where the [arms] caches were, they knew all the names of the al Qaeda leaders,” said Capt. Zane Galvach, a platoon leader in the 2nd Infantry Division’s 3rd Stryker Brigade.
All told, the Americans arrived at local cease-fires with 779 local militias, some as small as 10 men in a neighborhood, some as large as 800 armed fighters, said Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, who oversaw the U.S. military’s relationship with the groups in 2008. Permitting the Sunnis to field militias, commented Carter Malkasian, the counterinsurgency adviser to the Marines, was probably “one more step toward the fragmentation of Iraq.” Despite that concern, he endorsed the idea. It was time to select “least bad” choices. “Optimal is no longer a luxury the United States can afford,” he wrote. “Right now, we must focus on avoiding the worst possible outcome.”
A little noticed aspect of this embrace of former enemies was that it was a second major instance of the leaders of the U.S. effort quietly imitating Saddam Hussein. The first was Gen. Odierno’s decision that in order to secure Baghdad he had to focus on the surrounding Baghdad belts. After being weakened by his partial defeat in the 1991 war, Saddam also had reached out to Sunni tribal leaders. Just as Petraeus would allow former insurgents to keep their arms and patrol their neighborhoods, after the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam had “embraced auxiliary tribalism by allowing sheikhs to create their own private armies equipped with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and allegedly even howitzers,” noted Austin Long, a RAND Corporation expert on counterinsurgency.
But, Long noted, the U.S. policy faced an additional difficulty: It was opposed by the Baghdad government, while Saddam’s earlier move had been implemented by Baghdad.
Making peace with some of one’s foes made sense when one’s allies were sometimes secret enemies. In January 2007, for example, insurgents assaulted a police station in Karbala where U.S. advisers were based. One of the Americans was killed, three were wounded, and four were kidnapped, only to be shot and killed later. A subsequent investigation found strong evidence that some of the Iraqi police colluded with the attackers. Some left the compound before the assault began, and a back gate had been left unlocked. Also, the attackers somehow had obtained the uniforms worn by U.S. bodyguards. Later that year, the head of police intelligence in Karbala Province was detained after roadside bombs and other weapons were found in his house. In Baghdad, U.S. troops detained an Iraqi police lieutenant suspected of being a Shiite militia leader, only to have other policemen open fire on them from a checkpoint and from nearby rooftops. Six of the police were killed.
A study done at the U.S. embassy later in the year concluded that corruption was “the norm” in many of the ministries in the Iraqi government but that its extent couldn’t be determined, in part because “several ministries are so controlled by criminal gangs or militias so to be impossible to operate without a tactical force protecting the investigator.” The report singled out two ministries in particular as problematic. Unfortunately, they were two of the three most important: the oil ministry, loaded with revenue, and the interior ministry, which controls the police and other law enforcement organizations, such as the border patrol. Leakage at the oil agency was said to be “massive,” with much of the money going to the insurgency, the report alleged. It likened the interior department to a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization: “MOI is a ‘legal enterprise’ which has been co-opted by organized criminals who act through the ‘legal enterprise’ to commit crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, bribery, etc.”
ARMY 2006 VS. ARMY 2007
A sharp but illuminating squabble would break out later among some Army officers who had commanded in Iraq about whether the U.S. approach in 2007 really was that different from earlier years. Some contended that the manner in which the surge troops were being used wasn’t, in fact, a real departure. Nor did some of those earlier commanders think they had been on a losing trajectory. One such credible expert is Col. Gentile, the savvy officer who commanded a battalion in the southern part of Baghdad in 2006. “We did not fail” that year, he later argued. “In my opinion, we succeeded.”
In fact, he wrote, “there is little difference between what American combat soldiers did in 2006 and what they are now doing as part of the ‘surge.’” In his view, they were out doing what needed to be done, conducting some 3,500 patrols. “We cleaned up the garbage, started to establish neighborhood security forces, rebuilt schools and killed or captured hostile insurgents, both Shiite and Sunni.” Most important, Gentile contended that “our fundamental mission was to protect the people”—just as it was a year later under Petraeus and Odierno.
Strikingly, Gentile argued that the decline in violence in 2007 was primarily the result of the cease-fires with the Sunni insurgents and the Sadrist militias rather than from anything the surge did. “The dramatic lowering of violence in summer ’07 had more to do with the decision to ally with our former enemies to fight al Qaeda and the reciprocating effect of them not attacking us anymore combined with Sadr’s decision to stand down attacks explains the lowering of violence,” he wrote.
But there were some fundamental flaws in Gentile’s argument. Pete Mansoor, before working with Petraeus on counterinsurgency theory and then becoming his executive officer, had commanded a brigade in Baghdad in the 1st Armored Division. As intellectual antagonists, he and Gentile were well matched: Both had commanded large units in combat around Baghdad, and both had earned doctorates in military history at elite institutions. Mansoor responded emphatically to Gentile in a posting on the website of the Small Wars Journal:
The troops did not fail in 2006, but the strategy did. Gian Gentile is wrong when he writes about 2006, “Our fundamental mission was to protect the people.” In fact, the fundamental mission in 2006 was to transition the mission to Iraqi forces. And there were not just “fewer Combat Outposts” in Iraqi neighborhoods in 2006; in fact, there were almost none. Gentile’s troops were forced to try to protect the Iraqi people by commuting from Camp Victory and other large bases on the periphery of the city.
Gentile flatly rejected that challenge. “My mission was to protect the people, period!” he responded on the website.
No, countered Mansoor, quoting the overarching document that guided the 2006 campaign plan, which stated that “completing this transition [to Iraqi self-reliance] . . . is the focus of the Campaign Plan.” Not a focus, Mansoor noted, but the focus.
Others in Baghdad greeted Gentile’s arguments with a mix of bewilderment and anger. “Gentile had a different stance,” said Maj. Gen. Hammond, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which replaced the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad early in 2008. “It was night and day. He was FOB-centric. We are JSS-centric”—that is, with operations built around the “Joint Security Stations” out in the city.
Indeed, Gentile’s account omits certain key differences between how the Army operated in Iraq on his watch and then a year later. Most important, almost all his troops lived on a big base, Forward Operating Base Falcon, and interacted with the Iraqi population only while on patrol outside it. No matter how many patrols they conducted, they didn’t live among the population. Early in 2006, I was embedded with his unit, the 8th Squadron of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. One night at the base I was sleeping in a small building that was separated from the world of Iraq outside only by a series of tall cement barriers. As I dozed off in my sleeping bag, there was a small firefight going on just on the other side of the wall, but it was between Iraqi forces and someone else, and seemed very distant. I inquired the next morning, but no one on Gentile’s staff seemed to care much about what had happened on the other side of the wall. So I disagree with his argument that “the accuracy of reports that tout differences between counterinsurgency methods in 2006 and 2007 are mostly off the mark.” By contrast, I remember being astonished in January and February 2006 at how invisible the American military presence had become on the streets of Baghdad. If troops are not present, they almost certainly aren’t protecting anyone who is.
Most conclusive was a comment made by the operations officer for an Army battalion operating in Gentile’s old area during the surge. Interviewed by an officer from the Army’s Center for Lessons Learned, he reported that locals who had once been insurgents told them that until the surge increased the U.S. presence in the area, they had largely ignored the occasional American patrol. Their practice, the former insurgents reported, was, “Just let them drive through, we won’t see them again for weeks.”
THE GENERAL WHO LOVED GERTRUDE BELL
But Gentile was correct in noting that American officials were indeed cutting deals with all sorts of characters they previously had shunned, and that these agreements were significantly reducing violence. In some ways, the story of the Iraq war in 2007 was the Iraqification of the American effort. Not only had Americans stopped trying to Americanize Iraq, they were themselves willing to become more Iraqified. After an American soldier got into a lethal fight with an Iraqi policeman in Ramadi in the spring of 2008, his commanders acted as if they were Iraqis. Rather than go directly to the family or tribe of the dead policeman, they followed local custom and approached a sheikh of another tribe and asked him to act as a mediator. He quizzed them about the incident and then escorted them to the family, which followed the expected routine and acted emotionally, with hundreds of related tribesman shouting “Death to America” and “The occupiers must leave.” After a series of meetings, Col. Charlton, commander of the brigade that replaced MacFarland’s, agreed to step up a reconstruction project that the tribe wanted—effectively paying blood money. This lengthy process averted “a potential disaster” in which the tribe could have turned hostile, concluded Capt. Elliott Press, an intelligence officer under Charlton.
The embrace of the tribes and their ways could have happened earlier, but was discouraged by senior U.S. officials for ideological reasons, said an Army officer who had served as a strategist in Iraq. “In ’03, the commanders were working with the tribes and they got hammered for it,” he recalled. “I was in a meeting with [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and we said, ‘These tribes are a powerful part of the social structure.’ Wolfowitz said, ‘This disturbs me greatly. Iraq is a cosmopolitan society.’ ”
In 2007 the American effort, overall, stopped fighting Iraq’s tribal structure and instead started to cooperate with it. “Tribal society makes up the tectonic plates in Iraq on which everything rests,” concluded Brig. Gen. John Allen, the deputy commander of the Marines in Iraq that year. Acting on that insight, Allen effectively became the Marine ambassador to the sheikhs of al Anbar Province, flying frequently to Amman, Jordan, to meet with them there in private homes and at the Sheraton Hotel, whose three-tiered lobby of rich marble and divans nestled in lush vines has an almost Babylonian feel of hanging gardens.
The Marine Corps has a greater tolerance for outliers and even flat-out eccentrics than the Army does. Allen is no oddball, but he is unusual. He has three master’s degrees in international relations and related subjects, had taught political science at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, where it is more common to see diplomats, academic, and investment bankers than Marine officers. Like Petraeus, Allen also thrived in command. For example, as a company commander, he won the Left-wich Trophy, awarded in the Marines every year to one captain who has demonstrated outstanding leadership skills.
Allen’s task was to expand the accomplishment of Sean MacFarland’s brigade and its attached Marine units in Ramadi. MacFarland had run into a lot of skepticism in the Marines about what he was trying to do in Ramadi, but not from Allen. “I felt like he got it immediately,” MacFarland said. “He was finishing my sentences for me. He was Mozart to my Salieri.”
Allen was ready to take the reconciliation talks to a new, regional level. “It became clear to us that this Anbar fight was being fought over the region, in hotel lobbies and rooms around the Gulf,” Allen said. “You’d have a meeting with a sheikh in Amman or an Iraqi businessman in Dubai, a phone call would be made, and something beneficial would happen” back in Iraq, such as hundreds of tribesmen showing up at a police recruiting office.
In a June 2007 meeting in Amman, for example, he expressed a desire to see Sheikh Mishan al-Jumayli, who was living in Damascus. One of the sheikh’s sons had been killed by mistake at an American checkpoint in 2003. A second one was murdered by al Qaeda in 2005. After that, his wife died of a broken heart, the sheikh said. An Iraqi businessman at the meeting whipped out a cell phone, hit one button, and got Sheikh Mishan on the line. The next morning they met first on neutral ground in Amman and then in Allen’s room at the Sheraton. Allen asked the wary sheikh to return to Iraq, telling him that his presence in his tribal lands in al Anbar could turn the tide against al Qaeda. Mishan demurred: “It’s not time. I will return when Allah wills it.” Well, proposed Allen, if you should change your mind, I will fortify your compound and train your bodyguards. One of the lessons he had learned was that working with the tribes requires “tactical patience,” a military virtue the American armed forces tend to neglect or even disparage.
Several weeks later Allen was contacted by an intermediary in Amman. Sheikh Mishan’s third son had been killed by an IED near Fallujah, and he wanted to know if the offer was still good. The next day Allen and a team of Marines from al Anbar were on a Marine C-130 cargo plane to Amman. The sheikh, his sole surviving son, and his spiritual adviser flew back with them, with the sheikh sitting in the cockpit and emotionally looking out over the western desert of Iraq. As they landed at a Marine base, helicopters were waiting to fly the sheikh to Fallujah, where he was met by local sheikhs. “They took him home, and that began the turning of Karmah,” which had been a persistently tough town for the Marines. Each of these “turnings” would have concrete results as tribal members manned the police and brought their militias into alliance with the Americans.
Not that the job was done. “Al Qaeda counterattacked right away,” Allen remembered. “They put about ten members of his family in a house and dynamited it.” Then one of the sheikh’s subordinate leaders was shot by a sniper, and Allen stayed with him through his surgery. Then his brother’s house was mortared, wounding several family members.
The attacks diminished but never really ended. In June 2008, a suicide bomber hit a meeting in Karmah and killed 13 other sheikhs, the town’s mayor, and the commander of a Marine battalion and also the CO of one of his rifle companies.
Another problem was the relatively low stature of the main American ally among the tribal leaders, Sittar albu-Risha. Farther up the Euphrates River Valley, Allen recalled, “They’d talk about Sittar the criminal, the smuggler, the second-tier sheikh of a third-tier tribe. At this point many of the sheikhs from the older, larger tribes were unwilling to subordinate their prestige or tribal equities to Sittar, even though he’d apparently been able create a strong relationship with the U.S. Army brigade in Ramadi.” Also, Sittar was pushing for greater political representation, arguing that he and his followers had liberated Ramadi, the provincial capital and so should receive half the seats on the provincial council. He didn’t get that, but he got a voice. And by August 2007, when Sittar sponsored a meeting at his compound, nearly all the sheikhs in the province showed up, “voluntarily,” said Allen. When President Bush visited al Anbar Province the following month, Sittar was seated next to the president, at the recommendation of the governor. Always smooth-tongued, Sittar told Bush that as soon as the fighting was done in Iraq, “We’re ready to go to Afghanistan to help you.”
Only 10 days later, just after Petraeus testified to Congress and just before the first anniversary of the crucial meeting in Ramadi, Sittar was blown up in his backyard by a buried bomb.
Allen is an unusual Marine. “I probably would have been an archaeologist had I not wound up where I am,” he said. He was particularly influenced by the writings of Gertrude Bell, the British expert on the Middle East who was a colleague of T. E. Lawrence’s and spoke far better Arabic than him but lacked his skill at self-promotion. She worked extensively in Iraq advising the British government, especially on tribal affairs. An heiress, the author of many books, translator of Arabic and Persian poetry, and a mountain climber, she also founded what became the Baghdad Archaeological Museum before committing suicide in Baghdad in July 1926, likely because she knew she was suffering from cancer. “She had the life I perhaps would have liked to have had,” Gen. Allen said. He read her books, letters, and diaries, especially after he found some of them posted on a British university website. He studied her writings on the Iraqi tribes. “When the tribes are at their best they live in a condition of splendid equilibrium,” he said, quoting from her diaries. Lifting a book from his desk, he read aloud her comment about the British campaign in Iraq during World War I: “ ‘Before the smoke of conflict has lifted, within the hearing of the guns, the work of reconstruction has been initiated.’ ”
Bell had a gimlet eye for the politics of Iraq. In commenting on the rebellion against the British occupation after World War I, she wrote, “The tribes witnessed the withdrawal of British administration and were convinced that their efforts would, as they had been assured, drive the British out of Mesopotamia. This conviction spurred on those who had already risen and won over the half-hearted, who could not risk being left on the losing side.”
Allen saw Iraq through the lens provided by Bell. “If you are not a member of a tribe in Anbar, you have no status,” he said. “You’re probably a dead man.” He was fascinated to see former al Qaeda fighters petition for reentry into their old tribes. In the fall of 2007, Allen recalled, Sheikh Khamis of the Albu Issa tribe issued an edict: “You have to put your name on a public statement that you will fight al Qaeda. And then you must have the blood of al Qaeda on your hands.”
Tribal justice was far from unsophisticated, Allen advised other Marines. “It’s about mediation, conflict resolution,” he would say. “Remember, there’s a thousand years in this operating system.” As al Qaeda’s leaders fled the province, leaving behind their foot soldiers, he began to see many more such statements, he said. An entire IED cell came in one day and simply surrendered out of the blue. “They were simply exhausted by the relentless pursuit of Coalition and Iraqi security forces and had lost hope in their cause.”
A BALANCED STRATEGY
Petraeus hadn’t said so publicly, but he had brought the means and ends of U.S. strategy more into balance. Not only had he and Odierno increased the resources devoted to the war, primarily with the addition of 30,000 troops, his new, more realpoliitik approach had reduced the size of the opposition, even if that mean negotiating with people who had killed American troops. Finally, after years of driving its enemies together, the U.S. effort was splitting them apart, thus obeying Andrew Krepinevich’s law of the conservation of enemies: Never make more than you need to have at any one time.
With the new approach, it was possible to make better distinctions. “The insurgency had three levels,” Capt. Keirsey, the Baker Company commander in southern Baghdad, said he realized. “Top was the true AQI hard-core leaders. Next were those who were truly trying to protect their neighborhoods. Others were simply the criminals and such that try to exploit the situation for their own benefit or make a living.” The second group could be enticed simply by allowing them to maintain checkpoints and patrols if they cooperated and coordinated with U.S. and Iraqi forces. They and the third group could be bought off for surprisingly little—usually $10 a day, plus some reconstruction contracts for the sheikhs who brought them in. That was a small price to pay to keep alive American soldiers.
Keirsey gave the Iraqi security volunteers tough love. The volunteer group in his area was at first called “Heroes of Mulhalla Organization,” but the acronym HOMO made them decide to change it. Each member was vetted with a local member of the community. The Americans kept track of each endorsement. If the volunteer went bad, the endorser could be fined or even jailed. Those accepted were then issued a numbered badge. Every day an assignment sheet indicated by badge number which volunteers were on duty, and if a patrol found that the volunteer wasn’t there, they would report him so his pay could be docked. “We were extremely harsh on discipline,” Keirsey said. “Late for work, lose twenty percent of your pay for the month. Shirt not tucked in, lose twenty percent of your pay.”
In turn, he found the volunteers far more effective than the Iraqi police or army. After he asked for a list of the area’s poorest families, they developed one with 55 names, plus phone numbers and addresses. His patrols checked it out and found “the information was one hundred percent accurate.” Just to be careful, the company also developed “target packets” in case any of the volunteer leaders turned against them again. “Fortunately, that was never an issue,” Lt. Gross, the platoon leader, said.
With the passage of time they were able to build trust. “We picked up a lot of credibility in one incident,” Keirsey recalled. Local Iraqi volunteers came under attack without American troops nearby. After they called Keirsey’s unit on a cell phone, desperate for help, he was able to get U.S. attack helicopters to fly to their defense. Later that day, the Iraqi militiamen wanted to come visit him to express their gratitude but were detained at a checkpoint. “We got them out.”
One nagging question is whether Petraeus and Odierno had tried only to harmonize policy and strategy—or actually had overstepped their bounds by setting policy. There is evidence that they did overstep to a degree, but in a forgivable way, because there was a strategy vacuum at the White House. As part of this, they quietly downsized American goals in Iraq, lowering their sights to trying to achieve sustainable security, but not necessarily aiming for an Iraq that is democratic, respects human rights, and is an ally of the United States. Thus they brought means and ends more into balance—despite Bush’s continuing presidential rhetoric about victory and liberty. The two big American bases just west of downtown Baghdad were called Camp Victory and Camp Liberty. But if they were labeled truthfully, they would have been renamed Camp Accommodation and Camp Stability, as those were the new goals of the American effort.
The danger of making policy on the fly and not vetting it through scrutiny and debate is that it may win short-term advances without recognizing long-term costs. As Long, the counterinsurgency expert at the RAND Corporation put it, “The tribal strategy is a means to achieve one strategic end, fighting al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but it is antithetical to another, the creation of a stable, unified, and democratic Iraq.”
It was no coincidence, added Marc Lynch, a Middle Eastern expert at George Washington University, that after the United States began cutting deals with local militias, both the Sunni and Shiite communities began “fragmenting at a remarkable rate.” There was still a scramble for power in the future Iraq; the Americans had just made sure there would be some Sunni entries in the race.
BAGHDAD SATURDAY NIGHTS
One reason Petraeus was able to bring Bush along into these hazy areas of half deals with enemies and threats to friends was that he is skilled at managing upward, especially at the strategic level. Part of the job, as Petraeus saw it, was to “make sure your bosses understand the mission.” For him, much of that educational task came during his weekly video-teleconferences with President Bush.
Preparation for those sessions began with Lt. Col. Charlie Miller, who had known Petraeus for well over a decade, having been a second lieutenant in Petraeus’s battalion in the early 1990s. Indeed, Miller had been across the street at a different firing range when a sergeant told him the battalion commander had just been shot. Miller didn’t believe it at first, thinking that the NCO was pulling a green lieutenant’s leg.
Now, 16 years later, the two were in Baghdad. Every Saturday night Miller would sit down and write one of the world’s most exclusive memos, about what he thought the president needed to know and understand about this week of the war. Miller—smart, boyish, and sincere—would take notes all week, as would his boss, Col. Rapp, the head of Petraeus’s internal think tank, who traveled around Iraq with the general. Miller also would review the week’s operations. In particular, he would look for a theme, something that pulled together the events and data of the week.
At around 7:30 on Saturday evenings, Miller would walk across the bridge from the palace at Camp Victory, over the shallow artificial lake, to the path winding to the mess hall, where he would get a take-out meal. He would bring it back to his desk in a cubbyhole just outside the office Petraeus kept there. Then he would begin writing, sipping big cups of coffee as he did. His first paragraph summarized the security situation. His second was about politics and economics. By midnight he would have about 2,500 words on his computer screen.
On Sunday morning he would send it to Col. Rapp, who would edit it. “We try to use it to push Petraeus, see if we can get some edge into it,” Rapp said. On Sunday night, Petraeus and his writing aide, Liz McNally, would go over it. “He handwrites all over it,” Rapp said.
On Monday morning, Rapp would take back the memo, by now edited down to four or five pages long, and e-mail it to just a handful of people—the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the chief of the Central Command. Not even the other service chiefs, or the White House, were copied in—President Bush would get the message directly from Petraeus during their electronic meeting that afternoon. “When they are declassified, these weekly reports will be a big part of the history of the war,” Rapp said. “He doesn’t pull any punches.”
In late October 2007, for example, Petraeus began to worry that the president would again begin talking about how everything was going well in Iraq, in part because of assertions by some Special Operations officers that al Qaeda in Iraq had been defeated, so one memo then focused on avoiding presidential triumphalism. “I just wrote for him, ‘Mr. President, you need to be measured, you need to say, “We are putting the hurt on al Qaeda, but they are not finished,” ’ ” Rapp said.
On Monday afternoon, at 3:35 Baghdad time, which during much of the year was 8:35 in the morning back in Washington, Petraeus would talk by video-teleconference with the president. Ambassador Crocker usually would also participate. These sessions usually would go on for about an hour, with Petraeus and Crocker on camera, and Mansoor and Rapp sitting to the side. Rapp said Bush was far more imposing in the sessions than his public persona would lead one to expect. “I think America’s view of the president, whether they like or dislike him, is what they see of him reading a statement at the podium, which isn’t impressive, in my opinion,” Rapp said. “In these meetings, he is masterful—good political insights, good handle on the subject.”
Miller agreed that the private Bush was strikingly different. “I wish he would come across a little more in public like that.”
If Bush and Petraeus disagreed, Rapp said, Bush would make his view clear but still give the general a green light. “He’ll say, ‘I’ve got some concerns about that, but if you think that’s the way to go, Okay, let’s try it,’” he said. Overall, the tone of these meetings was remarkably more collegial than they had been when Rumsfeld was defense secretary, said one Army officer. “The VTCs I sat in on, I was just fucking amazed at how that guy treated people,” he recalled. “He was just exceedingly combative in an unhelpful way.” Now, with Gates’s becoming a quiet force at the Pentagon and Petraeus’s bonding with the president across the oceans in a way the American people never saw, the American conduct of the war moved forward, perhaps less grandly, but with a coherence and unity of effort it had lacked since the invasion long ago in 2003.