(Summer and Fall 2007)
At 9 A.M. on June 13, 2007, insurgents dynamited the two minarets remaining at the shell of the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra, which had been bombed 16 months earlier. The renewed attack on one of the holiest sites for Shiites clearly was meant to spark sectarian fighting. Petraeus’s heart sank as an aide told him about the attack. “You know, you have moments where you can feel the blood coursing through your body as news comes in.” He had previously endured only two such moments during his three tours in Iraq, he said. The first time was when his 101st Airborne Division took casualties during the invasion of Iraq, and the second was later in 2003 when two Black Hawks collided over Mosul, killing 17 of his soldiers.
Petraeus’s Green Zone office is only a few steps from Crocker’s. He immediately walked over to see the ambassador, who listened and then said, “Oh, shit!” They were both thinking that this could be like the first bombing of Samarra that had preceded the small civil war of 2006.
The two immediately decided to go see Maliki. As they were driving across the Green Zone, with Sadi Othman, Petraeus’s interpreter and counsel on Iraqi affairs, also in the car, Crocker recalled, “Dave and I just looked at each other, didn’t say anything—didn’t need to say anything—because we both knew that this was where the whole thing could spin out of control.” Upon their arrival at the prime minister’s office, Maliki told them the same thing. Everyone was terrified that this would kick off another round of sectarian fighting.
“It was a hard meeting,” recalled Othman. Maliki was furious. The prime minister complained that his commanders in Samarra had said they had control of the city and promised to him that the remains of the mosque would be protected. He worried that Shiites in the capital would soon be in the streets hunting Sunnis, burning their shops, homes, and mosques. That in turn might confirm to the Sunni Arab world what it had suspected all along about Maliki, that he was simply the head of the biggest Shiite gang in Iraq, not a real national leader who deserved diplomatic recognition.
Petraeus suggested sending in one Iraqi unit he knew that was trained and competent. But, as he knew, it was also 40 percent Sunni. Maliki resisted. Later that day, Maliki’s office would dispatch another more Shiite unit, the 4th Brigade of the 4th Division, that the Americans regarded as unready. “There was a big tug of war over that,” Petraeus said. Asked if he threatened to pull U.S. support for the operation, as some U.S. officers have claimed, Petraeus said, “I don’t know if I went that far, but I certainly raised it as a very serious concern. I am pretty sparing about ever saying that we are not going to support an operation of the importance of that one, [but] it was very clear that . . . we had very serious reservations about moving forward with a predominantly Shia, largely untrained, new unit that had a very low number of the leaders that it needed as well.”
The first two Iraqi units sent in weren’t ready to fight, Petraeus said. Some of them melted away rather than go into Samarra, a majority Sunni city. “It was unbelievably painful,” Petraeus said.
They also discussed whether to impose a nationwide curfew. Maliki said, “No, it’s going to be Baghdad, obviously up in Salahuddin, in Mosul,” but not anywhere else. The reason, he told the Americans, was “I don’t want to send the signal that we are panicking.”
That afternoon Maliki, Odierno, and Othman flew to Samarra. Upon arrival at the ruins of the mosque, Maliki fired some Iraqi commanders, Othman said.
Lt. Gen. Dubik, who had only been in the country a few weeks as the new overseer for training and advising Iraqi forces, also hurried to Samarra, where he was shocked. Months later, sitting in his Green Zone office late at night, he folded his arms and gazed up at the ceiling. “It was a harrowing day for me,” he recalled. “The first time I went up there it wasn’t chaos, but it was near. I thought, you got to be kidding me.” But he was impressed to see the minister of defense step in and personally reorganize the operation. “It improved over the following weeks.” Still mulling the memory, he folded his arms and again looked up. Overall, the battle was a huge learning experience for him, because his initial assessment was that the Iraqi military likely would fail—but it improved in a way he said he didn’t expect. “That was a big couple of weeks for me.”
Fourteen Sunni mosques were attacked in the days following the Samarra bombing, but after that, violence was no worse than usual. A full week later, Crocker began to relax a bit. “We just kind of took it day to day. I think it was probably day six or seven that I unclenched a little bit.” He had the sense that the Iraqis had looked into the abyss and turned away.
At Odierno’s headquarters, Maj. Kent Strader had a similar reaction. “You’re waiting for something bad to start happening”—he paused—“and then, nothing’s happening!” Intelligence officials began to speculate that the political atmosphere in Iraq was changing.
AN ADMIRAL IN THE HALLWAY
The battle of Samarra that never happened was one of three significant engagements Petraeus would face during the summer of 2007, events that would shape the next phase of the war. None of them came close to approximating a normal military campaign. Most important would be Petraeus’s confrontation with the U.S. Congress in September.
But well before that, he found himself engaged in a sharp and significant quarrel inside the U.S. military about how quickly to reduce the numbers of American troops in Iraq and also when to make those cuts. It began in March, when Adm. William Fallon took over at Central Command, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, but with a forward base in Qatar. He was new to the region and unfamiliar with ground warfare, but he was one of the most senior officers in the U.S. military—and indeed one of the few veterans of the Vietnam War still on active duty. Petraeus, by contrast, was one of the first members of the post-Vietnam generation, taking his first duty assignment as a platoon leader in May 1975, days after the last Marine helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and North Vietnamese troops crashed a tank through the gates of the Presidential Palace there. In 2007 Fallon had been an admiral for 13 years, having received his first star in October 1994, when David Petraeus was still a lieutenant colonel.
The Iraq war was the first extended campaign fought under the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act, which reorganized the command structure for U.S. military operations, made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs the principal military adviser to the president and the defense secretary, and also cut the service chiefs out of combat operations. The law also made the “combatant commanders”—the chiefs of Centcom, European Command, Southern Command (for Central and South America), Pacific Command, and two specialized headquarters, Special Operations Command and Strategic Command (for nuclear weapons)—the powerful princes of the American military. Until Petraeus and Fallon, the top pair of U.S. commanders in the Iraq conflict—Franks, Abizaid, Sanchez, and Casey—had all been Army generals, operating as much under its culture as under the formal structure of the U.S. military. But with Fallon’s move to Centcom, for the first time, the regional commander, or “CinC,” was from a different service than the war commander, the officer actually in the country leading the effort. Formally speaking, Petraeus answered to Fallon. But in practice he reported to President Bush. Indeed, Petraeus probably had a more direct relationship with his president than any field commander in an American war had enjoyed since the Civil War, when Lincoln could summon a general to Washington or board the River Queen to steam down the Potomac and up the James and meet with Grant and Sherman at City Point, Virginia. Defense Secretary Gates, like Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war, was welcome to listen.
But Fallon prided himself on being a strategic thinker, a sense he may have developed because there was little competition in that arena in the Navy, which in recent years had tended to be weak intellectually, aside from its elite counterterror force in Special Operations, which is practically a separate service. It is difficult, for example, to think of a senior Navy officer who has played a prominent role in shaping American strategy since 9/11, or of an active-duty Navy officer who has written a book or essay as influential as those produced by the Army’s Col. H. R. McMaster, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, and Lt. Col. John Nagl. There was some forewarning in his confirmation hearing that Fallon wouldn’t step aside simply because Petraeus was an Army general who talked weekly to the president while Fallon was a novice both in the region and in this type of war, and was arriving just after a new strategy had been hammered out. “I’m not going to hesitate to dive down and ask the tough questions if I don’t think we’re getting results,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee at that January session. “And that’s the key thing that’s missing in this entire program of late.” Just in case the senators didn’t get the message, he added later that day, “I am not a particularly patient man.”
Petraeus went out of his way to be respectful of Fallon, who had been shaped by the Navy, the most tradition-conscious of the armed services. “In e-mails and conversations he always ensures that he calls Admiral Fallon ‘boss’ or ‘sir,’” observed one Centcom official who watched the two interact. “This is a big point with Admiral Fallon as he has the Navy mentality of formality.”
In April, just weeks after taking command at Centcom, Fallon called into his office Gen. Barbero, who was preparing to replace Fastabend as Petraeus’s strategic adviser in Iraq. For about half an hour, the admiral held forth on what was wrong with the way the Iraq war was being conducted. The theme of Fallon’s lecture, Barbero recalled, was, “I think we have too many troops there, we have to relook this.” Barbero, who had been thinking about the Middle East since 1989, when he wrote his master’s thesis on the Iran-Iraq war, thought the admiral didn’t have his eye on the ball. What Petraeus needed, he thought, was help with regional influences on the Iraq war, such as intervention by Iran’s Quds Force. “What we didn’t need is someone to tell us what to do in Iraq, which is where we were” at that point, he said.
Fallon began by holding up troop requests that until then had been considered routine, such as for a company of engineers or some specialists in traumatic wounds to the brain. “We were putting in requests and getting fucked continuously,” recalled Fastabend. “Fallon’s default position was No. You had to prove why he was wrong.” After a lot of back and forth, the admiral would accede to the request, having made his point. To smooth the way, senior Centcom staffers began to send back channel notes to Baghdad, telling Petraeus’s subordinates what not to ask for, because they wouldn’t get it.
Fallon’s next step, in June, was to quietly send an emissary, Rear Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr., to Iraq to review Petraeus’s strategy. It was a surprisingly inept move for Fallon to make. The strategy had been in place for just a few months, and was at the make or break point. If it didn’t work, it would be time not to revise it but probably to pull the plug on the war and begin planning a strategy to contain post-American Iraq. Also, Winnefeld was a career naval officer, out of step with the Iraq environment. “Why don’t we put a general in charge of a carrier strike group?” laughed Charlie Miller, who referred to the admiral as “the spy.” There were plenty of Army and Marine officers at Central Command whom Fallon might have sent to Baghdad. Winnefeld might bring a fresh view, but it was an ignorant one, painfully unaware of many of the bruising lessons learned by the Army and Marine Corps—let alone Iraqi civilians—over the previous four years. Nor was he steeped in counterinsurgency theory, as were all major U.S. commanders in Iraq by the summer of 2007. Fallon, inexplicably, thought he knew more about counterinsurgency than did Petraeus, telling Bob Woodward that the new manual was okay as far as it went but was outdated. Most unforgivably, Fallon, for all his emphasis on formality, didn’t seem to give people a heads-up, a violation of military courtesy that unnecessarily antagonized commanders in Baghdad. “What surprised me is I didn’t know he [Winnefeld] was here wandering around, for the longest time,” said Odierno. “When you have a two-star here for three weeks—that’s strange.”
Officers in Baghdad didn’t see Winnefeld, who had served as Fallon’s executive officer, as stupid. “You don’t get to be where he is by being a dumbass,” Rapp observed. But they didn’t find him intellectually honest in his mission. “He came here with a conclusion and was looking for evidence to fit above that final paragraph of recommendation in his report.”
Winnefeld’s proposed solution echoed Fallon’s inclination to withdraw the U.S. military from the fighting, and move completely into training of Iraqi forces. “Great idea, sir,” Rapp commented sarcastically. “Who’s gonna do it? And who’s gonna fight while those people train?” Fallon’s hope was to make the main mission of the remaining U.S. forces sealing the border to stop the flow of foreign influences into Iraq. Meanwhile, Special Operations troops would continue to go after al Qaeda in Iraq, and U.S. forces would draw down to 10 brigades during 2007—that is, halve the U.S. combat power in Iraq, not only going back to the pre-surge level of combat power almost as soon as the five brigades had all arrived, but then taking away another five brigades.
To officers in Baghdad, Winnefeld’s views amounted to a recommendation to dump everything that was beginning to work—the troop increase, the use of counterinsurgency tactics, and making the mission the protection of the population—and instead return to the failed policies of 2003-6, which in their view had brought the United States perilously close to the edge of defeat in Iraq. His conclusions, said one senior officer, shaking his head, were “so simplistic.” This in turn deepened their unease with Fallon: This was his idea of helping out?
Fallon apparently liked what Winnefeld had to say. In midsummer, he sent word to Petraeus, recalled Barbero: Get ready for a change of mission this fall. Security was going to be downgraded as a goal, and the top task would be transition—that is, exactly what it had been until Odierno and Petraeus arrived. And as part of the change, a drawdown in forces would begin in the fall of 2007.
Petraeus sent word that he disagreed. He wanted to continue the mission. He offered some thoughts about the points at which future decisions could be made about the size of the U.S. troop presence.
“This wasn’t just a disagreement between flags, but a military command structure that was, in effect, fighting the president’s direction by nibbling away at the general he’d picked to carry out his mission,” retired Army Col. Bob Killebrew commented in reviewing this bureaucratic infighting. “By bucking Petraeus, he [Fallon] was bucking the commander in chief.” Fallon’s disruptive role was beginning to be talked about back in Washington. Eliot Cohen, who had joined the administration earlier in the year as counselor at the State Department, noticed this during his assessment trips in Iraq. “Fallon was just a disaster,” he concluded. “He left people seething. The Marines were saying, “We were trying to tell him what is happening in Ramadi, and he starts telling us.’” Petraeus had the same experience, with Fallon flying to Baghdad to tell him what was going on in Iraq.
Petraeus generally was open during a series of interviews done for this book in 2007 and 2008, but the subject of his relationship with Fallon was one area where he not only grew close-mouthed but testy. “Look, this isn’t a soap opera,” he snapped in January 2008, showing more anger than is his wont. “This is a deadly serious endeavor and we talked about things in a deadly serious way, but not some kind of great emotion.” He dismissed a rumor circulating at the time that Fallon had called him “chickenshit.” Among other things, he noted, he wouldn’t stand for it. “It’s bullshit,” he said, “If some fucking guy told me that, I would walk out of the office. I’d say, ‘Here, you got it, take over.’ ”
Fallon declined to be interviewed for this book. But in a previous interview with me, in December 2007, he conceded that he might occasionally have stepped on subordinates’ toes. “If you’re trying to lead,” he explained, “you’re never going to have everyone wanting to do the same thing.” Fallon never seemed to grasp that even though Petraeus was technically his subordinate, the general held all the cards. As long as Petraeus, Odierno, and Crocker held a united position, and Keane was in the background conveying their views to Cheney, they outweighed not just Fallon but the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff as well. As one of Petraeus’s aides put it, “If there is a beauty contest between the chiefs, Fallon, Casey, and I don’t know who else—well, Petraeus wins.”
As the friction between Fallon and Petraeus went on for months, some officers in Baghdad wondered whether they were getting the support they deserved and indeed needed at a very difficult phase of the war. This would especially hit them when they went home for leave or consultations. “You go to the Pentagon, and there’s no sense of a war going on, there’s no sense of everybody surging,” said Charlie Miller. “People ride the bus to work, ride the bus home, and go on. There’s been no inclination to accept institutional risk—like shutting the War College for a year, and sending the colonels out here as advisers.”
Nor did Fallon seem to grasp that with the ascendancy of Petraeus and Odierno during the winter of 2006-7, a generational shift had taken place in the war. Petraeus was the first officer to serve as top commander in Iraq who had fought in the war on a previous tour. So had Odierno. And many of the officers around them had commanded brigades or battalions on their own previous tours. They had been bloodied. They had been targeted for death by insurgents and militias. They had looked men in the eye and sent them to their deaths. For the first time in the war, younger officers could feel that they were being led by men who had some sense of what life was like for soldiers out in the streets, palm groves, and deserts of Iraq. “These are people who have moved forward through a very, very tough crucible,” said Abizaid, who had known them for years. They were far less inclined than their predecessors to tolerate peacetime protocol or bureaucratic chickenshit. And that was what they thought they were getting from Fallon in the spring and summer of 2007.
There also was a growing suspicion that while Fallon was meddling in Petraeus’s arena, he was neglecting his own responsibilities, with the result that Petraeus had to take on some of those tasks. Maj. Rayburn, who had worked for Central Command, for McMaster, and for Petraeus, and also had helped devise the American Enterprise Institute plan for a surge, offered as one example working with the Gulf States to lay the groundwork for their support of political compromise in Iraq. It was something that Fallon should have been doing, but it was being left to Petraeus. “It seems to me he’s had to do the job of the Centcom commander,” he concluded. “There’s a vacuum up there.”
Dubik, one of the most senior generals in Iraq in 2007, argued that the friction between Petraeus and Fallon wasn’t entirely a bad thing. “There’s a healthy tension that comes from an alternative path being considered. It adds to the intellectual energy. I think both sides grew, and I think it helped Petraeus and Crocker prepare for the congressional hearings in September. It sharpened their thinking.”
That was not the dominant view. One senior intelligence officer in Iraq called Fallon’s attempt in the summer of 2007 to rewrite the strategy a “disaster.” Mansoor, Petraeus’s executive officer, just shook his head: “Boy, that was weird.”
But it carried serious implications for the future conduct of the war. As the summer went on, it appeared that the Joint Chiefs might be closing ranks with Fallon against Petraeus. They were growing impatient, pushing for a swifter end to the surge and more emphasis on transitioning to Iraqi security forces. They also tried to shut down Petraeus’s back channel through Keane to the White House. In August, Gen. Casey, the chief of the Army, told Petraeus to back away from Keane. “You need to understand that Jack is perceived by the Chiefs as going around them,” Casey told Petraeus.
Petraeus wasn’t buying it. “The president should be able to get advice from anyone he wants,” he said, according to a senior officer who heard him express his strong views on the subject.
Petraeus’s direct line to the president made it difficult to slap him down. But his support could be nibbled away. That summer, Keane, who had worked to bolster support for Petraeus among White House aides, ran into Gen. Casey at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in northwest Washington, D.C. Casey was seething. “We feel—the Chiefs feel—you are way too out in front in advocating a policy for which you are not accountable,” Casey said to Keane, in a conversation first reported by Bob Woodward in his 2008 book, The War Within. “We’re accountable. You’re not accountable. And that’s a problem.” It was a particularly fatuous argument for Casey to mount, because there had been extremely little accountability for military officers—or others—in the Iraq war. Gen. Tommy Franks had designed an inept war plan and then retired as the insurgency erupted in the summer of 2003, only to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with two other officials who had made grave mistakes, former CIA chief George Tenet and former occupation chief L. Paul Bremer. Other Army generals had taken actions that had enflamed the insurgency, only to receive promotions at the ends of their tours. Indeed, Eliot Cohen, among others, pointed to the lack of accountability for generals as a major flaw in the conduct of the war. There seemed to be no relationship between battlefield performance by officers and subsequent promotions and assignments. By helping White House officials ask tough questions about the conduct of the war, Keane was injecting accountability into the system—and that was making the generals uncomfortable. “I always felt as a professional military officer that if he felt he had something to offer to the mission, he ought to have called me or contacted me in some way,” Casey said. “He never did.”
SUCCESS ON THE BATTLEFIELD
The summer of 2007 gave Petraeus the trump card he needed to prevail over Fallon. By late June and early July there was a new feeling emerging in parts of the American military across central Iraq. Despite the hard hits taken during their counterattack, there was a sense of having regained the initiative. That is an extraordinary accomplishment—typically, once one loses the strategic initiative in war, it is difficult, if not impossible, to regain it.
The effects first starting appearing at the bottom and began filtering upward. Capt. Keirsey, the commander of Baker Company, operating in southern Baghdad, began in the spring to notice “a shift in the mentality of the Iraqi populace.” In the beginning of the year, his men were attacked repeatedly every day. During the last quarter of 2007, they would not be attacked once. “The populace went from being entirely complicit with the insurgency to being supporters of our efforts,” he said later.
Overall, no clear improvement could be discerned. In fact, violence was increasing in many areas in reaction to the new presence of U.S. troops. But even as that happened, soldiers like Keirsey were noticing, here and there, that the mood of the people, the vibe in the air, was different—there is no more precise way to put it. One day in early spring a senior intelligence officer argued in a Baghdad meeting that despite the rise in U.S. causalities, the situation was improving radically. “When everyone was saying it was worse, I said, ‘Hey, this is working,’” recalled this officer, who until then had been known for his dour assessment of the situation. “I said, ‘We’ve turned the corner.’” He was greeted with disbelief. No, he persisted. “We are seeing it in interrogations.” Sunni fighters were reporting fatigue and disappointment. Their anger against the Americans seemed to have dissipated.
“Let’s be careful,” Petraeus admonished him. Everyone at the table knew that the American effort in Iraq had been plagued for years by assessments that overly accentuated the positive, to the detriment of understanding what actually was happening.
In past years this intelligence official had been sent to the White House to deliver his dark, contrary views of the Iraq war. Now, still contrary, he was ready to stand by his more hopeful evaluation—and once again he would find it unwelcome. “No,” he responded, “the enemy can no longer achieve his objectives.”
Another veteran intelligence official who was familiar with his longtime pessimism about the war and had heard about his conversation ran into him in Iraq that fall and asked, seriously, “Have you gotten Baghdad-itis? Are you just a cheerleader or do you really believe things are better?” The answer, of course, was the latter.
In April, Ambassador Crocker went to Doura, the same south Baghdad neighborhood whose devastation had so shocked Petraeus two months earlier. There he saw theory turned into practice: that is, that having an American soldier on the street corner would have a different political effect than having several Iraqi soldiers in the same spot. In response to the new presence of U.S. troops in the neighborhood, about three dozen shops had reopened. When he spoke to the shopkeepers, he recalled, “They said, ‘You’re back.’ I said, ‘We’re back because you’re here.’” They also told him that they didn’t trust the Iraqi National Police, which had acquired the reputation of being a Shiite militia in uniform, and still weren’t confident of the Iraqi army, but felt that the U.S. troops treated them decently. “Damn, this might work,” Crocker thought. By midsummer, he would be confident that it was, at least in improving security.
May proved to be an odd month, with contradictory signals: U.S. military deaths peaked at 126 lost, with more than another 600 wounded, yet there were also some signs of improvement. “There was a real clash of the data,” said Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, a planner for the 1st Cavalry Division who had been a prominent advocate of moving troops out into the population. “The casualty statistics were godawful. But it began to feel like it was working. We could sense the progress before it was measurable—we could feel it.” For the first time, he was getting upbeat messages from officers out in the streets, he said, with company commanders calling to say, “This is different, people are finally coming to us, and telling us what we need to know.”
In June, Barbero went on a foot patrol in Baqubah. “I was talking to company commanders, second-tour guys”—that is, officers seasoned enough to judge events on the ground—“and they were saying, ‘We’re beginning to see something different. The Sunnis are rejecting al Qaeda”’ He came away thinking, “Hey, this has got a chance.”
By midsummer, as the full surge took effect, with a total of about 155,000 U.S. troops in the country, the signs were becoming measurable. “It began cascading,” said Ollivant.
Sadi Othman began to think things were changing when he was in a market one midsummer day in Yusifiyah, one of the hard little towns just southwest of Baghdad, along the fault line between Shia and Sunni, an area, he noted, where a few months earlier “you couldn’t go in a tank.” He strayed away from the official party and its bodyguards to buy some figs. An aide to Petraeus took a photograph of him alone in the market and e-mailed it to him. Looking at the photo that night, he gulped: This was the street where just a few months before, “they used to dump bodies and decapitate people.”
Galloucis, the hawk-nosed, bald MP commander who had been so gloomy earlier in the year, began to see improvements in the quality of Iraqi forces immediately after a Baghdad Operational Command was established in March to coordinate their efforts, which had a “surge” effect of its own. “By July, you started seeing Iraqi forces out on the street—Iraqi army, local police, National Police. There was people all over the friggin’ place. Over time, the attacks, the deaths, the found bodies, all started going down. You started to feel better.”
On Baghdad’s northwest fringe, Maj. Michaelis, the operations officer of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry, began to notice in July a change in the “atmospherics” around the outposts the unit had established, in “the engagement we were getting from people who had been ignoring us, or had been hostile.”
For some Iraqis, the sign of improving security was a decline in the price of cooking gas, from $22 a tank, the price charged by some Shiite militias, to $2, the normal cost. Suddenly, with the Americans nearby and saying they would stay there, it no longer seemed like a bargain to pay high prices in exchange for militia protection against Sunni death squads.
Returning in midsummer from ten days of leave in London, Emma Sky was struck by the security improvement described in the military’s morning briefing. But, “as a matter of principle,” she had a policy of not believing anything she heard in official briefings. “I don’t believe statistics,” she explained. “Also, I don’t believe violence can stop violence. I didn’t have confidence in these population security measures, like these big concrete barriers.” She wanted to hear it from Iraqis. In late July, she said, to her surprise, Iraqis began telling her that American troops were protecting their communities. “Around Baghdad, we started seeing whole neighborhoods start to revive. We see neighborhoods start to sign agreements, and the government starting to bring in services. You started seeing ink spots—and ink spots spreading.”
Spec. Mark Heinl, a soldier posted in Doura, told an officer from the Center for Army Lessons Learned that the new posture of living among the people was working. “I’ve built real relationships and care about these people. And they care about me. . . . I’ve taught myself Arabic and can converse pretty well. Many people call on my private cell to let me know of a problem or something bad happening. At first, most of the ISVs [Iraqi Security Volunteers] were bad folks. But they realized AQI lied to them. Now they are willing to work with us as long as they see progress.” His conclusion: “This could work.”
Lt. Jacob Carlisle, his platoon leader, said that Petraeus’s new manual on counterinsurgency had changed his thinking. “We had read the COIN manual while at the IZ [International Zone, or Green Zone], and now it really began to come to life in our minds. We started to treat the people differently.” He added, “You must get to know the people. It’s only been recently that people started waving to us and treating us like people. It took us treating them like that first.”
For years, one of the major killers of U.S. troops had been attacks on supply convoys, both with bombs and with small arms such as rocket-propelled grenades. In response, U.S. commanders had outfitted trucks with armor and machine guns, but enemy tactics also improved, with the result that the number of attacks actually increased fairly steadily in 2005 and 2006. They peaked early in 2007. In January and February of that year, the chances of a civilian supply convoy being attacked was 1 in 5. By December, it would drop to 1 in 33. (And by April of 2008, it would be 1 in 100.) Also, the attacks were becoming less effective. “By the end of 2007, less sophisticated forms of IEDs—such as command wire-and pressure-plate detonated devices—had become the most common, possibly indicating a degradation in the supply networks or ability to coordinate and operate of the adversary,” the Congressional Research Service reported.
Reflecting such trends, in the second half of 2007, U.S. combat deaths declined steadily. After peaking in May at 126, there were 93 KIAs in June, when the surge troops all were in country, then 66 in July, 55 in August, and—eventually—just 14 in December.
Also, the Army’s annual survey of the mental health of troops in Iraq found that morale had rebounded sharply in 2007. Despite the hard fighting of the first half of the year—one-third said they had been exposed to sniper fire during their current tour of duty—the researchers found fewer reporting being depressed, anxious, or acutely stressed. “The surge hammered us at first but over the past couple of months it seems to be working,” one soldier told the mental health researchers. “Things are calmer now.” Soldiers also reported being more satisfied with the units’ leadership, cohesion, and military readiness. “If we were a football team, we are just now having a winning record,” another soldier stated.
One especially strong feeling was that of relief in not having to constantly keep “retaking” cities such as Samarra and Fallujah, which had become almost annual events. As a third soldier said, “I understand the surge and I believe the surge. I went into Fallujah three times and I could never understand why we kept having to retake things.”
There also was an intense debate going on inside the U.S. military about whether al Qaeda in Iraq had been defeated as an entity. The cascade effect that Capt. Cook had seen in one town was being replicated across central Iraq. In every city but Mosul, to which al Qaeda fighters were retreating, the terrorist organization was far weaker than it had been a year earlier.
Still, it was a near-run thing. In early August, just weeks before he would have to return to Congress to deliver his assessment of the state of the war, Petraeus began to think the surge was working. He later would insist that he always had thought it would, but conceded that actually doing it was a far tougher proposition. That is, he had believed that getting troops out with the mission of protecting the population would have a strong positive effect. “We were seeing the facts validate the academic proposition. The COIN manual has it—but it’s one thing to write it, another thing to operationalize it.” He began to write another letter to his troops that would say, “my sense is that we have achieved tactical momentum and wrested the initiative from our enemies in a number of areas of Iraq.” Coming from the careful Petraeus, that was a strong statement of optimism.
The sign that persuaded Campbell, the assistant commander of the 1st Cavalry, that the war was turning was that the locals “were turning in people.” They wouldn’t do that if they thought those they turned in would be on top again one day.
There were still plenty of problems—a huge bombing of the Yezidi people, an obscure sect in the north; the assassination of two Shiite governors in the south; the deterioration of Basra, the biggest city in the south and a vital center of commerce, into gangland warfare over control of oil exports and other sources of revenue. A study by the International Crisis Group found that city plagued by “the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors.” A new phenomenon occurred there as religious extremists began killing women who appeared without the head scarf called the hijab.
But even some of the violence helped American aims. In August a day of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in the holy city of Karbala killed 49 people. Moqtada al-Sadr apparently was embarrassed by the incident, which had pitted his Mahdi Army against fighters from the the Badr Corps, the other major Shiite militia. He announced that he was putting a “freeze” on his militia’s operations for six months, a period he later expanded. Sadr was taking a gamble of his own, that he could survive as a political power without having a fielded force to protect his turf and generate revenue from various forms of racketeering, extortion, and property seizures.
On the hot, dusty day of August 10, 2007, Petraeus and Rapp were flying from the U.S. base at Taji back to the capital. Rapp, who accompanied Petraeus to most of the general’s meetings, often used the time in flight to talk through new ideas. As they wheeled over the Abu Ghraib area, west of the city, Rapp turned to Petraeus and offered what he thought the next step in the war might be. “The violent way is the short way, and the peaceful way is the long way,” he said over the Black Hawk’s intercom. “Sir, if we want this competition in Iraq for resources to be resolved peacefully, then we have to prepare people for a long, drawn-out process.”
Petraeus liked the idea coming through the headphones. “You know, that’s really good,” he replied. He asked Rapp to write a memo on this thought. Over the following four weeks, it would become the core idea of his congressional testimony.
The bottom line, as Charlie Miller, who also worked on the testimony, thought of it, was: “This is going to be a long-term effort, it isn’t going to be easy, but if we keep plugging away, it just might work.”
That notion also would lead to more conflict with Adm. Fallon, because it argued that looking for a quick exit likely would lead to a replay of the violence of 2006. The long view “wasn’t exactly what Admiral Fallon wanted to hear,” Rapp said. “He had a shorter timeline than the CG’s”—that is, the commanding general’s.
As Petraeus came to think of it, the point he would make to Congress was that in late 2006, there was an average of more than 50 murders a day in Baghdad. “If you didn’t like where Iraq was then, you’d hate it if we just let it go,” he thought.
But he was still running into strong internal opposition from above in his chain of command. On a Saturday in late August, Col. Rapp recalled, Fallon flew to Baghdad to try to talk Petraeus out of the recommendations he was planning to deliver to Congress the following month. Petraeus planned to say, recalled Rapp, that “we have the right strategy, the surge is showing initial results, and we need to stay the course. And if you’re looking for a drawdown, it isn’t going to happen.” By contrast, Rapp said, at the meeting at Camp Victory, Fallon pushed for an accelerated transition to Iraqi forces, with faster training of them. “What Fallon wanted was a change of mission.” (In an interview, Petraeus said he didn’t recollect that meeting, saying only, “There were constant conversations during that period.” But Rapp’s memory of the day is so precise that it suggests Petraeus was just being discreet.)
A few days later, President Bush approved Petraeus’s mission statement, which called for security while transitioning—that is, continue the mission to protect the people, and keep the troops necessary to carry that out.
Fallon’s emphasis not only added to the friction with Petraeus, but also made officers in Iraq chary of talking about progress, for fear that it would be used against them. “Centcom is seizing any good news from Iraq to call for a quicker drawdown,” Miller said “I still think he [Adm. Fallon] sees it as his role to draw down in Iraq as quickly as possible. He seems to be operating out of the old playbook.”
Miller thought Fallon was a hypocrite. “He’ll be in public applauding the efforts in Iraq, but behind the scenes, it’s ‘cut, cut, cut.’”
PETRAEUS VS. THE CONGRESS
The third and most significant battle Gen. David Petraeus fought in 2007 took place more than 6,000 miles from Iraq. His two days of hearings on Capitol Hill in September of that year altered the course of the war, both in domestic political terms and in how it was viewed on the ground in Iraq. His approach to the hearings was adversarial, and it worked.
For months, Democrats had expected the September hearings to be decisive, even a conclusive point in the war. For example, Representative James P. Moran Jr., a Northern Virginia Democrat, had said in May, “If we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, September is going to be a very bleak month for this administration.” Some Republican allies of the president agreed that the Iraq strategy was doomed. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the same month that “the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it.” His counterpart in the House, John Boehner of Ohio, said, “By the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this is working, and if it isn’t, what’s Plan B.”
Listening to such comments, Iraqis began calculating not only that the surge would end soon, but that Americans would be heading to the exits in six months or so. “You saw them hardening their positions, because they thought we were going to leave,” Odierno observed.
Col. Steve Boylan, Petraeus’s communications adviser, calculated that the key to the hearings was understanding that it was not Petraeus but congressional Democrats who were in a bind. “My feeling was that Congress wouldn’t be able to put together enough votes to override a presidential veto, because then they’d own it,” he said. Here he put his finger on a basic dilemma the Democrats hadn’t been able to resolve: how to end the war without being blamed for how it ended.
Fastabend, Petraeus’s strategic adviser at this time, offered similar counsel: If you can put together enough small victories, you can demonstrate that defeat is not inevitable—and so he wrote to Petraeus “that the ‘bring ’em home’ crowd risked snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” What’s more, he noted, “they risked incurring the blame.”
It would indeed turn out to be the anti-war Democrats who ended September feeling forlorn. Before the hearings, the dominant political question had been how to get out of Iraq with the least damage. After them, the question would become how to find the least damaging way to stay in Iraq.
Petraeus and Crocker knew that after four years of consistently overoptimistic reports, the credibility of American officials remained low with the American people and especially with congressional Democrats. They were determined to deliver a sober, evenhanded assessment that wouldn’t leave them open to the same charge.
Petraeus laid the groundwork for that approach in the letter he issued to the troops as he left Iraq. While the initiative had been retaken, he expressed disappointment about the political state of Iraq. “Many of us had hoped this summer would be a time of tangible political progress at the national level,” he wrote. “One of the justifications for the surge, after all, was that it would help create the space for Iraqi leaders to tackle the tough questions and agree on key pieces of ‘national reconciliation’ legislation. It has not worked out as we had hoped.” It would be hard to charge that he was being rosy about Iraq.
As they ran together on Sunday mornings during the summer of 2007, Petraeus and Crocker had talked about how they would handle Congress in September. Petraeus’s calculation was that the debate back in the United States was stalemated, especially in considering the consequences of a pullout. “My job is not to make it easy on people back in Washington,” he said in his office over a cup of coffee in a 101ST AIRBORNE coffee mug. “Some of the debate has lacked a full discussion of the implications of various courses of action.”
On the Friday before the hearings, Petraeus gave Capt. Liz McNally, his staff writer, a printout of the statement he planned to deliver at the outset. She and Col. Mansoor cut it by about one quarter.
At the Pentagon, Boylan set up a “murder board” to rehearse Petraeus over the weekend. “The questions asked in our rehearsal were tougher than anyone asked” at the hearings later that week, Boylan said.
“Is it worth it, given the strains on the military and the divisions in the United States?” asked Charlie Miller. His suggested response was that only time would tell, but that it “definitely won’t be worth it if we fail due to a precipitous withdrawal.” As for divisions in the U.S., he advised, that was for the political system to sort out, not a general.
Boylan’s most pointed question in the Sunday rehearsal was, “Sir, explain to me why we have to lose one more American life in Iraq.”
Petraeus responded, “Okay, what’s your answer?” Boylan didn’t have one, but he wanted Petraeus to think about it.
On the day the hearings began, MoveOn.org, an anti-war group influential in the Democratic Party, ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times that mocked Petraeus as “General Betray Us.” Petraeus, it charged, was “at war with the facts.” And the facts, as MoveOn saw them, were that “the surge strategy has failed.” In addition, it said, “General Petraeus will not admit what everyone knows: Iraq is mired in an unwinnable religious civil war.”
In a narrow sense, the advertisement was understandable. For 15 years, beginning with the endorsement of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. William Crowe, senior retired military officers, some of them fresh from active duty, had been acting in a more politicized manner. Powell, the most political of active-duty generals, had written an op-ed on the eve of that election. In subsequent campaigns, candidates scrambled to line up slates of retired generals and admirals as endorsers. At the 2004 and 2008 Democratic conventions, old flag officers would parade on the stage in scenes oddly evocative of a beauty pageant. In the MoveOn advertisement, Petraeus was reaping what all those politicized generals and admirals had sowed: If generals wanted to influence politics, then they would be treated as part of the political arena.
Yet with regard to Petraeus, the attack was deeply unfair, as there was no evidence that he had been part of that trend toward politicization. True, he had been a Republican—registered in rural New Hampshire, where he owned some land west of the tiny town of New London—but he had kept that quiet, and thought he had been careful to avoid intruding on politics. He felt he had been a professional soldier doing his duty. “I’ve been deployed three of the last five years,” he said later that week. “My family has given a lot.” He was puzzled by the attack. (The Times’ ombudsman later would criticize the newspaper for giving MoveOn a discount, and also for violating its policy of not allowing personal attacks in advertisements.)
On the morning the advertisement ran, Rapp rode with Petraeus in a car from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, near George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, to the Capitol. “Petraeus did a good job of not showing it, but I know it stung,” he said. “He was just a little quieter than usual.”
Nor did he mention it later. “But I think he was personally affected” by it, said Charlie Miller, who noted that Petraeus grew up in Cornwall, New York, reading the New York Times, and continued to take it at West Point. Likewise, Capt. McNally, who had always read the newspaper, talked to her parents that night about the advertisement. Her father told her it was just “free speech,” but she was angry. “There was this institution I’ve always admired, so it was really disappointing.”
Crocker, the lifelong diplomat, took a less emotional approach. Upon first seeing the advertisement, he thought he was reading it incorrectly. “I couldn’t believe it, I thought I didn’t see this, that it can’t be what I thought it was.” He read it again and shook his head. As he read it through, his disbelief gave way to outrage, and then a grim smile. “They’ve screwed themselves.” His calculation was that he knew what Petraeus planned to say, and that it would amount to a “word-by-word rebuttal of that allegation.”
Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, began his panel’s session. The president had said that the purpose of the surge was to buy time for a political breakthrough, he noted, and that hadn’t happened. “It’s time to turn the corner, in my view, gentlemen,” he said, “We should stop the surge and start bringing our troops home. We should end a political strategy in Iraq that cannot succeed and begin one that can.”
Petraeus was conscious that one of the senators facing him that day—Barack Obama, McCain, Clinton, and Biden—likely would become his commander in chief in just over a year. “The cameras on these people were astonishing,” he recalled later. “When Biden went and sat down next to Obama, there was an explosion of clicks.”
While Petraeus and Crocker testified for almost two full days, on September 10 and 11, crouched in small chairs, being both berated and slimed with praise, their lower backs began to ache. “Those witness tables are diabolically designed to get you at just the wrong angle, and you sit at one for eleven hours or whatever it was, it’s a physical endurance test,” Crocker said.
In Petraeus’s case, it was especially painful because the effects of a recreational skydiving accident make it difficult for him to sit in chairs that don’t offer strong back support. One day in the autumn of 2000, he was above the Raeford Drop Zone, near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, descending well and making his final approach, when his parachute failed and he plummeted to the ground. “Basically, the nose collapsed about eighty feet off the ground going through what’s called dirty air,” he recalled. Even as he worked the chute to get back some lift, “I could tell I was going in for a hard landing.” The accident smashed his pelvis, which is now held together by seven screws and one large flat metal plate. He also emerged from the hospital a quarter inch shorter on his left side than on his right. What pained him almost as much was that to ease the strain on his mending pelvis, he had to sell his old manual-shifting Volkswagen Golf and buy a car with an automatic transmission—as it happened, a BMW. During breaks from the hearing, Petraeus gobbled Motrin pain-relief pills, taking 1,600 milligrams on the second day.
Crocker said later that he understood why the hearings had to occur. “It was important that that happened, and I can understand all the reasons for it, but if you are the one that’s sitting there over eighteen hours for two days, it’s less than fun, particularly the tone of some of the questions, which gets repeated and repeated and repeated. You can tell yourself look this is a part of politics and that’s the American system—but if you are the guys who are out there doing everything you can to make this work under pretty tough circumstances, when you get that kind of personal edge to it, that gets kind of tiresome.” He would find it growing a bit heavy. “There is some kind of mental deadening process sets in.”
Petraeus offered very little in his opening statement. He began by establishing his independence. “I wrote this myself and did not clear it with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or Congress,” he said. The military aspects of the surge were going fairly well, he asserted. “The security situation in Iraq is improving, and Iraqi elements are slowly taking on more of the responsibility for protecting their citizens.” If both those trends continued, he thought that by mid-2008, he could reduce his combat forces to the pre-surge level. That was it. He made no promises whatsoever—keeping a vow he had made to himself. He and Ambassador Crocker essentially said that they thought it was possible that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, but they couldn’t say how long the tunnel was, or how much time it would take to get through it, or actually where it led us.
“This is a sober assessment, but it should not be a disheartening one,” Crocker said in his own opening statement.
John McCain used his own time to break another set of Democratic arrows. While a strong supporter of the war, he took the lead in criticizing how it had been handled for the first four years. “The American people are saddened, frustrated, and angry over our past failures in Iraq,” he said. “I, too, have been made sick at heart by the terrible price we’ve paid for nearly four years of mismanaged war. Some of us from the beginning have warned against the Rumsfeld strategy of too few troops, insufficient resources, and a plan predicated on hope rather than on the difficult business of stabilization and counterinsurgency.” Now, he asserted, we were finally “getting it right, because we finally have in place a strategy that can succeed.”
That left Democrats little running room, but Russell Feingold of Wisconsin tried to find an opening. How could Petraeus claim progress when the first six months of 2007 had brought higher numbers of deaths than the first half of the previous year? “So, to suggest that there was some decline in the number in June and July, versus other months, does not address the fact that the number of troops’ deaths has greatly increased.” What Feingold couldn’t know was what troops on the streets of Baghdad had been sensing in various ways in recent months, that there was indeed a major change in the feeling of the place. Between June and December, the number of bomb, rifle, mortar, and grenade attacks in Iraq would decrease by some 60 percent, from an all-time high of 1,600 a week in June to below 600 a week by year’s end. Some 44 car bombs were detonated in Baghdad in February, killing 253 and wounding another 654, while there would be only 5 in December, killing 12 and wounding 40.
Well, yeah, Petraeus responded, I was leading a counterattack. “When you go on the offensive, you have tough fighting.”
The Democrats were beginning to sense that the sessions were going to have a far different result than they had expected. “General Petraeus, you indicate that hopefully within ten months, we will be able to get our troop levels down to one hundred thirty thousand, which is where we started, which is no troop reduction,” said Benjamin Cardin of Maryland. “We’re back to where we were before the surge, which doesn’t seem to be the goal we set out last January.” Petraeus wasn’t given time to answer, but there was almost no need. The fact of the matter was dawning on the Democrats—yes, that was indeed all that he was offering. As one officer at Centcom gleefully summarized it, “It was like doing a fifty percent markup, and then offering a half-off sale.”
Two exchanges that day lingered in Petraeus’s mind. The first came with Senator Obama, who took seven minutes—the entire period allotted him for questions and answers—to cast doubt on the strategy and pose a series of questions. “How do we clean up the mess and make the best out of a situation in where there are no good options, there are bad options and worse options?” he asked. If Petraeus and Crocker had been given time to answer, they likely would have said a polite version of, Well, duh—welcome to our lives. “How long will this take? And at what point do we say enough?” Obama continued. “[Y]ou said . . . the Iraqi people understand that the patience of the American people is not limitless. But that appears to be exactly what you’re asking for in this testimony.” Obama had put his finger on the Democrats’ dilemma. But he didn’t appear to have a way out of it. By the time he finishing posing his questions, time was up, and Petraeus didn’t get a chance to respond to any of it. The Illinois Democrat was not at his best that day.
Obama said nothing that day about the scurrilous MoveOn advertisement, but his political skills should never be underestimated. Nine months later, as he was preparing to visit Iraq as the Democratic presidential nominee, he would use a speech on patriotism to revisit the issue. “All too often our politics still seems trapped in these old, threadbare arguments,” he said, “a fact most evident during our recent debates about the war in Iraq, when those who opposed administration policy were tagged by some as unpatriotic, and a general providing his best counsel on how to move forward in Iraq was accused of betrayal.” It was a smart fence-mending move to make before going to visit Petraeus in Baghdad.
The comment that would irk Petraeus most that day came from Hillary Clinton. He was surprised when, late in the proceedings, she came at him swinging. “You have been made the de facto spokesman for what many of us believe to be a failed policy,” she chided. “I think the reports that you provide us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.”
Those last four words were powerful. As one friend of Petraeus’s later commented, “You’re either calling him dishonest or stupid.”
Gen. Keane felt a personal sense of duplicity. He had encouraged Petraeus to spend hours with her, explaining the war and his approach to it. Now she was attacking him personally, following the MoveOn course. “I knew she would ask tough questions, but”—here he paused—“well, I talked to Dave about it at his house [the next day], and he was disappointed by her comment and in general with the entire hearing. He was emotionally and psychologically wounded. He knew he was sitting in a chair where his predecessors had lost credibility. The fact that he was in uniform and got attacked in terms of his character was something he wasn’t prepared for.”
Many generals possess a strong sense of honor and a long memory, and Petraeus probably does more than most. He also has the ability to veil his emotions well. He responded in a neutral but essentially unhelpful manner. “As you know, this policy is a national policy that results from policies put forward at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, with the advice and consent and resources provided at the other,” he said, offering the senator, and former first lady and law professor, an introduction to the Constitution. He didn’t show it publicly, but he was furious, friends said. Not only did Petraeus feel that his integrity had been questioned, he also felt a sense of betrayal, because he had given Clinton a lot of his time. Also, he respected her intelligence.
There was one other notable exchange that day. John Warner of Virginia asked if Petraeus’s campaign in Iraq made Americans any safer.
The murder board hadn’t prepped Petraeus for that one. “Sir, I don’t know, actually,” he said. This was probably as close as he came during the hearings to breaking with the Bush administration. Nothing was said at the time, but seven months later, the president would state in a speech delivered, notably, at the Pentagon that “because we acted, the world is better and the United States of America is safer.”
Petraeus also may have gotten out ahead of the administration on the issue of how long American forces might have to fight in Iraq. David Kilcullen, his sometime adviser on counterinsurgency, went over to the White House a few days after the hearings and came away thinking that “there’s still a fundamental reluctance to ’fess up to the American people what the costs are, and what the duration is.”
Capt. McNally watched it all a little wide eyed. It was the first congressional hearing she had ever attended, and she was surprised to see that the senators—“these are important people”—each had only seven minutes in which to pose their questions. “I’m one of those dorks who enjoys watching C-SPAN. I was thinking, this is democracy at work.”
Crocker and Petraeus were less pleased. The general’s conclusion was that he had underestimated the depth of anti-war feeling in the United States, which he termed “industrial strength.” But he also seemed to understand that he had prevailed.
The ambassador looked back on it as “one of the least pleasant experiences of my professional life”—this from a man who was blown against a wall at the U.S. embassy in Beirut when it was bombed in April 1983, killing 64 of his friends and colleagues. On September 12, as the two left the public television studio where they had appeared on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Crocker turned to Petraeus and muttered, “I am not doing this again.”
“HEY, WE WON!”
Petraeus and Odierno had opponents in places besides Iraq and Capitol Hill. Their boss at Central Command, Adm. Fallon, and some others inside the national security establishment, still wanted to see the number of troops in Iraq come down quickly.
To wrap up the impact of the hearings, the president was giving a nationally televised speech on the evening of September 13. Late that day, the White House sent a late draft of the speech to Rapp. Scanning it, he saw immediately that “the mission wording had been changed to what Fallon wanted,” Rapp recalled. He was told that the Iraq staffers at the White House had made the change. He showed the draft to Petraeus, who then made a telephone call to get the wording changed back, Rapp recalled. (Petraeus remembers this moment differently, saying the wording change was just the work of White House speechwriters “who weren’t sensitive to the balance between security and transition,” and that the fix was made by e-mail, not by phone.)
That night the president told the nation that the mission in Iraq would change eventually, but not now. “Over time, our troops will shift from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and eventually to overwatching those forces,” he said. “As this transition in our mission takes place, our troops will focus on a more limited set of tasks, including counterterrorism operations and training, equipping, and supporting Iraqi forces.”
Fallon’s influence was waning. A few weeks after the hearings, Adm. Michael Mullen succeeded Gen. Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Mullen would prove to be a more effective chairman than the Marine general. Perhaps more important for Petraeus, the admiral was a longtime friend of Fallon’s, and was able to reduce friction between Petraeus and Fallon. Indeed, word in Iraq was that Defense Secretary Gates had told the new chairman to get Fallon off Petraeus’s back. “He has played a calming role,” Lt. Col. Miller said appreciatively a few months later.
But Mullen also seemed determined to reduce the traffic between Petraeus and the White House, a pattern that under Pace had effectively cut the chairman of the Joint Chiefs out of the decision loop. The chairman officially is the president’s principal adviser on military affairs, but even if he participated in Petraeus’s meetings with the president, he still couldn’t know what Keane was quietly cooking up with Cheney’s staff. As Bob Woodward first reported, the new chairman told colleagues that he felt Keane, by stepping into policy making, had diminished the office of chairman of the Joint Chiefs. This was an inaccurate assessment by Mullen, because it was Pace and his predecessor, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, who had reduced the office and created the vacuum into which Keane had stepped. It also was a politically naive step for the new chairman to take. Keane, a career Army officer, had more credibility on ground warfare than did Mullen, a career Navy officer. More significant, Keane had been encouraged in his role by the White House, even to the point of Cheney’s asking Keane to take command in Iraq.
“You really don’t want me to help Petraeus?” Keane asked Mullen.
“No,” the chairman said, “I don’t want to take the chance.” Once more, the leaders of the American military establishment had shown a tendency to avoid risks, and to prefer following established ways of doing business rather than take difficult but necessary steps to become more effective. Keane went back to the White House and got the chairman’s roadblock removed.
Two Mondays after the hearing, in a video teleconference, President Bush brought up the MoveOn advertisement with Petraeus. “On behalf of all Americans, I want to apologize to you for that,” Bush said, according to people who were present at the meeting. “No public servant should have to endure that.” He also told Petraeus that his performance before Congress had altered the domestic political debate on the war.
Crocker had the same sense that something fundamental had shifted in the politics of the war at home. “We kind of saw the air go out of the whole thing,” he said. “I still kind of wonder if maybe it really wasn’t so much what we said but simply that we said it. . . . [T]his thing had been hyped as the event of the decade, and then, ‘Well they came, they testified, they left, so now what?”
The congressional Democrats were stumped. As Senator Webb later put it, “There are a couple of problems with the Democrats and Iraq. One is that there is a wide divergence of opinion inside the party, and the other is that the Democrats are a very fragile majority, and in fact aren’t a majority in the Senate because Lieberman always votes with the Republicans.”
That said, something had changed in the way Democrats talked about the war. On September 26, two days after the president’s apology to Petraeus, the Democratic presidential candidates debated in Hanover, New Hampshire. None of the top candidates would promise to have the U.S. military out of Iraq by January 2013, more than five years later. “I think it would be irresponsible” to state that, said Senator Obama.
“It is very difficult to know what we’re going to be inheriting,” added Senator Clinton.
Seeing those comments, Boylan exclaimed to himself, “Hey, we won!” He had been right. The hearings were supposed to have been climactic. They were, but instead of seizing control of policy, the Democrats essentially had yielded. They hadn’t quite endorsed Bush’s position, but they had conceded much in agreeing to go along with Petraeus’s approach. They were resigned.
From Kilcullen’s point of view, the September hearings were a kind of a parallel to the battle that didn’t happen in Samarra in midsummer. Just as Iraqis had looked at the possibility of a full-blown civil war and turned away, he said, so too the U.S. public had considered a leap into the unknown—and declined to take it. “America,” he said, “has taken a deep breath, looked into the abyss of pulling out, and decided, ‘Let’s not do it yet.’”
AMERICA TUNES OUT THE WAR
The American public had heard all it needed to hear. The people might not have liked what Petraeus was offering, but it was better than anyone else was proposing. They understood that the United States was stuck in Iraq. But that didn’t mean they had to like it. So they would let him continue—but they also would tune it out.
The best evidence for that new hands-off attitude was the sharp decline in news coverage of the war in the weeks and months after the September hearings. In the first half of 2007, the Iraq war was the top running story almost every week on television networks’ evening news broadcasts. After the September hearings, its ranking declined rapidly, from taking up 25 percent of coverage at the time of the hearings to just 3 percent in mid-2008. Starting a month after the hearings, the network broadcasts began consistently to devote more time to presidential campaign politics and the state of the economy. The broadcast networks’ evening news shows are the most sensitive to demand, because they have only about 22 minutes to use every night, roughly equivalent to the number of words a broad-sheet newspaper typically carries on its front page. In the spring of 2008, networks would begin to cut back on their staffs covering the war. CBS no longer kept a correspondent in Baghdad, and it was widely expected that other organizations would follow suit after the U.S. presidential election later that year.
Meanwhile, newspaper coverage of the war declined by about half between early 2007 and early 2008. “It seems like a bad dream, and the public’s not interested in revisiting it unless there is a major development,” Hunter George, the executive editor of the Birmingham (Ala.) News, told the American Journalism Review in early 2008. “If I’m outside the newsroom and Iraq comes up, I hear groans.”
A series of anti-war movies bombed, despite having high-power actors and directors: In the Valley of Elah, directed by Paul Haggis and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron; Lions for Lambs, with Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep; Brian De Palma’s Redacted; and Grace Is Gone, featuring John Cusack. Hollywood wasn’t telling moviegoers anything they didn’t know already. The best movies to come out of Iraq were documentaries, such as Baghdad Diary and Deborah Scranton’s innovative The War Tapes, which was filmed by giving video cameras to deploying National Guardsmen.
When the fifth anniversary of the war arrived in March 2008, the anti-war demonstrations were tiny. In Washington, D.C., where anti-war marches during the Vietnam era brought out at least 250,000 or more, there appeared fewer than 1,000 souls. In San Francisco, where an estimated 150,000 people had turned out against the war in 2003, just 500 protestors showed up in 2008.
“I think the debate has moved on,” Secretary Gates said. He was right. Iraq was just part of the national wallpaper, always kind of there, but not particularly noticed.
Hadi al-Amari, the head of the Badr Corps, the militia of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the largest Shiite party, told Gen. Barbero that Petraeus returned to Iraq with much more wasta. “He went there, he went into the teeth of the opposition, and he came out with his plan intact,” the militia commander explained.
Sadi Othman noticed a similar effect in the rest of the Middle East. “That was huge,” Othman he said. “The hearings in the States [changed] the debate on Iraq in the Middle East and around the world.”
But it is axiomatic in military affairs that every strength carries its own weakness. Petraeus now “owned” the war—that is, he has made it his. He had implemented the changes he wanted to make, and had some tactical success to show for it. But the surge hadn’t led to national political reconciliation. That left Petraeus in the position of just keeping his fingers crossed, hoping against hope for a political breakthrough in Iraq. His predicament left him in the same position as Rodney King, who famously pleaded for an end to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles: “Can we all get along?” The answer from many Iraqi factional leaders was negative.