Seventeen months before George W. Bush announced that he was sending five additional brigades to Iraq for the 2007 "surge," a team of officers and civilian analysts gathered in Baghdad to conduct a classified review of America's military strategy in Iraq.
In a June 2005 speech at Fort Bragg, President Bush had told the nation that the Iraq war was difficult, but winnable. "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said. "We have made progress, but we have a lot more work to do."
But when it convened in August, the Red Team, as the review group was known, came to a very different conclusion. "The perception of many Iraqis is that their government, and by implication, the Coalition has failed the Iraqi people," the report noted. (Read exclusive excerpts from the report.) Not only that, but the strategy Bush so confidently endorsed, the team asserted, would merely burden the Iraqis with a problem they could not handle. Iraqi forces might end up ceding ground to the insurgency in central and western Iraq, and perhaps even in Baghdad. A new counterinsurgency strategy -- one that, in concept though not in resources, bore a striking resemblance to the approach Gen. David Petraeus would oversee two years later -- was needed.
The team's diagnosis and its remedy were both ignored. It was one of the most important -- and until now, unknown -- missed opportunities of the war.
The annals of military history are replete with intelligence failures -- debacles that were not foreseen as a result of cultural ignorance, wishful thinking, or a lack of sources. But what is striking about the early years of the American war in Iraq are those episodes in which dedicated officials correctly discerned the problem and suggested new strategies -- only to be ignored by generals and Bush administration aides who were wedded to their faltering plan.
These missed turning points might have shortened the conflict and provided more breathing room to establish a more inclusive Iraqi government at a time when the United States had maximum leverage in the country. Nobody can say for certain what might have happened, but it is instructive that some of the spurned recommendations were very effective when belatedly implemented years later.
To this day, some of the missed opportunities are not widely known. For all the partisan debate over the Iraq conflict in Washington, only a handful of insiders seem to know what happened during some of its most fateful moments.
As the insurgency began to develop in 2003, for example, a group of officers in the U.S. military's intelligence cell in Baghdad developed a plan to work with the Sunni tribes in the western province of Anbar that was never carried out. Col. Carol Stewart had met with a group of Anbari sheiks and devised a plan to bring them into the fold. The strife-ridden Ramadi and Fallujah areas would be designated a "tribal security zone." Tribal leaders would be authorized to police their own areas and given vehicles, ammunition, and money to pay their men, who would be dubbed the "Anbar Rangers." The entire program would have cost $3 million for six months, a tiny sliver of the multibillion-dollar reconstruction fund for Iraq, officials said.
But when Stewart briefed the idea to an aide at L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, she was told that CPA did not plan to make the tribes a formal part of Iraq's security structure. Leaving one meeting in frustration, Stewart muttered, "If the United States was not going to be working with the tribes in the new Iraq, where was this new Iraq going to be? On Mars?" Stewart had no more luck with more senior civilian and military officials in Iraq, and the idea was shelved -- only to be revived when the Anbar Awakening emerged three years later.