In October 2003, a team of Pentagon intelligence analysts identified a promising twist in a war that seemed to be going terribly wrong: Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq's hostile Anbar province had come forward with offers to help secure western Iraq.
"Leaders of these tribes -- many of whom still occupy key positions of local authority -- appear to be increasingly willing to cooperate with the Coalition in order restore or maintain their influence in post-Saddam Iraq," noted the memo, which was approved by Ronald L. Burgess, Jr., the major general who served as the director for intelligence on the Joint Staff and would later rise to run the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The classified memorandum was duly forwarded to American civilian and military officials in Baghdad. But the suggestion largely fell on deaf ears. It would take three more years before Sunni tribes would help turn the war around in the "Anbar Awakening."
In our years of research on the Iraq war, we have uncovered a number of similarly hidden forks in the road -- lost opportunities that might have dramatically shortened the Americans' ordeal in Iraq or decisions whose full significance was not apparent until years later. Many are chronicled in internal government documents, thousands of pages that we reviewed in the course of our reporting -- in effect, amounting to a secret Iraq archive that sheds new light on the nearly nine-year-long war.
These memoranda, 23 of which are being published today in the new ebook edition of Endgame, our history of the conflict, cover the whole long arc of the war.
The documents, many of which are being published for the first time, include the dawning awareness that the United States had stumbled into an intervention that would be more taxing and prolonged than it had anticipated -- a point driven home in a blunt 2004 cable from John Negroponte, the first American ambassador in post-Saddam Baghdad, warning President George W. Bush that the United States was "in a deep hole with the Iraqi people" and needed at least five years to get the country on its feet. (Bush's response: "We don't have that much time.")
And they cover the full range of adversaries as threats appeared to multiply. A briefing for Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy defense secretary, outlined three options for carrying out "Operation Stuart," a 2004 contingency plan to capture Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric. The operation was never executed as the Americans pondered the risks. ("Accidentally killing Sadr during an arrest attempt would make him an anti-American nationalist icon and Islamist martyr" was one of the potential "unintended consequences," the briefing noted.)
The United States, the documents show, gained critical insight into al Qaeda in Iraq after U.S. troops stopped a vehicle near Taji on Dec. 19, 2006. The hard drive and thumb drive that were found contained al Qaeda reports, which became known as the Taji DOCEX (for "document exploitation"). The al Qaeda material helped shaped the U.S. military understanding of how al Qaeda operated in Baghdad and the surrounding rural "belts."
Another adversary that was chronicled in the reports was the Jaysh al-Mahdi, Sadr's Shia militia, which infiltrated the Interior, Health, and Transportation ministries, colonizing the very instruments of the state.
Through a combination of political appointments and thuggish militia tactics, the Mahdi Army, also known as JAM, had infiltrated the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), the nation's main gateway to the world, even securing positions as sky marshals. "By controlling BIAP, JAM has the ability to smuggle weapons, money, and people under the protection of official cover," noted a June 2007intelligence assessment. The infiltration had occurred under the nose of the American military's largest headquarters at Camp Victory. The airport was eventually purged of Sadrist influence in a classified operation dubbed Silver Sabre.
Iran's activities also figures heavily in the classified annals of the war. One set of classified reports chronicles the messages that Qasim Suleimani, the commander of Iran's Quds Force, sent through Iraqi intermediaries to Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Baghdad.
Suleimani's message was that that he, not Iranian President Mahmoud Admadinejad, was the "sole decision-maker on Iranian activities in Iraq," Petraeus told the Pentagon. And Suleimani had an offer for the Americans: The Shiite militiant groups Iran was supporting in Iraq would reduce their attacks if the Americans would release Qais Khazali, a Shiite militant leader who was linked to a botched kidnapping that led to the death of American troops. Petraeus turned the offer down.
Here is how the documents illuminate four pivotal episodes that might have turned out differently -- along with, perhaps, the war itself.