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.")
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.
It was the synergistic effort of Bush's surge and the Anbar
Awakening that helped turned around the military situation in Iraq after the
war appeared lost. An alliance of Sunni tribes and American forces had emerged
near Ramadi, the provincial capital, after an Army brigade pushed into the
insurgent held-area in 2006. But the infusion of forces Bush sent to Iraq in
2007 served as a catalyst that transformed a local phenomenon into a broader
movement that spread to Diyala Province, contested areas south of Baghdad, and
ultimately the Iraqi capital itself.
Still, as Burgess's memo noted, there was a tantalizing
opportunity to work with Sunni tribes years earlier. His Oct. 3, 2003, memo
bore the anodyne title: "Sunni Outreach to the Governing Council and Coalition
Sunni tribal leaders, the memo noted, had been alarmed by the
upheaval in Iraq. The extensive de-Baathification L. Paul Bremer's Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA) was promoting threatened to marginalize their
once-influential tribes. The ascendency of Shia politicians in the Iraqi
Governing Council (GC) in Baghdad was also a major worry.
For all that, however, the tribal leaders were offering to
cooperate. At a time when suicide bombers were streaming to Iraq to wage war
against the Americans, leaders of the Albu Nimr tribe wanted to help secure
Iraq's border with Syria and Jordan. Even in Fallujah, a hotbed of insurgent
attacks, there were tribal leaders who were reaching out to the Americans.
"Sunnis in Al-Anbar have proposed plans to increase local security
and facilitate economic growth by employing former soldiers to patrol the Iraqi
border," the memo noted. "While Sunni leaders aim to improve the quality of
life for their constituencies, they also hope these initiatives will increase
their influence in post-Saddam Iraq."
Ignoring the Sunni's offers carried considerable risks. "If they
perceive failure in engaging the Coalition or the GC they may take order
actions to include creating alternate governing and security institutions,
working with anti-Coalition forces, or engaging in criminal activity to ensure
the prosperity and security of their tribes."
The memo was ignored. And when Col. Carol Stewart, the head of the
intelligence plans section at Central Command, tried to advance a similar plan
to have tribal leaders police their own areas -- her plan to establish the
Anbar Rangers would have cost less than $3 million for the first half 2004 --
she got nowhere. Bremer's team made clear that it did not plan to make the
tribes a formal part of Iraq's security structure.
THE PERFECT STORM
By October 2006, the United States was paying a price for a
counterproductive military strategy and poor oversight by the White House. And
Lt. Col. Nycki Brooks and a team of intelligence experts in Baghdad
began to reassess the problem.
Brooks's analysis was outlined in a secret Oct. 22 paper that was
aptly titled: "The Perfect Storm." Far from ameliorating the situation, the
current strategy appeared to be making things worse. After U.S. forces cleared
out an area of the capital, Iraqi police were being brought in to control the
neighborhood so that American forces moved on to their next objectives. But
Iraq's Interior Ministry and police were so heavily infiltrated by Shiite
militia that the strategy was merely abetting the sectarian bloodletting.
"The majority Shi'a government has effectively hobbled the quest
for peace within Baghdad," noted the paper, which also stressed the importance
of controlling the belts surrounding the city.
"Since those who control Baghdad control Iraq it is
imperative that Baghdad be stabilized. If the course is not diverted soon, then
a large-scale ethno-sectarian conflict (civil war) is assured. This will
require a fundamental shift in the way Coalition Forces attack this problem
set. The overall numbers of forces within Baghdad will have to be increased
with the mission changed to one of Peace Enforcement Operations," the paper
Back in Washington, President Bush was belatedly coming to similar
conclusions. By December of that year, the question was no longer
whether to send additional combat brigades, but how many. With the American
military overstretched, the decision boiled down to whether to send two
brigades or the five that were the most that might be made available.
The appointment of Robert M. Gates as defense secretary was
intended to pave the way for the new strategy. But when Gates went to Baghdad
in December 2006, his classified memoranda show, he did not return as a staunch
advocate of a surge. Instead, Gates endorsed the cautious approach of General
George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, and John Abizaid, the
head of Central Command, which oversaw operations in the Middle East.
"Our commanders do not want more additional force than these
approximately 10,000," a set of classified talking points for Gates's meeting
with Bush read. "It would be difficult to resource a more aggressive U.S.
approach due to the stresses and strains on the force that you well know, and
without forcing it on an Iraqi government clearly reluctant to see a large
increase in the footprint of the U.S. Forces in Iraq. Forcing it on a balky
Iraqi government would undermine much of what we have accomplished over the
past two years," continued the talking points, which were dated Dec. 22, 2006.
Gates's memoranda give scant attention to the Mahdi Army's
infiltration of Iraqi's ministries and security services or the role that the
Baghdad belts played as a launching point for attacks in the capital. Nor did
the new secretary of defense appear confident his approach would work, noting
that he was already beginning to think about developing a "Plan B."
History does not record many instances in which a president
overruled his defense secretary by ordering more forces for a more audacious
mission. Ignoring the cautious advice from Gates, Bush endorsed the more
ambitious approach favored by Gen. David Petraeus, who was soon to replace
General Casey as the commander, and Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the new corps
commander. The president sent five brigades, providing the generals with the
resources to establish control of the Baghdad belts and address the security
challenges outlined in the "Perfect Storm."
THE CHARGE OF THE KNIGHTS
While the American-led coalition forces struggled to pacify
Baghdad and Anbar Province, Prime Minister Maliki had his own sense of the
security challenges and they centered on Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
With little consultation with the Americans, Maliki decided to accelerate a
long-planned operation to bring order to the city and on March 24, 2008, flew
to Basra to oversee it.
With a largely Shia population of 2.6 million, Basra and the
nearby port of Umm Qasr was the hub for 70 percent of Iraq's oil reserves and
gateway to the Persian Gulf. When the British withdrew their forces in 2007,
the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias gained ground. Maliki was seen
increasingly as a weak leader and rumors of a coup to oust him even began to
circulate. Moreover, Maliki was aware that if he did not assert control over
the southern Iraqi city, his political party would be the loser in the upcoming
provincial elections, which were to be held no later than October 2008, further
weakening his position.
The Americans had other priorities. General Petraeus favored a
more methodical operation in Basra the following summer after an offensive that
the Americans wanted to carry out with the Iraqis against the foothold al Qaeda
in Iraq had established in Mosul.
A classified April 2008 paper by the Defense Intelligence Agency
chronicled the battle and its implications for the Maliki government. The
stakes were high: It was the first time Iraqi forces took the initiative to
mound a major offensive in a distant region.
The operation had its setbacks. "Iraqi units ran short of
ammunition, water, food, fuel and medical support within the first few days of
the fighting," the DIA report noted. "Maliki's presence in Basrah and direct involvement
impeded the efficient operation of the military chain of command. Subordinate
commanders and field officers were hesitant in executing tactical commands
and reporting negative information to senior officers."
But allied air support and advisors helped the Iraqi military turn
the tide. One important, but unintended, factor was the Mahdi Army's misreading
of Petraeus's decision to send advisers to shore up the Iraqis. According to
the DIA report, it believed wrongly that "up to 4,000 U.S. combat troops had
reached Basra, and that both U.S. and British troops were involved in attacks
Concluding that the militia it was backing was overmatched, Iran
intervened to encourage a cease-fire so that the Mahdi Army might leave to
fight another day. "DIA assesses Tehran sought to halt intra-Shia violence
among its various Iraqi allies to prevent JAM from losing its retaliatory
capabilities against CF and preserve Shia unity through the upcoming Iraqi
provincial elections," the report noted, using the acronyms for Jayah al-Mahdi
and Coalition Forces.
What the Americans feared might be a disaster in the making turned
out to be an astute political move. Maliki had dealt Sadr and the Mahdi army a
setback, laid the ground for his party's campaign in the provincial elections
in the south, and enhanced
his image as a strong and canny leader. Though he
underestimated the military risks, he had apparently assumed that the United
States would not let him fail.
With considerable American help, he would later follow up the
operation by consolidating control of Sadr City, the Mahdi Army's stronghold in
Baghdad. "The outcome of the Basra operation was mixed," noted the DIA.
"Popular perceptions may be more important than reality in judging the success
of the operation."
TEAM OF RIVALS
When President Barack Obama took office, he was faced with the
challenge of shrinking the American military commitment to Iraq while
encouraging the evolution of a stable Iraq. The task was complicated by the
March 2010 parliamentary elections. The Iraqiya coalition led by Ayad Allawi,
Maliki's principal rival, had won the most seats in the voting. But with the
help of a convenient ruling from the Iraqi judiciary, Maliki was moving to
assemble the biggest coalition and had no intention of vacating the premiership.
The solution favored by Vice President Joseph Biden, who had the
lead on Iraqi policy for the administration, was to get all of the Iraqis
players into the tent. There were two approaches. One was to persuade Jalal
Talabani, Iraq's president, to resign, so that Allawi would take his place.
Despite a phone call from President Obama himself, Talabani demurred.
other was to rework the structure of the Iraqi government and establish a new
power-sharing arrangement. It would be like a reverse game of musical chairs:
Since they were more claimants for the top posts than positions, the United States
would add another chair. Christopher Hill, the Obama administration's first
ambassador in Baghdad, was a strong advocate of this approach, which he thought
might be loosely modeled after the legislation the United States had adopted in
1947 that created the National Security Council, the Defense Department, and
The plan was outlined in an American "non-paper," a diplomatic
initiative that bore no official markings so it could be disowned if he leaked.
A "Coordinating Council on National Strategic Policy" would be established to
review national security issues. The panel would be headed by a
secretary-general for national security affairs, a post that it was assumed
would go to Allawi, and would also include the prime minister, the president,
the parliamentary speaker, and other ranking officials.
But like the Obama administration's plan to replace Talabani, the
scheme came to naught. Maliki and Allawi could never agree on the powers of the
new body. And with the White House's focus on withdrawing troops, the American
plan faded from view, leaving Iraqi politics as fractured as ever.
By 2013, the moderate Sunni who served as finance minister had
left the Maliki government and the prime minister was as powerful as before.
Meanwhile, the civil war raging next door in Syria was creating
new challenges as Iran began to fly military supplies to Damascus through Iraqi
airspace. Fearful of what a Sunni-dominated Syria might mean for Iraq, Maliki
was apprehensive about the possibility of Bashar al-Assad's overthrow, while
Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq sided with the Syrian opposition.
The Iraq war was officially over. But a new phase in the struggle
for power in the region had begun.
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