As the grim casualty counts filtered in from Iraq in November 2006, a group of top Bush administration officials gathered in National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's office for a Saturday-morning brainstorming session.
The U.S. strategy for tamping down the sectarian violence was in tatters, but there was no agreement within the administration on what should replace it. The White House was moving to publicly inaugurate a policy review, but the president's team was badly divided.
"What can we really do?" asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who wondered aloud if the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad might be "playing us for a sucker."
Much of the discussion, which is chronicled in a classified transcript described in detail here for the first time, was dominated by Rice's argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which "nothing is going right" and instead focus on "core interests" like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting "mass killings" --attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.
But Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.
"On force numbers in Baghdad, we have never had a level of forces that historical case studies, such as those conducted by Rand, find to be necessary," said Brett McGurk, an Iraq hand on the NSC. "There is an argument that coalition forces are not only critical to preventing mass killings, they are also critical to establishing the conditions for a political deal."
Ten years after the American-led invasion of Iraq, the conflict remains a subject of fierce debate. By all accounts, President George W. Bush's decision to send five additional combat brigades, more than 20,000 troops, for the "surge" was among the most fateful of the nearly nine-year conflict.
I covered the war in Iraq before, during, and after the surge, and it is clear that it played an essential role in tamping down the sectarian violence and catalyzing the tribal awakening in Anbar province so that it spread to Diyala, areas south of Baghdad, and to the Iraqi capital itself.
The United States owed it to the Iraqis it sought to liberate to try to reduce the violence before heading toward the exit, and it owed it to the American troops. As overstretched as the U.S. military was, defeat would have been even worse.
For all that, the political reconciliation the United States sought to encourage through the surge was never fully achieved. A host of other decisions over two administrations also aggravated that problem, and the Bush and Obama administrations each fell short in curbing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's drift toward authoritarianism.
But leaving Iraq in the grips of a spiraling civil war in 2007 would have been a disaster for U.S. national security. And it is one of history's larger ironies that the surge Barack Obama so strenuously opposed as a candidate later enabled him as president to withdraw American forces without unleashing a tidal wave of fresh violence.
Still, the decision to surge was not an easy one for Bush's Iraq team -- and the internal debate was more pointed than is commonly realized, with lessons for Iraq, Afghanistan, and other potential conflicts that reverberate even today.
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