Victory in Iraq

February 11, 2013

How it was won, how it may be lost.

Bartle B. Bull

February 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21

It was December 2006. Al Qaeda was near the peak of its influence
in Iraq. The United States was widely considered to have been defeated
in a humiliating war of choice in a country of extraordinary

Hauled from a prison for suspected terrorists, the emir of
a virulent Islamist group fighting in Iraq’s Sunni insurgency spoke to a
British general charged with reaching out to such elements. Neither of
them could know it then, but they were near a turning point. The
civilian death toll in Baghdad that month would exceed 3,500 for the
only time in the eight-year war.

“The Koran makes clear that a force of occupation can be
resisted for however many years it takes,” said the insurgent leader.
“We have watched you in Anbar for three-and-a-half years,” he continued.
“We have concluded that you do not threaten our faith or our way of
life. Al Qaeda does.” If there is one key moment in The Endgame,
an impressive account of America’s Iraq war from the fall of Saddam
Hussein until the final U.S. withdrawal in December 2011, this is it.

It is nearly all there in this encounter: the tragically
wasted years of 2003-06, the allies’ new sophistication in 2007, the
ultimately decisive combination of the patriotism of the Iraqi people
and the decency and determination of the allied project in their
country, and the bottom line that the whole thing was ultimately about
the Iraqis, not us. Finally, unmistakably, there is in this exchange all
that we need to know about the long-term potential the United States
enjoyed in Iraq, and about the wanton profligacy of spurning such a
valuable and hard-won alliance, as we did in late 2011.

Today, a year on from our departure, and with a weakened
American administration doubling down on a posture of diffidence in the
Middle East, the lessons in this important book are as worthy of our
attention as they have ever been. Thanks mostly to Michael Gordon and
Bernard Trainor’s extraordinary access to key American and allied
sources, and Gordon’s journalism from the frontlines of the conflict
itself, the authors give us war in three dimensions—from the grand sweep
of White House strategy discussions down to the dust whipped up by the
rotor blades of American Apaches—in a way that few historians have
matched in other conflicts.

When the forces of Shia rabble-rouser Moktada al-Sadr hole
up around the Mosque of the Imam Ali during the second battle of Najaf
in 2005, we see then-prime minister Ayad Allawi breaking his hand as he
slams a desk in anger. Later, Allawi and Sadr finally meet in person for
the first time—in Damascus, of all places—when they bump into each
other while paying court to Bashar al-Assad. Allawi tells his younger
countryman that he had known the latter’s martyred father and
great-uncle. Neither had been a sectarian, says Allawi suggestively—and
Sadr agrees with him. Who knew? But that’s exactly how Iraqi politics
works. The players know each other’s families, and they are almost all
related, one way or another. Their interactions are bare-knuckled but
pragmatic. The country stays together. If you do not understand that,
you do not understand Iraq.

Seen from today’s perspective, as the West allows Syria to
burn despite its potential and importance, that last scene is powerful.
Here are two major leaders from the region’s natural Arab hegemon as
they find themselves cap-in-hand in the capital of a poorer, smaller
neighbor. The local tyrant works to prevent the emergence of their
freedom; meanwhile, his own despotic reign slouches towards an all-out
civil war such as Iraq would ultimately reject. Characteristically, the
authors do not overplay the scene. Their cool, diplomatic style is a
relief. The sober details come one after another, the long meticulous
narrative building while the reader is left to draw his own

When General George Casey, the four-star commander of
allied forces, finally leaves Iraq in 2007, after almost four years, he
gives his service revolver to then-and-now-prime minister Nuri
al-Maliki. Could there be a better expression of the sincerity and
futility of those wasted Casey/Rumsfeld years? Later, in 2008, months
after the new strategy has proven successful, the authors give us
another vignette: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice kicking General
David Petraeus under a table in the White House as the general tries to
suggest his own trip to Syria. In the 68 pages of notes, we see why
Gordon and Trainor are such a formidable pair when it comes to pulling
such scenes into a narrative. Their work is so comprehensive and deeply
sourced as to be something akin to a documentary history in its own
right. There are hundreds of interviews with the players, from Army
grunts to presidents, prime ministers, and generals. There are private
notes, shared confidentially with the authors, of numerous others: an
unnamed “meeting participant,” “SEAL officer,” or “former [Coalition
Provisional Authority] official.”

Gordon’s extensive reporting from the American side
provides welcome color. When the surge pushes American troops into the
vicious “Baghdad Belts” around the capital, we are there on the ground
with the participants as the big picture plays out in wild local
battles. When fighting erupts in a tiny place called Hawr Rajab, we see
the “England” logo on the T-shirt of a sheikh of the local Sunni
Awakening while we hear the American soldier not far away shouting, “I
need another body bag.”

The result coalesces as a valuable reminder of the
trajectory of a conflict which, by 2008, had ended in a military victory
that gave the United States a historic strategic opportunity. Even many
who followed the war closely will have forgotten the fact that the
hapless Jay Garner, first ground commander of the U.S.-led occupation,
had cut his teeth in the field of air defense. From these early days
through to the end, we repeatedly see American civilian officials
“trapped in the Green Zone,” unable to visit and understand the country
beyond their blast walls. It can be easy to forget just how soon—and how
successfully—Iraq’s first free election occurred. In January 2005,
despite attacks on over 300 polling stations, 58 percent of the voting
population turned out.

In February 2006, we see the key moment in Iraq’s descent
towards the sectarian war that the Sunnis required if the Americans were
to be persuaded to leave: the Sunni bombing of the Shias’ Samarra
mosque. At the end of that terrible year, we see the Baker-Hamilton
commission deliver its report recommending a swift withdrawal and a
“transition” to Iraqi security forces that were known not to exist. We
see this declaration of defeat taken up by freshman Illinois senator
Barack Obama, who, a few months later, will cite it as the model for his
Iraq War De-Escalation Act.

The year 2007, then, was a stunning one: Americans pushing
small units deep into the streets of Iraq’s towns and cities,
especially Baghdad, during bloody summer months; the Anbar tribes
reaching out—near Ramadi at first, and then elsewhere—for an alliance
against al Qaeda; the Surge of Concrete—25 miles of temporary blast
walls carving up West Baghdad alone—helping to calm the capital after
the blood-letting. Six years later, as we divine what the second Obama
administration will do with the “flexibility” it has promised Russia
(and presumably Iran), it is useful to be reminded of what happened when
General Petraeus went to Washington for his confirmation hearing at the
beginning of that remarkable year. How many recall that, on the day of
Petraeus’s testimony, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware was holding his
own hearing, calling for the breakup of Iraq itself? Now that personal
scandal has blighted Petraeus’s career, we ought to remember the dignity
with which he handled the “General Betray Us” accusations of
presidential candidate Obama’s key allies and donors. Now is not the
time to forget the claims of Senators Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton
that Petraeus’s numbers and conclusions were simply not to be believed.

Replete as it is with hidden moments of the little
picture, and comprehensive as it is in reminding us of the larger events
in America’s third-longest war, The Endgameis ultimately
about a different perspective altogether. It is the story of strategy,
of the big picture. This story is told as it happened, through the
quotidian developments of a long conflict. Related this way, the war
takes shape before the reader’s eyes as the painful effort of a stubborn
power, half-blindfolded, stumbling about a new and vicious place and
trying to find a formula that worked.

Most Americans know the turnaround of 2007 simply as “the
surge.” In fact, there were two main themes of that year in Iraq. There
was the surge itself, George W. Bush’s commitment of an additional five
combat brigades (roughly 20,000 troops) to be deployed under General
Petraeus according to the doctrines of counterinsurgency, an approach
that focuses mainly on the protection of the civilian population. And
there was the Awakening, the phenomenon that saw much of the former
Sunni insurgency join our side of the fight.

Parts of the Awakening began before the surge had even
started, and the initial planning and articulation of the surge had
never envisaged anything like the Awakening. There is debate over which
movement mattered more; such controversy, however, is beside the point.
Without large numbers of additional American troops on the ground, a
more engaged and intelligent American tactical posture, and a strong
sense of the depth of American commitment, the Awakening would not have
moved very far past the outskirts of Ramadi, where it began.

From the Iraqi perspective, The Endgame is
strongest where it matters most to current policy. The final moments of
the story relate how the Obama administration threw away the
achievements of a generation of U.S. policy-makers and war fighters that
will long be remembered for extraordinary seriousness and courage.
There is no doubt that, in 2011, the Iraqi government wanted American
troops to stay, and stay in significant numbers. As Gordon and Trainor
point out, the concern on the Iraqi side was merely to make the legal
fine points acceptable to the Iraqi electorate. These technicalities
were not difficult to resolve, and the Americans knew that even 20,000
U.S. troops would be acceptable to the Iraqi prime minister.

But the new administration was not serious about a
commitment to Iraq, which it signaled in the clearest terms by proposing
a residual troop number—5,000—that was 50 percent
lower than what
its own generals believed to be the safe minimum, and by insisting on a
wholly unnecessary (and constitutionally meaningless) ratification of
any agreement by the Iraqi parliament. The Iraqis were stunned, the
negotiations fell apart, and the United States withdrew completely.

In 2003, General Petraeus, leading the 101st Airborne
north with the initial invasion, famously, repeatedly, asked an embedded
reporter, “Tell me how this ends.” The Endgame’s title comes
not from the dispiriting end to the story but from America’s search,
from the beginning, for victory’s elusive formula. The title gains its
poignancy from the wastefulness of the conclusion we chose once that
winning strategy had been found and successfully implemented.

Bartle B. Bull, former foreign editor ofProspect, manages an Iraq-focused investment fund.