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The Anbar Handover in Iraq

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Update from AIJAC

September 4, 2008
Number 09/08 #02

On Monday, a major milestone occurred in Iraq. Anbar province, once the heartland of the insurgency, was handed back to Iraqi security control, the 11th province which has been turned over to Iraqi security forces. As Dexter Filkins of the New York Times reported, this truly remarkable turnaround in only two years was marked by American troops joining in the handover parade without body armour or weapons.

First up, the Wall Street Journal editorialises on the significance of this milestone, and especially contrasts the current situation with the views of many in 2006 that defeat in Iraq was inevitable, with Anbar often the centrepiece of their case that nothing further could be done. The paper also points out the significance of Anbar as the first majority Sunni province to revert to control by the Iraqi government. For their full take on this significant milestone in Iraq, CLICK HERE.

Next up, New York Times Iraq correspondent Dexter Filkins, mentioned above, is interviewed about the handover and the situation generally in Iraq by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Filkins is very effusive on the "astonishing" extent of the change in Iraq, but also realistic about the fragility of elements of it, and the complexity of the explanation. He also points out some of the many questions about Iraq's future and the value of the war which it is just too early to answer definitively. For Filkins' full comments from inside Iraq, CLICK HERE.

Finally, the New York Times' Michael Gordon had an important piece on the weekend which sheds much light on the debate in Washington which preceded the "surge" last year. It makes it clear that there were considerable divisions, both in the military and political echelons, with respect to how many more troops to send. In particular, there was considerable debate between those arguing the need for a new more proactive US strategy and those arguing to simply send a small additional force into Baghdad, as advocated by the Commander in Iraq at the time, General Casey, while continuing the previous relatively low profile American effort focussed on transferring security rapidly to Iraqi forces. For the many new revelations in the piece about how the "surge" strategy was actually adopted, CLICK HERE. An excellent piece on how the surge actually worked from the perspective of a senior military participant comes from Peter Mansoor.

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Victory in Anbar

Wall Street Journal,
September 2, 2008; Page A22

Two years ago, on September 11, 2006, the Washington Post stirred an election-year uproar with this chilling dispatch:

"The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there . . ."

But there was something we could do: Pursue a different counterinsurgency strategy and commit more troops. And on Monday, U.S. forces formally handed control of a now largely peaceful Anbar to the Iraqi military. "We are in the last 10 yards of this terrible fight. The goal is very near," said Major-General John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, in a ceremony with U.S., Iraqi and tribal officials. Very few in the American media even noticed this remarkable victory.

Yes, the stunning progress in Anbar owes a great deal to the Awakening Councils of Sunni tribesmen who broke with al Qaeda terrorists and allied with U.S. forces. But those Sunni leaders would never have had the confidence to risk their lives in that way without knowing the U.S. wasn't going to cut and run. The U.S. committed some 4,000 additional troops to Anbar as part of the 2007 "surge," along with thousands more Iraqi troops.

The world has since seen al Qaeda driven even from what the terrorists and many in the Western press had claimed were Sunni enclaves that welcomed the terrorist help against the American "occupation." The result has been the most significant military and ideological defeat for al Qaeda since the Taliban was driven from Kabul in 2001. In danger of being humiliated in Iraq in 2006, the U.S. has demonstrated that it has the national will to fight a longer war. The Sunni Arab world in particular has noticed -- and is now showing new respect for Iraq's Shiite government.

For Iraqi politics, the Anbar handover is especially meaningful because the Shiite-dominated Iraq military will now provide security in a largely Sunni province. Anbar is the 11th of 18 provinces that the coalition has turned over to Iraq control, but the first Sunni province. The government of Nouri al-Maliki now has a further chance to show its ability to represent the entire country, the way it did when the Iraqi military routed Shiite militias in Basra and Sadr City in the spring.

For U.S. politics, it is worth recalling that that 2006 Washington Post story became part of a Beltway consensus that defeat in Iraq was inevitable. Democrats made withdrawal the center of their campaign to retake Congress, Republicans like Senator John Warner became media darlings for saying the war couldn't be won, and the James Baker-Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group laid out a bipartisan road to retreat. According to memos disclosed Sunday in the New York Times, even senior officials at the State Department and Pentagon opposed the surge. President Bush, heeding Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno as well as John McCain, overruled the defeatists and ordered a renewed U.S. commitment to Iraq.

The Anbar handover is above all a tribute to the hundreds of Americans who have fought and died in places like Fallujah, Ramadi and Hit over these last five years. Over the horizon of history, we tend to recall only the successes in previous wars at such places as Guadalcanal, Peleliu and the Chosin Reservoir. We forget that those wars and battles were also marked by terrible blunders and setbacks, both political and military. What mattered is that our troops, and our country, had the determination to fight to an ultimate victory. So it is with the heroes of Anbar.

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Dexter Filkins: The Progress in Iraq is Remarkable

 Jeffrey Goldberg

The Atlantic blog, 02 Sep 2008 11:59 am

Dexter Filkins is the greatest war correspondent of my generation, and I would say this even if we weren't friends. We've reported together on occasion; Dexter knows better than anyone how to work your way into bad places, and work your way out again. He's also the author of a great new book, coming out imminently from Knopf, called "The Forever War."  I e-mailed him some questions about his Times story today, and here are his answers:

Jeffrey Goldberg: In a review in the Times today, Michiko Kakutani quotes Farnaz Fassihi writing in 2004: "The genie of terrorism, chaos, and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes, and it can't be put back into a bottle."  The question is, is the genie back in the bottle?

Dexter Filkins: Yes, it is, for now. The progress here is remarkable. I came back to Iraq after being away for nearly two years, and honestly, parts of it are difficult for me to recognize. The park out in front of the house where I live--on the Tigris River--was a dead, dying, spooky place. It's now filled with people--families with children, women walking alone, even at night. That was inconceivable in 2006. The Iraqis who are out there walking in the parks were making their own judgments that it is safe enough for them to go out for a walk. They're voting with their feet. It's a wonderful thing to see.
Having said that, it's pretty clear that the calm is very fragile. The calm is built on a series of arrangements that are not self-sustaining; indeed, some of which, like the Sunni Awakening, are showing signs of coming apart. So the genie is back in the bottle, but I'm not sure for how long.

JG: The most astonishing detail in your article today is your description of a parade through Ramadi, which included "American marines and soldiers wearing neither helmets nor body armor, nor carrying guns." You wrote, "The festive scene became an occasion for celebration by Iraqis and Americans, who at several moments wondered aloud in the sweltering heat how things had gone from so grim to so much better, so fast." How much of this can be credited to the surge in troops and the shift in tactics last year, and how much to the notion that Iraqis simply got tired of the killing?

DF: Astonishing indeed. I haven't seen Americans soldiers walking around Iraq without helmets since the summer of 2003, when the Americans, who were popular in southern Iraq for having taken down Saddam, used to do that.
What's happened in Anbar really doesn't have anything to do with the surge and, in fact, it is one of the main reasons why the surge has worked.
In Anbar, two things happened: Al Qaeda overreached and the Americans wised up. If you will recall, the Americans came into Iraq in 2003 in a very heavy-handed way, often sweeping up large groups of young males who had nothing to do with the insurgency. In a tribal society, where everyone is related to everyone else, the Americans dug themselves a very large hole.
Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, through sheer ruthlessness, became the dominant player in the insurgency. And while the guys from Al Qaeda were very good at killing Americans, a goal with which many Sunnis sympathized, they also wanted to kill Iraqi Shiites, who they consider apostates, and anyone associated with the Iraqi government. Ordinary Iraqis, it's now clear, didn't want to go along.
And the sheikhs in Anbar didn't go along. So when Al Qaeda started murdering the sheikhs, the sheikhs went to the Americans. The Americans, chastened by their earlier mistakes, grabbed the opportunity. They made a deal. They crushed Al Qaeda in Anbar. The result is the calm you see today.
The Sunni Awakening, which began in Anbar, spread rapidly to other Sunni areas of Iraq, and that took enormous pressure off the Americans and the Iraqi government as the surge kicked in.

JG:
One tribal leader you quote, Hamid al-Hais, puts most of the blame for the chaos of the previous years on Paul Bremer's decision to disband the army. Do you agree?

DF: I don't know. I don't think there are any one-line explanations for any of this. But it's pretty clear that decision had a lot of bad consequences.

JG: Is the average Iraqi better off today than he was under Saddam? Or, put another way, is the average Iraqi who was not directly tied to the regime better off today than he was six years ago?

DF: Today is a moment in time. The calm is just a few months old. The Iraqis have been through an extraordinarily violent and traumatic five years. Many, many people suffered horrendously under Saddam. Ask me the question again in five years.

JG: Is Iraq a democracy?

DF: I don't think so. A democracy has many things: elections, compromise between groups, an atmosphere safe enough to discuss the issues of the day, and institutions that exist outside of government that are strong enough to allow all of the above to flourish--newspapers, political groups and the like. In Iraq, most of those things are in their infancy.
 
JG: How do you, as an American, feel walking through Baghdad today vs. two years ago?

DF: I'll answer with two snapshots from dusk. I went running in the park in front of the New York Times house the other day as the sun was going down and I felt no threat at all. People waved, people smiled. It felt very normal.
A couple of days later I went to Sadr City, also at dusk. Sadr City is a vast slum that takes in about three million people. It's the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia, and it's been the scene of heavy fighting, as recently as a few months ago. I was with some Iraqi friends. It felt perfectly normal. Then one of my Iraqi friends said to me, "What do you think would happen if you were alone?" And I said, "What?" And he and the other Iraqis laughed and said: "You'd be dead in ten seconds."
Let me just say: I left

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Troop ‘Surge’ Took Place Amid Doubt and Debate

By MICHAEL R. GORDON

New York Times, August 31, 2008

WASHINGTON — The White House has long touted the “surge” of forces in Iraq as one of President Bush’s proudest achievements. But that decision, one of Mr. Bush’s most consequential as commander in chief, was made only after months of tumultuous debate within the administration, according to still-secret memorandums and interviews with a broad range of current and former officials.

In January 2007, at a time when the situation in Iraq appeared the bleakest, Mr. Bush chose a bold option that was at odds with what many of his civilian and military advisers, including his field commander, initially recommended. Mr. Bush’s plan to send more than 20,000 troops to carry out a new counterinsurgency strategy has helped to reverse the spiral of sectarian killings in Iraq.

But Mr. Bush’s penchant to defer to commanders in the field and to a powerful defense secretary delayed the development of a new approach until conditions in Iraq, in the words of a November 2006 analysis by the Central Intelligence Agency, resembled anarchy and “civil war.”

When the White House began its formal review of Iraq strategy that month, the Pentagon favored a stepped-up effort to transfer responsibility to Iraqi forces that would have facilitated American troop cuts.

The State Department promoted an alternative that would have focused on fighting terrorists belonging to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, containing the violence in Baghdad and intervening to quell sectarian violence only when it reached the proportions of “mass killing.”

The American ambassador to Baghdad argued that he should be given broad authority to negotiate a political compact among the Iraqis.

“The proposals to send more U.S. forces to Iraq would not produce a long-term solution and would make our policy less, not more, sustainable,” the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, wrote in a classified cable.

Members of the National Security Council staff made an initial effort to explore a possible troop increase by October, drafting a paper that raised the prospect that the United States might “double down” in Iraq by sending more troops there.

Because some aides to the Joint Chiefs of Staff were suggesting at the time that the military was stretched too thin to send many more troops, another security council staff member, William J. Luti, a retired Navy captain, was asked to quietly determine whether forces were available. Mr. Luti reported that five brigades’ worth of additional combat forces could be sent and recommended that they be deployed. The idea later won additional support among some officials as a result of a detailed study by Gen. Jack Keane, the former vice chief of staff at the Army, and Frederick W. Kagan, a military specialist, that was published by the American Enterprise Institute.

In the end, the troop reinforcement proposal split the military. Even after the president had made the basic decision to send additional troops, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, never sought more than two brigades, about 8,000 troops in all, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reported to Mr. Bush in late December. But General Casey’s approach substantially differed from those of two officers who wanted a much bigger effort: the No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who helped oversee the military’s new counterinsurgency manual and whose views were known by the White House before he was publicly named to replace General Casey, administration officials said.

Current and former officials from the Bush administration and the military agreed to disclose new details about the debate over the troop increase in response to repeated requests. Most insisted on anonymity because the documents were still classified, but said they believed the historical record should reflect the considerations that were being weighed at the time.

Troop Reduction Strategy

On Aug. 17, 2006, Mr. Bush conferred in a videoconference with his top military commanders and senior advisers.

General Casey’s strategy was to gradually transfer authority to the Iraqi forces and progressively reduce American troops. He had told officials in Washington during a June visit that he hoped to reduce the number of American combat brigades to five or six by the end of 2007 from the 14 that were deployed at the time.

By August, the sectarian killings had led General Casey to modestly increase his forces. The hope was that American forces would help clear insurgent and militia-infested neighborhoods in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, while Iraqi troops would be brought in to secure them. After that, the push to make a transition to Iraqi control would continue.

During the videoconference with the president, General Casey said he had enough troops but said he was not sure the Iraqis could “deliver” on securing the neighborhoods. Mr. Bush underscored that more American troops were available if the commander needed them. “We must succeed,” Mr. Bush told General Casey, according to notes taken by a participant. “We will commit the resources. If they can’t, we will. If the bicycle teeters, put our hand back on it.”

“I support you guys 100 percent, but I need to ask you tough questions,” Mr. Bush added. “Different times call for different kinds of questions.”

It was hardly the first time that officials had raised questions about the American approach in Iraq. In March 2006, Philip D. Zelikow, a senior aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, called in a memorandum for a “massive effort to improve security in Baghdad and surrounding areas, and a reckoning with the most violent Shia/Sadrist militias.”

He elaborated on that theme in a paper he drafted in June with James F. Jeffrey, now Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser, that recommended “selective counterinsurgency” that might involve additional American forces.

Some aides had also hoped that a meeting that Mr. Bush held at Camp David in June would signal the start of a major review. That did not happen, but over the summer, the security council staff members began a critique of the strategy.

By October, the aides, Meghan O’Sullivan, Brett McGurk and Peter D. Feaver, had collaborated on the paper that raised the prospect of a troop increase. J. D. Crouch, the deputy national security adviser, called in Mr. Luti to ask for a separate look.

After contacting the Army staff, Mr. Luti submitted a confidential briefing in October titled, “Changing the Dynamics: Surge and Fight, Create Breathing Space and Then Accelerate the Transition.”

The briefing called for a substantial troop increase, which Mr. Luti later defined as sending 20,000 additional troops — about five brigades — to Baghdad and other hot spots in Iraq. The National Security Council staff was trying to walk a fine line under a Bush White House that cast staff members as coordinators, not advocates. Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, later gave a copy to Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and asked for his assessment.

Public Support ‘in Jeopardy’


Three days after the 2006 midterm Congressional elections, the White House finally convened a formal governmentwide review. The Republicans had taken a beating at the polls and the Iraq Study Group, a nonpartisan panel led by Lee H. Hamilton, the former Democratic representative, and James A. Baker III, the secretary of state to the first President Bush, was preparing to publish its recommendations — to step up efforts to train Iraqi troops and withdraw virtually all American combat brigades by spring 2008.

At a Nov. 22 White House meeting, top aides outlined an “emerging consensus” on the way ahead. There was wide agreement that a successful outcome in Iraq was vital for the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and a candid assessment of the difficulties.

A document prepared for the review stated: “Our center of gravity — public support — is in jeopardy because of doubts that our Iraq efforts are on a trajectory leading to success.”

Each agency outlined its position in a series of classified papers. Civilian Pentagon officials endorsed General Casey’s strategy making transition a top priority.

“General Casey has a good plan. He has identified ways to do things faster and accelerate the timeline to Iraqi self-reliance,” said a Nov. 22 memorandum by policy officials in the office of the secretary of defense. “There may be some opportunities outside of Baghdad — Anbar; border control — for a relatively small surge force to have a noticeable impact. (The uniformed military remains against the surge force without a clearly defined objective.)”

A classified paper by the Joint Chiefs of Staff also argued for “accelerating Iraqis into ‘operational lead.’ ” It proposed a number of measures, including assigning one American brigade to each Iraqi division, to improve the performance of Iraqi troops.

Ms. Rice and her top deputies prepared a paper on “Advancing America’s Interests, Preserving Iraq’s Independence” that recommended that the United States focus on “core” interests like fighting terrorism and countering Iranian aggression. Moving to the periphery of the capital, American forces would contain the violence and intervene in the sectarian fighting in Baghdad only if there were “mass killings or mass expulsions.” State Department aides were not aware of the Luti paper raising the prospect that substantial American reinforcements might be available, despite Pentagon complaints that troops were overstretched.

On the political front, the United States would no longer count on efforts to encourage the Iraqi leadership in the Green Zone to reconcile their differences. Instead, the United States would emphasize efforts on the local level and double the number of civilian “provincial reconstruction teams” to help the Iraqis rebuild their infrastructure and improve governance.

John P. Hannah, a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, urged a new effort to strengthen ties with Shiites, a majority of Iraq’s population. Many Shiites, he said, believed the United States was more concerned with countering Shiite militias than fighting Sunni insurgents. On Nov. 30, Mr. Bush met in Amman, Jordan, with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who advanced his own proposal that American forces pull back to the outskirts of Baghdad to fight Sunni insurgents while Iraqi forces took control of the capital. With violence escalating out of control, few American officials thought that was feasible. Mr. Bush told the Iraqi prime minister that General Casey would study the plan and said that the United States could send more troops if the Iraqis removed political impediments to the Americans’ ability to confront Shiite factions involved in sectarian attacks and took other steps to rise above sectarianism.

Still, the debate continued to swirl. In an early December meeting of top officials, Mr. Cheney argued for sending forces to address the sectarian violence in Baghdad, while Ms. Rice reiterated her argument that there was little the military could do to stop sectarian violence there, according to notes taken by a participant.

A ‘Slow-Motion Lateral’


Mr. Bush signaled his decision to pursue some kind of troop increase in Iraq when his National Security Council met Dec. 8 and Dec. 9. The idea was to make protection of the Iraqi population an important goal and reduce violence before resuming efforts to transfer responsibilities to the Iraqis. Invoking a sports metaphor, he described the surge as a “slow-motion lateral” to Iraqi control.

Still, the size of the deployment and exactly how it would be used were not settled. Would the “surge” be a slightly expanded version of General Casey’s approach toward securing Baghdad with limited American forces? Or would it represent a radical break with the current strategy?

By now, there was a split in the military community. General Odierno had taken over in early December as the second-ranking officer in Iraq. He conducted a review that called for a minimum of five additional brigades in and around Baghdad and two more battalions in Anbar Province to reinforce efforts to work with Sunni tribes there.

As a subordinate to General Casey, General Odierno had no role in the security council review. But his views were known to General Keane, the retired four-star general who had helped oversee the study for the American Enterprise Institute that advocated adding five Army brigades and two Marine regiments. In separate meetings with Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney on Dec. 11, General Keane relayed General Odierno’ assessment, which was forwarded by General Pace as well.

Along with Mr. Kagan, General Keane also described in detail to Mr. Cheney and his staff his own plan calling for American forces to be deployed in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad to demonstrate that the United States would be even-handed in protecting civilians.

Donald H. Rumsfeld’s resignation on Nov. 6, and Mr. Gates’s swearing-in to replace him as defense secretary in mid-December, removed some of the institutional resistance at the Pentagon to the “surge.” Ms. Rice also became more supportive after it was made clear that demands would be made of the Iraqis.

Mr. Gates flew to Baghdad in late December to confer with General Casey and Mr. Maliki. On the flight, Eric S. Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy, gave Mr. Gates a copy of the enterprise institute study.

During his Baghdad meetings, General Casey stuck to his approach, and said that he only needed one or two additional brigades, which might only be used for several months to hold cleared neighborhoods in Baghdad until Iraqi troops were ready to take over. On the flight home, Mr. Gates and his aides discussed what to say in his report to Mr. Bush. Mr. Hannah, Mr. Cheney’s aide, who was also on the trip, questioned whether two brigades would be just enough to fail. He asked whether the Pentagon should be proposing more.

Mr. Gates said it was difficult to get Mr. Maliki to accept that much. The defense secretary later reported to Mr. Bush that the commander wanted no more than two brigades, which would be stationed on each side of the Tigris River in Baghdad.

A Dec. 28 National Security Council meeting had been arranged at Mr. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Tex. General Keane was concerned that General Pace might ask only for the two brigades recommended by General Casey, with three more held in reserve. General Keane called Mr. Hannah and said that General Pace should be asked if he thought such a small deployment would be decisive. That meeting confirmed the need to send more troops to Anbar Province and all but affirmed the plan to send five more brigades to Baghdad.

General Petraeus’s views were also influential. He was being considered to replace General Casey and wanted as many forces as he could get, to pursue a strategy that, like General Odierno’s, would give priority to protecting Iraqi civilians and move American forces out of large bases. The tussle over the number of forces to be sent went down to the wire. As White House officials began to work on Mr. Bush’s Jan. 10 speech announcing the increase, one draft had Mr. Bush saying he would send “up to five” combat brigades. Aides at the National Security Council took the issue to Mr. Bush, who made the commitment explicit. “I’ve committed more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq,” Mr. Bush said in his televised address. “The vast majority of them — five brigades — will be deployed to Baghdad.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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