As the surge ended in mid-2008, with the last of the five additional combat brigades heading home, Baghdad felt distinctly better. Kebab stands and coffee shops had reopened across the city, and many ordinary Iraqis felt safe enough to venture out of their homes at night, in part because stores were remaining open to evening shoppers. Some women discarded the head scarves that Islamic extremists had insisted they wear, with violators being attacked. Even as Iraq’s factions remained murderously divided, violence was at its lowest level of the entire war, with only a dozen American soldiers dying in July 2008. Contrary to expectation, the holy month of Ramadan didn’t bring a major spike in violence, as it had in the previous five years. Some 39,000 displaced families safely returned to Baghdad.
Some optimists, such as Fred Kagan, pronounced that Iraqi politics were moving forward smartly and that the war was all but over. But that assessment confused starting to win with having won. There was no question that under Petraeus, the U.S. military had regained the strategic initiative, an extraordinary achievement. “He has pulled off something that is unparalleled, really, and without much support from Washington or Centcom, and with active hampering from the Joint Chiefs,” said David Kilcullen. Yet most of the basic questions about the long-term direction of Iraq remained unanswered. It is striking that of the predictions General Fastabend made in his 2007 essay written for Petraeus about “How All This Ends,” many of the military ones came true while the political ones didn’t. As Fastabend had urged, the U.S. government was indeed able to arrive at cease-fires with tribes, to turn former insurgents and put them on the payroll, and even to chip away at the power of Sadr’s militia. But on the political side, Fastabend had predicted that Maliki would be ousted from power by January 2008 and then disappear a few months later while traveling in Iran. He saw provincial elections rolling across Iraq in 2008, another event that didn’t happen. (He did make one good call on the political side: foreseeing that the Republicans would lose the White House in the November 2008 elections.)
Iraqi politics felt stuck, and American officials were beginning to fear that an entire generation of embittered, distrustful former exiles would have to pass from the scene before genuine and lasting progress could occur. This struck me especially one day late in 2008, when Maj. Gen. Guy Swan, Odierno’s director of strategic operations, told me in his Green Zone office that “with the security gains, there is a window of opportunity. . . . Only they can do it. We have set the conditions for them. They have an opportunity to pursue their own destiny.” Almost exactly a year earlier, Gen. Odierno had said almost exactly the same thing to me. A window of opportunity had opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, he had explained then, but said “it’s unclear how long that window is going to be open.”
Analyzing the lack of progress in Iraqi politics one day late in 2008, Emma Sky recalled Petraeus’s image of “the Mesopotamian Stampede.” “We’ve stopped the stallion from running off the cliff, but then it runs off in another direction,” she said. “Right now it is frantically running around in circles.” By that she meant that the existential questions that faced the country before the surge—and indeed since the day the Americans invaded—were still hanging out there.
What, then, had the surge accomplished?
THE SURGE FALLS SHORT
The surge was the right step to take, or more precisely, the least wrong move in a misconceived war. Petraeus’s final letter to his troops, dated September 15, 2008, stated that “your great work, sacrifice, courage and skill have helped reverse a downward spiral toward civil war and wrest the initiative from the enemies of the new Iraq.” That assessment captured what the surge and associated moves did, but not what they didn’t do.
The surge campaign was effective in many ways, but the best grade it can be given is a solid incomplete. It succeeded tactically but fell short strategically. There is no question that the surge was an important contributor to the reduction in violence in Iraq and perhaps the main cause of that improvement. But its larger purpose had been to create a breathing space that would then enable Iraqi politicians to find a way forward and that hadn’t happened. As 2008 proceeded, not only were some top Iraqi officials not seizing the opportunity, some were regressing, Odierno worried one day as he sat in the Green Zone office he recently had inherited from Petraeus. Iraqi politicians had found that they didn’t necessarily have to move forward, he said. “What we’re finding is that as Iraq has become more secure, they’ve . . . moved backwards, in some cases, to their hard-line positions, whether it be a Kurdish position, an Arab position, a Sunni position, a Shi’a position, a Da’wa position, an ISCI position”—these last two being the two major Shiia parties.
Odierno argued that progress was being made politically. But the analysis he then offered of Iraqi politics seemed instead to support the argument that the breathing space given Iraqi leaders had enabled them to retreat from reconciliation and dodge tough problems. “Security is good enough where I worry about them going back,” he explained. “They’re not going back to solve the old problems which we’ve pushed. They’ve continued to delay the tough ones, like the problem with land up in the north with the Kurds, the problems with the Peshmerga, oil, Kirkuk.” Nor had international actors, most notably Iran, agreed to back off and let Iraq solve its problems by itself. Indeed, a senior U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq told a reporter that there were four locations in Iran at which Iraqi Shiites were being trained to assassinate Iraqi judges and other officials.
Marine Col. Tom Greenwood, who had been a member of the critical “council of colonels” that in the fall of 2006 had pushed the Pentagon toward recognizing some hard truths about Iraq, said the surge essentially had papered over the problems of Iraq without solving them. “I still think that the Maliki government is riddled with sectarianism and is dysfunctional,” he said in mid-2008, and “that we have de facto partition between the Kurds, Shia and Sunni, that Iraq is little more than an Iranian proxy, that we have destabilized the region worse than Saddam Hussein ever did, that the downward trend in U.S. casualties will be short-lived.”
What’s more, some of the country’s political tensions were worsening, most notably between Arabs and Kurds over oil and the status of Kirkuk. “As Nouri al-Maliki has become more capable and more confident, he’s actually become less inclined to reach out to those he most needs to reconcile with,” said Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, charged the Baghdad government with forgetting its commitments and acting like “a totalitarian regime.”
Violence had declined much less in Kirkuk than in Baghdad, added Michael Knights, an expert on Middle East defense issues, who dubbed the disputed city “the land the surge forgot.”
One White House official worried aloud that there were signs that the axis of the Iraq war was shifting from Sunnis versus Shiites to Arabs versus Kurds. After visiting Iraq in late 2008, Gen. Barry McCaffrey agreed, saying that “the war waiting in the wings is the war of the Kurds and the Arabs.” The Kurds also were causing friction in Mosul, where much of the Iraqi army is Kurdish but the majority of the population is Arabic. Significantly, that city, the largest in the north, was the last redoubt of al Qaeda in Iraq, which was able to play on anti-Kurdish feeling with the locals.
Judging by the frustrated mood of officials in Baghdad, it wouldn’t be surprising in an Arab-Kurd showdown to see an American “tilt” in favor of the Arabs. “The Kurds have gotten away with everything for the last five years, taking more than they should,” Emma Sky, Odierno’s political adviser, said that same month. “I think the Kurds overplayed their hand, and we helped them do it.”
In August, Maliki seemed to redirect an offensive in Diyala Province, making it less against Sunni insurgents and more against the Kurds. Iraqi troops pushed Kurdish military units northward, provoking the Kurds’ Barzani to issue an ultimatum that the Kurds would never give up Kirkuk. “The Iraqi army’s campaign in Diyala, ostensibly directed against al Qaeda in Iraq, has turned against Maliki’s’s ruling coalition partner, the Kurds,” reported one veteran observer, Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group. Baghdad’s forces also raided government offices in Diyala, arresting a provincial council member and a university president, a Shiite who was led away in a hood and handcuffs.
The lack of a breakthrough meant that after the last of the surge troops went home, the U.S. military faced essentially the same set of missions, but had fewer troops to carry them out. Some analysts worried that the first task to be curtailed would be the most important one: protecting the population, which also required the greatest use of troops. “I can’t see them having all the same missions with less people,” said Joel Armstrong, the retired Army officer who helped plan the surge. “All the training and security missions are still there.” So, he worried, Iraq would backslide into “a downward spiral.” American officials insisted that Iraqi forces could step into the void. That assertion will be tested in 2009, as American troop numbers begin to fall below pre-surge levels.
The surge, while making short-term security gains, also may have carried hidden long-term costs that will only become fully apparent when Obama is president. “The surge may have bought transitory successes . . . but it has done so by stoking the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism,” argued Steven Simon, a Council of Foreign Relations expert on the Middle East. If continued, he predicted, the U.S. support for tribes, local militias, and other centrifugal forces will undermine central authority and lead to a divided, dysfunctional sate “that suffers from the same instability and violence as Yemen and Pakistan.”
OBAMA IN IRAQ
He arrived in late July, escorted by two senators who are Army veterans, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He flew from Kuwait to Basra, where he met with British and American generals. Then it was on to Baghdad.
When Obama walked into the U.S. embassy, Petraeus and Crocker had him where they wanted him: on their turf. This was their chance to answer all the questions he had posed so well during the hearings and not given them a chance to answer. They assembled a huge, extremely detailed briefing and walked the candidate through the Iraq they knew, one where some progress had been made but where it could all fall apart. The meeting went nearly two hours, half an hour longer than scheduled.
“We noted that we didn’t have the opportunity to answer [his question] . . . in the dialogue that we had in the hearings,” Petraeus said later. The issue for Obama, he said, was “We sought to . . . provide an answer to that question. And to do that we basically had an executive overview of the joint campaign plan, laid out the lines of operations, supporting activities.”
The senators were a bit surprised to be given such a formal briefing, rather than a candid informal conversation. “This was a rare opportunity to have a discussion, not a step-by-step presentation that you would give to a committee or large audience,” said one participant who termed the meeting “serious but civil.”
It was an oddly contentious encounter, in part because the two men are essentially similar—more cerebral and reserved than their peers, but also lean, focused, ambitious, and extraordinarily successful in their chosen fields. One is a paratrooper who went to graduate school at Princeton, the other a community activist who went to law school at Harvard. Most important, their vision of what America can and should do in Iraq is fundamentally fairly close, with both inclined toward what Petraeus has called a “minimalist” position, a polite way of rejecting the grandiose Bush vision and instead acknowledging that Iraq isn’t going to be a stable, quiet, peace-loving democracy anytime soon.
Yet in this meeting, according to two participants, they tended to concentrate on their differences—at least when Obama was permitted to interrupt the lecture. Petraeus made it clear that he strongly opposed Obama’s notion of getting all the combat troops out by mid-2010, especially because security conditions in Iraq are always changing. Obama made it clear that his job as president would be to look at the larger picture—an assertion that likely insulted Petraeus, who justly prides himself on his ability to do just that. This is far from over, Petraeus said. Obama responded that it’s on the mend, and it’s time to divert resources elsewhere.
“We are coming down, but I need the flexibility of not having a timetable,” Petraeus responded. The three senators observed that the Iraqis wanted a timetable—and so did they. At that point, Petraeus just looked at them. Some officers around Petraeus found Obama to be so self-confident that they privately referred to him as the “presumptuous nominee.”
Obama left the meeting unswayed. Later that day, he said that he understood that Petraeus had “deep concerns,” especially about a timetable, but that “my job is to think about the national security interests as a whole and to weigh and balance risks in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their job is to get the job done here.”
He also said he wouldn’t be “boxed” into either “rubber-stamping” the advice of generals or rigidly following a time line. At a press conference the next day, Obama elaborated on that apparent flexibility, saying that even after combat forces were pulled out, he expected a substantial military presence to remain.
The senators spent the night in VIP trailers behind the embassy. The next day they boarded a Marine V-22 Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter but then tilts its rotors to fly like an airplane, and headed west to Ramadi, where they met with Marine officers and then with the brother of Sheikh Sittar, the tribal chief who had worked so effectively with Col. Sean MacFarland in Ramadi in 2006. Also attending were about 30 other sheikhs, clad in white robes with gold and black trim, as well as some Iraqi officials. “He came to us,” Mamoun Sami Rasheed, the governor of al Anbar Province, later said. This was about as big as wasta gets—having the future president of the United States haul out to the bank of the Euphrates to explain his views. “He asked many questions,” Rasheed continued. “We asked him not to pull out of Iraq.” Obama told him that he wanted to get the American combat forces out of Iraq in about 16 months. Rasheed replied that the U.S. military would need to stay at least three more years, because the Iraqi military isn’t ready to take over the mission. To that, he said, Obama promised, “The United States will not abandon Iraq.”
That last promise may prove decisive in shaping the future of the U.S. effort in Iraq. If Obama keeps it, he almost certainly will have to break his vow to get all U.S. combat units out of Iraq by mid-2010. On the other hand, there is less to that promise than meets the eye. The phrase “combat units” is really meaningless in the context of the Iraq war, where there is no front and where all troops, front line or not, are vulnerable. What the American people care about is whether U.S. troops of any sort are getting killed. Most deaths in the war have been caused by roadside bombs, which don’t distinguish between front-line infantry and support units. Indeed, a transport soldier whose mission is to conduct convoys is more likely to get bombed than an infantryman who mainly operates on foot.
Gen. Austin, the number two commander in Iraq, said that his impression was that Obama “really took to heart some of the things we told him.” Obama left people in Iraq with the sense he would be flexible and consider conditions on the ground and would be able to adjust his 16-month timetable if he saw the need. In sum, Obama, Bush, Maliki, and Petraeus all seemed to be saying more or less the same thing: We all want the U.S. military out of Iraq eventually, but want to do it in a way that doesn’t push the country over a cliff. The long war view appeared to have won.
PETRAEUS OUT OF IRAQ
It has happened to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Leaving Iraq is a moment of ambivalence. One is pleased to be going home and anticipating a reunion with one’s family, but is also conflicted by the nagging sense of leaving in the middle of the fight, with much unfinished business. There is a sense of lightness, of a weight being lifted, followed by a recognition of how much a mental and physical strain it has been to fight in Iraq. When Petraeus got on the airplane to leave Iraq in mid-September 2008, he experienced all these mixed emotions. He and others felt “a quiet pride,” he said, “that we helped Iraq step back from the brink of civil war and to essentially go . . . from the brink to the mend.” But in his case, the sense of relief didn’t last long. “I think there might have been a lifting of the weight for five minutes and then someone started talking about Centcom.”
At his new assignment at Central Command, Petraeus would face a new round of troubles, and also would be dealing with a new president who had made it clear that he has strong strategic views of his own. Looming largest before Petraeus was the war in Afghanistan, which is really a war in both that country and Pakistan, with Pakistan the more important part of it, because Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and remains a hotbed of Islamic extremism. On top of that, the world financial crisis was already beginning to hit Pakistan and threatened to put a new crimp in the U.S. military as America was forced to tighten its belt. In addition, the American face-off with Iran over that country’s nuclear ambitions continued to threaten to escalate into a crisis that could change the region. Nor was Iraq going to be resolved anytime soon.
Even before yielding command in Iraq, Petraeus flew to Lebanon. The trip suggested that if no one else had heeded Crocker’s concerns about the possible “Lebanonization” of Iraq, he had. He entered Beirut just after a new government was created that gave Hezbollah—an armed militia independent of government control—and its allies 11 of 30 seats in the new cabinet. The visit came as American intelligence analysts in Baghdad were suggesting that the Sadr organization’s future course would be to try to become the Hezbollah of Iraq, an armed force outside the government that provides services and also holds great influence over the actions of the government. A major difference between Sadr and Hezbollah is that thus far, Iran has not provided Sadr’s militia with Kornet anti-tank laser-guided missiles and the other sophisticated weaponry it is said to have shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah used that matériel to great effect in its 2006 war with Israel, fighting the Israeli military to a standstill and gaining wasta across the Arab world. If Iran provided such weaponry to its allies in Iraq, it would be escalating the war there significantly, and likely would require the U.S. government to reevaluate its approach to the war and even consider actions inside Iran.
It was a high-profile trip for Petraeus to take as his first move as the incoming chief of Centcom. He insisted it wasn’t the harbinger of a more aggressive stance. “This is not a provocative-type initiative,” he said, but rather “to get a sense of the situation in a country where Iran has been asserting substantial influence.”
The biggest change Petraeus is apt to bring to Centcom is in the handling of Afghanistan, where he likely will reach out to “reconcilable” enemies while trying to isolate and kill those deemed “irreconcilable.” The best indication of this isn’t anything he has said, but his pick for his deputy at Centcom: John Allen, the Marine general who loved Gertrude Bell, and also had become the de facto American ambassador to Anbar’s sheikhs, playing a major role in the turning of the Sunni insurgency in that province.
I’d be surprised if Petraeus remains at Centcom for more than two years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at some point in the Obama administration, picked to be national security adviser or for another senior national security position. Petraeus wouldn’t have to leave the military to move to the White House. For example, Colin Powell did it as an active-duty officer late in the Reagan administration. He said he wasn’t interested in writing a memoir. “I am not interested in a sort of rehashing.” He cited Gen. George Marshall’s refusal after World War II to write an autobiography, even when doing so would have made him a wealthy man. “It would cause some discomfort and I don’t have any desire to do that,” Petraeus said. Crocker had a similarly clear response: “absolutely not.” If they stick to that, one of many oddities of the Iraq war will be that the officials who failed—L. Paul Bremer, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, even Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman—will leave behind memoirs while those who were more successful remain officially silent.