The Magazine

Victory in Iraq

How it was won, how it may be lost.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By BARTLE B. BULL
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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 importance. 

Sgt. John Guerra of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Baghdad, February 07

Sgt. John Guerra of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Baghdad, February 07

associated press

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 conclusions. 

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 Endgame is 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  of Prospect, manages an Iraq-focused investment fund.