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.
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.