Nine months ago, when I was last in Iraq, the conventional wisdom about the war effort was unduly pessimistic. Many politicians, and not only Democrats, had declared the surge a failure when it had barely begun. Today we know that the surge has succeeded: Iraqi and American deaths fell by approximately 80 percent between December 2006 and December 2007, and life is returning to a semblance of normality in much of Baghdad. Now the danger is that public opinion may be turning too optimistic. While Iraq has made near-miraculous progress in the past year, daunting challenges remain, and victory is by no means assured.
I saw many achievements and an equal number of obstacles during 11 days touring the American brigades spread across central and northern Iraq. (I was traveling in the company of my friend and fellow author Bing West at the invitation of General David Petraeus.) In broad strokes, the picture that emerged was of an Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization that is on the run but not yet fully eliminated. AQI has been largely chased out of the capital and its southern and northern belts, but the terrorists have taken refuge in the rural areas of Diyala, Salahaddin, and Ninewa provinces, where, as part of a new operation called Phantom Phoenix, American and Iraqi troops are starting to root them out. Likewise, the Jaysh al-Mahdi, the Shiite extremist group headed by Moktada al Sadr, has seen its influence curbed and its ranks splintered, but it remains a threat.
If any city has replaced Baghdad as a hub of AQI operations, it is Mosul, a metropolis of 1.8 million people that, until just a few weeks ago, was garrisoned by only one American battalion—less than a thousand soldiers. In the month preceding my visit on January 15, Mosul had been hit by 153 IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and had 260 incidents of gunfire. The growing security in Baghdad allowed U.S. commanders to move a second battalion up to Mosul to address the threat. Now U.S. forces are pushing into west Mosul, a predominantly Sunni Arab area that has become an al Qaeda stronghold. (Eastern Mosul, with a heavily Kurdish population, is more peaceful.)
As we drove the streets of west Mosul in a Humvee, I saw IED-scarred roads flooded from broken water mains—something I had last seen in Ramadi in April 2007. In many areas, shops were closed and no people were visible on the streets.
While getting a briefing on the security station at Combat Outpost Eagle, a fortified building located in the heart of west Mosul and jointly manned by Iraqi and American troops, we heard an explosion in the distance. It was an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter firing a Hellfire missile at a truck that was stuffed with munitions. Five of the seven men inside the vehicle were killed in the initial strike, but two managed to get out and take refuge in a neighboring building. U.S. troops arrived on the scene, and missiles and tank shells poured into the building. One of the terrorists was shot while trying to sneak out, while the other one blew himself up with a suicide vest.
Our little convoy—four Humvees led by Lieutenant Colonel Keith A. Barclay, commander of the 3rd squadron (the cavalry term for a battalion) of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment—headed over to check out the scene of the fighting. As we were driving through a giant puddle, I heard from inside my armored Humvee a dull roar, and smoke started rising ahead of us. The lead Humvee had hit an IED that sheared off the engine compartment. As soon as the bomb went off, insurgents in a building to our left opened fire with automatic weapons. An Abrams tank coming to our assistance hit another IED that tore off its tracks. The soldiers in our group refrained from shooting because they could not see any targets. As soon as the firing stopped, we got out to assess the damage and to tow the damaged Humvee back to base. Luckily no one in our convoy was injured, but flying shrapnel tore off the arm of an Iraqi man standing nearby, leaving him screaming in agony.
My bleak impressions of northern Iraq were reinforced the next day while visiting Bayji, site of an important oil refinery in Salahaddin province. There are too few American and Iraqi troops stationed here to control a city with a population of 140,000, and it shows.
Led by Colonel Scott McBride, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, we toured the marketplace. The first vendor we talked to informed us that he had been a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi army and was not happy to be reduced to selling vegetables. His view of the current government is bleak, but his face lit up when asked his opinion of the preceding regime. “Saddam good!” he proclaimed, giving the dead dictator an enthusiastic thumbs up. (I pointed out through an interpreter that one of the benefits of the change of regime is that he is able to freely express his feelings about the current government, something that he admitted was not possible in Saddam’s time.)
In the next store we stopped at, McBride asked a merchant how he was doing. “How am I doing?” the man replied. “There is no fuel, no electricity, no hope. I’d rather be dead.” I didn’t hear the end of his litany of woe because I was too busy ducking after someone across the street took a potshot at us. As we walked out of the marketplace, we didn’t see a single Iraqi policeman on duty. An American officer explained that this was because the police took heavy casualties anytime they ventured into this market.
A good deal of work obviously remains to be done before northern Iraq is pacified—the region now accounts for 61 percent of all attacks in Iraq (Baghdad Province is second with 17 percent). But even here you find pockets of normality. We were told that Tal Afar, which had been occupied by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2005-06, remains relatively stable. We saw for ourselves the resounding success in Kirkuk, a city made up of Kurds and Sunni Arabs. While Bayji has been hit with nine major VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) in the past two months, Kirkuk has gone four months without any successful such attacks. The Kirkuk marketplace is bustling and full of Iraqi police. The vibe here was as friendly as it had been hostile in Bayji. No one shot at us. The highlight of my visit was buying a small mountain of delicious baklava for less than $5 from a friendly storekeeper.
The security situation is just as good in western Iraq. Anbar Province, the scene of the heaviest fighting from 2003 to 2007, has become so quiet that Marines are complaining of boredom and their inability to earn combat action ribbons. The transformation in the southern Baghdad belt is less complete but in many cases just as dramatic. We visited the Yusufiya area, formerly known as the “Triangle of Death.” Until 2007, there were few American troops here, and those were under siege. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Rohling, commander of the 3rd battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, told us that the battalion which had garrisoned the area in 2006-07 had lost 29 men; their battalion commander had been wounded twice; and two of their men had been kidnapped by AQI. By contrast, Rohling’s battalion had suffered only one death and 18 wounded since arriving in November. “The enemy has become very weak,” an Iraqi army officer who works closely with the Americans told us. “They are breathing their last breath.”
Similar sentiments were expressed in the Dora district of western Baghdad. A predominantly Sunni neighborhood, Dora had been the scene of heavy fighting in 2006, which turned it into a ghost town. The American-led offensive of 2007 produced a dramatic turnaround. Concrete walls were erected to limit access to the neighborhood while American and Iraqi security forces, working out of small bases, confronted the militants. The cumulative impact of such steps has been dramatic: Multi-National Division-Baghdad calculates that 75 percent of the capital is now under control, up from just 8 percent a year ago.
As we walked down Airplane Road, Dora’s main drag, we saw shops and schools open, people in the streets, and trash being picked up. Even the concrete walls, potentially an eyesore, have been prettified with well-executed murals and trees planted alongside them. Housing prices are on the rise. We concluded our stroll with a gargantuan meal—what troops call a “goat grab” because you’re supposed to grab hunks of lamb or goat with your hands—at the home of a Sunni physician who has been working with American forces to improve the neighborhood.
Many factors account for the dramatic turnaround. First was the willingness of President Bush to commit more American forces to what was widely deemed a lost cause. Just as important was General David Petraeus’s decision to switch the U.S. mission from handing off authority willy-nilly to the Iraqis in favor of trying to secure the safety of the Iraqi population—a basic tenet of counterinsurgency strategy that had never been implemented on a large-scale in Iraq. This meant moving many U.S. soldiers off giant forward operating bases into smaller joint security stations and combat outposts where they could work closely with Iraqi security forces to gain the confidence of the population. Iraqis in turn responded by ratting out the terrorists hiding in plain sight.
But while this growing success would not have been possible absent the American role, it also could not have occurred were it not for the willingness of tens of thousands of Iraqis to come forward and take up arms against extremists, both Sunni and Shia. The Iraqi Security Forces, particularly the army, have grown in size and effectiveness over the past year. In much of southern Iraq, they are the ones maintaining order: imperfectly to be sure, but with only minimal help from coalition forces.
But even more important than the Iraqi Security Forces has been the role played by what American commanders call Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs)—mainly though not exclusively Sunnis who have banded together to chase insurgents out of their neighborhoods. This process, known as the Awakening (sahwa in Arabic), started in Anbar Province in September 2006 and has since spread across all the Sunni areas of Iraq and even into parts of the largely Shiite south. There are more than 80,000 CLCs—with 70,000 of them on the American payroll earning an average of $300 a month: a good wage in Iraq. They enhance not only security but also economic activity.
This movement has been criticized by some Shiite leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who fear that it has the makings of an anti-government militia. To assuage such concerns, American commanders are taking care to maintain limits on the CLCs: Every member has his biometric information—fingerprints, voice prints, retinal scans—collected, and all the groups are carefully monitored by Iraqi and coalition forces. They are forbidden from taking part in offensive operations. Their work consists of manning checkpoints and fingering insurgents.
Many of the CLC members are former insurgents themselves who made a conscious decision to switch sides, and coalition forces have received few reports of any going back to fighting the government. The success of the CLCs may be judged from the fact that they have themselves become a top target for AQI, which has managed to kill several of the CLCs’ high-profile leaders. The CLC chieftains we spoke to know they are in a fight to the death, and they are grimly determined to defeat the Islamist extremists who have alienated most of their erstwhile supporters.
American commanders who work closely with them rave about the effectiveness of the CLCs. Their main concern is the opposite of the one so often heard in Washington: Instead of worrying about what the CLCs will do if they remain in business, they worry about what they will do if they go out of business. The latter danger arises because senior American and Iraqi leaders are understandably determined to prevent the emergence of another militia. They are pushing to disband the CLCs, with 20 percent moving into the Iraqi Security Forces and the rest into civilian jobs. This is a plan fraught with problems. In the first place, the Maliki government has been dragging its feet on incorporating these mainly Sunni volunteers into the Iraqi Security Forces. And there are few civilian jobs available at a time when unemployment is running at 50 percent in some areas. The U.S. high command is pushing for the creation of a jobs program modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression, but so far funding has been anemic from both the Iraqi and American governments. In any case, most of the CLCs we spoke to expressed scant interest in digging ditches or cleaning streets—they prefer the prestige that comes from carrying a gun.
American commanders in the field fear that they will be forced to stop paying the CLCs without being able to provide them another livelihood—something that senior officers in Baghdad privately assured us would never happen. Nevertheless, a number of officers scattered across the country independently used the phrase “perfect storm” to describe what might happen this summer with a reduction in the CLC ranks.
This worst-case scenario centers around the planned reduction of U.S. forces from 170,000 (20 brigade combat teams) to the pre-surge level of 140,000 (15 brigade combat teams). In Baghdad this could mean a cut from 32 battalions to 20. Can the security situation continue to improve with one-fourth of the coalition force withdrawn? We will soon find out, since the drawdown will be finished by mid-July.
Another element of the feared “perfect storm” is the planned release of thousands of inmates from the U.S.-run detention facilities at Camps Bucca and Cropper—the successors to the notorious Abu Ghraib. The number of detainees in American custody rose from 14,000 at the beginning of 2007 to 25,000 at the end of the year—a trend that closely corresponded with the fall in violence. Senior commanders think that the prisoner population, which is 80 percent Sunni, can be safely trimmed because much of the Sunni population has switched sides against AQI. Although no numerical quota has been set, the goal is to reduce the overall prison population to roughly 12,000 to 15,000 by the end of 2008. Since American forces detain an average of 28 insurgents a day, this will require releasing perhaps 18,000 of the current detainees.
Sensitive to charges that previous prisoner releases worsened the situation, the American high command has been careful to put checks in place and to pledge that the releases will be suspended if the recidivism rate is too high. For the first time, American forces are continuing counterinsurgency inside the prison walls, using educational and vocational programs to wean inmates away from violence. Every potential releasee will be vetted by the American operational forces, who will have veto power. And in most cases sheikhs or family members will be made to sign pledges holding them responsible for the good conduct of ex-detainees.
Senior American commanders argue that under those circumstances the prisoner release can be managed without endangering hard-won security gains: that, indeed, releasing prisoners can win even more goodwill among an Iraqi populace that has seen too many of its sons and brothers locked up on flimsy evidence. But out in the field many combat officers express serious misgivings. They note that Iraq has no parole system, and they do not have the manpower to monitor those who are released. There are, moreover, no jobs available for them. “The detainee release is not good. It’s just one more rock in the rucksack of commanders who already have a heavy load to carry,” one brigade commander complained. “It’s the first time we’ve given the enemy a free ride in the middle of a war.”
American commanders also worry about the performance, or the lack thereof, of the Iraqi government. The theory behind the surge is that a reduction in violence would make possible political reconciliation. There is some evidence of this occurring, especially at the local level. But at the national level the record is spotty. To its credit, the Iraqi parliament has passed an accountability and justice law (still awaiting approval by the presidency council) that will, if implemented (a big if), allow thousands of ex-Baathists to seek government employment once again. And even without passing a hydrocarbon law the government is sharing oil revenues with the provinces.
But the government has done a terrible job of delivering basic services: water, electricity, garbage collection, sewers, education, and all the rest. The situation is especially bad in Sunni areas. We were told that Sunni areas of Baghdad get only one to two hours of electricity from the national grid every day, compared to eight to nine hours for Shiite areas. “The government is paralyzed and incompetent,” an aide to one of Prime Minister Maliki’s rivals (and coalition partners) told us, echoing a widely heard viewpoint.
To the extent that the government of Iraq functions at the local level, at least in the regions we visited, it is due largely to American battalions, who are arranging everything from the supply of fresh water to the installation of street lights. American commanders are even trying to improve coordination between provincial governors and the central government in Baghdad. They undertake “helicopter governance” by flying officials, who would otherwise never talk, to meet with one another.
After almost two years in power, Maliki is getting poor reviews. Iraqi and American officials alike complain about his reliance on a small coterie of hardline Shiite aides with close ties to Iran. He is building up the prime minister’s office into its own power center while shunning the ministries that are supposed to be in charge of governance (and that are mainly in the hands of other parties). For instance, he has created a parallel defense ministry known as the Office of the Commander in Chief that answers to him personally, and he has put Shiite sectarians in charge of the Implementation and Follow-up Committee for National Reconciliation, which vets new recruits to the security forces.
Maliki’s aides thoroughly exasperated their American interlocutors when they sat down late last year to negotiate the terms of the United Nations Security Council Resolution that will extend the mandate of coalition forces in Iraq through the end of 2008. The Iraqis tried to put limitations on coalition forces that would have crippled their ability to operate effectively. Maliki eventually came to an agreement with the American representatives, but the U.S. side has vowed not to repeat this exasperating process when the two nations sit down to negotiate the looming Status of Forces Agreement which will set the terms of a future American role in Iraq. The Americans are demanding that Maliki involve the foreign ministry and more of his coalition allies in these crucial talks.
That echoes a demand made by the Kurdish parties, which have been key Maliki supporters. They have told the prime minister that he has to involve a broader variety of advisers and to consult more closely with President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd), Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi (a Shiite), and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi (a Sunni) as part of the “three plus one” process. Maliki has promised to be more inclusive in the future. If he isn’t, he could face a “no confidence” motion in parliament.
American diplomatic and military officials have an increasingly low opinion of Maliki. They argue, as do many Iraqis, that he has not been able to overcome the paranoid, conspiratorial habits he developed as an exile plotting against Saddam Hussein. “I don’t think we can stay with Maliki and make any progress,” a mid-level American officer who has worked closely with the Iraqi government told us. But, there is no consensus alternative. The most likely successor would be Adil Abd al-Mahdi. He is considered a better politician and a more charming fellow, but he represents the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a party with close links to Iran and with its own sectarian militia, the Badr Organization.
There is also the danger that if Maliki were toppled the Iraqi parliament would be paralyzed for months, as happened in the first half of 2006 when the previous prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was ousted. That period saw a staggering increase in violence—an experience that no one wants to repeat. For now both the Americans and the other Iraqi political parties are resigned to working with Maliki.
The problems with Iraq’s government run much deeper than the prime minister. Many were created by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the United Nations when they crafted Iraq’s constitution and electoral system in 2003-04. As things currently stand, Iraqis vote for parties, not individuals, and the parties have largely been based on ethno-sectarian identity, not on differing policy preferences. That leaves a handful of unaccountable party bosses in Iraq free to divide the spoils of government between them. No process has yet been created for provincial elections, so there is no effective mechanism for voicing the concerns of ordinary Iraqis in the halls of government.
What is desperately needed is an electoral system that allows voters to select individual candidates to represent individual districts. Also needed is a law spelling out provincial powers and another law setting the date for provincial elections. The problem is that these proposed changes have been stymied in Baghdad, where the reigning elite has little incentive to change the system that empowers them.
If the electoral system were changed, it might produce a more moderate and inclusive government. The Awakening movement, in particular, chafes at its lack of representation. Its ethos is nationalist and secular; it has little sympathy for the Islamist politicians who are so prominent in the current government. If the Awakening organizes politically, it could well be a force for positive change. But that may require covert help from the United States, given how well-financed the incumbent parties are. The United States played this sort of role during the Cold War when the CIA heavily subsidized Italy’s Christian Democrats and other anti-communist parties. But in Iraq the Bush administration and Congress have fallen prey to self-defeating idealism: They refuse to offer subsidies to the more moderate politicians while Iran and other nations offer copious subsidies to the radicals.
In order to secure the military victories that U.S. and Iraqi forces have won at great cost in the past year, the CIA and State Department should engage more effectively in political warfare to shape the Iraqi political process in ways conducive to American and Iraqi interests. (This most assuredly doesn’t mean boosting Langley’s favorite Iraqi politician, Ayad Allawi.) Otherwise, there is a real danger that the situation may regress.
The shortcomings of Iraq’s politicians, who are struggling to overcome decades of dictatorship, should not be taken as an indictment of Iraqi society as a whole—any more than the frequent failings of America’s political class are an indictment of our country as a whole. Although I saw and heard much in Iraq that left me concerned about its future, I also saw many reasons for optimism.
One cause for cheer is how adept American forces have become at counterinsurgency operations and how deeply they have come to understand Iraqi society. Their level of effectiveness is light years ahead of where it was when I first visited Iraq in August 2003. The senior American commanders—General David Petraeus and Lieutenant General Ray Odierno (who is about to be reassigned)—are outstanding. Petraeus, in particular, should be remembered as the Matthew Ridgway of this war, rescuing a failing war effort just as Ridgway rescued the United States in the Korean War. But similar skill and even greater bravery is displayed every day by tens of thousands of lower-ranking officers and enlisted personnel who have embraced their largely “non-kinetic” counterinsurgency mission. Sergeant Adam Farmer, an 82nd Airborne soldier stationed in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad for the past year, spoke for many grunts when he said of his soldiers, “Deep down they believe in the mission of extracting the s—heads from this area.”
An even more profound cause for hope is that the Americans are finding so many effective partners—Iraqis who are willing to risk their necks to fight with the coalition against extremists, both Shiite and Sunni. Some of these men are members of the CLCs. Others are part of the Iraqi army, which in many areas is undertaking the same kind of civil-affairs work as the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps.
The one who stuck out the most during my recent trip was Colonel Abbas Fadhil, commander of the Besmaya Range Complex, an Iraqi army training center east of Baghdad. A burly man with a bald, bullet-shaped head, Colonel Abbas, who is (like many Iraqis) of mixed Shiite and Sunni ancestry, was an officer in Saddam’s army. But he had little love for a dictator who had jailed his father, an army general, for three years. In 2003, Abbas refused to fight the American invasion, telling his men to lay down their arms and go home. “If the Americans had not been successful, I would have been killed with my family,” he notes.
When the Iraqi army was being re-created in mid-2003, he was one of the first volunteers. He even went on television to urge other Iraqis to sign up. This caused the Jaysh al-Mahdi to attack his home, killing his daughter. But Abbas remains undaunted in his determination to work with his “American brothers” to make his country a better place.
“All soldiers say Mr. President George Bush is the hero man in the world,” Abbas told us in fractured English. “He’s fighting on behalf of all the world, not just Iraq. Mr. President Bush is fighting on behalf of humanity. America was the only country in the world that decided to help the people of Iraq. Under Saddam we had a very black future. We had no refrigerators, no electricity. We lived like the cow. Now we have a future.”
Lest this make Abbas sound like an unworldly idealist, unmindful of the horrors that have befallen his country since 2003, it is important to note that he has been not only brave but also skillful in working against the enemies of his country. Not long ago, a Shiite extremist group tried to infiltrate a soldier into his base to kill him. U.S. officials learned of the plot and sent a frantic warning to one of Abbas’s American advisers. Abbas was not the least surprised by the warning. He kindly asked the American adviser whether he would be interested in taking custody of the would-be assassin whom he already had locked up. Abbas maintains his own intelligence network to warn him of such dangers.
As we ended our tour of his well-run range complex, I asked Abbas about his political views. “We don’t follow any party,” he said. “We follow the Iraqi flag. We don’t like Badr or Mahdi. They are for Iran. We are for Iraq.”
By helping leaders like Abbas, the United States has a real chance to secure a historic victory in Iraq—one that would deal a heavy blow to Sunni and Shiite extremists alike. But only if we don’t pull out too many forces too soon, whether motivated by the illusion that we have already won or the delusion that we can never win. The reality is that we are winning but that the war is far from over. We need to make a long-term commitment to prevent Iraq from sliding back into the kind of civil war that began to erupt in 2006. As Abbas put it, “It’s very important for your forces to stay here and kick the bad people out.” His views were echoed by Abu Abed, a leader of the CLCs in the Ameriya neighborhood of Baghdad. “If coalition forces left it would be a disaster. All of us would get killed,” he told us.
If we fail to heed their advice, it will result not only in a calamitous defeat for the United States but also a disgraceful betrayal of many brave Iraqis like Abbas and Abu Abed who have placed their faith in us.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.