General John P. Abizaid, Commander, U.S. Central Command, General Casey after he assumed command of Multi-National Force-Iraq, July 1, 2004, and outgoing commander Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, seated behind General Abizaid
On June 28, as I was about to board a plane to the Middle East having been confirmed by the Senate 2 days prior, Ambassador Negroponte called to tell me that sovereignty had been passed to the Iraqis earlier that day. While he intended to head into Iraq later that day, I had planned stops at USCENTCOM forward headquarters in Qatar and at my supporting Army headquarters in Kuwait, Third Army, en route to Iraq. Despite the early transfer of sovereignty, I decided to stick with my travel plan as insights from my higher and supporting headquarters in theater would be important in framing my understanding of the mission. My change of command remained scheduled for July 1.
I arrived in Iraq the night of June 29 and immediately began meeting with the key people in the mission: outgoing commander Lieutenant General (LTG) Ricardo Sanchez, Ambassador Negroponte, my United Kingdom (UK) deputy Lieutenant General John McColl, and new Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq Commander LTG David Petraeus. The following day, I conducted my first secure video teleconference with President Bush and his national security team in Washington. I told the President that I would give him my assessment of the overall situation and recommendations for the way ahead in 30 days and that my immediate priorities were to develop an integrated counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the insurgency, develop a plan for the formation of ISF, build the consultative and coordinating mechanisms with the IIG, and complete the transition of military support from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Embassy. I assumed command of MNF-I the following day, July 1.
Following the change of command, I met with my immediate boss, General Abizaid, to receive his oral and written guidance for the mission. He had been in USCENTCOM for 18 months and was commander for the last year. I would be one of his two theater commanders (LTG Dave Barno was the commander in Afghanistan). John was a seasoned regional hand and a close friend whose insights I valued. His direction reflected his experience. He told me to focus on setting the conditions for the January elections while building loyal Iraqi security forces and institutions and respecting Iraqi sovereignty. He told me to let him know the adequacy of the rules of engagement and support from his headquarters, and informed me that I was authorized to communicate directly with the Chairman and Secretary of Defense on “matters relating to the operational and tactical direction of the force.” He asked only to be kept informed in these instances. This would substantially increase our agility to prosecute tactical actions, and I resolved not to abuse this trust. Our session began an invaluable relationship that continued throughout my entire tenure.1
At that time, MNF-I consisted of around 162,000 coalition forces from 33 countries that had been organized into five Multi-National Division (MND) areas of operation and one Multi-National Brigade (MNB) area of operation in northwest Iraq (see figure 2-1). MND–South East was commanded by a UK two-star general, and MND–Center South was commanded by a Polish two-star general. These two divisions contained the preponderance of non-U.S. coalition forces. MND-Baghdad, MND–North Central, and MNF-West, the USMC sector, were commanded by U.S. two-star generals, and MNB–North West was commanded by a U.S. one-star general. While the U.S. units contained some multinational forces, they were predominantly U.S. organizations. These units reported directly to the Multi-National Corps–Iraq commander, a U.S. three-star general who was responsible for orchestrating the operational aspects of our mission. I visited each of these units and a good number of their subordinate brigades and battalions in the first 30 days after my arrival. Not surprisingly, the insights provided by subordinate commanders were invaluable in developing my assessment of the situation.
Figure 2-1. Multi-National Force-Iraq, July 2004
While the Ambassador and I crisscrossed the country meeting with Iraqi and coalition leaders to build our own assessment of the situation and refine our vision and strategy, we undertook two separate and parallel staff actions to help us frame our mission and plans. First, I made a decision to continue with the campaign planning that had been initiated by my predecessor, LTG Sanchez, when the MNF-I headquarters was formed that May. The headquarters was established to provide a separate four-star theater headquarters to handle the strategic aspects of the mission and to deal with Washington, the Embassy, and the Iraqi government. This was a very necessary step, and over the course of the mission, it greatly facilitated the accomplishment of our national objectives. The MNF-I headquarters was established on May 15, 2004, with personnel authorizations for individual officers and noncommissioned officers from across the U.S. Services and coalition countries. These personnel were slow to arrive, and the headquarters was still forming when I arrived at the end of June.
To complement that nascent planning effort, the Ambassador and I felt we needed a way to bring our key subordinates and staffs together with a shared view of the threat, the nature of the conflict we were involved in, and our mission, so we decided to form a Red Team—a group of experienced senior people empowered to operate outside of normal staff processes to provide their insights and recommendations directly to the Ambassador and me. Our hope was that the Red Team would both provide us with alternative views that we could use to vet the MNF-I campaign plan and, just as importantly, form a basis for a joint mission statement, which the Ambassador and I would issue. This document would enable us to bring our respective organizations together around common objectives and operationalize the One Team/One Mission concept we had agreed to in Washington.
The Red Team was led by a senior Foreign Service officer with an Army two-star general as his deputy. Their task was to take an independent look at both the nature of the threat and the nature of the war, and to give us recommendations on how we should proceed. The team consisted of handpicked senior members of the Embassy and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the British embassy and Special Intelligence Service, and MNF-I. The Ambassador and I gave them 30 days to do their work, with the intent of bringing it together with the ongoing MNF-I campaign planning effort. We planned to issue the joint mission statement and campaign plan by early August. I felt very strongly that it was my responsibility to ensure that every member of the coalition clearly understood what it was that we were trying to accomplish in Iraq so each one could contribute to our success. These two documents would go far in helping me do that.
In late July, after several productive sessions with them, the Red Team reported back to the Ambassador and me. They concluded that we were fighting an insurgency and that it was “stronger than it was nine months ago and could deny the IIG legitimacy over the next nine months.” In their view, the insurgency was primarily led by well-funded Sunni Arab “rejectionists” who had lost power with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and rejected the new order. The rejectionists centered around former regime elements, members of the former Ba’ath Party, and former Iraqi security and intelligence forces who had the wherewithal to challenge the formation of a democratic government in Iraq. The Red Team felt that there was “not a monolithic Ba’ath Party” controlling the insurgency, but a “loose system of leadership with no single leader,” and that many of the key leaders and facilitators were based outside of Iraq, primarily in Syria. The insurgents shared a range of motivations from “the explicitly religious to Arab nationalists to Saddam loyalists.” They felt that foreign Islamic extremists (al Qaeda) were a “small if lethal problem in Iraq” (numbering fewer than 1,000) and that “Iran is hoping to win influence over Iraq’s political and electoral process without having to provoke a Shia-based insurgency (for which it is preparing, nonetheless).”2 Despite their different objectives, all insurgents shared a common goal—the failure of the coalition mission. We accepted this view of the threat and graphically portrayed it in our campaign plan as shown in figure 2-2. The staff dubbed this representation “The Wonder Bread Chart.”
Figure 2-2. View of the Threat, Summer 2004
The Red Team also concluded that “although the IIG enjoys early popular support, it has a weak hold on the instruments of governance and has to manage a war-battered economy, a fragile and damaged infrastructure and the meddling of some neighboring states, especially Syria and Iran.” They noted that we, and the members of the international community, needed to work to strengthen the legitimacy of the IIG in the eyes of the Iraqis in order to strengthen the government’s hand in dealing with these challenges and defeating the insurgency. They felt that our political, economic, and security efforts were “hampered by the lack of a unifying strategy, inadequate intelligence, ineffective strategic communications and the embryonic nature of IIG counterparts.”3 We clearly had our work cut out for us.
Looking back, the Red Team was an effective vehicle to bring together senior political, military, and intelligence leadership to address the key issues affecting the mission and how to deal with them. We agreed on broad issues, such as the nature of the enemy (Sunni Arab rejectionists), the nature of the war (counterinsurgency), the nature of our relationship with the Iraqi government (partnership), and our mission in Iraq (to help the Iraqi people build a new Iraq). While everyone did not agree on everything, we at least all knew where we stood, and we were close enough on the major issues to get moving. Our effort did not, to this point, include the Iraqis—a gap that we would close over time. I was so pleased with the results of the Red Team effort that I used it frequently throughout my tenure to shed light on difficult issues.
Working directly from the Red Team assessment, the Ambassador and I crafted a joint mission statement for our respective organizations and signed it on August 18. In this first critical document, we formally defined our objective: “To help the Iraqi people build a new Iraq, at peace with its neighbors, with a constitutional, representative government that respects human rights and possesses security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order, and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists.” We stated that the IIG shared this objective, but was “in the early stages of consolidating the aspects of national power,” so we aimed “to bolster the IIG’s legitimacy in perception and fact,” acknowledging this would be a major challenge. We also conveyed our common view of the threat, noting that the gravest immediate threat to IIG legitimacy was an insurgency principally led by well-funded Sunni Arab rejectionists drawn from former regime elements. To deal with that threat, we laid out a series of tasks in three interrelated categories: political, security, and economic, and asserted that these tasks would be the “focal point of integrated efforts mounted by everyone operating in Iraq under our authority [emphasis added].”4
The joint mission statement was a good start, but it was not sufficient to guide coalition military efforts in a multiyear campaign, especially one in which national contingents rotated once or twice a year. For that we needed a campaign plan. I intended to craft a written plan to clearly define our mission and how I saw the threat and risks and to articulate a strategy and organizational framework to accomplish the mission. This campaign plan would also provide operational direction to my subordinate commanders for the conduct of the military effort and would put in place an assessment mechanism to continuously evaluate our progress in accomplishing our objectives. This would allow us, again continuously, to reevaluate the conscious, and unconscious, assumptions that drove the plan, and to adapt it as necessary.
As I traveled throughout the country, my staff continued work on the campaign plan in parallel with the Red Team effort.§ I met with the campaign planners several times a week to cross-level insights and discuss important issues. One of the key discussions we had was on the “center of gravity,” an important element of any successful campaign. While we generally agreed that the strategic center of gravity was coalition public support, we differed on the center of gravity for the Iraq theater of operations. In counterinsurgency operations, the center of gravity is usually the people of the country in which the insurgency is being contested. Our discussion revolved around the issue of who could best “deliver” the Iraqi people—the coalition or the Iraqi government. I felt that, as our goal was a government seen as representative by the Iraqi people, the more we did to build the legitimacy of those governments in the eyes of the Iraqi people, the sooner we would achieve our goal. Others argued that we should focus more directly on the Iraqi people. In the end, we made the legitimacy of the Iraqi government the theater center of gravity. We spent a great deal of time debating this and several other key issues as we built the campaign plan, but it was time well spent. I found that the issues we were dealing with were so complex that I benefited from hearing different views when making critical judgments.
The campaign plan, issued August 5, 2004, laid out direction for the next 18 months. The plan put the Iraq mission in the context of our efforts up to that time (the Liberation and Occupation Phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom), and focused primarily on the next 18 months (the Partnership Phase), which entailed the completion of the UNSCR timeline and the formation of a constitutionally elected Iraqi government by 2006. The plan looked beyond January 2006, but only broadly, to the Iraqi Self-reliance Phase, where Iraqis would assume security responsibility. As we were still early in the mission, we purposely did not assign a timeline for this phase.
The mission statement from the campaign plan reflected the key elements of partnership with the IIG, counterinsurgency operations, training and equipping ISF, and completing the UNSCR 1546 by the end of 2005: “In partnership with the Iraqi Government, MNF-I conducts full spectrum counterinsurgency operations to isolate and neutralize former regime extremists and foreign terrorists and organizes, trains and equips Iraqi security forces in order to create a security environment that permits the completion of the UNSCR 1546 process on schedule.”5
To accomplish this mission, we laid out a counterinsurgency strategy that sought to use the full spectrum of military and civilian tools to separate insurgents and extremists from the Iraqi people and defeat the insurgency while we restored Iraqi capacity to govern and secure the country. We knew executing this strategy would be very difficult in what amounted to a postwar failed state—although it would be awhile before we realized how difficult—so we laid out a framework in the campaign plan designed to integrate and synchronize all of the elements of Iraqi and coalition power to accomplish our objectives over time. We used four lines of operation representing the four major elements of power that we would bring to bear: security, governance, economic development, and communicating. Each of these lines was aligned with specific organizations designated to accomplish the specific effects shown in figure 2-3. We made a conscious effort to minimize what the U.S. Government sought to achieve as we developed these objectives, and believed that accomplishing these effects in an integrated fashion would lead us to the endstate.
Figure 2-3. Initial Campaign Framework
Coordinating the integration of efforts would have been tough for any one organization, but our efforts were complicated by the fact that we had two organizations—the Embassy and MNF-I—that shared responsibility for success. MNF-I was responsible for security and the Embassy for governance and economic development. We shared responsibility for communicating. We also shared responsibility with the Iraqi government. Execution and coordination within and across the lines of operation were continuous challenges, underscoring why the One Team/One Mission concept was so important. Everyone had to deliver in a coordinated fashion if we were going to succeed.
On the security side, I told the MNC-I commander to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign to:
With an eye toward getting an “Iraqi face” on elections in January 2005, I directed the MNC-I and MNSTC-I commanders to focus on getting the ISF to the point where they could plan and conduct security operations at the platoon/police station level with limited coalition support by January. I told them to prioritize these efforts in 15 key cities, in which almost half of the population of Iraq resided. I also gave them some broader ISF objectives for 2005, but our initial focus was successful elections in January.
The campaign plan also established the Commander’s Assessment and Synchronization Board (CASB) to assess and manage the accomplishment of the plan. We recognized upfront that the campaign plan was a “living” document that would have to be adjusted as conditions changed and assumptions failed to materialize. The CASB was initially designed to be a monthly process, but we soon went to a bimonthly timeline to minimize redundancy and reduce staff time spent on preparations. I found that getting the assessment process to yield meaningful results—ones the Ambassador and I could act on—took a great deal of my personal effort. The tendency of a staff is to track the things that are most easily measured, not necessarily what is most critical. I finally found that if I forced the staff to answer the following three questions about each effect, I came closer to getting what I needed: What are we trying to accomplish? What will tell us if we are accomplishing it? How do we measure that? It took a year of trial and error before I was satisfied with the assessment process.
With the campaign plan complete, I briefed my staff and subordinate units and gave them 2 weeks to review and develop their supporting plans. I spent the latter part of August listening to backbriefs presented by my subordinates to ensure that they understood the plan and my intent. I was generally pleased with their work. I also shared the plan with the Ambassador and Embassy staff, and the Ambassador and I briefed President Bush and the National Security Council in mid-August. As part of this briefing, I highlighted to our leadership some “potential good and bad” things that could happen in the next 6 months that could affect the plan. I wanted to remind them that we were at war and that things would change. While I had been on the ground for only a month and had developed and issued a campaign plan, I knew we still had a very long way to go.
Organizing for Success
As the Ambassador and I looked at what we had to do, it was clear to us that the One Team/One Mission concept required some changes to both of our organizations to facilitate the integration of our efforts. For starters, we put our offices next to one another and met frequently over the course of the week. I looked at the configuration of the MNF-I headquarters—which was the standard J1–J9 organization that worked so well in conventional operations—and realized that it would not be suitable for executing the key functions of a counterinsurgency
campaign plan where political, economic, and information effects needed to be generated and synchronized with the security effort, and vice versa. It was also clear that the MNF-I staff would have to work closely with the Embassy staff, and that this could not happen effectively if they operated from separate locations. I also had an internal MNF-I issue in that I needed to refocus my headquarters at the theater level and get them out of the corps’s operational and tactical business, which they had been overseeing until the standup of the MNF-I headquarters in May.
After discussions with my staff and the Ambassador, and some help from U.S. Joint Forces Command, we designed a headquarters that could more easily carry out the nonstandard functions of the campaign and that would better facilitate the integration of the civil-military effort. To do this, we split the MNF-I headquarters between the Embassy in the Green Zone and Camp Victory in West Baghdad. To the Ambassador’s credit, he accepted about 300 military personnel working permanently in his Embassy alongside his staff. These staff officers worked to integrate our security plans with the Embassy in the key areas of operations, planning, assessment, strategic communications, and reconstruction and economic development. We created three staff sections at the Embassy: Strategic Plans and Assessments, Political-Military-Economic Effects, and Strategic Operations, all under the oversight of my UK deputy and working directly with Embassy principals. At Camp Victory, we retained the key support functions (personnel, logistics, signal, intelligence) and detainee operations. I maintained offices in both locations, starting my day at Camp Victory, but spending the majority of my time working from the Embassy office or visiting units across the country. The wiring diagram in figure 2-4 lays out the organization that we established that summer. No organization is perfect, but this organization served us well, with minor adjustments, during my tenure.
Figure 2-4. MNF-I Staff Organization*
My key subordinate headquarters, their responsibilities, and locations were as follows: MNC-I, the corps’s headquarters, responsible for the operational aspects of the mission; Task Force 134, responsible for detainee operations; and the Iraq Survey Group, responsible for searching for weapons of mass destruction until it disbanded in late 2004, all resided at Camp Victory near the Baghdad airport. MNSTC-I, responsible for training and equipping the ISF; the Gulf Regional Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for reconstruction project management; and Joint Contracting Command, responsible for our contracting support, all resided in the Green Zone. Task Force 6-26,¶ our special operations task force, resided at Balad Airbase.
We felt that we had a good plan for joining MNF-I and Embassy efforts, but it quickly became clear to the Ambassador and me that we needed to be integrated with the sovereign Iraqi government. Although developing coordination and consultation mechanisms with the new government had been specified in UNSCR 1546, bringing the Iraqi government—particularly the security leadership—into the development of a long-term, country-wide counterinsurgency effort would prove to be a daunting undertaking.
The Ambassador and I met with Prime Minister Allawi early in an informal, getting-to-know-you session. He was clear on his desire to make sovereignty as meaningful as possible considering the 162,000 foreign troops he had in his country. This would be something we would all wrestle with throughout my tenure: Iraqis rightfully wanted control, but they lacked the capacity to execute it—especially when they were trying to fight an insurgency and build their country simultaneously. I also visited the Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Ministry of Interior (MOI), and we began our first consultative sessions that week. There were two principal security forums. The Strategic Action Committee, cochaired by the National Security Advisor and me, was basically a weekly deputies committee to frame security issues for ministers. The Ministerial Committee for National Security, chaired by the prime minister and attended by key security ministers (with the Ambassador and me as invited participants), met weekly and was the decisionmaking body. We also began separate weekly dinners with the prime minister and his security ministers as confidence-building sessions to create the trust that would be essential to move forward in a common direction. It was clear to us that, even though this government was only scheduled to be in power for 6 to 7 months, it was imperative that we invest in these relationships. Looking back, I cannot overstate the importance of taking the time to build personal relationships. They proved essential in conducting the battles in Najaf and Fallujah and in preparing for the elections. Our weekly meetings and informal dinners grew in productivity over time and allowed us to stay connected with the Iraqi leadership. Our goal of One Team/One Mission was progressing and expanding to include the Iraqis.
During this first month, I began to report back to Secretary Rumsfeld on the ISF assessment that he had requested. During our many video teleconferences on the ISF, he asked some great questions: How many ISF are there really? How many did the Iraqis really need? Did we have an effective methodology for tracking their development? How was the ISF development effort integrated into the overall strategy? Did we have agreement from the IIG on the plan? These questions guided the conduct of our assessment, which was a comprehensive effort that involved all of our major subordinate commands, and was led by LTG Petraeus. The result was a significant adjustment to the existing plan for the Iraqi security forces. The initial plan, developed in the early days of the mission, had not been based on ISF participation in counterinsurgency operations; rather, the army’s three divisions would primarily provide external defense without threatening Iraq’s neighbors. The police and border forces would primarily conduct community policing and peacetime operations. The situation on the ground had changed substantially since that plan was developed.
Our review incorporated an analytical look at security forces in other insurgencies and in other regional countries, and included input from our major subordinate commands on the security needs in their particular areas. The review called for finishing the existing effort and increasing the local police and border police by over 60,000 to achieve a ratio of 1 policeman to every 197 people—an acceptable planning ratio for security forces in moderate- to high-risk counterinsurgency scenarios. It also called for a significant increase in the Iraqi National Guard (a regionally recruited and trained military force that took the place of the Iraq Civil Defense Corps) by 20 battalions and adding brigade and division headquarters for more effective command and control.6 The total cost for the expansion was almost $3 billion, but it was an essential step for our long-term success. With strong support from Ambassador Negroponte, the plan was approved by Prime Minister Allawi and the U.S. Government in mid-August.
As a result of the review, we had a new start point for the ISF that we were comfortable with, but we knew that we had a long way to go to get the Iraqis to the point where they could secure their own elections in January and ultimately take over the counterinsurgency campaign. That July, only about 30,000 of the police on duty were trained—and the new plan called for 135,000 police; only about 3,600 of the 18,000 border guards had weapons—and the new plan called for 32,000 border guards; and only 2 of the Iraqi battalions had reached an initial operating capability while the new plan called for 65.7 We set out to build the ISF at a pace that would not only meet our operational timelines, but also ensure that the forces held together when challenged. This meant that the coalition would have to carry the security load in the near term to give the ISF time to grow and mature—we would have to fight our way to the first election.
Using the operational framework of our campaign plan, we prioritized the development of the ISF in the 15 key cities of Iraq to get them to the point where they could conduct platoon- (or police station) level operations by the first elections in January. We, and the Iraqis, felt that it was important to the legitimacy and sovereignty of the government that the Iraqis be seen as playing the predominant role in providing election security. Our longer term goal was for them to be able to secure their own country. We gradually came to appreciate the fact that building infantry battalions was the easy part, whereas creating institutional capacity** and building the entire police system were much harder. The more experience we got working with the Iraqis, the more we realized that the institutional development would take years.
All of this work was essential to setting the conditions for our long-term success, but the enemy did not take a break while we settled in. In early August, while the planning and assessing were going on, Sadrist forces that had been controlling and terrorizing the city of Najaf for several months attacked one of our coalition patrols. The violence escalated rapidly as Muqtada al-Sadr mobilized his forces in Baghdad and the southern part of the country. This provided a key opportunity for the prime minister and the new government to demonstrate their strength by restoring Iraqi government control to Najaf. As the elimination of the Sadrist stranglehold on the population of Najaf would need to be seen as a largely Iraqi operation and there were very few capable ISF available, success required careful integration of the political and military efforts. With some masterful tactical actions by coalition forces and Iraqi commandos that involved brutal hand-to-hand fighting, some careful management of ISF coming directly out of training into the operation, and excellent political-military interaction at all levels, we managed to evict the Sadrists first from their base in the cemetery and finally from the city itself. Al-Sadr was left no option but to negotiate his personal release. The IIG had its first victory.
We followed up the military operations with quick-impact construction projects to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that there was a benefit to supporting their government. While this part of the operation took months and did not have the immediate impact we had hoped, it did help consolidate our gains. Thus the “Najaf Model” was born: hard-hitting coalition-Iraqi military operations, with political support mustered by the Iraqi government, followed by focused reconstruction efforts. This model later formed the basis for the “clear-hold-build” concept.
My relationship with Prime Minister Allawi was critical during this battle as we melded coalition military power with the legitimacy of his government. He emerged from the battle for Najaf more confident and focused upon building momentum toward resolving the security situation across all of Iraq. As we looked to learn from what happened in Najaf, we gained many insights, to include legitimizing coalition military operations with the help of the Iraqi government, incorporating even small numbers of ISF in military operations to put an Iraqi face on these operations, and integrating reconstruction projects immediately following military operations. Most importantly, Prime Minister Allawi had emerged as a leader, and he was gaining the confidence of the Iraqi people.
Building upon this operational success, I urged Prime Minister Allawi to adopt a country-wide strategy to eliminate the terrorist safe havens across Iraq before the elections. I suggested that we conduct joint operations to neutralize safe havens in Baghdad (Sadr City), Samarra, and Fallujah. I gained the prime minister’s concurrence on this approach in September, setting the operational agenda for the next several months as we turned our focus to the January 2005 elections. We were constrained in this effort by the limited number of ISF and the pace at which we could build them if we expected them to hold together. Over the next several months, we worked with the Allawi government to reduce Sadr City and Samarra as terrorist safe havens. Last up was Fallujah.
As we executed this strategy, whether we really needed to eliminate the terrorist safe haven in Fallujah became a difficult policy question for the prime minister. Prime Minister Allawi, the Ambassador, and I wrestled with this until we became convinced that having a terrorist safe haven within 30 miles of the capital presented an unacceptable risk to the conduct of the upcoming election. The specter of the April “failure” in Fallujah hung over the discussions, and the fact that we would be attacking a largely Sunni area at a time when we were trying to bring the Sunni population into the political process weighed heavily on us. The Ambassador strongly supported the operation, and we told the prime minister that if we undertook the operation, we would be successful, but that there was a high risk of coalition and Iraqi casualties and collateral damage. We also told him that if we started it, we had to stay at it until we finished. “Start together, stay together, finish together” became our motto. To his credit, Prime Minister Allawi not only accepted this, but he also built and sustained the Iraqi political support that allowed us to complete the operation. Fallujah was the toughest tactical battle of my time there, but more than any other operation, it opened the door for the successful elections in January.
Election Planning and Preparation
Concurrent with this operational focus, we began the complex planning for the first free elections in Iraq since 1954. The Independent Iraqi Election Commission had the lead with advisory support from the United Nations. The Iraqis wanted to provide the security, or at least be seen as providing the security, but would still need our logistical and security support. This tension in the planning effort between what the Iraqis wanted to do and what they were capable of doing was constant throughout my tenure, but most pronounced during this period because of the strategic importance of the elections. We constantly struggled with finding a balance between putting an Iraqi face on important events and not allowing them to fail. Finding this balance was more of an art than a science.
From a military perspective, we set up a series of offensive operations in the aftermath of Fallujah to maintain the momentum and to keep the pressure on the insurgents. To do this, I requested 10,000 additional troops to get us through the elections. I also personally visited every province to check on election preparations. It became clear to me that, as chaotic as things might look from Baghdad, coalition commanders and Iraqi provincial leaders had a good handle on things at their levels. It began to appear that we were positioned to execute successful elections, which we defined as fairly conducted elections in which every Iraqi who desired had the opportunity to vote. We knew that there would be violence as the insurgents worked to unhinge the elections, but I felt we had a good plan—further enhanced by some last minute curfews and movement restrictions—and that we would be successful.
On the political side, a looming election issue was Sunni participation—would they boycott the election and, if so, what would be the post-election implications? The Ambassador and his staff worked this very hard, and our commanders in the field reinforced their efforts with the Sunni populations in their areas of operation. Ultimately, a good number of the Sunni population did boycott the election††—an occurrence that would have long-term implications for our mission—but the elections were still largely successful from a security perspective.
Looking Beyond the Elections
After the Fallujah operation in November, when the progress of military operations and the growth of the ISF made it increasingly likely that the January elections could be held on time and with an Iraqi face to enhance the legitimacy of the IIG, we began looking ahead to 2005. We drew on the experience that we had gained in 5 months on the ground and on several key studies and assessments to formulate our plans.
In the early fall of 2004, I directed my planners to review counterinsurgency best practices to see what we could learn from history. “COIN” was something that we, in the U.S. military, had not been involved with for some time. My perception, from observing and talking to subordinates, was that we understood the doctrine well enough, but that we all had a lot to learn about how to apply that doctrine, particularly in Iraq. The staff did their usual good work and examined a series of 20th-century counterinsurgency campaigns for successful and unsuccessful practices (see figure 2-5). They developed a comprehensive report that included the list below that I shared with the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman, Service chiefs, and my subordinate commanders in Iraq. The two key insights that I drew from the report were the average successful COIN campaign in the 20th century lasted 9 years (unsuccessful ones lasted longer), and no outside power had been successful in prosecuting an insurgency without a capable indigenous partner.8
Figure 2-5. Counterinsurgency Practices
Additionally, in early December, the Ambassador and I directed another U.S. Embassy/MNF-I Red Team to make an independent assessment of possible election outcomes. The team projected three election result possibilities: a two-thirds Shia majority (which meant that the Shia parties would control the parliament), a 50 percent Shia majority (which meant that the Shia parties would have to negotiate with other parties to form a government), or total disruption of elections. While the team did not believe that the last outcome was likely, it did warn that major political and security challenges would await coalition forces in both cases of a Shia majority. Furthermore, the team concluded that there were no near-term prospects that insurgency and terrorist violence would lessen; rather, the Sunni-based insurgency might grow more intense when confronted with a strong Shia-governing majority. The aftermath of the election later revealed how prescient these predictions were.
Also in December, the MNF-I staff conducted its first Campaign Progress Review (CPR). By this time, we had settled on bimonthly assessments to monitor progress and drive campaign adjustments. While useful, I felt that the 2-month horizon was too short for longer term planning and that we periodically needed a broader assessment of the campaign. We decided to measure our progress at 6-month intervals based on the six strategic effects from the campaign plan: a legitimate Iraqi government, neutralization of the insurgents and terrorists, a capable ISF, basic Iraqi needs met, a wedge driven between the insurgents and the people, and changing Iraqi perceptions of the coalition. The December CPR marked the first formal semiannual assessment. I made it a point not to overly involve myself in the production of the document, and found it a good way to find out what “The Colonels” were really thinking. This candor was further enhanced because the drafter, as a result of coalition-agreed staffing, was always a British colonel, who soon gained the moniker “the Gloomy Brit.”
The staff concluded in the December 2004 CPR that our strategy was “sound, but must be implemented more effectively to succeed—particularly along the non-kinetic lines of operation” and that the “Iraqis must play an increasingly larger role.”9 They objectively looked at what we had accomplished and gave their assessment of where we needed to focus our efforts in the year ahead. They felt that some things had gone well:
On the other hand, the review noted that we still had a number of challenges:
Overall, I was pleased with where we had gotten in 5 months, but it was becoming increasingly clear to the Ambassador and me that building the capacity of the Iraqi government to a minimally acceptable level, particularly the ISF, was going to take a lot longer than the 18 months covered by UNSCR 1546 and our campaign plan, especially if there were going to be two changes of the Iraqi government in that period.
Armed with these insights, I returned to Washington in mid-December for consultations on the situation in Iraq and to provide my thoughts on the way ahead after the January elections. I met with the President, Secretary Rumsfeld, and the Joint Chiefs and shared the findings of our Campaign Progress Review, COIN, and Red Team studies, and reported on our preparations for the upcoming elections. I also began to discuss the concept of placing coalition advisor teams alongside Iraqi military, police, and border forces to hasten the development of our “capable indigenous partner.” I told the national security team that we would be ready to conduct the January elections, but that there would be violence as insurgents and terrorists attempted to disrupt the elections. I also warned them to expect a loss of momentum during the government formation process after the elections, and—to emphasize our thinking on how long this might take—I stated that even if the UNSCR 1546 process was completed on schedule, the Iraqis would still face an insurgency, long-term development challenges, and meddling neighbors. I also pointed out that a year from then, the ISF would still not be capable of independent COIN operations.10 My message was that the mission in Iraq was going to extend beyond the 18 months of the UN timeline, but we would be ready for the first democratic elections in over five decades.
The First Elections: January 30, 2005
Upon my return to Iraq, I focused on the execution of the elections. With the additional troops that I had requested for election security, we had kept pressure on the insurgents throughout December and January. Keeping the insurgents off balance allowed us to focus on securing the election process and ensuring that the ISF would be seen as the face of election security. Although we had been working hard, and had been largely successful in achieving local control (ISF capable of platoon- or police station–level operations) in the 15 key cities of Iraq, the ISF still were not ready for a mission of this scope—delivering and recovering election material to and from 5,200 polling stations across Iraq and securing them. Together we developed an “inner ring/outer ring” plan to secure the polling stations to prevent a determined effort by insurgents and terrorists to stop or significantly disrupt the elections. The ISF would secure the inner ring (the area immediately surrounding the polling stations), and coalition forces would secure the outer ring (the approaches to the cities and polling stations). I personally visited all provinces in the weeks prior to the election to ensure this concept was understood, and also supervised a “ROC drill”—an election-day rehearsal—with key Iraqi, Embassy, and coalition leaders. We were as ready as we could be.
On January 30, our detailed preparations paid off as over 8 million Iraqis—58 percent of the eligible population—turned out to vote. There were almost 300 attacks on election day, but our operations and ISF security of the 5,200 polling stations ensured that insurgents did not significantly disrupt the voting. The Iraqi people had freely elected their parliament over the course of what was a very emotional day in Iraq. President Bush spoke to Prime Minister Allawi and congratulated him, and also addressed the American public that evening in a televised speech. MNF-I had begun 2005 by achieving what 6 months before President Bush had announced as his “most important” task. It was a
But as things went in Iraq, we had to take the bad with the good. As pleased as we were with the election turnout and security efforts, the lack of Sunni participation meant that they would have limited influence in the development of the constitution, and this did not bode well for our efforts to defeat the insurgency.
§ Although the joint mission statement was signed shortly after the MNF-I military campaign plan was released, good cross-staff coordination, and my personal oversight, ensured that its tenets were fully incorporated into the plan.