U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte (left) greets Interim Iraqi Government Prime Minister Ayad Allawi
Perhaps the best insight into what I was thinking as we entered 2005 can be gained from the first several paragraphs of an assessment I wrote to my boss, General Abizaid, on January 5, laying out my plans for 2005. I began that with the famous passage from T.E. Lawrence that provided advice on dealing with Arabs: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”1 It was a mindset that I had concluded we would need to instill in coalition forces if we were to be successful in Iraq. I told
I shared our 5 month assessment with you in DC. We used it to get a comprehensive view of where we stand in executing the Campaign Plan, and to frame our thinking for an approach for 2005. We believe that we are broadly on track. We have rolled back insurgent gains and eliminated insurgent and terrorist safe havens in Iraq, suppressed the Shia insurgency, quintupled reconstruction activity, kept ISF development roughly on track, made progress in local control in 14 of 18 provinces, and saw the growth of Iraqi governmental capacity. Election preparations are proceeding in all but Ninewa and Al Anbar provinces.
We have also seen a [former regime element] insurgency that has gotten better organized, that is conducting a campaign of intimidation in the Sunni areas that threatens to unhinge political, economic and security force development, and that is creating a real sense of uneasiness about the security situation for the upcoming elections. Further, while ISF development has progressed, they still lack the capacity for independent action, absenteeism threatens the viability of our training and equipping programs, and Iraqi intelligence organizations have not developed as hoped.
That said, our objective of an Iraq “at peace with its neighbors and an ally in the War on Terror, with a representative government that respects the human rights of all Iraqis, and security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and to deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists” is still attainable. However, security force development won’t be completed in ’05, and sustaining our investment will take even longer.2
I strived hard to achieve balance in my reporting. Things in Iraq were never all good or all bad, so I tried to highlight both the positive and negative aspects of the situation. In a mission as complex as Iraq, you must make slow, steady progress even as you deal with setbacks—and setbacks are a reality of war. We were positioned for successful elections, but we had a long road ahead of us.
A number of things had also become clearer to us after 6 months on the ground. First of all, it was going to take much longer than the 18 months of the UNSCR 1546 timeline to complete our mission. Ambassador Negroponte, in a December 2004 cable to the Secretary of State, suggested we should be thinking in terms of at least a 5-year time horizon. Our counterinsurgency study had found that successful insurgencies had historically lasted around 9 years. There was no reason to think Iraq would be different. During my December meetings in Washington, I had emphasized that resolving the situation in Iraq would take longer than the 18 months of the UNSCR timeline. We clearly needed to expand our horizons beyond the end of 2005.
Second, the Shia political parties and politicians, who were going to lead the Iraqi Transitional Government, had little experience in governing. Their election represented a reversal of the governing situation that had prevailed in Iraq for the last three and a half decades. We were concerned about this from two perspectives: inexperienced ministerial leadership would inhibit ministerial capacity-building, and the reversal of the governing situation would feed the feelings of disenfranchisement in the Sunni population that former regime elements had been leveraging to sustain the insurgency. We were further concerned about the limited Sunni turnout in the elections, which meant that this population would be underrepresented in the drafting of the constitution.
Third, while the training and equipping of the ISF were generally on track, it was going to take much longer to get them to the point where they could credibly and independently assume the lead of a nationwide counterinsurgency campaign. If we wanted this to go faster, we would have to commit more resources and look at new approaches to their training.
Fourth, in spite of our best efforts to improve the Iraqi view of the coalition, much of the population still viewed it as an occupation force, and while there was a clear understanding at the governmental level that we intended to leave, there was apprehension at the local level that we were in Iraq to stay—an apprehension that was manipulated by the insurgents. This tension of having a large foreign Western force in a sovereign Middle Eastern country was a constant friction. We needed to demonstrate that we had a plan to leave.
Fifth, we expected that there would be a loss of momentum in the period following the election as the transitional government was selected, formed, and transitioned into the job. We looked for ways to sustain the momentum of the elections through this period but were largely unsuccessful outside the security sector.
Finally, 2005 was to be a year of key transitions: there would be two transitions in the Iraqi government (the last one spilling over into 2006) bringing with them changes in ministers and other key personnel; MNC-I and its subordinate units would change in February; and the key leaders in the Embassy and MNF-I, who had done such great work to get us to this point, would change out in the summer, taking with them the wealth of experience gained.‡‡ The turbulence generated as new people and units came and went was a significant complicating factor, particularly on the Iraqi side. We would have to work hard to mitigate the impacts of the frequent transitions.
Adapting in Transition
The transitions at the political level significantly impacted our strategic momentum. While we were able to mitigate the loss of operational momentum caused by the MNC-I transition, political momentum proved tougher to deal with. In retrospect, we underestimated the impact of three government transitions in 2 years on our ability to build capacity in the Iraqi ministries and to provide consistent leadership to the Iraqi people. The governments were just starting to get a feel for governing when they were replaced. Prime Minister Allawi held office for 11 months (4 months of which were a “lame duck” period following the January 2005 elections). Ibrahim al-Jafari was prime minister for 13 months (6 months of which were lame duck). We had an initial view that we could continue to build ministerial capacity through the transitions. This did not turn out to be the case. In fact, we lost ground in many ministries during the al-Jafari government. The small pool from which to draw qualified ministers and the lack of an established government bureaucracy meant that we had to almost start from scratch with each new government and minister. What would continue to become clearer was that, in these types of operations, everything takes longer than you think—particularly those things over which you do not exercise direct control.
Armed with these insights, we began 2005 certainly wiser than we had been when we arrived 6 months before, but with a full plate of very difficult issues. The Ambassador and I set out to adjust our strategy and plans for 2005 based on these insights. We did this during the transition period of the new government to posture ourselves to move forward once the ITG was seated.
Building a Transition Concept. Our review of our plans began with the Campaign Progress Review in December, which helped shape the insights mentioned above and focused us on what we needed to accomplish in 2005.
As we looked ahead, we wrestled with the realization that we could well complete the UN timeline on schedule by the end of the year, but that Iraqi government and security forces capacity would not be at a point where Iraqis could credibly take responsibility for their own security and governance as UNSCR 1546 had envisioned. At that time, we had not been through the actual transition of governments, so we made this judgment with the projection that ministerial capacity would continue to grow as governments transitioned—an assumption that did not pan out. We knew that our mission was ultimately to hand over security responsibility to the Iraqi government, but we had not yet developed a concept to do this. We thought that if we could demonstrate a plan to build credible Iraqi security capacity as rapidly as possible and follow that with a conditions-based plan to transition the security mission to the sovereign Iraqi government, we would come closer to meeting the expectations of Washington, the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi people. We were very cognizant of the fact that we would need to continue our efforts to defeat terrorists and insurgents while executing this concept.
The Ambassador and I worked together to shape this thinking into a second joint mission statement that we issued to our subordinates on February 7, shortly after the elections. In it we stated, “In 2005, we will work closely with the Iraqi Transitional Government . . . to diminish the insurgency and prepare the Iraqi Security Forces and the ITG to begin to accept the counterinsurgency lead. We also will support the ITG’s efforts to complete the timetable laid out in UNSCR 1546.”3 These two sentences captured our major missions for 2005, but it was the last two sentences of the overview that captured a change in mindset that would be essential in accomplishing this strategy: “We must always remember that we have transferred sovereignty to the Iraqis; they have elected a Transitional Government; and they will begin to take the counterinsurgency lead. There is a consistent message here: Iraq’s destiny belongs to Iraqis; they want to control it; and the more they do for themselves, the more they will value the results.”4
Inculcating this mindset into the coalition forces and Embassy staff would prove difficult, as we were pressing against the “can-do” culture of two high-performing organizations. Things were hard enough to get done in Iraq, but they were easier if we did them ourselves. Helping the Iraqis help themselves would be more difficult and take longer, but it would get us to our objectives faster. We had to discipline ourselves to build for the future while we dealt with the very difficult present.
The work underpinning this adaptation to our plans had been ongoing since November. Following the Fallujah operation, we noted that the performance of Iraqi units with embedded coalition advisors was far superior to those without them. We also found that we had much better accountability of the weapons and equipment that we gave the Iraqis with advisors present. We had substantially increased the size of the ISF—forming more than 80 army and special police battalions by February 2005—and some of these forces were at a point in their development where they could benefit from more coalition experience and expertise.
Given my personal experience in the Balkans, I was concerned that the longer we waited to begin giving Iraqis responsibility for their own security, the more dependent they would become on us—and the longer we would remain in Iraq. We came to believe that by embedding coalition advisors with Iraqi military, police, and border police units, and by aligning Iraqi units in supportive relationships with coalition units (called “partnership”), we could not only accelerate their development, but also get them more actively involved in the counterinsurgency fight sooner—increasing the forces we could field against the insurgents. I directed my staff to begin working the details of how this might work and alerted the incoming corps to be prepared to implement this new approach on arrival.
As this approach would require some 2,500 additional U.S. forces and the approval of the Iraqi government, I began discussing it with coalition and Iraqi leaders. Washington was concerned about the safety of the teams living and working with Iraqi units, the impact that pulling 2,500 officers and senior noncommissioned officers out of units would have on the Services, and the naming of the teams (transition teams was chosen over advisor or assistance teams to highlight that these teams were part of a process to “transition” security responsibility to the Iraqis). The Iraqi leaders saw value in accelerating the development of the ISF, but wanted the program implemented in a way that did not impact on their sovereignty. (Prime Minister Allawi would not agree to police transition teams working in local police stations for this reason.) Washington approved the additional forces in March, and we signed memorandums of understanding with the outgoing ministers of interior and defense in April to implement the transition team and partnership programs. We expected that we would have to revisit the agreements with the incoming government and ministers, but felt that it was important for continuity to get the existing government on board—in writing. Our plan was to establish partnerships and embed the teams by June, so Iraqi government commitment and direction to accept the program was essential. As seen in figure 3-1, we planned to align our divisions with every Iraqi division (and special police brigade) and establish partnerships down to battalion level to facilitate the interaction between Iraqi and coalition units.
Figure 3-1. Army Partnership Alignment
Getting the transition team and partnership programs in place to accelerate ISF development was the first step in the process of transitioning security responsibility to a capable Iraqi military. We envisioned that as the ISF became capable of conducting counterinsurgency operations, first with transition teams and coalition-enabling forces (for example, close air, artillery, and logistic support), and ultimately independently, coalition forces would transition to a supporting role and gradually reduce their presence. All transitions of security responsibility were to be based on the readiness of the ISF to conduct counterinsurgency operations, so we devised and implemented a readiness reporting system with the Iraqis based on that criterion to track the development of their forces. We envisioned a four-phase plan for the transition of security responsibility:
It would be summer before the new Iraqi government was ready to seriously discuss this process. This original plan was adjusted as a part of those discussions. We did not set specific timelines for any phase but Phase I (June 15) as we expected all transitions to be conditions-based.
Changing Our Mindset. We were very conscious that this adjustment to the campaign plan entailed a major shift for our conventional Army and Marine forces. For the first time since Vietnam, we would be asking conventional forces to actively participate in the training of indigenous forces during combat operations. To make this work, we recognized that we would not only have to “train the trainers”—that is, to teach conventional forces the art of training and working with indigenous forces—but we would also have to change the mindset of our forces away from doing things themselves to helping the Iraqis do them.
To train the trainers, we established an in-country training center, Phoenix Academy, and used our Special Forces to educate our conventional forces. To ensure the concept was understood across MNF-I, the staff produced a campaign action plan for 2005 that captured the adaptation to our plan and adjusted our mission accordingly. Our endstate remained the same. We wanted to progressively shift the coalition main effort from fighting the counterinsurgency ourselves to transitioning the responsibility for fighting the counterinsurgency to the Iraqi government and security forces. We would accomplish this by increasing our capacity to improve ISF capabilities—transition teams and partnerships—and by conducting aggressive counterinsurgency operations to bring the insurgency to levels that could be contained by increasingly capable ISF. The revised mission statement reflected this strategy:
In partnership with the Iraqi Transitional Government, MNF-I progressively transitions the counterinsurgency campaign to the ITG and Iraqi Security Forces, while aggressively executing counterinsurgency operations, to create a security environment that permits the completion of the UNSCR 1546 process and the sustainment of political and economic development.5
As I went around the country to receive unit backbriefs on the action plan, I reinforced the fact that we would progressively implement this mission because all transitions would be based on ISF capabilities and those would vary widely across the country. I encouraged leaders to be candid in their assessments of the ISF because I would make some difficult decisions based on those assessments. I also met with the commanders of each incoming unit within 30 days of their arrival to personally brief them on the concept and to answer their questions directly.
Finally, to communicate directly with the coalition servicemembers, I issued a set of “flat-assed rules” (FARs, see figure 3-2) to every incoming coalition service man and woman. The FARs were intended to convey my priorities for success in Iraq and to instill the mindset that we were there to help the Iraqis restore control to their country, not to do it for them. By the late spring, the time when the transitional government was finally appointed, we were well on our way to implementing the new approach, but the change in the mindset would take a lot longer.
Implementing the new mission was not an easy task for the MNC-I commander, LTG John Vines. The U.S. military was still adapting to counterinsurgency operations and now he had a new mission to develop indigenous forces while keeping the pressure on the terrorists and insurgents. That he had to do this in a political vacuum as the new government was forming made his task even more difficult. While MNC-I was transitioning to the new mission, it was conducting counterinsurgency operations across the country to keep pressure on the terrorists and insurgents and executing the operational tasks from the campaign plan: neutralizing the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle, securing Baghdad and the borders, sustaining support in Shia and Kurdish areas, and providing security for the October constitutional referendum and the December elections. I received a backbrief from LTG Vines early in his tenure on how he intended to accomplish these tasks. Following that, with few exceptions, I left the day-to-day management of these operations to him. The exceptions involved operations that I felt were critical to the theater mission. In 2005, this meant MNF-directed operations to restore Iraqi control to their western border, operations that I discuss later.
Keeping Washington Up to Date. Shortly after Prime Minister al-Jafari was appointed and the new government was formed in early May, we conducted our second semiannual Campaign Progress Review.6 While this was intended to be a 6-month assessment, it became an assessment of the campaign over the last year.
Armed with this assessment and a year’s experience on the ground, General Abizaid and I visited Washington in June. Theater commanders have a role in helping the administration communicate about their mission to the American people and Congress. Given that I had been on the ground a year and that we had made some substantial adjustments to the mission, it made sense to go back and update Congress and national security leadership on the mission and to conduct engagements with the U.S. media. I returned to Washington three times in 2005 and a total of seven times in my 32-month tenure.
I reported to the President, Secretary of Defense, and Joint Chiefs that the campaign was broadly on track and that the transition team and partnership programs were already paying dividends with the Iraqi
security forces—but that they remained 18 to 24 months from conducting independent counterinsurgency operations. I noted that the insurgency remained active and would contest the completion of the UN timeline and that Iraq would still face an insurgency, meddling from unsupportive neighbors, immature security forces, and long-term political and economic development challenges after that timeline was completed at the end of 2005. This would, I reported, require a sizable coalition presence in 2006 in Iraq. I also suggested that with the improvements we were already seeing in the ISF as a result of our increased focus, and the potential for that to continue, we should begin planning to reduce coalition presence in Iraq over the next 2 years as the ISF became more capable. I felt that it was important for both the coalition and Iraqi government to be seen as honoring our pledge to pass security responsibility to the Iraqis as they were capable of accepting it. I did caution that we should not establish timetables for coalition withdrawal because the situation was still too fluid and the insurgents and terrorists would use those timelines against us. I had concluded by that time that we would not ultimately be successful in Iraq until we had brought the insurgency to levels that could be contained by increasingly capable ISF, passed security responsibility to them, and departed Iraq.
In my discussions with Congress, I tried to emphasize that, while our work in Iraq was hard and the environment was challenging, we made progress every day. I emphasized what we and the Iraqis had accomplished in the past year: the establishment of the interim government and peaceful passage of power to the transitional government, elimination of terrorist safe havens across Iraq, neutralization of the Shia insurgency, qualitative and quantitative increases in Iraqi security forces, and increased pace of economic development. To refute the
notion that terrorists and insurgents had the upper hand, I also emphasized what the insurgents and terrorists had not accomplished: they were unable to reconstitute their safe haven in Fallujah, they had not expanded their base of support (the insurgency remained largely confined to 4 out of 18 provinces), they had not prevented the growth of Iraqi security forces (then around 170,000), they had not yet sparked sectarian violence, and they had not stopped political and economic development. I told Congress that after a year on the ground, I felt that the mission was “both realistic and achievable,” but that it would require patience and will for us to succeed.7
While I was back, I was asked by the President to continue to serve as the MNF-I commander for another year. When I left for Iraq the previous June, I was told to plan to be in Iraq for 12 months, but it quickly became apparent that staying through the completion of the UN timeline in 2005 made more sense. He was asking me to stay beyond that until June 2006, and I agreed. I took a week of leave with my family to recharge my batteries for an even longer haul.
Completing the UN Timeline
By June, we had made good headway implementing the transition team and partnership program, and we had begun to build our relationships with the new prime minister and his security ministers. Again, I felt it very important to invest in these relationships even though we expected the new team to be in place for less than a year. Our focus for the rest of 2005 was to continue building the Iraqi security forces, governance, and economic development while we established a security situation that would allow the completion of the UNSCR 1546 timeline—a constitution by August, a national referendum on the constitution by October, and elections for a government based on that constitution by the end of the year. It also involved planning for the post-election period. We would accomplish this while bringing on board a new U.S. Ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who arrived in late June from Afghanistan, and a new Iraqi government.
I viewed my relationship with the Ambassador as my most important relationship, and we spent quite a bit of time together discussing how he saw the mission and the way ahead. He agreed immediately on the One Team/One Mission concept, and was even willing to look at ways to take the integration of our efforts further. We also formed another Red Team to look at the nature of the enemy and the war and to give us their thoughts on how we were executing the mission. The Red Team was again under U.S. Embassy leadership with MNF, CIA, and UK participation. The team looked at how to achieve decisive results by prioritizing and synchronizing our finite resources to “break the back” of the insurgency in 1 year and to defeat the insurgency in 3 years, and it also made some useful suggestions on how to better integrate our counterinsurgency efforts.
This independent assessment, along with our recently completed June Campaign Progress Review, helped us shape a common vision for the way ahead. We began to plan in earnest for the mission to continue beyond the end of the year—the conclusion of the UN mandate.
As we looked beyond the December 2005 elections, we were again concerned with the potential loss of momentum because of the political and operational transitions in early 2006 (we would also face a transition of MNC-I during the government transition and formation period), so we redoubled our efforts to leverage the benefits of completing the UN timeline and seating an Iraqi government based on an Iraqi constitution. Given the uncertainty of the December election outcome and what lay beyond the end of the year, we developed interim guidance to leverage the momentum of successful elections while we worked on a broader campaign plan for the post-election period.
This interim guidance became known as the “Bridging Strategy” because it bridged the gap between the fall of 2005 and the seating of the constitutionally elected government that would come sometime after the first of the year. The strategy was focused on setting the conditions for the December elections and shaping the aftermath in ways that would have a decisive, positive impact on our mission. To be decisive, we felt that we had to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) while bringing and keeping the Sunni population in the political process in a manner that began to neutralize the insurgency. We had to do both of these tasks while continuing to grow and develop ISF capabilities and, as these capabilities grew, by placing the Iraqis increasingly in the lead of security operations. “Al Qaeda out, Sunni in, ISF in the lead” became the shorthand version of the strategy, and it drove our efforts in the second half of 2005 and into the spring of 2006.8 Concurrently, the Ambassador and I directed the development of a new joint campaign plan, which would be the first plan to be jointly prepared with full Embassy integration in the planning process. It would cover the 4-year tenure of the new Iraqi government.
With the new Ambassador also came a renewed interest in Sunni engagement and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Sunni engagement was something that General Abizaid and I had been pushing for some time. We had pressed hard for an engagement strategy with the Sunni population as a means of driving a wedge between the general Sunni population and the terrorists and insurgents. Early in the mission there was reluctance to do this for fear of alienating the Shia population that had been disenfranchised for so long. In my view, we would not make progress with the Sunni population, and, as a result, the insurgency, unless we facilitated a dialogue to bring them into the political process. While our subordinate leaders were engaging tribal leaders locally, there was no cohesive mission effort to do this. With the arrival of Ambassador Khalilzad, we began a concerted effort to bring the Sunni population into the political process. This effort set the conditions for increased Sunni participation in the constitutional referendum and December elections, and for continued post-election dialogue, particularly in Anbar Province.
We had begun a pilot effort in the summer of 2005 to establish seven Provincial Support Teams based on the PRT model that was developed in Afghanistan during Ambassador Khalilzad’s time there. (We actually sent a team to Afghanistan that March to see how their PRTs functioned.) We allocated $70 million from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program to fund development and reconstruction in these provinces. Our intent was to bring coalition support to the provincial level to facilitate development from the bottom up. It had become clear that the top-down approach from Baghdad was not working. With the Ambassador’s arrival, we enhanced this effort in the fall by appreciably increasing the size of three PRTs in the key provinces of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Babil. After considerable interagency discussion with Washington, we received approval to go forward with enhancing the remaining PRTs in 2006. Although they began to have a positive effect almost immediately, their impact was inconsistent—in my view, too tied to the personal initiative and competence of the PRT leader. It would take a while to even out the performance, but, over time, they accomplished their intended effect.
Military Operations. With the seating of the al-Jafari government in May, we began to see an increase in suicide attacks focused primarily on the Shia civilian population. These attacks had the potential to unhinge the progress we were making on the political side by exploiting existing Sunni/Shia tensions. Our intelligence analysts began to see a shift away from the Sunni insurgency as the most dangerous threat to the accomplishment of our mission to the Islamic extremists who were conducting the attacks. We became concerned that if we did not reduce the ability of the extremists to conduct suicide attacks across Iraq, the coming constitutional referendum and December elections could be in jeopardy. Our analysts believed that the vast majority of suicide bombers were not Iraqi and entered into the country by crossing the Syrian border. They were moved to their targets by facilitation networks along the western Euphrates valley and Tal Afar–Mosul corridor. Accordingly, I directed the MNC-I to conduct operations to defeat those networks and restore Iraqi control to the borders before the December elections. This would become the major MNC-I operational focus in the runup to the elections as it also continued to focus on securing Baghdad, steady-state counterinsurgency operations across Iraq, and developing the Iraqi security forces.
The operations in the west required careful integration of the actions of our special operations task force, which was targeting the al Qaeda leaders of the facilitation networks, with conventional forces, which were attacking network sanctuaries and freedom of movement and reestablishing the ISF presence along the border. The task force had established its own country-wide intelligence collection and operational network to go after al Qaeda in Iraq. Its efforts were focused on AQI leadership, and it conducted several operations a night across Iraq in pursuit of al Qaeda targets. It coordinated its efforts with local commanders in whose areas it operated. This coordination improved over time as the conventional and special operations forces became more comfortable working together. The targeting process developed by the task force proved very effective for hunting down individual terrorists, so, with its assistance, we began to develop “fusion centers” in each of the U.S. divisions in 2005. These fusion centers enabled the coalition divisions to access intelligence from all available national sources and, because they were directly connected to forces that could rapidly act on the intelligence, to attack high value targets in their areas of operations independently. These centers greatly increased our ability to attack al Qaeda and insurgent leadership and were instrumental in our long-term success.
By the end of the year, we had significantly disrupted the flow of foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq and seen the number of suicide attacks cut in half between June and November to the point that the constitutional referendum and December elections were held with limited interference. (There were 90 and 80 attacks, respectively, on referendum and election days compared with 299 on the day of the January 2005 elections.) The operations also loosened the al Qaeda stranglehold on the Sunni populations of those regions, allowing them to participate more fully in the referendum and election processes—something that would help us later.
We continued to monitor the implementation of our transition team and partnership programs and continued to evaluate ourselves on how we were applying counterinsurgency doctrine. When we implemented the transition team concept in the spring, I directed a special assessment of the concept for September. By September, we had embedded 174 transition teams into Iraqi military and police units, and seen increased performance in those units as a result. We had also developed and instituted a transition readiness assessment (TRA) to measure and quantify the readiness of Iraqi units to assume security responsibility.§§ The assessment found that the transition teams, augmented by the partnership program between Iraqi and coalition forces, had “made a significant difference in our efforts to rebuild and professionalize the Iraqi Army.” It also found that the Iraqi security ministries (MOI and MOD) showed “limited progress toward self-reliance” and that the Iraqi Police Service “lags in development.” We had a long way to go, but I felt fairly comfortable that we had a credible system to measure progress and the presence in the Iraqi units to verify it. The assessment also found that our presence was positively received by Iraqi units and that it served as a deterrent to detainee abuse and violence against civilians.9
We used this assessment to press the Ambassador to move the responsibility for developing the ministries of interior and defense from the Embassy to MNF-I. I believe that this move made a significant difference in our ability to increase the capacity of the ministries. We quickly began a serious effort to develop key ministerial functions in both ministries—planning, programming, budgeting, manning, equipping, and sustaining—and to establish internal accountability. We also used it to increase our focus on the development of the police. We calculated that the police were about a year behind the army in terms of development. We believed that we could not credibly handoff security until the local police were capable of maintaining domestic order and denying terrorist activity, so we began to develop a plan to accelerate police development in 2006. Police development is much more difficult than army development, especially for soldiers. This is an area that needs continuous work across government to craft the means to more rapidly build police capacity. With the development of the other rule-of-law institutions (for example, judicial and prison systems), it was the long pole in our development tent.
At the same time, we completed a survey of how we were applying counterinsurgency doctrine across the force. As I observed the new forces coming into Iraq, it seemed that our execution was uneven at best, as we and the Services wrestled with ingraining a new form of warfare into our conventional forces. I sent a team across MNF-I for 15 days that summer to take a look. The team concluded that there was a general understanding of counterinsurgency doctrine, but that its application was in fact uneven and very dependent on the individual commander’s grasp of the doctrine and how to apply it in Iraq. It also concluded that we were still being forced to apply peacetime practices in a wartime environment. As a result, things got even more complicated the further down the chain of command we went as each level added its own restrictions. It was a good and thorough report that I forwarded to the Service chiefs for their use in training deploying forces and to my staff and subordinate commanders to begin implementing the recommendations. One of the principal recommendations was to establish a COIN Academy to teach the nuances of applying counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq to incoming commanders in order to ensure more commanders started at the same level. We established the academy and conducted the first course that November. I addressed every class, and felt that this academy not only substantially improved our execution in Iraq, but also formed a basis on which the Army and Marine COIN doctrines could be updated. It was a significant factor in changing the conventional mindset of U.S. Servicemembers.
In the meantime, the Iraqis, with coalition support, conducted the second of the UNSCR-prescribed national polls, a referendum on the Iraqi-drafted constitution. Over 15 million citizens, nearly 64 percent of those eligible, registered to vote, and 10 million of these citizens voted, an increase of 1.5 million from the January election. On referendum day, over 6,000 voting sites were open, more than a 20 percent increase from the previous election, with major increases in the Sunni areas. Violence levels were a third of the previous January, with only one-quarter the casualties. In a radio address to the American public, President Bush stated, “By casting their ballots, the Iraqi people [dealt] a severe blow to the terrorists and [sent] a clear message to the world: Iraqis will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency. And by their courageous example, they are charting a new course for the entire Middle East.”10 As I reported to both President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld, the referendum’s success was the result of a well-executed civil-military plan with extensive preparatory operations.
Though 78.6 percent of Iraqi voters cast ballots in favor of the constitution, Sunni voters largely voted against it. The Sunni representatives had been marginalized during the drafting process, and the constitution did not emerge as the national compact that we had hoped for. In fact, it was only the last-minute efforts of the Ambassador to elicit promises to address Sunni concerns and amend the constitution after the vote that made Sunni participation even possible. What could have been a major step forward was not. So while we were pleased with voter participation and ISF performance, we were apprehensive about the long-term impacts of the new constitution.
Planning for the Future. We were also generally pleased with the implementation of the transition team concept and the positive impact it was having on the growth of the Iraqi security forces. We had greatly expanded our insights into their capabilities from the ministry to the battalion levels. What remained was to translate the increase in Iraqi capability into their assumption of security responsibility across Iraq as envisioned by UNSCR 1546, and then to link that to the gradual reduction of coalition presence.
The transition concept gained explicit Iraqi acknowledgment in July, when Prime Minister al-Jafari, after a visit to Washington, announced the formation of a Joint Committee to Transfer Security Responsibility to establish the conditions for gradual transition of security responsibility to the Iraqi government. The committee consisted of seven U.S., UK, and Iraqi senior-level principals (the United States was represented by Ambassador Khalilzad and me), who oversaw the efforts of a joint working group that developed the specific conditions under which security authority would transfer. It was also intended that the committee would monitor the implementation of the process and make recommendations to the prime minister regarding transfers over time. The committee was chaired by the prime minister, and after several months of work it produced a document that laid out the conditions for the assumption of security responsibility by the Iraqis in a manner that would maintain security against the terrorists during and after the transitions.
As part of this process, we established criteria that assessed the ability of the security forces—army and police—to work together with the provincial leadership to maintain order and defeat terrorist and insurgent threats in and around the province. The evaluation process involved an assessment of the threat; an assessment of police capability in the province (all had to be rated at least “TRA 2,”¶¶ that is, able to conduct COIN operations with limited coalition support); an assessment of the military capability in the province (all had to be TRA 2 and able to coordinate operations with the police); and an assessment of the provincial leadership’s ability to coordinate security efforts. We worked hard to find the right conditions that would serve as a forcing function for the Iraqis to increase their capabilities and yet still be attainable. We intended for all transfers to be conditions-based and therefore did not set a timeline for the transitions. There were no provinces ready for transfer in 2005, and we did not get our first chance to implement the process until the summer of 2006 when Muthanna Province in southern Iraq became the first Iraqi province to assume responsibility for its security.
In September, Secretary Rumsfeld requested that I provide Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor, with an update of our campaign. There was apparently some uncertainty with what we were doing to accomplish our national objectives in Iraq. Although puzzled by this, as we were providing weekly updates by video teleconference to the National Security Council and the President, I provided Mr. Hadley with an overview of our campaign plan from July 2004 through September 2005. I emphasized how the campaign had evolved over the past year as we adapted to changes in the threat and the environment, how our plan had changed with the implementation of the transition teams, and how the military operations we were conducting had kept the pressure on the insurgents and terrorists while we worked to complete the implementation of the UN timeline and grow the ISF.11 I did not receive any new direction as a result of the discussions, and at the end of November, the National Security Council (NSC) issued the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq (NSVI). Its endstate was almost the same as the one that Ambassador Negroponte and I had crafted 18 months prior: “A new Iraq with a constitutional, representative government that respects civil rights and has security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.” The description of “victory” in the strategy paralleled our own lines of operation with political, security, and economic tracks. On the political track, the NSVI prescribed forging a broadly supported national compact by isolating Iraqi elements that could not be won over to the political process, engaging those outside the political process, and building effective national institutions to protect all Iraqis. The economic track prescribed setting the foundation for a self-sustaining economy by restoring Iraq’s infrastructure, reforming Iraq’s economy, and building the capacity of Iraqi institutions to maintain infrastructure. The security track stated that our strategy was to “clear” areas of enemy control by remaining on the offensive, “hold” areas freed from enemy influence, and “build” ISF and the capacity of local institutions to deliver services.12 The strategy had codified our approach.
Shortly after receiving the NSVI, the Ambassador and I issued a new joint mission statement, “Building Success—Completing the Transition.” This statement was the output of a joint planning effort that had been ongoing since the summer to devise a strategy and plan to guide coalition and Embassy operations following the election and seating of the new Iraqi government. Significantly, we took a longer view than the first campaign plan and tied our guidance to the 4-year term of the soon-to-be-elected government.
We set our objectives for the mission during this period as:
We further directed annual goals to guide our progress. Our planners took this directive and began to turn it into a campaign plan to guide our efforts for the next 4 years.13
In December, we held our semi-annual Campaign Progress Review,14 which, for the first time, included the full participation of the Embassy staff. The review concluded that there were “clear grounds for optimism” as we had successfully completed the 18-month UN timeline, thwarting terrorist and insurgent efforts to derail the political process, and had developed the ISF to the point that they principally provided security for their elections. This was a significant accomplishment, and one that I was not sure we would accomplish 18 months before. We had also made great progress in growing the ISF, particularly on the army side. By the end of 2005, 80 percent of Iraqi battalions were fighting the insurgency with us. Moreover, 1 of the 10 divisions, 4 of the 36 brigades, and 33 of the 112 battalions were able to operate with limited coalition support—a significant increase in just a year. But we were a long way from being done. The police lagged the development of the army significantly and the institutional capabilities of both the interior and defense ministries were still in their nascent stages. It was clear that we needed a major effort in both these areas to accelerate their development.
Perhaps the most troubling trend at the end of 2005 was the increase we were seeing in sectarian violence. On 14 September, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi issued a public declaration of war against “Shia infidels” while continuing his campaign of suicide attacks against the Shia population. Although our operations in the west had greatly reduced the number of suicide attacks, there were still enough attacks to drive sectarian tensions. We were also seeing small-scale actions by Shia militia against the Sunni population. The trend was troubling enough that we established an intelligence working group that September to monitor it. These tensions were compounded when, in November, coalition forces discovered an MOI detention facility in which the detainees, primarily Sunni, were mistreated and in some cases tortured. Sunni leaders clamored for action against the interior minister, but the leadership of the transitional government took none. It was becoming clearer to us that just completing the UN political process was not going to be enough to bring the country together. We came to believe that a program of national reconciliation would be essential if Iraq was to move forward.
The year ended with the elections of December 15 where 11.8 million Iraqis (76 percent of registered voters) elected a government based on the constitution that they had approved in October. While the government had yet to be formed, we had completed the mission that we had set out to accomplish 18 months before.
It had been a tough 18 months. I was pleased with what we had accomplished, yet I recognized how far we still had to go to defeat the insurgency and credibly hand over the security mission to the Iraqis. It remained to be seen whether our key assumption would hold true—that the completion of the UN political timeline would yield an Iraqi government that was perceived as legitimate and representative of all Iraqis. The constitution had not been the national compact we had hoped for because the Sunni representatives were largely excluded from the drafting process. And while there was talk of forming a “government of national unity,” it remained to be seen if the major parties could set aside their sectarian fears and prejudices for this to happen.
We closed out 2005 feeling that we had accomplished a great deal, but that we still had much more to do—and we would do it with a new, as yet undetermined, Iraqi government, a new set of coalition forces, and without a political timeline to drive Iraqi action. I worked to dampen Washington’s “optimism” over our substantial accomplishments as we worked to bridge what we knew would be a difficult period of governmental transition.
‡‡ At that time, we did not know about Ambassador Negroponte’s March departure to become the first Director of National Intelligence.
§§ By this measure, 1 Iraqi division headquarters, 5 brigades, and 7 battalions had achieved the second highest transition readiness assessment—able to conduct counterinsurgency operations with limited coalition support—by that June.
¶¶TRA is a monthly report prepared by both the Iraqi commanders and transition team leaders that documented and rated ISF unit ability to conduct independent COIN operations. TRA 2 was the second-highest rating for a unit.