Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari addresses city leadership of Fallujah January 2006 as Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and General Casey look on
We entered 2006 knowing that it was going to be a year of political transition as the Iraqis formed and seated a permanent government and this new government began to govern. We remained hopeful that we could continue to make progress during this period; however, based on our previous experience with Iraqi government transitions, we knew it was going to be hard work. That was the message that I carried to Washington shortly after the first of the year. I spent Christmas in Iraq visiting and congratulating soldiers on their accomplishments in 2005, and then departed for consultations in Washington.
I reported that, in general, we were pleased with the accomplishments of the last 18 months, but the elections had not yet produced the representative government that was key to long-term success. Ambassador Khalilzad felt that the elections had a polarizing effect in the country. The Sunni population felt disenfranchised as a result of the constitutional referendum and the election outcome, and their perception of increased Iranian influence on what was, almost certainly, to be a government formed by largely Shia political parties compounded these feelings—and fed the insurgency. I cautioned not to expect any immediate positive impacts on the security situation and warned that political wrangling over amending the constitution and the provincial elections could even push things in a more negative direction.
I saw our main challenge in 2006 as getting the new government, particularly the security ministries, onboard and governing as rapidly as possible. This would allow us to take advantage of its 4-year tenure and build the ministerial capacity that Iraq would need for the long haul. On the security side, I was concerned with the increase in sectarian violence that we had been tracking and its potential negative impact on government and security force development, and with the lagging development of the police—which we knew was the key to our long-term success. On the positive side, we had good success in disrupting al Qaeda in Iraq over the past year and were beginning to see a rift between them and the Sunni population that we hoped to exploit. We also continued to make good progress with the Iraqi army.
I concluded my discussions in Washington with a slide entitled “Bad Things That Could Happen”1 to remind everyone that, as much as we had accomplished in the past 18 months, we were in a time of political drift in a violent, divided society and bad things could happen that could affect the direction of the mission. I thought it best to temper expectations because there was just too much uncertainty in this government formation period. Looking back, several of the things on the list did happen, and did affect the direction of the mission.
The other major element of discussion in Washington was the implementation of the first “off-ramp” plans that we had announced following the completion of the elections in December.*** I had recommended, and the Secretary of Defense had approved, not replacing 2 of the 17 U.S. Brigade Combat Teams that were programmed to redeploy from Iraq that summer, effectively reducing the number of U.S. combat brigades from 17 to 15. This was a difficult decision, as we were very cognizant of the uncertainty and potential turbulence of the post-election period, but we felt that the improvement, and projected improvement, of the ISF would more than mitigate the tactical risk.††† We also believed that the potential strategic benefits far outweighed the tactical risks. The image of U.S. forces departing Iraq would demonstrate to the ISF and the Iraqi people that the United States was indeed serious about following the UN mandate to return security responsibility to the Iraqis as they became more capable, and about ultimately departing Iraq. We decided to keep one of the brigades in Kuwait as an in-theater reserve just in case we had miscalculated. The discussions that January revolved around developing a recurring process to periodically review the situation and make recommendations on the continuing reduction of U.S. forces. I recommended a quarterly, conditions-based process, and the first assessment was set for March.
While I was back in the United States, I was asked to extend for another year until the spring of 2007. I had wanted to see the establishment of the new government through, so I agreed, with the caveat that this would be the last extension. I returned to Iraq intent on maintaining positive momentum during the government transition period in any way that I could. In October, we had established our Bridging Strategy—al Qaeda out, Sunni in, and ISF in the lead—to guide our actions during the transition period. It was also intended to provide focus for the new MNC-I during the early months of 2006.
Al Qaeda Out. Our operations in the western Euphrates valley and Tal Afar–Mosul corridor had significantly disrupted al Qaeda facilitation networks in those areas, and our special operations task force had kept strong pressure on al Qaeda leadership. Interestingly, al Qaeda’s brutality and desire to impose sharia law in areas they controlled began to wear on the Iraqi population, particularly in Anbar Province. That winter we began efforts to consolidate our gains in Anbar. On January 15, the Ambassador and I took Prime Minister al-Jafari to Ramadi and Fallujah. The leaders there told us that they were not happy with the constitution and wanted an end to the occupation, but that they were against terror. They wanted an army division recruited strictly from Anbar Province, money for reconstruction, and the release of all Anbari prisoners from confinement. The prime minister agreed to $75 million for reconstruction and promised to send the ministers of defense and interior to discuss the security force proposals. The agreement was finalized between the al-Jafari government and the governor of Anbar Province over the next 2 months and was implemented over the course of 2006.
The ISF plan built on a small success that we had with the Albu Mahal tribe just prior to the December elections in forming the “Desert Protectors” to assist in securing the border region of Anbar. While the leaders of Anbar did not get their Anbar division—we were concerned with creating a strictly Sunni formation—they were allowed to bring almost 16,000 police and army recruits into the ISF. Each was vetted and vouched for by his tribal sheik. They generally performed well in Anbar, particularly against al Qaeda. It took constant pressure on the government to distribute the promised reconstruction dollars, but they finally did, and small prisoner releases were conducted over the course of the year. This effort marked a major turning point not only against al Qaeda, but with the population of Anbar Province.
Sunni In. As a result of Ambassador Khalilzad’s hard work on the constitution, we had a major breakthrough with Sunni political leaders just prior to the elections that we hoped to exploit in the new year. The Sunni political leaders came to the Ambassador a few days before the election and stated that they wanted to tell their people to vote on December 15, but they were afraid the people would get caught up in ongoing operations. They wanted me to announce the suspension of operations for the elections in exchange for their support in turning out the Sunni vote. I confirmed with my divisional commanders that their major operations were completed, and they were. We had planned all along for our pre-election operations to end a few days before the election. I told the Sunni leaders that we would not conduct any major operations in the last days before the elections but that we would continue routine force protection and high-value target operations. That was good enough for them, and, true to their word, they went on Iraqi television and told Sunni voters to vote.
The Sunni leaders told us that January they had concluded that their common enemies were al Qaeda and Iran—not the United States. They felt that we were leaving, and they needed our help to get Iraq back from al Qaeda and Iran. The election collaboration was a small step and the beginning of a series of confidence-building measures between the MNF-I and Sunni political leadership that led to serious, but ultimately unproductive, discussions about ceasefires and reconciliation over the course of 2006.
To continue this dialogue, we established a cell, under a U.S. two-star general, to better coordinate engagement activities with political and insurgent leaders among the different agencies of the mission. At this time, the U.S. Embassy, UK embassy, CIA station, and MNF-I were all getting feelers from different leaders and groups claiming to have influence over the insurgency. Each needed to be vetted, evaluated, and acted on in a coordinated way. While there were some hopeful signals, several promising leads failed because of the inability of the interlocutors to deliver on their promises. It soon became clear to us that this was an early but essential part of the ultimate reconciliation process that the Iraqis would have to go through to conclude the insurgency. In the end, it was the beginning of an important dialogue that we continued. It marked a significant shift in how the Sunni population, particularly in Anbar Province, saw the MNF-I and U.S. presence.
ISF in the Lead. The growth of ISF was just about on schedule at this point (mid-January 2006) with over 225,000 trained and equipped army and police forces of the 325,000 that we were building with the Iraqis. We believed at that time that it would take us another year to complete the training and equipping of the ISF and that the police would take a concerted effort just to make that. More significant was the increase in the number of these forces that were actively participating in counterinsurgency operations either independently or with coalition support—100 Iraqi army battalions were actively in the fight, a number that had increased by one-third in just 6 months as the transition teams and partnership programs continued to demonstrate their worth.
The police and security ministries continued to lag the army in development. We began a focused effort to improve police capacity and planned for the transition in ministry leadership that would come with the establishment of the new government. The deficiencies in the police were well known. Our trainers were reporting a lack of trained police, significant deficiencies in low-level leadership, and sectarian bias at the highest levels of the Ministry of the Interior. Our effort to improve police capacity became known as the “Year of the Police.” We introduced specific programs not only to increase the numbers of Iraqi police, but also, more importantly, to improve their professionalism and quality of their training. Our 2004 COIN study had driven home the key role to be played by the police, so we needed to refocus our efforts to organize, equip, train, and field a professional police force that embodied national unity. The ambitious goals we set for ourselves—an MOI capable of leading border security efforts by June 2006 and assuming the lead in the counterinsurgency effort by the end of 2006—were indicative of the importance we placed on the role of the police in our long-term plans. The most difficult challenge proved to be eliminating sectarian bias from the ministry. This was essential because of the debilitating impact it had on the even-handed enforcement of Iraqi law and the confidence of the Iraqi people in their police forces. It would significantly delay our efforts with the police.
The other key aspect of sustaining our momentum was the smooth transition of MNC-I in January. Our preparatory training was very good, but it was simply not possible to replace a year’s experience on the ground overnight, particularly when we were asking our conventional forces to do things that they had not done for decades. While I saw continuous improvement in the preparation of new forces over time, and our COIN Academy helped strengthen the transition process, transitions were always periods of friction and turbulence.
The new MNC-I commander, LTG Pete Chiarelli, was returning to Iraq after only a year away, having commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad from April 2004 to March 2005. In our initial meeting, I emphasized the importance of maintaining momentum during the government transition process and asked him to give me his preliminary assessment of the situation in 30 days. In that assessment, he commented on the significant progress of the Iraqi army, particularly at the tactical level, and the encouraging improvement in Anbar Province. He expressed concerns about the lack of development of the police and in the capacity of the governmental ministries and with militias challenging the authority of the ISF.
He also commented on the substantial improvements that had been made in the counter-IED (improvised explosive device) effort after he left. With the establishment of a counter-IED task force in 2005, MNC-I focused on attacking IED networks as a system by bringing technology to bear for tracking IED emplacers, exploitation of sites, and jamming detonators. This approach and an influx of hardened vehicles allowed the corps to increase the number of IEDs found and cleared by almost 15 percent and to reduce significantly the effectiveness of IED attacks.‡‡‡ IEDs would continue to produce the largest number of casualties among coalition forces and would require continuous adjustment and adaptation by coalition leaders and soldiers.
As we headed into the third month of government formation in mid-February, we continued to press ahead with our Bridging Strategy, settling in the new corps, and dealing with increasing signs of sectarian violence, while the Iraqis moved frustratingly slowly toward forming a government.
The Samarra Bombing and Its Aftermath
On February 22, the al-Askari Mosque, a sacred Shia holy site in Samarra, a Sunni city north of Baghdad, was destroyed by a bomb, unleashing a spate of sectarian violence against the Sunni population in Baghdad and the surrounding areas. Shia militia attacked Sunni neighborhoods and mosques, causing widespread panic in the capital. Coalition forces reacted quickly to staunch the violence while the Ambassador and I attempted to mobilize the Transitional Government to act. Prime Minister al-Jafari was slow to impose an evening curfew that would have facilitated our operations. While the government sought publicly to portray the attack as an attack against the Iraqi people by the enemies of Iraq, it seemed clear that the attack was viewed by the Iraqi leadership as a direct attack on Iraq’s Shia population, and this seemed to slow their initial reactions—which was not lost on Sunni leaders. While the government eventually imposed the necessary curfews, it continued to resist a ban on the carrying of weapons by other than ISF and would not implement policies to prohibit nongovernmental militias.
We saw the sectarian violence unleashed by the attack as having the potential to threaten our ability to make progress in 2006 by exacerbating the fraying tensions between sectarian groups and making the formation of a government of national unity more difficult—further exacerbating tensions and extending the government formation process. I was very concerned about this escalating into a major sectarian conflict and causing a fracture of the ISF along sectarian lines—two things that could fundamentally change the course of our mission in Iraq. I issued orders to isolate and stabilize the situation in Baghdad, focusing on ethnically mixed areas, and to work on preventing attacks that could further inflame sectarian tensions.2 Meanwhile, the Ambassador and I worked with the Transitional Government to get the needed political support to frame a security operation to secure Baghdad. The next few days were difficult as we guided the now lame-duck government through a major crisis while our forces worked to restore calm to the capital.
After a few days, we persuaded the prime minister to begin a concerted effort to restore order to the capital and surrounding areas where the vast majority of the sectarian violence was taking place. The intent of the operation, called Scales of Justice, was to stop the sectarian attacks and provide sufficient security in the capital region so that the new permanent Iraqi government could be formed and seated. At that time, we still held out hope that the formation process would produce a government of national unity that would be perceived as representative of all Iraqis, or at least as more representative than the Transitional Government. We pushed eight more Iraqi and coalition battalions into the key districts of Baghdad, massing more than 50,000 coalition and Iraqi security forces into Baghdad and the surrounding areas. The operation stabilized the situation and bought us the time to complete the government formation process. However, after initial military success, Scales of Justice slowed, but did not halt sectarian violence in Baghdad, leaving a difficult situation for the new government.
The operation was hampered by the reluctance of the Transitional Government to impose weapons and militia bans and to stem sectarian influence within MOI forces. This reluctance had a very negative impact on the confidence of the Iraqi people, particularly the Sunni population, in the ability of the police to evenhandedly enforce the law. We suspected that some police formations and political militias were actively conducting sectarian killings with at least the tacit approval of political leaders. In all, coalition forces, and a good number of their Iraqi counterparts, did a remarkable job of stabilizing a very difficult situation, but their increased exposure resulted in an increase in coalition and ISF casualties.
Assessing the Impact. Once we got the military response moving, I turned my attention to determining the impact of the Samarra bombing and its aftermath on our long-term plans. It seemed clear that the sectarian tensions we had seen emerging since the summer of 2005 with the seating of the Transitional Government and the September declaration of jihad against the Shia population by al-Zarqawi were more than just tensions and needed to be addressed more broadly.
From my personal interaction with Iraqi leaders, I saw a great fear of “Ba’athist return” among Shia leaders: a fear that the Ba’athists would overthrow the duly elected Shia government and return to power, subjugating the Shia population as they had been for more than 30 years under Saddam Hussein. I also saw a great fear among Sunni leaders that Iranian influence would ensure the continued subjugation of the Sunni population. While we might have seen these views as caricatures, they defined the views of Iraq’s leaders, who would ultimately have to resolve these sectarian tensions. These views were not new. What was new, however, was how the scope of the sectarian violence made them more real to the Iraqis and made trust between Iraq’s leaders more difficult to attain.
We began a review of our plans and strategy, asking ourselves the fundamental question: “Does the advent of significant sectarian violence in this transition period require a change in our strategy for Iraq, and, if so, what should we do differently?” Looking at the situation, we came to the conclusion that the post-Samarra violence may have been an indication of a significant change in the nature of the Iraqi conflict. Taken in the context of the conclusion of the UN political timeline, the initial departure of coalition forces, and the ongoing efforts to form a 4-year Iraqi government, the sectarian violence seemed to indicate that the main conflict in Iraq was moving away from an insurgency against the coalition to a struggle for the division of political and economic power among Iraqis. This would be a significant change.
As I thought my way through this, I saw four major groups influencing the security situation to affect the outcome of the conflict: Sunni extremists, Shia extremists, the Sunni resistance (the insurgency), and Iran. I saw the main antagonists as the Sunni and Shia extremists, each heavily influenced by fear of the other and each motivated by fear of exclusion and retribution. The Sunni resistance, which was still active against the coalition in parts of the country, was losing relevance and influence. Finally, the Iranians were actively supporting Shia extremist groups and using political and economic influence to shape an outcome that would ensure that the new Iraq would be a benign neighbor. I graphically portrayed this as shown in figure 4-1. It was a far more complex environment than we had previously dealt with.
Figure 4-1. Post-Samarra Security Environment, March 2006
I discussed this view with my commanders and the Ambassador. They generally agreed that the nature of the conflict had changed. The commanders noted that they were dealing with different parts of the conflict in their different parts of the country, and that the main struggle was going on in Baghdad and the surrounding provinces. I developed the graphic below (figure 4-2) to communicate to my commanders the actions we needed to take. We needed to block the ability of the Sunni and Shia extremists and Iran to influence the division of political and economic power, while working to bring the Sunni resistance into the political process. To do this, on the military side we would have to work with the Iraqis to provide an environment secure enough for political and economic development to continue and in which the population felt protected and civil war was averted.
Figure 4-2. Strategy for Post-Samarra Security Environment
We also did some work to explore various courses of action that we could take if the sectarian tensions spilled over into full-scale civil war. There was a lot of discussion with Washington in March of 2006 about whether we were in a civil war, how we would know it if we were, what civil war would look like, and most importantly, what we would do if we were. I felt strongly that the sectarian violence spawned by the Samarra bombing had not reached the level of civil war primarily because the violence was confined to such a small portion of the country, the ISF remained a national force, and there was still support for a political process. That said, it was clear that the extremists were attempting to push the country toward civil war as a means of achieving their political objectives, and it was in our interest to prevent that from happening. In response to a request from Washington for my thoughts on what to do if the violence did degenerate into civil war, I stated that we could leave, return to our bases and wait it out, intervene, or pick a side, but that doing anything but reinforcing and stopping the violence—intervening—would acknowledge strategic defeat.
We also got a number of questions during that time from Washington about how U.S. forces were operating and how we might shift our weight away from activities that caused casualties. We responded with a study that looked at whether having increased coalition presence in the streets actually improved security or if our higher visibility posture simply invited attacks and reduced the pressure on the Iraqis to step forward.
Our study showed what we intuitively knew: that increasing the number of operations, which we had done in response to the sectarian violence, did not necessarily translate into higher casualties. Rather, maintaining an offensive posture kept the enemy off balance and disrupted his ability to respond to our actions. It also allowed us to maintain necessary contact with the population and to conduct the necessary patrolling for force protection and intelligence operations that were essential to successful COIN operations. We also found that coalition casualties decreased when security responsibilities were transferred to the Iraqi army. The majority of coalition and ISF casualties were confined to just 3 of the 18 provinces, namely Baghdad, Anbar, and Ninewah. Civilian casualties were mainly limited to just two provinces: Baghdad and Diyala.
Charting a Way Forward. While we dealt with the Samarra adjustments, we moved ahead with the development of our overall campaign plan made necessary by the completion of the UNSCR political timeline. The outcome was a comprehensive effort with the Embassy designed to guide the mission over the next 3-plus years—the tenure of the new, still-to-be seated government.
We defined these next years as “the decisive phase to bring security and stability to Iraq” and laid out three phases: Phase one—stabilization (2006 to early 2007); Phase two—restoration of civil authority (early 2007 to early 2008); and Phase three—support to self-reliance (early 2008 to 2009). Using this strategic framework (see figure 4-3), we laid out specific objectives and tasks in each phase that were aligned along the five integrated lines of operation, much as we had outlined in our earlier campaign plan—security, governance, economic development, communications, and transition (added in the new plan). We also looked at “wild cards” that might impact the projections we made for each phase, established specific effects and metrics for each phase, and identified the coalition or U.S. Embassy agency responsible to the Ambassador and me for accomplishing them.3
Figure 4-3. Campaign Framework, April 2006-December 2009
Most importantly, we included the strategic concept developed in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing into the campaign plan. In it we adjusted our mission statement to reflect the new situation:
The U.S. Mission and Coalition Forces will, in partnership with the Government of Iraq, contribute to an environment where Iraqis can develop representative and effective institutions capable of meeting the needs of the Iraqi people, creating the conditions for the Rule of Law, defeating the terrorists and irreconcilable insurgents, bringing other insurgents into the political process, reducing sectarian tensions and denying Iraq as a safe haven for terror.4
The mission and the campaign plan reflected our central belief that the conflict was about the division of political and economic power among Iraqis. We believed that enduring strategic success could only be achieved by Iraqi political and military leaders working together to resolve Iraq’s substantial problems. It was our job to work with them to help them do that.
Building New Partnerships
There was a break in the political stalemate in late April when a relatively unknown Shia politician, Nuri al-Maliki, was appointed prime minister. While it would take another month before he and his cabinet were sworn in, and 2 weeks after that before agreement would be reached on his key security ministers, it was a start.
During the month between the appointment of Prime Minister–designate al-Maliki and his formal inauguration, the Ambassador and I met with him frequently to update him on pressing issues and to get his views on the way ahead. We recognized from the outset that we had to build our relationships with him, just as we had with his predecessors, if we were going to sustain a partnership to deal with the very difficult issues facing the country. What I did not foresee, however, was how much of my personal time and energy would be consumed in building and sustaining my relationship with the new prime minister in the coming months.
In our first session, I addressed the security situation and development of the ISF. I told him that the primary threat to Iraq was terrorists and militia fomenting civil war and that Baghdad and Anbar provinces were the greatest security challenges. I recommended developing and implementing a plan to secure Baghdad as the first priority. I told him that the ISF were making good progress in building security capacity, but that we needed a major effort to restore public confidence in the police, particularly among the Sunni population, because of their perceived, and sometimes demonstrated, sectarian bias. I also told him that we were 18 to 24 months away from having the ISF to the point where they could operate without substantial coalition support. I encouraged him to build a strong, representative security team and to address the militia issue as matters of priority. He stated that he thought the 18 to 24 month timeline for the security forces seemed like a long time, and shared his view that the ISF were poorly trained and equipped, and in some cases infiltrated. I knew I would have to bolster the prime minister’s confidence in his ISF.
During another of our initial meetings, the Ambassador and I drew on our experiences with the previous transition and offered some thoughts for the first 100 days of the new government. We suggested a program based upon three tenets—Unity, Security, and Prosperity—and provided him with some recommendations to generate political momentum in these areas during his first days in office. We believed that the new government had to be perceived as representative of all Iraqis and seen as taking positive steps to reconcile the concerns of the ethnic and sectarian groups (Unity) as a complement to security efforts to halt the violence (Security). Once security was established, economic development could continue (Prosperity). We had numerous other sessions with Prime Minister al-Maliki in this interim period to ensure this wartime transition of power went as smoothly as possible.
Prime Minister al-Maliki and the majority of his cabinet were sworn in on May 20. The key security ministers could not be agreed upon in time for the parliamentary session, so the selection process for the security ministers continued into June. In our first meeting with the newly inaugurated prime minister, he agreed to the Unity-Security-Prosperity construct that the Ambassador and I had laid out earlier. He stated that he wanted our help to formulate a short-term plan to improve current conditions, and a longer term plan to resolve the more intractable issues facing Iraq. He asked to meet in a few days to discuss a plan that would lead to a “dramatic” improvement in the security situation in Baghdad. He also expressed concern about the situation in Basra where competition for wealth among the Shia population and increasing Iranian influence were making for a difficult security situation.
With so many pressing issues, the Ambassador and I worked to get only the most important issues in front of the prime minister to avoid overwhelming him in his first days. On the security side, I needed to help him assume his role of commander in chief of Iraqi forces, work with him to develop and take ownership of plans to secure Baghdad, familiarize him with the capabilities of his security forces, and, further down the road, familiarize him and his government with the plans to transition security responsibility to capable ISF. There were also two time-sensitive issues—the need to strike a Sadrist headquarters near Sadr City involved in kidnapping and murder, and a coming meeting in Baghdad with the Iranian foreign minister—that we needed him to focus on.
Earlier that month, one of our unmanned aerial vehicles had filmed a kidnapping and murder in Baghdad from start to finish. A man walking across a bridge was forced into a car and taken to a large walled complex that we knew to be a Sadrist headquarters. After his captors went inside for a period, they came out and drove the man to the outskirts of Baghdad where they shot him. The Ambassador and I took the videotape to the prime minister shortly after he was sworn in, showed it to him, and told him that we intended to conduct an operation to search the facility. He recognized the volatility of the tape, and asked me to hold off until he had some time to confer with his advisors and the presidency council. I agreed. After a few days, he told the Ambassador and me that he had decided that the public release of the tape at this time would have such a negative impact on the security situation that he was not going to release it. He also asked me not to conduct any operations against the facility. I reluctantly agreed (largely because we had seen carloads of material being removed from the facility in the intervening days). It was a troubling indicator so early in his tenure.
The other pressing issue was the visit of the Iranian foreign minister to Baghdad. By that time, we had strong evidence of the support that Iran was providing to the Shia militia. I thought it was important for the prime minister to have access to that evidence before the meeting. The Ambassador and I had Major General Rick Zahner, my deputy chief of staff for intelligence, lay out the evidence, which he did in such a compelling way that the prime minister commented at the end of the briefing that what the Iranians were doing was conducting terrorism in Iraq. We asked him to press the Iranian foreign minister to halt the support.
We had the first meeting with the newly inaugurated prime minister and the outgoing security team a few days after the inauguration. Because I wanted to have something ready to go for the new government, I had MNF-I review the lessons of Operation Scales of Justice and prepare a plan to secure Baghdad. As we presented the plan, it became immediately clear that the prime minister was not comfortable with accepting a plan that he and his advisors were not familiar with, especially without his own security team on board. It was critically important that the new government make the plan their own so that they felt responsible for its execution. We agreed to have a combined Iraqi-coalition team study and wargame the plan and report back to the prime minister. It would be a few more weeks before Prime Minister al-Maliki got his security team on board and approved the plan.
It was a difficult time for the new prime minister, and the Ambassador and I worked to help him deal with the challenges he was confronted with while continuing to press for the actions that we knew were needed. It was a delicate balancing act. Civil-military interaction is difficult in any country, even in peacetime. Cross-cultural civil-military interaction in the middle of a war is even harder and requires patience and trust on all sides.
About 2 weeks into the prime minister’s tenure, he was able to gain consensus on his security team—the same day, as it turned out, that our special operations task force tracked down and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the longtime leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. The task force had been tracking him for some time and finally got a break. It located him in a house a few kilometers northwest of Baquba, about 30 kilometers north of Baghdad, and attacked the house with joint direct attack munitions, destroying the house and killing al-Zarqawi and nine members of his inner circle. We were able to get a Special Forces team to the house just as Iraqi police, who had responded to the explosion, were loading a body that turned out to be al-Zarqawi into an ambulance. The team took the body and brought it to Balad Airbase for identification. DNA samples and fingerprints were taken and sent to the United States for positive identification.
We made a decision to keep the operation very quiet until we were certain of the identification. We also wanted to ensure the new prime minister had the opportunity to announce the death. Shortly after the arrival of the remains in Balad, I got a call from LTG Stan McChrystal, who had seen the remains and confirmed that it was in fact al-Zarqawi. Based on that information, I called the Secretary of Defense and the Ambassador (I had already told General Abizaid), and we began planning for a morning announcement, pending positive identification. While we knew that this would be only a short-term setback for al Qaeda in Iraq, it was a significant success for our forces and for the new Iraqi prime minister. The next morning, Prime Minister al-Maliki announced al-Zarqawi’s death to the Iraqi people at an emotional press conference. Coupled with the announcement of the new security ministers, it was a rare good day in Iraq.
Camp David and June D.C. Consultations
As we worked to get the new government on board, we were also preparing for a major U.S. conference on Iraq policy at Camp David that would be followed by a surprise visit to Baghdad by President Bush to reinforce and energize the new government. The Ambassador and I were asked to give our strategic assessment of the situation and to lay out our campaign plan for the way ahead via secure video teleconference. We described the security situation as “complex as it’s been” because of the diversity of the violent groups that were now impacting security: Sunni extremists, Shia extremists (some directly supported by Iran), and the Sunni resistance. This made the term the Insurgency (which to date had been used to refer to the Sunni Arab rejectionist insurgency) less useful. We stated that, in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, the fundamental nature of the conflict had changed from an insurgency against the coalition to a struggle among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups for political and economic power in Iraq. To us this meant that enduring strategic success would only be achieved by Iraqis as they sought to enhance unity, improve security, and build prosperity. We laid out our
campaign plan to grow the capabilities of the Iraqi government so that by the end of the 4-year tenure of the new government, it would be able to govern without our assistance. Because of the shift in the nature of the conflict and the added complexity that came with it, and the ground that was lost in the 6 months of government formation, we estimated that the new government would be hard-pressed to demonstrate substantial progress in the next 6 months, and that it would take us until early to mid 2007 to stabilize the security situation to the point that political and economic development could take place without significant disruption. We also estimated that it would take us until the end of 2009 to achieve our campaign endstate.5
We highlighted the continuing growth of the ISF in numbers and capabilities (while acknowledging the lagging development and sectarian issues with the police forces), the success we had been having against al Qaeda leadership and facilitation networks, and the inroads we were beginning to make with the Sunni resistance leaders. There was no doubt that we faced a tough 6 months, but there was some potential for advancement if the government of national unity could begin to bring the country together. To help move them in this direction, the Ambassador and I suggested the development of political “benchmarks” to replace the UNSCR timeline as a forcing function to drive the political progress essential to move the country forward. The benchmarks would include such important milestones as the amendment of the constitution, provincial elections, modification of de-Ba’athification policies, and militia disarmament. We had seen over time that, as difficult as the political issues were, if there was nothing to drive Iraqi leaders to make decisions on key issues, decisions would not get made and the country would not come together politically. If, as we had postulated, the struggle in Iraq was over the division of political and economic power, we needed a political alternative to violence as a means to resolve political issues. Unfortunately, we were not able to overcome the objections of the sovereign government of Iraq. It would be a significant void in our efforts throughout 2006 and beyond.
At the conclusion of the Camp David meeting, President Bush clandestinely departed the United States and flew to Iraq. He had private meetings with the Iraqi leaders, most importantly Prime Minister al-Maliki, and then met with the new cabinet as a group. His message was one of empowerment and support, and it had the intended energizing effect on the new prime minister and his government. While there, the President also met with and thanked the members of the Embassy and MNF-I, which was a great morale boost for the team.
About 2 weeks later, I returned to Washington to serve as the president of an Army promotion board for two-star generals, to get face-to-face feedback from the Camp David session on our planned way ahead, and to take some leave as I entered my third year in Iraq.
In my Pentagon discussions, I reemphasized the points that I had made at Camp David—namely that the sectarian violence had significantly complicated the security environment, but violence, though high, was not widespread (14 of the 18 provinces had less than nine reported incidents of violence/day); that it would take about 6 months to see if the new government could make a difference; and that army development remained on track, but that we needed a major effort to restore confidence in the police. I projected that we would be finished with the planned training and equipping of the ISF by the end of 2007, that we would have all of the Iraqi divisions leading operations by the next spring, and that we would have the Iraqi provinces responsible for their own security by the end of 2007. I believed that with the government of national unity in place, steadily improving ISF, and a still-substantial coalition presence, we could move Iraq forward in the next few years if—and it was a big if—the new government could begin to reconcile the divergent interests of Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups.
My discussions with the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs also focused on whether or not the time was right to continue the drawdown of U.S. forces. We had done a quarterly review in March and concluded that there had been insufficient time to assess the impact of the first off-ramp decision and that there was just too much uncertainty in the outcome of the government formation process to continue to draw our forces down at that time. Having recently completed our June assessment,6 and discussions with corps and division commanders, we had concluded that we could reduce our forces by another three brigades (about 10,000 people) over the course of the year and still maintain an appropriate level of security because of the continued development of the ISF. (In June, for the first time, we had almost as many Iraqi brigades and battalions leading operations as we had coalition brigades and battalions, 87 and 91, respectively.) We would retain the reserve in Kuwait and a force that could deploy from its home station on short notice to hedge against the uncertainty of the coming months. As Prime Minister al-Maliki and I had not completed our discussions on the proposal, a decision was put off until after my return to Iraq.
The question that we all wrestled with was why draw down coalition forces in the face of increasing sectarian violence. My thinking was that since the fundamental problem in Iraq was over the division of political and economic power, and that this conflict was the root cause of the sectarian violence, the ultimate solution would be political and not military. Furthermore, my experience had been that the longer we remained there in force, the more the Iraqis relied on us to solve their problems, and the less they moved forward on their own. I found this to be true at both the political and military levels. Finding the right force levels that would provide the right capacity for security, reduce Iraqi dependency on us, and foster resolution of the political issues at the heart of the violence was definitely more art than science.
I calculated that the specter of continued coalition reductions would reinforce the notion that the coalition was eventually leaving and create a sense of urgency in the new Iraqi government and its security forces that could spur the reconciliation that was so desperately needed for Iraq to go forward. We would still have a coalition force of over 120,000 and two of the three brigades on a short string to deploy to Iraq if we had miscalculated. I felt that I was taking a calculated risk that would take advantage of the seating of the constitutionally elected unity government to produce the substantial payoff of early reconciliation.
Unfortunately, as I was having these discussions in Washington, al Qaeda in Iraq launched retaliatory suicide attacks following al-Zarqawi’s death, setting off a chain of events that made continuing the drawdown of our forces impractical in 2006, and I canceled the projected drawdown shortly after I returned to Iraq to begin my third year in command. With spiking sectarian violence and an unproven new government, I knew we were in for a tough 6 months.
*** Off-ramp was the term used to describe the removal of troops from theater without replacements, essentially reducing U.S. forces.
††† At the time of the decision, there were some 216,000 trained and equipped ISF.
‡‡‡ As a result of these efforts, the average casualties per improvised explosive device detonation went from 0.95 casualties per detonation in the June–December 2003 timeframe to 0.35 casualties per detonation in the January–February 2006 timeframe, a significant improvement.