Gordon is chief military correspondent for The New York Times. During the initial phase of the Iraq war, he was the only newspaper reporter embedded with the allied land command under Gen. Tommy Franks, a position that granted him unique access to cover the invasion strategy and its enactment. He is the co-author of Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. Here he recounts the war's key strategic turning points, from Rumsfeld's power struggles in Washington to the fallout of the Samarra mosque bombing in Iraq. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Jan. 11, 2007.
Let's start with [Gen. George] Casey [being] picked to replace Ricardo Sanchez [as commanding general of the Multi-National Task Force-Iraq (MNF-I)]. Who is Casey inside the institution? Why would he have gotten picked?
Well, Casey is an Army general, and this is, at this point, largely an Army mission. He had experience in the Balkans, like many of the people in the military. I think he's essentially picked because of his experience on the Joint Staff where, among other assignments, he'd been the chief planning officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And indeed, one of the things he had done while he was there was he had pushed for more postwar planning, and he had made an effort, which really didn't come to much, but it was an attempt to create a planning cell. ...
So he would have been known to [then-Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld, known to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the vice chairman, sort of a trusted, known quantity -- an Army general, somebody who seemed to have a steady hand and understanding of the situation.
But not [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur or [Gen. George S.] Patton or anybody like that. Did the Army feel they needed or wanted somebody like that in Iraq at that time?
Well, they did elevate the post to a four-star post, and Casey becomes an absolutely key figure, because what happens is, Iraq policy is pretty much dominated by two individuals in this period, by Gen. Casey and Secretary Rumsfeld. And they talk directly. I mean, the United States Central Command [CENTCOM] under Gen. [John] Abizaid, it has some sort of broad overview of what's happening in Iraq, but it's not really running the war in Iraq. The war is being run by Gen. Casey.
And his direct [contact] in Washington is Don Rumsfeld. That's the channel. In fact, somebody in Gen. Abizaid's command once described it to me as a political military headquarters. It wasn't involved in the day-to-day management of the war in Iraq. [That] was a Casey-Rumsfeld affair.
But I think that when Gen. Casey was appointed, they were pretty much operating on an assumption that the main focus, the main impetus was going to be to transfer over time security responsibilities to the Iraq government, to the Iraq security forces, not to fight a sort of gritty counterinsurgency campaign.
Their plan was to get out.
Well, from the day we got in, the plan was to get out at the earliest possible opportunity. At least that was the plan in the mind of the Defense Department. It wasn't necessarily the plan in the mind of the State Department, which adds to some of the drama in the review that's later conducted.
But when they went in, ... when [Gen.] Tommy Franks, [CENTCOM commander, 2000-2003], got to Baghdad on April 16, 2003, one week after the fall of the capital, he gave guidance to his commanders to prepare to withdraw all but one Army division, plus a little extra by September 2003. That was the initial concept.
Then, due to a whole variety of factors, including mistakes the Americans made, the insurgency emerged. And Gen. Casey's role, his initial task was to fight that insurgency. But what I think happened was Gen. Casey and Gen. Abizaid came to the conclusion that this insurgency was pretty resilient, wasn't going to be defeated anytime soon. And they seemed to have made an assumption that Washington was not willing to provide the military resources and other resources that would be needed to really defeat this insurgency.
So they settled on a strategy that was not intended to defeat the insurgency in the short term. Rather the emphasis was on handing over to the Iraqis so they could fight the insurgency for years, and we would then be in a supporting role. Even though officially we had a counterinsurgency campaign, the emphasis was not so much on defeating this insurgency, which would take five, six, seven, eight, 10 years traditionally; it was on transferring security responsibilities to the Iraqis and putting them in the lead so they could fight this insurgency in the ensuing years.
People have called this a commander's war. There were no theaterwide strategic ideas.
I'm not sure I agree with that. I think that Gen. Casey was the dominant figure. I think that the commanders underneath him weren't always entirely on the same wavelength, and there were tensions.
I think he was the dominant person, and I think he was very much in sync with Rumsfeld. Remember, when Rumsfeld's memo later emerged, the one he submitted two days before resigning -- and I wrote the story, and I got that memo -- what was so striking about it was the whole emphasis in the Rumsfeld memo was on reducing our forces in Iraq, pulling back to bases, transferring responsibility to the Iraqis. These were the so-called above-the-line or favorite options that Rumsfeld was pushing in that memo. It was all consistent with the kind of thinking that was being done by Gen. Casey, which, again, called for transferring to the Iraqis, withdrawing American troops, consolidating American bases in Iraq, beginning to reduce our footprint. I think in broad strokes, Rumsfeld and Casey were like-minded on this.
Rumsfeld had no appetite for staying, slogging and winning the war in Iraq.
He once described it as a "long, hard slog," and I think Rumsfeld came to the conclusion that it would be a very long slog indeed, and one that the Iraqis should properly fight and that our role should be a secondary one. He saw the effects it was having on the American military. He understood it was a drain on resources. One consequence of the Iraq war is it was producing a situation in which the United States was strategically fixed, as they say in the military, meaning the whole thrust of our effort was tied up in Iraq. Certainly our ground forces are largely tied up there, and as a consequence, it reduced our ability to intervene in other parts of the world. It potentially raised the problem that other adversaries might conclude that the United States was unable to exert influence on other parts of the world because it was bogged down in Iraq.
I think Rumsfeld's prescription for dealing with this problem of being strategically fixed was to reduce the footprint, not to step up our efforts to win.
Is that [different from the views of] the president and [then-National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice and others at the National Security Council?
... You had with Rumsfeld, Abizaid and Casey three individuals who basically thought that it was not advisable to greatly enlarge the American military footprint in Iraq, except maybe episodically for tactical reasons: There's an election; you beef up to provide added security through that period. But basically their view was, we're going to try to phase down and put the onus on the Iraqis and get them to step up and fight this insurgency, which is likely to go on for a very long period.
Initially the White House went along with this. If you read the so-called [National] Strategy for Victory [in Iraq] that the president put out, much of the testimony that was given to the Congress during this period, it internalized a lot of this thinking. The way the White House put it and the president put it was, "As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down." That was very consistent with the concept of Gen. Casey that we're going to increase the size of the Iraqi security forces, and as that happens, we'll begin to draw down our own troops and shrink the number of bases in Iraq and hand over responsibility to them. The White House accepted this line, and in fact advertised it for quite a while.
Also it's an election year. It's not about getting deeper and deeper; it's about light footprint, and soon we'll be gone.
I think they believed it. They looked at the situation in Iraq, and they saw, well, they were having elections. And in Washington, I think that created more hope than it did in Baghdad and in Iraq, somewhat ironically, that the Iraqis were beginning to stand up a new government, a new constitutional process. The calculation was that gradually the Sunnis would be drawn into this process. There would be some insurgents, but you could negotiate with these insurgents and maybe bring them in the tent. You would develop the Iraqi security forces.
They would have these Pentagon briefings. They'd bring out these charts, and it would show this steady growth in the Iraqi security forces, army and police. This was intended to be some kind of barometer of Iraqi capability. In fact, it put the emphasis wrongly on ... the number of guys that we were training and equipping, not on quality -- the number of troops that are truly loyal to the government, willing to leave their home areas and actually go fight. That's only a portion of the actual Iraqi security forces.
But these kind[s] of assumptions were accepted at the White House. And remember, they have a four-star general coming in to brief them, telling them that it's all working.
Well, they think that the period of sort of heavy, major combat operations is perhaps behind them. There was Fallujah II. There was also the Najaf operation, more or less in parallel, against [radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-] Sadr. But their conclusion is that we're sort of moving beyond this period of major combat operations into a counterinsurgency phase in which the process of political reconciliation, which is also being pushed aggressively by the American Embassy, is going to lead to a diminution of the insurgency over time, because we're going to take these people who are outside the process, bring some portion of them inside the process through negotiations. There will always be the rejectionists, the Al Qaeda elements; we'll be battling them forever. But the Iraqis will do most of that fight. There are more of them. Things are going in the right direction. Yes, it's longer and harder than anybody anticipated, but the trend lines are positive.
That's the picture that's being painted by Gen. Casey, Don Rumsfeld. And the White House is accepting that picture.
Do they really know better?
They believe it.
I think for a long period of time they accept that. But at the same time, there are elements of the American government which [are] a bit uneasy as to where things are going, including some in the State Department, because they're looking at the situation in Iraq, and what they see is an almost mechanical process under way.
I mean, what is the American strategy in Iraq? As somebody put it, a senior State Department official put it to me, it was a-strategic. The emphasis was on transferring responsibility to the Iraqis, generating more Iraqi soldiers and police, shrinking the number of American bases, beginning to draw down American combat brigades. And to some in the State Department and maybe on the NSC [National Security Council] staff, it looked like this process had a life of its own, and it was almost a bit disconnected from the events in Iraq.
And they begin to ask: "Is this our strategy, to shrink our footprint? Is that the military strategy in Iraq, or is there something beyond that?" It was partly as a consequence of some of these sorts of questions that Condi Rice as secretary of state began to talk about a strategy. And she began to describe a concept of clear, hold, build in congressional testimony.
Later the White House embraces this, citing the example of Tal Afar, this city ... in northwestern Iraq that was cleared by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment under [Col.] H.R. McMaster. This is touted as sort of a model of how to do counterinsurgency. When people in the administration go public with this, it also reflects a sense they have that American strategy should be about something more than reducing the footprint in Iraq and that maybe if they begin talking about it in this way, the strategy will actually move in that direction. They'll begin publicly defining this, touting the positive examples that they see in counterinsurgency, and that will have some sort of effect on the strategy, and the strategy will eventually catch up with the public statements. ...
What happens is if you take a period -- for example, start with 2006. Gen. Casey and his command is basically reporting to Washington. What they see is actually positive trends. Yes, there are challenges. … But they're painting a generally positive picture of things moving in the right way.
But that's not the only view. The Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] is chronicling all of the attacks against American forces and the sectarian attacks, but also all of the SIGACTS, as they call them, significant actions, and they're painting a very different picture. ...
Then you have people in Washington trying to make some sense out of it and trying to figure out if this strategy of handing over and transferring to the Iraqis really fits the situation. The Defense Department and Gen. Casey insist it does. But what happens over the course of 2006 is people in the State Department and on the NSC increasingly come to think that it doesn't and that we're behind the curve in Iraq, that the situation in Iraq is more difficult than the one that's being portrayed by Rumsfeld and Casey, and that the strategy therefore of shrinking the American footprint and handing over responsibility to the Iraqis as fast as possible is no longer adequate. And what happens in 2006 is you begin to get the stirrings of this debate behind the scenes here.
Then on the ground, there's a very profound change in the situation, which begins with the attack that's believed to be orchestrated by [head of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi in the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, Feb. 22, 2006. ...
Now it's not just an insurgency; it's a civil war.
Well, it's not a civil war. But what is happening is the Samarra bombing is a kind of a diabolical attempt by Al Qaeda to stimulate a civil war and to create conflict between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis with the aim really of provoking an overreaction on the part of the Shi'ites and making Iraq essentially ungovernable and chaotic and an entity that the Americans can no longer control. Somehow out of that chaos, they think they can accomplish their political ends.
No question, there's sectarian incidents going on before February 2006. But ... one thing that's striking is, ... prior to that bombing, there is no real systematic effort on the part of American intelligence in Iraq to tabulate, measure sectarian violence. They just weren't doing it. The focus was on insurgency and Al Qaeda. That's what they thought the main threat was. But after the bombing there's worries that there [will be] open warfare really between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis, and that becomes a big concern in the early part of the year.
[Were] both CENTCOM and Casey ... aware that something significant is happening?
They know from the very day it happens that this is a very significant occurrence, potential disaster really. And [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2005-2007, Zalmay] Khalilzad goes to see the then-Iraqi prime minister [Ibrahim al-Jaafari] to demand they impose martial law and lock down the country immediately, the day that occurs. And the Iraqis themselves don't fully seem to appreciate what's going on. ... It's the Americans that have to tell the Iraqi ground force commander this is not a good time to go to the United States for his visit, so they yank him off a plane. …
Everybody sort of braces for what they think might be a spasm of sectarian killings. Some of the religious leaders call for calm. There's a sense that the crisis passes. And what you have in Washington then are a number of public statements by Gen. [Peter] Pace, the ... chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and others saying: "Well, the Iraqis walked up to the precipice. They saw what civil war could mean for them, and they walked back." The crisis is past, is the sense in Washington; we dodged the bullet. Yes, Zarqawi tried to do this; it was bad, but it's not going to be a calamity. Our strategy is still on track. …
In reality, if you go back and look at the data now, there's a steady rise, really from January through the year, in sectarian incidents. Each quarter is worse than the previous quarter. But it begins to creep up on them. The violence continues to grow sort of month by month. But it's a trend.
Is Bush, as president, involved in this process all along? ... Or is it dawning on him that he'd better get involved?
... Bush is listening to his generals, and he's accepting what his generals are saying. He's being guided by his generals, and he's giving his generals everything they ask for in terms of troops. But they're not asking for anything, because they're locked into a strategy of shrinking the footprint and handing over to the Iraqis. So Bush is in the receive mode when it comes to his generals.
Even Rumsfeld is a bit in the receive mode. Rumsfeld is not dictating to the generals. The generals really have the lead, and they are not asking, except for temporary tactical situations, for increases in forces. Gen. Casey and Gen. Abizaid are still very much committed to their strategy of shrinking the American force in Iraq over time and handing over to the Iraqis, despite these events. They think we can weather the storm, stay on track and keep with the program. …
This war is a confusing thing to cover, because initially, when they're planning the Iraq war, there are some generals they're not listening that carefully to; for example, Gen. [Eric] Shinseki, [Army Chief of Staff, 1999-2003], who makes the point during the hearings that traditionally, postwar situations require several hundred thousand troops for the stabilization phase. That's a message they clearly don't want to hear when they're thinking about planning the postwar phase of the conflict.
But once the war begins, they basically are listening to the generals ... and being reassured by the generals that the strategy is on track. They're getting briefings from Gen. Casey about the growth in the Iraqi security forces and his plans for drawing down American forces.
There's a very important event which happens in June. ... Gen. Casey comes back in June 2006 from meetings in Washington. By this time the violence is growing in Iraq: sectarian killings; what they call EJKs in military kind of vernacular -- extrajudicial killings, basically executions; drive-by murders -- Shi'ite on Sunni, Sunni on Shi'ite. All of this is being chronicled by the American intelligence agencies, and it's going steadily upward. So there's rising concern over this sort of thing.
And Gen. Casey comes back to the United States with a plan. What does this plan call for? It's another version of his plan to draw down American forces in Iraq. Granted, the significant reductions that he had predicted in 2006 haven't really materialized, but he's kind of redone the plan. ... And what it calls for is reducing the then-14 brigade combat teams [BCTs] to 12 by September, trying to get down to 10 by December, trying to get down to around seven by July '07, and trying to get down to five or six by December '07, while shrinking the number of bases. It's all what he calls conditions-dependent, meaning you only do these things if Iraq appears to be stabilizing. But the fact is, in June Gen. Casey is presenting a plan at the White House that calls for beginning a drawdown of American forces in September.
Within a matter of weeks this plan is shelved. We're moving in precisely the opposite direction. We've added 7,000 troops to Baghdad for something they call Operation Together Forward II because the sectarian violence is starting to spiral out of control. The new [Nouri al-]Maliki government can't handle it, and we're trying to do a clear, hold, build operation in Baghdad to put a lid on all this.
How does that happen?
Well, what Gen. Casey would say is he presented a conditions-based plan. The conditions changed, so he adjusted. ... But what a lot of Washington policymakers concluded from this is that Gen. Casey is behind the curve, that his plan is no longer operative. They begin to become uneasy about the plan, but also about the assumptions behind the plan: that things are moving on the right track, and that things in Iraq are as good as the generals are saying.
Do they become uneasy about [Casey] as well, personally?
Well, there's an interesting thing that happens over the summer as well. There's a meeting at Camp David that involves President Bush and his top advisers that's also in June. They all go out to huddle at Camp David, and the purpose of this meeting, the media is told, is kind of a review of Iraq strategy.
What happens is the whole event is somewhat truncated. President Bush sneaks out the back door, I think literally, and goes on a clandestine trip to Iraq. All of a sudden, remember, he materializes in Baghdad, and he goes to see Maliki and look him in the eye, and this becomes a big media event at the time. But this Camp David meeting in the view of some of the staff at the State Department and the NSC was really intended to be the beginning of a much more serious review. ...
Who are the people that came to Camp David?
It was sort of a Cabinet-level meeting. It doesn't really achieve what everyone anticipated. There were some outside experts brought out there to kind of brief what they think should be done. But the process here is more important than the substance in the Camp David thing. The point is, there are people in the government even then who are saying: "Wait a second -- this is not going the right way. We need to begin to reassess what's happening here."
Who drives that?
I think an absolutely key figure in the push to review things is Steve Hadley as the national security adviser.
But I also think some people at the State Department at the time, including [Counselor] Phil Zelikow, play a pretty important role in beginning to question some of the assumptions. ... [Zelikow is] going out on fact-finding missions and reporting back to Rice after several fact-finding missions -- and in pretty candid terms -- about the problems and difficulties in Iraq, including on the political side. It's not the reassuring message that they had been seeing from some people in the military. …
Things are really beginning to come unglued in Baghdad, and the number of killings is just spiraling -- sectarian killings. Now the main source of violence in Iraq, it's certainly not the Americans against the Iraqis; it's the Iraqis against the Iraqis. That's where the violence is coming from. It's Iraqis killing other Iraqis. And we've become the force that's sort of interposed between these different groups, trying to quell this so that the country doesn't slide into a full-scale civil war. ...
So they put together this Operation [Together Forward II]. But it's really underresourced. The Americans send some 7,000 troops, so the number of American forces involved in this operation is maybe 15,000, not a lot for a city the size of 6 million. The Iraqis are also to send troops. The American commander out there who's really running this, [Gen.] J.D. Thurman, ... he asks for two Iraqi brigades to complement the American force, because they need every able-bodied person they can get. ...
What actually arrives is just about two battalions, so a third maybe of the requested Iraqi force arrives. And it's always, "The check's in the mail" -- you know, they didn't come this month, but they're going to be there next month. They didn't come next month; they're going to go the following month.
The Americans engage in a very intensive effort to try to get Iraqi forces to come to Baghdad. I talked with an American officer, and the way he put it is he said, "Several Iraqi units have been destroyed in their effort to get them to Baghdad." … The call would go down for these guys to come to Baghdad, and they would just go AWOL, and the unit would cease to exist as a functional entity.
So for several months, there's this very frustrating effort to get the Iraqis to send troops to Baghdad. They have some, but they don't have nearly enough to work with the Americans as part of this ostensibly "Together Forward" operation to control the city. What happens is you end up with 15,000 American troops involved in the operation, 9,600 Iraqi soldiers involved. There are more American soldiers than Iraqi soldiers involved in this effort to bring security to Iraqi citizens in the capital.
Another element that's very important here is you have police. They're supposed to be an absolutely key part of this. This is a strategy of clear, hold and build. What that means is, you go to a number of key neighborhoods; they call them focus areas. … They're cleared by the Americans of militia, insurgents, weapons caches. The concept was the Iraqi police hold them; then reconstruction money flows in afterward to win over the population, build goodwill, deal with the chronic unemployment. ...
But what happens is, a, the Iraqis don't send enough troops. That hurts the hold phase. B, it turns out that a lot of the Iraqi police are either ineffectual or they're penetrated -- particularly the National Police -- by the very militias that the Americans are trying to contain. So the effort begins to falter.
Now, I'm in Baghdad in October, and I went out there to check this out. I was with two American Stryker battalions, one in the Ghazaliyah area, which is a mixed Sunni-Shi'ite area, and one in the Bayaa area, which has also got mixed neighborhoods. And when I went to the Bayaa area, I was with the Stryker battalion, and they were the guys from Alaska who had been extended four months. They had been [at] Tal Afar. ... They had a very capable commanding officer, Lt. Col. John Norris. ... First day they're there, they see a drive-by murder. There's a dead man lying on the street; women are wailing. The perpetrators had got away. They come upon the scene. Iraqi National Police car comes by. They try to wave down the car. [The driver] just doesn't stop, and he looks at the American soldiers with a sense of total indifference. Then they look and they see their two Iraqi National Police checkpoints not far away. Then they figure out that the people who committed the drive-by murder actually proceeded past this Iraqi National Police checkpoint.
So they've established on the first day that the Iraqi National Police in that area are complicit in this. Then they develop information that there's some Sunnis abducted from a meat-packing plant, and some of them are later killed. They have an informant, and they learn that this Iraqi National Police unit is not only complicit in these sorts of events; they're actually carrying out these events. They've been penetrated by either Mahdi Army or ... some of these other militias.
So the very people that they're supposed to be working with in Baghdad to secure the situation, ... they're part of the problem. And what happens is this Iraqi police unit has to be called offline. The Americans have a very delicate task of saying, "You're going to be sent back for retraining." Presumably they're going to vet and cull through the personnel and pull out the people they think are working for the militias. A new unit has to be plugged in.
I went to a meeting in Baghdad, and [the Sunnis] were saying: "You're telling us these are the good police. ... How do we tell the good police from the bad police?" And the new Iraqi police commander says, "Well, if an Iraqi policeman comes to your door and he's not accompanied by an American soldier, don't let him in."
So this is Operation Together Forward: 15,000 Americans, a smaller number of Iraqi soldiers, an Iraqi police force which is either ineffectual or penetrated by the militias, and the promised reconstruction money that the Iraqi government is supposed to send to build goodwill with its own citizens never arrives. So the only reconstruction that's done is the American military -- they have what they call CERP funds, the Commander's Emergency Response Program. They pick up the trash, fix the sewage lines. It's short-term stuff. It's useful, it's good, but it's not the long-term reconstruction. That's supposed to come from the Iraqi government.
So a lot of concern builds in Washington about where this thing is going: We've shelved Casey's plan. We've begun this Operation Together Forward on a pretty modest scale. It's not working very well. Sectarian violence is still increasing. ...
Steve Hadley takes a trip to go out there and evaluate the situation. He has a long meeting with Maliki to assess this. He also meets with Gen. [Peter] Chiarelli, [commander, Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I), 2005-2006], and a whole bunch of other people out there to get kind of an assessment as to what's happening on the ground. He comes back, and he writes a really devastating memo that we later published in The New York Times. It describes the events on the ground, and it says that when we look at the Iraqi security forces we've heard so much about, and the 300,000-odd members that they include, it says some of their commanders are being appointed on sectarian grounds; that Sunnis are being targeted on sectarian grounds; Shi'ites are being exempted from being targeted when they should be targeted -- death squad leaders and the like -- on sectarian grounds. …
So by the time we're really well into this so-called Operation Together Forward, there are grave doubts in Washington now. ... Washington is now very uneasy and unsure. Their fundamental problem now is not only dealing with the insurgents, but do we have a real partner in this new Iraqi government? Is their vision of Iraq and our vision of Iraq the same? And that's where things stand, right around the time of the midterm elections in the United States.
Does Rumsfeld at that time know any of this? Is he dealing with it?
I think Rumsfeld doesn't realize he's a short-timer. He still pretty much is deferring, I think, and maybe agreeing with the approach taken by Gen. Casey, and we know from his memo that he still sees the transition strategy as the way to go. In fact, he talks about the need to have the Iraqis pull their socks up, as if they're kind of lazy, spoiled children, and we just have to not do so much for them, and they'll get with the program.
What he doesn't seem to understand is this is the early phases of a civil war, and that certain things may not be happening not because they're incapable, but because this government doesn't want them to happen. They may not be protecting Sunnis not because they're incompetent, but because they don't want to protect Sunnis. In fact, they may be wanting to drive the Sunnis out of the city.
But by this time, by the time of the midterm elections, the White House has already made the decision that they want a new secretary of defense and they want a new approach. So all of these concerns have mounted -- September, October, November. There are quiet reviews going on throughout the Bush administration, in the State Department, in the White House, kind of localized, atomized, kind of relooks at things. And in fact, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Pace, pulls together some of his more savvy colonels, including H.R. McMaster, who is at Tal Afar, and they begin a behind-the-scenes internal effort in September to begin to look anew at the strategy.
All this is going on because people have a sense things aren't quite working. But there's no formal, orchestrated review going on prior to the election. And why is that? Because there's no way you can keep the fact of such a review secret. You can do some low-level looks at things, but to have a governmentwide review run by the president and the national security adviser that would involve discussions with the Iraqis and meetings with commanders, that would undoubtedly leak out. And they don't want to suggest prior to the midterm election that they themselves no longer believe in their own strategy, because they think that will be politically damaging to the administration's prospects, the Republican prospects in the election.
For the same reason, even though they've decided that Rumsfeld has to go and they have to bring in a new defense secretary, they don't want to communicate that fact prior to the midterm elections, because they think that will somehow encourage people to think that they don't have a handle on the situation in Iraq. In fact, President Bush is asked in the week before the election, "Will Rumsfeld go?," and he said, "No, I had planned to keep him," at a time when he had already decided to get rid of him. …
All of this does them no good, because the Republicans take a drubbing in the elections anyway. Just within days of the election, they formally commission the review that really was quietly under way and begin this very intensive process of trying to come up with a new strategy.
Does Casey know that he's gone [after the elections]?
... The thinking was, well, Gen. Abizaid had been in his CENTCOM post for quite a while. He was going to stay till about March and then be replaced through just a natural process, retire really. Gen. Casey was supposed to stay till around June or so, and then he was going to go on to be chief of staff of the Army, which indeed he is going to be. ... So it's always understood that both these officers are moving on. I mean, Gen. Casey spent some 30 months in Iraq; that's a long time.
But what happens is, when there's a sense that there has to be a new strategy as a result of this review, there comes to be a belief in the White House that there should be a new commander, a new team to run the strategy, and that someone like Gen. Casey might not be the most energetic proponent of a fairly radical change in course because he's so vested in a different approach, which was well-intentioned but just didn't work.
Did we ever have a strategy for victory?
During this time frame in late 2005 and 2006, the White House is talking about a strategy for victory. When I was out in Iraq in Anbar and in Baghdad, I always thought there was a pretty profound disconnect between the rhetoric coming out of Washington in this time frame and what was actually happening, because I don't think we were really trying to achieve victory. In fact, my sense was that the generals then looked at the insurgency, saw it was resilient, concluded that it couldn't be defeated in the near term, put the emphasis on building up the Iraqis and handing over to them, and that the actual strategy was premised on the assumption that there would not be a near-term victory. There would be a continued war that we would support.
So my sense is we never were going all out to win. We weren't fighting the war. We were managing the war within available resources, and this was very much the emphasis in the first part of 2006. ...
What do you read by the absolute rejection of [the findings and recommendations of the] Baker-Hamilton [commission, also known as the Iraq Study Group], by this White House?
... Baker-Hamilton, for the White House, is essentially a problem to be finessed. It's not a solution for Iraq. It's a political problem, because a lot of people paid a lot of attention to it, and they don't find it particularly helpful at the White House. So they have to say they're taking it into account, but it doesn't give them what they're looking for.
A very interesting thing happens. There are the midterm elections in the United States. The Republicans take a beating for sure. The Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress. And there's an assessment that a lot of people make, particularly the political pundits, that this election and these reversals for the Republicans will, in and of itself, put the United States on a different course in Iraq; that the election was a bit of a referendum on Iraq, ... which primarily emphasized … phased withdrawal from Iraq.
But it's not true.
It doesn't happen. And it doesn't happen for a couple reasons. One, the U.S. military, even Gen. Abizaid, despite their commitment to gradual withdrawals, given the way things are coming unglued in Baghdad, goes before the Congress and tells Sen. Carl Levin [D-Mich.] and others that we can't carry out withdrawals at this point in time. Yes, that remains the goal. Yes, that's what we had hoped to do. But given the way things are spiraling out of control in Iraq right now, withdrawals are just not on in the short term. Can't do [them]. And so the Democrats don't have the generals on their side to begin the withdrawals.
Then the other thing is the commitment or obstinacy, depending on how you look at it, of President Bush. He has not given up on victory in some sense of the word. He is still determined to salvage some kind of positive outcome from the chaos that is Iraq. He goes to meet with his Joint Chiefs of Staff, ... and he says: "I'm not interested in hearing from you about withdrawal and how to get out. I'm interested in learning how we can win."
So the president finds it's necessary to send a message to his own generals: "Look, don't talk to me about formulas for getting out and limiting the damage and basically washing our hands of this situation and maybe containing the spillover to contiguous countries. Tell me how we can succeed." That's the message he sends to his own military. ...
There are not that many good options out there; as the administration officials like to say, there's no silver bullet. There's no idea that hasn't been thought of before. It's just a matter of putting together a combination of measures and trying to come up with an intelligent program.
There's beginning phased withdrawals, which, by the way, [was] something Rumsfeld was still pushing almost to the end, and very similar to the Democratic proposals. Rumsfeld's proposals and Democratic proposals are essentially the same thematically, something the Democrats never realized.
Certain irony there.
Yeah. When they were pushing for his ouster, they actually lost the most senior ally that they had in terms of the substance of his recommendations for Iraq. ...
But [the White House] begin[s] to look at the options. Well, what are the options? What can you do in Iraq? OK, we can begin withdrawals and hope that somehow this will put pressure on the Maliki government to do the right thing. ... In fact, Maliki, in his meeting with Bush in Amman on Nov. 30, presents his own plan, which calls for the Americans to vacate [the] central part of Baghdad in a matter of months. They'll take it over, the Iraqi government; we stay on the periphery. The American role is to fight the Sunnis and let the Iraqi government take over the control of Baghdad. Well, we've got a big problem with that. We're afraid this could lead to ethnic cleansing in the capital, and we basically become an arm of a Shi'ite army and go fight the Sunnis for them.
So withdrawing, hoping that will put pressure on Maliki to do the right thing, doesn't look attractive, because very possibly we'll simply prompt that government to do the wrong thing, and it may even lead the Iraqis to conclude: "Oh, the Americans are leaving. We've got to keep these militias. We can't disband them. We're going to need them for the civil war that follows." ...
Then there's a plan which is discussed apparently in the vice president's office known as the 80/20 plan, something some people in the Maliki government also like, which is that, look, let's face it: The Shi'ites and their Kurdish allies are the dominant forces here. The Sunnis are the losers. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it played out. They're 20 percent of the population. Their part of Iraq has no oil. Let's just back the winners and become an influential force for them. And we'll throw in our lot with the Shi'ite-dominated government. We'll give up this concept of political reconciliation. We'll be battling the Iranians for influence with this government, so let's try to get the inside track, rather than Tehran. ... But that really -- it's almost un-American. It means giving up on democracy, giving up on political reconciliation, and it gets set aside as an option.
At one point there's some at least theoretical discussion: "Maybe we should just pull out of Baghdad and reposition our forces in other parts of the country. We'll take on Al Qaeda in western Iraq, and we'll let them sort things out." They war-gamed that. They said: "Well, wait a second. This is going to lead to just an upsurge in ethnic clashing in Baghdad, because as unwelcome as the American presence is in Iraq by the Iraqis, the Americans are really the only force in Baghdad that stand between the current level of violence and all-out civil war." ...
So if you're not going to pull troops out, you're not going to throw in your lot with the Shi'ite government and just say OK, give up on a pluralistic approach, how can you really begin to influence the situation?
Well, they begin to look at adding additional forces as a component of a broader strategy. ... This begins the discussion of the so-called surge, or a buildup. ... The discussion quickly shifts, I think, into not so much whether to surge but how big the surge should be, what the burden would be on the American armed forces and what the other elements in the strategy ought to be.
What they do is they elect for a pretty profound change of mission. All the things that we were told were exactly the right way to go -- transfer responsibility to the Iraqi security forces -- that's now decided that that was actually not the best mission; that the new mission needs to be population security in Baghdad, which is really a classic counterinsurgency doctrine applied to the capital.
Why only 20,000 [additional troops in the surge]? How do we get at the specifics of what they decide to do?
There's a whole discussion now about how big the reinforcement should be. Gen. Casey, he understands that the White House wants a different approach, and he himself has increased his force by some 7,000 in August. So he develops a recommendation, which I think really becomes something for two-brigade reinforcement, which is about another 7,000. ...
And this time, the Iraqis of course [are] supposed to pony up the brigades they never supplied last time, plus one. So the two brigades that never showed last time are supposed to show this time, plus one. So there will be three additional Iraqi brigades, bringing their brigades up to nine. ... So a plan is developed.
Really, until the very last moment, there's an option that's promulgated that's called 2-1-2: two American brigade combat teams in Baghdad; one on call in Kuwait as kind of a reserve force; two on call in the United States, if you need them. It would be sort of a phased introduction of forces. ... The broader context for this is the American military is stretched thin, and there's just not a lot of excess capacity. In fact, there's no excess capacity. ...
So that's a leading option. ... But remember, the White House has seen this movie before. They gave 7,000 troops in August. Now they're talking about another 7,000 troops. It just smacks of incrementalism to the president, to the vice president, to some of his advisers -- another kind of piecemeal effort that's unlikely to be decisive. ...
And another important factor is by this time, the decision has been made that a new strategy requires a new commander, and that new commander is to be Dave Petraeus. And Dave Petraeus -- the former commanding general of the 101st Airborne, former head of the training effort of the Iraqi army in Iraq, and the senior American Army general at Fort Leavenworth who's overseen the development of the new counterinsurgency manual -- wants five brigades, and he wants them as quickly as possible.
He doesn't want to do this incremental approach -- send two; if you need it, send another one; if you need it, send more. He believes that you need mass, because it's a big city; you need everybody you can get. He wants to be decisive, and he wants access to all five brigades. That becomes his position, and it's a position that's very much in tune with the thinking at the White House.
So when the decision is made -- and I believe it's made over just the last few days prior to being announced -- the president opts for the bigger package. And he announces a surge of five brigade combat teams -- not up to five -- five brigade combat teams for Baghdad, two additional battalions for Anbar, and then they're going to hold over a Marine unit there.
So you end up with a force that's upward of 20,000 -- 21,500 or so becomes the total force. And I wouldn't be surprised if it eventually ends up being somewhat larger, although it can't be greatly larger. ...
Who is [Gen.] Jack Keane and what is his role in all of this?
There's a very interesting side story to this. ... Gen. Jack Keane, who was the former vice chief of staff for the Army under Shinseki, was Rumsfeld's choice for a while to replace Shinseki, but was unable to take the job for personal reasons. He becomes a very active force in the discussions outside of government as to what to do next. He has a lot of influence inside the government, and he throws his weight very much behind a surge; in fact, a surge that's even bigger than the one that the president opted for.
He works on a study that's done under the auspices of the American Enterprise Institute and [military historian and AEI resident scholar] Fred Kagan. And there's a very interesting thing about this study that some people haven't noticed, and that is, a lot of the work on this study was done by two recently retired American Army officers. They ... served under H.R. McMaster, and they were part of the unit that took Tal Afar in what is seen to be the kind of textbook case for how to do counterinsurgency -- clear, hold and build, the one the White House always cites, the one that's in the military's counterinsurgency manual.
These two recently retired Army officers did a lot of the technical work on this AEI study calling for a surge -- how you would get the forces, where they would be deployed. And I think this reflects the fact that there's no monolithic view within the Army as to how to proceed in Iraq. ...
[The] selection [of Gen. Petraeus] sends what kind of a signal to the rest of the military and to the rest of the government?
[Petraeus is] obviously a very dedicated, capable and thoughtful officer. He had some success in Mosul in engaging in nation-building activities, which he basically dreamed up himself since nobody else was thinking this way in Baghdad. At a time when [Ambassador L. Paul] Bremer, [head of Coalition Provisional Authority, 2003-2004], was trying to promulgate a very rigid and sweeping de-Baathification effort, Petraeus managed to persuade Bremer to exempt the professors at Mosul University from this, because otherwise he'd have to shut down the university. ...
What you will have now in Baghdad are two people, first of all, who are committed to the idea that additional U.S. troops can be a positive influence, who haven't been committed to the notion that we have to withdraw to transfer responsibility to the Iraqis. But really, they've changed the mission. …
The mission now is going to be population security. And what do I mean by that? It means so much of the effort before was on enabling the Iraqis, getting them to step up, not doing too much because they have to do it, putting them online as quickly as possible. They stand up; we stand down.
I think now the thinking is more is they stand up, and we also stand up, and together we try to do something that we really haven't done that effectively in Baghdad, which is actually protect the people who live there. This is a very tall order. But it's key to their strategy that they're going to try to apply, because the theory is that if you can begin to bring security to these mixed Shi'ite-Sunni neighborhoods and actually protect the population, that population will become less dependent on, let's say, militia forces or rogue elements to provide for their own security. I mean, if you're a Shi'ite and you're getting attacked by Sunnis, and the American military can't protect you and certainly the Iraqi military can't protect you, it's understandable that you might look to Jaish al-Mahdi [the Mahdi Army] as your protector. So part of the theory behind this is if the Americans and the Iraqi security forces bring security to the city, the population will be less inclined to turn to the militias. …
The way it works now is there are these what they call FOBs, forward operating bases, around Baghdad -- Striker, Falcon, Liberty. I've been on these places. You stay with the units there, and they do patrols in the city. They can be long patrols, and they're dangerous patrols. They come back out to the FOB; another unit comes in. They're doing these patrols in and out of the city, but no one's living in these neighborhoods except for maybe a tiny number of possibly American advisers at a police station. …
So one of the big departures here, it's not simply a matter of additional troops; it's an entirely different operational concept. We're going to put forces that will stay in these areas, as Gen. [Raymond] Odierno, [commander, MNC-I, 2006-present], says, 24/7. They're going to be a presence there all the time. And that's the hold phase. The Iraqis are supposed to do most of it, but we're going to be there to make sure it actually happens and to kind of stiffen their spine. This is some of what was done in Tal Afar. So they're applying these lessons in this town out west and trying to do it and scale it up and do it to a larger extent in Baghdad. ...
Really the big challenge is, well, how do you deal with the Mahdi Army? The Mahdi Army has replaced Al Qaeda as the main threat to security in Baghdad. That's in the Pentagon's own public reports. The Shi'ite militias and their agenda to rout the Sunnis and push them out of the city has become the biggest threat to stability in Baghdad.
When I was embedded, the insurgent element was there. But much of what I saw was what they call counter-JAM operations -- counter-Jaish al-Mahdi, trying to keep these Shi'ite militias from killing Sunnis and clamp down on them. But Moqtada al-Sadr, who's a force in the Iraqi government, he has some 70,000 Mahdi Army fighters he can call on. So really the big challenge that's out there is how to deal with the Mahdi Army and how to handle them.
I don't think the Americans are going to want to recreate Mogadishu and go in for a big fight in Sadr City with the Mahdi Army if it can be avoided. I think what they're hoping is by establishing more control over the city, by beefing up the capability of the Iraqis, by being partnered with these Iraqi units and by putting pressure on the Maliki government, they can create a situation where the Mahdi Army maybe restricts its activities to Sadr City and excludes those activities that include going outside the confines and killing Sunnis. I think that's a big part of the strategy that's under way now.
What are the problems here? A, the Iraqis have to send three more brigades -- but they have to really, really send them this time. That has to actually happen. They promised it will happen, but it has to happen. ... B, the Iraqi government has told the Americans: "No more constraints on where you can go in Baghdad. No more of this business [that you can't] pick up this Shi'ite guy because he's a friend of the government even though he might be implicated in a death squad. You find bad guys; there are no inhibitions on what you can do to track them down." That's a commitment that's been made by the Maliki government. Easy to say, but it has to happen in practice. …
Then all of this reconstruction that the Iraqi government has promised and the American government has now committed to also has to happen to build support among the population, because part of what's happening is there's a breakdown in trust, and the breakdown in trust is between the Iraqi citizens and their own government. One way you try to build that trust is by the government actually doing things for its own citizens: picking up the trash, fixing the sewer lines, creating jobs, opening banks instead of closing banks, providing medical services, all these sorts of things that give people a stake in the new order and make it think that the Iraqi authorities in the Green Zone aren't simply a bunch of sectarian leaders who have hijacked authority but actually people who represent their interests. All of this has to happen. It's just a massive challenge.
... You're putting five brigades in the Iraqi capital of 6 million, in which there's been a lot of violence. You're going to have some of these elements residing in the neighborhoods and not living on FOBs. That's likely to lead to some additional American casualties. You're sending more battalions out to really the most dangerous part of the country, Al Anbar, where the insurgency has been stronger than it's ever been. They're supposed to go after those guys and after the Al Qaeda elements. That's likely to lead to some American casualties. …
On the other hand, one way to sort of limit your casualties is to come in with adequate force. And there's a paradox in military operations sometimes that people have studied, that if you come in with too few people -- and in my judgment, we've really had too few to secure the capital effectively -- you're vulnerable to attack. But if you have an adequate force and it's concentrated, and you kind of dominate a piece of terrain, that limits your vulnerability. …
If we send 20-odd thousand -- 17,500 is the actual number going to Baghdad additional, on top of the 15,000 already involved in the operation there -- you've doubled it to more than 30,000. Still, it's not an enormous amount of troops. There's supposed to be 50,000 Iraqis -- maybe 20,000 army and the rest police -- that we're working with. It's this unity of effort that in theory is supposed to give the United States the mass to do the job.
And remember, it can't just be an American job. It has to be an Iraqi job, because it's their city, and they know the area best. So all of this depends on steps that the Iraqis are supposed to take on the military side and on the political side. And if that doesn't exist, this effort will collapse, just like the last one did.
One thing that's very striking is in his speech to the nation -- which I thought was a pretty sober account of what happened, especially for President Bush, who's sort of been relentlessly optimistic until now -- he allowed for the possibility that this could fail. He said that he had discussions with Prime Minister Maliki and that Maliki had pretty much said the right thing, but he also said he had communicated the message to the Iraqi authorities that the American patience was not unlimited, and I think he means that. I think if they begin to see that the Iraqi government really isn't doing the things they've promised to do, I think there's going to be yet another review.
Right now, we're on Plan B, and I believe they're already thinking about Plan C.
Plan C is?
Plan C is a closely wrapped, probably series of options that we don't have much visibility into. But I talked to a senior official, and he said: "Look, our patience is not unlimited. We think this can work. We're hopeful of success." He said, "But if this doesn't work, there's some things we can do." ...
[What is the relationship in all this between political progress and military progress?]
Embedded in the Casey-Rumsfeld strategy was an assumption, and the assumption was military progress was made conditional on political gains. But what I mean by that is the thinking was that there was not to be a near-term kind of defeat of the insurgents. It was thought that we didn't have the capability to do that, nor really did the Iraqi security forces. But the thinking was, if you could have a unified government, have political reconciliation, that this would weaken the insurgency and diminish it to the point that the military strategy could be more efficacious. So military success depended on politics.
I think that the new approach reverses that formula. It's trying to use military strategy to shape politics. And there's a recognition that the politics that we want to see in Iraq may depend on a better military strategy. The thinking is, well, if we can provide the protection for the population instead of the militia, and if we can take a whole variety of steps -- military, economic and political -- to sort of fortify the resolve of the Iraqi government and buck up its confidence, in this sort of setting it's more likely to pursue an approach of political reconciliation, but that in the current climate, where there's basically unlimited violence and there's a state of war in its own capital, it's unlikely to take these difficult political steps.