Clear, Hold, and Build

13. “Clear, Hold, and Build”

At the beginning of May 2006, David Petraeus called Meghan O’Sullivan, President Bush’s deputy national-security adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan, and asked her to fly down with him to Fort Benning, Georgia, to watch the graduation ceremony of the Army’s Ranger School. The first Iraqi officer to go through the school would be among those receiving their Ranger badges. This was a big deal. She should see it.

Petraeus really did think O’Sullivan would find the ceremony interesting, maybe even moving. And he enjoyed her company, found her intelligent, her views enlightening. But he also wanted an opportunity—and there were few more captivating opportunities than an airplane ride—to talk with her about the crisis in Iraq and the need, as he saw it, for a new strategy, one that would require more troops, not fewer, as Casey’s plan envisioned.

The two had met in 2003 in Iraq, when O’Sullivan was working eighteen-hour days for Jerry Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority and Petraeus was commander of the 101st Airborne. They ran across each other again two years later, when she was making frequent trips to Iraq as a senior White House aide and he was running the training program for the new Iraqi army. Ever since returning to take command at Fort Leavenworth, Petraeus had been keeping in touch with all his high-level contacts—an important element of information operations—and O’Sullivan was in the top tier of his list.

O’Sullivan was in her midthirties, trim, with blazing red hair, all of which signaled to most military men that she probably wasn’t worth taking seriously. But, like many civilians with whom Petraeus enjoyed talking, she also had a PhD. More pertinent still, her dissertation, which she’d completed at Oxford, was on the civil war in Sri Lanka. One conclusion she reached was that civil wars end either when the stronger side crushes the weaker side or when an outsider intervenes to force a truce. She knew that if Iraq went the first way, there would be a bloodbath; she also suspected that the United States might serve as the outsider strong enough to force a truce.

This background made her more favorably disposed toward Petraeus’s views than many of her colleagues, and Petraeus launched a campaign to align her more closely still. He’d invited her, as one of the few senior civilian officials, to the COIN Field Manual Workshop at Leavenworth a couple of months earlier. In their phone conversations since, she’d expressed interest in the manual’s progress.

The common perception in the White House, and in much of the Pentagon and State Department, too, was that Iraq would stabilize once Prime Minister Maliki and the various political parties cobbled together a coalition government. Violence was soaring at the moment because Sunnis felt excluded from power, and as their militias struck out at Shiites, the Shiite militias were striking back. Once a deal was reached, so this argument went, things would calm down. The upshot was that there was no need—certainly it would be premature—to change American military strategy. Better, smarter, to ride out this interregnum.

O’Sullivan had been in Iraq enough times to know that the war was going badly, more so than her political bosses were willing to admit. Still, she tended to agree that the root problem was the Iraqi government and that once it gained its footing, improvements in security would follow.

Petraeus was intent on persuading her that this analysis had things backward. The Iraqi government couldn’t be effective—couldn’t do the things governments do, wouldn’t be seen as a legitimate authority—until the population felt secure. So security had to come first, and the Iraqi army couldn’t yet provide that security by itself. Only the US military had the strength to do that, but its commanders were pursuing the wrong strategy. A new strategy was the precondition to everything else.

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A few officials in Washington had reached this same conclusion, but only a few. One of them was the State Department’s counselor, a former NSC official and Harvard professor named Philip Zelikow.

When Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state at the start of 2005, Zelikow was one of her first appointments. They’d been friends since the late eighties, when they worked together in President George H. W. Bush’s White House. Afterward, they coauthored a book on the reunification of Germany. More recently, when Rice was George W. Bush’s national security adviser, she recruited Zelikow to come help write a new national-security strategy after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In February, just a couple of weeks into her new cabinet job, she sent Zelikow on the first of several fact-finding trips to Iraq. He traveled lightly, taking only a staffer or two and a couple of security guards. General Casey, who’d just recently assumed command, gave him leeway to go wherever, and talk with whomever, he wanted. Zelikow came back from that trip dismayed and wrote a fifteen-page memo to Rice, concluding that—despite two years of occupation, billions of dollars in aid, and the recent free elections, which had so enthralled Bush and his top aides—Iraq “remains a failed state shadowed by constant violence.”

Zelikow saw some signs of hope in what Major General Pete Chiarelli was doing with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad—his emphasis on the civil and economic sides of the conflict, his views on the importance of ensuring adequate water, electricity, and sanitation services—and he recommended that Rice do what she could to fund those sorts of programs.

In subsequent trips that spring and summer, Zelikow saw a few other officers, mostly brigade commanders, following Chiarelli’s lead—whether out of conscious emulation or at their own initiative, he didn’t know. He spent time with Kalev Sepp, who’d embarked on the COIN Survey with Bill Hix and was seeing a similarly mixed picture.

Finally, he talked with Colonel H. R. McMaster about his accomplishments in Tal Afar. The two didn’t meet face-to-face. McMaster was cautious about going outside the chain of command. When his unit first arrived in Iraq, he’d gotten into trouble complaining about a shortage of resources; he didn’t want to take any chances, or give some hostile general an excuse to impose disciplinary action, just as he and his troops were making progress. But he and Zelikow did talk on the phone at great length about COIN strategy: its specific elements, history, and rationale.

When he came back from that trip in September, Zelikow wrote Rice a twenty-three-page memo. The war, he said, could go either way, but there needed to be an overall plan, a cohesive strategy from the top, and as yet there wasn’t one. To avoid failure, the administration needed to come up with something in the next year.

In October he returned to Iraq, this time accompanying Rice herself as one of several staff members. She was scheduled to testify at a hearing later that month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Zelikow spent some of his time on the flight back to Washington drafting her opening statement. Rice was growing frustrated at the lack of an overarching Iraq policy. The interagency NSC meetings on the subject were useless. The White House, at Bush’s direction, deferred to the commanders on the ground; Rumsfeld insisted on excluding every department but the Pentagon from any aspect of military policy. Zelikow’s memos had stressed the importance of economic development and political governance to the outcome of the war; those issues fell under the State Department’s purview, so Rice decided to make a policy statement of her own. Zelikow was trying to come up with a pithy phrase to encapsulate what would be her official view.

He’d been reading several books on counterinsurgency and Vietnam. One of them, Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, delved at some length into the abortive efforts by Robert Komer and General Creighton Abrams to move away from General William Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy strategy to one that stressed protecting the population. A memo cited by Sorley referred to this alternative as “clear and hold”: clear an area of insurgents, then stay in the area long enough to keep it secure, to hold it, until local troops or police could manage on their own.

One of the officials traveling with Rice on the trip was General Ray Odierno, the former commander of the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, who was now the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, in that capacity, the military’s liaison to the secretary of state. In the year and a half since he left Iraq, even in the four months since his uncomfortable after-dinner speech at Eliot Cohen’s workshop in Basin Harbor, Odierno had reflected on what went wrong, why his tactics in Tikrit—which he now realized had been too aggressive—didn’t quell the insurgency, why his efforts at handing out money and cleaning up schools fell short. His daily work inside the State Department, which he’d been at for nearly a year now, deepened his understanding of the political side of conflict. Rice had sent him along with Zelikow, to be his military adviser, on the trip where he talked with Sepp about the COIN Survey and with McMaster about Tal Afar. These insights were as new to Odierno as they had been to his civilian boss.

Zelikow showed Odierno the draft of Rice’s testimony that he’d been working on and asked what he thought of Sorley’s phrase.

Odierno thought for a few seconds and came up with a slight revision: “Clear, hold, and build.” That is, after clearing and holding an area, build up the government so that it can provide basic services.

Zelikow liked it and inserted the phrase into his copy.

Rice appeared before the Senate committee on October 19. Early in her testimony, Rice stated: “Our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold, and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and to build durable Iraqi institutions.”

A few days later, McMaster would read a transcript of Rice’s statement and notice that several passages seemed to have been taken, almost word for word, from what he’d told Zelikow in their phone conversation. He felt gratified but also a bit nervous that the line of influence might be traced.

Petraeus watched the testimony live on television from Fort Leavenworth, where he’d just arrived. (His job as commander of the Combined Arms Center would begin the next day.) He was stunned. This wasn’t the strategy that he’d seen in place in Iraq. He wished that it had been, but he wondered if Rice’s remarks reflected official policy and, if they did, where the administration was going to get the resources to make it so. The Army and the Marines would need more money and a lot more troops on the ground to do a real clear-hold-build operation. At the moment, Petraeus didn’t see that happening.

Donald Rumsfeld watched her testimony, too, and he threw a fit. First, she was speaking publicly about military strategy—way out of her lane. Second, to the extent that he understood what she meant (and he wasn’t sure he did, he hated catchphrases), he strongly disagreed with it. It seemed to imply, as Petraeus also inferred, a policy of sending more troops to Iraq for a longer time, when Rumsfeld was trying to do the opposite. He phoned Generals Casey and Abizaid to see if they’d known anything about this. Neither had, and both of them were also annoyed at Rice’s intrusion on their turf. He asked General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, what he knew about it. Pace shrugged (although Zelikow had sent Pace an advance copy of the testimony and hadn’t received any objections in response).

Rumsfeld batted out a terse memo to Bush’s national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, with copies to Rice, Pace, and a couple of his own staff members. Under the subject line “Talk of a New DoD Strategy,” he wrote:

I have read that both the White House and the State Department have announced that the Department of Defense has a new strategy of “clear, hold and build” or something to that effect. I don’t know what it is, General Abizaid and General Casey don’t know what it is, and we all would prefer it not be used.

Please ask someone [to] figure out where it is coming from, who is doing it, why they are doing it, and ask them to stop.

Rumsfeld was being disingenuous; he knew who was “doing it,” but he had to tread softly. He detested Rice, regarded her as a lightweight—he and Dick Cheney had run bureaucratic rings around her in Bush’s first term, when she was the national-security adviser—but he knew that the president liked her, admired her, relied on her for advice. He held back nothing in opposing the phrase as a matter of policy and institutional propriety, but he knew it would only hurt his case if he made it seem personal.

He also knew that Bush would do almost anything to avoid disharmony in his cabinet. The president had raised no fuss when Jerry Bremer promulgated the orders disbanding the Iraqi army and barring Baathists from public office, even though they contravened decisions that the National Security Council had approved unanimously, with Bush present and concurring. In the early stages of the occupation, when she was still in the White House, Rice had complained to Bush personally on a couple of occasions that Rumsfeld wasn’t doing his part to carry out some decision or another that the NSC had assigned to the Pentagon, usually involving Iraqi reconstruction projects. Rather than confront Rumsfeld directly, Bush had told Rice that she should get together with Don and Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, and work out the problem. Of course, no such meeting ever took place. The decision-making machinery was broken when it came to national-security matters; anyone could throw a monkey wrench in the works, and Rumsfeld was a champion at wrench-throwing.

Still, it seemed for a moment that Zelikow and Odierno’s phrase, and Rice’s assertiveness, might stick. On October 25, six days after her testimony, Bush gave a lunchtime speech to an organization of servicemen’s wives. At one point, he stated that the US-led coalition in Iraq was “moving forward with a comprehensive plan,” then added, “As Secretary Rice explained last week, our strategy is to clear, hold, and build. We’re working to clear areas from terrorist control, to hold those areas securely, and to build lasting, democratic Iraqi institutions.”

Just over two weeks later, he was about to quote the line again in a Veterans Day speech at an Army depot in Pennsylvania, when—a half hour before the event began—Rumsfeld phoned Hadley. He’d just read the text that the White House had sent around to the various agencies, and he was furious, screaming at Hadley to delete that line about “clear, hold, and build.”

The line stayed in the speech. But the president didn’t follow through. It wasn’t translated into an order or a strategy, it wasn’t passed down, and therefore wasn’t taken seriously in the chain of command or on the battlefield.

Hadley wasn’t inclined to push the issue, either. In one of several tense conversations they’d had, Rumsfeld asked him rhetorically why there needed to be a secretary of defense if the White House was going to delve into military policy, and Hadley—who saw his role as facilitating the national-security bureaucracy, not overhauling it—took the point. Besides, the top military leaders, from the Joint Chiefs to the combatant commanders on down, were insisting that the war in Iraq was on the right track; that any talk of changing strategy or expanding troop levels was premature; and who was Hadley or Zelikow or Rice to contest their judgment on such matters?

Still, he and his staff had their doubts.

In April 2006, Hadley’s Iraq specialist, Meghan O’Sullivan (whose own experience in Iraq gave her additional cachet, as did her formal job title of special assistant to the president), flew to Baghdad to talk with Maliki. If the failure to reach a political settlement was causing the spike in sectarian violence, what could be done to promote a settlement? Soon after arriving, she realized that her premise was mistaken. Every meeting she’d scheduled was postponed or interrupted by yet another report of an explosion or a massacre or a security alert, which, in turn, triggered a crisis. The picture was suddenly clear: people couldn’t be expected to make big political decisions while they were being shelled. Security was the precondition to a political settlement, not the other way around. The Iraqi army wasn’t in shape to provide security on its own, and the American Army wasn’t doing the sorts of things it needed to do.

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By early May, then, when O’Sullivan flew down to Fort Benning with Petraeus, she was receptive to his case for a new military strategy—specifically, the counterinsurgency strategy spelled out in his forthcoming field manual—and for more troops to carry it out.

At the time, she was worried about Iraq; a few weeks later, she was apoplectic. She and other aides, in the White House and the State Department, were hearing the reports of dead bodies piled up in the streets of Baghdad each morning, all shot in the head, hands tied behind their backs. Ordinary Iraqis, whom she’d befriended while stationed there, were phoning or emailing her in a panic. They’d heard that the American battalion in their neighborhood was about to leave; could she do something, please, to stop them? Casey and Abizaid were still claiming that the Americans’ presence was the problem; she’d thought so, too, and the claim probably used to be true, but it didn’t seem so any longer.

O’Sullivan was among the handful of aides who saw Bush every day. She was also talking on the phone almost every day with Petraeus. When Petraeus visited Washington, they would often have a meal together, usually at an out-of-the-way restaurant (Morton’s steakhouse in the Virginia suburbs was a favorite), to minimize the chance of being spotted by a colleague. Petraeus, an active-duty three-star general, was going way outside the chain of command by giving policy advice to a White House aide. O’Sullivan used him as a frequent sounding board and a reality-check, asking questions, getting technical advice, discussing recent developments.

There was another back channel between the White House and Leavenworth. The previous fall, O’Sullivan had been looking for a military assistant, an Army officer who could provide this sort of expert support on a more routine, less surreptitious basis. Petraeus recommended a one-star general named Kevin Bergner, the deputy commander of US forces in northwestern Iraq, including Mosul. A former public-affairs officer at West Point, Bergner had, over the past year, restored order to Mosul—which had deteriorated into an insurgency stronghold after Petraeus’s 101st Airborne was replaced by a brigade less than half the size—mainly by reviving Petraeus’s COIN techniques. O’Sullivan had visited Bergner during one of her trips to Iraq and was impressed. When she put in a request for Bergner to be transferred to the White House, usually a pro forma matter, the Army higher-ups at first offered a couple of other one-star generals. O’Sullivan insisted on Bergner. Finally, they approved the move. He began work as the NSC’s senior director for Iraq at the end of the year.

All through 2006, Petraeus, very much behind the scenes, stayed in touch regularly with both O’Sullivan and Bergner, insinuating his ideas into the daily discourse at the highest level of government.

In May, Brett McGurk, one of O’Sullivan’s NSC colleagues, who’d worked in Iraq as a lawyer before joining the administration in its second term, made yet another trip to Baghdad to prod Maliki into making progress on forming a cohesive government. He’d been dealing with many of the same people as O’Sullivan; he knew about Zelikow’s clear-hold-build memo; he’d befriended John Nagl and had talked with him several times about counterinsurgency and the impending field manual. And he’d also struck up several conversations with uniformed officers in the Pentagon and in Central Command who insisted that all was well with the war. McGurk spent nearly the entire month in Iraq, every night writing four-page memos to President Bush directly, reporting that the place was coming apart at the seams.

At a May 26 NSC meeting, Casey, who took part via videoconference, got into a spat with Rice over whether the State Department or the military should be doing more to salvage the situation in Iraq. Bush ended the meeting by saying, “On that happy note, we will adjourn.”

Rumsfeld sent Casey a memo afterward. “My apologies to you for the comments that were made in the NSC meeting this morning,” he began. At the bottom of the note, he wrote in his own hand, “You were right on the mark!”

Bush scheduled a two-day meeting at Camp David for Monday and Tuesday, June 12 and 13, to be attended by his war cabinet and—for the first time in such a setting—a small group of outside critics who to varying degrees supported the war but had problems with how it was being fought.

The critics, selected by his NSC staff, included Frederick Kagan, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, the leading neocon think tank, who’d once taught in the History Department at West Point; Michael Vickers, a former CIA official who, in the 1980s, had helped organize the mujahedeen rebels in their war against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan; Robert Kaplan, a widely traveled war journalist; and—the one whom the White House staffers figured would be most outspoken—Eliot Cohen, who even agreed not to wear his customary bow tie for the occasion.

Cohen argued, as diplomatically as he could, that the president might want to think about replacing his generals. He recounted the main point of his most recent book, Supreme Command: that presidents throughout American history have overruled their generals and were often correct to do so. Bush had once been photographed carrying the book, a fact that many saw as significant, though Cohen doubted that he’d read it; certainly, when the two were introduced, he detected no sign that the president recognized his name.

Kagan didn’t argue for more troops, although he suspected more were needed, focusing instead on the need to come up with a coherent strategy that spelled out clearly what the troops—however many there were—should do. Kaplan made the case specifically for adopting a counterinsurgency strategy. Vickers, true to his background, called for cutting back on conventional forces and stepping up the role of Special Operations forces, as had been done during his time in Afghanistan.

The session went on for a few hours, but it had a detached quality; some of the critics—who were there for only the first day, flown out by helicopter in the morning and flown back to Washington midafternoon—had the feeling that nothing they said was sinking in. The sense was confirmed the next day, when they heard the news that Bush was in Iraq. He’d left from Camp David, at around the same time they had; the trip had been kept secret; only a few of his cabinet officers had known about it in advance.

All four outsiders had been led to believe that they were part of an extensive, possibly pivotal conversation about the war: its status, its strategy, and whether it needed more or fewer troops. Certainly that had been the hope of the White House aides who assembled the guest list. But now it seemed that the whole event—both days of the summit, with and without the outside critics—was primarily a cover, allowing Bush to slip away to Iraq without tipping off the White House press corps. They’d had a spirited discussion, but apparently that’s all it was—for the moment.

Bush wasn’t yet ready to take Eliot Cohen’s advice; he’d always, by instinct, deferred to the commanders in the field. Still, he’d read the memos from O’Sullivan and McGurk; and as Air Force One touched down in Baghdad the evening of June 13, he was beginning to wonder about his top general in Iraq.

During the Camp David meeting (after the outside critics had departed, since they lacked the security clearances to hear it), Casey, appearing via video teleconference, briefed his latest campaign plan: the one that called for accelerating the withdrawal of US troops, at first from the cities, then from the country altogether, to the point where Iraqi forces would take the lead in all military operations by the end of the year.

A few days earlier, Maliki had finally formed a government. The week before, US Special Operations forces had hunted down and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Casey (and several others) took these events as turning points, an opportunity to accelerate the transition to full Iraqi control. He recommended to the officials at Camp David that they reverse an earlier decision to replace two brigades—seven thousand American soldiers—that were scheduled to leave Iraq in August, and he suggested that they announce this reversal in public. Doing so, he said, would demonstrate that we were leaving and thus reduce the stigma of “occupation,” boost the legitimacy of Maliki’s new government, and “send a signal” that the coalition was making progress in the war.

Now, face-to-face in Iraq, Bush asked his general if he had everything he needed—enough troops and other resources—to win the war. Casey repeated that, in order to win, he had to withdraw troops, so the Iraqis would engage more intensely in the fight, which after all was their fight, not ours.

This argument had maddened several officials and White House aides when they heard him make it at Camp David or when they read it in his campaign plans. Casey was frustrated at his failure to make them see that the conflict had changed, that it was no longer an insurgency but a complex sectarian power struggle. The officials and aides, some of them, anyway, were mystified by this argument. Of course it was a complex sectarian power struggle; it always had been, and given that the Iraqi government was a party in that struggle, they didn’t see how the conflict could be stabilized by handing it more authority more quickly. Charts drawn up by Casey’s own staff showed that sectarian attacks in Baghdad alone had soared to thirty or forty a day, with civilian casualties ranging from fifty to two hundred a day. It might have been one thing to say the war was hopeless, it was time to pull out; it was another thing, a sheer puzzle, to say that, under the circumstances, pulling out was the true path to victory.

Bush was a bit mystified, too. And Casey sensed that his message wasn’t getting through.

Casey thought that events in the coming weeks would vindicate his position. On July 9, nearly a month after Bush’s visit, he launched Operation Together Forward, a new attempt to stem the violence in Baghdad. A curfew was declared from nine at night until six in the morning, and seventy thousand Iraqi security forces were moved into the capital both to enforce the measure and to keep order in the streets during daylight. It didn’t work. Bombs kept exploding.

On August 7, Casey put in motion Operation Together Forward II, a more aggressive but also more focused effort to impose order on Baghdad’s seven most violent neighborhoods. At first he made this an American-led effort, moving the 3,500 soldiers of the 172nd Stryker Brigade from Mosul to the Iraqi capital.

When O’Sullivan heard about the plan, she called Petraeus to ask if a single extra US brigade would be enough to pacify the area. Petraeus, who maintained access to the daily Iraqi battle reports at his desk in Fort Leavenworth, told her it wouldn’t and rattled off the reasons why.

Petraeus was proved right. The brigade “cleared” the neighborhoods of insurgents. It might have done more still, had it been given the chance. Enough officers by now had been through the COIN Academy and read Kilcullen’s “Twenty-eight Articles” essay; some had followed the discussions in Military Review and the online soldiers’ chat sites. But Casey’s idea was to let the Iraqi security forces “hold” the areas by themselves while the Americans returned to Mosul before that city started collapsing, too. Six Iraqi battalions were supposed to redeploy to Baghdad from other areas of the country as part of the operation. But only two of them showed up, and they weren’t up to the task. The result, predictably, was disaster. The insurgents moved back in, and the violence intensified. By the fall, the number of sectarian attacks in Baghdad was up by more than 40 percent.

Even Bush realized that Casey’s plan wasn’t working, that it might be time for a new strategy, maybe a new commander, too. The question was what, and who, they should be.