Hearts & Minds

12. Hearts & Minds

Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose in Iraq.

David Kilcullen showed up for the COIN Field Manual Workshop at Fort Leavenworth, but he had to leave on the first day, after news came over the wire that Sunni insurgents had bombed the Golden Mosque, a major Shiite shrine in Samarra, signaling a new, more intensive phase in the bourgeoning sectarian civil war.

Two months earlier, Kilcullen had gone to work for Henry Crumpton, the State Department’s new adviser on counterterrorism. They’d met at Eliot Cohen’s Basin Harbor conference the summer before and struck up a friendship. Kilcullen’s work on the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review was coming to a close. He was scheduled to go back to Australia, where he was still a lieutenant colonel in the army, but his superiors told him that in his absence he’d missed an opening to command a battalion. He took the message as an act of spite. He wanted out of the Army anyway, preferring to stay in the States and play some part in the war. His marriage was crumbling, too; his wife had already left for home. So Crumpton arranged—through another request to the Australian government, this one signed by his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—for Kilcullen to stay on as his chief strategist.

Kilcullen was already scheduled to go to Iraq in a few days on a classified mission for Crumpton. When he heard about the bombing of the mosque, he moved up his schedule.

Once in Baghdad, Kilcullen spent some time with American soldiers working the streets, as well as with diplomats in the embassy, and the contrast alarmed him. The soldiers were panicked by the escalating violence; the diplomats exuded their usual nonchalance. The occupation had been going on for nearly three years, an insurgency had been mounting almost from the outset, yet the American authorities still seemed in denial over the nature and scope of the problem.

There were signs of recognition here and there, most notably a COIN Academy at the US military base in Taji, about twenty miles north of Baghdad, which every soldier coming into Iraq was now required to attend for five days to get briefed on the rudiments of counterinsurgency. General Casey had set up the academy in November 2005, just three months earlier, and it was still in a primitive state. But Kilcullen was encouraged that such a thing existed.

•  •  •

The project had been Bill Hix’s brainchild; Casey himself referred to it as “the Hix Academy.” It grew out of a project that Hix and Kalev Sepp had initiated the previous August, soon after they returned to Iraq. Sepp in particular felt a sense of mission in the wake of the Basin Harbor workshop and the warm reception he’d received for his “Best Practices” article in Military Review. The campaign plan that Casey had signed a year earlier, vague and inadequate as it was, did mention counterinsurgency. Hix used that fact as an opening to propose a “COIN Survey,” in which he and Sepp would visit the various US military units in Iraq to assess whether and how well they were following COIN principles. Casey gave his assent and let them use his personal helicopter to travel around the country.

Over the next few weeks, Hix and Sepp visited thirty-one American brigades, battalions, and regiments. About 20 percent of the commanders appeared to get the idea of COIN and were doing at least fairly well at applying it in the field. Another 60 percent were struggling: they understood the doctrine’s elements but didn’t quite see how they added up to a plan of action, and they felt uncomfortable with the notion of delegating authority to their own junior officers, much less to Iraqi security forces. They were for the most part good officers, but they’d learned all too well the lessons of the conventional battles at the National Training Center, and they’d absorbed all too thoroughly the dictates of a rigid command structure.

Finally, there were the other 20 percent of the commanders, who were not only ignoring the COIN sections of the campaign plan but unwittingly fueling the insurgency. Sepp was most shaken by a warrant officer in the 2nd Marine Regiment, who openly took pride in killing people. “We see ourselves as a motorcycle gang,” he told Hix and Sepp. “We drive around, beat up the bad guys, and move on to the next town.” An intelligence officer with another unit told them, “We secure a town, but after we leave, some of our informants are killed by the insurgents; that’s a problem.” He at least perceived the problem, but didn’t grasp that one of his responsibilities was to solve it—to stick around for a while after the bad guys had been chased away.

What struck Hix and Sepp most of all as they traveled around the country was the creativity of the top 20 percent, those few officers who were dealing with the challenges and improvising solutions on their own, despite the lack of guidance from the top. The most creative of them, they agreed, was the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, an Army colonel named Herbert Raymond McMaster.

•  •  •

H. R. McMaster had made his mark as an Army rebel a decade earlier, when his PhD dissertation was published as a book, provocatively titled Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.

Based on extensive research into declassified files, the book argued that in the mid-to-late-1960s, the Pentagon’s top generals betrayed their constitutional duties by failing to express their honest military judgments to the president and the secretary of defense as the nation plunged into the quagmire of Vietnam.

It was a far more devastating critique than Andrew Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam, which derailed the author’s prospects for promotion, or David Petraeus’s dissertation, which he decided not to publish after witnessing Krepinevich’s fate. All three had been majors when they wrote their works, a delicate point in an ambitious officer’s career.

But a decade had passed. The generals who lambasted Krepinevich had been commanders in Vietnam; they took his book as a personal insult. By the time McMaster came along, they had long ago retired or died. The new crop of generals had slogged through the mud and rice paddies of Vietnam as lieutenants or captains; they could appreciate the book without self-abasement. General Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff soon after McMaster’s book was published, had been one of those lieutenants. Not only did he admire the book, he ordered all his service chiefs and commanders to read it and follow its lessons to the letter: to express disagreements to their superiors, even if it risked getting yelled at. President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Cohen, echoed the sentiment.

David Petraeus, then a colonel, was General Shelton’s executive assistant at the time. Petraeus called McMaster, gave him his phone number, and said that he should contact him personally if he ever caught trouble for what he’d written.

Like John Nagl, McMaster had risen through the ranks as a tank officer. At the time of Desert Storm, he was a captain in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, commanding a small unit called Eagle Troop. During the massive assault into Iraq from Saudi Arabia, his unit unexpectedly came across a Republican Guard formation. McMaster and his men, with just nine M-1 tanks at their disposal, wiped out all of the Guard’s vehicles—nearly eighty, including twenty-eight tanks and sixteen armored personnel carriers—without suffering a single casualty of their own. It was one of the war’s few classic tank-on-tank battles, something straight out of a scenario from the National Training Center.

But McMaster had also studied history when he was a cadet at West Point, class of 1984. (Conrad Crane had been one of his professors.) He’d gone on to grad school at the University of North Carolina, then, after writing his dissertation, spent three years back at West Point, teaching the department’s core course on military history as well as an elective on the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

So he was well attuned to the emerging trend of low-intensity conflicts, the wars that most Army generals in the 1990s refused to call “wars.” When his teaching obligations at West Point’s History Department were complete, McMaster went to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where he team-taught a course that took a critical look at the National Training Center and recommended changes in its scenarios, to allow for more flexible tactics against an unpredictable, guerrilla-like enemy. Afterward, he was assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which played the part of the Krasnovians—the fictitious enemy army—in the NTC war games. There, along with some of his like-minded colleagues, he pushed the games into less rigid scripts, even free play.

It was no surprise, then, that in the late spring of 2003, as the second war in Iraq began to segue from liberation to occupation, McMaster was among the first officers on the ground to detect the glimmerings of an insurgency.

At the time, he was executive officer to General John Abizaid, the deputy commander of Central Command, which had responsibility for all US military forces throughout the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, including in Iraq. McMaster was ill suited to the job, and he knew it. His organizational skills were paltry, his distaste for paperwork all too undisguised, his instinct for fawning nonexistent. The two kept up a banter: Abizaid would tell McMaster that he was the worst XO he’d ever had; McMaster would reply that Abizaid displayed poor judgment for hiring him in the first place.

General Tommy Franks, who had been CentCom commander up through the invasion, retired from the Army in July, just as the occupation started to sour. Abizaid was promoted to replace him, and he named McMaster the head of his advisory group. The first thing McMaster did at his new, far more appropriate job was to write Abizaid a memo recommending that CentCom start calling the resistance an “insurgency,” so that the staff could draw on the vast historical records of counterinsurgency as a guide for what to do.

McMaster assembled a commander’s library at headquarters, ordering all the classic books still in print. He also tracked down a long-forgotten document: the proceedings of a weeklong symposium on counterinsurgency held at the RAND Corporation in April 1962, just as JFK’s advise-and-assist mission in Vietnam was taking off. The participants had included Galula himself (who happened to be spending the year on a fellowship at Harvard), Kitson, General Edward Lansdale, and a dozen other officers, active or retired, American or (mainly) foreign, who’d led COIN campaigns in Malaya, Kenya, the Philippines, Algiers, or Southeast Asia. Here in a single 170-page volume were the theorists and practitioners of the art, sitting around a table, telling war stories and discussing lessons learned.

Over the next several months, McMaster traveled with Abizaid to visit every American brigade in Iraq. On the trip to Mosul, he saw Petraeus for the first time since the controversy over Dereliction of Duty six years earlier. Not knowing his background in COIN, he was surprised by how thoroughly Petraeus grasped the nature of the conflict and how shrewdly he was translating the theory into action. The two talked at length about the Mosul campaign, and afterward stayed in touch.

In December 2003, McMaster wrote Abizaid a thirteen-page memo titled “Assessment of the Counterinsurgency Effort in Iraq,” based on their travels around the country. To prepare the memo, he drew up a checklist of criteria for success, drawing on a similar list in the 1962 RAND report and inspired to do so by the living example he’d seen in Mosul.

The memo’s opening lines, which came right out of Galula, read:

“Military operations alone cannot defeat an insurgency because only economic development and political action can address most sources of disaffection. If military operations are not conducted consistent with political objectives or occur without economic development, they are certain to alienate the population further, reduce the amount of intelligence available to US and Iraqi security forces, and strengthen rather than weaken the enemy.”

By this standard, almost every American unit in Iraq was failing badly. McMaster’s recommendations: coordinate civil and military policy; allow former Baathists who had not engaged in criminal activity to work in the new Iraqi government (“This is a precondition for success,” he wrote, not long after Jerry Bremer issued his CPA order barring Baathists from official jobs); increase the commanders’ discretionary funds and make sure the money is directed at projects in stable neighborhoods; “enhance political legitimacy” of the new government by developing “a peaceful path for political reconciliation” of the warring sectarian factions; and, above all, “control [American] troop behavior and firepower.”

It was still early in the war for these ideas to circulate widely, much less to be enacted. At a recent Pentagon press conference, which most senior officers in Iraq watched or later heard about, General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had referred to the enemy as an insurgency, and Secretary Rumsfeld, standing at his side, brusquely admonished him, insisting that the resisters in Iraq were too disorganized to merit the i-word. Abizaid had once made the same mistake, prompting a similar scolding. He chose not to push the matter.

But McMaster was determined to push it, on his own authority if necessary, the first chance he could get.

His chance came in June 2004, when he was placed in command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. The unit of 5,200 soldiers was scheduled for deployment to Iraq the following February. In the meantime, they were set to train at Fort Carson, Colorado, and McMaster had his own ideas of how to do that.

The National Training Center had just begun setting up mock Iraqi villages to prepare the soldiers for some of the situations they’d soon encounter. McMaster did the same thing at Fort Carson, but with more intense and realistic scenarios, matching those that he’d seen played out in the real Iraq. He also distributed hundreds of copies of the COIN classics— Lawrence, Nagl, Galula—as well as Phebe Marr’s seminal book The Modern History of Iraq. He had a few of his troops, those with the aptitude and the rank to make use of it, take a rudimentary Arabic language course.

The regiment headed to Iraq in February 2005, assigned initially to South Baghdad Province. But McMaster soon received orders to redeploy to Tal Afar, a city of a quarter million people in Nineveh Province in northwestern Iraq. Tal Afar had been under Petraeus’s purview when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division; his troops had cleared the town of insurgents the previous November. But after the division left—replaced by a single brigade that was untrained and inexperienced for the task at hand—the insurgents returned and Tal Afar fell apart. The city emerged with alarming speed as a guerrilla training center for the most militant Sunni insurgents, a staging ground for attacks throughout northern Iraq, and a transit point for foreign fighters entering the country through Syria. By the time McMaster arrived, it was home to between five hundred and a thousand armed insurgents who controlled every local institution and terrorized the population.

In early July, with help from a brigade of the nearby 82nd Airborne and some Special Forces units, whose officers had gathered intelligence in advance, McMaster’s regiment launched an assault on the insurgent strongholds in Tal Afar. The fighting stretched into several pitched battles. By the end of September, the insurgents were defeated or in retreat.

Then came the hard part of the operation. Even while the fight was raging, McMaster and his top aides had contacted town leaders and tribal elders, gradually persuading them to provide intelligence on the insurgents and offering them assurances—in the face of much suspicion and doubt—that they would stick around until the town was secure.

McMaster also ordered the construction of an eight-foot-high wall around the city to keep insurgents from moving in and out. He spent lavish sums of money, from the commander’s discretionary fund, to restore basic services, to recruit and train local security forces, and to pay returning city workers. And, from the beginning, when it was extremely dangerous to do so, his troops worked, ate, and slept not in massive, fenced-in bases on the outskirts but in outposts that he’d set up alongside the people. That would be the only way to learn the people’s needs, earn their trust, fight the war the way McMaster had learned it needed to be fought.

It was the first classic multistaged counterinsurgency operation in the Iraq War, conducted with total independence from headquarters (as was every operation across the country, good, bad, or otherwise). And it was a model success, at least for the year that McMaster’s regiment remained.

Bill Hix and Kalev Sepp came through Tal Afar on their COIN Survey less than two months into the operation. They could tell even then that McMaster grasped the concept more deeply, and had figured out how to apply it more practically, than any other commander they’d met. Just as Petraeus in Mosul had convinced McMaster that counterinsurgency could work in Iraq, so McMaster in Tal Afar convinced Hix and Sepp that their agenda—getting General Casey to lay down a COIN strategy for all Iraq—was worth pressing.

•  •  •

During their travels for the COIN Survey, Sepp filled a dozen notebooks with his summaries and observations. From these notes and his own mental whirrings, Hix wrote a report, much of it while being flown in Casey’s helicopter from one locale to another. Back at headquarters, he packaged it into a ninety-minute briefing with PowerPoint slides and delivered it—first to Casey, then to Abizaid, along with their respective staff officers—without pause, never uttering so much as the same adjective twice.

His main conclusion was that most officers in the field weren’t getting any training back in the States for the kind of war that awaited them, so they should get at least a dose of preparation upon arriving in Iraq. Hence, the COIN Academy.

Hix and Sepp drew up the curriculum, basing it on the classic COIN literature (including Sepp’s “Best Practices” article), their experiences as Special Forces officers, the ideas bandied about at the workshops and conferences they’d recently attended (the academy was created before Petraeus’s conclave at Leavenworth but after Eliot Cohen’s at Basin Harbor and Sarah Sewall’s in Washington, DC), and, not least, the further lessons they’d learned about what worked and what didn’t from their COIN Survey.

Casey took the idea seriously. When each new rotation of troops arrived in Taji for the academy’s weeklong session, he made a personal appearance and delivered the opening talk in the form of a twelve-slide PowerPoint briefing that Hix and Sepp had written. The briefing constituted a new security strategy, titled “Iltizam Mushtarak—United Commitment.”

In tone and substance, the new strategy marked a stark contrast from Casey’s campaign plan of August 2004. The earlier plan’s guiding principle had been to provide security for the Iraqi elections, then turn over authority to the new government and get the American troops home as quickly as possible. In the new plan, the ultimate objective was still “transition to self-reliance” for the Iraqis, but the path laid out to get there was at once less fanciful and more ambitious.

The earlier plan had ticked off seven “key strategic tasks,” including “Protection of key Iraqi leaders” and “Protection of the political process, both Iraqi and UN, including support to the elections.” The new plan also cited seven tasks, but they fell under the heading “To Defeat an Insurgency”—which had not been a goal in the earlier plan—and they were very different in their particulars. They included the COIN benchmarks: “Deny the enemy sanctuary and freedom of movement,” “Build effective, legitimate governance,” “Meet population’s basic needs,” and—core to all the other tasks—“Protect the population.”

It was a barebones briefing book, not a detailed operational guide. But it aimed an arrow, it nudged the new crop of soldiers coming into Iraq, in a different direction from the Army’s traditional path.

•  •  •

When Dave Kilcullen came to Iraq in late February 2006, he spent several hours talking with some of these newly arrived junior officers: the American lieutenants, captains, and majors who were suddenly supposed to take the initiative and make the sorts of decisions that in a conventional war would be made by colonels. They’d read Casey’s new COIN strategy and understood its drift, but they were having trouble translating it into specifics.

“I get what we’re supposed to achieve,” one of them said, “but what are we supposed to do?”

When he got back to Washington, Kilcullen mulled over these conversations. He’d offered a few answers to the young officers, drawing on his experiences both as a COIN scholar and as a company commander in the Australian infantry. But the chats were too short and informal to delve deeply into the issues. Petraeus’s field manual would help a lot, but it was still in draft stages and wending its way through the Army bureaucracy; several months, possibly a year or more, would pass before the soldiers in Iraq could take a look. Meanwhile, they should have something with more detail than Casey’s latest guidance provided.

On Tuesday afternoon, March 28, Kilcullen went to the Pentagon for a scheduled meeting about Iraq with Mario Mancuso, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and counterterrorism. When he got to the office, he was told that Mancuso had been called away and the meeting would have to be rescheduled. It was four thirty, too late to go back across the river to the State Department. So Kilcullen settled into the Starbucks in Pentagon City, Virginia, pulled out the little black Moleskine notebook that he always carried with him, and, over the next forty-five minutes, jotted down some key points about COIN technique that the junior officers he’d met should know. It was a sketchy outline, filling just a couple of pages. Then he went home, spent some time with his son, put him to bed, cracked open a bottle of Laphroaig scotch, and typed up his notes, expanding them into a full-blown essay.

He kept his audience in mind: young lieutenants and captains who might be smart but had never heard of, much less perused, Galula, Kitson, or Lawrence; who, judging from his conversations with them, probably weren’t quite sure what “counterinsurgency” meant. Casey’s latest security strategy hadn’t defined the term. So, high up in the piece, Kilcullen filled this gap:

If you have not studied counterinsurgency theory, here it is in a nutshell: Counterinsurgency is a competition with the insurgent for the right to win the hearts, minds, and acquiescence of the population. You are being sent in because the insurgents, at their strongest, can defeat anything with less strength than you. But you have more combat power than you can or should use in most situations. Injudicious use of firepower creates blood feuds, homeless people, and societal disruption that fuels and perpetuates the insurgency . . . For your side to win, the people don’t have to like you, but they must respect you, accept that your actions benefit them, and trust your integrity and ability to deliver on promises, particularly regarding their security.

Then he ticked off his list of principles, “expressed as commandments, for clarity,” he wrote, adding that they were “really more like folklore,” so “apply them judiciously and skeptically.”

His first commandment: “Know your turf. Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion, and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader, and ancient grievance.”

The second: “Diagnose the problem. Who are the insurgents? What drives them?” COIN is “a competition between each side to mobilize the population in support of its agenda. So you must understand what motivates the people and how to mobilize them.” The most dangerous opponent “is not the psychopathic terrorist of Hollywood; it is the charismatic follow-me warrior who would make your best platoon leader. His followers are not misled or naïve; much of his success may be due to bad government policies or security forces that alienate the population.”

The third: “Organize for intelligence. In counterinsurgency, killing the enemy is easy. Finding him is often nearly impossible.”

And on the commandments went: form networks of alliances with local people one neighborhood at a time, avoid knee-jerk responses to provocations, follow your plan (“only attack the enemy when he gets in the way”)—each illustrated with specific steps that junior officers, company commanders, could take at their own initiative: precisely how to patrol, how to find a cultural adviser among your troops, how to approach local families, tribal chiefs, or community leaders.

Kilcullen finished writing at two thirty in the morning. He counted up the number of his commandments, saw that they totaled twenty-eight, so whimsically titled the piece “Twenty-eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency”—a play on the “Twenty-Seven Articles” that T. E. Lawrence had famously written for British officers helping Arab insurgents fend off the Ottoman occupiers in 1917.

He emailed the draft, along with a request for feedback, to some like-minded friends, among them John Nagl, Eliot Cohen, Janine Davidson, Hank Crumpton, T. X. Hammes, Frank Hoffman—the usual crowd, by this point. As the comments trickled in over the next two days, he modified a few of his points accordingly. On Sunday, April 2, he emailed the final draft—a compact essay, just short of three thousand words—to a wider set of colleagues, including some of the officers he’d met in Iraq, who, he was sure, would circulate it widely on the internet.

The memo went viral, and well beyond his circle of acquaintances, almost instantly. The editors of Small Wars Journal, an online magazine read mainly by soldiers and marines who were interested in this sort of thing, posted it on their site. So did the managers at CompanyCommand.com, a restricted forum, set up at the start of the decade by a couple of West Point graduates, to let junior officers exchange tips and ideas, mainly about leadership techniques. Hundreds of comments poured in to each site, some expressing agreement, others dissent or caveats, still others posing further questions.

On Monday, David Petraeus, who wasn’t on Kilcullen’s email list, wrote him a note saying that he’d read the essay and liked it a lot. Nagl sent a note to Crane, urging him to reprint the essay as an appendix to the field manual. (It appeared, somewhat rewritten, under the heading “A Guide for Action.”) Bill Darley, the editor of Military Review, came across it as well and told Kilcullen he’d like to publish it in the next issue. A couple of days later, the editor of Marine Corps Gazette asked if he could print it, too. Darley, who wanted as many American armed forces as possible to read it, regardless of their service, granted permission, as long as the Marines credited the Army journal; the Gazette’s editor complied.

The same week that Kilcullen circulated “Twenty-eight Articles,” Military Review published the essay by Nagl, Crane, Cohen, and Horvath on COIN’s “principles, imperatives, and paradoxes,” giving Army readers a taste of the field manual to come; George Packer, one of the journalists who’d attended Petraeus’s workshop in February, published a long piece in the New Yorker about H. R. McMaster’s strategy at Tal Afar; the RAND Corporation republished the report on its 1962 COIN symposium, with the roundtable discussion by Galula, Kitson, Lansdale, and the rest; and, not least, Praeger’s paperback division reissued Galula’s long-out-of-print Counterinsurgency Warfare (with a new foreword by John Nagl), prompting Petraeus to order 1,500 copies and to make the book required reading for every officer-student at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College.

For the first time in decades, counterinsurgency was coming into vogue.

•  •  •

Back in Iraq, the scene was rapidly deteriorating. Sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites was spiraling out of control. Attacks on American troops by insurgents of all stripes were soaring, mainly through the use of roadside bombs, which were exploding at the rate of six hundred per week. Al Qaeda fighters were flowing freely into the country across the Syrian border. The new US-backed Iraqi government had yet to pass serious laws or make an imprint on society. And, notwithstanding the pockets of success like McMaster’s or the doctrinal maneuverings of Hix and Sepp, the top American commanders couldn’t get a handle on the chaos.

General George Casey thought he had a good idea why. Casey probably knew as much as anyone about the intricate workings of the US Army. He could mobilize troops and array them on a conventional battlefield, at least a simulated one, with impressive proficiency. But he was, as a few of his aides put it, an “iterative thinker.” Faced with a tactical challenge, he would study all the relevant facts and materials very carefully and, more often than not, come up with a solid judgment—if the situation allowed for such a thing, the right decision—on what step to take next. But he wasn’t so adept at seeing how the game played out a few moves ahead or how his assessment and decision fit into a broader strategic context.

That spring, traveling around Iraq, reading the various commanders’ memos and intelligence reports, Casey had an epiphany: the war had degenerated into a battle for political and economic power among many ethnic and sectarian factions; in other words, the enemy was no longer an “insurgency.” That being the case, he inferred that it no longer made sense to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy.

And so, Casey reverted to the only alternative he knew: his original campaign plan, which called for turning over authority to the Iraqi government and getting American troops out as quickly as possible. In fact, since there was little he thought he could do in this increasingly complex setting, it was best to accelerate the withdrawal.

He wrote a briefing for a new security strategy. It had the same title as the previous one, “Iltizam Mushtarak—United Commitment—,” but nearly all references to counterinsurgency—the word or the concept—were deleted. On a page headlined “Strategy,” the key passage read:

“This strategy is shaped by a central tenet: enduring strategic success in Iraq will be achieved by Iraqis. Our approach will increasingly place the GOI [Government of Iraq] and its institutions in the lead across all lines of operation, first with Coalition monitoring and support, and then with progressively less support until they can govern effectively without our assistance.”

A timetable of “projections and goals” envisioned the Iraqi army taking the lead in all military operations, and the Iraqi government taking political control in every provincial district, by the end of the year, an astonishingly short time period.

The briefing’s final slide listed eleven “Commanding General’s FARs” (the Army’s slang acronym for “Flat-Ass Rules”). The first: “Make security and safety your first priorities”—meaning your, the American soldier’s, security and safety. If there was any doubt on this point, the last rule on the list cleared it up: “Take care of yourself and take care of each other.” The rules mentioned nothing about protecting the Iraqi population, providing basic services, or enhancing the Iraqi government’s legitimacy.

Hix and Sepp might have challenged this list and the strategic shift it reflected, but they’d left Iraq soon after the COIN Academy started up. Sepp had resumed teaching in Monterey; Hix had been rotated to a yearlong national-security fellowship at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The whole group of outside COIN consultants, the “doctors without orders,” had been disbanded with their departures.

So Casey did his own analysis, and he fell back on his tendency toward “iterative thinking.” He took the word “counterinsurgency” too literally. Someone like Hix or Sepp might have pointed out that COIN was closely related to the concept of stability operations. In some manuals, COIN was a subset of stability ops; in any case, their principles and methods were similar. There may not have been a monolithic insurgency to counter; in fact, there never had been. But Iraq in the spring of 2006 was the very picture of instability, which a large foreign army, like the one the United States had in place, might be able to help stabilize, if its commanders were so inclined and its soldiers properly instructed.

Casey’s move away from COIN, stability operations, peacekeeping, or whatever anyone wanted to call it, wasn’t entirely a misunderstanding or an oversight. It was clear to those around him that Casey had never been comfortable with the COIN doctrine’s full implications. From the beginning of his command, he’d been, and still was, under constant pressure from Rumsfeld to lower America’s profile in Iraq, to ease the troops out of the fight and pave the way for their complete withdrawal. By contrast, COIN demanded, at least in its initial phases, a higher profile, an immersion in the area where the fighting was most intense, and a prolonged presence in the country. Casey was not the type of general to buck orders from Washington. More to the point, though, his instincts in these matters—stemming from his traditional training and reinforced by his unhappy time in Bosnia—were in tune with Rumsfeld’s inclinations.

Finally, Casey was above all an Army man, and the Iraq War was draining the Army: recruitment and reenlistment rates were declining; the budget was getting eaten away by the demand for repairs and spare parts. Doubling down on the commitment to Iraq would carry too many risks. Even those who wanted to go that route acknowledged that it might not work, and in the short run, it would just drain the Army further.

Some of Casey’s staff officers found his switch, and its logic, bewildering. True, the insurgents had splintered and proliferated into several warring groups. But the big gap in Casey’s analysis—the big, developing story in Iraq that he somehow seemed to miss—was that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government was one of these warring groups. The interior ministry’s police forces weren’t guardians of public order; they were death squads whose officers were kidnapping and assassinating Sunnis in broad daylight. The health ministry’s guards were refusing to treat—in some cases, they were murdering—wounded Sunnis in their emergency wards. The American soldiers and marines were the only forces, if there were any at all, that could prevent Iraq from plunging into full-blown ethnic cleansing or cataclysmic civil war.

This crisis also had a regional dimension. If the violence did escalate to civil war, the Shiite regime in Iran might feel compelled to come to the aid of its Iraqi neighbors. The Saudis were already threatening to come in on the side of the Sunnis; if they did, Turkey would find it hard to resist clamping down on the Kurds in northern Iraq to keep them from fomenting rebellion among its own fledgling Kurdish militias.

An Army major named Joel Rayburn was the most outspoken of the officers waving a red flag. A strategic analyst in General Abizaid’s advisory group at Central Command’s headquarters, Rayburn had been H. R. McMaster’s political adviser in Tal Afar, where he saw firsthand how the shrewd application of American military power could suppress an insurgency, restore order, and alter the politics of an entire city or district. The methods that McMaster used in Tal Afar, he thought, could alter the dynamics, or at least tamp down the violence, throughout Iraq. In any case, he was certain that accelerating an American troop withdrawal amid such rampant violence would unleash disaster.

McMaster had met Rayburn during a brief visit to West Point just as the Iraq War was starting. Rayburn was an instructor in the History Department. A former cadet himself, class of 1992, he’d gone to graduate school at Texas A&M University and written his dissertation on British policy in the Middle East. His study of Iraqi culture and history was what prompted McMaster to offer him the job as his political adviser.

Once Rayburn left Tal Afar and moved on to CentCom headquarters, this background informed his critique of Casey’s new policy. Both Casey and Abizaid held the view that they—the American occupiers—were the main source of the violence in Iraq; that once they withdrew, the insurgents would be without a cause and would thus eventually fade away. Casey would often trot out a joke for the long string of senators, congressmen, and diplomats who came through Baghdad for a fact-finding tour. “You know, houseguests are like fish,” he’d say. “They stink after two or three days. We’ve been in Iraq for three years now, and we’re starting to stink.”

To Rayburn’s mind, there was some truth to this. At its beginnings, the insurgency was aimed primarily at the American occupiers, and if the uprisings had been nipped in the bud (an action that would have required the American commanders to recognize it as an insurgency), things might have gone very differently. But at this point, it was unrealistic to expect the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security. They lacked the capacity and—since the government itself was a faction in the emerging civil war—the desire to do so. If the American troops departed, only militias and criminals would fill the vacuum.

A handful of staff officers felt the same way Rayburn did, but they saw their jobs as executing the commander’s policies, not as offering their own opinion, unless someone higher up asked them to express it, and no one did. Which made Rayburn all the more impassioned and insistent.

Abizaid agreed with some of Rayburn’s analysis, but not with his conclusions. Like Casey, with whom he spoke on the phone almost every day from CentCom headquarters, he felt the same pressures from Rumsfeld—and he also harbored the same skepticism about COIN. He, too, had graduated from West Point, class of 1973, with a concentration in Sosh, history, and English literature; he then signed up with Ranger units and fought the small wars in Grenada and Bosnia. Unlike Casey, he didn’t come away from Bosnia with a distaste for stability operations. But unlike Petraeus, he didn’t think Bosnia’s lessons were relevant to Iraq.

The son of Lebanese immigrants, Abizaid had earned a master’s in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard, studied Arabic at Jordan University in Amman, and traveled extensively in the region. In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, he was deployed not to the south in Kuwait but to northern Iraq, where he helped protect Kurdish rebels from the wrath of Saddam’s henchmen; he witnessed the seething hatred between the Kurds and Arabs. Before then, he’d spent a tour as an operations officer for the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, just as Hezbollah’s militants were beginning to attack Israeli occupiers with suicide bombs; much later, he talked with Israeli officers who, at the end of their eighteen-year adventure in southern Lebanon, wondered why they’d stayed so long.

At CentCom, first as deputy commander, then as the top man, Abizaid recognized the sectarian conflict earlier than most; he just didn’t think that Americans could do much to settle it. The peacekeepers in Bosnia had deployed there with the warring parties’ consent, under NATO auspices in Central Europe, where NATO had legitimacy. Nothing of the sort was true in Iraq, where the people, like many Muslims in the region, deeply distrusted foreign occupiers.

Abizaid read Rayburn’s memos, some of them, anyway, and passed them on to Casey. But neither general felt the inclination or the need to pay much attention. Rayburn was just a major after all.

•  •  •

Casey had a harder time ignoring Peter Chiarelli, an Army three-star general who happened to be his deputy.

Chiarelli had come to the job on January 17, 2006, brimming with enthusiasm for the adventure ahead. Five weeks later, Sunni militants blew up the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Shia militants struck back, chaos erupted everywhere, and Chiarelli’s life turned into a ceaseless barrage of frustration and failure.

Until then, he thought that he’d found the magic formula for fighting this kind of war, the same formula that other members of the West Point Sosh mafia had come upon. Chiarelli had taught in the Social Science Department in the 1980s and loved it so much that he stayed an extra year beyond the mandatory three. He hadn’t been to the Point as a cadet; he’d been an ROTC student at Seattle University. His time at Sosh marked his first exposure to a cadre of officers who were also thinkers, who valued and debated ideas about history and political theory and their relevance to national security.

Later he studied for a year at the National War College in an interagency program where he discussed these issues with civilians from the State Department and the Agency for International Development. He hadn’t thought much before about the role that aid and development played in security policy; he was intrigued with the notion and impressed with the technical knowledge of the officials he met.

Chiarelli was and always had been a tank officer. He’d spent several years in Germany preparing for the titanic battle between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with its sweeping formations, synchronized maneuvers, and decisive breakthroughs across the enemy lines. Once, when he was a junior officer, during an exercise in northern Africa, he gazed across the plains and exclaimed, “God, this is such great tank territory!”

But when he took command of the 1st Cavalry Division in the spring of 2004, just as the insurgency was gaining strength, Chiarelli quickly realized that the lessons he’d learned at Sosh and the National War College would be the most relevant.

On his first trip to Iraq that March, the standard ten-day “predeployment survey” for general officers, he met a colonel named Kurt Fuller, a no-nonsense infantryman’s infantryman, the sort of guy, Chiarelli reflected, that you’d like to put in a glass box with a sign that read “Break in case of war.” Yet the point that Colonel Fuller impressed upon him most emphatically was the need to start up and maintain the main power plant in Dora, a neighborhood in southern Baghdad that was rife with Sunni militants. Fuller, a brigade commander with the 82nd Airborne, had gone to the trouble of arranging for a West Point engineer, a lieutenant from another unit, to be transferred to Dora precisely for that purpose. He told Chiarelli that he wished he had ten of those guys.

Chiarelli was struck that a tough soldier like Fuller thought that one of his most important tasks was getting a power plant up and running, that one of the key indicators of his success was how many of its four smokestacks were blowing steam. Fuller’s point was that the way to win over the Iraqi people, to lure them away from the insurgents, was to provide basic services—and electricity was one of the services they most sorely lacked.

The 1st Cav would be stationed in Baghdad, where the biggest challenge was dealing with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia had taken over a teeming slum of two-and-a-half million people, called Sadr City, after his father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who’d been murdered five years earlier by gunmen of Saddam’s Baath Party. Chiarelli noticed that one way the son held on to power was to keep electricity pumping in Sadr City twenty-four hours a day. It was the only place in Baghdad, one of the few places in all Iraq, where this was the case, and he did it in part by draining electricity from other stations. It seemed that Fuller was right. If Sadr could gain favor, or at least submission, from the people this way, maybe Chiarelli could, too.

Chiarelli went back to Fort Hood, Texas, where the twenty thousand troops in his division were getting set to deploy. He told his staff what he’d learned during his visit, then took them on a five-day tour of nearby Austin for briefings on how to run a city from the managers of the municipal power and sanitation companies. The managers agreed to keep open a line of communication 24/7 to help the troops deal with any technical problems they confronted.

Meanwhile, Chiarelli read all the counterinsurgency books he could get hold of, and he studied carefully the reports on what Petraeus had done in Mosul. The two hadn’t known each other at West Point; Petraeus had come back to teach just as Chiarelli went off to Germany. But they shared the Sosh connection—the Lincoln Brigade was still very much functioning—so Chiarelli would frequently call Petraeus to discuss the issues, too.

Several months into his command, Chiarelli and his aide-de-camp, Major Patrick Michaelis, conducted an analysis pinpointing the locations of all the violent incidents in the 1st Cav’s area of operation: roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenade attacks, sniper shootings, murders. It turned out that the neighborhoods with the heaviest violence were also those with the gravest shortfalls in services—not just electricity but also water, sewage, sanitation, trash pickup: the basic elements of civilized life.

To illustrate the connection, Michaelis and the staff drew a map and overlaid it with two transparencies: one with dots showing the density of attacks, the other with dots showing where services were most lacking. The first set of dots lined up with the second set almost precisely.

Chiarelli came up with a concept: SWET, standing for sewage, water, electricity, and trash-collection. Provide those services, he believed, and the insurgency will wobble.

When he first arrived in Baghdad, the Bush administration had allocated $18.6 billion for Iraqi reconstruction, but Chiarelli soon realized that the program was disastrously ill conceived. The first few contracts had gone to large American corporations, mainly Bechtel Group, which constructed or refurbished gigantic power plants and sewage treatment centers—but it neglected to string the wires or lay the pipes to get the electricity or clean water from the plant to the cities’ neighborhoods.

Small scale seemed a better way to go, with local labor and integrated civil-military teams supplying security. Chairelli realized that he and his staff would have to organize these projects themselves.

On August 3, Chiarelli put his plan into motion. With a mere $100 million that he’d managed to wrest from the American embassy, he and his men moved into Sadr City and hired eighteen thousand men to build a landfill and lay PVC pipe to remove the ankle-high sewage from the streets.

It was a risky move. Four months earlier, on April 4, nineteen of his soldiers had been ambushed while on patrol in Sadr City. They’d called in support, but so did the Mahdi Army’s black-clad snipers. In the ensuing two-hour firefight, seven of Chiarelli’s men were killed, more than sixty wounded. The fact that five hundred of Sadr’s militants died in the battle did little to buoy his spirits. This time, Chiarelli assembled plenty of backup armor, ready to move in if the militants tried to disrupt his SWET campaign. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t. The eighteen thousand workers seemed happy to be earning some money. Services improved. The slum stayed calm.

The calm lasted for a few weeks. Then General Casey and the US ambassador, John Negroponte, decided that the money would be better spent on training the new Iraqi army. Embassy officials had promised Chiarelli several hundred million more dollars to rebuild Sadr City if the first installment proved worthwhile. But that was before Negroponte arrived. He’d been in Iraq for only a couple of weeks when he made the decision to reroute the funds, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Casey, too, had only recently arrived as commander of US forces in Iraq, so he was inclined to support Negroponte.

With the money gone, the workers laid off, and the cleanup projects left half-finished, the Mahdi Army resumed its attacks. The 1st Cav responded in kind and repelled the militias with force. But Chiarelli knew they’d be back, probably with new fighters recruited from the families and friends of the ones his men had killed.

It was unclear whether Chiarelli’s methods would have produced results much more enduring. James “Spike” Stephenson, an AID official in Baghdad whom he frequently consulted on the nuts and bolts of reconstruction, was supportive of the SWET campaign but also skeptical. What would happen, he’d ask Chiarelli, when the workers in Sadr City finished laying the pipes and cleaning the streets? These were temp jobs, useful as far as they went, but they had no spin-off effect, nothing to sustain long-term employment.

In the spring of 2005, the 1st Cav rotated back to Fort Hood. Chiarelli was frustrated that his experiment had been thwarted at a crucial moment. He and his aide-de-camp, Major Michaelis, worked up a PowerPoint briefing, with the overlays displaying the correlation between violence and the absence of services. Chiarelli delivered it during a commander’s session at Fort Leavenworth. General Wallace was in charge, and he’d already instituted some of the reforms that Petraeus would build on in the coming months, one of which was the revitalization of Military Review. Bill Darley, the magazine’s editor, attended Chiarelli’s briefing and approached him afterward.

“You have to write this up,” Darley told him. “This could be the most important article we’ve ever published.” Chiarelli put Darley in touch with Michaelis, who reshaped the briefing into an article. It was published in the July–August issue and, along with Kalev Sepp’s piece on best practices from the issue before, bolstered the sense inside the still nascent COIN community that these ideas might have real value in this war.

•  •  •

When Chiarelli returned to Iraq with a third star as Casey’s deputy, he was determined to use his new powers to give SWET another chance. But the resistance proved overwhelming—from Casey, from a few subordinate commanders, and especially from the Iraqis.

The Samarra bombing in February was discouraging enough; Chiarelli sensed that it would set off a steep spiral of sectarian bloodshed. But compounding this funk was the American response. Many of his fellow officers dealt with the violence the only way they knew how: by storming the city and killing or capturing everyone who might be an insurgent, which usually meant all Iraqi men of military age.

The brigade commander in Samarra, Colonel Michael Steele of the 101st Airborne (Petraeus’s old division, which, in his absence, had changed), was particularly aggressive, having lectured his men before they came to Iraq, “Anytime you fight—anytime you fight—you always kill the other son of a bitch! You are the hunter, the predator; you are looking for the prey.”

Once when Chiarelli came to see Steele, he brought with him the leader of the local police commando squad, an Iraqi two-star general named Adnan Thabit. Steele refused to let Thabit have a seat, until Chiarelli ordered him to. (Steele was later given a written reprimand after soldiers in his brigade killed four Iraqi men on an island in the Tigris River. The soldiers testified that Steele had told them to make no distinction between combatants and civilians. He denied the charge, but it was clear that he’d sown a toxic climate.)

The Steeles of the Army might have reassessed their instincts had there been orders from the top to do so. But Casey issued no such orders, despite the opening of the COIN Academy just a few months earlier and the revised security strategy that went with it.

Chiarelli was most flustered, though, by the Iraqi government. He’d order a raid on an insurgent safe house in Sadr City, and, by the time his men got there, the insurgents were gone. He’d authorize money for a hospital in western Baghdad, then discover that the money had gone unspent. He’d give money to the ministry of finance for reconstruction projects, then see the projects grind to a halt, half-completed. He’d find out that some interior ministry police were torturing Sunni detainees, order the police to be fired and the torture to stop, then hear that the miscreants had been rehired and the practice resumed.

At first he blamed the problems on miscommunication and incompetence, another instance of weak governance, which American money and expert training could help cure. Gradually, though, he concluded that, at least in these matters, the Iraqi government was performing quite capably: the problem was that its leaders wanted all these bad things to happen; they were responsible for making them happen.

Wiretaps revealed that Muqtada Sadr’s lieutenants had been tipped off just before an American raid got under way—not by double agents inside the Iraqi security forces but by top aides to the Shiite prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, perhaps by Maliki himself. Maliki’s power base rested in part on Sadr, so, regardless of what the Americans wanted, Maliki’s administration would protect him. Leaders in the ministry of health were deliberately withholding money from hospitals in Sunni neighborhoods because ethnic cleansing was their policy. Finance ministry officials weren’t mismanaging construction money; they were pocketing it. It wasn’t a few bad cops who were torturing Sunnis; it was senior officials in the interior ministry. Worse still, when ballistics experts tracked the arc of rockets or mortars fired on US troop positions, it turned out on several occasions that the weapons had been launched from inside some of those ministries’ compounds.

By the late spring, the violence was out of control. Some mornings, the streets were littered with dead bodies, most of them young men who had been abducted and murdered the night before, many executed in the same fashion: shot in the head, their hands tied behind their backs. This, it was soon too clear, was the signature of Shia police—the government’s official, uniformed police—on their rampage to murder Sunnis.

Chiarelli’s staff marked the locations of these killings on a map. He then took the evidence to Maliki and demanded that the culprits be punished. The prime minister looked at the map and said calmly, “This isn’t so bad. It was much worse under Saddam.”

That was the last straw. Chiarelli was set to crack down on the ministries and use the punishment as leverage against Maliki. But Casey wouldn’t let him. The next time Chiarelli tried to move a company into Sadr City to storm a safe house where roadside bombs were reportedly being assembled, a checkpoint guard ordered him to retreat. Chiarelli called Casey, who insisted that he obey the order.

Casey’s mantras were “We can’t want democracy more than the Iraqis do” and “Iraqi problems demand Iraqi solutions.” Reasonable principles, up to a point; but in the meantime, American troops were getting killed, Iraqi civilians were getting massacred, the country was falling apart, and, if it collapsed completely, the region might well follow.

The war was also going badly in a strictly military way. As part of his new post-COIN strategy, Casey was ordering US battalions and brigades that had cleared a neighborhood or village of insurgents to turn over the area to Iraqi battalions and brigades as quickly as possible. As the commander in charge of day-to-day military operations, Chiarelli was responsible for executing the order, and the results were almost always disastrous. The Iraqi forces weren’t yet up to the task. In many cases, they would surrender their ground at the first sign of a fight. When an Iraqi unit was ordered to relocate from one region to another (say, from Mosul to Baghdad), many of the soldiers would simply stay home; the unit would arrive on the scene with as little as half its original troop strength. And so the insurgents would return and take back their old patch of turf almost instantly.

Chiarelli considered resigning, a permissible, even honorable course of action under the circumstances. He’d won his current assignment as the result of a resignation. Major General John Batiste had been slated to be Casey’s deputy at the start of January, but he quit the Army in protest of the way the war was being handled broadly. Three months later, he joined a group of five other retired generals who were publicly calling on Rumsfeld to resign, citing in particular the secretary’s refusal to send as many troops as his generals had advised and Jerry Bremer’s order to disband the Iraqi army after Saddam’s ouster. There was no way the American military could complete its mission under those crippling conditions, the retired generals were saying. Chiarelli was now feeling similar pangs.

In the end, though, Chiarelli stayed on. First, he noticed that the “revolt of the generals,” as some news stories called the petition by Batiste and the others, had no effect on policy; in fact, it aroused anger from many junior officers, who wondered why the generals had held their tongues for so long, why they hadn’t made their case to the politicians more fervently or resigned in protest at the time, when their dissent might have mattered. Many of these officers had read H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, and they felt that they were witnessing a replay of the Joint Chiefs’ passivity on Vietnam.

More to the point, Chiarelli wasn’t the protesting or resigning type. He’d signed on to this assignment, to this war. He valued the Army’s hierarchy and its ethos of loyalty. He gnashed his teeth over Casey nearly every day, but he always spoke up on his behalf and never—at least at the time—spoke out against him.

Friends of Chiarelli’s regarded him that summer as a tragic figure: an officer who was trying to do the right thing but was shackled by association to a stubborn commander and a misguided policy.

How stubborn and misguided was beginning to be noticed even in Washington.

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