We Are Pulling in Different Directions

14. “We Are Pulling in Different Directions”

In the summer of 2006, political pressure grew to do something about Iraq. Most of it came from Congress, where Democrats had always been skeptical of the war’s rationale and Republicans were fearful of huge losses in the upcoming midterm elections as a result of the war’s dimming prospects. And so the leaders of Congress did what they often do when disaster looms and it’s risky to take a firm stance: they appointed a blue-ribbon panel of prominent Americans to study the matter.

In this case, they named ten eminences to serve on what they called the Iraq Study Group, which came to be known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, after its chairmen, James Baker and Lee Hamilton. Baker had served as White House chief of staff and secretary of state when Bush’s father was president; Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, had cochaired a similar panel to investigate the intelligence failure that brought on the attacks of September 11.

Baker was particularly close to the Bush family: he’d been not only George H. W. Bush’s campaign manager but also the chief organizer of the effort to block a recount of suspicious ballots in Florida in the 2000 presidential election; his success in this effort put Bush’s son over the top in his race against Vice President Al Gore and thus into the White House. It was widely assumed that Baker’s mandate now was to find some delicate way out of Iraq and, yet again, rescue George W. Bush from disaster.

All spring and into the summer, the panel, along with twenty experts hired as staff, held hearings or otherwise met with more than 170 senior administration officials, military officers, legislators, private specialists, war correspondents, and—during a five-day trip to Iraq that began on August 30—Iraqi officials.

It was on the plane ride to Baghdad that one of the panelists, William Perry, came up with a novel idea. Perry wasn’t the only member of the group with experience in defense issues: Baker had negotiated Russian-American arms-reduction treaties; Robert Gates had been a career CIA analyst who’d risen, during Bush Senior’s presidency, to the post of the Agency’s director and was, before then, deputy national-security adviser in the White House; Leon Panetta had inspected the Defense Department’s accounts as Clinton’s budget director; Lawrence Eagleburger had been a longtime State Department official; Charles Robb, a former senator and governor from Virginia, had been a marine who commanded a rifle company in Vietnam. But Perry was the only member who’d worked for several years at high levels inside the Pentagon, most recently as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense. In part for that reason, he was emerging as the panel’s de facto leader on substantive matters of defense policy.

Through the first few months of their work, the panelists were basically divided between those who wanted to stay the course and those who wanted to pull out of Iraq more quickly. Perry was initially in the latter camp, but on the way to Iraq, he started to mull over a third option.

Noting the front-page news reports on the spiraling violence and the slaughter of civilians in the streets of Baghdad, Perry wondered aloud to his colleagues whether it might be a good idea to send in a lot more American troops, purely as a short-term measure—say, for a single yearlong tour of duty. He had no desire to prolong the war; he still saw the panel’s mandate as devising a way to cut it short. But he felt that the United States had an obligation to bring the violence under control if that was possible. A brief but massive spurt—a surge—of troops could make that happen, probably not across all Iraq (he figured, correctly, that the Army and Marines didn’t have enough additional troops to control such a vast swath of territory) but perhaps in Baghdad, where most of the violence was taking place, and one other city. After a semblance of order was restored, he argued, then the pullout could begin.

Perry’s colleagues thought the idea made sense, was certainly worth considering. Bob Gates and Chuck Robb were particularly intrigued.

On August 31, for its first session in Iraq, the group met with General Casey at Camp Victory, his headquarters in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Casey went through a shortened version of the briefing on his campaign plan. During the question-and-answer period, Perry laid out his idea for a short-term troop surge and asked the general for his response. Casey said that he didn’t need more troops; there was nothing he could do with them, and, besides, they would only raise America’s profile as occupiers, thus fueling the resistance.

Perry suspected that Casey might be reciting the Pentagon’s party line—he knew of Rumsfeld’s fierce position on the issue—so, after the briefing, he pulled the general aside for a private chat, off the record, just the two of them.

“George,” Perry said, “if I were the secretary of defense and I came to you and said, ‘I’m going to give you thirty thousand more troops for a limited time,’ could you use them?”

Casey stood firm. He really couldn’t, he assured the former secretary, and reemphasized his point that more troops might do more harm than good.

For all his experience, Perry wasn’t going to presume that he knew more or had a better grasp of Iraq’s security issues than the top commander on the ground. So he withdrew his proposal for a surge. The other panelists dropped it, too, except for Chuck Robb, who continued to support the idea.

The report, published with great fanfare the following December, turned out to be a mishmash, as blue-panel reports often are. Its critique of the present course was clear, and devastating. The situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating,” with 40 percent of Iraqi citizens living in “highly insecure” provinces. Iraq’s military lacked leadership, trained personnel, and equipment. Meanwhile, of the one thousand US officials in the Baghdad embassy, just thirty-three of them spoke Arabic, only six of them fluently. American policy all around was “not working.”

But the report presented contradictory proposals for how to fix the problem. The authors called for a “diplomatic offensive” to push or lure Iraq’s neighbors into imposing stabilizing measures—but they also concluded that nearly all of these neighbors had a vested interest in keeping Iraq unstable. The report hedged even on the core issue at hand: whether America should send more troops or withdraw the ones who were there more quickly. The key passage read: “By the first quarter of 2008 . . . all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq. At that time, US combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces.” It didn’t take a keen reader to notice the pertinent verb: “could.” The troops could be out of Iraq by a particular date, but the commission skirted the question of whether they should.

Still, Robb insisted that the report at least mention the idea of a surge. So, four-fifths into the text (on page fifty of its sixty-two pages), after a line noting that more troops “could conceivably worsen those aspects of the security problem that are fed by the view that the US presence is intended to be a long-term ‘occupation’” (a précis of Casey’s argument), Perry added the following sentence:

“We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the US commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective.”

Bush dismissed the report, and not just because of its vague equivocations. The thrust of the report was a plea to prepare for withdrawal and to step up diplomacy—and Bush had no interest in either course.

However, that single sentence of conditional support for a surge would resonate in the weeks ahead and serve to legitimize (“Even the Baker-Hamilton report says . . .”) what Bush wound up approving.

•  •  •

The commission had one other effect on American military policy, more accidental but no less dramatic.

On September 3, the next-to-last day of their stay in Iraq, the panelists heard a briefing by Lieutenant General Pete Chiarelli. It was a sweeping lecture about the nature of this kind of warfare and the specific challenges of the war in Iraq: why it couldn’t be won by military means alone; the correlation between areas with high violence and areas with a lack of jobs and basic services, and thus the need to undermine the insurgents’ appeal by providing the people with sewage, water, electricity, and trash removal (the SWET formula). Finally, Chiarelli emphasized the big lesson that he’d learned only in the previous few months: that Maliki’s government itself was fueling much of the violence and that no strategy, new or old, would have much effect until the American commanders used their strength and leverage to make him change its ways.

He said nothing about his own attempts to pressure Maliki, or about Casey’s orders to leave the prime minister alone. Chiarelli valued loyalty and hierarchy, and he wasn’t going to use this occasion, however tempting, to tout his own wisdom or to raise doubts about the top commander’s. When Perry posed the question he’d asked Casey—whether another thirty thousand troops would have any use—Chiarelli again stood with his boss, but with a qualifier: his point (though he didn’t state it quite so bluntly) was that, as long as Maliki kept actively preventing efforts to put down the Shiite militias, as long as he kept thwarting America’s mission in this war, there was no point in sending still more soldiers here to fight, kill, and die.

•  •  •

Chiarelli’s feelings on this point—his anger and bitterness at Iraq’s political leaders for failing to do their part in what, ultimately, was a fight for their country—found full analytical expression in a briefing worked up around the same time by his political adviser, Celeste Ward.

Ward, thirty-five and blond, was another civilian woman, rising through the male-dominated military world, whose gender, youth, and looks deceived most officers at first sizing. As an undergraduate at Stanford University in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she’d studied aeronautical engineering and won an internship at NASA. After taking a course called Technology and National Security, she switched interests from rocket science to nuclear arms control, earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, then interned in the Pentagon’s nuclear policy shop before getting hired as a cost analyst, examining strategic weapons programs, at the Congressional Budget Office. After the 9/11 attacks, Ward turned to more urgent aspects of national security and, as the occupation of Iraq got under way, nabbed a job with the Coalition Provisional Authority, helping to set up a new Iraqi defense ministry. Within a few weeks, she contracted a kidney infection and had to be flown home for surgery. After recovering, she did another brief stint in the Pentagon, where a colleague recommended her to Philip Zelikow, who had just been named the State Department’s counselor and needed a special assistant. Throughout 2005, Ward accompanied Zelikow on all his trips to Iraq. At the end of the year, she learned that Chiarelli was about to rotate into Baghdad as the new corps commander. She’d never met him but wanted to be in the action, so she sought him out and sat for an interview in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Pentagon City, after which he asked her to be his political adviser.

They both headed to Baghdad at the start of 2006 with a sense of optimism. The Iraqi parliamentary elections had taken place in December, just as Chiarelli and Ward were preparing for deployment, and the hope—shared by most of those in command and high office—was that a competent, legitimate Iraqi government would set the stage for stability.

By late summer, Ward was at least as dispirited as Chiarelli and, if anything, more cynical about the war’s prospects. What Chiarelli recognized, at least initially, as a serious problem that had to be confronted, Ward saw as a fundamental rift that called into question the rationale for continuing the fight.

She came to this realization while reading a long-out-of-print RAND Corporation monograph on the Vietnam War called Bureaucracy Does Its Thing, written in 1972 by Robert Komer, the ex-CIA officer and Johnson-era Pentagon official—known as “Blowtorch Bob”—who’d run the CORDS program, the most intensive but still brief and halfhearted effort to fight the Viet Cong through counterinsurgency techniques. Komer’s paper criticized US policy on the same grounds that David Petraeus, Andrew Krepinevich, and John Nagl would later cover in their PhD dissertations: that the Army was trying to fight an insurgency war with conventional methods and was institutionally incapable of doing otherwise. But Komer offered two other reasons for what he saw as an impending American defeat: first, the South Vietnamese government and military were simply “inadequate to the task”; second, the United States hadn’t used its power—its half million troops and tens of billions of dollars in aid—as “leverage” to make the local leaders institute reforms and deal more effectively with the threat they faced. This may have been “the most important single reason why the US achieved so little for so long in Vietnam,” Komer wrote. “We became their prisoners, rather than they ours.”

Komer’s insight about Saigon circa 1970 resonated with Ward’s own thinking about Baghdad in 2006. To win an insurgency war, the United States and the Iraqi officials it was protecting had to want the same basic things. If they didn’t, and if the United States lacked the ability or will to make those officials change, the war was probably hopeless from the outset.

This became the core theme of Ward’s briefing, titled “Analysis of Iraqi and Coalition End States”: that the US-led coalition and Iraq’s major political factions—very much including the Maliki government—had “considerably different,” often incompatible, visions of what Iraq should look like after the war was over.

In one of her PowerPoint charts, Ward listed the various “lines of operation” found in most briefings about counterinsurgency or American strategy in Iraq—security, governance, economic development, and so forth—and then noted that the American and Iraqi views diverged drastically on every line. The coalition envisioned, in the words of its own official policy statement on the matter, an “Iraq at peace with its neighbors and an ally in the War on Terror,” a “representative government that respects the human rights of all Iraqis,” and a security force sufficiently strong “to maintain domestic order and to deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorism.” By contrast, the Iraqi government, judging from its own behavior, was an instrument of sectarian warfare; its security forces were dominated by Shia militias, which persistently restrained US forces from going after known Shia terrorists; and its economic ministries systematically withheld services from Sunni citizens while lavishing Western aid on programs that benefitted only Shiites.

“The result,” Ward wrote on one slide, “is a real and growing tension between the Coalition and its nominal ‘partner’—we are pulling in different directions.”

Nor were the ambitions of Iraq’s rival factions for power any closer to the coalition’s vision of a new Iraq. The Kurds were explicitly demanding autonomy. The Sunni Arabs, excluded from power, were hell-bent on fragmenting the country so that they could control at least a chunk of it—even to the point of allying with foreign jihadists, if just to protect themselves from, and retaliate against, Shia terror.

Ward concluded that American and coalition leaders either had to use their strength as leverage to get Maliki to change his ways—or come up with far less ambitious goals, more compatible with the Iraqis’ own visions of end-states. One such option might be to split Iraq into three ethnically distinct regions (Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the west), with a much-weakened central government in Baghdad. But this idea wasn’t practical. First, Maliki would resist any step that weakened his authority. Second, the Bush administration had already dismissed a proposal by Democratic senator Joseph Biden to turn Iraq into a federal state with three semiautonomous regions. And third—the only fact pertinent to Chiarelli’s domain—Casey was adamantly opposed to putting any pressure on Maliki.

In short, to invoke a word from the unmentionable Vietnam era, Iraq was looking more and more like a quagmire.

Chiarelli thought Ward’s briefing was brilliant. It crisply summed up the deteriorating trends that they’d both observed in recent months, and it framed those trends in a coherent strategic picture. The whole idea of counterinsurgency—the whole rationale for this phase of the war—was to help make the Iraqi government more effective. But if the Iraqi government’s aims were different from—even hostile to—America’s aims, what was the point of going on? The more we strengthened Maliki’s government, the more we might be damaging America’s own interests.

Speaking to the Baker-Hamilton commissioners, Chiarelli didn’t spell out the dilemma so bleakly. But as far as he did take his analysis—the promises of the SWET strategy and the need to leverage American power into making Maliki change course—he stated his case with drive and passion. He’d been over this argument more times than he could count; he didn’t need notes or visual aids. He believed as deeply as ever in his conclusions, despite, or in some ways because of, the frustrations he’d experienced on the job. And Chiarelli, the popular West Point lecturer of yore, was on that day; he could feel this audience leaning in to his every word.

As unimpressed as the panelists had been with Casey’s rote PowerPoint slide show three days earlier, they were deeply impressed with his deputy’s spirited panoramic analysis. Some of them approached him afterward with warm thanks and additional questions. Bill Perry and Bob Gates were particularly lavish in their praise. They’d both heard briefings from many generals in their day, but this one was extraordinary. They hadn’t met Chiarelli before, had never heard of him; but they left the room agreeing that he might well wind up as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff someday.

That prediction wouldn’t come true. Nor would Chiarelli’s own, somewhat less lofty ambitions to succeed Casey as commander of US forces when his term ran out at the end of the year. Iraq was seen as a failure, properly so, and by dint of his position and his principled refusal to break with his boss, Chiarelli would be saddled with a share of the blame.

Few in the room could have imagined that a mere two months later, Gates would be asked by President Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Knowing that his main task was to “fix” Iraq, Gates would need to hire as his military assistant a general with deep knowledge of the war. And so, thinking back on that final day in the Green Zone, he would call in Pete Chiarelli for an interview and, afterward, offer him the job.

It would be through Chiarelli that the whole panoply of ideas associated with COIN and the West Point Sosh mafia flowed into the Pentagon at a pivotal moment and at the highest level.