View Full Version : A salvo at the White House

01-22-08, 07:08 AM
A salvo at the White House
By Mark Perry

For military officers in the Pentagon's E-Ring (where the most important defense issues are decided), the shift in the public mood has been nearly miraculous: last September, on the eve of General David Petraeus' Congressional testimony on the George W Bush administration's 'surge' strategy, the American electorate was consumed by the war in Iraq.

Now, just four months later, that same electorate has shifted its attention to the 2008 elections. Public polls reflect the shift. Iraq no longer tops the list of issues of concern to Americans - its place having been usurped over worries about the economy - and is competing for attention with healthcare and immigration. (The "war on terror" is a poor seventh - a stunning turnabout from the two years following September 11, 2001.) But the perceptible fall-off in public attention from foreign policy to domestic issues is hardly a palliative for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or America's highest-ranking combatant commanders, all of whom continue to deal with the continuing uncertain military situation Iraq.

The fact that the Iraq war has been pushed off the front pages of America's newspapers has given the US military a seeming respite from the almost endless spate of disastrous stories coming out of the Middle East, as well as the almost endless round of embarrassing questions from the press about what they intend to do about it.

But military officers say that the American public should not be fooled: the relative quiet in Iraq - and it is, after all, only a "relative quiet" - does not mean the "surge" has worked, or that the problems facing the US military have somehow magically gone away. Quite the opposite. For while the American public is consumed by the campaign for the presidency, the American military is not. Instead, they are as obsessed now, in January of 2008, with the war in Iraq as they were then, in 2003 - except that now, many military officers admit, the host of problems they face may, in fact, be much more intractable.

First contact
"Don't let the quiet fool you," a senior defense official says. "There's still a huge chasm between how the White House views Iraq and how we [in the Pentagon] view Iraq. The White House would like to have you believe the 'surge' has worked, that we somehow defeated the insurgency. That's just ludicrous. There's increasing quiet in Iraq, but that's happened because of our shift in strategy - the 'surge' had nothing to do with it."

In part, the roots of the disagreement between the Pentagon and White House over what is really happening in Iraq is historical. Senior military officers contend that the seeming fall-off in in-country violence not only has nothing to do with the increase in US force levels, but that the dampening of the insurgency that took hold last summer could have and would have taken place much earlier, within months of America's April 2003 occupation of Baghdad.

Moreover, these officers contend, the insurgency might not have put down roots in the country after the fall of Baghdad if it had not been for the White House and State Department - which undermined military efforts to strike deals with a number of Iraq's most disaffected tribal leaders. These officers point out that the first contact between high-level Pentagon officials and the nascent insurgency took place in Amman, Jordan, in August of 2003 - but senior Bush administration officials killed the talks.

A second round of meetings, this time with leaders of some of al-Anbar province's tribal chiefs, took place in November of 2004, but again senior administration officials refused to build on the contacts that were made. "We made the right contacts, we said the right things, we listened closely, we put a plan in place that would have saved a lot of time and trouble," a senior Pentagon official says. "And every time we were ready to go forward, the White House said 'no'."

At the center of these early talks was a group of Iraqis led by Sheikh Talal al-Gaood, a Sunni businessman with close ties to Anbar's tribal leaders. Gaood, who died of a heart ailment in March of 2006, was a passionate Iraqi patriot who feared growing al-Qaeda influence in his country. Speaking over coffee from his office in Amman in 2005, Gaood was enraged by the "endless mistakes" of the US leadership. "You [Americans] face a Wahhabi threat that you cannot even begin to fathom," he said at the time, and he derided White House "propaganda" about the role of Syria in fueling the insurgency.

Gaood, looking every bit the former Ba'athist - complete with suspenders and Saddam Hussein-like mustache was particularly critical of what he called "the so-called counter-insurgency experts among Washington policymakers who think they know Iraq but don't." As he argued: "The guys who come through here, very educated, come in their brown robes and say they are going to Iraq to kill the Americans. They are not Syrians. They are Wahhabis. They are from Saudi Arabia. But if you talk to American officials, it is like they don't exist."

That might have been true for civilian policymakers, but it wasn't true for the military - who were beginning to take heavy casualties from armed insurgents in Sunni areas. Throughout 2004 and 2005, a group of senior US military officers, including high-ranking US Marine Corps commanders, attempted to expand their ties in western Iraq through Gaood and the network of leaders he provided them.

But these commanders continued to run into opposition to their program from then-National Security Council director Condoleezza Rice, who maintained her opposition to their program after she became secretary of state. L Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, who had suspended the Ba'ath army and was intent to cleanse Iraq of its Ba'athist influence, also opposed the program through all of 2004. "Bremer was just nuts about any meetings with any insurgents, any Ba'athists, anyone he didn't approve," a Pentagon official notes, "and Condi backed him up".

By the end of 2005, Rice's opposition to any opening to the Sunni leadership in Iraq became almost obsessive, according to currently serving senior military officers. In one incident, now notorious in military circles, Rice "just went completely crazy" when she learned that a marine colonel had dispatched combat helicopters to help a "a Sunni sheikh" in Fallujah fight what the sheikh called an "imminent al-Qaeda threat".

As a senior Pentagon official now relates: "The Sunni leader literally picked up the telephone one day and called the ranking colonel at the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF)and pleaded with him, 'I need help and I need it now. Al-Qaeda is killing my tribe'." The marine colonel in question was John Coleman, the chief of staff to the same unit that had gone into Fallujah to fight the insurgency after the killing of four US security contractors in April of 2004.

"Rice was just enraged with Coleman and with the marines," a senior Pentagon officials say. "She said, 'you have to stop all of that right now and you can't do it unless you have State Department permission and the permission of the Iraqi government'. Well, the marines weren't about to do that. They were taking a lot of casualties and they were fed up. And they just concluded that it was their war and not hers," a senior Pentagon civilian recently noted. "So they just ignored her and went ahead anyway."

In the wake of his marines-to-the-rescue efforts, Coleman and the 1st MEF began a program of cooperation with Fallujah's leaders, making a broad range of contacts with local officials who were fearful of al-Qaeda's influence in their city. The marine commanders in the 1st MEF were under no illusions, a Pentagon official now says - they were "engaged in talks with the insurgents, people who had been killing American soldiers since the fall of Baghdad".

The tipping point
Coleman's action might well have ended his career, if it had not been for then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose lack of respect for Rice bordered on the neurotic, and Coleman's commanding officer, Marine Lieutenant General James T Conway. Conway, an oversize Arkansan who sports a carpet of combat ribbons, was not only a Coleman partisan, he had been angered by orders to send his marines into Fallujah in April of 2004 to take on the city's insurgents, a point he made clear to the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran, five months after the attack: "When we were told to attack Fallujah, I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed," Conway said.

Conway told Chandrasekaran he preferred engagement with Fallujah's leaders to confrontation, but that he was bound to follow orders - which had come down to his superior, army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, from the White House. Conway protested to Sanchez that going into Fallujah "with guns blazing" was the worst thing his marines could do, but Sanchez would hear none of it. "I have my orders, and now you have yours," Sanchez pointedly said.

Months later, Conway was still seething: "We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah: that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge. Would our system have been better? Would we have been able to bring over the people of Fallujah with our methods? You'll never know that for sure, but at the time we certainly thought so."

The tight circle of Pentagon civilians around Rumsfeld (inherited and largely kept intact by Robert Gates), which had been pushing for an opening to Anbar's tribal leaders (who had been talking to Gaood in Amman, and through him to some of Anbar's tribal leaders) now cite the Coleman incident as perhaps the key "tipping point" in the military's shift in strategy in Iraq.

But it was a group of military commanders, working on the ground, who eventually took the lead, using the Fallujah effort as their model. After dispatching a marine combat team to help Fallujah's tribal leaders fight al-Qaeda, similar efforts sprang up among army units patrolling in Tel Afar and in Ramadi where, five months after Coleman's Fallujah initiative, American military officers began tentative approaches to the Rishawi tribe.

By September, the Americans and Ramadi's Sheikh Abdul Sattar

abu Risha had come to an agreement - and the nascent Anbar Salvation Council, a grouping of 25 tribes, had been formed to fight al-Qaeda. The killing of Risha in a car bomb attack in September of 2007 was a clear setback for the strategy of recruiting tribal leaders to end the insurgency and turn their guns on al-Qaeda, but by then the strategy had spread to enough provinces, Pentagon officials say, that Risha's murder actually solidified the growing anti-al-Qaeda front.

The strategy had even taken hold in Babil province, the heavily fought-over area south of Baghdad - in "the Triangle of Death" - where contacts with the insurgency were put in the hands of the 501st Parachute Regiment. Since at least September of last year, according to published reports, officers of the 501st have been cooperating with Babil's Sunni tribal leaders to drive what American officers describe as "extremist elements" - insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda - that had become rooted in the province.

In fact, the first contact with the tribal leaders of Babil took place five months before the first payments were made, in May of 2007. At first the leaders were even more hesitant to sign up with the Americans than their co-religionists to the north, in part because of pressures brought against them by the Shi'ite-dominated government - which mistrusted the Awakening Council movement.

Then too, Babil province was in the hands of Shi'ite political leadership, who were even less enamored of the American initiative than the Shi'ite leadership in Baghdad. But the Americans pushed hard for the alliance, telling Babil's Sunni leaders that the Baghdad government was incapable of providing them with local security, or effectively fighting off the al-Qaeda's threat.

Babil's leaders were inevitably convinced - in part because their hatred of al-Qaeda (and their mistrust of the Shi'ite-run government) ran so deep. But for the Americans, the new alliance came with a price. During September of 2007 alone, US military officers dispensed well over US$200,000 to Babil's tribal leaders, including $370 for each provincial policeman hired by Babil's Janabi tribe, a potent and influential force in southern and western Iraq.

The payments were and are a source of unease for American military officers, who fought the Janabis for two years in the province - and who lost American soldiers in attacks led by Janabi insurgents. "They used to want to kill me, now they want to sign a contract with me," a senior officer of the 501st told the Times of London. "It's hard to get your head around, but it is working."

The Mansour bombing
But the price has not only been paid by the Americans. The negotiations between US military officers and insurgents in Babil carried out during the late spring and early summer of 2007 were a source of increasing sensitivity inside the Iraqi government and were denounced both inside Iraqi religious circles and inside the Hawza - the institutions that constitute the centers of learning in the Shi'ite religion - where an expansion of the Anbar strategy war particularly controversial.

"The imams denounced this. They even talked against it during Friday prayers. For them, this was just another American attempt to subdue Iraq. It was one thing for the Americans to recruit Sunnis to the awakening - that's fine. But it is another thing entirely to do this in Shi'ite areas, which are more independent, and have a history of being subverted by outsiders," an Iraq government official said at the time.

Senior American military officers were warned by Iraqi officials that they were playing with fire in the areas south of Baghdad, but the American pleaded that, to prove its worth, the program needed to go forward outside of Anbar. This was particularly true in those areas not dominated by Sunnis. As a part of the effort to highlight the success of the Anbar initiative, the Americans called for a meeting of the Awakening Councils with Iraqi government officials on June 25 at the Mansour Melia Hotel in Baghdad.

But just hours before the meeting was to convene, a suicide bomber penetrated three levels of security and killed 12 Iraqis, including six members of the Anbar Salvation Council. The blast was so powerful that it blew the doors off the Mansour's heavily enforced dining room and caved in the dining room ceiling.

The Mansour bombing was a political catastrophe for the US and its new Sunni allies. Among the dead was Sheik Abdul-Aziz al-Fahdawi of the Fahad tribe, Sheik Tariq Saleh al-Assafi and Colonel Fadil al-Nimrawi, both from the al-Bu Nimr tribe, and Iraqi General Aziz al-Yasari and Sheik Husayn Sha'lan al-Khaza'i of the Khaza'a tribe. Also killed was Sheik Fassal al-Gaood, a former Anbar governor and the successor to Talal al-Gaood - the man who had first approached US military leaders in Amman in 2004.

Gaood's loss was deeply felt at the Pentagon, where civilian officials had been pressing for an opening to the insurgency since the fall of Baghdad. "This was a blow," a Pentagon official confirms. "We knew both men [Talal and Fassal] and admired their courage." Worse yet, while "Muslim extremists" were blamed for the murders, senior US officials suspected a range of suspects, including Iraqi government security officials who had been less than cooperative with the US military in promoting the Anbar initiative.

These suspicions were highlighted by reports that the meeting at the Mansour was called so that the Anbar officials could discuss expanding the "Awakening of the Tribes" into Shi'ite areas. Now that initiative seemed endangered. "The bombing was as clear a message as we could get," a Pentagon official later speculated. "While everyone's attention was focused on how this hurt us in Anbar, the real message was that we should end our efforts in the south."

The coda to the Mansour bombing was a triumphant broadside from US military officers that they would remain undeterred by "these despicable terrorist acts". In fact, senior military strategists began to tread more lightly, particularly in Shi'ite areas. According to a senior Iraqi official with ties into the nation's complex tribal network, in the wake of bombing the US military began to "sketch out and think through" inter-sectarian tribal relationships.

Babil was the key, where the emerging strategy was to focus on recruiting respected Iraqi leaders with close tribal ties to those leading the Awakening movement in Anbar. In Babil, military officers began to refocus their efforts on the Janabi tribe, according to a Janabi family member with access to the tribe's decision-making. The choice of the Janabis was purposeful - even insightful.

The Janabis are nearly ubiquitous in a large crescent of the country running from an area south of Baghdad in an arc to the west and north. For the Americans, the recruitment of the Janabis was crucial - since some Janabis are Sunni and some Shi'ite. Additionally, high-profile Sunni and Shi'ite Janabis served both in Saddam's government and as leaders in the anti-American insurgency.

Recruiting the powerful tribe to the side of the American military, even in the face Iraqi government opposition, became a key not only to "turning Iraqi guns on the real culprits", as one serving officer notes, but to "stitching together a political front that is based on something other than wishful thinking".

A senior Iraqi observer with ties to the tribal network confirms this view: "The Janabis in the south have strong links to those in the north, tribal links, but you should know some are motivated by sectarian concerns and some are simply extremists." The question remains, of course: what happens when the American money dries up? "The answer to that question is simple," this Iraqi says. And then he laughs: "When the money goes, they go."
Tomorrow, Part 2: Military felled by 'trust gap'


01-23-08, 08:20 AM
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