Bridge On The River Euphrates

September 2, 2008 Topics: Security Tags: Six-Day WarSoviet UnionThe Israel LobbyIraq War

Bridge On The River Euphrates

Mini Teaser: The much-vaunted surge has made Iraq safer. But more boots in the desert is not the only reason security has improved. As U.S. forces get ready to leave, we have to face some inconvenient political realities.

by Author(s): Colin H. Kahl

Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 384 pp., $25.00.

Peter W. Galbraith, Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 224 pp., $23.00.

Linda Robinson, Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), 432 pp., $27.95.


IN LATE 2006, as the National Security Council (NSC) debated the need for the troop escalation and change in Iraq policy commonly known as the "surge," they didn't call it that. They called it the "bridge." It had become agonizingly clear that President Bush's plan to have U.S. forces "stand down" as the Iraqis "stood up" had failed. Iraq had fallen into sectarian civil war, and the hastily rebuilt Iraqi security forces (ISF) were not only incapable of providing order, but were in many instances agents of chaos themselves. The goal of the surge was to have U.S. forces take the lead in providing population security in Baghdad, buying time for political accord and strengthening the ISF. The surge, in short, was never meant to be a permanent state, but rather a bridge back to the original goal: transitioning security responsibilities to the Iraqis.

Travelling across Iraq as the surge ended this summer, it was clear that security conditions had dramatically improved since the dark days of 2006 and early 2007. Visiting joint U.S.-Iraqi security stations in Baghdad and Mosul, visiting Iraqi forces in the former "triangle of death," touring Basra with the Iraqi Army, and speaking with dozens of American and Iraqi commanders and officials, it was also clear that the isf have made great strides. Despite these enormous gains, however, no one in Iraq was doing a victory lap. The war is not over, and the deep political conflicts at the root of Iraq's ethno-sectarian tensions have not been resolved. The fragile calm that has descended on the country could be undone if the United States fails to effectively push Iraqi leaders to reach a broader political accord. As the Bush administration winds to a close, it will be up to the next president to cross the bridge provided by the surge, and do so in a way that leads to lasting stability.


NUMEROUS BOOKS have catalogued the series of blunders contributing to Iraq's descent into disaster, but none more effectively than Dexter Filkins's The Forever War. Filkins's brutally honest account is based on his three-and-a-half years of reporting from Iraq for the New York Times. Filkins lived in the "red zone," regularly embedded with U.S. troops, and was one of the few American journalists present during the ferocious November 2004 Fallujah offensive. For the most part, Filkins does not give a thirty-thousand-foot view of Iraq. Instead, he provides a ground-level, mud- and blood-soaked eyewitness account in the very best tradition of war reporting. Filkins's narrative unfolds in a nonlinear, back-and-forth style that gives the reader a feel for combat, a feel for the Iraqi street and a feel for a country slipping away.

Filkins crossed into Iraq at the outset of the invasion and saw firsthand how too few troops and too little planning led to chaos. Watching Iraqis loot computers and just about everything else from the Iraqi Olympic Committee offices, Filkins asked a young U.S. lieutenant why his men were letting the Iraqis "destroy the city." Shaking his head, the lieutenant responded: "I don't have orders." Looting stripped Iraq's economic and governmental infrastructure bare, while the failure of U.S. forces to prevent it sent a powerful message that no one was in charge. Fast on the heels of this devastating mistake came others, most notably the May 2003 orders by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (commonly derided as "Can't Provide Anything"), to carry out deep de-Baathification and disband the Iraqi Army. These fateful decisions left hundreds of thousands of military-aged men jobless and contributed to the rise of a virulent Sunni insurgency.

The most powerful conventional military in the world was caught unprepared for unconventional war. The Americans lacked the requisite language skills and cultural awareness, leaving them deaf and blind in the country they were trying to govern. Filkins writes,

There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves…. The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered, of course. That conversation… sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And they almost never saw it.

The key shortcoming of the U.S. approach to "postwar" Iraq was the overemphasis on force protection and killing and capturing "the enemy" rather than securing the population. Under Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of all U.S. forces during the first year of the war, American troops had no coherent guidance to stabilize the country or defeat the emerging insurgency. Instead, subordinate commanders were left to their own devices. Many attempted to win over local communities through reconstruction projects and political outreach, but their efforts were typically ad hoc, and they lacked capable civilian partners.

As the insurgency gained strength and American deaths mounted in the summer and fall of 2003, some U.S. units turned to heavy-handed tactics. This laid the groundwork for a long-lasting, deep resentment of American troops. Thousands of Sunni were rounded up in indiscriminate sweeps and shipped off to overcrowded detention centers. Others were caught in the crossfire during raids and large-scale offensives. Filkins describes going on one such raid in a Sunni village in late 2003. U.S. forces rolled into town, kicking down doors and rousting terrified families out of their beds looking for "bad guys." "I feel bad for these people," one sergeant said. "It's so hard to separate the good from the bad." As Filkins notes,

If you multiplied the raid on Abu Shakur a thousand times, it was not difficult to conclude that the war was being lost: however many Iraqis opposed them before the Americans came into the village, dozens and dozens more did by the time they left. The Americans were making enemies faster than they could kill them.

No surprise, by the spring of 2004, much of Iraq was in open revolt. The death and mutilation of four American contractors in late March triggered a horrific clash between Marines and Sunni militants in Fallujah. At the end of April, the city was handed over to an Iraqi brigade, but local Iraqi security forces soon dissolved, transforming Fallujah into a major hub for the Sunni insurgency. Near simultaneously, Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia launched a Shia uprising across the south-central portions of the country. By August, U.S. forces had al-Sadr and many of his militiamen cornered in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, but a cease-fire ended the fighting. Yet despite promises to demobilize, Filkins notes, "The Mahdi Army was… allowed to slip away, like Muqtada himself. That was the deal. They would live to fight again."

In November, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops were sent back into Fallujah to clear the city of insurgents. Civilians fled in anticipation of the attack and the Americans unleashed an extraordinary amount of firepower against the remaining insurgents. After the fighting ended, Filkins, who entered Fallujah alongside a company of Marines, looked out on "A ruined world. Nothing like the way we had found it coming in…. The marines had blasted everything: every building, every car, even if there was no one in it, every f*cking person, even the ones hidden in the shadows."

The net effect of early U.S. counterinsurgency measures was to worsen the insurrection by alienating a growing segment of the Iraqi population while leaving the remainder unprotected. And the escalating insurgency, in turn, set the stage for sectarian war. The most radical elements within the Sunni insurgency began to directly target Shia civilians, and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) carried out a seemingly endless series of mass-casualty bombings. Many Shia turned to JAM and other militias for protection.

At the same time, the overall strategy adopted by the Bush administration and U.S. generals unwittingly fueled communal violence. The plan designed by General George Casey, Sanchez's replacement, gave top priority to the "transition" of security responsibility to the Iraqis. In 2004-2005, the goal was less to defeat the insurgency in the short term, which was seen as unlikely, than to hold the insurgency down to manageable levels until the ISF were capable of taking over. But, according to Filkins, the rapid buildup of Iraqi forces to accomplish this objective had a significant downside: it allowed Shia militias to infiltrate the ISF.

Another element of the Bush administration's approach-the emphasis on elections-had a similar unintended effect. The administration, the military leadership and Embassy Baghdad hoped that the 2005 provincial and national elections would pull Sunni into the political process and drain support for the insurgency. Instead, the Sunni boycotted them, and, as Filkins notes, the Shia Islamist parties that took power "stuffed the ministries with their own gunmen, gave them uniforms and identification cards, and turned them loose." Paramilitary commandos in the National Police began to enforce a violent sectarian agenda. "That's how the civil war worked: the death squads became official," writes Filkins. "The Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army… just joined the police forces of the Shiite-led government."

Essay Types: Book Review