Tell Me How This Ends

General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq


By Linda Robinson

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After a series of disastrous missteps in its conduct of the war, the White House in 2006 appointed General David Petraeus as the Commanding General of the coalition forces. Tell Me How This Ends is an inside account of his attempt to turn around a failing war.

Linda Robinson conducted extensive interviews with Petraeus and his subordinate commanders and spent weeks with key U.S. and Iraqi divisions. The result is the only book that ties together military operations in Iraq and the internecine political drama that is at the heart of the civil war.

Replete with dramatic battles, behind-doors confrontations, and astute analysis, the book tells the full story of the Iraq War’s endgame, and lays out the options that will be facing the next president when he or she takes office in January 2009.




Most of the books written about the Iraq war thus far focus on decision to go to war and the first three years, from 2003 to 2005. The largely unhappy experience of those years soured the American public on a war it once supported and that it had been led to believe would be as short and cheap as the limited and relatively bloodless interventions, proxy wars, and peacekeeping missions the United States had undertaken in the past twenty-five years. Instead, America has stumbled into a war that resembles Vietnam more than any other previous conflict, in terms of both the blood and treasure expended and the irregular nature of the combat. Homemade bombs of a dizzying variety have been the American adversaries’ wea-pon of choice in Iraq, wielded with devastating effect. As of this writing, over 4,000 Americans have been killed and 29,000 wounded. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died and many more have been injured.
This book has four purposes. It aims first to distill the central dynamic, major inflection points and lessons of the war’s early years. Second, the book provides a comprehensive account of the latter phase of the war, from 2006 to the present. It examines the approach Gen. David Petraeus adopted, the thinking behind it, and the results it produced. Third, unlike most books, which have focused on either the military or the political aspects, this account covers both facets of the conflict. Finally, the book analyzes the options available to the next administration and suggests the most viable approaches.
The book traces the deepening war in 2006, the administration’s decision to adopt a new approach, and the career of the general appointed to lead it. David Petraeus had served two tours in Iraq and then overseen the writing of a new Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, as the military grappled with the failures in Iraq and more generally the challenges of irregular warfare. Well aware that Americans’ patience was ebbing, Petraeus returned to Iraq to develop a political-military strategy that would integrate civilian and military efforts in a simultaneous “bottom-up” and “top-down” campaign. His leadership of the so-called surge of 2007-08 is recounted from the strategic and operational level to its implementation throughout Baghdad, which was declared to be the main effort since most violence was occurring there. The Baghdad security plan’s design and execution by U.S. and Iraqi units is chronicled in detail, including the experiences of 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, in two of Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods.
Petraeus and his strategists believed the political causes of the conflict had to be addressed to end the war, which meant focusing all “lines of operation” on this goal. This concept applied to all military units down to the tactical units on the ground, but also to the diplomats and other civilians involved in the effort. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the embassy team were central actors in developing the strategy and carrying it out.
Iraq’s political leaders, parties, and ordinary citizens are fighting over how their country is to be governed and, indeed, whether it will continue to exist at all. The book aims to provide insight into the motivations and interactions among the political parties and leaders who have found it so very difficult to decide whether and how they will lead their country into the future.
The reason for adopting such a broad approach is to pay more than lip service to the notion that war is a profoundly political phenomenon, especially wars such as this one. To understand the war it is necessary to understand the issues at stake. To succeed, a strategy must address those causes with appropriate measures and adequate resources. The book examines how military and nonmilitary resources and influence have been applied, are being applied, and might be applied to produce the “political solution” that is widely considered to be the war’s only true exit strategy.
The war in Iraq is not yet over, and even when the fighting does finally end the political situation is likely to remain fluid for some time. Iran and other outside actors remain involved in the contest. If war, according to Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, is the conduct of politics by other means, then the best hope for Iraq is for politics to become the preferred means of fighting the war’s final battles.

The Genesis of a Civil War
Two days after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, the head of the CIA’s Middle East Division, Rob Richer, was on the ground, driving around the sprawling, dun-colored city in an armored car with the station chief. Iron rebar jutted from bombed government buildings, and looters moved over the landscape like locusts. Over beer and hot dogs with Gen. John Abizaid and other generals, Richer was surprised to hear the war-fighters talking of going home. Central Command chief Tommy Franks had announced his retirement, and the army land forces commander based in Kuwait, David McKiernan, would soon pack up. Jay Garner, the Pentagon-appointed head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, showed up, only to be replaced within days by Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
On subsequent trips over the coming months, Richer saw and heard why the CPA acquired the nickname “Can’t Provide Anything.” Richer saw schools without teachers, the creeping influence of Iran in southern Iraq, and little electricity anywhere. The CPA’s outpost in Hilla, a city south of Baghdad, had to buy its own generators on the black market. Back in Washington, no one really knew what Bremer was doing. His counterpart would call from the State Department and ask Richer, “Have you seen anything?” Bremer rarely sent cables, maybe one every ten days, and the ones he did send, Richer recalled, “were not substantive, and unbelievably positive.”
With the lid popped off of the Iraqi dictatorship, the centrifugal forces were destined to grow among the country’s fractured and oppressed population. Saddam Hussein’s regime had disproportionately empowered the roughly 20 percent of the Sunni Arab population, most of all his own kin, although the secular socialist Baath Party apparatus contained many Shia as well. He had viciously repressed the Shia Arab majority, particularly after the 1991 uprising that followed the first Gulf war. Saddam had also waged a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, Iraq’s third major population group, who had long agitated for their own state. The remaining Iraqis were a kaleidoscopic array of Turkomans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yezidis, and others.
Iraq was not only the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, as school-children the world around were taught to call the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. It was also the cradle of Shia Islam and one of the few Arab countries where Shia Islam was the dominant religion. Majority rule in the post-Saddam Iraq would inevitably bring the Shia majority into power for the first time in the Arab world. What was unknown, since the secular Baathist rule had lasted for thirty-five years, was how potent a political force Shia Islam would become. All the parties together polled less than 10 percent support in 2003. Historically, the two main Shia Islamist parties had been outlawed, driven underground, and persecuted, along with all other rivals to the Baath Party. Also, the Shia religious hierarchy had espoused a different vision from the theocratic state, in which mullahs ruled, that the Iranian revolution had implanted next door in Shia Persia.
Some believed that modern Iraq was fundamentally an unworkable construct destined to fragment. In this view, the rancor among its principal groups was too deep and the historical foundation of a country fashioned by the British from the Ottoman Empire was too weak to sustain a state without a dictator to hold it together. Since 1991 the United States had protected an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq with a no-fly zone that kept Saddam’s military largely at bay, and the Kurds hoped to preserve and increase that autonomy. There was a sense of national identity, at least among Arab Iraqis, which had been forged by years of statehood, however poorly ruled, and pride in a rich ancient history that was shared across many of Iraq’s subgroups. But without a concerted effort to forge a political condominium among Iraq’s main groups, the chance of the country holding together after 2003 was nonetheless slim.
Instead of declaring such a pact his goal and enshrining its primacy, Bremer’s first two decisions fatally complicated the chances of reaching it. The Coalition Provisional Authority enacted Decrees 1 and 2 under Bremer’s signature on May 16 and 23, respectively, in 2003. The first decree denied jobs to the top four tiers of Saddam’s Baath Party, thereby throwing out of work thousands of professionals at state-run institutions, from universities to hospitals to every government office, as well as much of the managerial class. Because the economy was largely state-run, that meant that not only government offices but also hospitals, schools, food depots, water works, electrical plants, oil refineries, and virtually every other institution ceased to function. The second decree abolished the security and intelligence services, which had scattered during and after the invasion. Although most of Iraq’s million-man armed forces had already deserted, little effort was made to recall officers or soldiers or to otherwise mollify them.
With two strokes of a pen in the space of a week, hundreds of thousands of former members of a thirty-five-year regime were fired and told they did not have a place in the new order in Iraq. The Sunni insurgency was born. This central fact was obscured over the coming years by repeated references to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals who came to fish for converts and allies in these troubled waters. Had there been a concerted outreach to the Sunni population early on, tolerance for the activities of the Al-Qaeda jihadists among the mostly secular Sunni might very likely have evaporated.
These original central errors were thereafter compounded by decisions that favored the Shia Islamist parties. Bremer’s memoir, My Year in Iraq, documents in detail the various stratagems and maneuvers the Islamist Shia parties used to blackmail and dragoon him into decisions that favored their interests. The Sunnis viewed all these developments as evidence that the United States was turning over the keys of the country to the Islamist Shiites, so they boycotted elections. The next fatal decision, to proceed with elections without Sunni participation in January 2005, gave the Islamist Shia coalition control of the government, and it proceeded to write a constitution that favored its agenda and that of the Kurds. Enshrined in power, and under attack from the outcast Sunnis and former regime members, the Shia Islamists then used their militias and the instruments of the state to counterattack. The stage was set for civil war.
The State Department was completely shut out from the administration of a postwar Iraq. One of its most senior career Arabists, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, had been sent over temporarily in May 2003 to help Bremer form the Iraqi Governing Council—an advisory body that replaced the original plan of convening an assembly to select a temporary Iraqi government. When Crocker suggested bringing his whole team of some one hundred Arabists, friends at CPA told him: “Better not. The fewer folks from State the better.” The neoconservatives in the White House and the Pentagon looked upon the State Department’s Arabists as supporters of the region’s Sunni regimes; some of the neocons saw themselves as the liberators of the Shia and promoters of democracy, and in other cases they merely distrusted the State Department.
Matters came to a head in November when the CIA station chief in Baghdad sent a lengthy cable known as an AARDWOLF back to Washington describing the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The CIA’s basic analysis was that the United States was facing a largely homegrown insurgency of Iraqis who did not see any benefit for themselves in the emerging political and economic order.
At 1 p.m. November 11, 2003, the National Security Council (NSC) convened to discuss the CIA’s report. In addition to President Bush, others attending included Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley; CIA head George Tenet; and Rob Richer. Bremer and Gen. Abizaid were linked in via video. The meeting had barely begun when Rumsfeld interrupted, insisting that there was no insurgency. A White House military aide bravely offered the Pentagon’s official definition of insurgency as a group seeking the overthrow of a government. Bremer did not dispute the CIA report. Bush cut short the substantive discussion. He was angry that the AARDWOLF had been leaked to the media. “I don’t want to see anyone commenting in the press about an insurgency,” he said. “We have an election to win.”
It was a moment of revelation for Richer. “We finally got an NSC session to talk about the insurgency, and instead it was all about the spin,” he fumed, still angry as he discussed it four years later. The 2004 U.S. election was a year away, but the president’s message was that electoral considerations would trump substantive concerns about the direction Iraq was taking. Richer took issue with the administration’s constant harping on Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its terrorist leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In Richer’s view, it distracted attention from the larger number of non-Al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents and why they were fighting, and pushed the administration toward a kill-and-capture strategy, which would not work as an overall approach to the insurgency.
Although Bremer was certainly Washington’s proverbial man in Baghdad, there was plenty of blame to go around for the mounting chaos. Richer believed that Rice bore an enormous amount of responsibility for the positions she took and the influence she exercised behind closed doors. “Rice insisted on democracy, on elections. Democracy had to be put in place immediately,” he recalled. “The president is a realist, but he listened to her and was swayed. . . . Rice’s vision that Iraq had to look like us overnight was catastrophic.”
ONE OF THE IRAQIS WHO WITNESSED the unfolding Iraq drama from the inside from its earliest days was Samir Sumaidaie, the only secular Sunni who participated in each incarnation of the Iraqi government from 2003 on. He agreed to become a member of the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 and then served as interior minister in 2004. An urbane and gracious man, Sumaidaie offered Bremer advice but grew frustrated and offended by the American’s dismissiveness. He longed to return to his work in computer science and graphic design but he could not bear to see his country slide into the abyss again as its long-denied opportunity for a fresh start was squandered.
Sumaidaie was born to a middle-class family in Fadl, in the old quarter of Baghdad, attended the Mustansiriya prep school, and then won a scholarship to study computer science in England. Graduating in 1965, he returned to Baghdad to computerize some of the government’s public works. But after the Baathist regime came to power in a 1968 coup, Sumaidaie began to feel uncomfortable at his workplace. “You were scrutinized if you were not of their ilk,” he recalled. “Over time, the environment grew more restrictive and oppressive. I felt in danger.” Sumaidaie feared he was being targeted after he was denied permission to travel abroad.
The breaking point was a school performance at his four-year-old son’s kindergarten in 1973, where Sumaidaie and his wife arrived to find the front row occupied by Baath Party operatives, all wearing moustaches, packing pistols, and looking menacing. The children took the stage, and to Sumaidaie’s consternation, began to shout slogans praising the government leaders. As they finished, the Baathist officials took out their pistols and fired them into the air. “Why did you do that?” Sumaidaie, furious, asked the men. “To harden the children,” one said. That night Sumaidaie made up his mind to take his family to England.
In London, Sumaidaie found a thriving exile community of Iraqis. He launched his computer design business and landed a large and prestigious commission to take part in the restoration of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. He designed the steel-and-polymer mukarnas, two giant gold-leaf praying hands holding the Koran that stand at the shrine’s gate. After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Sumaidaie was drawn into Iraqi exile politics as Iraqis began to sense the opportunity to rid their country of its scourge. He attended various exile gatherings and helped form a small party, the secular liberal Iraqi Democratic Association.
In 2003 Emad Dhia, another expatriate, contacted Sumaidaie to see if he would participate in the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council, a Pentagon-sponsored group that was rounding up technocrats and professionals to return to help rebuild Iraq. Sumaidaie agreed. Eager to return to Iraq and see his relatives, he flew to Amman in May 2003, where his cousin met him to drive him across the desert province of Anbar to Baghdad. Between Ramadi and Fallujah, their Mercedes was stopped by armed, masked men in a pickup truck who demanded their money. Sumaidaie’s plucky cousin rebuked the men. “You should be ashamed of yourself. You are attacking Samir Sumaidaie, a sayyid [documented descendant of the prophet Muhammad] from your own area.” Sumaidaie’s family had come from Anbar, and he still had relatives living near Fallujah. The men recognized his name. Apologizing profusely, they shut the car door and took off in their truck. It was a daunting welcome home. Things soon got worse.
The original plan had been for Bremer to transfer responsibility for Iraq to the Governing Council, but he decided against it. Sumaidaie believed that any provisional government by Iraqis, whether technocrats or expatriates, would have been preferable to an occupation authority. “It was a fatal mistake. We were branded as collaborators,” he said of the council members and others who worked alongside Bremer. “The insurgents won the mantle of patriots by fighting the occupier.”
Sumaidaie cringed as the CPA’s missteps continued. He could not believe they disbanded the ministry of information. “We need some organ or channel to put out our message. We kept asking for a channel,” he said. The Pentagon hired large defense contractors, first Science Applications International Corporation and then Harris, which spent more on security than TV programming, which was wildly inappropriate. “They bought cheap, old programs from Lebanon and Cairo just to fill the air time. There was a cooking show with ingredients that no one in Iraq had,” he said in disgust. “It made us look foolish.” Bremer also used the channel as an outlet for his weekly speeches, which cemented his image as proconsul among Iraqis.
Well aware that opposition among Sunnis was growing, Sumaidaie met with many of his clan relatives in Anbar. Their demands were not especially outrageous. He presented Bremer with an eight-point proposal. He suggested that all non-Iraqis be registered and that they be required to have local sponsors. Such a program was in effect in other Persian Gulf states where imported labor was common. He proposed reviving the trucking businesses that had sustained most Anbar families, who transported goods from Amman. The United States should stop relying on Jordanian companies and give their business to the Iraqis. The Iraqis would also provide security for the routes across Anbar. Bremer agreed to discuss the ideas with Anbaris, and Sumaidaie booked a restaurant for the occasion. Bremer never showed up and none of the eight points was ever implemented. Bremer also denied the Anbaris’ request that detainees be released in exchange for the families’ pledge to not take up arms.
In Sumaidaie’s view, the way in which the January 2005 elections were held fatally cast the die for what was to follow. There was no time to create electoral districts, and the closed-list system favored parties over individuals with local standing. The Islamist Shia and Kurdish parties thus dominated the assembly that would write the constitution, which ultimately set up a weak central government and potentially powerful regions, setting the stage for deadlock. As the new government was formed, hundreds of cronies and militia members began filling the ministries, their security forces, and the police.
Sumaidaie moved to New York City to become Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations. He hoped that from that position he could enlist support for Iraq from other countries. In June 2005, one of his relatives, a twenty-five-year-old cousin, was killed by marines in Anbar, in a small village called al-Sheikh Hadid. He had been killed answering the door at his home. Breaking with protocol, Sumaidaie gave an interview on CNN to say he knew his cousin Mohammed personally and that his cousin was not an insurgent.
In 2006 Sumaidaie moved to the orange brick embassy on Washington’s Dupont Circle as ambassador to the United States. The deaths continued to mount, and his aide Osama Altayi interrupted his meetings regularly with grim news. One morning he came in to tell Sumaidaie that the son of their office administrator had been killed. The following week, the nephew of the embassy’s first secretary was killed. The silver-haired diplomat’s brown eyes held a perpetually sad expression. These deaths were not statistics, they were relatives and friends and countrymen.
WHEN VETERAN DIPLOMAT John Negroponte became U.S. ambassador to Iraq following Bremer’s disastrous year, Rob Richer said he pulled his punches rather than frankly convey the peril of Iraq’s situation. “Negroponte didn’t call it like it is. He wants to be secretary of state.” He tried at times to use Richer as a foil for bad news. “No one would give a dissenting view. If you do, you are ostracized,” Richer said of the top-level interactions. Negroponte arrived in the summer of 2004 and within six months was clamoring to get out of Baghdad. When tapped to become the first director of national intelligence in early 2005, he left Iraq to prepare for his confirmation hearings. The embassy was without an ambassador for five months at a critical juncture: the new government was busily packing its ministries with Shia militiamen and writing a constitution that would enshrine Islamic law and increase the centrifugal forces in Iraq.
Just weeks before the constitution was to be completed and submitted to a referendum, White House insider and longtime Cheney associate Zalmay Khalilzad became ambassador. He went into overdrive to head off the impending train wreck. Khalilzad had served as a liaison to the Iraqi exiles in the runup to the Iraq war and had been expected to play a major role when Bremer was suddenly named instead. That fateful change of plans came about for two reasons. The State Department opposed creating an interim government of Iraqi exiles, which they believed was Khalilzad’s plan. In fact, he intended to include Iraqis from inside the country, as had been done in Afghanistan. The president wanted two envoys, but Bremer then insisted that there be only one—him—and the president acquiesced. It is almost certain that 2003-2005 would have turned out quite differently if Khalilzad, who understood Iraq’s complex dynamics, had gone instead.
At any rate, when Khalilzad arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2005, he worked against the clock because Washington would not hear of delaying the referendum or subsequent elections. Khalilzad strove mightily to convince the majority Shia to offer an olive branch to the minority Sunni. He won concessions that diluted the influence of Islamic law, postponed the creation of powerful regions that would carve up Iraq, and promised constitutional revisions within four months of the new parliament’s convening. Largely on the strength of those commitments, the constitution was narrowly ratified and Sunnis came out to vote in the December 2005 elections.
Khalilzad then tried to ensure that the new Iraqi government would be a national unity government that excluded the noxious sectarians who had run the interim government. The negotiations to form the government were excruciating and protracted. The Islamic coalition had won a plurality, 128 of 275 seats in parliament, and wanted the sitting prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to continue, but he could not muster enough votes from other parties. Jaafari was not only ineffective but also sectarian. He refused to impose a curfew to stop the retaliatory killing after the Shia mosque in Samarra was bombed in February; he said the Shia needed to “let off steam.” Khalilzad had also clashed with him the previous fall, when secret interior ministry prisons were found holding tortured Iraqis.
Jaafari held out for three months. Finally he agreed to step aside for one of two successors from his Dawa party. The choices were Ali Adeed, whose Iranian father and close ties to Iran would cause a storm among Sunnis, or Nouri al-Maliki, who was not pro-Iranian and explicitly disavowed the Iranian model of rule by mullahs.
After Maliki was chosen as prime minister in April, Khalilzad brokered hard-won agreements on two nonsectarian security ministers, a broad-based political council for national security, and a national reconciliation agenda with a timetable for implementing it. By then it was October 2006. Amid the raging violence, the rival politicians openly called each other “enemy.” Khalilzad managed to eke out agreement on a foreign investment law, but drafts of an oil framework law and a new de-Baathification law ran aground.


On Sale
Sep 2, 2008
Page Count
352 pages

Linda Robinson

About the Author

Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at RAND. She has been an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center. Her book about the U.S. Army Special Forces, Masters of Chaos, was a New York Times bestseller; Tell Me How This Ends, which is about the Iraq War, was a Foreign Affairs bestseller and a New York Times notable book. Robinson received the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Reporting on National Defense in 2005. She has conducted field research on special operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Latin America, and elsewhere over the past twelve years.

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