False Idols

By Colin Kahl

As a result of Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within", a narrative is emerging that paints President Bush as a valiant hero who stood up to his Generals and insisted on the surge. In doing so, Bush fans argue, the president's "extraordinary decision" snatched victory from the jaws of ignominious defeat. As my Center for a New American Security colleague Derek Chollet suggests, it is possible that Woodward is simply being spun by the White House.

But even if Woodward's account is right, Bush hardly comes off as a hero.

I have interviewed many of the same people Woodward did (as well as some he did not) for a book I'm writing on the evolution of counterinsurgency in Iraq, and the broad contours of Woodward's account seem correct. Those arguing for the surge inside the National Security Council (individuals like Meghan O'Sullivan, Brett McGurk, Peter Feaver, and Brigadier General Kevin Bergner) and outside the White House (like retired General Jack Keane, General David Petraeus, and Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, who arrived as the Corps commander in Iraq in early December 2006) were in the minority. Against them stood most of the Joint Chiefs, General George Casey (the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq), General John Abizaid (the head of Central Command), and the State Department. Casey in particular comes off poorly for sticking with the plan to "transition" responsibility to the Iraqis while the country was on fire.

But Bush is no hero in this tale either. The real story must take into account the following facts:

  • For three-and-a-half years Bush neglected the war, letting Generals Ricardo Sanchez (the first U.S. commander in Iraq) and Casey run the war with little "interference" from the White House, insufficient monitoring to see if they were actually accomplishing their mission, and little accountability. We weren't winning in 2003. The president did nothing. We weren't winning in 2004. The president did nothing. We weren't winning in 2005. The president did nothing. For years, the decider made none of the necessary decisions to stop the war from sliding into failure.
  • During the long, deadly summer of 2006, Bush dallied and refused to make a decision or level with the American people that the strategy was failing. For months after the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra plunged Iraq into chaos, Bush kept saying publicly that we were winning. We weren't and he knew it. (I was in Baghdad in July 2006 and it was painfully clear we were losing.) But for Bush to admit that we were losing, publicly, would have been political suicide given the upcoming Congressional elections. So the president stalled. He kept Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in place and didn't change the strategy until January 2007. And the consequences of this presidential delay? Hundreds of dead Americans, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens made homeless. Even if one believes the president made the right decision to order a surge, he didn't issue the order until January 2007, with the first surged troops arriving in February -- almost a full year after the Mosque bombing.

That's the real story, and it's hardly heroic.

And what of the decision itself? In the fall of 2006, reasonable and honorable people--including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group, and many Democrats in Congress--could and did disagree about the desirability of the surge. Most intelligence analysts at the time thought Iraq's civil war was simply too far along to be decisively affected by a mere 20 percent increase in U.S. forces. Moreover, "doubling down" on Iraq through the surge carried huge risks and costs -- in terms of American blood and treasure in Iraq; enormous strains on the already overstretched Army and Marines; stripping our strategic military reserve, leaving us vulnerable if any other major contingency emerged around the globe; and continuing to starve Afghanistan (a war sliding downhill fast) of the troops and resources needed for success there.

Depending on whether recent security gains in Iraq actually translate into lasting political reconciliation and stability, historians may look back and conclude that Bush made the right choice in January 2007. But when they look back at the Iraq war as a whole, and Bush's role in particular, they are not likely to be kind. The surge decision was not cost-free, and it in no way absolves Bush (or other cheerleaders for the war) of the responsibility (and, yes, the blame) for all the mistakes before the choice was made.

At best, if the legacy of the surge is judged a "success," it will simply mean that the change in strategy helped address the self-inflicted wounds to our national interests -- the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, enhanced Iranian influence in Iraq, threats to regional stability, and a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis -- all created by the war itself. On balance, historians are likely to conclude that those who opposed the war to begin with -- and saw that it wouldn't make us safer -- showed the best judgment of all.

By washingtonpost.com |  September 11, 2008; 5:07 AM ET  | Category:  Books , Counterinsurgency
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

You know, that is an excellent point. For all the crowing about Teh Surge(TM), the fact that Bush delayed implementation of that tactic - perhaps because of internal bureaucratic resistance - has to be pointed out as a major flaw in strategy. Either our military needs to be much more expeditionary than it appears or our decision-makers need to understand the implications of their failures to commit to decisions. Not sure which one requires greater redress.

Posted by: Jason | September 11, 2008 8:44 AM


1. Is the world better off without Sadam?
2. Would he have been a future threat and it was just a matter of time?
3. Did most leaders in the world agree he had WMD?
4. Did Congress agree to authorize military action?
5. Once the decision for war was made and we had Sadam should we have left and allowed genocide and Iran to fill the void?
6. Has Al Qaeda been routed in Iraq and hiding in caves?
7. Did you and your Democrat cronies help the US military win at every step or encourage our enemies to keep fighting?
8. Will Barack listen to his military like Bush (causing the delay for the surge) or run every aspect from the Oval office?
9. History will show George faced our enemies and laid the foundation for a more peaceful democratic Middle East.

Critics like you never look at what the alternative history would have been and what other tragedies would have followed. You assume only better alternative time lines would have followed.

The Neville Chamberlains always claim to have better vision of the future.

Posted by: Bob Goehring | September 11, 2008 9:20 AM

Sic-fi alternate histories are no substitute for fact: Iraq was not any sort of a threat, there wasn't any legitimate reason to invade Iraq, and Mr. Bush and his gangster administration are among the most disgraceful criminals in our history.

And anyone who thinks that the RAPE of Iraq was a victory for the United States is an idiot. It remains what it was from the start: a needless criminal war of aggression.

Posted by: Charles Gittings | September 11, 2008 9:59 AM


1. Who besides the U.S. thought Iraq was an immediate threat?
2. The U.N. weapons inspectors went to every single site listed in the U.S. White Paper as a WMD or nuclear site and found nothing. The only lasting dispute before the war started in March was what happened to a stockpile of Iran-Iraq war era WMD that Iraq claimed they destroyed (which it turns out they did) but they had no paperwork. Otherwise no active WMD or nuclear program contrary to the U.S.'s claims.
3. U.S. intelligence never said that Iraq had a connection to Al Qaeda despite repeated claims by the White House
4. Before the Surge the U.S. had no policy to win. The plan was to withdraw as quickly as possible, and leave everything to the Iraqis.

Posted by: motown67 | September 11, 2008 10:00 AM

***9. History will show George faced our enemies and laid the foundation for a more peaceful democratic Middle East.***

bwahahahahahahaha..... dang, i want some of what you're smoking.

Posted by: linda | September 11, 2008 10:54 AM

Any entry that starts off making the point that the world is better off without Saddam could be used as a philosophical foundation for attacking any sovereign nation whose leader we believe is a bad guy. Saddam was our guy in the '80's.

Hirohito would have said the same about Roosevelt & Truman had he won. Wouldn't have made it any more valid.

Posted by: davemaz | September 11, 2008 11:26 PM

Exactly right. Thanks for this.

To paint Bush as a perceptive analyst of developments in Iraq is outrageous. He took no apparent action to head off problems that were obvious to me in 2003. The key struggle was to maintain the Republican image in the 2004 and 2006 elections.

The surge was designed to head off the threat that the US would withdraw in a manner that would reflect poorly on Bush and the war promoters, and the goal was to provide a chance that Bush could claim a victory. This, rather than an actual focus on the welfare of Iraqis and the actual national-security interests of the US, best explains Bush's actions.

Posted by: Steve | September 11, 2008 11:35 PM

Here's a post I made for my blog (http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.com/) a couple months ago on the lack of a strategy before the surge:

[b]Did the U.S. Ever Have A Strategy To Win In Iraq Before the Surge?[/b]

“Staying the course” was one of President Bush’s favorite phrases when describing his commitment to the war in Iraq. While Bush was talking about heading towards victory and how the U.S. was winning, his Secretary of Defense had other ideas. Rumsfeld was set on withdrawing U.S. forces as soon as possible. Rather than having a set plan for defeating the insurgency, Generals Abizaid, commander of the Central Command (CENTCOM) that covered the Middle East, and Gen. Casey, commander in Iraq, were managing the conflict until Iraqi security forces could be built up leading to a U.S. pullout. PBS’s Frontline aired a program on Iraq called “End Game” in mid-June 2007, which included interviews with some of the top military advisers in the Pentagon and State Department, as well as leading journalists that highlighted this disconnect between what Pres. Bush was telling the American public, and what his generals and the Pentagon were actually doing. What follows is a comparison between the public statements made by Pres. Bush on Iraq and what was actually happening on the ground, relying largely on interviews conducted by Frontline.


[i]Pres. Bush declares that the U.S. will defeat the insurgency, but the military is drawing up plans to withdraw U.S. troops, and actually decrease combat operations against the insurgents by pulling back troops to large bases. The military operations that are carried out are large conventional sweeps that increase resentment against U.S. forces.[/i]

May 24, 2004 “America’s task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy, it is to give strength to a friend – a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf.” – Pres. Bush.

June 2004 Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld sends Gen. George Casey to take over command in Iraq. Since before the invasion in 2003, Rumsfeld had always planned for the U.S. military to go into Iraq as quickly as possible and then withdraw just as fast. Casey is therefore told to train Iraqi forces so that the U.S. can withdraw its troops.

August 2004 Gen. Casey formulates a new campaign plan for Iraq. It is based upon the belief, shared by Gen. Abizaid, that U.S. troops are a negative influence on the country and their presence only leads to more opposition to the occupation. Based upon that assumption, Casey’s new plan calls for U.S. troops to stay on large forward operating bases and only fight insurgents when necessary.

[u]On Troop Withdrawal:[/u]

“Well, from the day we got in, the plan was to get out at the earliest possible opportunity. At least that was the plan in the mind of the Defense Department.” – Michael Gordon, military correspondent for the New York Times, author of the book on the invasion and occupation of Iraq Cobra II

“I think the impulse that drives Rumsfeld, up until the day of his resignation really, is how to extricate the United States from Iraq, (a) because it is interfering with some of his own cherished dogma and beliefs about the efficacy of military technology, but (b) I think on a more practical level, is he recognizes that the war has become a disaster.” – Lawrence Kaplan, reporter for the New Republic

“[Casey] was inclined to begin to draw troops off at the earliest opportunity. But there’s a number of good reasons for this. … The United States strategic reserve was right down to the bone at this point. … The other is that I think that Gen. Casey did understand the way that the counterinsurgency had to be approached: that this was an Iraqi problem, ultimately, and the Iraqis would have to solve it. … So holding back the engagement of American military forces actually made sense.” – Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.), former military advisor to Gen. Casey, consultant to the Iraq Study Group, currently assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School Center on Terrorism and Irregular Warfare

“I think that from the outset our emphasis was on getting out of Iraq as quickly as possible, and that had always been the president’s strategy; it had always been Secretary Rumsfeld’s approach, and it was the approach that Gen. Abizaid and Casey had. .. The objective is to get Iraq under control at a basic level, train up Iraqi security forces, turn over responsibility to the government and leave.” – Frederick Kagan, former military historian at West Point, co-author of the current surge policy, resident at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute

[u]On The Bases Strategy:[/u]

“If you bring them [U.S. forces] into the forts two things happen. First of all, you reduce the numbers of casualties because remember, the crisis that emerges in the spring of 2004 emerges because Congress is up in arms. Because their constituents are calling and complaining of the fact that their friends and relatives are being killed and wounded by the dozen in the spring of 2004. … So the big base strategy is tied to the notion that you’ve got to reduce casualties. Unfortunately, the big strategy also cedes the initiative to the enemy.” – Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.), served in U.S. Army until 2004, military analyst for Jim Lehrer, CNN, NBC, and Fox News

“[In Iraq you had] what David Kilcullen, another one of the very smart advisers on counterinsurgency, termed ‘war tourism.’ … What he’s talking about is units based on big forward operating bases. FOBs, going out and doing patrols from Humvees, usually not foot patrols but mounted patrols, and then coming back to their base. He said if that’s the way you’re operating, you’re not in the war; you’re simply a war tourist. You’ve got to be out there.” - Thomas Ricks, military correspondent for the Washington Post, and author of a history of the U.S. invasion and occupation Fiasco

[u]On The Combat Operations Carried Out:[/u]

“[Casey] underwrites the notion that we should conduct, large, conventional sweeps into areas where we think the enemy is living and operating. So we move across Anbar province. We go into towns and villages. … We end up, ultimately, making far more enemies than we kill because we go into these areas and we kill lots of innocent people. … And in the meantime, because these are large, predictable operations, most of the enemy that you went in there to get is gone before you arrive, melts away. … He doesn’t understand that he has reinforced all the wrong things all the way along to make matters worse.” – Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.), military analyst

“Casey didn’t understand the situation, didn’t recognize the basic realities of what was happening in Iraq. .. The question Casey has to address is, can we dig ourselves out of this hole? … This is best summarized by the study that [Kalev] Sepp, [professor, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California] does for him in I think the fall of ’04. He does a list of best practices in counterinsurgency and worst practices in counterinsurgency. I think of the 12 worst practices, the major mistakes that militaries have made in trying to put down an insurgency, the United States is committing nine of the 12.” – Thomas Ricks, Washington Post

[b]Fall 2004-2005[/b]

[i]U.S. plans are amended to include the promotion of elections and the formation of a new Iraqi government to try to draw Sunnis away from fighting the occupation to participating in democracy. On the military side, a new emphasis is placed on building up Iraqi security forces so that as they “stand up we will stand down.” Rumsfeld and his generals believe that together these new policies will facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Neither proves effective, which leads to growing criticism within the administration that the U.S. has no real strategy for victory in Iraq. Bush rejects the bad news.[/i]

Fall 2004 Casey and Rumsfeld add a new part to their strategy. The idea is to carry out elections so that a new Iraqi government can be formed. The belief is that democracy will bring the Sunnis into the political process and eventually marginalize the insurgency.

January 2005 the first round of elections take place in Iraq, but the vast majority of Sunnis boycott them.

March 2005 New emphasis is placed on training Iraqi forces to take over security from Americans.

June 28, 2005 “The principal task of our military is to find and defeat the terrorists, and that is why we are on the offense. And as we pursue the terrorists, our military is helping to train Iraqi security forces so that they can defend their people and fight the enemy on their own. … As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” – Pres. Bush

[u]On Iraqi Elections:[/u]

“Their conclusion is that we’re sort of moving beyond this period of major combat operations into a counterinsurgency phase in which the process of political reconciliation, which is also being pushed aggressively by the American Embassy, is going to lead to a diminution of the insurgency over time, because we’re going to take these people who are outside the process, bring some portion of them inside the process through negotiations. There will always be rejectionists … we’ll be battling them forever. But the Iraqis will do most of that fight. … Yes, it’s longer and harder than anybody anticipated, but the trend lines are positive. That’s the picture that’s being painted by Gen. Casey, Don Rumsfeld. And the White House is accepting that picture.” – Michael Gordon, New York Times

“Enter George Casey, and to his credit, in the summer of ’04, after he arrived, he put together a campaign plan to get everybody on the same page. The centerpiece to that was that we were going to transition to the Iraqi security forces. … The political strategy was to stand up a … representative government, as quickly as possible. When you look back on that and analyze it, it’s a short-war strategy…. Nowhere in there is a plan to defeat the insurgency, so we had no military strategy to defeat the insurgency. We were resting on a political strategy that would hopefully stem the violence because the Sunnis would come into the political process and therefore seek a political solution to the confrontation, no longer an armed solution. We over relied on that. And then there was no forcing function, because we were not defeating the insurgents.” – Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.), former Army vice chief of staff 1999-2004, co-author of the current surge policy

“What was missing in the CENTCOM strategy was an understanding of the synergy that has to exist between a kinetic strategy to defeat the insurgency as a prerequisite for convincing the insurgents that they have to play in the political process, because what you had going on was Sunni Arabs were unwilling to accept the fact that they would not control the new Iraq … If you don’t take that tool away from them, if you don’t make it clear to them that violence is not an option and is not going to provide them with leverage, then you’re encouraging them to continue to be violent. And this was the problem that I saw all along with CENTCOM strategy as it was playing out.” – Frederick Kagan, American Enterprise Institute, co-author of the current surge policy

“The only other thing I will say on this particular issue [involving the Sunnis in elections in 2005] is I don’t think that we devoted enough effort to engaging that political leadership before the fact, nor did we create conditions that would cause elements of the Sunni community to hear what their leaders were saying.” – Col. William Hix, was chief strategist for Gen. Casey

[u]On Training Iraqi Forces:[/u]

“Then, due to a whole variety of factors, including mistakes the Americans made, the insurgency emerged. And Gen. Casey’s role, his initial task was to fight that insurgency. But what I think happened was Gen. Casey and Gen. Abizaid came to the conclusion hat this insurgency was pretty resilient, wasn’t going to be defeated anytime soon. And they seemed to have made an assumption that Washington was not willing to provide the military resources and other resources that would be needed to really defeat this insurgency. So they settled on a strategy that was not intended to defeat the insurgency in the short term. Rather the emphasis was on handing over to the Iraqis so they could fight the insurgency for years, and we would then be in a supporting role. Even though officially we had a counterinsurgency campaign, the emphasis was not so much on defeating the insurgency, which would take five, six, seven, eight, 10 years traditionally; it was on transferring security responsibilities to the Iraqis and putting them in the lead so they could fight this insurgency in the ensuing years.” – Michael Gordon, New York Times

“But when you get down to what are the forces actually doing, the purpose of those military operations [was] to help train the Iraqi security forces, to transition to them so that they could defeat the insurgency, not us.” – Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.), former Army vice chief of staff 1999-2004, co-author of the current surge policy

[u]On Withdrawal Plans:[/u]

“’Success is simply we leave, they stay, we train them, and then we leave,’ that very narrow definition can have kind of a nice circular quality, but it kind of avoids a lot of central questions. That was a source of a lot of concern in the summer of ’06.” – Philip Zelikow, former adviser to Secretary of State Rice on Iraq from 2005-2007, currently history professor at Univ. of Virginia

“The secretary of defense hadn’t stepped back from Iraq strategy, but we couldn’t really see any push to innovate the strategy in significant ways. It still seemed to be … an exit strategy. .. That’s really more about Americans than it is about Iraq.” – Philip Zelikow

[u]On Having No Strategy:[/u]

“As somebody put it … it was a-strategic. The emphasis was on transferring responsibility to the Iraqis, generating more Iraqi soldiers and police, shrinking the number of American bases, beginning to draw down American combat brigades. And to some in the State Department and maybe on the NSC staff, it looked like this process had a life of its own, and it was almost a bit disconnected from the events in Iraq.” – Michael Gordon, New York Times

“In the summer of ’04, our strategy, by and large, military strategy, was wrapped around killing and capturing the insurgents, the thugs, the killers who were attacking us, and beginning to think about transitioning to and the growth of the Iraqi military. … But there was no unified campaign plan.” – Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.), former Army vice chief of staff 1999-2004, co-author of the current surge policy

“When I go and talk with officers in the Pentagon, I say: ‘Well, what’s the campaign plan? What is the series of steps that will lead us to achieving our objectives?’ And typically they’ll say: ‘Well, here are all the metrics. Here are all the things we’re trying to achieve.’ And I said: ‘Well, that’s all well and good, but what is the plan? How do we progressively go about securing the country and defeating the insurgency?’” - Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.), former military advisor to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and consultant to the Defense Dept.

“This point’s critical – you have to have a strategy country wide that tells your battalion and company commanders what their jobs are. … That’s what [was] missing. … Because the commanding generals did not prepare one.” – Philip Zelikow, former advisor to Secretary of State Rice on Iraq from 2005-2007

“And the success of the [January 2005] elections, while tremendously gratifying, caught the MNF-1 [the coalition forces] staff unprepared with how to exploit this. … There wasn’t anything in place to take advantage of this tremendous blow to the insurgency.” – Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.), former military advisor to Gen. Casey

[u]On Bush Rejecting Bad News:[/u]

“It’s also a time [late 2004/early 2005] I think almost of deep divisions bordering on warfare in Washington about Iraq with the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and the CIA coming in with very pessimistic reports, and actually getting them in front of the president at the end of ’04 and through ’05, saying, ‘You are not winning in Iraq,’ and Bush being a little bit taken aback: ‘Who are these guys? What are they telling me this for?’ The story is supposedly after one such meeting with the Baghdad station chief of CIA, Bush asked afterward, ‘Is that guy a Democrat?’ But these guys I think are actually doing a very honest job of trying to speak truth to power.” – Thomas Ricks, Washington Post

[b]Late 2005[/b]

[i]Bush announces his new “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” based upon the urgings of Secretary of State Rice who sees Iraq policy failing. The new plan is to implement a combined military, political and economic counterinsurgency plan called “clear, hold and build.” The plan is opposed by Rumsfeld and therefore brings about no actual change on the ground in Iraq.[/i]

Late 2005 Secretary of State Rice is told by her special advisor on Iraq Philip Zelikow that the U.S. is lacking an overarching strategy in Iraq. Zelikow advocates a new counterinsurgency policy called “clear, hold and build.” Under this plan the U.S. will clear areas of insurgents, Iraqi security forces will then hold them, and then reconstruction will begin to win over the population.

October 6, 2005 “This enemy considers every retreat of the civilized world as an invitation to greater violence. In Iraq, there is no peace without victory. We will keep our nerve, and we will win that victory.” – Pres. Bush

October 19, 2005 Secretary of State Rice tells the Senate Foreign Relations committee that the U.S. strategy in Iraq has to be “clear, hold and build.”

October 29, 2005, Rumsfeld disagrees with Rice’s new plan, saying that the Iraqis are the ones that need to stand up and fight rather than relying on American troops.

November 30, 2005 Bush announces the “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.” It states that the U.S. will now follow Rice’s “clear, hold, and build” policy. At a speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland Bush says, “We will never back down. We will never give in. And we will never accept anything less than complete victory,” and repeats that “As the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down.”

December 2005 The second round of elections take place to vote on a new Constitution. The Sunnis participate for the first time, but the majority vote against the document.

[u]On The New Strategy:[/u]

“Then you have people in Washington trying to make sense out of it and trying to figure out if this strategy of handing over and transferring to the Iraqis really fits the situation. … What happens over the course of 2006 is people in the State Department and on the NSC increasingly come to think that it doesn’t and that we’re behind the curve in Iraq, that the situation in Iraq is more difficult than the one that’s being portrayed by Rumsfeld and Casey.” – Michael Gordon, New York Times

“At the State Department we felt increasingly restless that the strategy wasn’t being articulated at home or in the field as effectively as we thought it should be, with the kind of coherent counterinsurgency approach that we thought was needed and we thought a lot of the military accepted. The White House wasn’t doing it. They preferred to write different kinds of speeches for the president. And the secretary of defense wasn’t doing it. So the secretary of state really had to make the decision to step up and accept responsibility for helping to articulate a strategy for Iraq. And Secretary Rice did that in October of ’05, which then helped spur the rest of the administration, including the White House, to unveil a much more elaborate version of the national strategy for victory in Iraq, which they did later in ’05.” – Philip Zelikow, former advisor to Secretary of State Rice on Iraq from 2005-2007

“Are we ‘staying the course’? Is there a ‘strategy for victory’? People start talking about ‘clearing, holding and building.’ Well, what does that mean? This war of the phrases, for me, was summarized most of all in ‘standing down as they stand up,’ partly because when we reached the end of the rainbow, there wasn’t a pot of gold; there was nothing. It turned out that a stood-up Iraqi force couldn’t quell the violence, so the Bush administration redefined standing down as they stand up. What we knew was standing up an Iraqi government, an effective Iraqi government. That had never been the original definition. And it’s a much longer task that’s going to take several years.” – Thomas Ricks, Washington Post

[u]On No Change In Iraq:[/u]

“There was some positive movement, but not enough. What ended up happening was that the basic center for policy development on Iraq remained in Baghdad. And Baghdad was not fundamentally innovating the policy.” – Philip Zelikow, former advisor to Secretary of State Rice on Iraq from 2005-2007

“During this time frame in late 2005 and 2006, the White House is talking about a strategy for victory. When I was out in Iraq in Anbar and in Baghdad, I always thought there was a pretty profound disconnect between the rhetoric coming out of Washington in this time frame and what was actually happening, because I don’t think we were really trying to achieve victory. In fact, my sense was that the generals then looked at the insurgency, saw it was resilient, concluded that it couldn’t be defeated in the near term, put the emphasis on building up the Iraqis and handing over to them, and that the actual strategy was premised on the assumption that there would not be a near-term victory. There would be a continued war that we would support. So my sense is we never were going all out to win. We weren’t fighting the war. We were managing the war within available resources, and this was very much the emphasis in the first part of 2006.” – Michael Gordon, New York Times

“Secretary Rice clearly got the president sold on clear, hold and build. … And the weird thing is that the president, having endorsed that particular strategy, seems to have no effect on the ground, because the president has then announced this strategy which the military then doesn’t execute. And I think Rumsfeld at one point even says, ‘Oh, we’re not doing clear, hold, build. … What I can tell you from the outside is that’s a dysfunctional administration. Something’s not working there if you’ve got the secretary of state enunciating a policy like that, the president adhering to it and endorsing it, and then the military commanders not executing. Something is broken.” – Frederick Kagan, American Enterprise Institute, co-author of the current surge policy

[b]Early 2006[/b]

[i]After the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, sectarian violence reaches unprecedented levels, especially in Baghdad. The violence ends another planned withdrawal for the U.S.[/i]

May 27, 2006 the U.S. promises to hand over security of Baghdad to the Iraqis by the end of the year.

June 2006 On a trip to Washington D.C., Gen. Casey presents a new plan for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but it’s derailed by increasing sectarian violence.

[u]On The Increase In Sectarian Violence:[/u]

“I think the reason that a lot of people think Casey essentially failed is when we didn’t protect Iraqis, Iraqis, seeking to survive, looked to see who could protect them. And the story of 2006 was, ‘The militias will protect us.’” – Thomas Ricks, Washington Post

[b]Summer 2006-2007[/b]

[i]American generals are still intent on withdrawing U.S. troops, but they must address the sectarian violence. This leads to the launching of two offensives in Baghdad, Operation Together Forward I & II, which are supposed to be based upon the clear, hold and build principles. Both fail, and Iraqi forces prove not only incapable of securing areas, but are involved in sectarian attacks. The increased fighting kills plans for a U.S. draw down of troops in 2006. Pres. Bush finally accepts that the U.S. is not winning in Iraq. This leads to a policy re-evaluation within the White House, but Bush skips a major meeting at Camp David for a P.R. trip to Iraq instead. The administration still tries to keep a positive spin on things because they don’t want Republicans to suffer in November elections because of Iraq.[/i]

July to October 2006 U.S. and Iraqi forces launch Operation Together Forward II, the second attempt in 2006 to secure Baghdad. The plan fails because there are not enough U.S. troops, the Iraqis don’t provide enough forces, and even when they do they are incapable of holding an area and stopping sectarian violence form occurring.

July 4, 2006 “You’re winning this war.” – Pres. Bush to troop at Fort Bragg, N.C.

July 7, 2006 “Americans are wondering whether or not we can win. And to those Americans, I say: Not only can we win, we are winning.” – Pres. Bush

October 25, 2006 “Absolutely, we’re winning. As a matter of fact, my view is the only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done.” – Pres. Bush

October 25, 2006 “I’m interested in one thing: I’m interested in winning.” – Pres. Bush

[u]On The Cancelled Withdrawal Plans:[/u]

“There’s a very important event which happens in June [2006]. … Gen. Casey comes back to the United States with a plan. What does this plan call for? It’s another version of his plan to draw down American forces in Iraq. … And what it calls for is reducing the then-14 brigade combat teams to 12 by September, trying to get down to 10 by December, trying to get down to around seven by July ’07, and trying to get down to five or six by December ’07, while shrinking the number of bases. … Within a matter of weeks this plan is shelved. We’re moving in precisely the opposite direction. We’ve added 7,000 troops to Baghdad for something they call Operation Together Forward II because the sectarian violence is starting to spiral out of control.” – Michael Gordon, New York Times

[u]On the Failure Of Operation Together Forward II:[/u]

“So the U.S. answer becomes: OK, we can clear, then the Iraqi troops will hold. And we’ll achieve that when we get up to the number of trained Iraqi forces, soldiers and police that we’re supposed to have, which is about 320,000. The problem is in ’06 they achieved that number of 320,000 trained Iraqi security forces, yet the violence still increases.” – Thomas Ricks, Washington Post

“I knew that once we had made up our minds [in the summer of 2006 with Operation Together Forward II] that we were going to clear, but we didn’t have enough resources to hold, I knew the operation would fail. So we had two bites of this apple in Baghdad, and we failed both times because we never made a commitment to secure the population, and we never had enough resources to do it. I knew that our chances to succeed in Iraq were just slipping past us.” – Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.), former Army vice chief of staff 1999-2004, co-author of the current surge policy

“But when you actually are dealing with a sectarian conflict, you cannot rely on indigenous forces to put down the violence, because every single person in those indigenous forces belongs to one sect or another. And when that is the issue on the table, indigenous forces cannot be impartial imposers of peace.” – Frederick Kagan, American Enterprise Institute, co-author of the current surge policy

“[In October 2006] the momentum towards sectarian division is not slowing. Maliki’s government’s will to deal with the security issues impartially is uncertain. And the current political-economic-military strategy isn’t really succeeding. We focused a lot on the military side of this. But on the political side, national reconciliation wasn’t advancing as quickly as we would like. And a fundamental problem there was [that] lack of motivation on the Maliki government side, and the lack of sufficient influence or leverage on our side.” – Philip Zelikow, former advisor to Secretary of State Rice on Iraq from 2005-2007

[u]On Re-Evaluating U.S. Policy:[/u]

“So by the time we’re really well into this so-called Operation Together Forward, there are grave doubts in Washington now. … Washington is now very uneasy and unsure.” – Michael Gordon, New York Times

“I don’t think many policymakers in Washington really appreciated the degree to which this [a lack of an overall strategy in Iraq] was missing, or perhaps in many respects didn’t fully grasp the scale of this void until late in 2006. … So there was a lot of pressure by the early summer of 2006 to try to get a fundamental war council in which the president would pull this up by its roots and look at it and do a thoroughgoing review of the strategy for the conduct of the war. … That’s what … Camp David was meant to be [in June 2006]. … But the substantive review of the strategy that some of us who had been supporting the Camp David sessions had hoped for, that didn’t really unfold [because Bush flew to Baghdad instead of participating].” – Philip Zelikow, former advisor to Secretary of State Rice on Iraq from 2005-2007

“So [Rumsfeld] asked me to come in and speak to him. And I talked to him in September [2006] … about what was wrong, why it’s wrong and what we needed to do to fix it. … But he was certainly getting it from many sides, and I think from people who he trusted, that things were just horrible, and by every indicator the strategy was failing. I think that’s what he was indicating to me in body language.” Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.), former Army vice chief of staff 1999-2004, co-author of the current surge policy

[u]On Bush’s Realization That The U.S. Was Not Winning:[/u]

“Because the rhetoric that the president was evidencing in his remarks almost consistently for three years, he would use terms like ‘win,’ ‘We’re going to defeat the insurgents,’ ‘victory.’ That all would lend itself to a military strategy whose purpose was to defeat the insurgency. We never had that as a mission in Iraq. And I don’t know if the president, through all those three years, truly understood that.” – Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.), former Army vice chief of staff 1999-2004, co-author of the current surge policy

“There were people well before ’06 who went into President Bush’s office and said, ‘You are not winning this war.’ He didn’t want to hear it; he tended not to believe it. … Finally in late ’06 the president kind of wakes up and says, ‘You know, this isn’t going that well.’ He actually gives a speech, I think, where he says the present course is failing.” – Thomas Ricks, Washington Post

[u]On Holding On Until the November Elections:[/u]

“The first thing Casey does [in the summer of 2006] is abandon the official optimism that he had still subscribed to through much of this period, and he gives up the idea of trying to draw down U.S. troops during 2006. … The other thing he’s got going is the clear recognition that there’s probably going to be a shift in Iraq policy by the end of ‘06/early ’07. … So I think what’s he’s doing is essentially trying to keep the lid on through the midterm elections.” – Thomas Ricks, Washington Post

“They don’t want to suggest prior to the midterm election that they themselves no longer believe in their own strategy, because they think that will be politically damaging to the administration’s prospects, the Republican prospects in the election.” – Michael Gordon, New York Times

“I was disappointed with how the strategy developed after that point [the Camp David meeting]. I mean, I’d been disappointed with the strategy all along, but I think that we continued to drift; we continue to focus too much on training Iraqis with the belief that they would solve the problem. … We continued to engage in this sort of raid-patrol kind of operation, which is really antithetical to good counterinsurgency.” – Frederick Kagan, American Enterprise Institute, co-author of the current surge policy

[b]January 2007[/b]

[i]Pres. Bush announces another new strategy for Iraq termed the “surge” of increasing U.S. and Iraqi forces for a third attempt to secure Baghdad, and begin reconstruction, which will hopefully lead to political reconciliation. As part of this new policy Donald Rumsfeld is fired and Generals Abizaid and Casey are replaced.[/i]

Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.), former military advisor to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalizaid and current consultant to the Pentagon finished his interview with Frontline by saying that the U.S. wasn’t serious about winning the war in Iraq. The White House was acting like everything was normal and had never asked the country to make any kind of sacrifices.

“We Americans, certainly the administration, believe that Iraq represents a critical security problem for the Unite States, but we’ve taken to a great extent very much as business-as-usual approach. There’s an enormous gap between what we feel and what we say about this war and what we’re actually doing about this war, how much we’re willing to disrupt our lives, how much we’re willing to divert resources, how much we’re willing to upset traditional patterns in the way our bureaucracy operates to actually win the war. … I’m saying that we’re not serious. We’re not as serious as you need to be when you undertake this kind of enterprise. War is a very serious business.”


Baker, Peter, “Bush Is Reassuring on Iraq But Says He’s ‘Not Satisfied,” Washington Post, 10/26/06

Epstein, Edward, “A somber Bush rejects timeline for Iraq pullout,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/26/06

Froomkin, Dan, “Why Bush Thinks We’re Winning,” Washington Post.com, 10/26/06

PBS Frontline, “Gen. George Casey,” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Interview Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.),” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Interview Col. William Hix,” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Interview Frederick Kagan,” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Interview Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.),” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Interview Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.),” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Interview Michael Gordon,” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Interview Philip Zelikow,” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Interview Thomas Ricks,” End Game, 6/19/07
- “Timeline Struggling to Find a Strategy for Success,” End Game, 6/19/07

White House, “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” 11/30/05

Posted by: motown67 | September 12, 2008 10:08 AM

Colin...the only truth you have echoed is that hindsight is 20/20.

Motown--you sure love yourself--what makes you think anybody wants to read all that blogology you dumped onto the thread? Please spare us and summarize next time.

>>>it will simply mean that the change in strategy helped address the self-inflicted wounds to our national interests -- the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, enhanced Iranian influence in Iraq, threats to regional stability, and a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis -- all created by the war itself.

So...to sum up...the President doesn't want to win...he just wants to look less bad losing? Stick to hindsight Colin...your vision is better.

Posted by: Panhandle Willy | September 12, 2008 1:20 PM

Mr Kahl seems to imply that while he opposed the war in the first place, Bush was wrong to have waited so long to implement the surge because "...he didn't issue the order until January 2007, with the first surged troops arriving in February -- almost a full year after the Mosque bombing."

Mr Kahl also goes on to explain that Bush also failed by ..."continuing to starve Afghanistan (a war sliding downhill fast) of the troops and resources needed for success there."

As Mr Kahl settles into his role as chief foreign policy adviser for Senator Obama, we can all be reassured that "change" in the form of a less belligerent foreign policy will be the hallmark of an Obama administration.

Posted by: Elias | September 12, 2008 7:20 PM

Panhandle willie,

If you read my original post in this thread I did sum up my point. Before the surge the U.S. did not have a plan to win in Iraq. Their plan was to turn things over to the Iraqis and get out. It was a withdrawal plan, not a "victory" plan.

“Because the rhetoric that the president was evidencing in his remarks almost consistently for three years, he would use terms like ‘win,’ ‘We’re going to defeat the insurgents,’ ‘victory.’ That all would lend itself to a military strategy whose purpose was to defeat the insurgency. We never had that as a mission in Iraq. And I don’t know if the president, through all those three years, truly understood that.” – Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.), former Army vice chief of staff 1999-2004, co-author of the current surge policy

Posted by: motown67 | September 12, 2008 8:51 PM

P.S. - Panhandle, Mr. Kahl's argument is not hindsight. People who watched the war closely could see right after the invasion with the looting that things were not going as planned. In 2004-2005 the heavy handed policies were creating more enemies than friends int he country. By 2006 the sectarian war was in full-swing and it took some special glasses not to see that things were going to hell in Iraq. I think the piece's point was that there were signs since immediately after the invasion that the U.S. needed a change in policy in Iraq but it took the Bush White House until 2007 to finally admit that what they had been trying wasn't working out, and needed to be changed. Even that was put off for political reasons because of the Congressional elections. That's a lot of years, blood, lives, money and Iraqis lost to come around.

Posted by: motown67 | September 12, 2008 9:07 PM

The US disturbed the balance of power in the middle east when they overthrew saddam hussein. his iraqi gov't was so against the iranian gov't. its likely that if he were around today, the iranians wouldn't be threatening the united states, instead they would be too busy fighting the iraqis.

Posted by: bldomingo | September 13, 2008 1:04 AM


By your comments here, John McCain was the only politician to have it right all along. HE ADVOCATED for a surge long before anyone else in Washington did.

Posted by: DJ | September 13, 2008 3:02 PM


By your comments here, John McCain was the only politician to have it right all along. HE ADVOCATED for a surge long before anyone else in Washington did.

Posted by: DJ | September 13, 2008 3:02 PM
And Obama was even more right than McCain for thinking that the occupation of Iraq was the wrong thing to do.

The surge still is not the prescription because it is not bring about the necessary political changes. It appears that Iraqis are developing enough to eventually ask America to leave. This is a big deal to them. Sunnis want arms and power and they are cooperating with Americans, Shia have most of the power and are lying low. When we leave they will work it out. They would like a timeline for our departure because they know what they want and we can't be around.
Americans think this occupation and Iraq's future is all about us and the distribution of hot dogs and apple pie (freedom and democracy). We will be lucky if the door doesn't hit us on the way out.

Posted by: Colin, tries partisan and fails | September 13, 2008 7:14 PM

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