Monday, February 27, 2012

Reassessing The U.S. Surge, And Recognizing Iraqi Agency In Ending The 2005-2008 Civil War In Iraq, An Interview With New America Foundation's Douglas Ollivant

Douglas Ollivant is a former officer in the U.S. Army, who is currently a senior fellow at the New American Foundation for national security. Entering commissioned service in 1989 as an infantry officer, he then went on to graduate school at Indiana University in 1997. From 1999-2002, he taught at West Point, then spent two years as a student at Command and General Staff College, and the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth. In June of 2004, he went to Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, where he was deployed to Kadhimiyah, Arab Jabour, and Dora in Baghdad, along with Najaf, and Fallujah in Anbar. From October 2006 to December 2007, he served as Chief of Plans for the Multi-National Division Baghdad before and during the Surge. He then went on to be a director for Iraq issues on the National Security Council from March 2008 to July 2009.  He then retired from the Army that summer before serving as the senior counterinsurgency advisor to the Regional Command East in Afghanistan in 2010-2011. In 2011, he wrote an article entitled “Countering the New Orthodoxy, Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency In Iraq” for the New American Foundation, which challenged much of the conventional wisdom in the U.S. about the role the 2007 Surge, and American forces in general played in ending the Iraqi civil war. While Ollivant felt that the United States military played an important role in shaping the environment in the country, he argued that it was in fact, actions and decisions made by Iraqis themselves that ultimately changed the status quo. Below is an interview with Ollivant, discussing his theory about what ended the sectarian war in Iraq, and relating it to current events in the country such as the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal, and the current political crisis.

1. In June 2011, you wrote a piece called “Countering the New Orthodoxy, Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency In Iraq,” which was a critique of the conventional American wisdom that the 2007 U.S. Surge ended the Iraqi civil war. Could you outline the general contours of what the “new orthodoxy” is?

What I call the “new orthodoxy” is the general perception that the unmistakable improvements that followed the 2007 troop surge were in fact caused by the three most visible manifestations of the surge. These three factors were the 30,000 additional soldiers and marines, the adaptation of Counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques, exemplified in General Petraeus’s COIN Guidance of July 2007, and the arrival of General Petraeus himself in February of 2007. I list Linda Robinson, Tom Ricks, and Kim Kagan as the primary architects of this view, with Bob Woodward reinforcing it in the few pages he devotes to the Iraq Surge. This is not to say that there isn’t more nuance in some of these works, but that the public takeaway, driven by these accounts, can be boiled down to these three lessons.

2. You said that a counterinsurgency is a political act, which cannot be ended through military means. In the U.S. though, most only consider the Surge as changing the status quo in Iraq. Could you explain why you think that’s the wrong take on events?

To say an insurgency cannot be ended by military means is overstated. In the paper, I give great “credit” to the Jaysh al Mahdi of Moqtada al Sadr for the indiscriminate killing of Baghdad’s Sunnis, which I think is perhaps the primary cause for the political resolution we saw in 2007-8. I think this point ties into a larger tendency on the part of Americans, and the American military in particular, to see events through the lens of their own involvement. I do not say that American actions didn’t play a part, and certainly moving past the blatant incompetence frequently displayed in 2003-2005 at least stopped making the problem worse. My fundamental point is that we may want to consider the possibility that the actions of several million Baghdadis were more important than those of 30,000 troops or even one very talented general.

3. That leads to your main argument that it wasn’t so much the U.S. military that changed the conflict, but decisions made by Iraqis, which consisted of two parts. The first involved a realization by the Sunnis. What did they figure out?

As I stated above, the Sunnis in Baghdad had been, at the very least, ethnically cleansed from the east side of Baghdad, and the periphery of Kadhimiyah by early 2007. We have good census and other data that establishes this, and I don’t think it’s a contested fact. I believed the Sunnis did a rational calculation, and realized that there was no future in contesting not only the conventional military options of the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi Security forces, but more importantly the unconventional assassinations by the Shiite militias and death squads. 

Baghdad in 2003 was a mostly mixed city as shown by the yellow areas of Sunnis (red) Shiites (green) and Christians (blue). (Dr. Michael Izady)
By mid-2008, the demographics of the capital had been completely changed by the civil war. Only a few mixed neighborhoods remained (yellow), while the majority of city had become Shiite (green) with Sunnis pushed to the central western region (red). This was due to the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad by Shiite militias and some parts of the Iraqi security forces, which helped convince the majority of the insurgency to switch sides and join the Sons of Iraq. (Dr. Michael Izady)
4. As a result of that realization, many insurgents and tribes decided to join the Awakening and Sons of Iraq movement. There are many theories about why this happened. Could you give your own thoughts on this change of heart?

In the paper, I give three explanations for the decision to form the Awakening movements. The first was that the U.S. simply bought off the former insurgents. That just doesn’t fit the facts. We had been trying to buy off insurgents for a long time, and it didn’t start working until late 2006. This is not to say that money was not a necessary precondition.

The second explanation is what I call “al-Qaeda overreach,” in which the nihilistic Salafist terrorists finally go too far for tribal society to bear. While I’m sure that many of the activities and habits of the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) members grated on the more traditional and moderate Sunni tribesmen, and even more so on the more secular urbanites, I don’t believe this was enough to be truly causal. This looks to me to instead be a post-hoc face-saving story.

I find a third explanation the most plausible. Essentially the Sunnis, who are not a unitary actor, but we can think of them as one for this purpose, realized that they had been defeated in the Iraqi Civil War by the Shiite partisans, primarily the Jaysh al Mahdi.  They therefore needed to, essentially, sue for peace with the central government and end the insurgency. They worried that since the central government was now in a position of power, it had no particular motivation to settle, so they looked to another actor, the United States, to serve as an honest broker. However, to convince the United States to serve as an honest broker, they have to establish their bona fides as a party who really does want peace. Therefore, they take on AQI, both directly by killing their fighters, and indirectly, by providing intelligence to the Americans. Once they take on AQI, they are incentivized to help the Americans in their anti-AQI battle. The Americans then set up programs that legitimize these former Sunni insurgents as quasi-governmental fighters, get them some semblance of immunity, with a plan to eventually integrate them back into Iraqi society.

Again, I think it is important, critical, to recognize the primacy of Iraqi agency, both Shiite and Sunni, in this narrative. While many want to take credit for the Sunni Awakening or Sons of Iraq, this is mostly very overblown. Some men, I’ve highlighted then Lieutenant Colonels Dale Kuel and Kurt Pinkerton in the past, deserve credit for seeing this phenomenon and realizing how they could exploit it. I am sure neither Dale nor Kurt would claim they caused the Awakening; they just saw a good thing happening that they could ride along with and reinforce.
Former insurgents joining the Sons of Iraq program was a sign that Sunni militants were giving up the fight in the sectarian war (AFP)
5. A second major factor was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Shiites felt like they were winning the war. How did that come about?

Maliki is not new to this game. When the Sunni eventually started suing for peace, Maliki could then realize, if he hadn’t already, that the former regime and even the Salafist terrorists no longer presented an existential threat to his government. They could still cause violence, but the civil war was fundamentally over.

6. The Iraqi government was also actively involved in the sectarian war. What role did it play?

Elements of the Iraqi government were involved, though I don’t think you can indict the entire government. It is no secret that there were elements of the Iraqi Security Forces, particularly in the National Police, that took part in the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad. We must also remember that there were other parts of the Iraqi government that permitted the U.S. coalition to “re-blue” the National Police brigades, retraining them on human rights and rule of law, throughout 2007, and relieved the most sectarian leaders within these brigades.
This picture taken in Feb. 2007 Baghdad shows an Iraqi Police unit forcing out a family from their home in an attempt to clear out Sunnis from a neighborhood (Getty Images)

7. What role did you see Moqtada al-Sadr playing in these events, and especially his 2007 cease-fire?

I probably did not sufficiently emphasize the August 2007 Jaysh al Mahdi ceasefire in my original piece. Intra-Shia politics are very, very complicated. Essentially, in the person of Moqtada al-Sadr, you have the young, then-inexperienced son of a distinguished political family. He is the sole viable heir of Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a grand ayatollah in the activist Shiite tradition that believes in direct political rule by clerics, as opposed to the more traditional quietist tradition that believes clerics should remain in the background, though still be very influential, who was killed in 1999 along with Moqtada’s two older brothers, almost certainly at Saddam’s order. It is his father, Mohammad Sadiq, often referred to as the Second Martyr Sadr, for whom Sadr city is named. The Sadrs are the champions of the Iraqi Shiite underclass, primarily those who have moved from the rural south into Baghdad and Basra.

It is hard to compress the history of the Sadrist movement, but if we fast forward to August of 2007, the Sadrist Jaysh al Mahdi gets into a firefight in Karbala with members of the Iraqi Security Forces. That these forces are widely acknowledged to be members of the Badr Corps, a rival militia, who have integrated into the security forces, is beside the point. Sadr experienced a backlash that forced him to withdraw his forces from any armed role, which became the Sadrist “ceasefire” that held from August of 2007 until early 2008, when the government and the U.S. led coalition challenged his power bases in Basra and Sadr City.

8. Prime Minister Maliki eventually took on the Sadrists in 2008. Why did that happen, and what were the political results?

In March of 2008, Maliki decided that the Sadrist militia control in Basra was unacceptable to his regime, and he gave the order to move Iraqi Army units into Basra. The U.S. coalition was caught unaware by this movement, but quickly decided to support him. The authority of the Government of Iraq (GoI) was re-established in Basra by April 24, when both PM Maliki and then Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin announced that the Iraqi Security Forces had defeated the militias in Basra. By this time, fighting had overlapped with that in Sadr City, which began in earnest in early April and ended in May.

Curiously, I think this is the one exception to my larger thesis, where conventional military power is used to settle a political question. Because the Sadrists “hold ground” and are willing to fight as a more or less conventional force, the government could use military force against them for political gains. I think this one exception proves the rule.

The bottom line here was that Maliki settled an intra-Shiite dispute in his favor, and created an image as an Iraqi nationalist, willing to take on extremists within any sect to preserve the Government of Iraq. I do not believe he would have taken on his co-religionists until he was confident that the Sunni-Shi’a civil war had been settled.

9. Your thesis does not discount the role the U.S. played in the turn of events in Iraq. Could you explain what the Surge was successful at?

The Surge was successful in several ways, just not the ones usually attributed.

First, it was immensely successful politically. President Bush’s speech in January of 2007 removed all ambiguity from American policy regarding Iraq, giving predictability to the actors in Baghdad. They knew that until January 20, 2009, they could count on American support. I think it is hard to understate how important this was. Contrast this with the much more ambiguous statements from President Obama on Afghanistan, and how political leaders in the region have had to hedge their bets.
Thousands of concrete walls were erected throughout the capital as part of the Baghdad Security Plan to cut down sectarian fighting (Reuters)

Second, there were a lot of U.S. actions that made it easier for the Iraqis to reach an accommodation. These include the security stations among the population, erection of concrete barriers, and the elimination of both Sunni and Shi’a extremists by both Joint Special Operations Command and the general-purpose brigades in Baghdad. I believe the relationship forged between then Brigadier General John Campbell of Multi-National Division Bagdad and Lieutenant General Abboud Qanbar of the Baghdad Operational Command went a long way in synchronizing the actions of the U.S. coalition and the Iraqi forces.

I have never said that the introduction of more forces or the change in strategy didn’t matter, only that these were “supporting characters” in the story of 2007 Baghdad.

10. You personally played a role in this, as you were a strategist for the Baghdad Security Plan. Could you explain some of the things that you did in that capacity?

I was the G5, the senior strategist and chief of plans, for the division in Baghdad at the time, and therefore led the team that wrote the U.S. portion of the Baghdad Security Plan. I also worked briefly with the Iraqis on their portion. Most of this work was done in December 2006, primarily by then Majors Andy Morgado and Chuck Armstrong, long before the “New Orthodoxy” accounts tend to begin their story. From my position in Multi-National Division Baghdad, the American shift starts in mid-December, and is largely complete by early January, long before Petraeus and his team arrive. This is not to say that the energy Petraeus brought to Baghdad wasn’t very important, but the intellectual transformation pre-dated his arrival in February 2007. 

Nor do I recall an important role for the much-heralded COIN manual. About a year ago I asked one of my colleagues from that period what he remembered us using it for. He thought for a moment and said, “We posted the principles on the wall, so we could count how many we were breaking them.” This is my recollection as well. This is not to say that Field Manual 3-24 wasn’t important for a host of other reasons, but we were just too busy to try to fit what we were doing into its framework.

I do think it is important to emphasize the role played by General George Casey from my vantage point. He does not tend to be one of the heroes in the popular narrative, but the man who told me to build security stations in Baghdad was George Casey. The man who decided that we would create the Baghdad Operational Command to give the Iraqis control of their Army and National Police units was George Casey. The man who kept us on track with a population security model and kept others from simply turning this into another Baghdad offensive was George Casey. I don’t pretend to know the “back story,” and whether these were his initiatives or whether he was taking direction from other quarters, but I do think it important to note that he ended his tenure in Baghdad by putting us on the path that would end in success after his replacement by General Petraeus.

It is also important to give credit to where I stole ideas from. A significant part of my role was to gather the good ideas being implemented by the brigades already there on the ground, and turn them into divisional citywide initiatives. Then Colonel Jeff Bannister was the most energetic in partnering with his Iraqi counterparts, and we stole several ideas from his headquarters that would be critical as the Baghdad Operational Command stood up. Then Colonel J.B. Burton saw the course of the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Northwest Baghdad very clearly, and worked to use both concrete, and U.S. troops to create buffer zones between the combating sides. Colonel Mike Kershaw in the rural areas south of Baghdad was creating a series of joint U.S.-Iraqi combat outposts in the fall of 2006. I think too much of the “New Orthodoxy” account leans on the role of outside experts who came with Petraeus, when in fact most of the innovation came from experiential learning on the ground and was codified that winter, again, prior to the arrival of Petraeus and his team.

11. You believe that the political support Washington provided Baghdad was even more important than the troop increases and tactics. Could you explain why?

The political support from Washington was absolutely critical. Not only, as covered above, did President Bush give 
-->unequivocal support to the Iraqi Government, but he made it clear to the U.S. interagency community in Washington D.C. that this was his top priority, creating a “War Czar”, Lieutenant General Doug Lute, for whom I later worked, as a full Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor. The President empowered Lute to do what was necessary to get General Petraeus the resources he needed, and Lute saw the President every weekday morning. Lute was therefore empowered to tell the President not only how the war was going, but who in the executive branch was not being as helpful as they might.

Finally, President Bush also initiated a series of teleconferences with Prime Minister Maliki. While these were much criticized at the time, we can certainly say that Maliki has learned how to wield executive power, and perhaps these tutoring sessions contributed to that.

12. Do you think that support has backfired, because many now believe that Maliki is becoming authoritarian?

I do not. While I am the first to admit that Iraq is hardly perfect, I think that given that it is still recovering from thirty years of war and sanctions, has a tenuous ethno-sectarian mix, is not yet a decade away from having its government forcefully overthrown and all its institutions destroyed, endured a more or less three year civil war and still has a significant terrorism problem; all this in a pretty rough international neighborhood, Iran to the east, Syria to the west, it is doing okay. Her institutions are still nascent, and there is much work to be done.

Maliki is clearly a forceful personality who is wielding executive power in the most forceful way he knows how. Chief executives tend to do that. No, he does not play by Queen of Marbury rules, but talk of him becoming “another Saddam” is overblown, not to mention inflammatory to someone who lost family and friends to the last regime. His approach is a little heavy handed right now, but I anticipate that lightening as the institutions of power become more mature.

13. One lesson you took away from Iraq was that the U.S. is good at building up foreign militaries, but not police forces. Why the difference?

Building the Iraqi military was relatively easy for three reasons. First, you had the U.S. military there to do it. Militaries know what another military should look like. Second, militaries tend to be more or less alike around the world. Because militaries have, over the past centuries, fought each other a lot, “best practices” tend to spread worldwide. Finally, because militaries don’t “produce” anything, but instead exist to destroy things, they don’t need to be tied into the rest of society and its institutions. So in creating the Iraqi Army, for example, we could, and did, create independent infantry battalions and then “plugged” them into the coalition support system, giving them artillery support, aircraft, logistics, intelligence, and etc. I should also add that is really helped that you had a long history of an Iraqi Army in the country, plus very high literacy rates.

Police forces, on the other hand, are both culturally idiomatic, and part of a larger structure. Police fill different roles in each society, but when they act, they produce or catch, depending on your perspective criminals or alleged criminals. These criminals then have to enter a justice system. You need initial detention, then longer term detention and/or a parole system, functioning courts with a code of law, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. Then you need a prison system and/or other penalties. Absent this larger system, the police either catch or release criminals, which is hazardous to the health of the police, or they start utilizing non-judicial means. As anyone who works in the international rule of law business knows, this is long, slow, hard work that is measured in decades.

14. It seems like in the past, the Americans usually created a military institution, which was much more powerful than the political class. The result was that the military regularly seized power such as in Latin America and Southeast Asia. There are some that have brought up a coup in Iraq as well. Do you think that’s a concern?

I think that Iraq has several issues. Improper civil-military relations is not one of them.  I think the military is fully under political control, and while you can never totally dismiss the possibility of a military coup, I think it is highly unlikely.

15. You also believed that in the end, the U.S. did not impose its will on Iraq. During the Surge, it found a congruence of events that allowed it to successfully carry out its strategy. Can the current political crisis in Iraq be seen as another example of that, because Iraqi politicians are obviously not following any script written by the Americans?

Iraq, like every other country, has its own history, its own institutions, its own politics, its own problems, its own way of doing things. It is important, but difficult, for Americans to learn that this is “not about us.” The current political crisis in Iraq, which does appear to be resolving itself, is about power, institutions, and alleged crimes within Iraq. While we should monitor this crisis closely, we should also let this work out in an Iraqi fashion. They do have a way of coming to a workable compromise at the last moment.

16. Could another example be the fact that the Iraqi government rejected keeping a large military force in Iraq after the December 2011 withdrawal date?

Absolutely. The Iraqis declining to grant terms for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq was all about Iraqi domestic politics. Though the leadership of several, maybe most, political parties in Iraq would have liked to have seen a residual American presence for a few more years, no party, save the Kurds, could sell that to their constituents. This is success. The Iraqi elites could not extend the U.S. presence in their country, because they have to be responsive to desires of their constituents with an eye to upcoming elections. This sounds a lot like democratic accountability to me.

17. That deadline was set by the Bush administration with the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Do you think that affected America’s influence in the country?

I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that deadline was “set” by the Bush Administration, but rather that is was “negotiated by” the Bush Administration. Again, the Iraqis had a vote here, and made it very clear that they wanted a clear end date when U.S. troops would leave the country after the expiration of the United National mandate. I was not involved in the negotiations in 2008, but sat right next to the people who were. I think we got about as good as we could get in the 2008 SOFA, and even that was a near thing.

Finally, I think it is important to note that while we call this agreement the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, the Iraqis call it something like the “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq.” I would highlight the words “withdrawal” and “temporary.” From the Iraqi perspective, this agreement was always about our withdrawal, and our presence over the last three years was simply a temporary accommodation to allow us to do that in an orderly manner.

18. Did you agree or disagree with the pulling out of U.S. troops, and why?

While there are some disadvantages to the withdrawal of U.S. troops, I think that it is, overall, a good thing. First, I think it has gone a long way towards restoring U.S. credibility in the region. There are still Iraqis who don’t believe we have really left, that the U.S. was there to get Iraqi oil. As the truth sinks in that we really did leave, in accordance with an agreement that we signed with the Iraqi government, I think that will help repair the narrative as to why we went to Iraq in the first place. This is not to say that I endorse the invasion of Iraq, but rather that we did not go there with the intention of stealing oil or setting up long term bases.

Second, I think the presence of the U.S. soldiers and generals retarded the development of Iraqi institutions and warped Iraqi politics. The Iraqis did have to spend a great deal of time figuring out how to deal with the Americans. They no longer have that problem, and will now have the ability, or at least the potential, to address their own political issues.

I wrote more about this in a New Republic piece from December 2011.

19. The end of the civil war did not mean that violence in Iraq ended. What do you think are the main drivers of attacks in Iraq today?

Iraq has a terrorism problem, mostly due to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which is clearly responsible for the latest waves of mass bombings in Iraq. It is not clear if the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force Qods Force, and their Iraqi proxies will continue to use violent means after our departure. Iraq will have to struggle with these nihilist-Salafist AQI terrorists for some time to come. This does not mean that they cannot step up the campaign against them through the use of better equipment, and more training.

Additionally, Iraq can do more for Middle East stability by ensuring that it does not become a haven for Al Qaeda affiliated jihadists going into Syria. This is both good for Iraq and good for its neighbors.

20. Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from the country, there are all kinds of theories about what will happen next in the country. These range from an increase in violence, to a new civil war, to Iran taking over, to the nation breaking apart, to some combination of all of these. What do you see in Iraq’s future?

As Yogi Berra allegedly said, “Prediction is hard; especially about the future.” However, I think most of the possibilities you list above are unlikely. I believe that the civil war of 2005-2008 clarified the balance of power in Iraq. To speak bluntly, I do not think the Sunnis would do well at all were they to renew the civil war. Nor do I think the country will break apart. All three pieces of Iraq, even Kurdistan, know they are much better off in the current arrangement than they would be separately. As to Iran, while they will certainly continue to have influence, I do not think that they will “take over.” Again, I think Iraqi politicians will have to be very careful about keeping distance from Iran if they want to be re-elected by their constituents, many of who remember the Iraq-Iran war or just don’t like the “Persians.”

I do not mean to be overly rosy about Iraq. It faces very serious challenges in the near future and the politics are immature, but I remain optimistic both because Iraq has the raw materials, money, geography, and human capital, to build a better future and because, to be blunt, they have learned the cost of failure the hard way. I also look forward to the provincial elections next year, and the parliamentary elections of 2014, which will hopefully give a clearer mandate than did the last electoral cycle. So long as these elections occur in a free and fair manner, I think Iraq will at the very least muddle through.

21. In America, these ideas seem to be advocated by both those who supported the war, and those who opposed it. Why do you think there’s such a convergence by different groups?

I am glad you asked this question. It does not seem the Iraqis have many friends in Washington, D.C. any more. To speak in broad terms, I think that there are still many on the “left” who still hope that Iraq will collapse so that the project of President Bush and his “neocon” advisors will be a complete failure, despite the approval of the invasion by most prominent Democrats. I think this group is now joined by a growing sector on the “right” who hope that Iraq will collapse so that they can blame President Obama for his disengagement strategy, never mind that it was also President Bush’s, and who accept at face value and repeat the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ talking points on Iranian influence in Iraq. In short, I think Iraq is now caught up in U.S. domestic politics. This is regrettable, but it’s the flip side of the lesson I’ve been trying to teach here. Their politics isn’t really about us; our politics really isn’t about them.

22. One of your main lessons was that the U.S. had to think about the concerns of the locals, because if they don’t have the same interests, a counterinsurgency cannot be won. To me, that was the most important point, because Americans obviously are most interested in what they do, and believe that they control almost every situation they are involved in. You could say that is why a “new orthodoxy” about Iraq exists, because they discount the agency of the locals. Could you speak on that a bit?

I’ve said flippantly that there are two pathologies to a belief in American exceptionalism. The first is that “Americans can do anything.” The second is that “If something good happened, Americans must have caused it.” I think the New Orthodoxy accounts fall victim to the second of these fallacies. These books are all written by Americans, who spent most of their limited time in Iraq on military bases. Therefore it is not surprising that they all cast the American military in a starring role. It’s just selection bias; these are the only “characters” they meet.

What I have tried to do is set the stage for an account in which the Iraqis are the principal actors. I do not pretend that this is the final account, and I am sure I have some of the details wrong. I very much look forward to someday reading accounts by senior Iraqi leaders, not to mention ground-level memoirs by soldiers, militia members and insurgents.

The only work of this type that does exist today is Ali Allawi’s The Occupation of Iraq, which is now quite dated. It was a very important book for me, as Allawi describes three events in which I participated in during my first tour, the battle against the Sadrists at Najaf Cemetery in August of 2004, the Second Battle of Fallujah in November of 2004, and the first Iraqi election on January 30, 2005. When I first read Allawi’s account of these events I did not recognize them. His understanding of what was going on was so incredibly different than mine, and yet as I read his account, I realized how limited my perspective had been. It was this book, rather than any of the academic “counterinsurgency” literature, that most informed me as I returned to Iraq.

I fully expect that in the coming decade, we will see similar works emerge about the 2006-2011 period that will force us to further refine our understanding.  And again, my primary concern is not that the Iraqis get their own story right, though I wish them all best in doing so.  My concern is that the United States and its military not draw the wrong lessons about what it can and can not do.

23. Do you think that same ignorance about local agendas is behind the Iraq is unraveling argument, because they can’t seem to believe that the country will be able to get along without the Americans there?

I think there are significant American constituencies who cannot imagine how the Iraqis could possibly manage without us.

24. What kind of message does Iraq send to those that talk about regime change?

I think Iraq should teach us that while overthrowing a regime is easy for a hegemonic power like the United States, rebuilding a new one is hard. I think this calculus applies whether you are overthrowing the regime due to hard-minded choices about national interest or because of humanitarian or “responsibility to protect” concerns. Creating a new regime from scratch is difficult, but life outside a functioning state when you are used to living one can be “nasty, brutish and short.” I am not saying this concern is determinative, but we should at least take the suffering of the locals into account and include it in our decision calculus.

25. How about U.S. involvement in nation building? 

I think this is a huge “it depends.” It depends on the security level of the country, what our interests are there, whether we are welcome or not, what the level of development already is, and a host of other factors. If we are talking about post-conflict reconstruction, and if we were the ones who initiated the conflict, then our war aims may well require us to get involved in creating an acceptable aftermath. Or not. It depends.


Ackerman, Spencer, “Once a Renegade, Counterinsurgency Retiree Represents Iraq Norm,” Washington Independent, 7/22/09

Manea, Octavian, “The Iraqi COIN Narrative Revisited: Interview with Douglas A. Ollivant,” Small Wars Journal, 7/24/11

Ollivant, Douglas, “Countering the New Orthodoxy,” New America Foundation, June 2011
- “Iraq is a Mess. But Leaving Was the Right Call,” New Republic, 12/23/11

Ottaway, Marina and Kaysi, Danial, “The State of Iraq,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2012


Iraqi Mojo said...

"By mid-2008, the demographics of the capital had been completely changed by the civil war. Only a few mixed neighborhoods remained (yellow), while the majority of city had become Shiite (green) with Sunnis pushed to the central western region (red). This was due to the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad by Shiite militias and some parts of the Iraqi security forces"

Was it not also due to Shia being evicted from Sunni majority or mixed neighborhoods? It's interesting how some people forget the ethnic cleansing of Shia from Sunni neighborhoods. Two of my uncles were evicted from their homes in Amriya in 2005. But the impression I get from this article is that Shia militias and ISF pushed Sunni Arabs out of their homes.

Joel Wing said...

Mojo, indeed, insurgents forced out Shiites from not only Baghdad, but Anbar, Diyala, etc. What the article was talking about however, were the factors that led to the end of the civil war, one of which was the militias, and parts of the security forces and government coming back with a vengeance and clearing out many Sunnis. Basically the insurgents started the process of sectarian cleansing, and the militias and parts of the government finished it.

amagi said...

Another excellent interview. Thank you for this.

The one question I feel that should have been asked is what Mr. Ollivant believed the probable outcome would have been, had the US Surge never occurred.

While I don't disagree with any of his points, and believe that indeed the lion's share of credit for arresting violence in 2008 goes to the Iraqis (as it must), I think there is a strain of thinking in the "New Orthodoxy" that the Surge was unnecessary or counterproductive (clearly Mr. Ollivant does not believe this, but I can recall reading other commentaries that do). It seems to me that while the surge may not have been the /causal/ factor in the decline of violence, without it the reduction would have been less pronounced and much more drawn out. In particular, I believe Operation Arrowhead Ripper in the north seriously degraded Al Qaeda operational capacity there (although it was in no way decisive), and that campaign was a direct result of the Surge.

Had the Surge not taken place, and US forces were instead removed (as some politicians were discussing at the time and many citizens demanding... and something that would have been a distinct possibility under a Kerry administration), I believe the slaughter would have continued to escalate into a full-scale exsanguination of the Sunni community and we would see a very different political arrangement than we do today (however dysfunctional it remains).

I make this argument for the same reason Mr. Ollivant makes his: so we don't draw the wrong conclusions militarily. It's true that we don't want to attribute too much to the Surge, but it's equally important that we don't attribute too little.

Joel Wing said...


Personally, I think the civil war would have ended on its own no matter what the policy of the U.S. was. In 2006 I was arguing that the Iraqis needed to kill themselves for a little longer, and eventually they would tire of it, and the fighting would subside. Small sheikhs in Anbar for instance, were already turning on Al Qaeda in Iraq as early as 2005, and the U.S. forces started working with some of them in 2006. According to Iraq Body Count, deaths peaked at the end of 2006, and were declining before the Surge even started, more evidence that the war between Iraqi groups was making a turn.

Even if things like the Iraq Study Group were followed, it still would have taken months if not years to pull U.S. forces out. Those troops were also trying new tactics as Ollivant pointed out under Gen. Casey. The Americans would not just have packed up and gone, so they would have still been influencing events in the country.

Overall, Baghdad's demographics would have changed more, but places like Anbar would probably end up the same if the Surge had not happened.

amagi said...


Respectfully, I must disagree. By the end of 2006 the tribes had begun to turn on al Qaeda, that much is true, but American protection was crucial during the following year to galvanize opposition and demonstrate that taking on al Qaeda was a realistic possibility. It was at precisely this time that the Americans became "the strongest tribe," as Bing West puts it, and it was only due to close collaboration with American forces at that time that decisive defeat of al Qaeda was accomplished. You can argue that much of this started pre-Surge, but the Surge would serve to consolidate those gains. Without this American support, I would argue, defeat of al Qaeda was not at all assured, and they may well have been able to establish a terrorist state in Anbar that could perpetrate massive violence on the Shia population of Iraq, which, in turn, could provoke tremendous retribution from militias. Indeed, although Maliki may have deliberately avoided American support in Charge of the Knights, could he have gotten away with crushing Sadrist influence without the American backing that the Surge signified?

As to the speed with which American troops may have exited in the frequently invoked "cut & run" scenario, we cannot ever know. I can tell you, though, at the time, vivid images of the Fall of Saigon played in my mind. Once America signalled its general disinterest in doubling down on their aims in Iraq, I don't know exactly how much influence they could possibly wield. It wouldn't take a massive helicopter airlift to signal to all involved that the Americans were no longer reliable partners (not that they ever were, particularly).

In any event, I think al Qaeda came much closer to establishing some semblance of their perverse Caliphate than you give them credit for, and had they enjoyed continued success, I think the radical reaction from the Shia population would have made 2006 look like a dress rehearsal and the Iraq War would have deepened into something a lot closer to the Lebanese Civil War. Whoever gets however much of the credit for preventing it, I think you and I can agree that it is incredibly fortunate that such a conflict never came to pass, and the chances of returning to those days are extremely remote.

Joel Wing said...


I think you misread me a bit about Anbar. I didn't downplay the role of the U.S. in helping the tribes in Anbar fight Al Qaeda. I was just pointing out that as early as 2005, some insurgent groups and tribes were already changing their opinion of working with the hardcore Islamists, and by 2006 some Americans were beginning to recognize this divide as well. Both of those trends were obviously exploited very successfully under the Surge.

However, in Baghdad I don't think Al Qaeda had a chance in the long run because the Shiite militias plus elements of the security forces were going to overwhelm them with pure numbers no matter what, and I think that was the most important struggle at that time, far more than Anbar.

On the matter of whether Maliki would have taken on Sadr without the surge, I would say that the premier would have had a confrontation with Sadr eventually. I don't know if it would have been like Charge of the Knights however. Remember by 2007, Maliki had largely moved away from depending upon Sadr's political support, so that allowed the prime minister more freedom of action.

On withdrawing forces, I can't see Bush backing down. He had a decided disconnect from what was actually happening in Iraq, and was committed to his vision of victory even though people like Rumsfeld were actually talking about getting out as quickly as possible.

Even if the Surge had not happened, I don't see the President agreeing with the withdrawal crowd. If anything, he would have probably kept troops levels at what they were instead of increasing them if the Surge had not happened.

Joel Wing said...


I should have added that if my belief that Bush would not have withdrawn troops was true, and with tribes in Anbar turning against Al Qaeda, the Islamists would not have had free reign in the province. They might not have been rolled back as much, and Anbar might have turned out like Ninewa is today being a base for AQI, but not a threat to the government.

bb said...

Very interesting interview, and it was good to see the part the shia militias played in defeating insurgency being added to narrative. Also good to see Gen Casey receiving his due.

A couple omissions on effect of surge: at the end of 2006 the Maliki government was under severe domestic pressure with the Sadrists, Allawi and Accord pulling out of it. I remember the excitement of much of the US commentariat at the imminent demise of PM Maliki. It was Bush's decision to uncomprisingly support Maliki with the surge that saved Maliki's skin, the Iraqi govt ceasing to function and anarchy added to civil war.

Second omission - was discussion of Odiorno's surge-enabled concerted military operations in the south of Baghdad in July-Aug 2007 that wiped the insurgent strongholds out and cause the insurgent to collapse in the September.

Finally on President Bush: far from having a "a decided disconnect from what was actually happening in Iraq" the reverse was the case. He knew only too well what was happening, hence the double down on the surge. It is true though that he was "committed to his vision of victory" - and he got it. The insurgency was defeated; a constitutional democracy was established in Iraq; the PM he mentored went on to establish control over the Mahdi army and Iraq remains unified today against all predictions, especially from the US commentariat.

Joel Wing said...

I disagree with you on Bush. I have a very dim opinion of his handling of the war. What he talked about in public statements, and what actual policy was were usually two different things. For example, he ran for re-election saying that he wanted to stay the course, that he wanted victory in Iraq, and that he was against withdrawing, yet his public slogan, "We stand down as they stand up" was actually a withdrawal plan. It wasn't winning the war, it was getting the Iraqi forces to the point where they could fight, and the U.S. could pull out. In fact, every year since 2003, Rumsfeld and the Pentagon had a plan to withdraw but the deteriorating security situation would not allow them to do anything but temporary dips. Yet despite that being the policy, Bush kept on saying he was against any withdrawal. There are plenty of other examples.

bb said...

As you say -
Rumsfeld and Pentagon always wanted to pull out. In fact never expected to be there in any numbers after first 6 months!

Bush overuled then, and over-ruled with surge in 2006/07 with the results we see today. Every time, it was Bush who prevailed.

I don't expect you to give the president any free kicks, but the facts are there. For heavens sake, the whole task was always to get the Iraqi forces "to the point where they could fight and the US could pull out" ! When this point was reached post April-2008, Bush negotiated the start of the pull out, Joel.

Four years and first Iraqi post-occupation democratic election later, I'm sure you read the (somewhat boring) parliamentary
outcome on Visser's blog every day?

Likely to be a different outcome in Afgha, but then again Obama has never had his sights on victory. Difference in leadership.

Joel Wing said...


Two things.

1st how is the Defense Secretary and the military planning to withdraw from Iraq several times and actually dipping troop levels down when the President is saying that the U.S. would not withdraw and that he wanted victory in the war not an example of disconnect within the administration?

2nd the withdrawal plans were not overruled by Bush, but by the military itself. The deteriorating security situation within Iraq, not the president is what made them reverse course each year.

bb said...

Joel - your comment was that Bush had a disconnect "from what was happening in Iraq", not a disconnect from Defense Secretary. Two different things.

It is well documented that Rumsfeld and co were expecting to pull out within six months of invasion. That all changed when Bush's own presidential envoy disbanded the army. Bush and other players in the Admin changed the game on Rummy.

On your 2nd point sayi9ng it was the military not the president who decided on withdrawal/not withdrawal: my understanding of how the chain of command works in the US is that the President is the Commander in Chief who ultimately makes these decisions? Or has something changed?
Has the military not Obama been making these decisions in Afgha all on their lonesome?

Joel Wing said...


When I was talking with amagi we were discussing how Bush would react to events on the ground during the civil war.

When you commented, you started talking about Bush's leadership and his role with Iraq policy in general. I responded by talking about the same thing as you notice in my response to you here:

"I have a very dim opinion of his handling of the war. What he talked about in public statements, and what actual policy was were usually two different things."

Hence my policy discussion about the difference between the Sec. Def./military and Bush.

Yes, Rumsfeld wanted to bring out troops right after the invasion, but he did not give up after that.

After Bremer disbanded the military in May 03 Rumsfeld and the U.S. military continued to talk and plan for a withdrawal. He brought it up in Oct. 03. for instance, to draw down troops from 130,000 to 100,000 by the summer of 04, then 50,000 by 2005, and then perhaps out by 2006. Another example was in Feb. 05 they again talked about drawing down troops. In Oct. 05 Gen. Casey talked about pulling out troops in 2006. And there are more of these remarks and plans as well.

As for disbanding the military, that was not Bush's order, but rather Bremer's, so it had nothing to do with players in Washington trying to undercut Rumsfeld, but rather the haphazard planning or lack thereof in those early occupation years.

And you hit on my point exactly, because while Bush was talking about victory and not having any kind of withdrawal plans, Rumsfeld and the military were doing just the opposite, which showed the dysfunction within the administration, which seemed to go from 2001 up to around 2006.

bb said...

Sure but Rumsfeld was not the President and CiC, Bush was. Ultimately they were his calls. From the beginning Bush always said the US would leave a united Iraq with a democratic constitution. Before and at the time of the surge controversary, he insisted on victory. As I recall that was his briefing to Bob Gates? In the event, the insurgency was defeated, a democratic parliamentary constitution was established in Iraq, an Iraqi army was rebuilt from scratch to serve the new state, the Iraqi govt defeated the sadrist challenge, conducted the three general, two provincial elections and one constitutional referendum that cemented the democratic constitution and govt and the Bush Admin negotiated the conditions for withdrawal.
Difference can be seen in the approach of his successor. Obama has never set victory as the goal and has never used his pulpit to talk of the inspiration of democracy in relation to Afgha. Quite reverse. If the day comes post-withdrawal that Taliban over-run the country against the wishes of more 90% of its inhabitants then the difference in presidential approaches will be even more pronounced.

It's also hard to imagine Bush sitting on his hands in relation to Syria.

btw Bremer was the presidential envoy reporting directly to Bush and briefed by him ; not to Rumsfeld.

Joel Wing said...


Bremer didn't report to anyone. That was part of the problem with the CPA.

And again, despite Bush being the CiC, the Pentagon and military continued to plan on withdrawal from 2003-2006 despite what Bush was saying.