Friday, October 7, 2022

Review The Strongest Tribe, War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq

West, Bing, The Strongest Tribe, War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq, New York: Random House, 2008


Bing West was one of the pre-eminent military writers on the Iraq War. A former Marine West travelled to Iraq constantly to discuss with American troops what they were going through. The Strongest Tribe, War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq is about how the U.S. came from the brink of defeat in Iraq and then was finally able to turn around the military situation with the Surge. His main focus is upon U.S. leadership which was severely lacking during most of the war starting with President Bush.


The last chapter in The Strongest Tribe is a good overview of what went wrong in Iraq. First, President Bush didn’t provide strong leadership. He waited for his staff to come up with a policy and then he endorsed it. He didn’t realize that what the Pentagon came up with, withdrawing from Iraq was different from his goal of victory. It took until 2006, 3 years into the war for the president to realize things were going wrong, and then six months to come up with a new strategy which was the 2007 Surge. West criticized that bureaucratic process as well for taking far too long when the Iraq War was failing. The author also believed Bush failed to persuade the American public to support the war which was why he and the Republicans lost the Congressional and ultimately the presidential elections. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was to blame for not managing national security policy. The Pentagon and State Department were deeply divided on the war from the start and she never resolved that and got sidelined as a result. Next the State and Defense Departments and the National Security Council came up with policies that were disconnected from the situation on the ground in Iraq. Rice for instance came up with a policy called Clear, Hold and Build without consulting with the Pentagon or the military command in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld was the wrong man for the Iraq War. He wanted to debate people and argued over the littlest details rather than making any decisions. He didn’t believe in nation building when the president said he wanted to create a democracy in Iraq which was another contradiction never resolved by the administration. There are all familiar criticisms of the Bush presidency which have been noted by many other writers. The result was the U.S. entered Iraq with no real plans and had no strategy to actually win until 2007. 1000s of Iraqis and Americans paid the price for these mistakes. West adds that Bush never held anyone accountable for any of this because he believed in standing behind people who worked for him even if they completely screwed up like they did in Iraq.


In other sections of the book West brings up some original points like roads not taken which could have changed the war. In 2003 for instance, the U.S. official in charge of Anbar province Keith Mines wanted to empower local leaders and called for a meeting of sheikhs and notables to push reconciliation. He also believed the U.S. should arm sheikhs to fight the insurgency. Both were vetoed by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer who ran Iraq because he saw tribes as being part of the old Iraq that he wanted to replace. The CPA also focused upon a top down approach with national elections in 2005 which ended up sidelining local leaders who could have come to power if voting was allowed in the provinces beforehand as several military units and officials like Mines advocated for. West points out other situations like these where the Americans could have made a considerable difference in the politics and security of Iraq but missed the moment. It points to more problems with the U.S. leadership who had their own vision of how things were supposed to work out and ignored reports from people working with Iraqis and heard what they wanted. This would continue for years.


The second part of the book focuses upon the Anbar Awakening and the Surge which had the U.S. work with local tribes and use new counterinsurgency tactics. This changed the war and finally brought down violence. These two events have been covered in dozens of other books and West doesn’t really add much to the discussion.


Probably because The Strongest Tribe was written in 2008 while the Surge was still going on he missed how the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reacted to the new American campaign. In 2008 Maliki went after the Mahdi Army militia which was exactly what the U.S. hoped he would do. West missed that the premier also started targeting the sahwa which were mostly former insurgents who turned on Al Qaeda in Iraq with the help of the U.S. The Iraqi government was supposed to give the sahwa jobs for their service but reneged on the promise and ended up throwing many of them in jail and driving off more in the process because they were seen as a dangerous Sunni militia that threatened Shiite rule. That ultimately meant that the military successes the Surge achieved were undermined by the Maliki administration.


Despite that shortcoming Bing West’s book is still one of the better ones on how the Iraq War changed from 2003-2008. The Strongest Tribe isn’t all on the macro level of the different strategies used but also spends plenty of time on the micro level with American marines and soldiers on the ground and what they were trying to do. There are plenty of stories of Iraqi tribes, soldiers and police as well. The best quality of West’s work is that he didn’t hold back when writing about all the problems and difficulties in Iraq and laid blame for who was responsible which was ultimately President Bush for not leading America in the conflict until 2007.


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