The Secret Surge Debate
Behind closed doors, a newly revealed transcript shows, the Bush administration was much more deeply divided about the way forward in Iraq than it let on in public.
As the grim casualty counts filtered in from Iraq in November 2006, a group of top Bush administration officials gathered in National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley’s office for a Saturday-morning brainstorming session.
The U.S. strategy for tamping down the sectarian violence was in tatters, but there was no agreement within the administration on what should replace it. The White House was moving to publicly inaugurate a policy review, but the president’s team was badly divided.
"What can we really do?" asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who wondered aloud if the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad might be "playing us for a sucker."
Much of the discussion, which is chronicled in a classified transcript described in detail here for the first time, was dominated by Rice’s argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which "nothing is going right" and instead focus on "core interests" like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting "mass killings" –attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.
But Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.
"On force numbers in Baghdad, we have never had a level of forces that historical case studies, such as those conducted by Rand, find to be necessary," said Brett McGurk, an Iraq hand on the NSC. "There is an argument that coalition forces are not only critical to preventing mass killings, they are also critical to establishing the conditions for a political deal."
Ten years after the American-led invasion of Iraq, the conflict remains a subject of fierce debate. By all accounts, President George W. Bush’s decision to send five additional combat brigades, more than 20,000 troops, for the "surge" was among the most fateful of the nearly nine-year conflict.
I covered the war in Iraq before, during, and after the surge, and it is clear that it played an essential role in tamping down the sectarian violence and catalyzing the tribal awakening in Anbar province so that it spread to Diyala, areas south of Baghdad, and to the Iraqi capital itself.
The United States owed it to the Iraqis it sought to liberate to try to reduce the violence before heading toward the exit, and it owed it to the American troops. As overstretched as the U.S. military was, defeat would have been even worse.
For all that, the political reconciliation the United States sought to encourage through the surge was never fully achieved. A host of other decisions over two administrations also aggravated that problem, and the Bush and Obama administrations each fell short in curbing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s drift toward authoritarianism.
But leaving Iraq in the grips of a spiraling civil war in 2007 would have been a disaster for U.S. national security. And it is one of history’s larger ironies that the surge Barack Obama so strenuously opposed as a candidate later enabled him as president to withdraw American forces without unleashing a tidal wave of fresh violence.
Still, the decision to surge was not an easy one for Bush’s Iraq team — and the internal debate was more pointed than is commonly realized, with lessons for Iraq, Afghanistan, and other potential conflicts that reverberate even today.
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In October 2006, Hadley made his first trip to Baghdad, where he heard an earful from military officers about the fighting in the Iraqi capital and the increasingly sectarian role of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.
That visit helped frame the problem. And when Hadley, Rice, and their aides gathered on Nov. 11, the war was shaping the political debate at home. Just days earlier, the Republicans had taken a drubbing in the midterm elections, and Donald H. Rumsfeld had finally been pushed out as secretary of defense.
If there was to be a new strategy, Hadley believed, it was imperative that the Joint Chiefs be brought on board. But as the meeting in Hadley’s office got under way the civilians were hardly united, with the State Department and the NSC staff forming opposing camps.
Rice put the question on the table: What were the United States’ core interests in Iraq and could Iraq, which had managed to hold elections, build a genuine democracy?
"Is Iraq so fractured that democracy, for the majority Shia, means one man, one vote, only once?" Rice asked. "In other words, are the Shia simply pursuing a hegemonic agenda?
"Let’s go around the table and focus on Condi’s key question," Hadley said. "Can this government overcome narrow sectarian interests? Is there room for compromise?"
Meghan O’ Sullivan, the deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, answered with an emphatic "yes." Iraq, she argued, could overcome its sectarian differences, but Maliki’s government would not be able to rise above its sectarian "impulses" unless the United States did more to improve security and thus showed that a multi-sectarian Iraq was possible.
Rice challenged the argument: "With 140,000 troops, how can they doubt our level of commitment?" she asked.
"We see this as a huge commitment," O’Sullivan responded. "But they see that we are not doing enough to provide security. The point is that the Iraqis are not predetermined to choose the sectarian piece every time."
Rice still seemed skeptical and wondered if the Maliki government was simply "using us as a shield" while pursuing a sectarian agenda.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor who had been recruited to run the NSC’s strategic planning office, backed up O’Sullivan’s analysis. "We may in fact be doing just enough to encourage hedging behavior from all sides, but not enough to set the conditions for a political deal," he said.
At this point, David Satterfield, Rice’s senior advisor on Iraq, joined the debate on the other side. The sectarian demons appeared to have been unleashed, and Satterfield made the State Department’s case for a more limited American role, one that narrowed the administration’s goals in Iraq to "core interests" like counterterrorism.
"This drive for dominance is fully consistent with the Shia historical narrative of enemies on all sides and betrayal lurking around the corner," Satterfield said. "In this regard, Maliki’s intentions must be seen as part of this overarching Shia agenda. It is going to play out."
"We need a fundamental reconsideration of our presence and purpose in Iraq," Satterfield continued. "No application of forces is likely to make a discernible difference. The Shia will pursue their own agenda regardless. We need to focus on our core interests and deploy our resources accordingly."
But then John Hannah, Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security advisor, pushed back. It was too soon to give up on the White House’s ambitious goal to foster and build ties with a moderate Iraq, albeit one that would be dominated by the Shia.
"I do not agree with the deterministic quality to David’s view," Hannah said. "We have one last chance to change this situation. I do not believe it is fated that the Sunnis will reject a deal, or that the Shia won’t offer one. Looking at the Shia, they have had a reasonable deal on the table for some time. There are just too few Sunnis willing to accept their position as a minority power in a coalition government."
Philip Zelikow, the State Department counselor and Rice confidant, argued that while the situation might not
have been predetermined, the political die had since been cast.
"We contained but did not defeat the insurgency last year," he said. "I think the communities have become more polarized and the Shia narrative has become entrenched. Our focus is Green Zone-centric. Will there be a political deal? Can the moderates have a role? In fact, the central government at this stage has little ability to control the security situation outside the Green Zone. As a consequence, all sides are going to self-help. The locus of power is now diffuse and decentralized."
"We need to cut deals as necessary with these local bases of power," he added. "We need to embed and support not the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] as a whole, but the particular units that we identify as able to help advance our interests. That is a much more deliberate and calibrated approach than what we’re doing now."
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At this point, the NSC staff made a new argument, one that sought to link the fraught situation in Iraq with the political realities at home. The time for taking corrective action was growing short and there might only be sufficient political support in the United States for one last push. If the United States aimed low, as State was advocating, it might squander the only chance to change the military and political equation in Baghdad.
"We need to keep in mind, as we consider the options, that we have a window here — a short window, of course, but one in which we might be able to make the pitch that we need to focus on building up Maliki’s capabilities to deal with issues," Feaver said. "Once we adopt another approach, particularly if it deals with limiting our footprint, we will never be able to recapture this window."
Advancing the NSC’s case, McGurk argued that the discussion of a Shia narrative was too simplistic. The sectarian violence was being stoked by a very specific Shia agenda, that of Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric. Maliki, McGurk continued, was "beholden" to the Sadrists, who had joined the Shia political alliance, been granted control of the Health and Transportation ministries and were using them to pursue their campaign of sectarian cleansing.
"To a Sunni, what is important at this moment is not the constitution or an oil law," McGurk said. "It is the fact that you can’t go to the hospital without risk of showing up in a gutter with a drill through your skull. That’s what happening in the Health Ministry, and it’s a Sadrist phenomenon, not a Shia one."
Not all Shia were opposed to an American role, McGurk reported. When Mowaffak al-Rubaie, then Maliki’s national security advisor, said that he planned to recommend that American forces move to the periphery of Baghdad, the son of the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani responded that Iraq still needed "more neutral forces."
"Are we prepared to simply say the Sadrists won, and we have lost?" McGurk asked. "Is a Shia center, represented by Sistani, no longer salvageable? I am not prepared to go that far."
Rice acknowledged that there were numerous Shia groups, but did not necessarily see that as a plus. "We need to work with different actors within the Shia community," Rice said. "But nothing is going right. This is a devastating conclusion. But this is not an academic seminar. OK, so what should we do?"
"Is the situation in Iraq irretrievable?" Rice asked. "I do not think so. It might be retrievable. But not with more of what we’ve been doing with this government. Deploying U.S. forces to force Iraq to do more also won’t get there."
Bush was moving to embrace a troop surge and Rice, his closest aide and confidante, was not yet on board with what would be the president’s biggest Iraq decision since his decisions to go to war itself.
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After the long back and forth over what was not working, Rice outlined her plan. The United States would need to reassert itself diplomatically in the region.
"We have lost the initiative in the region. We look like Gulliver, tied down. The region is scared. Bandar is worried that if we talk to the Iranians we will cut a deal with Iran," Rice added, referring to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of the Saudi national security council. "We must get this initiative back."
She also argued for a more limited role for U.S. forces in Iraq. The United States would continue to fight al Qaeda and it would become more "aggressive" about Iranian-sponsored attacks in Iraq. But it would limit its role in containing sectarian violence to stopping mass killings "on the scale of Srebrenica."
"On the security side, we will do less ‘door-knocking’ police work, give up on neighborhood ‘clear, hold, and build,’ concentrate more on Special Forces work with McChrystal’s people," she said, referring to Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Joint Special Operations Command, which was hunting al Qaeda and Iranian-backed operatives in Iraq.
"The chiefs might come up with strategies for preventing mass killings," Rice said, referring to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This should not need a large force. In Darfur, we are talking about limited deployments of far less able troops than our own.
"But we will still need to fill this out with a political dimension, economics, work on the border and using JSOC against the IRGC," Rice added, using the acronyms for the Joint Special Operations Command and Iran’s paramilitary Quds force.
Satterfield endorsed Rice’s argument. "In the case of mass violence, we may need a strong demonstration case to enforce the ‘no mass killings’ red line. We would need to be willing to act unilaterally. But this in itself could trigger events beyond our control."
O’ Sullivan was skeptical that the United States could limit its military role in Iraq and still succeed politically. "It’s counterintuitive that we can shrink our footprint while also increasing our ability to build up local institutions," O’Sullivan said.
"We’re back around on what to do," Hadley observed.
"We just can’t stay in a posture that is unsustainable," Rice shot back, making her case again for a more limited role for U.S. forces. "We should not rush to the door, clearly. But we cannot stay in an indefensible posture."
O’Sullivan stood her ground. What if the U.S. military pulled back and the Mahdi army "goes crazy?" she asked. There might be executions in Baghdad’s squares that did not rise to the level of mass killings. Would the United States simply stand by and watch that unfold? And if the sectarian violence increased, that might create new opportunities for al Qaeda in Iraq to cast itself as a protector of the Sunnis.
"Taking our hand off the sectarian boiling in Baghdad," she argued, could backfire. "Does that make sense from our perspective?"
"We are not achieving our objectives now," Rice said. "The current posture is not sustainable."
Hadley gently intervened. "Condi described what may now be our core objectives: fight al Qaeda, don’t allow mass killings, build the institutions, limit Iranian aggression, and recover the strategic initiative in the region. But here is what I am struggling with. In two years, we have not provided an adequate level of security," he said. "Can we really achieve these objectives with less?"
"I don’t think we can equate force levels with security," Rice said. "Maybe we need to cut deals with the power brokers, even Muqtada Sadr."
"But is there a time and sequencing issue here?" responded Hadley, who suggested that one option was to step up the American mili
tary effort and then transition down the road.
McGurk jumped in and noted that one of the CIA’s top counterinsurgency experts had done an assessment showing that the presence of U.S. forces was key to stability. "When we have a presence we are able to help resolve local disputes before they get out of control, police illegal conduct by Iraqi forces, and ultimately help the Iraqis develop their own patterns of interaction," McGurk said, outlining the CIA analysis. "But where we leave before these patterns of interaction develop, violence takes hold, sectarian incidents accelerate, and the violence becomes self-sustaining with deepening roots."
The problem, McGurk argued, was that the United States never had sufficient forces in Baghdad to give its political strategy a fighting chance. "Right now, the Shia won’t disband militias because of the terrorist problem, and the Sunnis won’t come fully inside the political process because of the JAM problem, "McGurk said. "We can help break that cycle. Nobody else will."
Taking up Rice’s case, Zelikow argued that that it was too late to think about sending more troops. The United States, he insisted, did not have enough forces and by the time they got to Iraq the situation might have deteriorated to the point where it could not be salvaged.
"To secure Baghdad, you probably need around six to eight U.S. brigades beyond what we have there now, and six to eight Iraqi brigades," Zelikow said. "But the window is probably closed from our end," he added. "We do not have the capability to provide comprehensive population security."
"We would also need to be confident that an increase of this kind would work," Zelikow said. "We would be betting the house."
"The house and the whole farm," Hadley said.
If the United States were to add forces, Zelikow continued, they should embed with select Iraqi military units to create joint Iraqi-American units in mixed sectarian areas. The United States, he insisted, needed to retain the flexibility to deal with other military challenges, mainly Iran.
The discussion drifted to the Iraqi political situation and the challenges in forming a multi-sectarian state.
"We have been in the business of micromanaging," Rice said. "Maybe we say to the Sunnis, ‘Deal with it’: allow a Shia and Kurdish coalition and let the Sunnis find a way in. We can be more tolerant of a Shia and Kurdish deal so long as they don’t do certain things along the lines of our objectives: no mass killings."
Hadley had a word of caution. "We need to be careful that in taking our hand off the driving wheel that we don’t create the conditions for Iraq to be a place where a regional Sunni and Shia war plays out," Hadley said. "Sunni Arab states may look at a Shia-Kurd government and decide they need to throw their lot in with the Sunnis. Iran may see the Shia government as a proxy. We need to be mindful of these dynamics in the course we choose."
Before the meeting closed, Feaver spoke up again to challenge State’s "smaller footprint" approach. There was sufficient public support if the Bush administration wanted to be more ambitious. "That is the judgment of Rove and Bartlett," Feaver said, referring to Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett, respectively the White House political operative and White House counselor.
State’s plan also risked alienating the shrinking but still significant group of supporters who were still backing the Iraq war. "We cannot make this look like anything other than a big retreat," Feaver said.
Importantly, Feaver argued, the more limited approach the State Department was arguing for might turn out to be equally unpopular. Focusing on al Qaeda and Iranian-backed groups might entail increased American casualties. Meanwhile, sectarian violence might increase, raising questions about the value of the war effort. Nor was it clear that a "smaller footprint" would give the United States the freedom of maneuver it needed to go after al Qaeda.
Rice was not persuaded. "Peter, I don’t think I accept any of your assumptions, particularly on casualties," she said sharply. "We also are not talking about retrenchment. Think about where we want to be in 2008. If we increase our forces significantly, it better work and work fast. I’m not sure we can make that assumption, either."
The State Department and NSC aides, it seemed, were as divided as ever. Rice would eventually come to accept the surge after talking with Ray Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. forces in Iraq who played a major role in devising the plan that was eventually carried out by his superior Gen. David Petraeus, but that change of heart was not yet in the offing.
Before the meeting ended, Hadley hinted at the strategy President Bush would announce two months later, noting that a surge of American reinforcements might serve as a "bridge" to the reduced American presence that would eventually follow.
"I also want to clarify that even with a focus on core objectives, as Condi has laid out, we cannot back away from a broader freedom agenda," Hadley said.
On this much, Rice agreed: "No, that’s right," she said.