Best Defense

Out of Iraq: Only 26 shopping days left

The U.S. Embassy just tightened restrictions on movements of American personnel inside the Green Zone. Meanwhile, when someone is right, I listen. Adam Silverman called Iraq right this year. Here are his thoughts now. By Adam L. Silverman, PhD[1] Best Defense guest columnist A little over a month ago Tom wrote a column dealing with ...


The U.S. Embassy just tightened restrictions on movements of American personnel inside the Green Zone.

Meanwhile, when someone is right, I listen. Adam Silverman called Iraq right this year. Here are his thoughts now.

By Adam L. Silverman, PhD[1]

Best Defense guest columnist

A little over a month ago Tom wrote a column dealing with the US’s rapidly approaching deadline to leave Iraq.  At the time I sent him some remarks, which he asked me to pull together for a guest column.  I agreed on the condition that I would have the time to tone down the tenor, if not the content, as this topic hits close to home for me – as I’m sure it does for many Best Defense readers, as well as many other Americans (and our coalition partners as well). 

As we are within final month in Iraq, we are once again beginning to see reports of new violence.  As I have written here at Best Defense, as well as other sites, I think this is likely to become the Iraqi reality once we draw down to just the military personnel assigned to the Embassy.  Part of the reason for my take is that the Iraqis have been communicating to us – in words and in deeds — for several years that this is what is going to happen.  Even as the Sawha/Awakenings was first gathering press, it was clear in what little reporting there originally was on the movement, its leaders, and its goals that their long term intention was to strike at the Shi’a, specifically the exile Shi’a that we had empowered, once they were able to do so (as in once we were gone).  I interviewed dozens of tribal and religious leaders, (local) elites, notables, non-elites, and internally displaced Iraqis.  The vast majority of them, both Sunni and Shi’a, had grave concerns over the government we helped to empower, as well as the members of that government and their ties to Iran and how this all related to the average Iraqi.

The Shi’a exile dominated government of Iraq, especially Prime Minister Maliki, has made no pretense of indicating it wanted to roll up the Awakenings’ membersFrom a very heavy handed Sons of Iraq (SOI) transition that failed to foster and promote societal reconciliation and civil society reformation to cracking down on both the Awakenings and the SOI, Maliki has demonstrated that his goal is consolidation of power.  One of the three Iraqis elected to parliament on the Iraqiyya list earlier in the year, then suddenly faced with an arrest warrant by Maliki’s government in order to change the electoral outcome was an Awakenings and SOI leader (full disclosure — he was also the subject of one of my social history/tribal study interviews, which you can read at the link).  Add to this the fact that the Kurds still have plans of their own for Kirkuk, let alone an independent Kurdistan, and post U.S. presence Iraq looks to be unsettled and unpleasant for a long time to come. 

When it comes down to it, and what I think has so many so upset, anxious, and out of sorts regarding the looming US departure from Iraq, is that it did not necessarily have to be this way.  To paraphrase the Best Defense reader and commenter who asked about accountability in regards to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tellat what point do journalists, let alone the American people, hold those who made wildly inaccurate assessments, predictions, estimations, and gave absolutely horrid, hugely uninformed, gigantically incorrect policy advice responsible for the strategic failure that is Iraq?

While we had many tactical and operational successes in Iraq, ultimately the failure to leverage the openings we were presented with as a result of the Awakenings, the Baghdad ethnic cleansings, and then the consolidation through the Surge to pressure the Iraqis to do the hardest of things — societal reconciliation is an act of strategic malpractice that should be a warning for all future generations.  The national ends that were established, or reestablished, in 2008 to capitalize on the opportunities we had been presented with and worked so hard to solidify were so far out of touch with the reality on the ground, let alone the strategic reality of what needed to be done, that it makes one wonder if the folks giving advice could actually spell Iraq, let alone find it on a map!  Provincial elections and an outsize SOFA agreement, really, that’s what we needed to focus our strategic, government to government efforts on in 2008?  And what is even worse is that the people we hand picked to run Iraq turned right around and thanked us by running out the clock and rolling us on these two issues, let alone settling the last election not in Baghdad, not in DC, but in Tehran and Qom, so that we never got to the hardest part of any COIN fight: the societal reconstruction.  And all of these failures track back to, or were cheered on by, the same group of names.  They still have their think tank positions or their spots doing written or television commentary and punditry, many are already advising the next batch of GOP presidential hopefuls or biding their time for a change of party in the White House to wind up back at the center of the game instead of its periphery.  Some of them even managed to get on TV a week or so ago to be expert questioners at a GOP primary debate.  All of them should be examples of who not to listen to when it comes to foreign, defense, security, and I would argue, any other policy!

The simple fact of the matter is that the end game in Iraq was all too obvious to predict.  The planning for what to do after the initial invasion was virtually non-existent and definitely not a priority for the Bush (43) administration.  The wise men making the decisions, the elder statesmen advising them, and the brain trusts cheering them on from perches at think tanks, TV, radio, and print media knew best.  The highly qualified individuals we sent to oversee the initial reconstruction known as the Coalition Provisional Authority had all the right answers.  They knew all about Iraq and Iraqis and Arabs.  Not because they had any particular expertise regarding Iraq, Iraqis, Arabs, and/or the Middle East, but because they had fancy titles (like Insert Adjective Here Scholar) or fancy op-ed positions (in which to posit that just six more months would do the trick) or they had the right connections (always good to carefully pick one’s own parents or colleagues before they get a government appointment) or because they had drunk their own or other’s kool-aid.  And they are back providing the same type of insightful and courageous analysis of what is going on in Iran and arguing that once again American men and women, military and civilian, should be put in harm’s way – just as long as none of those American men and women happen to be them or their relations.  There is a just and righteous virtue in being a leader in the 101st Chairborne Division and members of that elite and crack unit never have to say they are sorry or wrong.

The sad reality is Iraq might not have had to go down the way it did.  Regardless of what one might think of the reason, or reasons as they kept growing and evolving, for invading Iraq, once it was underway some proper planning, a modicum of humility and competency, and bringing to bear some actual knowledge and understanding of Iraqi identities (from the micro to the macro), structures and institutions (and how to line them up with the identities), and how the interactions between these things produce resiliency to or willingness to accept change might just have allowed us to achieve better strategic outcomes.  The strategic failure that Iraq metastasized into does not negate all the hard tactical and operational work or reduce the successes at those levels, but it did not have to turn out this way either.

[1] Adam L. Silverman, PhD is the Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the US Army War College.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College and/or the US Army.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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