The Iraq Red Team
A year and a half before the surge, a secret review group in Baghdad recommended a drastic change in U.S. strategy. If that advice had been heeded, might the war have turned out differently? An exclusive excerpt from The Endgame, a new book on America's final days in Iraq.
Seventeen months before George W. Bush announced that he was sending five additional brigades to Iraq for the 2007 "surge," a team of officers and civilian analysts gathered in Baghdad to conduct a classified review of America’s military strategy in Iraq.
In a June 2005 speech at Fort Bragg, President Bush had told the nation that the Iraq war was difficult, but winnable. "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said. "We have made progress, but we have a lot more work to do."
But when it convened in August, the Red Team, as the review group was known, came to a very different conclusion. "The perception of many Iraqis is that their government, and by implication, the Coalition has failed the Iraqi people," the report noted. (Read exclusive excerpts from the report.) Not only that, but the strategy Bush so confidently endorsed, the team asserted, would merely burden the Iraqis with a problem they could not handle. Iraqi forces might end up ceding ground to the insurgency in central and western Iraq, and perhaps even in Baghdad. A new counterinsurgency strategy — one that, in concept though not in resources, bore a striking resemblance to the approach Gen. David Petraeus would oversee two years later — was needed.
The team’s diagnosis and its remedy were both ignored. It was one of the most important — and until now, unknown — missed opportunities of the war.
The annals of military history are replete with intelligence failures — debacles that were not foreseen as a result of cultural ignorance, wishful thinking, or a lack of sources. But what is striking about the early years of the American war in Iraq are those episodes in which dedicated officials correctly discerned the problem and suggested new strategies — only to be ignored by generals and Bush administration aides who were wedded to their faltering plan.
These missed turning points might have shortened the conflict and provided more breathing room to establish a more inclusive Iraqi government at a time when the United States had maximum leverage in the country. Nobody can say for certain what might have happened, but it is instructive that some of the spurned recommendations were very effective when belatedly implemented years later.
To this day, some of the missed opportunities are not widely known. For all the partisan debate over the Iraq conflict in Washington, only a handful of insiders seem to know what happened during some of its most fateful moments.
As the insurgency began to develop in 2003, for example, a group of officers in the U.S. military’s intelligence cell in Baghdad developed a plan to work with the Sunni tribes in the western province of Anbar that was never carried out. Col. Carol Stewart had met with a group of Anbari sheiks and devised a plan to bring them into the fold. The strife-ridden Ramadi and Fallujah areas would be designated a "tribal security zone." Tribal leaders would be authorized to police their own areas and given vehicles, ammunition, and money to pay their men, who would be dubbed the "Anbar Rangers." The entire program would have cost $3 million for six months, a tiny sliver of the multibillion-dollar reconstruction fund for Iraq, officials said.
But when Stewart briefed the idea to an aide at L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, she was told that CPA did not plan to make the tribes a formal part of Iraq’s security structure. Leaving one meeting in frustration, Stewart muttered, "If the United States was not going to be working with the tribes in the new Iraq, where was this new Iraq going to be? On Mars?" Stewart had no more luck with more senior civilian and military officials in Iraq, and the idea was shelved — only to be revived when the Anbar Awakening emerged three years later.
The Red Team
But first came the buried Red Team report, in which a select group of mid-level officers and officials who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy were ignored. This account is based on interviews with current and former American and allied officials and military officers — and access to the 74-page classified report.
The origins of the Red Team go back to the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the United States ambassador to Iraq. A former Pentagon official who was coming to Baghdad from a tour as the American ambassador in Kabul, Khalilzad began to think anew about the military situation in Iraq. Canvassing the experts, he pondered the work of Andrew Krepinevich, who had written a book about the Army’s experience in Vietnam and was a proponent of population-centric counterinsurgency.
During Khalilzad’s Senate confirmation hearings on June 7, 2005, a skeptical junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, asked Khalilzad if it might take 10 or 20 years to defeat the insurgency. It could be done in much less than that, he responded reassuringly.
After arriving in Baghdad in July, Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, commissioned an internal review — one that was to be carried out by an eight-person team of military and civilian officials. Col. Bruce Reider, a strategist who was working on governance issues for General Casey, co-chaired the effort on behalf of the military. Other members of his military team included a British intelligence officer, an Australian officer, and one of General Casey’s planners. Marin Strmecki, a conservative defense consultant and an advisor to Khalilzad, led the civilian side of the review. A CIA analyst was part of the team as well.
Khalilzad met with the group and outlined the questions they were to consider, the most important being: What would it take to "break the back" of the insurgency in one year and "defeat" it in three years? The entire review was to be done in 30 days.
Although Casey had signed off on doing the study, the four-star general was convinced his plan was generally on track and not in need of a major overhaul. He was supporting troop-intensive counterinsurgency efforts in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar and the border town of Al Qaim in western Anbar as a way of interrupting the flow of foreign fighters from Syria. But they were the exceptions to his broader approach to gradually withdraw American forces and hand the fight over to the Iraqis. It was more than an exit strategy for Casey; it was a means to reward, encourage, and prod the Iraqis to step up. The paradox, as Casey sometimes put it, was that the United States had to draw down to win.
As Reider and the rest of the Red Team worked on their assessment in August, they sensed that the general had a different view of the problem. "There is a fundamental issue over what we are trying to achieve," the colonel wrote in his diary. "Gen. Casey believes we are trying to develop ISF so we can hand the fight to Iraqis. The ambassador believes we are here to defeat the insurgency."
The Red Team’s diagnosis of the war was, indeed, a far cry from Casey’s. The effort to disrupt the insurgents’ planning had not been decisive, it concluded, and the enemy had been able to retain freedom of movement. Many Iraqis had no faith in their leaders. What’s more, the Iraqi troops who were being trained were not schooled in counterinsurgency. "Iraqi Security Forces have been stood up at great speed," the review noted. "This tremendous achievement to get them ‘in the fight’ has not yet delivered sustainable forces with robust leadership." American aid programs were not reaching Sunni areas.
More importantly, the team did not see how the plan could work. "The current plan hinges on an ability to suppress the insurgency to levels that the ISF [Iraqi Security Force] can handle on its own, which implies that the threat will be reduced before the transition," it notes. "Current operations have not succeeded in suppressing the level of the insurgency, and the campaign plan does not provide new or different approaches that offer greater promise in this regard."
And if the Americans were making little headway, the Iraqi security forces would fare worse. "The planned size of the ISF is likely to prove insufficient based on historical cases. The ISF, still an immature force, will be taking on the burden of security in 2006 and 2007 with inadequate funding and less experience, training and equipment than MNF-I," it added, using the acronym for Casey’s multinational command.
The political ramifications of a failing strategy, the report concluded, were enormous. The hydra-headed insurgency might be emboldened is it thought that the main American goal was to disengage from Iraq. As a result, the insurgents could be "less likely to cut the political deals that would be needed to shore up the new Iraq."
Iraqis who had stood by the Americans might also lose confidence in their ally. "The fears of abandonment might lead the Iraqis to hedge their bets by developing greater reliance on Iran," the report continued. "If the transition to self-reliance takes place before the defeat of the insurgency, the Iraqi government and the insurgents could seek external support from neighboring states (e.g., Syria and Iran) in order to fight on, potentially leading to civil war along the lines of the one in Afghanistan in the 1990s."
Public support in the United States might be another casualty. "The American public might question whether a muddled outcome was worth the cost, especially since victory was not the goal."
Having assessed the problem, the group proposed an "ink spot" approach in areas that would be secured and developed politically until a patchwork of safe zones was extended across the country. The notion of separating the population from the insurgency was classic counterinsurgency doctrine, the kind Petraeus would later espouse, and ran counter to a Casey strategy that focused on border control and transition to the Iraqis.
The Red Team assumed that the only U.S. forces available were the ones that were already on hand, which meant that there was no way to blanket the country. So it proposed the concentration of forces in specific areas to effect a mini-surge. The command, for example, could use the beefed-up security for the upcoming December elections to establish an initial ink spot, perhaps in Baquba or in the Fallujah-Ramadi corridor. As more ink spots were created in 2006, they would be linked in a "Two Rivers campaign" to control the population centers along the Tigris and the Euphrates.
Without reinforcements from the United States, it would have been an enormously ambitious undertaking. But one of the main obstacles was bureaucratic. Casey had sponsored previous Red Team efforts and saw the report as a means to draw the embassy more into the war effort. But when the Red Team suggested wholesale changes to his military strategy, it was more than Casey had bargained for, one of his former aides said.
The Red Team approach posited a three-year campaign to defeat the insurgents and advanced a plan for concentrating American forces in insurgent-infested areas, which was inconsistent with Casey’s vision of progressively handing over the fight to the Iraqis and making troop cuts in 2006 and 2007.
When it came time for the team to brief some of its conclusions on Aug. 23, Casey made it clear that he did not accept the rationale behind much of the report. The team never even got around to presenting its PowerPoint slides. Two weeks later, one of Casey’s senior officers approached Reider and said that the general had heard that the Red Team had been pressured to go along with the ink-spot approach by Strmecki. Reider denied it.
In his own post-mortem on the war, which is to be published by National Defense University, it is clear that Casey did not give the Red Team report much weight: he noted only that it made some useful suggestions on how to better integrate the coalition’s economic, political, and military efforts. In December 2005, Casey would hold his own Campaign Progress Review, which concluded that for all the challenges, there were "clear grounds for optimism." (When President Bush opted for a five-brigade "surge" in 2007, Casey still insisted that not all of the forces were needed.)
Still, Khalilzad brought a copy of the Red Team report to Washington and mentioned it to Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor, who suggested that it might be submitted through military channels, a former official recalled. But with Casey opposed to the concept, that was unlikely. A member of the British team passed a copy up his chain of command and it eventually made its way to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. By and large, however, the report vanished from sight.
Too little, too late?
The failure to confront the inconvenient facts about America’s faltering strategy in Iraq in 2005 had significant consequences. Bush’s eventual decision to begin a military surge in Iraq in 2007 and to appoint Petraeus as commander pulled Iraq out of a worsening civil war. The surge strategy succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation in diminishing Al Qaeda in Iraq and tamping down the sectarian violence. It also served as a catalyst for the Sunni Awakening, which would make its way from Anbar to the area surrounding Baghdad and, finally, to the Iraqi capital itself.
But if the strategy change had come earlier, a longer surge might have led to more progress in establishing a more inclusive Iraqi government and improving the poor performance of Iraq’s ministries — issues that still bedevil Iraq today. Those questions might have been tackled sooner in an improved security environment and when American influence was at its height. An earlier surge might have saved treasure and, more importantly, lives.
The episode also raises some pertinent questions about the Obama administration’s strategy today in Afghanistan, where the United States military mounted a surge that ended last week. The transition to an Afghan lead and the closing of American bases is being executed with all of the mechanistic rigidity of the United States’ initial Iraq strategy.
I tracked down Reider, who has retired from the Army and teaches at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. What lessons, I asked, did he draw from the episode?
"You always hear senior leaders talking about the need to adapt," he said. "The plan we had in Iraq was not working and people who had worked on that plan did not want to accept that. This was an opportunity to adapt, and we did not take that opportunity."