We could have left Iraq better than we did, especially in handling of Sunni contacts
By Maj. Andrew Lembke, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist There were a number of things that we didn’t quite do right while we were still in Iraq that have exacerbated the current threat. For example, the treatment of our Sunni contacts. In early 2010 I changed company command and moved on to G2 in ...
By Maj. Andrew Lembke, U.S. Army
By Maj. Andrew Lembke, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
There were a number of things that we didn’t quite do right while we were still in Iraq that have exacerbated the current threat.
For example, the treatment of our Sunni contacts. In early 2010 I changed company command and moved on to G2 in Baghdad. My company had been responsible for the Fallujah-Abu Ghraib corridor — which included that bit of ground west of Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) that’s been discussed on this thread. I was the last American responsible for maintaining a "meaningful" relationship with the paramount sheikh of the Zobai tribe, who controls that corridor. These were also the guys that started the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade and who by that point were so afraid of the Iraqi Government that they were very open to working with us. The guy who assumed my command had the distasteful job of ending that relationship… basically, cold.
When I got to G2 people were genuinely interested in the information I had about the area because it had been a "black hole" of good information previously. Yet when I asked if anyone, anywhere (from any agency or from the embassy) wanted to take over these contacts in a critical area west of Baghdad, no one was interested. Fast forward to the fall of 2010 when Secretary Gates was visiting Baghdad, and as he’s known to do, had dinner with a small group of junior officers to talk to them. I was one of the ten officers selected. I got to ask the last question, so I asked him candidly if there was any kind of plan in place to take over some of the more important relationships we as a military had developed at the tactical level since 2003. He said that surely there was some kind of plan, but I had to dissuade him of that notion as I’d just witnessed all of the relationships in the Fallujah-Abu Ghraib corridor get dropped cold.
My concern was that once our forces were gone, the folks in the embassy would largely be blind to what was happening outside of Baghdad, and beyond the version of events they were being fed by their political/military counterparts and contacts. I know it would have been a monumental task given the number of local-level relationships developed by units across Iraq, but I feel we missed a huge opportunity as we withdrew our forces. I’ve recognized some of the names of Sunni tribal leaders, Awakening/Sons of Iraq leaders, imams, and Iraqi security forces officers mentioned in media accounts, as I’m sure other American military officers have as well. I feel like we missed the boat — in a big way — on having eyes and ears, and perhaps even some influence, beyond the Green Zone.
So while we can talk about leaving the Iraqi government and security forces as best we could at the time, in my opinion we screwed up by not having some kind of program in place to transfer key relationships to the embassy and/or intelligence community. Granted, I’m sure I am not aware of some contacts that may have been taken over by three letter agencies, but based on how surprised we’ve been by the success of ISIS in Iraq since the summer, I doubt we managed to maintain contacts with the overwhelming majority of our former partners at the tactical level.
Andrew Lembke is an infantry major in the U.S. Army who served four combat tours, three of which were in Iraq. He served his final tour there from 2009 to late 2010 in an area encompassing western Abu Ghraib to the border of Fallujah. This article represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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