On Iraq, Petraeus Still Marketing a Myth

by Wayne White

In his Oct. 29 Foreign Policy article, “How We Won in Iraq”, General David Petraeus characterizes the 2003 US invasion and departure of US troops in 2011 as an American victory. This triumphant — though distorted — version of that searing saga seems acceptable to many Americans not only because it has been repeated so often, but also because it is so reassuring. Yet, despite the immense effort and sacrifice on the part of the US military and civilian personnel who served in Iraq, there are profound reasons to question such an upbeat conclusion.

Losers and winners

The Bush administration’s goal extended far beyond the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and initially focused on the destruction of his alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). No WMD were found. The administration also planned to transform Iraq into a Western-style democracy that would function as a beacon to those suffering under nearby authoritarian regimes. Instead, even now Iraqis are saddled with an abusive, dysfunctional, non-transparent, corrupt, and sectarian-based government that resembles a democracy more in appearance than substance.

Rather than achieving a quick victory followed by a swift, orderly transition, the US became embroiled in a prolonged and bloody anti-insurgency campaign that cost well over 30,000 American casualties. The invasion also gave birth to al-Qaeda’s most damaging subsidiary, cost over $1 trillion, and for over five years diverted a huge amount of focus, military power, and spending from the important NATO effort in Afghanistan. Finally, instead of the US, the West, and moderate Arab states having considerable influence with Iraq’s new leaders, Baghdad’s most influential partner is Iran, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is supporting the Assad regime in Syria.

As for the Iraqis, Sunni Arabs have been disenfranchised by the Shi’a-dominated successor regime, untold numbers of them have been killed, many of their communities have been ravaged by war, and well over a million were driven from their homes and businesses in the greater Baghdad area. A majority of Iraq’s roughly one million Christians have been forced to flee in the face of killings, church burnings and attacks on their businesses. Even the dominant Shi’a majority have suffered terrible casualties and great loss of property at the hands of the robust Sunni Arab insurgency back in 2003-2007, the depredations of their own rogue militias, and the drumfire of terrorist attacks and bombings on the part of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to this day.

For Arab Iraqis, insurgent sabotage and waves of looting following the invasion have devastated most of the country’s state industries, large private businesses, and all government ministries save one. Universities, hospitals, schools, banks, archives, much of Iraq’s electrical and oil infrastructure and the country’s rich archaeological heritage have also been severely damaged.

If there is a relative winner, it could be Iraq’s Kurdish community. Separated from the rest of the country by their own militias defending the borders of the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KRG), the majority of predominantly Kurdish areas have been spared the high levels of casualties and damage experienced elsewhere. In fact, the KRG now enjoys considerable prosperity (and more autonomy than at any time since the creation of the modern Iraqi state) with a host of Arab Iraqis taking advantage of Iraqi Kurdistan’s booming tourist industry every year to seek a respite from life farther south. Nevertheless, from late 1991 until Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, most of the Kurds now within the KRG already had been largely protected from Saddam’s rule within a northern sanctuary with much the same borders as the KRG.

The troop surge myth

Frontloaded prominently in Petraeus’ discussion of the “Surge of Ideas” is the new strategic approach he brought to the table. Petraeus’ shift toward increasingly embedding US troops within Iraqi communities and other tactical innovations was indeed more enlightened than the approach of his predecessors. Nonetheless, he does suggest strongly that the additional 30,000 US troops made a substantial difference. Yet, of the latter, only 5,000 were sent outside Baghdad to address severe problems in mainly Sunni Arab areas, so only in Baghdad was that reinforcement of any real significance.

Buried far below and evidently rated second to Petraeus’ “clear, hold and build” strategy was the US decision to exploit the so-called “Sunni Arab Awakening.” His description of the emergence of this phenomenon — the most critical game changer from late 2006 through 2008 — contains some notable errors.

First off, the decision on the part of many Sunni Arab insurgent and allied tribal leaders to seek a deal with American forces did not “begin several months before the surge” when one “talented US army brigade commander” decided to work with one “courageous Sunni sheikh” at Ramadi. The first Sunni Arab offer to cooperate with US forces — and in a far more sweeping manner — was brought to Washington’s attention in mid-2004, over two years before the events outside Ramadi in 2006. Senior military officers in the field at the time told me that other offers at least as significant as the one Petraeus cites occurred as early as 2003.

Petraeus is correct in his assertion that in 2003 many Sunni Arabs, despite their association with the former regime, still hoped to play a constructive role in the new Iraq. However, their offers of help were cast aside by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Jerry Bremer, when he dismissed the entire Iraqi Army even while giving Petraeus writ to reach out locally in the latter’s northern 101st Airborne Division sector.

It is therefore wrong to place the blame for missing this opportunity exclusively on “Iraqi authorities in Baghdad” (who had precious little authority relative to Bremer’s at that point). In fact, senior US military officers on the scene acting on instructions (some pre-dating the invasion) recruited many thousands of Sunni Arab officers willing to remain in the Iraqi army to help maintain order; they also were waved off by Bremer.

Missed opportunities, lingering effects

In the summer of 2004, the US army and Marines fighting in various sectors west and northwest of Baghdad were approached by a number of insurgent and tribal leaders seeking a broad-based deal with US forces. They did not regard Iraqi forces as a significant foe, nor did they trust the largely Shi’a/Kurdish Iraqi central government. Yet, so serious were these Sunni Arab leaders about stopping the fighting with Coalition forces & turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that they agreed to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in Tikrit, even though an agreement between the Sunni Arab leaders and Allawi could not be reached.

So, instead of grasping this outstretched hand that would have spared vast numbers of US and Iraqi casualties over the following two bloody years, the Bush administration deferred to an Iraqi government dominated by anti-Sunni Arab elements. Only when the uncontrollable maelstrom of bloodshed described by Petraeus erupted in early 2006 did the administration reluctantly decide to make the proverbial “deal with the devil.” This was driven by the need to gain some measure of traction in coping with a situation that had expanded to include the scourge of wholesale sectarian cleansing that displaced at least 1.5 million Iraqis and eradicated the once rich culture of mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Once that decision had been made, the Sunni Arab “Awakening” deal took more than 100,000 insurgents off the battlefield and turned them into critical US assets against AQI. Only then could sufficient forces be freed up to crack down effectively on rampaging Shi’a militias — primarily Muqtada al-Sadr’s “Mahdi Army.”

Petraeus also wrongly paints al-Maliki as supportive of the deal with Sunni Arab combatants, albeit merely in Sunni Arab areas, in 2007. From my vantage point in US Intelligence, I watched as the Iraqi PM set about actively trying to torpedo the arrangement during 2007 — even going to the extreme of ordering a major Iraqi army attack on an Awakening force west of Baghdad (in a Sunni Arab area), thankfully headed off by US forces, in addition to other attempted attacks on specific “Awakening” commanders as well as the kidnapping of some of their relatives.

Petraeus rejects the notion that “we got lucky with the Awakening,” but that is, in fact, far closer to the truth because the “Awakening” emanated from Iraq’s Sunni Arab community — not from “a conscious decision” on the part of the US (save for a belated US decision to accept a deal that had been on the table for two years). Had the Bush administration instead continued to reject such a deal in 2007-08, US forces probably would not have had nearly such a decisive impact on the war — regardless of Petraeus’ otherwise more creative approach to the conflict. Conversely, had Washington allowed the deal to be accepted far earlier, Petraeus’ predecessor, Gen. George Casey, would have enjoyed a lot more success (despite a less savvy tactical approach).

Petraeus, nonetheless, is correct that welcoming — rather than spurning — Iraq’s Sunni Arabs is perhaps the only way out of the current escalating spiral of violence. Unfortunately, Maliki’s determination to minimize Sunni Arab political participation over the past four years especially has so poisoned the well of sectarian trust that it could be very difficult to achieve such a shift in policy so long as al-Maliki remains in power. It is, therefore, supremely ironic that after ignoring years of US entreaties to abandon his marginalization and persecution of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and embrace reconciliation, al-Maliki should be meeting with President Obama today asking for American anti-terrorism assistance to address the violence he and his cronies have done so much to provoke.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. Bravo. Petraeus heped talk G W Bush into rejecting the excellent advice of the Iraq Study Group: make deals with Syria and Iran, and get out of Iraq asap. Huge blunder. Vastly expensive in many ways.

  2. We need to remember that the idiotic disbanding of the Iraqi army and security services by Jerry Bremer created civil war in Iraq.

  3. Wayne – I greatly appreciate your effort to contrast Petraeus’s distorted, and self-serving, version of efents in Iraq with reality. Good job.


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