A missed opportunity in Iraq.

Ramadi, Iraq—It’s the second week of December, yet apart from a palm tree strung with Christmas lights outside the headquarters of the First Armored Division’s First Brigade Combat Team (1-1 AD), Ramadi shows no trace of the season. But, at the nearby house of Sheik Abdul Sattar, nothing can interrupt the festive spirit— or the sheik. Waving a lit cigarette, the former Al Qaeda ally has been advertising his fealty to the American cause for nearly an hour now. He insists his militia be set loose alongside the Marine river patrols that ply the Euphrates each night: “We burn the terrorist boats now!” Army Colonel Sean MacFarland, a lanky man from upstate New York with an uncommonly self-effacing demeanor for a brigade commander, gently declines the offer. “Then give me one helicopter,” the sheik suggests. “We will fight in Baghdad!” Encouraged by MacFarland’s chuckles, Sattar claps excitedly. “After that, we fight in Afghanistan; we fight in Darfur!”

Alas, Sattar’s military challenges run somewhat closer to home. Even as he offers MacFarland his transcontinental assistance, the sheik’s walkie-talkie crackles and panicked tribesmen on the other end relay news of insurgents besieging them at a nearby police station. MacFarland gestures quietly toward a captain across the room, who hurries outside. “We’ll bring in air,” MacFarland assures the sheik, who’s so busy shouting and being shouted at that it isn’t clear he actually hears the soft-spoken colonel. “So, um, get your men inside so we don’t hit them.” In the space of a couple of minutes, radio antennae relay a flurry of coordinates; one of the Marine F-18s above Ramadi banks toward the insurgents; a 500-poundbomb incinerates them; smoke swirls. As Sattar paces the courtyard with his walkie-talkie, broadcasting orders for an operation his American counterpart has already brought to a decisive end, MacFarland surveys the sand-blown landscape. “The sheik’s a little bit of a warlord,” he shrugs.

No one directed the colonel to recruit hitherto enemy sheiks to the American side, much less to raise a local force of their tribesmen. He just decided to do it. He’s not the only one: The Army’s combat brigades all fight their own unique wars. “There hasn’t been any coherent guidance,” says Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer whose chronicle of counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia, The Armand Vietnam, supplied the foundation for the Bush team’s “clear, hold, and build” doctrine. “So, instead of a symphony, what you have is a collection of jazz bands.” Some perform wonderfully, others disastrously. But the better ones, like MacFarland’s, seem to multiply in direct proportion to their distance from the war’s managers in Baghdad, who have always been more attuned to operations in the city around them. Largely insulated from a broken strategy, the counterinsurgency in the provinces has yielded a better way.

David Petraeus, the new commanding general in Iraq and himself a veteran of the counterinsurgency in the provinces, will now apply that better way to Iraq’s capital. The administration has dispatched Petraeus with a mandate to execute what the White House’s Iraq Strategy Review calls an “operational shift” toward” population security.” Good. The Pentagon has also published Petraeus’s counterinsurgency field manual, which finally cements into doctrine the well-established array of procedures and techniques for counterinsurgent warfare. Also good. There’s just one problem: Having waited nearly four years to apply the counterinsurgency template to Baghdad, the White House has sent Petraeus and his surge force to fight what is, in fact, no longer an insurgency. And by focusing so exclusively on the civil war in the capital, which the United States cannot win, the administration may wind up forfeiting the counterinsurgency war in the provinces, which it still can. 

For all the euphoria that has accompanied the elevation of Petraeus and his “new” counterinsurgency strategy, brigade commanders have been doing exactly what it recommends for years. The first to do so was Colonel H.R. McMaster, whose 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (3rdACR) famously pacified the city of Tall Afar in 2005. In line with the importance counterinsurgency theory attaches to population security, 3rd ACR cleared the city, poured millions of dollars into infrastructure projects, swelled the ranks of its police force, and planted itself in the center of the city. Last March, President Bush devoted an entire address to the lessons of Tall Afar, offering it up as a model for his new “clear, hold, and build” strategy.

Then an odd thing happened: nothing. Rather than enshrine the lessons of the city in a coherent approach to the war, officials in Washington and Baghdad argued that U.S. forces were supposed to be moving out of the cities, not into them. In any case, they said, the counterinsurgency template in Tall Afar could never be duplicated outside of Tall Afar. But it could—and it was. Anbar province, which America’s Baghdad-centric policy has always regarded as something of an outlier, offers a typical example. Last August, Marine Colonel Peter Devlin authored a report that described Al-Qaida as an “integral part of the social fabric” in Anbar and cautioned that “nearly all government institutions from the village to provincial levels have disintegrated or have been thoroughly corrupted and infiltrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Applying textbook methods of counterinsurgency to Anbar’s capital, MacFarland has reversed the trend. The new counterinsurgency manual instructs, “Identity-focused insurgencies can be defeated in some cases by co-opting the responsible traditional authority figure.” MacFarland has courted such figures relentlessly. When 1-1AD arrived in Ramadi last June, it was welcomed by six cooperative tribes and twelve hostile ones. Today, it boasts the support of 15and the enmity of just three. Of the tribal leaders whose allegiance MacFarland has gained, Sattar wields by far the most power. The sheik heads up an alliance called the “Awakening,” a collection of Anbar tribes who have thrown their lot in with the Americans. Seated beneath the Awakening’s gilded flag, which he designed and which features a sword, scales of justice, and, less explicably, a coffee pot, he recounts his three arrests by the U.S. units that operated here at the beginning of the war. How, then, was he converted to the cause of his onetime jailers? Sattar credits Al Qaeda’s excesses in Ramadi—including the murder of two of his brothers—and the fact that “the old U.S. leadership here was a disaster, but now the Americans work with us.” 

Another of Ramadi’s sheiks, Ahmed Bezia—who, unlike Sattar, favors Western attire and has built himself a full-scale replica of 1600Pennsylvania Avenue, albeit painted salmon—explains that, in a gathering of Ramadi’s elders, the sheiks signed a document pledging, in Bezia’s words, “that any U.S. losses are tribal losses.” At his headquarters later, MacFarland shows me a map of Ramadi color-coded to reflect tribal boundaries. Pointing to the western outskirts of the city, he explains, “We were hit almost every day in these places before [the alliance], but we haven’t been hit there in months.” Pressed on the wisdom of handing Ramadi over to militias with no allegiance to the government in Baghdad, MacFarland says simply, “There’s no government here.” In fact, not even the capital’s death spiral seems to register in Ramadi, where” most people have probably never even met a Shiite,” according to MacFarland. “It’s not about a civil war here. It’s about Al Qaeda.”

Petraeus’s counterinsurgency manual also advises recruiting police forces from the local population, a practice MacFarland has taken to its farthest boundary in Ramadi, where tribes even have their own police stations. The success of the strategy can be gleaned in the number of recruits swelling the ranks, which contained 140officers in May and have over 2,000 today. Intrigued by the figure, I join a squat bulldog of a commander named Jim Lechner on a patrol to Ramadi’s Al Jazeera police station. A few months ago, a suicide bomber ignited an oil truck at Al Jazeera’s gate, drenching the station, along with its Iraqi and American tenants, in burning fuel. 1-1AD will soon christen a new station here, but, in the meantime, Ramadi’s police chiefs have gathered for a meeting down by the river, about a mile away. Lechner sets off on foot, and we proceed down a dirt road that winds through a dried-up orange grove and toward the bank of the Euphrates, where a dozen or so police chiefs wait in a circle of plastic chairs. They set upon Lechner, complaining that Baghdad refuses to pay their latest recruits. “I am Sheik Sattar’s cousin!” one shouts. “I represent him!” The chiefs crowd closer, but Lechner seems unfazed. “This is nothing, a tantrum,” Lechner tells me. “I’ve had a hundred of them throw their weapons in the dirt.” Even this low-grade riot conceals progress: Ina war where police recruiting drives often do not generate a single applicant, today’s uproar comes as the result of a recruiting glut. 

In Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, former 82nd Airborne Division Commander Major General Charles Swannack recounts how he cautioned that “al Anbar province wasn’t ready for [a counterinsurgency campaign], and maybe never, because they didn’t want us downtown.” MacFarland has upended Swannack’s admonition, putting nearly all of his combat forces in the downtown of Anbar’s most dangerous city. The logic is straightforward: The path to defeating an insurgency runs through the population, without whose support insurgents can be forced to fight in the open. Securing control of the population depends, in turn, on guaranteeing its physical security and—through social programs, civic assistance, and the like— its “hearts and minds.”

This theory plays out in the streets of Ramadi. The areas where1-1AD has yet to erect combat outposts (COPs) contain no trace of life whatsoever. En route to COP Falcon in southern Ramadi, the landscape resembles one of those aerial photos of Berlin in1945—only, seen from the ground, the wreckage appears even worse. Then something unreal appears: A block of utter devastation gives way to a block that bustles with shops, women carrying bags of groceries, the everyday vibrancy of a living community. COP Falcon, which consists of a couple of abandoned homes and a row of tanks parked in a bulldozed clearing, oversees the avenue, guaranteeing its security and functioning as a magnet for daily life. In the days after the COP was first established, explains Captain Michael Bajema, “We had taxis full of gunmen, 50 at a time, coming at us.” But the violence receded here once the next COP went up a few blocks away. It’s a familiar pattern: The insurgents contest each new COP—MacFarland has installed 24 in all—but eventually fall back to areas with no U.S. presence. Today, says Bajema, “We’ve got the closest school open with 700 kids every day, we’ve built a [sewage] pumping station, we’ve got 200 people coming into our [aid station] every day.” More to the point, “People now tell us where IEDs are, who planted them, everything.” Since 1-1AD’s arrival, enemy attacks have declined by 40 percent and IED attacks in particular by 60 percent. Tellingly, the violence here now centers around the only two neighborhoods where the brigade has yet to install COPs—a shrinking zone, as Americans now control 80 percent of the city compared with 15 percent when 1-1 AD first arrived. Before leaving Iraq, I head from Ramadi to Falluja and then Baghdad, where I spend a week with the Tenth Mountain Division’s Second Brigade Combat Team (2- 10 Mtn). The brigade, which officers at the Pentagon recommend as another model of counterinsurgency, operates in the “Triangle of Death,” an insurgent corridor southwest of the capital and adjacent to Anbar. Colonel Michael Kershaw, an East Texan who buzzes with frenetic energy, commands with the benefit of a background in irregular warfare, having served multiple tours in the Rangers and in a globe’s worth of unconventional postings. And, in the operational schemes favored by 2-10 Mtn, it shows. On a helicopter flight south from Baghdad to Yusufiyah, a panorama unfolds wholly unlike the polluted and broken capital behind us. The debris of the city quickly gives way to a stunning landscape, with canals and dikes ordering lush farmland into neat grids. The terrain resembles Southeast Asia’s and in more ways than one. Anticipating the counterinsurgency manual’s warning not to” concentrate military forces in large bases for protection,” Kershaw has his soldiers fanned out among the reeds, in boats patrolling the Euphrates, melted into population centers. 

The objective of a recent push by the brigade stands about 25 miles southwest of Baghdad—a tangle of smokestacks and industrial wreckage known as the Yusufiyah power plant, which insurgents held for three years with impunity (and where they butchered two abducted American soldiers last year). As in Tall Afar and Ramadi, the combat phase of operations here was a prelude to counterinsurgent operations of arguably greater consequence. At a house in Sadr Yusufiyah that 2-10 Mtn uses as a patrol base, Captain Palmer Phillips says the locals didn’t know what to think when his company moved in: “There had never been any Americans here before.” After the company medevaced a baby dying of a respiratory illness, Iraqis began to show up at the gate for medical aid, for passes to use restricted routes, and, eventually, to provide the Americans with a steady flow of tips. Here, as in Ramadi, attacks have fallen off sharply.

Flying out of Baghdad, the impression that commanders like Kershaw and MacFarland have devised a way forward gives way to a cold truth: The problem in Iraq has never been a lack of military capability. The problem has been confusion—at the top—over how to use it. There has always been a self- defeating tautology at work in the management of this war: The absence of guidance from Baghdad encourages commanders to innovate, but it also means their innovations aren’t elevated to the level of guidance. Lacking a framework for fighting the insurgency, one brigade confines itself to a city’s edge, another blasts its way through, and a third finally gets it right. Across the country, the pattern repeats itself over and over. Hence the awful question mark that may double as the epitaph of the U.S. enterprise in Iraq: What if there were one true path all along? If there were, historians will trace it back through the Triangle of Death in 2007, Ramadi in 2006, Tall Afar in 2005, and, finally, to Mosul in 2004. There, General Petraeus first previewed some of the techniques and methods of counterinsurgency employed by the brigade commanders but never promulgated as a countrywide policy—until now. The news that Petraeus will return to Iraq breaks just as I return to the United States. Curious to know what he thinks of the appointment, I arrange to meet an officer close to Petraeus at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. The officer, who, like Petraeus, served in Iraq and chafed against what he regarded as a broken strategy, appears subdued. “We’ll quiet Baghdad down for a while,” he says. “But then what?” 

Indeed. Washington’s belated embrace of Petraeus and his counterinsurgency program undeniably comes as good news. But it also comes very late. Two years ago, before a one-sided insurgency spiraled into a two-sided civil war in the capital, the lessons of the provinces would have applied to Baghdad, too. They might even have a year ago. The methods for quelling insurgencies and sectarian violence, after all, are not inherently incompatible. In Tall Afar and Mahmudiya, for instance, the same visible profile that counterinsurgency theory relies on to achieve population security doubles as a buffer between Sunni and Shia, in much the same way the Army employed the technique to broker peace between Serb and Muslim in Bosnia. A brigade that I visited last year (1-10Mtn) extended the logic directly to the heart of Baghdad, where it operated continuously along the fault lines of mixed neighborhoods.” Commanders usually deal with sectarian feuds and the insurgency in the same way,” says Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. “It always comes back to fundamental issues of diffusing violence and political challenges in a way that’s unique to locales.”

But the challenges in Baghdad have gone beyond the realm of technique. Whereas, a year ago, the perpetrators of sectarian violence mostly belonged to organized militias or terrorist groups, the city’s spiral has now loosed neighbor against neighbor, street against street. A senior officer whose unit operates in Amiriyah, a mostly Sunni neighborhood where Petraeus intends to establish patrol bases, says that Shia routinely find themselves burned out of their homes, subjected to threats of abduction, or ejected from his sector altogether. They suffer these depredations, moreover, at the hands of people they’ve known their entire lives. Population security depends on the assumption that U.S. forces can insulate the populace from insurgents and militias. But how do you isolate the population from the population? In an insurgency, Petraeus’s manual declares, “Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy.” The plan for Baghdad, however, depends on a government rapidly forfeiting any claim to legitimacy— and on the impartiality of sectarian-minded Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki. Official corruption runs rampant in the capital, and sectarian identities have hardened to the point that ministries operate by tribe rather than by function. Though many units of the Iraqi army now operate quite effectively against the insurgency, commanders who contest the militias still tend to vanish abruptly. Then, too, Petraeus has said he may draw on the 150,000-man Iraqi Facilities Protection Service—a goon squad whose ranks Maliki himself has described as” more dangerous than the militias.” Forces like this explain why Sunnis look to the insurgency for protection in the first place. Will the Americans now provide that protection? Petraeus’s manual implies that 120,000 troops would be required to secure a city the size of Baghdad. But, in a city of six million, he will have to make do with an additional 17,000. Subtract from that number soldiers in support functions and soldiers patrolling in shifts, and the surge boosts effective force levels on the streets at any given time by maybe 4,000 or 5,000. “In 1968, General Westmoreland asked for 206,000 additional troops in Vietnam,” says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of international relations at Boston University. “That’s a surge. This is far, far too puny to make a difference.” 

Despite all this, administration officials and their allies in Congress have advertised the plan as a last chance to shape events in America’s favor. But establishing patrol bases, gaining the trust of the population, generating intelligence tips—all of these things count merely as the first steps of what, at least in the capital, promises to be a very long process. With the military clock in Baghdad badly out of sync with the political clock in Washington, however, patience has nearly run out in our own capital.

Where all this leads is clear. Writing in Parameters, the journal of the Army War College, retired Colonel Stuart Herrington notes that” having wasted more than three years (until 1968) pursuing a flawed strategy, the Pentagon lost the support of the American population, and was not given the time to get it right, even when it was clear that General Creighton Abrams’ pacification and Vietnamization approach might have worked.” In Iraq, too, the Pentagon wasted more than three years pursuing a flawed strategy and, as a result, may never “get it right” in Baghdad: Having been disregarded for so long, the lessons of the provinces probably now only apply in the provinces. Given this disconnect, why not assign Petraeus and his counterinsurgency strategy to the war in which they still have some pertinence? The point wouldn’t be to draw down to a baseline force in Baghdad, much less to forfeit the city. Rather, it would be to allocate relatively more attention and resources—beginning with something more than the paltry fraction of the surge force destined for Anbar—to a place where what has been billed as a show of American resolve wouldn’t be as likely to collapse that resolve. As it stands now, Washington’s decision to twin its fate to Baghdad’s means that, if the city careens away, the United States will walk away not only from the civil war it could not quell—but also from the insurgency it could. With the spotlight on Baghdad’s sectarian blood feud, the distinction between these wars has been utterly lost. The latest White House review of Iraq strategy replaces its “previous key assumption”—that the “primary challenge is a Sunni-based insurgency”—with a new key assumption: “[The] primary challenge is violent extremists from multiple communities.” As a statement of policy, this formulation is so vague it defeats its own purpose.” Multiple communities” do not pose the primary challenge to the United States. The Sunni insurgency does. It is the insurgency that inflicts nearly every American casualty. It is the insurgency that draws, more than ever, from the ranks of Al Qaeda, the very enemy against which the war on terrorism was declared in the first place—and an enemy that makes its base not in Baghdad but in the provinces. That is where, even today, the lessons of a better war still apply.