What if the Iraq War Never Happened?
A war correspondent reflects on the grim insurgency in Iraq.
Not the invasion, that's something else. That was three weeks of aggressive warfare executed, by and large, with stunning effect, scattering a half-million-man army in its wake. The 10th anniversary retrospective haze makes the whole affair seem almost dreamlike, a flicker of blistering success before the years of horror set in.
So no, I don't mean that. But what of the war that followed, made up as it was of so many smaller wars? Different battles waged against the Americans, against Iraq's new security forces, even among the Iraqis themselves in bitter civil war. But none more than that largest and most targeted of Coalition troops: the Sunni insurgency. What if that had never had to pass? What if we missed means to better, exponentially better, exploit our military supremacy? Not just once. Or twice. But incessantly, for something like four years.
Sadly, as someone who was there throughout, I feel in my heart now what I was told to be true then: that the insurgent war didn't have to happen. The chance to avoid it was offered to us, plainly and clearly, and we failed to act upon it. Then failed again and again each time that chance was presented anew. Four long bloody years in which perhaps so very many people did not have to die; not those we knew, nor the multitude we didn't.
Such thoughts stagger me. Render me silent. I'm not ashamed to say.
When insurgent leadership factions first offered peace terms, at least to my knowledge, it was to prevent the nascent conflict. It subsequently evolved into terms to end the insurgency and assassinate al Qaeda. It was a conversation pressed spasmodically by the guerrillas, with a view to a negotiated political settlement with the U.S.
I remember precisely where I was the first time the emerging insurgent leadership told me of its intentions. It was way back in the war's first summer. In 2003. Before the insurgency’s full fury had been unleashed. I remember the carpet in the room in the house in the farm where I was sitting, cross-legged. Even now, as I write, I still see it.
We were amid the lush green along the Euphrates in a village brimming with recently discarded Iraqi military who until not too long ago had been at the heart of Saddam Hussein's secretive police state. Fifteen or so of these men gathered in a sparse living room for lunch, and I was the guest.
My host was a man I knew had been a colonel in the former regime's intelligence service. Like many of his kind, he believed his commission had not been terminated by the American invasion. He and his family became my good friends. His sons were former military. Sometimes we'd shoot bottles out the back of their small rural property.
As we all ate with our hands, scooping great clumps of rice from a vast communal platter piled high, so heavy and unwieldy it took two adolescents to place it in the center of the room atop an orange plastic sheet, my host began to speak. He told me in long, detailed bursts of oration how all of them, and their comrades, had been so terribly wronged by the occupation. And how perilous the situation had become for the Americans.
It quickly became evident something tectonic had shifted within these guys I'd come to know (first for a Time magazine article collating anecdotes on the Battle of Baghdad, then as friends and longstanding sources). This, I recall thinking, is why I'd been invited for lunch. They had militarized. There were discernible semblances of command and control. They were energized. It would not be long before U.S. forces would only enter this area with great caution and ready to brawl. “But,” I asked through my translator, “can you defeat them?”
My friend didn't miss a beat. “No,” he said, with an are-you-kidding kind of look on his face. “They’re the greatest military on earth—of course we cannot defeat them on the battlefield.” There was simply no way for them to go head to head with the occupying forces. But, he continued, they had read Mao, and Ho Chi Minh, and Giap, and Che. “We will win,” he said to me, with a wry smirk. “And we’ll do it on that,” and he pointed to a dead television set covered in a corner of the room. “On television.”
He and I had drunk whiskey together. When the old man wasn’t around, some of the lads would proudly show me their best porn. We all smoked like Victorian factory chimneys. The guys paraded some of the prostitutes they would occasionally engage. We shared wild and funny times. Still, something had changed. And he asked, "Could you explain something for me?”
“If I can, of course. You know that.”
“Then tell me. I used U.S. satellite imagery to kill Iranians in the ’80s. Some of us did Ranger or Pathfinder training in the States. Al Qaeda? Never in this country. Right?” he asked, rhetorically. “We had no great love for Saddam, and didn’t mind you taking him down. If you came for the oil, then take it; we have to sell it to someone. And we’re happy if the occupier becomes a guest and we host U.S. bases, akin to Germany and Japan.”
“So, how is it we end up on the opposite sides of this thing? I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.”
And there it was. Spoken. An insurgency.
The war’s ultimate goal, he told me, to much nodding approval around the room, was for the Sunnis to fight and negotiate their way to a seat at the table of power in the country. A seat they felt they’d been egregiously denied.
But in the weeks and then months I was being told such things, I could not find a single attentive ear within the U.S. mission. Government authority then rested with the Coalition Provisional Authority proconsul L. Paul Bremer. Along with declaring so foolishly that the tribes of Iraq were effectively dead, CPA officials I encountered merely sniffed at the insurgents’ desire to converse. They would buckle under the heel of a new, soon-to-be democratic government. There was absolutely no palpable interest in encouraging a dialogue. Perhaps, even, quite the contrary.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, it seemed to me was laboring under an entirely different misapprehension. Its blinkers were born of the military’s necessity. The U.S. Army, which then owned Baghdad and the rest of the country with it, simply could not understand who was shooting at them nor why they would be shooting in the first place.
Initially, I took the army’s naivety for a ruse, a public-information blind behind which operations could hide. However, something happened in late 2003 that would finally persuade me the military’s confusion was genuine and heartfelt.
In late November 2003, I’m sure it was, I was swept up, without warning (having broken the day’s Ramadan fast with an evening meal with Iraqi insurgent friends) outside Baghdad International Airport and taken on a nighttime assault. In a December cover story for Time I detailed the extensive coordination and the various stages of the 120mm mortar and surface-to-surface missile attack on the airport that I witnessed and, at close quarters, filmed in grainy green night vision on my humble $300 Sony handycam. The U.S. military did not understand the depth of the chaos.
The dying wouldn’t stop. It just went on, and on, and on. When I think back, when I return to those years in my mind, all I see now is blood.
Though he’d announced his arrival in the summer of 2003 with the Jordan embassy car bombing, the war's first such event, it wasn't until 2004 that ultra-militant Islamic leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi really made his presence felt. Violently opposed to the mere notion of a dialogue with the Americans, he had his men assiduously hunt down and kill any they could find. It was a ruthless and bloody campaign.
If there is a quiet, unsung American hero to this story, then it is a Green Beret colonel posted in the war’s early years to Baghdad. Then–lieutenant colonel Rick Welch, now a full-bird colonel, was a reservist and district attorney from Morgan County, Ohio. His work in Iraq, I have absolutely no doubt, was a vital strand of the ultimate DNA of America’s military successes.
Alone, with goodness-only-knows what kind of leash from his command to do what he was doing, Colonel Welch was engaging with many of the same factions and currents of the guerrilla movements as I was. And, as I can testify, he came to be held in nothing but the highest regard by the insurgent leadership as an indefatigably honest broker. But for years the colonel was a lone voice in the broader American military.
The civilian side of the U.S. mission, on the other hand, was finally cottoning on.
In June 2004 sovereign power was transferred from America’s Bremer back to the nominal Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. This took place two days ahead of schedule, to avert mass attacks. The secret ceremony appeared rushed. Official U.S. government photos released soon after showed Bremer on the tarmac of Baghdad’s airport, scampering out of the country.
The bumbling CPA was replaced by a U.S. embassy and a relatively informed and quintessentially pragmatic State Department. A welcome, seismic shift. With Ambassador John Negroponte in place, halting dialogues could begin to splutter, and stutter, and stumble. Even before November 2004’s great Battle of Fallujah, one of the best-placed ambassadors in America’s five-ambassador embassy went to the edge of that besieged insurgent metropolis to discuss terms with the city’s high command. But there was no one listening back in Washington.
The insurgency, for its part, flexed its muscle in Iraq’s twin elections in 2005. In the first, in January, the leadership told its constituents to vote by boycott. En masse the Sunni population stayed away from the ballot boxes.
But it was in the second ballot, in December 2005, that the Iraqi insurgency came of age. In that election, not only did it urge its people to vote, which they did in droves, but the high command told its fighters to do the same. One commander I’d long known told me his men would drop their weapons and vote, and 15 minutes later would be attacking an American convoy.
Far more important, though, was the fact the nationalisticallymotivated insurgent command not only told the religious zealots of Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq to stand down on the day of the ballot, to allow people to vote but did so openly through the press. Any failure would be disastrously public. The odds were stacked against them.
And yet they pulled it off. With aplomb.
The Sunni voted in grand, enormous electoral blocks. And there was barely a peep from al Qaeda across the entire country. America could no longer deny it had a legitimate partner to deal with within the insurgency. And yet, the insurgent command felt, Washington continued to simply ignore them.
This is why, for every Lieutenant Colonel Welch, for every Negroponte, for every year that passed, America continued to lose the war it created. By 2006 the U.S. had lost all control. Baghdad was a mess, a civil-war capital. Restive al Anbar province, the decreed center of a new al Qaeda state, was lost. The mostly Marines in the province’s deserts were clinging on by their fingertips, each day a vile struggle to survive.
Something had to give. Something had to change. Some of those voices in the wilderness needed to be heard.
By that year’s end two American officers arrive in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar. This pair, Col. Sean MacFarland and his deputy, transformed the nature of the fight. Variously dubbed the Anbar tribes, the Awakening, or the Sons of Iraq, this anti–al Qaeda tribal program rapidly became a battle-tested counterinsurgent mindset that realigned the goal posts of the war.
And then came the videos. Groundbreaking. Both from the same group. Both parts of the same message. They came from the Islamic Army of Iraq, one of Iraq's oldest insurgent groupings that was, in reality, a massive umbrella organization for mostly former military and intelligence officers and former Baathists. It represented a lion’s share of the nationalist insurgency, the bulk of the 20,000-odd insurgents shooting at the Americans on any given day.
The first was what came to be known as the “sniper video”: Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) combat camera footage of American soldiers being shot at from hides. It caused a sensation in the U.S. Did America really want to keep going?
The other video was its companion. In this one, the organization’s official spokesman, Ibrahim al Shimary, appeared on camera (though his face remained covered) to once more—clearly, precisely, publicly—offer to negotiate. “We in the Islamic Army, as we have announced many times,” al Shimary said, “do not reject negotiations, but only if the Americans are serious.”
Within a year the same Bush administration that had once called these men dead-enders, Saddamists, and criminals, the same American leadership that insisted it would not talk with terrorists nor “those with American blood on their hands,” that same White House would be heralding how it had put former members of al Qaeda on the U.S. government payroll. All part of the Awakening program that would eventually employ almost 107,000 former insurgents, forming them in to local, pro-American militia often in opposition to the democratically elected government in Baghdad. The mere notion of such a thing would have seemed heretical, even treasonous, four or five years earlier at the war’s outset, during President Bush’s first term.
From that point at the beginning of the war until this, America had suffered something like 3,000 combat deaths, tens of thousands of wounded, and spent at least $2 billion a week prosecuting the war. In the same period, best estimates say upward of 100,000 to 150,000 civilians were killed, with millions displaced. An entire society was ruptured, possibly irrevocably.
So, I wonder, what if the Iraq War had never happened?
A version of this article appeared in The Interpreter, the blog of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy.