- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008


By Bing West

Random House, $28, 417 pages, illus.


On Jan. 18, 2004, Bing West and I were standing in the street leading to the Assassins’ Gate of the Green Zone in Baghdad looking at a gaping crater caused by one of the first suicide car bombings in Iraq; it killed or injured a large group of Iraqi nationals waiting in line to go to work at the American compound. Mr. West and I were on a Defense Department fact-finding tour to assess the state of the Iraqi security forces. Both of us came to the conclusion that Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez were wrong in downplaying the insurgency as a bunch of Baath Party dead enders. We agreed that the United States was in for a long and difficult haul in Iraq.

Since that time, Mr. West has been to Iraq on numerous occasions. He has produced two fine books on the war before this one. He has been embedded with nearly two dozen Iraqi and American infantry battalions and has witnessed the Second Battle of Fallujah; probably the most bloody of the war and wrote his second book about it.

Now, Mr. West has written a narrative of the evolution of the strategy from its very shaky beginnings to the current approach led by Gen. David H. Petraeus, which is paying dividends much to the chagrin of the Obama camp. He writes in clear prose in telling the story of people ranging from President Bush, to privates on the front lines and the impact that the various strategies had on them.

In telling these stories, to illustrate the time line in the narrative, we repeatedly see soldiers serve and return. He effortlessly moves us back and forth from Washington to the Iraq front and back. Mr. West is able to do this because he has had a foot in both camps. He has been a junior Marine Corps officer and an assistant secretary of defense. He also participated in some of the early Marine Corps urban experimentation that helped to make the Marine Corps the best prepared of the services for urban guerrilla warfare.

He is critical of many of the senior officials, military and civilian, who crafted the strategy of the first half of the war. These include the president and Gen. George Casey who was Gen. Petraeus’ predecessor as commander in Iraq; however, the author explains why they made the decisions that they made given their background and lack of counterinsurgency experience. He is less kind to Mr. Bremer and Lt. Gen. Sanchez, clearly feeling that both were inept particularly in the disastrous decisions to disband the Iraqi army and disenfranchise the Sunnis. Neither seemed to ever grasp the magnitude of what was happening around them.

Mr. West sees the war developing in two strategic phases. Phase one had two sub-phases, the first was denial under Lt. Gen. Sanchez and the second was an attempt to hand over the insurgency too quickly to the Iraqi security forces before they were ready by withdrawing U.S. forces into large protected bases. The result was the anarchy of 2006 replete with ethnic cleansing and a near breakdown into complete civil war.

The second phase could also be called Petraeus’ War. It was categorized by two distinct but separate events; these were the Sunni awakening and the surge. Although they had separate origins their combination turned the insurgency around and drove wedges into both Sunni and Shi’ite insurgents. The awakening began in early 2007 when the Marines in al Anbar, Iraq’s most dangerous province, began to cut deals with the local sheiks who were offended by the highhanded behavior of al Qaeda in Iraq. This was done against the wishes of both the American and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad.

Soon al Qaeda was on the run and the tribes were rewarded with arms and public works projects. When Gen. Petraeus arrived, he embraced the awakening and began to lead the surge, which largely ended the sectarian bloodshed. It bought time for the Iraqi security forces to improve, particularly the Army. The surge was also designed to buy time for the government to get its act together. That was somewhat less successful, but there have been positive trends lately.

The book got its title when a tribal leader in Fallujah told Mr. West that the Americans are the “strongest tribe.” In that area of the world, the strongest tribe usually wins. Sen. Barak Obama has not learned that yet. Nor has he learned that if a sheikh appears weak, his tribe is weakened.

Gary Anderson served as a special adviser to the deputy secretary of defense and traveled to Iraq several times in that capacity.

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