The Shadowy Path to Success in Iraq

At a roundtable discussion with bloggers on October 10, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner's (Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Effects for Multinational Force in Iraq) explanation for the origins of the spreading revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq was simple: the ordinary Iraqi had simply had enough.

I'm absolutely not saying that [coalition  forces had nothing to do with it]. I'm saying coalition forces were important in encouraging them, important in helping them get organized and helping them deal with the initial steps that need to be taken for them to start opposing al-Qaeda. But without that calculation on the part of the Iraqi people,it's kind of hard to get it started. And so I think you really do have to give credit to the Iraqi citizens and to their courage in stepping forward.

But in a world where every event is presumed to be caused by decisions in Washington, this kind of "simply because it happened" answer is often met with incredulity.  Before Bergner met with the bloggers, Lieutenant Colonel David Killcullen had been asked a very similar question on a broadcast by Charlie Rose. Rose asked who was "responsible" for the the grassroots rejection of al-Qaeda that seemed to be turning things around in Iraq and whether the "good news" out of Anbar wasn't simply a dispatch from a Potemkin Village.

CHARLIE ROSE: General Petraeus, the president, everybody talks about Anbar. It's almost like they want to say, if you say to them, as I have, the political reconciliation is not taking place, as I said to you, in Baghdad -- they all want to say, but, you know, the new news is Anbar. ...

DAVID KILCULLEN: Well, I think Anbar is shorthand.

CHARLIE ROSE: . portable is it?

DAVID KILCULLEN: It's shorthand. Right now, the phenomenon that you are talking about is not in Anbar; it's in about 45 percent of the country. It's in Anbar; it's in Diyala; it's in Babel. It's in Baghdad. Even down in Nasiriyah with Shia tribes, we're seeing a similar kind of phenomenon.

CHARLIE ROSE: Where they are turning against al Qaeda.

DAVID KILCULLEN: Jaish al-Mahdi in the case of the Shias. But, so, there's a -- there's a much wider geographical and demographic spread to this thing than just al-Anbar. And what has happened in other parts of the country is not exactly the same as what happened in Anbar. And what happened in Baghdad was driven by local community leaders, who are often religious leaders.

CHARLIE ROSE: Right.

DAVID KILCULLEN: So, it is a -- it's different in different parts of the country, but it's a very substantial phenomenon. And it's not something that we started, it's not something we really predicted. But it's certainly making an enormous difference.

"It's not something we really predicted". Before Charlie Rose's quick mind could jump on that, Kilcullen preempted him in the next breath.

CHARLIE ROSE: The best news we've had, is it not, or not?

DAVID KILCULLEN: Well, yeah. Well, it's fraught with -- I mean, there is dangers in it.

CHARLIE ROSE: Which are?

DAVID KILCULLEN: Well, you know, I mean, these guys are not Jeffersonian democrats. These guys are .

CHARLIE ROSE: Sunni tribesmen.

DAVID KILCULLEN: And they are motivated by self-interest. But, you know, that's a reliable .

CHARLIE ROSE: And they might change their mind again?

DAVID KILCULLEN: I would be surprised. I mean, you remember when Sheikh Sattar tragically was killed.

CHARLIE ROSE: Right.

DAVID KILCULLEN: Some people said, well, that's the end of the uprising, but it wasn't. In fact, it

CHARLIE ROSE: They used his funeral as a rallying cry almost.

DAVID KILCULLEN: Well, people -- people started the uprising because al Qaeda was killing sheikhs.

CHARLIE ROSE: Right.

DAVID KILCULLEN: Killing another sheikh just reinforced the point that you can't trust al Qaeda.

The "simply because it happened" answer also generated discussion at the blogger roundtable. The "concerned citizen group" phenomenon (Bergner's term for the anti-al Qaeda movement) was spreading beyond Anbar.

"This continues to be a tough fight. And so the progress that our forces are making as they continue operations in the Diyala River Valley, they continue operations in north central Iraq ... as well as in the operations south of Baghdad and in the city itself, are helping to keep the pressure on al Qaeda and create a condition such that it's very difficult for them to have the freedom of maneuver, the access that they otherwise would have had and the capability to coordinate themselves before we disrupted their leadership."

But what was this thing and who would control it?

The very success of the movement roused in the bloggers at Bergner's roundtable the same issues that David Kilcullen and Charlie Rose discussed. Nearly every blogger asked how these burgeoning grassroots groups could be controlled after they were raised. Bergner immediately pointed out that the security volunteers were uncontrolled weeds; they were deploying within a multi-tiered framework of authority.

They're doing this generally with the support of the local tribal sheiks, the tribal leadership in these communities. And they are doing it under the auspices of both the  coalition forces, their own security forces and the government of Iraq ... but not outside the bounds of their own government.

The government of Iraq, the Iraqi security forces and the coalition are helping screen them, vet them. And for those who want to seek service in the Iraqi security forces, the government of Iraq has a path for that to be pursued.

Some of the bloggers present at the roundtable asked how exactly these goals would be accomplished. How would the security volunteers be disciplined? Was there a budget with which to pay them, or was the Coalition simply making things up as they went along? One of the questions put to Brigadier General Bergner was:

First, when they take actions independent or with the coalition in the background ... how do you know that who they target are truly terrorists and extremists? Have [they] ... ever fought with one another or with the Iraqi security forces?

Has money actually come through or is this still kind of [a] process of sorting out guidelines in anticipation of something actually happening in that regard?

While Bergner admitted that he was not a tactical commander who had the detailed answers to these questions at his fingertips, he was fairly confident that the concerned citizens were not loose cannons.

 I'm not a tactical ground commander ... but my sense is that they are working well with the security forces in their area, and they are being accountable for their actions. And the coalition commanders that I've talked to ... have a high degree of confidence and believe there is good accountability in them. ... I am not aware of any specific [clashes] like that.

And in terms of specific employment incentives and action by the government of Iraq, those are actually under way. ... So those actually are being addressed very directly between the governors, tribal leaders and the central government.

That was as far as the answer went, and the blogger conference call ended with cordiality all around. But clearly the ghost of what the spontaneous revolt against al-Qaeda represented, the thing which had simply arisen, with the help of but not at the beck of the coalition, still haunted the room. On the one hand it had helped the coalition immensely against al-Qaeda. But was there a price to pay? Bergner related this story of a terrorist cell that had been taken down on September 11 along the Syrian border "against a target designated as Muthanna" to illustrate just how hard al-Qaeda was being hit. The coalition captured

literally terabytes of electronic files, some 800 names of al Qaeda terrorists, some 143 lists ... of al Qaeda terrorists who were either en route or had perhaps already been delivered to Iraq. And that included things like not only their normal biographical information -- name, where they're from, addresses and phone numbers, passport information -- but in many cases also included things like their transit routes and their ... logistical and administrative activities.

David Kilcullen and Charlie Rose in their interview also struggled with the ambivalent nature of raising a revolt against al-Qaeda, weighing its benefits against the necessary uncertainties, with Rose demanding a roadmap and Kilcullen providing only a sketchy indication of the road ahead.

CHARLIE ROSE: And the end results won't be what we intended in the beginning.

DAVID KILCULLEN: But I don't think that means that it's not winnable. I think that -- I actually have -- I'm a little bit Zen about this, you know. I think it's going to -- it's going to play out as it's going to play out. And the Iraqis -- the ones I've worked with anyway -- have shown me, you know, that they do understand the environment.

And then Kilcullen, perhaps sensing that more was required, asked Charlie Rose to look past the notion of a roadmap and grasp why developments such as this were important to winning battles against terrorism not simply in Iraq but in every battle like Iraq all over the world. The voluntary nature of "concerned citizens" was of supreme importance. To illustrate this, Kilcullen noted how it affected the question of the number of troops deployed.

DAVID KILCULLEN: I think we've got to be very careful about linking all this debate to how many -- how many American troops .

CHARLIE ROSE: (inaudible) playing that game.

DAVID KILCULLEN: I know, I am not trying to -- but let me give you an example. If we were to add 50,000 troops, just hypothetically, that would give us an extra 50,000 people to feed, people to move around, people to support. It would probably give us 10,000 extra bayonets on the ground. So, an advantage of 10,000. If we win 50,000 Iraqis from al Qaeda, it gives us an advantage not of 50,000, but of 100,000, because we get 50 and they lose 50.

CHARLIE ROSE: Right.

DAVID KILCULLEN: Right? So, it is all about partnering with the population and convincing the population to swing away from the enemy and towards us. Troops that we put in and out, that's a marginal consideration in terms of numbers, just straight, you know, operations research data will tell you that, you know, 10 Iraqis fighting for us is worth, you know, a battalion's worth of guys coming in and trying to impose something on them. So, it's all about partnering with the Iraqis.

To a Washington accustomed to thinking in terms of mandated results, the notion of leaving something to chance would be a hard sell. That the way forward in Iraq might consist not of a commitment to the "right numbers" but to the correct process was an answer sure to leave many uneasy. It was a shadowy path. The trouble was that it might be the only way forward to success.

PJM Sydney editor Richard Fernandez blogs at The Belmont Club.