The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq
The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq

The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq

Sep 16, 2008

There has been a fundamental disconnect between the Bush Administration and the reality in Iraq, says Bing West. But nevertheless, the strongest tribe in Iraq--the U.S. army--managed to turn things around.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome you to our first lecture of the 2008-2009 program year.
I hope you all had a terrific summer and, like us here at the Carnegie Council, are in the coming months looking forward to discussing some of the most challenging issues confronting us today.

This morning we are very pleased to welcome Bing West to our breakfast meeting. Mr. West is a Marine combat veteran who served in the Vietnam war and later was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security in the Reagan Administration. He is an award-winning war correspondent for The Atlantic and is widely recognized as one of our country's foremost military authors.

Today he is with us to discuss his third book chronicling the war in Iraq, The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq.

"Now that it is generally accepted that the surge in Iraq has given way to a pause in reducing the level of violence, America's lead role in the war has ended." So says our guest this morning. In The Strongest Tribe, Mr. West describes this striking transformation. In doing so, he mixes his broad grasp of national policy with his own battlefield experience to write about how the war was fought by our soldiers, managed by our generals, and debated at home.

His eye-witness accounts document the good, the bad, and the ugly. Over the course of a five-year period, our speaker made 14 extended field trips to Iraq, often embedded with American and Iraqi battalions. As a result, he was uniquely positioned to observe our soldiers as they fought an insurgency of unexpected strength and tenacity.

Yet, it wasn't until our troops adopted new tactics, later reinforced by General Petraeus, that they were able to rebound from the depths of chaos to defeat the insurgency, thus bringing a sense of stability and freedom to 25 million Iraqis, while crushing al-Qaeda in Iraq.

But Mr. West is more than a battlefield observer. He is a military analyst who wants us to understand how counterinsurgency works. As a Marine Corps infantry veteran who served in Vietnam, his first-hand experience fighting an insurgency there is used as background in critiquing General Petraeus. Mr. West helps us to understand how the insurgency was overcome and why Iraqis call our soldiers "the strongest tribe," a description which he believes is quite apt, considering the success of our military men and women who make such amazing sacrifices and valiant efforts which led to the current breakthrough.

In this election year, Iraq is an inflammatory topic. With unfinished business there, the next president of the United States will face difficult choices. The Strongest Tribe will not only provide clarity about the decisions needed to be made, but it is instructive, as it cautions us about having unrealistic expectations that can lead to failure on future battlefields of the 21st century.

Now for further analysis, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our speaker this morning, Mr. Bing West.


BING WEST: Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here at the Carnegie Council.

What I'd like to do in about 20 minutes is offer ten observations that I hope are related to each other and one overarching theory about war. That is, when you're fighting a counterinsurgency, it is a bottom-up war and has very little to do with the top and almost nothing to do with the White House. This is so antithetical to how most people in this room I think look at war, or even look at politics, that it's difficult to understand. I won't spend a lot of time on it. I'll just try to get through it enough so that you have a fundamental grasp.

I will start with: What's war all about? War is not about winning the hearts and minds of people. War is about killing. You take a young man with a rifle and you train him how to kill, and you send him out. His mission is not to capture people. His mission is to kill. The other side you assume is doing the same thing. That's why you have a war rather than a diplomatic negotiation. You've gone beyond that, where you're going to settle things by putting the other person in the earth. Therefore, in the end what counts most in war is who is strongest. We have become so liberal and so—I hate to say effete, but we're a strange society—that we don't want to look at what the reality is that we're asking people to do.

I was struck that Secretary of the Treasury Paulson was asked if he would participate in some of the National Security Council sessions when the president was wrestling with what he was going to do about Iraq in 2006. Paulson was brand-new. Paulson sat there and listened a couple of times.

Finally, the president said, "Do you have anything to say?"

Paulson said, "As an outsider, I have to tell you one thing. I don't know what you're talking about because you haven't defined for me what you want the troops to do."

There you go. What is it you want people to do?

I was standing on a corner in the shattered city of Fallujah in November of 2004 with a group of Marines. Everyone was looking for the arch-terrorist Zarqawi, who was in town. He had been in charge of the forces on the other side.

I have to tell you Fallujah was ripped apart. You don't tell the Marines to take a city without understanding what's going to happen. But people didn't understand what was going to happen. So it looks like Berlin in 1945. And they still haven't found Zarqawi.

There was an Iraqi colonel whom I knew, Colonel Abbas. He was there. We had a few of the Iraqis with us.

I said to the colonel, "Colonel, where is Zarqawi?"

He said, "He's already left. He put on women's clothes and sneaked through our lines last night."

I said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. He made all those statements on Al Jazeera that he was going to fight to the death."

The colonel kind of sneered. He pointed to these tough Marines behind me and he said, "That's the strongest tribe."

My whole hypothesis in my book about why did Iraq change, it changed because of the strongest tribe. It did not change because of Washington. It did not change because of generals. It changed because of the corporals, sergeants, and captains on the battlefield that no one wanted to fight anymore.

Now, against that background, what I am really advancing is the thesis that Tolstoy had in War and Peace. The interesting thing, if you stand back from the particulars, that most of us intuitively, if I say, "What's history all about?" and I say, "You have a great leader like Washington or Lincoln"—you say, "Yeah, and he leads the people." Uh-uh.

Tolstoy came along and in his famous book that no one has ever read, because I haven't been able to get through it—you know, 700 pages—but we all had to claim we did—but when I went back and really studied it toward the end, he was famous for, of course, indicating that at the critical battle of Borodino between the French forces under Napoleon and the Russians—that was the battle that broke Napoleon and began the huge retreat from Moscow—that Napoleon gave about six critical orders. Not one of those orders ever got to his troops. As a result, he was totally disconnected from the battlefield but he thought he was in charge.

Conversely, the Russian count who was in charge on the other side was back in his palace having dinner. At the end of the first day, a few people came to him and said, "The battle is in doubt." He said, "I can do nothing about the battle. That is up to my troops and whether they have the spirit. But tell them they are going to prevail."

So the word went out that the count was having dinner and told them to prevail. Well, the attitude of the troops was, "Holy smokes. If the count is so relaxed about this whole thing he's just having dinner, we have it in the bag. What have we been worried about?"

So the next morning when the battle began, the Russians had this spirit, "Well, we're going to win." As a result they did win.

His point was that history is not led by great leaders, it is led by leaders who have the common sense to know when there is a huge movement of the people one way or another and get in the middle of that wave and ride it. And if the people aren't with you, you are not going to be a leader.

It's the exact opposite of generally how we think. It's sort of like saying, "If Lehman Brothers had listened to the market instead of trying to fight it for the last six months, they would be better off than they are today."

What happened in Iraq basically was very, very simple against that background. For four years, from 2003 until the end of 2006, General Casey, who was in charge of our forces over there, and Secretary Rumsfeld were consistently saying to the president of the United States and to everybody else, "We cannot win this war." I mean you must have seen that a thousand times—"Americans can't win this war," "It's a political war," blah, blah, blah.

All they were saying was, "We're going to train the Iraqis to stand up and fight their own war and we're getting out of there." They said it for four years.

At the end of the fourth year, things are falling apart in Baghdad, and the president says, "Well, where's our strategy for victory?"

The answer comes back, "We never had a strategy for victory, sir. We're going to force them to fight their own war."

As one colonel put it, he said, "It was the five-pound bag of you-know-what that you hand to somebody and say, 'Here, here's your strategy; carry it out.'"

But for four years the national security process, including Secretary of State Rice when she was the National Security Advisor in the first administration, had never confronted the president, and the president had never done his homework sufficiently to understand that there was a fundamental disconnect—not just between Rumsfeld and the White House—there was a fundamental disconnect between the entire United States military and his position.

It was to the point that there was a wonderful general by the name of Zilmer, whom I knew quite well. I was talking with Zilmer.

There was a reporter coming by. The reporter said to Zilmer, "What's your strategy for winning out here?"

He said, "I'm not out here to win. I don't have the forces to win. I'm just out here to hand the war over to the Iraqis." Front page in The New York Times.

The next day, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, stands up and says, "The general doesn't know what he's talking about. The president wants victory."

Well, there you go. I mean if you're the president, if you're the National Security Council Advisor or something, and you have a division commander saying, "I'm not out here to do that," you'd say: "Stop, all stop. Let's have a little meeting here what's going on."

The president and his system never did that. As a consequence, we went for four years with war that was being fought on two fronts. In World War II, you had Europe and the Pacific. In Iraq, you always had the stronghold of the insurgency where the Sunnis were strongest, an area called Anbar Province, 60-70 miles to 200 miles to the west of Baghdad, all Sunni territory, and that's where the Marines were. And then you had the Baghdad area, which was the heart of Iraq, on the eastern front. So you had two different wars going on, with really two different chains of command.

They accounted for 80 percent of our casualties. The war in Anbar accounted for about 40 percent and Baghdad and the environment around it accounted for about 40 percent.

Now, what happened basically out in the west was that the Sunnis, from the time we had put the Shiites in charge of the country, rebelled, because they had been in charge of pushing the Shiites around for 400 years and they weren't going to have us change that, and they thought they were tougher than the Shiites. They would have been. It would have been equivalent to if we had captured Richmond in 1862 and pulled out the Union Army and said, "Now make peace down here." Then the African-Americans wouldn't have stood a chance.

So we were propping up the Shiites. The Sunnis are sitting out in Anbar. They said, "We're not going to have this. We're going to fight." They invited in the al-Qaeda to come across the border from Syria.

At that particular time, what was really happening for the next three to four years was a real war. I mean that was a real war out there. You started with the Sunnis aligned with al-Qaeda in 2003-2004.

By 2006—it took three years of war—they had gotten to the point where they were saying, "Let's understand this. I'm fighting these Marines, they're out on the streets every day, and I lose every battle to them."

The most interesting thing is that the Marines kept coming. I was in meetings with them where this would happen. You would sit down with the people that you already knew one way or another were the insurgents and they were helping the insurgents. You'd have kind of a semi-truce with them, where they would actually sit at the table with you.

I remember distinctly in Fallujah—tough place—the Marine colonel had his neck hit by a rocket and it was all scarred. He came that close to dying. Nicholson—a really classic, tough Marine guy, and not a diplomat. He's sitting there.

And the mayor, who we know is out every night dealing with the resistance, and the place is an absolute mess—the mayor is sitting there with the city council. The mayor spouts off for about 20 minutes about one thing or another and finally says, "And remember, I am the resistance."

Nicholson blows up at the end of the table. He said, "I am really impressed." He said, "What are you resisting? Are you resisting the money that I come in with contractors to give you? Are you resisting the fact that your schools are open because of me? Are you resisting the fact that I am starting to try to get water purification in here so you won't have TB or cholera? Or are you resisting the fact that I am the one who argues with Baghdad on your behalf? And my Marines are out there getting killed, and you sit there and you have the gall to tell me you're resisting. Well, good luck to you, buddy, because one of these days we're going home and I'm going to leave you here with those al-Qaeda types who will kill you every time you turn around and get out of line. So make up your mind and don't think you impress me by saying you're resisting me."

Well, they kept hammering away at this, until finally in late 2006, when everyone here thought the war had been lost, when Baghdad was falling apart—so now I'm talking about two different fronts with two different images going on—out in the west the Sunnis had finally said, "You know, maybe these Americans are making sense."

There was this wonderful sheik who came out of nowhere, the only true leader I have seen—I'd put him ahead of Petraeus or anybody for changing the war—by the name of Sheikh Sattar; he was a mid-ranking sheikh. He stood up with a couple of people and he said, "I'm going to go after al-Qaeda"—because al-Qaeda had taken over everything. Al-Qaeda was like Robespierre and the terror.

The way we found al-Qaeda whenever I would be out on patrols with the Marines—and they had different ways they'd do things—you'd walk along and they kept looking at the ground.

I said, "What are you guys doing?"

They said, "We're looking for cigarette butts, sir."

I said, "You're what?"

They said, " Well, yeah. Every farmer at the end of the day likes to sit out on the stoop and have a couple of butts. So if we don't find cigarettes we know al-Qaeda is here," because al-Qaeda had done things like banning all smoking in public, banning all lipstick, banning certain kinds of heating oil, banning certain kinds of tires, banning CDs with music. They had a whole list. So the Marines out on patrol, at the 18-year-old level, had learned what are the little tipoffs that we know where these guys are.

The al-Qaeda had succeeded—and I don't think they could help themselves any more than Robespierre and the terror could help itself—in turning on itself. They had succeeded in antagonizing these Sunnis.

Finally, Sattar said, with just a few guys, "I'm going to stand up to them."

Well, he couldn't stand up to a flea. But he had a wonderful persona. He had a couple of colonels there who really liked him.

They said, "Okay, Sattar, you're willing to stand up. We'll give you a little help." They parked a tank on his front lawn.

So what you had was not—people talk about the Sunni awakening, as though it was just an awakening. Uh-uh. The underlying antecedent to the Sunni awakening was the strongest tribe saying, "Fine, I'll put you back in power."

By late 2006, when back here in the United States the Iraqi Security Council guidance was being given by Secretary Baker and the president was looking at a change in strategy, et cetera, the war had already been won out in Anbar. But it wasn't known back here.

Then what happened back here was that Casey, who was the overall commander, had consistently been saying, "Look, I've got two problems. I have a problem in a person by the name of Maliki because he's sectarian, and I don't have control over the promotions of the good people in the Iraqi system and getting rid of the bad people who are causing a lot of the killing."

The killing that was going on in Baghdad was being sponsored by the ministry of interior to a large extent. And the police were absolutely complicit in it. What the Shiites were doing in Baghdad, was they were driving out all the Sunnis. So al-Qaeda was coming in and saying, "Well, we'll help you Sunnis against the Shiites." So this thing was mounting and getting worse on one front, and yet it had gotten better on the other.

In the Baghdad front, the army troops had gone back into bases. That had been part of Casey's strategy to hand things over to the Iraqis. And yet it wasn't the case out in Anbar, because it was a decentralized war.

So back in Washington there was a huge discussion, "What are we going to do?" Stephen Hadley, who was the National Security Council Advisor, manipulated a lot of people to get to the point where we were going to put more troops into Baghdad. I give Hadley more credit than any other single individual. He very cleverly worked around everybody to get that done, and then presented it as a fait accompli, knowing it was what the president really wanted to do. The president, faced with backing out or going further in, would go further in rather than lose. Hadley understood that and went to work trying to build this up.

He had a Navy captain on his staff, by the name of Luti, who put together a paper called "Changing the Dynamic." The hypothesis in Washington was: "If we just put more troops in, we show we're in to win, not to lose." That's as far as Washington went.

I believe we would have lost if the attitude of the Sunnis hadn't changed. But no one in Washington knew the Sunni attitude had changed. So it was a leap into the unknown to put more troops into Baghdad, because if it had been the same Sunnis that we had been fighting in 2004, we would have been in deep trouble.

But it wasn't, because everyone in Iraq talks to each other. And since unemployment is 40 or 50 percent, they have a lot of time to talk. And they love gossip and they love just chitchatting all day long. So the movement out in Anbar had swept all the way across by word of mouth.

When Petraeus came in with his deputy Odierno and said, "I'm going to put Americans back out to protect the population," he found in the Sunni areas the Sunnis were very, very willing to have this happen. If he hadn't put the troops out there, nothing would have changed. But the minute he put the American troops out there—and this is where you get to what do people do—there was actually very comparatively little fighting. I would say the average troop never fired his rifle or saw an enemy.

The greatest single killer of Americans was the explosive by the side of the road. They had 1,000 was of putting them in. So you always get rocked. I mean everyone's going to get hit sooner or later by it because we were driving everywhere.

Iraq was the first vehicle-borne guerrilla war that this world has seen. I mean you have this image of people from Vietnam, which was true, that they're out in the jungle somewhere, because the temperature allows them to be out there—you can live out there without discomfort to a large extent—and then you walk into wherever you're going.

Iraqis don't walk. They just don't walk. It's foreign to them, for a lot of different reasons. They drive everywhere. al-Qaeda drives everywhere.

So this war was always done by driving cars. Even from one neighborhood to another in Baghdad they drove. We drove. Everywhere we went on our patrols we were actually driving, with the exception of the Marines out in Anbar who were walking.

So if you want to kill Americans and you don't want danger to yourself, you'd find trash, which is everywhere, and you'd put in one of these little bombs, and then you would take any kind of— the most popular thing was China sells a hub for cell phones that's about this big, and of course the hub can extend to about 15 cell phones. It cost $90. So they would simply buy the hub, they would hook that up with a battery to the explosive device, put some garbage around it, then they'd take the cell phone and they'd move back to any distance they wanted and wait until they saw the Humvee going by the trash. Then they'd dial the number. The number would ring on the cell phone, ring on the base, that would be connected to the battery, and send the flash to the explosive. So they had 1,000 little variations on the theme.

But having the Americans there in the neighborhood, even though they didn't know who the enemy was—because everyone was in civilian clothes—caused those who are really against us and against the Iraqi government to say, "When am I going to be betrayed?" Because the other thing that they all did when they got there—and they did it instinctively; there was nothing from the top that told them to do this—you'd be out, and everyone comes up and bitches about something. So you're out on patrol, somebody comes up, "Mmmm mmmm mmmm." You say, "Okay." "Mmmm mmmm mmmm." You say, "Okay, okay. Here's my cell phone number. If that happens again, give me a call."

About one in every seven Iraqis has a cell phone. They are broke, but somehow they get them. As a consequence, they also know, just like we can, voice recognition. They learned who the interpreters were for the Americans. They knew they could trust them because they were with the Americans. So at 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning, the interpreters would be getting phone calls. They'd go over to a lieutenant or a captain and they'd say, "Hey, sir, we got a call. Somebody is hassling somebody down the street." The Americans would roll out. So now you have the same thing you'd have in America: You have an instant way of reaching to the police force that is in your area.

So the Sunnis swung over. Then Petraeus said, "I'll pay them." I said, "I'll give them all 300 bucks apiece." So he then began to have neighborhood watches of Sunnis who were armed.

Now, Maliki is really angry about this. This upsets everything he is doing in his structure, on the one hand. It also upsets the idea of the Shiites really being in control, because now the Sunnis are getting organized.

Petraeus said, "Look, my objective is to get al-Qaeda, because if I get al-Qaeda out of here, you Shiites won't have any reason to be beating up on the Sunnis."

The Sunnis then were diming out al-Qaeda, who began to flee, and the violence just went woomph! The other reason the violence went woomph, some people say it's because al-Sadr, who was the Shiite militia leader, did a cease-fire. He didn't do any real cease-fire. His units couldn't any longer get into the Sunni areas to drive out the Sunnis because now there were these neighborhood watches and there were Americans.

So that's the situation that caused the war gradually to turn around. My argument is that was a bottom-up effort. It was done basically because of the strongest tribe, the fact that we had soldiers who had the willingness to do this day after day after day. So in my book I try to go through and show how, city after city, this changed versus any general or any president making an order up here to change it.

Which brings us to today. Today we have the luxury of having achieved battlefield success and smacked dead-on into sectarian politics. No one really knows where Prime Minister Maliki actually stands. He makes all kinds of arguments, but in the end he has been very reluctant to take these Sunni neighborhood watch groups and transfer them into local police.

That's all Petraeus has been saying to him. Petraeus has been saying, "I have 100,000 Sunnis. We fingerprinted every one of them. We've taken a photograph of every one of them. We have a dossier on every one of them. If any one of them acts out, we've got him. He has no place to go. So stop worrying so much and just let them come in and be their local cops. And you'd only have to take 20 percent or 30 percent of them and this thing's over."

Well, what we're bumping against is underneath all of this there is this terrific resentment of the Shiites toward the Sunnis, a real desire to get even, a true culture of "the way you solve thing is you don't compromise; you get on top and then you're generous once you get on top, and you don't allow your old enemies to have a structure that may be in place."

The Americans are saying to Maliki, "Oh, come on, you have an entire army, for gosh sakes. Just compromise a little bit and this thing is over."

That's where we stand today. Except that the United Nations resolution authorizing us to be there runs out at the end of this year. Maliki is playing as hard as he can with the negotiation for our status of forces because he's resentful of General Petraeus and of the Americans and he wants to have total control. He wants the Americans to have to go to him to ask to do an operation, to which basically we would say to Maliki, "That's a non-starter. We're not going to do that."

He also wants all American soldiers to be subject to his laws. There is no law in Iraq. It's a joke. And so if you put American soldiers—we'd never do that, but if we did? We'd be consigning American soldiers to a system that really doesn't work yet.

So we're at a stage now of straight politics. The president, unfortunately, has lost all leverage on this because two years ago, when people said, "Look, we're not sure about Maliki one way or another, how sectarian he is," the president said, "I have one of two choices: either I buck this guy up or I signal to the Assembly 'get rid of him,' and they'll vote him out. But then I'm not sure who I'll get in his place. So I'm going to buck him up."

So the president for two years has been on televideo about once every two to three weeks with Maliki saying, "You're a wonderful guy. You're the new Abe Lincoln and George Washington rolled together." Now Maliki is basically, in essence, saying, "You told me that all those years and I believe it. Now I'm telling you what I want. And oh, see you, buddy, because you're gone." So the president has zero leverage at this particular point.

The fundamental issue coming forward that I see for the next president is not the level of forces. The level of forces, the withdrawal rate, is already pretty much set through next June. It won't be until next June that a president really has to ask what my rate of withdrawal is going to be.

And, given that Petraeus and his successor, who is taking over next week, General Odierno, have said, "Do not make it faster," why would a president immediately pick a fight when he comes into office that he doesn't have to?

So I anticipate that Senator Obama is going to try, in some lofty rhetoric way, to get off this dime of promising or something that we're all going to get out of there on a fixed timetable. I think he's going to try to work his way out of that one because he doesn't need that fight. The real issue is going to be getting some leverage over Maliki with the next administration.

I'll stop it there.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Fairly early on, the questions that were asked involved "How soon will we get out of there?" And also, in time, there was the comment, "Well, we don't want to get caught in a quagmire. We're getting in there. We don't really understand the situation. And also, we have only a limited number of troops, so really what can we do in that area?"

So what you say, in terms of the strategy that e followed, that the United States followed, with Bush in those first three or four years, what kind of political decisions actually were being made in Washington that influenced whether or not the United States would go in there to, so called, "win the war"?

I have not talked with President Bush because I've been a little bit angry. So I did not ask for an interview with him. I've talked with everybody else. I am unable to find that there ever was that kind of a conversation that you're referring to, where people basically said, "Let's put it on the table, let's look at the time lines."

There was always a time line for withdrawal, always, and it was always optimistic. There were many assessments sent to the president. But at least every six months General Casey and the ambassador, Negroponte, and then Khalilzad, jointly signed an assessment they sent to the president. Up until the fall of 2006—and I've read them all—the president was told, "We're going to be out of there by 2007-2008."

The other issue, though, in your question about what did that mean to get out of there and what were you leaving behind, to the best of my knowledge I could never see where it was addressed.

And the other thing I'll say about how the assessment process—okay, Lehman Brothers has screwed it up; a lot of people have—the risk assessment that you take, where you're supposed to have somebody on your board who's in charge of risk assessment. There was nobody in charge of risk assessment that I can identify in the National Security Council who was separate from Casey and from Khalilzad assessing what they were saying to them, separate from what they were saying.

And when you read the reports—and I read them carefully—there was no standard template for the reports. So I could not compare the template of one period with another, because they changed. Therefore, the measures of effectiveness changed. So anyone, sir, who was a risk assessor standing apart from this would have, I think, thrown a red flag on it in about 2004 and said, "This doesn't make sense."

You had indicated that soldiers are a killing machine; that is their purpose; that's what they're trained for. Then why are we prosecuting those soldiers who did their job?

Let me back off and come at it. I know all those cases very well because I know the platoon very well. I know every one of those young men. I basically say what's happening now is wrong.

But the fundamental issue is greater than that. Right now you have a point of honor. The immediate issue is that—only in America—a wonderful former killing machine, a Marine who had killed people in battle, volunteered to go into the secret service. He thought he was the kind of guy who should protect the president.

They gave him a polygraph. One of the questions was something like, "Have you ever done something that you're deeply ashamed of, or violence toward others?" or something. It flashed up. He said, "Well, I bumped a couple of people off." He allegedly said, "I bumped a couple of people off in Fallujah that I thought were insurgents." Boing!

We now have a new rule that says anyone can be prosecuted, either a contractor—and people didn't realize it—or a soldier for what he did in the war zone long after it's over. So you couldn't have somebody escape.

All of a sudden, this thing came up. It went to a district attorney. He said, "Wow!" He made the moral decision that he should prosecute somebody based on what that person said in combat four years ago. I think it was wrong.

But you can see you now have this moral dilemma. You're faced with the fact that the man admitted he did something. Therefore, they went to the others who were in the platoon.

The others said, "I'm not going to talk."

They said, "No, I'm sorry. You are a Marine. You are honor bound to talk as a Marine."

They said, "Whoa, whoa. I'm a Marine, but he's a Marine." And so they have been refusing to talk.

This thing is a mess. But the basis of it being a mess is that we now are facing for the foreseeable future in war an entirely different framework, and America as a society hasn't come to grips with it. That is, since about the year 1200, armies on both sides have worn designations or uniforms to show that they are fighters. Why did they do that? They did that because of the depredations earlier in history where armies would kill everybody as they swept across an area—Attila the Hun, et cetera—and they made no distinction between fighters and nonfighters.

So there gradually grew up these rules of law, because only the armies can guarantee that civilization advances. I mean when you consider it, the army is the guarantor of civilization, because without an army you wouldn't have civilization.

It was up to this war that the penalty for being an unlawful combatant, meaning that you were wearing civilian clothes and you killed somebody in uniform, was that you were executed. That was done to protect the population so that the army wouldn't turn against all the people.

Now, with our liberal frame of reference, we came into Iraq, where nobody wore a uniform, and we said, "Oh, we can't do that to them." So everyone learned in Afghanistan and Iraq—it's not going to stop there—I think anyone who ever wears a uniform again to fight us is foolish, because we have gotten to the point where our soldiers go out, they get fired on from a building, they'll rush into the building, and 99 times out of 100 there will be no weapon in anyone's hand. Everyone has learned to throw the weapons away. And then you sort of say, "I didn't do anything."

Now, our guys do not speak Arabic. Therefore, they arrest them. But they can't quiz them. They find one or two weapons, but they can't say who had the weapons. They then have to bag the weapons, come back, sit down with a lawyer, write out an arrest record, swear under oath that what they are saying is the truth. But they don't know which one of them had the weapon.

Then the person is interrogated but is read his Miranda rights and is told he doesn't have to say a word. He can only be held for 22 hours at the battalion level. If he doesn't say anything in 22 hours, he then is moved on. The odds of him being released in the process are nine out of ten. If he is arrested, he is kept for an average of 300 days and released again. In ordinary war, you keep the prisoners of war until the war is over.

Then your Supreme Court, by a vote of one lawyer, basically said they have the right to habeas corpus in our courts, throughout our entire courts, if they're held in Guantanamo.

So what are we doing? You know what we're doing. We're holding them in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're hoping—everyone's holding their breath and hoping that the Supreme Court doesn't say, "Oh, and by the way, all those other thousands, same deal applies." We have 20,000 in Iraq that we are holding in our prisons and 2,000 that we're holding in Afghanistan.

So we are painting ourselves into this corner without having figured out what we're going to do about it. It's a sticky problem.

And believe me, the troops resent it, they're angry about it, and they call it the "catch and release" system.

President Bush described the goal of the United States in Iraq as victory. I think you have also made that point. You said you objected to what Secretary Rumsfeld and others were doing about just handing this over to the Iraqis. You then have referred to defeating al-Qaeda as a goal of the United States. And then you ended your presentation by saying the challenge for the next president is leverage on Maliki.

But what you have not spoken about is the political outcome that might constitute victory. In other words, some people would say there has to be some kind of modus vivendi between the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds and a viable political arrangement that will constitute a stable situation, whether it's democratic or not by our definition.

So what is your concept of victory for the next administration? And is this a function only of leverage on Maliki, as the challenge facing the next American president?

BING WEST: I'll back off and come at it this way. My definition of victory is getting us out of there roughly by 2011 and leaving behind a situation where al-Qaeda does not have a lair where it can survive inside Iraq the way it survived in Fallujah in 2004. It cannot have a manifest safe haven.

And beyond that, the messiness of the politics, the fact that there will be squabbles going on for a long time, the fact that the poor Sunnis—I shouldn't even put it that way; it just shows my bias—but the fact that the Sunnis, who were sonofabees for 400 years, are now probably going to go through a period when they are not treated democratically. All the messy stuff I'd leave behind, because I think our press will take it right off the front page once we're not there.

So I do not believe that what President Bush said was going to happen will happen, and that is you have this shining beacon of democracy. But I do believe that the silver lining to this, to the extent that you can have one—I mean once you're in a fight, you're in a fight—therefore, my definition of prevailing is: who's our enemy who really wants to kill us?

The first and foremost is al-Qaeda. I think, within two years you are going to see that al-Qaeda has taken a decisive hit in Iraq, because the Sunnis now hate al-Qaeda. That will spill across the tribal boundaries. That will spill across the Middle East. Nothing to do with us. It's going to be what the Sunnis say to each other. That will have an effect.

So I think that the thing that will really come out of this is al-Qaeda chose a battlefield with us and lost on that battlefield because the Sunnis turned against them. Iraq itself, though, sir, I do not think is going to measure up anywhere near what the president was hoping it was going to be.

QUESTION: You make so many interesting points, sir, and I would love to debate with your statement that—I would suggest to you that habeas corpus is a better guarantor of civilization than the military, with no disrespect to the military.

But my question to you is the following. You are very direct in saying that the job of the army is to kill and to be aggressive. One of the things that has come out of the last five years is the Marine Corps Manual, which was written by General Petraeus, which has been lauded in many circles. At times, that Marine Corps Manual reads like a sociology textbook. So where does that fit into your analysis, because General Petraeus seems to be saying killing is not enough and you need to look beyond that?

I had a combined action platoon in Vietnam in a Vietnamese village of 5,000 for 485 days. So I've lived in counterinsurgency. Nine of the 15 Marines were killed before that fight was over.

I've written extensively about counterinsurgency. The new Counterinsurgency Manual is the most-publicized manual never read in American history. It is about 800 pages long. It's two book lengths. It is mostly sociology. You get bewildered trying to read that document. I've said this to General Petraeus. I've said it to my good friend General "Mad Dog" Mattis.

But, as a proselytizing document to try to put the wool over the eyes of the liberal academics, it worked brilliantly. It was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, and they lauded it, et cetera, because it said, "We just win hearts and minds; we don't plug people." It isn't true of what you really do.

But the point is, I asked Sheikh Sattar once, "Could we have changed earlier the hearts and minds?"

Really, the best leader I ever saw in Iraq, Sattar chewed on that for a minute and he said, "I don't think so." He said, "We Sunnis had to convince ourselves."

In other words, there's nothing the British could have done in 1920 to persuade the Irish in Dublin that the British were there to win their hearts and minds, because they were there to occupy them, and all the Irish knew that.

Gradually, in the Iraqi situation, the Sunnis recognized that we were not there to occupy them, and indeed we had been acting as their ombudsman toward the Baghdad government. So to that extent their hearts and minds changed. But they changed it, we didn't.

I think for us in any country to have a document, a field manual, that says "we go in to win hearts and minds"—how can our average 18-year-old even know how to do that? And, as a matter of sociology, could you do that?

So I agree with you it was a sociology document. Its greatest line, I think, throughout it, when you were finished, though, it told you one thing: do not be a bully. Act toward the other people the way you would act toward your own family or the way you would act in your own neighborhood. I think that makes such a vast difference that I'll forgive the FM everything else just for the fact they kept hammering that home. You can be a tough guy, you can be the tough sheriff, and you can still be a decent person.

QUESTION: Could you comment, Mr. West, on the role of Iran in Iraq as you understood it, and what the consequences for Iran will be if there is eventually some stability?

Iran right now is in a hiatus. It is trying to figure out what its next move is going to be. Iran's plan for the last two years was pretty clear. They first started by killing us, by bringing in these new explosive devices, which our troops were really, really scared of, because these things when they hit you—wham, you were dead.

We began to strike back by different means against that. Then, when we captured some of them, we said, "You're never going home again." And we haven't let them go; they haven't gone home. So we ratcheted up what was going to happen to you if we caught you inside Iraq. And we didn't turn them over to the Iraqis.

Then, Iran basically said, "Look, we have two cat's paws. We have one group that is with Sadr"—and Sadr is a whacko. I mean the synapses don't all close and he plays Atari games all the time and lives in Iran. I doubt if Sadr is ever going back to Iraq.

But he had this big militia. That came apart in this weird thing that happened last April. This rumor got whipping around that some of the people in the Assembly were so fed up with Maliki that they were going to engineer it in such a way that there were some rockets that would be fired against the Green Zone, where all the Iraqi politicians live—not into the American zone, but into the Iraqi zone—and that then people would get so fed up with Maliki that he'd be voted out of office. Who knows? There are so many rumors at any given time swirling around.

But in any event, Maliki whips down to Basrah without telling us and takes on the militia down in Basrah. Petraeus is steamed. The Ambassador is steamed. But afterwards they said, "Well look, we can't let the guy fail." So we sent down some of our assets.

Well, you do not fight Americans anymore. You just don't do it, day or night. I mean any one of you who walked out of this building that I wanted to follow, I could follow. Every single battalion we have over there, 70 battalions, has screens this size, and there are three of them on the walls. They are showing video from overhead at all times. You schedule in every day when each of the overhead assets is there to give you this video, which is so good that I could say, "Oh, that's David walking down the street" or "that guy has an AK, that guy has an RPG; pop him first." Day or night. So you're just sitting there looking at the screens.

So these guys come running out on the streets. The surprising thing in the battle in April was how quickly the Sadr militia fell apart. It fell apart much faster than anybody thought. In about ten days, they had been decimated both in Basrah and in Baghdad.

So the remnants, the leaders, left. They have gone into Iran. Iran now has about 500 of them. They're being trained in Hezbollah camps inside Iran. They're keeping a lot of these camps near populated areas.

So what the Americans and the Iraqis have done is they have pictures of a lot of these guys. They put them up on bulletin boards. We deployed a division, under General Oates, along the border. What they're saying is, "Come on over, guys. Come on over, guys."

The Sadr people over there have been saying, "Well, we're not quite ready yet." In other words, they don't want to come over and be scoffed up right away.

So Iran right now is in this hiatus tactically of what it wants to do. I think it's waiting to see what's going to happen with the elections over the next year.

But we've sent some messages to them that apparently have gotten through.

QUESTION: You indicated that in connection with the status of force agreement that is currently being negotiated that Maliki is asking the United States to agree that Iraq would have the ability to approve or disapprove operations.

Now, we've gone in there to free them, to liberate them, and to allow them to act as a sovereign country. How can we tell them that we can do whatever we want to do in terms of operations and expect them to acknowledge the fact that we regard them as a sovereign nation?

You know, the negotiations started out last year rather nicely, and now have become real. And so the answer back, I think, if they're sitting at the table, they'd say, "Because you can't handle it yet. When you can handle it, then just let us get out of here. But as long as we have to be here because you can't protect yourself, don't think we're going to give control of us to you when you're incompetent to begin with. And by the way, I don't trust you."

Some of them might get that blunt if they got really angry. But we insist, wherever we are in the world, with a couple of exceptions with the United Kingdom, and maybe once with Australia, that we don't put American forces under a foreign command. With Australia and the United Kingdom, we feel very comfortable now. So there was a big battle where the Americans were under the Brits at the beginning of this war. No big deal.

But with the exception of the Australians and the U.K., I think you'd find our military saying, "Gee, sorry, we're not going to do that, just not going to do it."

The same is true in Afghanistan.

I wanted to ask you about Afghanistan, where we are putting more troops in under the NATO umbrella. What have we learned? What has our civil government and what has our military learned in Iraq that we can use in Afghanistan? What are the goals? What are we trying to accomplish there? And will we be able to do it under NATO?

I hope you all are settling in for the next hour. The answer is I don't think we can do much of any of that.

Afghanistan is about four times tougher than Iraq. General Petraeus knows it. It's a real, real problem. I'll tell you what, the essence of the problem comes down to three variables that I don't know how you solve them.

First is, say, about 40 percent of the entire revenue going through Afghanistan is because of opium, and the country is even more corrupt than Iraq, which is tough to do. That's the first problem. So the question is: Who among your officials can you trust and who really has leadership?

The second issue then becomes you have this vast sanctuary that extends the same distance as from New York to Florida—the frontier. So far we have been saying we're not going to attack. Well, any commonsensical person will tell you, "Wait. If you're going to play defense forever, you've got a problem." That's called the counter-force issue. You try to solve that by building up the Afghani army, which they haven't done to the extent they should. But you can see you could do that to try to offset this movement that's coming across the border.

But then you get to the third issue, which is maybe the most difficult of all. The Pashtun tribe is split right across that border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Right now it is not at all clear, when you talk about hearts and minds, whether they in their hearts and minds are with the Taliban and with the rebels or whether they're with the central government or whether they're with what I think is the best book I've ever read about Afghanistan, Rory Stewart's book The Places in Between. It's a marvelous book. It's supposedly a travelogue by one man who walked across Afghanistan. But when you read it, and you look at the civilization and culture you're dealing with, you have to say, "Holy smokes! What have we gotten ourselves into?"

QUESTION: We're in the political season, but notwithstanding that, we live in an open society. Would you comment on the role of our media and the international media in especially the last two or three years? Are they doing a good job or a bad job for us?

BING WEST: Let me come at it this way. You can take to the bank the accuracy of any story in the mainstream press in America. An editor will fire somebody if he dissembles, if he doesn't get everything exactly right. If you stay with every story, you will know exactly what is going on in Iraq.

The problem I see—and I blame this much more on the editors than anything else—is that the minute the war turned and began to come over so that it looked better for us, it dropped off the front pages. So the overall impression of the average American—there was a poll taken two weeks ago that asked "Do you believe there has been progress in Iraq in the last year?" The answer of 50 percent of America was "No."

Now, whoa. By any measure you possibly take, anyone would say there has been progress. But it has dropped out of the news. It just doesn't exist. CBS indicated that it has given something like 20 minutes this year to Iraq, or something. So we have left an impression that the war is lost from about two years ago. For that I think the American press has done a disservice.

Mr. Obama wants to put more troops into Afghanistan and invade northern Pakistan, find bin Laden and so on. How many troops would this take, and is it logistically feasible to do this?

If we really got it going, you probably could do that with maybe six divisions, maybe five divisions, roughly speaking 200,000-250,000 troops. But your logistics tail—I think most people would basically say you'd better be safer with 300,000 or 400,000 troops. I mean you're going so far without water, you're going so far without fuel. That is a vast undertaking, a vast undertaking.

I think Senator Obama is really going to have to consult with—I know he says that he doesn't have to listen to the military in a lot of matters, but in this particular case I think he really, really should listen to the military. That's huge. That's huge.

I'd like to go back to your statement about the objective of soldiers is to kill the enemy. Wouldn't you agree that from a military doctrine it would be more precise to say that the objective of the army is to defeat the enemy and soldiers killing enemy soldiers is just one of the various methods used to achieve that objective?

BING WEST: Yes. But when you're fighting an insurgency, of all the different kinds of wars, the interaction has to be with the population. That really has very little to do with colonels and everything to do with corporals.

But if you take your average corporal—and I sit down with him and I say, "Look, you're going into an area, and 99 percent of these people are with you and they just have one son of a gun around or something, use your common sense."

I think the training we're now giving our troops to go into that situation is terrific. They're not going in primed to shoot anybody.

But I'm saying when you look at the singular thing that defines a rifleman versus a policeman or something, it's the rifle. It's not that he's going in with a chip on his shoulder. We're over that. They did that in 2003-2004. They haven't done it since.

So I agree with you, but again you get back to—and I try in my book to—go into place after place, to show it was really at a very local level that this war turned around. That's the basic point I was trying to make. I go into Haditha, Fallujah, Ramadi, and every district in Baghdad every year, and I keep coming back. I came back to the same troops after a while, which made a huge difference.

I got emails back too, which is interesting. It's my third book. You got that you knew an area so well, especially out west, in Fallujah. They were into their third rotations where they were emailing each other back and forth—just like our covert ops do, by the way—while they weren't there, with the locals.

When I wrote something in my last book, No True Glory, which was about the battle for Fallujah, two of the guys on the other side, Abdullah Janabi, whom I still think we should prosecute, and Ghezali, who is a very rich guy, wrote me emails and said, "No, no, no, you didn't get that right. I'm better than that. You should come to Damascus and I'll explain to you my position." I thought, "No, I'm not going to go to Damascus."

But it meant that you could have these riflemen trained first as riflemen, but it didn't mean that they gave up their humanity or didn't get that they were dealing in a different environment. It did mean that the huge independent variable that made the biggest difference was that they were still the toughest guys, and they would go out on patrol and they could kill al-Qaeda. When you go into these cities, just like here, if I have one sniper, he can terrorize everybody.

General Mattis, the best general I've ever seen, once said to me when we were chatting about a fire fight, "You know, Bing, I think one hard man can absolutely control 100 men if he's ruthless enough."

So when you confront guys like that, everyone in the town has to know that when push comes to shove these Marines or paratroopers or soldiers are going to kill al-Qaeda, not the other way around. That's what you want them for more than anything else. It's not for opening up the schools. All that stuff is nice, but it's secondary. The first issue is: Who's the toughest mother in the valley or the strongest?

I thank you very much for bringing the war home.

You may also like

Still from Origin. Credit: Neon/IMDB

JUL 15, 2024 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Origin"

This review explores global issues around race and oppression in Ava DuVernay's "Origin," based on Isabel Wilkerson's book "Caste." How can we start this discussion?

JUL 9, 2024 Article

The Rise of Preemptive Bans on Human Microchip Implants

As the impact and influence of chip implants increases in the U.S., it's time to raise ethical and legal questions about this technology.

JUL 2, 2024 Podcast

Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation