From a universally respected combat journalist, a gripping history based on five years of front-line reporting about how the war was turned around-and the choice now facing America
During the fierce battle for Fallujah, Bing West asked an Iraqi colonel why the archterrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had fled in women's clothes. The colonel pointed to a Marine patrol walking by and said, "Americans are the strongest tribe."
In Iraq, America made mistake after mistake. Many gave up on the war. Then the war took a sharp U-turn. Two generals-David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno-displayed the leadership America expected. Bringing the reader from the White House to the fighting in the streets, this remarkable narrative explains the turnaround by U.S. forces.
In the course of fourteen extended trips over five years, West embedded with more than sixty front-line units, discussing strategy with generals and tactics with corporals. He provides an expert's account of counterinsurgency, disposing of myths. By describing the characters and combat in city after city, West gives the reader an in-depth understanding that will inform the debate about the war. This is the definitive study of how American soldiers actually fought -a gripping and visceral book that changes the way we think about the war, and essential reading for understanding the next critical steps to be taken.
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August 11, 2008
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Excerpt from The Strongest Tribe by Bing West
How to Create a Mess
In late March of 2003, Col. Joseph F. Dunford led 5,000 Marines in a wild dash up Highway One to seize Hantush Airfield, a major base south of Baghdad. Hidden behind dirt berms, Iraqi soldiers fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at the tanks and Humvees roaring by. One machine gun concentrated its fire on a lead Humvee, killing Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa.
When the fighting subsided, Dunford sent out a radio message that he was pushing north to Baghdad. As expected, the Iraqis took the bait and scrambled to block the highway, while Dunford shifted his regiment to fall on Baghdad from the east. At the last minute, higher headquarters ordered him to halt.
That night, I asked Dunford what had happened. He slowly took off his boots, choosing his words. He had brought enough foot powder to go for weeks with two pairs of socks, so you could listen to him without gasping. "Higher headquarters changed the mission," he said. "The main effort now isn't Baghdad; it's the supply lines to the rear. We're to wait."
The division commander, Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, sent higher headquarters an angry message that the enemy would sniff out the planned feint, resulting in American casualties. "We should attack soonest," Mattis wrote. But three days passed before the Marines were allowed to attack, reclaiming the ground where Gunny Menusa had died. The lower levels had opened an opportunity that higher headquarters suppressed. Obstinately, high-ranking officials later denied that there was an alternative not taken. "There was never a pause," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the press. Yet inside the Pentagon, Rumsfeld himself had demanded to know why the attack had stopped. Gen. Tommy Franks, in command of the invasion, was equally disingenuous in his memoir, claiming there never was a pause-because air attacks had continued.
Mattis disagreed. "I didn't want the pause. Nothing was holding us up," he told Inside the Pentagon. "The toughest order I had to give the whole campaign was to call back the assault force."
Because the campaign ended triumphantly, the incident seemed trivial. Senior levels had ignored the ground commanders, however, a tendency that would persist for several years because the war seemed impossible to lose. As a colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division said to me, "There's no threat that a well-trained platoon can't handle." To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The challenge, though, ?wasn't how to employ a platoon; it was how to change the conditions so that there would be no need for that platoon.
On the political and military level, roads not taken mark the history of this war. America was so powerful it seemed any road would lead to a quick exit. Until December of 2006, there was never a choice of "do this or lose." In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln knew he had to fire Gen. George B. McClellan or lose the war. In 1943, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower knew he had to refuse British entreaties to invade France or lose the war. No such historic choices loomed in Iraq.
Indeed, during the first year of the occupation, the going seemed so easy that we split the team and drove down two roads, getting stuck in the sand in both.
Organizing to Fail
After al Qaeda destroyed the Twin Towers in 2001, the American public was in no mood for quibbling. In Afghanistan, the Taliban was smashed quickly, while al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden retreated into Pakistan. Based on incorrect intelligence, the administration concluded that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that he could give to terrorists. Secretary of State Colin Powell argued the case convincingly before the United Nations, and Congress voted to use force.
In the fastest blitzkrieg in history, the American and British forces sped 400 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad, rolling over and around a demoralized Iraqi Army that-having learned from the air bombardment in 1991-abandoned its armor. On April 9, 2003, the massive statue of Saddam was ripped from its pedestal in Firdos Square in Baghdad. Television images of joyous Iraqis dancing beside laughing American soldiers flashed across the globe. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Powell stood side by side in the Oval Office, savoring the moment. Saddam's reign of terror had ended, but chaos was about to reign.
Throughout the city, American commanders stood off to one side as mobs rushed like locusts into hundreds of government buildings and stripped them clean. As looters danced by in carnival glee, I asked an American colonel what he was going to do to restore order.
"Nothing," he said. "I have no such orders. They deserve whatever they can haul away, after what Saddam did to them."
General Franks, in charge of Central Command, was soon to retire.