Power Surge.

In 2003 the United States attacked Iraq. Swift defeat of Iraq’s conventional forces then gave way to misstep after misstep. An insurgency arose among the minority Sunnis deposed from their long dominance by the American invasion. The Shi’ite majority demanded that the Americans leave as soon as possible so that they could get to the business of governing the country and settling scores. Al Qaeda in Iraq sought to foment a civil war that would make Iraq ungovernable and force an American evacuation. Foreign fighters poured into serve with Al Qaeda. By 2007 a disaster of epic proportions loomed before the Americans.

Then things began to turn around. Lower level American commanders began buying-off Sunni insurgents in their areas of operation. Many of the Sunni insurgents got fed up with the Al Qaeda fanatics. Together, these forces led to the “Sunni Awakening” that markedly reduced the level of violence from early in 2007. American special operations troops focused their efforts on killing the Al Qaeda fanatics. Civilian and military casualties began to fall. If only in comparison to the chaos visited on the country between 2003 and 2007, Iraq began to move toward something like a functional state.

Then and later, considerable energy has gone into myth-making about the turn-around. The commonly accepted—because commonly told—narrative is that the Bush administration belatedly developed a coherent and workable plan for victory in Iraq; General David Petraeus helped develop and then implemented an effective counter-insurgency strategy; and the “surge” of troops greatly enhanced security so that some form of national reconciliation could take place.

In fact, the Bush White House’s “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” had neither substance nor application. “Victory” had been redefined to mean bringing down the level of violence to a point where responsibility could be handed off to the government of Iraq with something approaching a straight face.

In fact, the administration and the Pentagon were in search of a “hero” to revive American morale. They found that hero in General Petraeus, adept at both war and image-management. The buying-off of Sunni insurgents and the increasingly effective work of the special operations forces were well underway before General Petraeus arrived in Iraq. He endorsed and broadly applied the methods already developed.

In fact, although Chelsea Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for giving classified documents to WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden has been hunted across the globe for having revealed NSA spying on Americans, officials in the Defense Department appear to have provided favored authors with a trove of classified documents.

In fact, what the United States achieved in Iraq was not victory, but avoiding defeat. By avoiding defeat the United States has also avoided any honest reckoning with the causes and consequences of a disastrous adventure that spanned two different presidential administrations. “The fraud is that a 20 year military effort to determine the fate of Iraq yielded something approximating a positive outcome.”

So says Andrew Bacevich, a professor of political science at Boston University, a combat veteran of Vietnam, a retired Army colonel, a grieving father to a son killed in action in Iraq, and a bitter and clear-eyed critic of recent American foreign and military policies.[1]

[1] Andrew Bacevich, “Avoiding Defeat,” New York Times Book Review, 10 February 2013, pp. 20-21. Professor Bacevich reviewed Michael R. Gordon and Bernard Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama (New York: Pantheon, 2012); and Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (New York: Penguin, 2013).


Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh (30 October 1966-7 June 2006) was born in Zarqa, Jordan. He sprang from a Bedouin family which had settled down in Jordan’s one factory town. Something went wrong early in life. He drank a lot and had a great deal of “contact” with the police. At some point, he got religion and shaped up his life. A passport photo shows him clean-shaven, with a white shirt and tie—and a sad, mean look. At some point, he took the alias “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” which means “the father of Musab” and “From Zarka.”

In 1989 he followed the well-worn Young Islamist pathway to Afghanistan. Here he met Osama bin Laden, may have received basic military training in one of the numerous camps, and wrote some stuff for an Islamist newsletter. By 1992 he was back in Jordan conspiring to overthrow the monarchy, for which he did five years in prison (1994-1999). In prison he came under the influence of the Jordanian Islamist writer Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. No sooner did he get out than he tried to blow up a tourist hotel in Amman (1999). This didn’t work out any better than his earlier plot. From 1999 to 2002 he moved to Afghanistan (where OBL fronted him $200,000 to start a Jordanian franchise of Al Qaeda and the Americans almost killed him in a bombing), then went to Iraq by way of Iran. He may have been recovering from an injury in Baghdad for a while. In summer 2002 he moved into northern Iraq, where he joined an Islamist group that was waging jihad by cutting pictures of women off ads.

More serious work tugged at him. He helped plot the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan (October 2002); organized the bombing of the UN’s HQ in Baghdad (August 2003); organized attacks on Shi’ite shrines in Karbala and Baghdad (March 2004); planned a huge abortive chemical weapons attack on the offices of the prime minister and the intelligence service of Jordan and on the American embassy (April 2004); beheaded a captured American civilian (May 2004), then posted the film on the internet; sent terrorists on an abortive attack on a NATO meeting in Turkey (June 2004); beheaded another captured American civilian (September 2004), then posted the film on the internet; organized the bombing of three hotels in Amman (November 2005); and organized the attack on the Al Askari mosque in Samarra (February 2006). These attacks are only the most spectacular of his operations.

Having been organizing in Iraq from before the Second Gulf War, he had the weapons and explosive, the local contacts, the hideouts, and the local knowledge for insurgent war. What he needed were fighters. These began to flow to him in the form of the many Islamist foreign fighters who entered the country from 2003 on. The newcomers lacked local contacts, so Zarqawi became their controller. He probably organized many of the hundreds of suicide bombings that battered Iraq from 2003 to 2006.

Zarqawi had been on American and Jordanian “Most Wanted” lists since early 2002. In January 2003, the CIA had proposed killing Zarqawi at a camp they had identified in Kurdistan. The proposal was rejected, possibly out of fear that an attack would release toxic clouds from chemicals stored in the camp. Once the US invaded Iraq, Special Forces groups hunted Zarqawi with mounting intensity. Several of these raids came close to capturing him, but always fell short. (One time they found eggs cooking, but not yet burning, on the stove of his empty hide-out.) However, the raids did capture some of his associates. One of these was interrogated—humanely—by an Air Force interrogator who uses the pseudonym “Matthew Alexander.” Zarqawi had a great many hiding places, but “Alexander” learned the location of one in a village near Baqubah. It took six weeks of watching before he came in sight. On the night of 7 June 2006, two precision guided bombs destroyed the house, Zarqawi, and his wife and child–Musab.