Michael Ware was a war correspondent for TIME Magazine and CNN. He spent six years in Iraq.
Not the invasion, that's something else. That was three weeks of aggressive warfare executed, by and large, with stunning effect, scattering a half-million-man army in its wake. The tenth anniversary retrospective haze makes the whole affair seem almost dreamlike, a flicker of blistering success before the years of horror set in.
So no, I don't mean that. But what of the war that followed, made up as it was of so many smaller wars? Different battles waged against the Americans, against Iraq's new security forces, even among the Iraqis themselves in bitter civil war. But none more than the largest war and the one most targeted against Coalition troops, the Sunni insurgency. What if that had never come to pass? What if we missed means to better, exponentially better, exploit our military supremacy? Not just once. Or twice. But incessantly, for something like four years.
Sadly, as someone who was there throughout, I feel in my heart now what I was told to be true then: that the insurgent war didn't have to happen. The chance to avoid it was offered to us, plainly and clearly, and we failed to act upon it. Then failed again and again each time that chance was presented anew. Four long bloody years in which perhaps so very many people did not have to die; not those we knew, nor the multitude we didn't.
Such thoughts stagger me. Render me silent. I'm not ashamed to say.
When insurgent leadership factions first offered peace terms, at least to my knowledge, it was to prevent the nascent conflict. It subsequently evolved into terms to end the insurgency and assassinate al Qaeda. It was a conversation pressed spasmodically by the guerrillas, with a view to a negotiated political settlement with the US.
I remember precisely where I was the first time the emerging insurgent leadership told me of their intentions. It was way back in the war's first summer. In 2003. Before the insurgency's full fury had been unleashed. I remember the carpet in the room in the farmhouse where I was sitting, cross-legged. Even now, as I write, I still see it.
We were amid the lush green along the Euphrates in a village brimming with recently discarded Iraqi military who until not too long ago had been at the heart of Saddam Hussein's secretive police state. Fifteen or so of these men gathered in a sparse living room for lunch, and I was the guest.
My host was a man I knew had been a colonel in the former regime's intelligence service. Like many of his kind, he believed his commission had not been terminated by the American invasion. He and his family became my good friends. His sons were former military. Sometimes we'd shoot bottles out the back of their small rural property.
As we all ate with our hands, scooping great clumps of rice from a vast communal platter piled high, so heavy and unwieldy it took two adolescents to place it in the centre of the room atop an orange plastic sheet, my host began to speak. He told me in long, detailed bursts of oration how all of them, and their comrades, had been so terribly wronged by the occupation. And how perilous the situation had become for the Americans.
It quickly became evident something tectonic had shifted within these guys I'd come to know (first for a TIME Magazine article collating anecdotes on the Battle of Baghdad, then as friends and long-standing sources). This, I recall thinking, is why I'd been invited for lunch. They had militarised. There were discernible semblances of command and control. They were energised. It would not be long before US forces would only enter this area with great caution and ready to brawl. 'But,' I asked through my translator, 'can you defeat them?'
My friend didn't miss a beat. 'No,' he said, with an are-you-kidding kind of look on his face. 'They're the greatest military on earth, of course we cannot defeat them on the battlefield.' There was simply no way for them to go head-to-head with the occupying forces. But, he continued, they had read Mao, and Ho Chi Ming, and Giap, and Che. 'We will win,' he said to me, with a wry smirk. 'And we'll do it on that,' and he pointed to a dead television set covered in a corner of the room. 'On television.'
He and I had drunk whiskey together. When the old man wasn't around some of the lads would proudly show me their best porn. We all smoked like Victorian factory chimneys. The guys paraded some of the prostitutes they would occasionally engage. We shared wild and funny times. Still, something had changed. And he said: 'could you explain something for me?'
'If I can, of course. You know that.'
'Then tell me. I used US satellite imagery to kill Iranians in the eighties. Some of us did Ranger or Pathfinder training in the States. Al Qaeda? Never in this country. Right?' he asked, rhetorically. 'We had no great love for Saddam, and didn't mind you taking him down. If you came for the oil, then take it; we have to sell it to someone. And, we're happy if the occupier becomes a guest and we host US bases, akin to Germany and Japan.'
'So, how is it we end up on the opposite sides of this thing? I don't get it. I just don't get it.'
And there it was. Spoken. An insurgency.
The war's ultimate goal, he told me, to much nodding approval around the room, was for the Sunnis to fight and negotiate their way to a seat at the table of power in the country. A seat they felt they'd been egregiously denied.
But in the weeks and then months I was being told such things, I could not find a single attentive ear within the US mission. Government authority then rested with the Coalition Provisional Authority of proconsul Paul L Bremer. Along with declaring so foolishly that the tribes of Iraq were effectively dead, CPA officials I encountered merely sniffed at the insurgents' desire to converse. They would buckle under the heel of a new, soon-to-be democratic government. There was absolutely no palpable interest in encouraging a dialogue. Perhaps, even, quite the contrary.
The US military, it seemed to me, was labouring under an entirely different misapprehension. The US Army, which then owned Baghdad and the rest of the country with it, simply could not understand who was shooting at them nor why they would be shooting in the first place.
Initially I took the army's naivety for a ruse, a public-information blind behind which operations could hide. However, something happened in late 2003 that would finally convince me the military's confusion was genuine and heartfelt.
Sometime in late November 2003, I'm sure it was, I was swept up, without warning (having broken the day's Ramadan fast with an evening meal with Iraqi insurgent friends) outside Baghdad International Airport and taken on a nighttime assault. In a December cover story for TIME I detailed the extensive coordination and the various stages of the 120mm mortar and surface-to-surface missile attack on the airport that I witnessed and, at close quarters, filmed in grainy green night vision on my humble $300 Sony handycam.
Days later, from Baghdad, I was doing a live radio cross with the States, I seem to recall it being on NPR, to discuss the nature, structure and durability of the insurgency I'd encountered in the course of the TIME cover story. I finished my narrative and learned, live on air, that I'd been sandbagged. A US general had been on the other line, listening to my account.
The radio anchor threw to the 1st Armored Division general, asking for his take on what I'd outlined. After initial bluff and bluster over the very idea of my spending time with his enemy, I remember the general's tone shifting noticeably when he said, 'however I have written down everything he (Ware) said', or words to that effect. I think it was the way the general said that, rather than the words themselves, that sent a series of tumblers falling to place in my mind. The American war machine truly doesn't know what it's up against.
The realisation floored me.
In Iraq the dying wouldn't stop. When I think back, when I return to those years in my mind, all I see is blood.
Though he'd announced his arrival in the summer of 2003 with the Jordan embassy car bombing, the war's first such event, it wasn't until 2004 that ultra-militant Islamic leader Abu Mousab al Zarqawi really made his presence felt. Violently opposed to the mere notion of a dialogue with the Americans, he had his men assiduously hunt down and kill any they could find. It was a ruthless and bloody campaign.
But it could not forestall first contact.
If there is a quiet, unsung American hero to this story, then it is a Green Beret colonel posted in the war's early years to Baghdad. Then-Lt Col Rick Welch, now a full-bird colonel, was a reservist and small town district attorney from Morgan County, Ohio. His work in Iraq, I have absolutely no doubt, was a vital strand of the ultimate DNA of America's military successes.
Alone, with goodness-only-knows what kind of leash from his command to do what he was doing, Col Welch was engaging with many of the same factions and currents of the guerrilla movements as I was. And, as I can testify, he came to be held in nothing but the highest regard by the insurgent leadership as an indefatigably honest broker. But the colonel, I suspect, would at first have been a lone voice in an American analytical wilderness at that point of the war.
Then, by mid-2004, there was revolutionary change on the civilian side of the US mission.
In June of that year, sovereign power was transferred from America's Bremer back to the nominal Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The transfer took place two days ahead of schedule, to avert mass attacks. The ceremony appeared rushed and in secret. Official US Government photos released soon after showed Bremer on the tarmac of Baghdad's airport, scampering out of the country.
For the Americans, the bumbling CPA was replaced by the US embassy and a relatively informed and quintessentially pragmatic State Department. A welcome, seismic shift. With Ambassador John Negroponte in place, halting dialogues could begin to splutter, and stutter, and stumble. Even before November 2004's great Battle of Fallujah, one of the best-placed Ambassadors in America's five-Ambassador embassy went to the edge of that besieged insurgent metropolis to discuss terms with the city's high command.
The insurgency, for its part, flexed its muscle in Iraq's twin elections in 2005. In the first, in January, the leadership told its constituents not to participate in the process, to vote by boycott. En masse the Sunni population stayed away from the ballot boxes.
But it was in the second ballot, in December 2005, that the insurgency in Iraq came of age. In that election, not only did the insurgency urge its people to vote, which they did in droves, but the high command told its fighters to do the same. One commander I'd long known told me his men would drop their weapons and vote, and fifteen minutes later would be attacking an American convoy.
Far more important, though, was the fact the nationalistically-motivated insurgent command told the religious zealots of Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq to stand down on the day of the ballot, to allow people to vote. And, second, through me in TIME and on CBS and CNN, the insurgent command issued this order openly before the election. Any failure would be disastrously public. Odds seemingly stacked against them, they were, as we might say in Australia, playing for sheep stations. For keeps.
And yet they pulled it off. With aplomb. The Sunni voted in grand, enormous electoral blocks. And there was barely a peep from al Qaeda across the entire country. America, it was now impossible to deny, had a legitimate partner to deal with within the insurgency. And yet, the insurgent command felt, the Americans simply ignored them.
So by 2006 America could feel control of the war slipping. Baghdad was a mess, a civil war capital. Restive al Anbar province, the decreed centre of a new al Qaeda state, was lost. The mostly-Marines in the province's deserts were clinging on by their fingertips, each day a vile struggle to survive.
But by that year's end, two more pivotal events would transpire to hasten the end of hostilities with the Sunni guerrilla movement.
The first was the arrival of two American officers in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, who would transform the very nature of the fight in their region of Iraq. Through them would manifest the anti-al-Qaeda tribal programme, a devise that would see a metamorphosis first in Ramadi and its surroundings, then across the province and, by the time it was done, across the most volatile half of the country. Variously dubbed the Anbar tribes, the Awakening, or the Sons of Iraq it rapidly became a battle-tested counter-insurgent mindset that realigned the goal posts of the war.
The other event was the appearance of two insurgent videos. Both groundbreaking. Both from the same group. Both parts of the same message. They came from the Islamic Army of Iraq, one of Iraq's oldest insurgent groupings that was, in reality, a massive umbrella organisation for mostly former military and intelligence officers and former Baathists. It represented a lion's share of the nationalist insurgency, the bulk of the 20,000-odd insurgents shooting at the Americans on any given day.
The first is what became known in the US as the 'sniper video', Islamic Army of Iraq combat camera footage of its sniper teams shooting American soldiers from hides. It caused a sensation in the US.
The other video was its companion, also from the Islamic Army. In this one, the organisation's official spokesman, Ibrahim al Shimary, appeared on camera (though his face remained covered) to once more – clearly, precisely, publicly – offer to negotiate with the US. 'We in the Islamic Army, as we have announced many times', al Shimary said, 'do not reject negotiations but only if the Americans are serious.'
Within a year the same Bush Administration that had once called these men dead-enders, Saddamists and criminals, the same American leadership that insisted it would not talk with terrorists nor 'those with American blood on their hands', that same White House would be heralding how it had put former members of al Qaeda on the US Government payroll. All part of the Awakening programme that would eventually employ almost 107,000 former insurgents, forming them in to local pro-American militia often in opposition to the democratically-elected government in Baghdad. The mere notion of such a thing would have seemed heretical, even treasonous, four or five years earlier at the war's outset.
From that point at the beginning of the war till this, America had suffered something like 3000 combat deaths, tens of thousands of wounded, and spent at least US$2 billion a week prosecuting the war. In the same period, best estimates say upward of 100,000 to 150,000 civilians were killed, with millions displaced. An entire society was ruptured, possibly irrevocably.
So, I wonder, what if the Iraq war had never happened?