Turning The Iraq Tide, From The Bottom Up

Who TRULY deserves the credit for the turnaround in the U.S. position in Iraq? It's a much-debated question, which our National Security Correspondent David Martin now addresses in this Sunday Journal:

The wealth and leisure of Newport, Rhode Island are about as far removed from Iraq as you can get.

Bing West lives here among the mega-yachts and mansions, yet it is Iraq which keeps drawing him back.

"I'm a writer," he told Martin. "I wanted to see for myself how this war was unfolding and at my age I had the opportunity to do it, and so I took the opportunity."

"But some people might say: 'Exactly, at your age, you're living the good life, why? Why do you need to do this?'" Martin asked.

"I think somebody should try to tell the story from the perspective of somebody who has fought an insurgency, who understands it," West said.

West was a Marine in Vietnam, and wrote a book about it, "The Village," which is now considered a classic work on counterinsurgency. But his exposure to what happens on a battlefield goes back further than that.

As a toddler he paraded not with a toy gun, but with a captured Japanese rifle.

"I was born during World War II and my uncles were Marines, and whenever they would come back from the islands, Iwo Jima and Okinawa and Guadacanal, my mother used to put me upstairs, playing with them, with the Marines. So to a large extent (laugh) I was raised by Marines!"

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So when the U.S. invaded Iraq, West (left)went in with the Marines … shooting a video camera instead of a rifle.

"We were in the middle of the tank column, in a yellow SUV, with a close-up view - too close."

What he recorded was a grunt's eye view of the war, with all its implausibilities.

"We saw bizarre things, like this shepherd and his sheep walking in the middle of a firefight."

His latest book, "The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq" (Random House), is the product of 20 months on the front lines in Iraq. It's a bottom-up view of the war, which West believes is the only view that matters.

"This is not a book about great men," he said. "This is not a book about how terrific or how bad President Bush was, or General Petraeus. They didn't win or lose the war. The war was fought at that people level, at the ground level."

And it tells a very different story from the memoirs and inside-the-Oval Office exposes that have been written so far.

"When I hear people say, 'We just needed more troops,' I'd say, 'What were you gonna do with those troops when you didn't have a plan, you didn't have a strategy, you didn't have a doctrine, and you had poor leaders at the top who didn't "get it," didn't understand the situation?'"

West says the only ones who did "get it" were mid-ranking officers.

"They believed they understood the situation. They were the ones out there, but they weren't listened to."

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As an acknowledged expert in guerilla war, West was able to send his own message from the bottom-up to the top, writing this memo to the American commander, Gen. George Casey (left), which said the insurgency was getting stronger.

"Did he agree with you?" Martin asked.

"Yes."

Yet, says West, Casey saw no need to change course.

"From start to finish, Casey's strategy was not victory, not to prevail, but to turn the war over to the Iraqis and have them settle it for themselves."

It was a no-win strategy, but the U.S. stuck with it - even as the specter of defeat loomed over the Bush administration.

"By June of 2006, from the president on down, there was high misgivings whether we were losing. And we were losing in the Baghdad area," West said.

Yet it would take seven more months for the president's war cabinet to come up with a new strategy.

"Could we have lost in terms of the morale of our own soldiers sagging to the point that it would have infected our Congress and everything else? Yes, probably," West said. "It was a close run thing."

"It was in those dark days that the first and perhaps only great leader of the Iraq war stepped forward - and he wasn't an American. He was Sheik Abu Resa Sattar.

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"If you look for one national hero in Iraq, it's Sheik Sattar (left)," West said. "He said to his tribes, 'Look, we have to get rid of these guys, these al Qaeda guys.' I mean. this man had courage and vision."

And 99 out of 100 Americans have never heard of him.

"Correct. He was really exceptional."

Sattar was assassinated shortly after this meeting with President Bush. But that didn't stop what became known as the Great Awakening of the Sunni tribes in western Iraq.

"And as the Sunni tribes came over and began to say, 'He's al Qaeda … he's al Qaeda …' it just tilted, and al Qaeda had no place to hide."

It was a stunning turnaround. After three years of fighting against the tribes, the Marines joined forces with their former enemies to hunt down al Qaeda. It was the first inkling of a winning strategy - and once again it came from the bottom-up.

"So we actually were learning," Martin said.

"You can't b---s--- the guy who's out there on patrol," West said. "After a while, he begins to get it, to really get it."

But the eastern front - Baghdad and surroundings - was still in flames. This time the president's national security advisor, a civilian who looks more like an accountant than a warrior, stepped into the breach.

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"In my judgment, Stephen Hadley (left), and I've talked to a lot of people about this, more than any other single person, deserves the credit for the change in strategy," West said.

And what does that say about military leadership, that it falls to a civilian to come up with a strategy that turns the tide, Martin asked.

"I believe it said about our military at the time that they were unwilling to look at radical change at a time when they should have looked at the radical change."

That radical change was, of course, the surge - sending five more combat brigades into Baghdad - everything the Army had left - plus a new commander, David Pretraeus.

"He took one look at the changed conditions in Anbar and said, 'What's going on here?' And they said, 'Well, the tribes are now with us.' Just like that, he got it. He said, 'I get it,' and he went back to Baghdad and said, 'What they're doing out in the western frontier, that's what we have to be doing here.'"

"His brilliance was recognizing success and reinforcing it," Martin said.

"Correct, correct."

It took nearly four years, West says, for the leaders to absorb the wisdom of the troops on the ground.

"What this war again showed is, you get into a war, you're getting down to the grunts. You're getting down to these groups of Marines and soldiers who are their own small tribes. I don't know where they come from. They're less than one-half of one percent of our population, but somehow they find each other, pull together."

"They're the same kids that were babysitting for you when you were two and three years old," Martin said.

"Correct, correct," West said. "Somehow, despite all our mistakes, this country still finds them."