In early 2008, Gen. David Petraeus was presiding over a strategy that was designed to restore security to Iraq and, crucially, give the country's political factions breathing space to pursue reconciliation and compromise.
In March of that year, Gen. Petraeus said that despite a lack of progress on national reconciliation, he was hopeful that Iraqi leaders would "exploit the opportunities that we and our Iraqi counterparts have fought so hard to provide them." A key to his strategy was the Sahwa, or Awakening, a militia movement that drew its strength from Sunni Arab tribes who were sick of Al Qaeda's local affiliate and wanted to carve out a peaceful future in a new Iraq.
As it turned out that opportunity was spurned at the very moment that it was offered. Instead, the political course that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies charted in 2008 has, more than anything, led to the state of near open-insurrection across the Sunni Arab dominated Anbar Province today.
This is the key to unpicking Iraq's challenges today - and assertions from politicians like Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. John McCain that all would be different if President Barack Obama had managed to keep a residual force of 12,000 or so US troops in the country is highly speculative, at best. Iraqis failed to negotiate a durable and just peace when there were over 150,000 US troops in the country. Nor did the extended military drawdown prod them in that direction. The last combat troops left in December 2011.
In the summer of 2008, reporter Sam Dagher covered the US handover of a supposedly pacified Anbar Province to Iraqi security control for the Monitor. The handover came towards the end of the US troop "surge," which was supposed to have routed Al Qaeda from its strongholds in Sunni majority areas.
Things in fact remained quite bad. On the original date of the handover ceremony, a suicide car bomb killed 20 people, three of them US marines. The rescheduled ceremony in Ramadi ended up being canceled because of a sandstorm that grounded US helicopters. It was unthinkable that Baghdad-based Iraqi and American dignitaries could have driven the 70 miles from Baghdad to Ramadi, the provincial capital.
Why? The lone highway through the province was a death run of insurgent improvised explosive devices, suicide car bombs, and ambushes.
His piece from almost five years ago makes a point that remains true today and that is being lost in the frankly petty partisan point-scoring exercises that is raging on cable news.
The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on reconstruction in Anbar and on training, equipping, and funding local forces, including the tribal militias, who make up the anti-AQI forces known as the Awakening. In some instances, the American money has been used to buy the allegiances of powerful tribal sheikhs.
But Anbar remains as it has always been: fiercely clannish, nationalistic, and conservative. It's a place that is hostile to outsiders, be they Americans or foreign fighters. The American money spent here also does not appear to have helped much in reconciling this vast western province with Iraq's Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
President George W. Bush said in a statement at the time that "Anbar has been transformed and reclaimed by the Iraqi people," but that simply wasn't true. Anbar remained Anbar, and while its people had been more cooperative of late with the US thanks to the tribal outreach, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, from the Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, didn't uphold the new spirit of cooperation.
By the end of that summer the Maliki government was already turning on leaders of the Awakening; some were arrested by Iraqi authorities. Gen. Petraeus publicly complained that Maliki was dragging his feet on delivering the government jobs promised to roughly 100,000 Awakening members who had fought alongside US troops. The US had been paying $300 a month to over 85,000 of these militiamen. The Iraqi government was expected to ultimately provide them jobs, and that didn't happen.
As a result, Sunni Arab tribal figures - who were among the fiercest opponents to the US invasion - were left in the awkward position of fearing a US departure that left them at the mercy of a Shiite-dominated central government. This was more than two years before the US military withdrawal and yet neither Bush nor Petraeus nor any other US politician or officer could sway the Maliki government.
The reason for that was simple: Maliki did not view his interests as America's interests, and with his own people entrenched in the halls of power, there was no pressure to play nice with America. That's a big part of the reason he refused to sign a deal extending the US troop presence in the country. Not only was that politically unpopular, but from his perspective the US had already served its purpose.
Did President Obama withdraw from Iraq? Well, yes. But you could also say the US was kicked out. The Pentagon tried to negotiate an agreement that would allow a residual force to stay, but Maliki refused to meet America's terms, particularly immunity from Iraqi prosecution. That was always going to be a deal breaker, and he knew it.
But what if we were still there? Senator Graham said Wednesday: "If we'd had a residual force of 10- to 12,000, I am totally convinced there would not have been a rise of Al Qaeda... The political process would've continued to move forward."
Perhaps. But the political process wasn't really moving forward in 2008, and had begun to deteriorate severely by the last quarter of the year. It seems doubtful that the presence of 12,000 troops would make the US position in Iraq stronger today than it was back when there were over 100,000. The numbers don't add up.