Marines Say Western Iraq Lost

Dafna Linzer and Thomas Ricks report that the Marine Corps has all but given up in western Iraq.

The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda’s rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military’s mission in Anbar province. The Marines recently filed an updated version of that assessment that stood by its conclusions and stated that, as of mid-November, the problems in troubled Anbar province have not improved, a senior U.S. intelligence official said yesterday. “The fundamental questions of lack of control, growth of the insurgency and criminality” remain the same, the official said.

The Marines’ August memo, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Post, is far bleaker than some officials suggested when they described it in late summer. The report describes Iraq’s Sunni minority as “embroiled in a daily fight for survival,” fearful of “pogroms” by the Shiite majority and increasingly dependent on al-Qaeda in Iraq as its only hope against growing Iranian dominance across the capital.

True or not, the memo says, “from the Sunni perspective, their greatest fears have been realized: Iran controls Baghdad and Anbaris have been marginalized.” Moreover, most Sunnis now believe it would be unwise to count on or help U.S. forces because they are seen as likely to leave the country before imposing stability.


The five-page report — written by Col. Peter Devlin, a senior and seasoned military intelligence officer with the Marine Expeditionary Force — is marked secret, for dissemination to U.S. and allied troops in Iraq only. It does not appear to have been made available to Iraqi national forces fighting alongside Americans.


Devlin suggested that without the deployment of an additional U.S. military division — 15,000 to 20,000 troops — plus billions of dollars in aid to the province, “there is nothing” U.S. troops “can do to influence” the insurgency.


He described al-Qaeda in Iraq as the “dominate organization of influence in al-Anbar,” surpassing all other groups, the Iraqi government and U.S. troops “in its ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni.” Al-Qaeda itself, now an “integral part of the social fabric of western Iraq,” has become so entrenched, autonomous and financially independent that U.S. forces no longer have the option “for a decapitating strike that would cripple the organization,” the report says. That is why, it says, the death of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June “had so little impact on the structure and capabilities of al-Qaeda,” especially in Anbar province.

Leaving aside the issue of the mainstream press again publicizing still-classified documents during wartime or inane puffery such as pointing out that colonels are “senior and seasoned,” this is a grim report, indeed.

What’s particularly interesting is the symbiotic relationship between Iraqi and American public opinion. Because the American public–and perhaps a majority of the incoming Congress–think the war is lost, the Iraqi people think we will abandon them. Given that we did it fifteen years ago with disastrous consequences, that’s hardly a radical leap. Yet, a demoralized Iraqi population lacks the will to resist the insurgency and al Qaeda, turning their fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Also interesting is that Devlin seems to be advocating the “Go Long” option:

In a final section of the report, titled “Way Ahead,” Devlin outlined several possibilities for bringing stability to the area, including establishing a Sunni state in Anbar, creating a local paramilitary force to protect Sunnis and to offset Iranian influence, shifting local budget controls, and strengthening a committed Iraqi police force that has “proven remarkably resilient in most areas.”

Devlin ended the assessment by saying that while violence has surged, the presence of U.S. troops in Anbar has had “a real suppressive effect on the insurgency.” He said the suffering of “Anbar’s citizens undoubtedly would be far worse now if it was not for the very effective efforts” of U.S. forces.

That, of course, depends on where one starts the clock. It’s quite probably true that the insurgency would be doing much better were they not being attacked by a highly trained military force. One presumes, though, that there would be no insurgency to suppress had there been no insertion of U.S. forces in the first place.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. madmatt says:

    what reason have we given the iraqis to trust anything we say or do…we have caused as much death and mayhem in 3 years as Saddam did in 30…thus our presence does nothing but aggravate the situation….as for the iraqis…they live there so they have plenty of ways of keeping track of what the US is doing, they don’t need to read it in the times…its why our tax dollars go to feeding propaganda to iraq news sources.

  2. DC Loser says:

    As a counterpoint to this article, I found Andrew Sullivan linked to this Michael Fumento article about progess in Ramadi.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Andrew Sullivan linked to this article today, providing somewhat good news about progress in Ramadi.

  4. Cernig says:

    Something doesn’t pass the smell test here. Re-reading the article, I can’t tell whether this is an officially sanctioned “leak” or not. Some phrases suggest it might be.

    And then there is this paragraph:

    The senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work, said yesterday that he largely agrees with Devlin’s assessment, except that he thinks it overstates the role of al-Qaeda in the province. “We argue that it is a major element in Anbar, but it is not the largest or most dominant group,” he said.

    Which totally pitches the headline on its ass.

    On this one, I’m with Bill at INDC Journal who’s put together an impressive list of previous reports showing that the indigenous tribes and insurgents have the ascendancy in the region, not Al Qaida. You should check it out, James – especially Bill Roggio’s stuff.

    Roggio goes into detail about the ongoing feud between the Sunni tribes of the Anbar region and Al Qaeda. This, in a nutshell, is why talk of Al Qaeda winning anything except a swift death when U.S. troops leave is rubbish. Bill oversteps the mark, though, when he ascribes the feud to clever U.S. policy. The feud began and then the U.S. military decided to jump on a great bandwagon. One London Times article he cites has a U.S. officer saying: the sheikhs are only “pro-American in the sense that they are fighting the same enemy”. That seems about right to me.

    Regards, Cernig

  5. james says:

    Marines aren’t good at holding anything. They’er better at doing island hopping. Then the Navy holds the ground taken. Marines aren’t set up to be police.

  6. Anderson says:

    Then the Navy holds the ground taken

    Now, *that* would be a sight.

  7. legion says:

    Hey, Anderson, do you have any idea what a battleship does to property values?

    -legion, in the AF, whose idea of holding ground involves a 10-year lease w/option to buy…

    And while I respect Col Devlin’s candor, I’m underwhelmed by his proposals.

    Devlin outlined several possibilities for bringing stability to the area, including establishing a Sunni state in Anbar, creating a local paramilitary force to protect Sunnis and to offset Iranian influence, shifting local budget controls, and strengthening a committed Iraqi police force that has “proven remarkably resilient in most areas.”

    Establishing ‘mini-states’ strikes me as a very iffy idea… unless they care more about establishing their own national entities that killing their rivals, it’ll be largely indistinguishable from the worst days of Bosnia. And create a ‘local paramilitary force’? Out of what? The guys who couldn’t get into the death squads Iraqi Police? Shifting local budget controls requires a functioning central government, which I’m not convinced of lately, and the current Iraqi PD has not shown itself to be nearly as ‘effective’ as he thinks…

  8. james says:

    Marines are “naval infantry”. Their Job was to Island hop and take ground. Then they would move on while the navy occupied the ground taken. Marines have no place being out there in the middle of the desert. They’er marines, naval infantry. They’er not the Army. The Army is the land force.

  9. james says:

    marines are just “peacekeepers” in Iraq.

  10. LJD says:

    Let me add that the Army (as a whole) should not be peace-keepers, policemen, nation-builders, or social workers. However, this is the evolution of our roles given the circumstances, for both Soldier and Marine.

  11. Bart Winkelford says:

    follow the money , and who benifits…