How We Lost Touch With Our Friends in Iraq
In December 2009, the infantry company I commanded took over an area of western Baghdad Province that stretched from just west of Baghdad International Airport to the eastern outskirts of Fallujah. The United States was in the midst of drawing down in Iraq, so as units departed, those remaining inherited successively larger areas of operation. The region, referred to as Zaidon, was a traditional smuggling route before the 2003 invasion and became particularly dangerous during the height of the war. Although the region is often most closely associated with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), its real legacy was the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade.
The 1920s Revolutionary Brigade was created by the Zobai tribe and Zaidon was the heart of Zobai territory. The groups name is derived from the 1920s revolt against British rule; a popular myth is that the son of the paramount sheikh of the Zobai tribe ignited the rebellion by assassinating a British official, Lieutenant Colonel Gerard Leachman. While there were other 1920s rebel groups in places like Baquba, the group’s leadership came from an area just north of Zaidon called Khan Dhari. Though the Sunni Awakening was in full swing in 2007, the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade, a largely nationalist insurgent group, fought a series of knock-down-drag-out battles with AQI in Zaidon, independent of the Awakening. At least that is how we saw it. In reality, the battles were fought between two tribal houses vying for control of the tribe.
Despite the inter-tribal war, the house of Dhari held legitimate claim to leadership of the Zobai. Abd al Rahman Thahir Khamis al-Dhari, the son of the elderly paramount sheikh Thahir Khamis al-Dhari was believed to have been one of the founders of the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade. Additionally, Sheikh Thahir Khamis was the half-brother of Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, and reputed financier and religious head of the wider Sunni nationalist insurgency. At the time I operated in Zaidon, Sheikh Thahir Khamis’ son, Abd al Latif, spoke on behalf of his aging father. Though reticent to provide information about the 1920s and Dhari involvement with the group, over time he provided me information that significantly clarified the situation in Zaidon and Abu Ghraib.
The Dhari sheikhs controlled the area between the city of Baghdad and the border of Anbar Province, commonly known as the Abu Ghraib-Fallujah corridor. Little of consequence happened in the area without their knowledge. Most importantly, for the vast majority of the tribe, no alliances or agreements could be made with outsiders without approval of the Dhari house.
In the spring of 2010, I relinquished command and went to work in the G2 (intelligence) at U.S. Division Center in Baghdad, which was responsible for both Baghdad and Anbar provinces. When I left, I was the last American responsible for maintaining a working relationship with the Dhari house. The captain who took over command had the unenviable job of ending that relationship as U.S. forces withdrew from the area. When I arrived at division, people were genuinely interested in the information I had on Zaidon and the Zobai tribe, but less interested in retaining the personal contacts I had within the tribal leadership.
Over time it appeared that no one – military, intelligence, or diplomatic personnel – was interested in maintaining what I saw as a vital contact in the Abu Ghraib-Fallujah corridor. Based on my interactions with those I approached in the headquarters, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that American officials would be able to reach out and contact these individuals based on cell phone numbers from classified archived material. Anyone who has operated in Iraq would see at least three things wrong with this premise: 1) most of the Iraqis I dealt with changed cell phones almost every other month; 2) most of our archived databases were lost when units left Iraq; and 3) calling someone (of almost any nationality or culture) for the first time should not take place when you need something or when there is a crisis.
The sense of nonchalance at headquarters about maintaining tribal contacts continued to bother me for some time. I was finally able to voice my concern in the fall of 2010 when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Baghdad the day after the last “combat” troops departed Iraq. As he was known to do, he had dinner with a small group of junior officers to hear their concerns. I was one of the ten officers selected and had the opportunity to ask the last question of the night. I asked him candidly whether there was any kind of plan in place to transition the relationships the U.S. military developed over the course of eight years to either State Department or intelligence community personnel. Secretary Gates responded that there surely must be some program to transition these relationships and contacts. Having watched my former contacts drop cold when my old unit departed at the end of August 2010, I informed him that it appeared no such program or plan was in place.
I realize that over the course of eight years in Iraq, the U.S. military developed thousands of contacts at the tactical level, and that there was no possible way that our embassy or intelligence personnel could have taken on all of them. I also realize that some relationships that I was not aware of may have been transitioned. Yet, I had developed relationships with men who controlled an area that had been described to me by intelligence officers at division as a “black hole” of information. The information I had obtained came from direct and frequent contact with a number of tribal members, and painted a completely different picture than what U.S. forces assumed was fact. I am confident that due to the insular nature of the Zobai tribe, our knowledge of the area and events within it are extremely limited.
Fast forwarding to the summer of 2014, the speed of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) advance in Iraq seems to have caught everyone by surprise. ISIL are bogged down only a short distance from Baghdad proper; that short distance is the Abu Ghraib-Fallujah corridor. The problem with this corridor is that no matter how many defensive positions the Iraqi Security Forces construct, the area will remain porous – that’s why it was a traditional smuggling route and safe haven for rebels.
While Baghdad should and does worry about controlling the corridor, U.S. diplomatic and intelligence personnel must also be curious about what is happening in this volatile area. Despite our technological capabilities, the only way to understand this particular area’s dynamics is through communication with its inhabitants. However, as with much of Iraq and especially those Sunni areas that ISIL currently controls and contests, the key to those inhabitants lies with the tribal leadership. Wouldn’t it be nice to still be in touch with some people there?
My concern in 2010 was that once U.S. forces departed Iraq, we would be largely blind beyond the walls of our embassy in Baghdad. For nearly eight years, U.S. forces maintained relationships with sheikhs, imams, businessmen, local police, army officers, police officials, and ordinary citizens in almost every area ISIL currently holds or contests. I fear that our failure to keep tabs on the inhabitants and key leaders in those areas left the United States caught off guard by the ISIL offensives in Anbar and northern Iraq.
It is possible that ISIL would have been just as successful had we kept in touch with people like Sheikh Thahir Khamis’ son, Abd al Latif, but it is also possible that they might not have. And it is likely that the United States would have a much better idea what is happening inside ISIL-controlled territory today, including the level of local support ISIL may or may not enjoy – a key to countering this new cancer afflicting Iraq.
Andrew Lembke is an infantry major in the U.S. Army with four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has deployed twice to the Abu Ghraib area, from 2005 to 2006, and again from 2009 to 2010. The final tour was split between company command and U.S. Division Center in Baghdad, where he worked on tribal and Iraqi Security Forces issues. His opinions do not represent those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Dustin Roberts, 2nd HBCT PAO, 1st Inf. Div., MND-B