Al Qaeda Lost

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman explains why we win in Iraq by focusing on civilians rather than on the enemy, how the al Qaeda leadership bet everything they had on Anbar — and why they lost.

I met and interviewed dozens of Army officers in Baghdad and Ramadi, but none who were as admired and respected by the men who serve under them as much as 3rd Infantry Division Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman from Midway, Georgia. Junior officers and enlisted men nicknamed him “the forty pound brainer,” and admire him for his guts as well as his head.

“He went out and spent 12 hours a day in his hot tank,” during the battle of Ramadi one soldier said. “He risked getting blown up just like everyone else.”

“I had served with him before,” said another. “When he told me he needed me in Ramadi, that was all I needed to hear. I mean, I didn’t have any choice because the Army gave me my orders, but that didn’t matter once I knew Colonel Silverman was out here.”

“I’d do anything for that man,” said a third, “and I don’t like officers.”

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman

I had dinner with him at the dining facility and interviewed him afterwards in his office at the Blue Diamond base in northern Ramadi.

“How long have you been in Ramadi?” I said.

“Since the last week of January, 2007,” he said. “When I first got here my area of operations was the southern half of downtown. It was ugly then, especially for the civilians. We found more than 50 dead in just one grave in the desert. 50,000 – 70,000 people have returned so far since the war ended in April.”

“Describe the progress you’ve seen so far,” I said.

“Sure,” he said, “let’s look at the Abu Bali area for example. 6,000 or so people live there. When I first arrived there were 10 attacks every day just in that small area alone. Since May 1, 2007, we’ve had only one attack total in that area. The people went from having two to three hours of electricity a day to having twelve hours a day. Insurgents kept blowing up the power lines, but now that they’ve been cleared out the government has put them back up. Commerce has really taken off.”

“What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve seen here?” I said.

“On the second or third day the PSF [Provincial Security Forces] took over a checkpoint on a highway.”

The Provincial Security Forces are a “national guard” of sorts controlled by the tribal authorities in addition to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police in the area. They resemble a militia in some ways, but they’re a legal branch of the Iraqi security forces, authorized and paid by the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.

“An ice truck dropped off its ice at a checkpoint,” he continued. “The truck behind it in line exploded. Everybody was killed. For a five or six hour period we weren’t sure the PSF would go back to work. But eight hours later they were back in business. They are 100 percent committed to anti-terrorism and anti-sectarianism.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve seen here?” I said.

He wasn’t sure what to say and had to think about his answer for a few moments.

“The worst thing I’ve seen, I think, is the aftermath of a VBIED,” he said.

A VBIED is a vehicle-born improvised explosive device. In other words, a car bomb.

“I’ve seen that about ten times,” he continued. “Some people are turned, literally, into red blotches. Some are just vaporized. Their families will never see them again, not even their bodies. And the smell…there’s this awful car bomb smell, the acrid stench of homemade explosives and diesel fuel. Nothing else in the world has that smell.

“Most of the VBIEDs were intended for civilians, but the Iraqi Police usually stopped them first at the checkpoints. So they were the ones who usually got blown up. The driver of the VBIED would panic because he was caught and then kill everyone at the checkpoint. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Police kept bravely manning the checkpoints and replacing the police who were murdered. I’m telling you, they aren’t doing that for 310 dollars a month.”

“What were the battles in the city like?” I said.

“It would only be a mild exaggeration,” he said, “if I compared it to the battle of Stalingrad. We engaged in kinetic firefights that lasted for hours. Every single day they attacked us with AK-47s, sniper rifles, RPGs, IEDs, and car bombs.”

“How many fighters were there?” I said.

“Around 150 hard core fighters,” he said.

What?” I said. “Only 150?”

How could 150 fighters possibly transform a city of 450,000 people into a second Stalingrad?

“I expected you to say there were thousands,” I added.

“It felt like thousands,” he said. “Anyway, I’m only talking about the number of hard core fighters. The 150 doesn’t include the larger number of people planting IEDs. The population couldn’t do anything about these people. They were terribly intimidated. If Americans even handed someone a bag of sugar, his entire family would be killed. There are graves all over Abu Bali. People were taken there, decapitated, and shot in the head.”

He doesn’t really know how many hard-core fighters there were in the city. No one does. I asked Colonel John Charlton the same question — how many were there? — and his answer was very different even as his description of the fighting was identical.

“It looked like Stalingrad a few months ago,” he said. “There were around 750 fighters in the city proper. It could be less. I don’t know, it’s really hard to say. You have to understand, they worked in five- to ten-man cells. And it only takes one guy to fire an RPG or a sniper rifle. They used mosques, schools, and safe houses. We found an auto shop that had been converted into a car bomb factory. Because they had such small cells it was very difficult to go in there and clear them out.”

“Do you think your friendship with the locals is genuine?” I asked Lieutenant Colonel Silverman. Ramadi is in the heart of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, the most anti-American region in all of Iraq. I had seen what appeared to be genuine friendship and warmth from the Iraqis I’d met, but it was impossible to tell from anecdotal experience if that sentiment was typical in Anbar Province or even real.

“I do,” he said. “Don’t just assume Iraqis are faking their friendship. The first time I was here in 2003 I made friends with locals in Salah a Din Province. They still email and call me to talk even though they know there is nothing I can do for them now that I’m out here in Ramadi. Some of the people we work with just want to make money. For them it’s all business and has nothing to do with their private opinions of us. But most really do want to make Iraq better. You can tell when you interact with people one-on-one if they’re sincere. You can see right through people who are insincere. Many of these guys have been in fire fights with us, so I know they’re on our side.”

“Do you ever meet anyone you suspect was an insurgent?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I think some of the guys in the 2nd PSF battalion were insurgents, mostly nationalists who got tired of Al Qaeda. Some were Baathists or belonged to the 1920s Brigade. Al Qaeda started killing them off so they switched sides. One PSF guy in particular knows a little too much about taking IEDs apart. He knows exactly how to dismantle these things, as if he built them himself. I asked him how he knows so much and he said he used to be a TV repair man.” He laughed and shrugged. “But, hey, he’s on our side now. We call him the TV Repair Man and don’t worry too much about it.”

“Did the average Iraqi here switch sides or were most of them always against Al Qaeda?” I said.

“The average Iraqi post-Fallujah was not very happy with us being here,” he said. “If the insurgency only attacked Americans, the people of Ramadi would not have been very upset. But Al Qaeda infiltrated and took over the insurgency. They massively overplayed their hand. They cut off citizens’ heads with kitchen knives. The locals slowly learned that the propaganda about us were lies, and that Al Qaeda was their real enemy. They figured out by having dinner and tea with us that we really are, honest to God, here to help them.”

Anbar Province as a whole isn’t completely secured yet. But most areas have been cleared, and it’s increasingly difficult for terrorists and insurgents to even show up in the province let alone find refuge there.

“Anbar Province all along the Euphrates used to be one huge rat line for getting terrorists into Baghdad from Syria,” he said. A rat line, in military speak, is an enemy logistics route. “That’s over.”

“Do you think what happened here can happen in Baghdad?” I said.

He sat motionless for a time and considered carefully what I had asked him. It was obvious by the look on his face that he wasn’t particularly optimistic about it.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “One advantage we had here was that the tribes are like small communities, like in rural America. The sheikhs are politically powerful. If we turn them, we turn the people. Urban areas erode tribal affiliation. It’s still there in Baghdad, but it’s weaker. So I don’t know. It did work in the urban parts of Ramadi, though. If we can get it to work in all the provinces in Iraq — and it is working in Diyala Province right now, I know it is — then maybe it can work in Baghdad. It’s hard to say.”

He’s right that the formula works in Diyala Province, and in Salah a Din Province as well. Both provinces, like Anbar, are made up mostly of Sunni Arabs and have had similar troubles with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Even some tribes in the Shia South are beginning to emulate the Anbar model and work with the Americans against Shia militias.

The South, though, is very different from the Sunni Triangle. The Shia insurgents are “moderate” compared with Al Qaeda, and not so likely to be rejected by the entire society. On the other hand, the Shias of Iraq have never been as staunchly anti-American as the Sunnis have been and still mostly are. Saddam Hussein oppressed them almost as severely as he oppressed the Kurds in the North. The trouble for the Americans with the Shias is that so many prefer Iranian assistance, which they deem more reliable after President George H. W. Bush abandoned them to Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War.

What may make the Anbar model most difficult to implement in Baghdad, even beyond the erosion of tribal authority as Lieutenant Colonel Silverman noted, is that the Sunni and Shia communities each fear the militias and the death squads from the other community much more than they fear those from their own. Ending the insurgency in Baghdad may not be possible without first resolving the ongoing slow-motion civil war.

“What will it take for Anbar Province to stand on its own,” I said, “so American troops can leave?”

“The people here need a more direct and trusting link with the central government,” he said. “It’s tough for Baghdad to get things out here. They need to send more equipment for the police, and it’s not happening. People out here see a conspiracy in all this, even though that might not be the case. Baghdad needs to go out of its way to build trust, as we did.”

I had heard from several American officers that the Sunnis of Anbar see a conspiracy against them in Baghdad. Some even blamed the government for assassinating Anbar Awakening movement leader Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha. Anbar Province is almost exclusively Sunni, and the government is Baghdad is predominantly Shia. It doesn’t help that most Sunnis in Anbar boycotted the last election and have little representation in the capital. (They vow a massive turnout in the next Iraqi election, however.)

“Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Iraq as a whole?” I said.

“I am guardedly optimistic about Anbar, Diyala, and Salah a Din,” he said. “This model works there. If we can control these areas, Al Qaeda has nowhere. The reason my optimism is guarded, though, is because the people out here feel like they are second class citizens. If Baghdad doesn’t do what needs to be done, they will have a very tense relationship.”

“What’s the most important thing you have learned in your time here?” I said.

He wasn’t sure how to answer and had to think for a while.

“Well,” he finally said thoughtfully. “I learned something here that I had heard but never believed. I expected a huge kinetic fight, and that’s what we got. I was told that you win that kind of fight not by focusing on the enemy, but by focusing on the civilians. But I didn’t believe it. It’s true, though. I know because I have seen it.”

Here is the somewhat counterintuitive excerpt he was referring to, from the counterinsurgency manual:

Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be

1-149. Ultimate success in COIN [Counter-insurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained.... These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5

“What do you think about the media coverage of the Anbar Awakening?” I said.

“I think it’s pretty accurate, actually,” he said, in contrast to the complaints I usually heard about the media from the military. Most soldiers and Marines who grouse about the media, though, are thinking of the war coverage in general rather than reports from Anbar Province specifically. “I think the media accurately describes the reality on the ground here. The only real complaint I have is that every article I’ve read seems to ask when the other shoe is going to drop. I doubt that’s going to happen. Reporters might want to accept the changes in Anbar a little more at face value.”

For a few days it felt to me like the “other shoe” had dropped when Sheikh Sattar was assassinated, but his killers failed to transform the politics and culture of Anbar in their favor. No one can say whether or not another insurgency will erupt, but the odds are vanishingly close to zero that Al Qaeda — the most destructive “insurgents” by far in Iraq — will ever be able to operate again there with impunity.

“Oh, and another thing, too, I suppose,” he continued. “There’s a bit too much suspicion about the Provincial Security Forces. The PSF is actually the least tribal institution in the province. They can go anywhere in any neighborhood and not be rejected as out of bounds. The Iraqi Police have to stay in their areas or the locals will say what are you doing here? The media seems to think they’re some backwards and tribal force, but they’re actually the most progressive and patriotic force in the province.”

“What do you think about media coverage of the Iraq war in general?” I said.

“Most of what they report is accurate,” he said, “and I’m not going to take the same negative line on it like most officers. It’s true that the media doesn’t have the same agenda in Iraq that we do, but I’m not sure it’s the media’s job to have the same agenda in Iraq that we do.”

“What’s the most important thing Americans need to know about Iraq that they don’t currently know?” I said.

“That we’re fighting Al Qaeda,” he said without hesitation. “[Abu Musab al] Zarqawi invented Al Qaeda in Iraq. The top leadership outside Iraq squawked and thought it was a bad idea. Then he blew up the Samarra mosque, triggered a civil war, and got the whole world’s attention. Then the Al Qaeda leadership outside dumped huge amounts of money and people and arms into Anbar Province. They poured everything they had into this place. The battle against Americans in Anbar became their most important fight in the world. And they lost.”

This article is reprinted, by permission, from Michael Totten's Middle East Journal.  Mr. Totten's work as an independent journalist — including the cost of his trips to Iraq and other areas of the Middle East — is supported entirely through reader donations.

Michael Totten is an independent journalist in Portland, Oregon.  His writings have appeared in Reason Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, LA Weekly, and other prominent publications. His blog is at

1 comment from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
This is a wonderful article because of the amount of detail, the specfics, the concretes, the quotes. Knowing how to ask the right questions and what to select. (You can tell the guy is a professional, published writer.)

You get a good feel for what is happening over there on the ground -- worth a hundred floating abstractions from the New York Times
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.