An early adopter of counterinsurgency strategy, now conventional wisdom, will serve as observer to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to the White House.
In the spring of 2006, with sectarian violence in Baghdad claiming hundreds of lives every week, an officer with the First Cavalry Division submitted an essay to a counterinsurgency writing competition on how the U.S. military needed to adapt for a confusing war. Drawing on the writings of the obscure midcentury French counterinsurgent David Galula, the officer issued a series of observations at odds with the military strategy on display in the country. “For the local people to feel secure and provide intelligence, they must have 24-hour access to the counterinsurgent force,” advised Lt. Col. Doug Ollivant, the division’s chief of plans, in an influential paper called “Producing Victory,” published in “Military Review” that summer. Ollivant, like many in the military’s growing community of counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners, had already experienced the Iraq war from its most dangerous places: Najaf, Baghdad, and Fallujah.
One of the paper’s most attentive readers was Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. Army’s chief counterinsurgency scholar. In advance of deploying for Iraq in January 2007 to take command of a faltering war, Petraeus emailed Ollivant and asked him if his essay’s premises still applied; Ollivant said that for the most part they did.
The conversation would be a prologue to several tense and historic months. Ollivant’s division had returned to Baghdad the previous November. As planning chief — and a member of Petraeus’ brain trust — he would have a key role in shaping the battle for Baghdad, the major theater of the counterinsurgency fight in 2007 commonly referred to as the troop surge. Ollivant’s emphasis on a constant security presence to protect an at-risk population from an insurgency, shared by the officers around Petraeus, was diametrically opposed to the previous strategy, which emphasized protecting U.S. troops above Iraqi civilians. Now it is counterinsurgent conventional wisdom and is being adapted for the Afghanistan war.
What came next was perhaps less expected. The following year, Ollivant left Iraq for the White House, where he became a director for Iraq at the National Security Council in March 2008. Working for Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the Bush administration’s so-called War Czar, Ollivant’s next big planning job involved herding the vast national-security bureaucracy to sustain the reduction in violence that the surge contributed to achieving. He said he was “still not certain” why Lute hired him, but suspects Petraeus or Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Ollivant’s former division commander who now serves as the Army’s vice chief of staff, had something to do with it.
When President Obama asked Lute to stay on through the change in administrations, Ollivant, an Oregon native who joined the Army to help pay for college, stayed as well — for a time. Ollivant left the White House on June 16, and on July 1, Lute presided over a ceremony at the White House in honor of Ollivant’s retirement from the Army. As an example of the new generation of Iraq- and Afghanistan-experienced military leaders, Ollivant’s service is both unique and yet still familiar to soldiers and Marines who have had to act as warfighters, diplomats and development workers rolled into one, improvising and recasting strategy in the absence of clear guidance from their superior officers and from Washington. But when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visits Obama at the White House on Wednesday, Ollivant, for the first time in five years, will be an observer.
The transition may be difficult. “There’s a part of me that would really like to put Iraq behind me,” Ollivant said in a recent interview at a Dupont Circle Starbucks, his first on-the-record talk since leaving the administration. “I feel strangely connected to it. I’ve been working Iraq for five years now, since I went there in the summer of 2004. That’s hard to put behind you.”
As someone who played a significant role in both calming Iraq and in managing the conditions for ultimate U.S. withdrawal, it should come as little surprise when Ollivant — a youthful 20-year Army veteran who can be intense in one breath before breaking into a smile during the next — says he’s “pretty sanguine about the situation in Iraq” and thinks the Obama administration, and the country at large, should turn its attention to cementing a post-withdrawal alliance.
Violence will continue in Iraq, particularly around major political events like next year’s national elections, but that violence will be driven by specific, localized grievances, Ollivant said, not a rekindling of the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq before the surge. “The Sunni-Shiite civil war is over, and the Sunni-Shiite civil war is over because the Sunnis lost,” he said. There is no more confusion between the “relative strengths of the parties,” a confusion that contributed to the civil war. Even in the volatile north of the country, where Kurds and Arabs have laid claim to many of the same oil-rich areas, Ollivant sees the dispute as more amenable to negotiations than open war: “Everyone knows what the relative strengths are. Everyone knows what the other side wants.” The last quarterly report by the Pentagon on Iraq, issued in March, found practically no deaths resulting ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq in early 2009, compared to between 600 and 1200 in Baghdad alone at the time Ollivant published “Producing Victory.”
What the various political actors in Iraq want from the United States is a different story. Maliki declared the departure of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities and towns — the first milestone in last year’s U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement leading to final troop withdrawals in 2011 — a national holiday. Yet despite potent anti-occupation politics in Iraq, some Iraqi legislators and generals have expressed unease about the pace of U.S. withdrawal, with former national security adviser Qassim Daoud calling for U.S. troops to stay until at least 2020 or 2025. When Vice President Joseph Biden traveled to Iraq earlier this month to press Iraqi leaders on political compromise, the chief spokesman for the Maliki government, Ali al-Dabbagh, replied, “national reconciliation is an Iraqi issue and involvement of a non-Iraqi party won’t make it more successful.”
Antipathy to political pressure from the United States cuts across Iraqi political boundaries. “The same Iraqi political figures who say ‘stay out of our business, let us run our own country’ are almost certainly the same ones who a few months ago said, ‘Why don’t we have an ambassador yet, have you forgotten us?’” Ollivant said. “And those are both legitimate points for the Iraqis to raise.”
Ollivant said his interactions with Iraqi leaders over the past year have revolved around their desire to deepen a sustainable relationship after U.S. troops depart — particularly a commercial relationship. “They want more American companies, particularly in the oil sector,” he said. Oil revenue still accounts for the vast majority of the Iraqi budget, despite U.S. and international pressure to diversify, and a variety of schemes have emerged in the Iraqi legislature and in the autonomous Kurdish provinces to entice foreign oil companies. Yet a weak legal system and lingering perceptions of poor security have hindered American willingness to invest. Ollivant called it an issue worth high-level attention.
“It wouldn’t hurt to have a major figure stating to American companies that it would be a patriotic act to continue the American rebuilding project in Iraq as a civilian effort, led by corporate America rather than the military,” he said. That advice may personally benefit Ollivant, who said he’s currently working an independent business and defense consultant, with a focus on Iraq and various ‘small war’ contingencies,” yet Maliki is anticipated to make a similar plea for commercial ties in his discussions with the administration.
Similarly, the future of the U.S. military and diplomatic commitments to Iraq will broaden and normalize. “We’ll continue to hear them ask for diplomatic assistance and assistance at the U.N.,” he said. Militarily, Ollivant said the Obama administration is “serious about getting out of Iraq as soon as prudently possible,” and so post-2011 military ties to Iraq will look like “the same types of ties we have to many other countries in the region,” with U.S. military or security companies continuing to provide advice and training to Iraqi security forces and “selling American equipment, which means a continuing supply of American spare parts.”
The Obama administration has met its share of skepticism on Iraq. In this spring, Republican senators criticized Obama for nominating Christopher Hill, a respected diplomat without experience in the Arab world, as his ambassador to Baghdad. Kori Schake, a State Department veteran and foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign, has written that Obama’s commitment to withdrawal risks “pull[ing] the plug on a war we’re winning to concentrate on a war we cannot win” in Afghanistan. Reidar Visser, a prominent analyst of Iraqi politics based in Norway, observed that Biden’s focus on sectarianism at a time when Iraqis are beginning to form cross-sectarian political coalitions “suggest that while Iraq itself may be maturing, U.S. policy in Iraq is not.” There is widespread agreement that the Obama administration has spent less time on Iraq than on the war in Afghanistan. Ollivant’s former boss, Lt. Gen. Lute, had his portfolio expanded at the NSC, but Iraq policy is no longer part of it.
Having worked for the Bush administration, Ollivant doesn’t dispute that Obama doesn’t share Bush’s “laser-like” focus on Iraq during his administration’s final year in office, a focus that emerged partially out of concern for Bush’s legacy. But Ollivant stresses that the policy options for the United States have narrowed after Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement guaranteeing a date for U.S. withdrawal, something the Iraqis compelled the administration to sign in an unexpected policy reversal. The so-called SOFA “narrowed the political discourse in this country” on Iraq,” Ollivant said. “The Bush administration’s final position ended up close enough to the Obama campaign’s rhetoric that you really have the two sides coming together at a place of common ground.”
Not all observers are as sanguine as Ollivant. “Iraq certainly seems to be an afterthought at the moment,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East expert at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “All of a sudden I find myself writing about the need to think about how we do still retain some levers of influence in the country. This is a transition and it is an awkward period where new sorts of relations are being sorted out, the military interaction receiving the lion’s share of the attention.” Without a sharpening of administration focus, Hanna said he feared that “rest of the [Obama administration's] agenda for the region will never survive if Iraq backslides into broader violence.”
Ollivant drew a distinction between the continued, diminished levels of violence in Iraq and the strategic threat of a renewed sectarian upheaval. “There’s a huge difference between a Sunni leader being assassinated because he’s leading a political movement and is a threat to an established power base or a rival power base or an up-and-coming power base and a Sunni leader being assassinated because he’s a Sunni,” he said. That distinction is what prevented widespread conflagrations when, in the spring, Iraqi security forces in Baghdad arrested several leaders of the mostly-Sunni auxiliary militia known as the Sons of Iraq or the Awakening on various criminal charges. “It’s still an unstable country,” Ollivant said, “but I think we have to distinguish between political violence and sectarian violence.”
He didn’t always know that such a distinction would be meaningful in Iraq. His first Iraq tour, as operations chief for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, overlapped with much of the first sustained period of crisis during the war — June 2004 to February 2005 — and took him to some of the war’s toughest fighting: the Shiite graveyards of Najaf, the Marine-led invasion of Fallujah and the restive Shiite neighborhood of Khadimiya in Baghdad. Like many officers with Iraq experience during the war’s deteriorating fortunes, Ollivant and “Producing Victory’s” co-author, Lt. Eric Chewning, studied counterinsurgency theory and wrote their paper “almost as catharsis.” In Baghdad during the surge, Ollivant would wake early and work until “11, midnight, 1 a.m.,” swallowing Ambien so his thoughts would let him sleep.
“My confidence in the strategy waxed and waned over time,” he said when asked if he thought the surge would succeed in reducing violence in Iraq.
Asked what his proudest moment of service was, Ollivant equivocated. “I had three very very different experiences in Iraq,” he said. “I’m glad I smelled cordite in Iraq. I’m glad I was at [Multinational Division-Baghdad] when we did the surge and I was part of putting that together. And I was immensely proud and honored to have worked at the White House for two administrations.”
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