By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006
The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there, said several military officers and intelligence officials familiar with its contents.
The officials described Col. Pete Devlin's classified assessment of the dire state of Anbar as the first time that a senior U.S. military officer has filed so negative a report from Iraq.
One Army officer summarized it as arguing that in Anbar province, "We haven't been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically -- and that's where wars are won and lost."
The "very pessimistic" statement, as one Marine officer called it, was dated Aug. 16 and sent to Washington shortly after that, and has been discussed across the Pentagon and elsewhere in national security circles. "I don't know if it is a shock wave, but it's made people uncomfortable," said a Defense Department official who has read the report. Like others interviewed about the report, he spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name because of the document's sensitivity.
Devlin reports that there are no functioning Iraqi government institutions in Anbar, leaving a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has become the province's most significant political force, said the Army officer, who has read the report. Another person familiar with the report said it describes Anbar as beyond repair; a third said it concludes that the United States has lost in Anbar.
Devlin offers a series of reasons for the situation, including a lack of U.S. and Iraqi troops, a problem that has dogged commanders since the fall of Baghdad more than three years ago, said people who have read it. These people said he reported that not only are military operations facing a stalemate, unable to extend and sustain security beyond the perimeters of their bases, but also local governments in the province have collapsed and the weak central government has almost no presence.
Those conclusions are striking because, even after four years of fighting an unexpectedly difficult war in Iraq, the U.S. military has tended to maintain an optimistic view: that its mission is difficult, but that progress is being made. Although CIA station chiefs in Baghdad have filed negative classified reports over the past several years, military intelligence officials have consistently been more positive, both in public statements and in internal reports.
Devlin, as part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) headquarters in Iraq, has been stationed there since February, so his report isn't being dismissed as the stunned assessment of a newly arrived officer. In addition, he has the reputation of being one of the Marine Corps' best intelligence officers, with a tendency to be careful and straightforward, said another Marine intelligence officer. Hence, the report is being taken seriously as it is examined inside the military establishment and also by some CIA officials.
Not everyone interviewed about the report agrees with its glum findings. The Defense Department official, who worked in Iraq earlier this year, said his sense is that Anbar province is going to be troubled as long as U.S. troops are in Iraq. "Lawlessness is a way of life there," he said. As for the report, he said, "It's one conclusion about one area. The conclusion on al Anbar doesn't translate into a perspective on the entire country."
No one interviewed would quote from the report, citing its classification, and The Washington Post was not shown a copy of it. But over the past three weeks, Devlin's paper has been widely disseminated in military and intelligence circles. It is provoking intense debate over the key finding that in Anbar, the U.S. effort to clear and hold major cities and the upper Euphrates valley has failed.
The report comes at an awkward time politically, just as a midterm election campaign gets underway that promises to be in part a referendum on the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war. It also follows by just a few weeks the testimony of Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee early last month that "it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."
"It's hard to be optimistic right now," said one Army general who has served in Iraq. "There's a sort of critical mass of tough news," he said, with intensifying violence from the insurgency and between Sunnis and Shiites, a lack of effective Iraqi government and a growing concern that Iraq may be falling apart.
"In the analytical world, there is a real pall of gloom descending," said Jeffrey White, a former analyst of Middle Eastern militaries for the Defense Intelligence Agency, who also had been told about the pessimistic Marine report.
Devlin, who is in Iraq, could not be reached to comment. Col. Jerry Renne, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said Saturday that "as a matter of policy, we don't comment on classified documents."
Anbar is a key province; it encompasses Ramadi and Fallujah, which with Baghdad pose the greatest challenge U.S. forces have faced in Iraq. It accounts for 30 percent of Iraq's land mass, encompassing the vast area from the capital to the borders of Syria and Jordan, including much of the area that has come to be known as the Sunni Triangle.
The insurgency arguably began there with fighting in Fallujah not long after U.S. troops arrived in April 2003, and fighting has since continued. Thirty-three U.S. military personnel died there in August -- 17 from the Marines, 13 from the Army and three from the Navy.
A second general who has read the report warned that he thought it was accurate as far as it went, but agreed with the defense official that Devlin's "dismal" view may not have much applicability elsewhere in Iraq. The problems facing Anbar are peculiar to that region, he and others argued.
But an Army officer in Iraq familiar with the report said he considers it accurate. "It is best characterized as 'realistic,' " he said.
"From what I understand, it is very candid, very unvarnished," said retired Marine Col. G. I. Wilson. "It says the emperor has no clothes."
One view of the report offered by some Marine officers is that it is a cry for help from an area where fighting remains intense, yet which recently has been neglected by top commanders and Bush administration officials as they focus on bringing a sense of security to Baghdad. An Army unit of Stryker light armored vehicles that had been slated to replace another unit in Anbar was sent to reinforce operations in Baghdad, leaving commanders in the west scrambling to move around other troops to fill the gap.
Devlin's report is a work of intelligence analysis, not of policy prescription, so it does not try to suggest what, if anything, can be done to fix the situation. It is not clear what the implications would be for U.S. forces if Devlin's view is embraced by top commanders elsewhere in Iraq. U.S. officials are wary of simply abandoning the Sunni parts of Iraq, for fear that they could become havens for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
One possible solution would be to try to turn over the province to Iraqi forces, but that could increase the risk of a full-blown civil war. Shiite-dominated forces might begin slaughtering Sunnis, while Sunni-dominated units might simply begin acting independently of the central government.