The End Game


As the United States begins one final effort to secure victory through a "surge" of troops, FRONTLINE investigates how strategic and tactical mistakes brought Iraq to civil war. The film recounts how the early mandate to create the conditions for a quick exit of the American military led to chaos, failure, and sectarian strife. In Endgame, producer Michael Kirk (Rumsfeld's War, The Torture Question, The Dark Side, and The Lost Year in Iraq) traces why the president decided to risk what military planners once warned could be the worst way to fight in Iraq -- door-to-door -- and assesses the likelihood of its success. Top administration figures, military commanders, and journalists offer inside details about the new strategy.



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Interview: Michael Gordon

Interview: Col. William Hix

Interview: Frederick Kagan
Plan for victory in Iraq

Interview: Gen. Jack Keane

Interview: Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich

Interview: Col. H.R. McMaster

Interview: Thomas Ricks

Interview: Col. Kalev Sepp

Interview: Philip Zelikow


The colonels' war

Can the surge work?

Misreading history: comparing Iraq to Vietnam

End Game chronology


August 2004
General George Casey/New exit strategy

Rumsfeld assigns four-star Gen. George Casey to Iraq to replace Gen. Sanchez and implement a new exit strategy: Casey is ordered to train and shift responsibility to the Iraqi army -- ASAP.

Rumsfeld's approach is to reduce the U.S. footprint in Iraq and not step up U.S. efforts to win. So Casey is charged with keeping a lid on things, without adding more American troops.

The signature of the plan is that U.S. forces would keep a "light footprint," staying on large forward-operating bases and only engaging the insurgents when absolutely necessary. Part of the argument is that a large troop level inflames Iraqis' feelings against the coalition occupation.

August 2004
Fighting Sadr in Najaf

Al-Sadr's Shi'ite Mahdi Army rampages in Najaf, forcing Casey to bring his troops out. During the three-week conflict the Mahdi Army holes up in one of Shi'a Islam's holiest shrines. Surrounded, a cease-fire is negotiated. Many of his fighters return home to Shi'ite Sadr City in Baghdad and clashes subsequently increase between the Mahdi army and U.S. forces.

Battle for Najaf (August 2004)

Fall 2004
Gen. Casey Assembles Brain Trust

Casey brings together Ph.D.s and academics from the military academies to advise him on strategy. The team members call themselves "Doctors Without Orders." "The play on words went both ways," says Sepp. "Nobody knew how long they were going to be serving in Iraq -- they literally didn't have their follow-on orders -- but the other was that there was a sense of no constraint in thinking."

Nov. 2, 2004
Bush Re-elected

In the 2004 election, President Bush defeats John Kerry. On the eve of his second inauguration, the president refers to the vote as his "accountability moment" on the Iraq war.

Nov. 8, 2004
Fallujah II

Casey and his advisers decide that Iraqi elections cannot be held without clearing out Fallujah, which has again become a safe haven for Sunni insurgents. But Casey's advisers worry about the impact of the assault on Sunni Iraqis. Civilians are urged to leave the city; it is estimated only 400 remain when the assault begins

Many U.S. commanders are jubilant, believing the insurgency has been irreparably harmed. But Fallujah's Sunni refugees tell tales of a brutal U.S. assault, and some top observers worry Fallujah backfired, decreasing Sunni Arab support for the coalition's goals and helping fuel the insurgency.

November 15, 2004
Colin Powell resigns as Secretary of State, replaced by Condoleezza Rice

2005 A Fragile Equilibrium

January 2005
National Elections in Iraq

An estimated 58 percent of Iraq's population defy threats of violence to vote in the first elections since Saddam Hussein's ouster.

The Bush administration points to the voting as a sign of success, but the vast majority of Sunnis boycott the election and thus are disenfranchised from the political process, dashing hopes of establishing a representative Iraqi government.

The Shia now dominate the new government.

February 2005
At a Tipping Point

After one of his early trips to Iraq at the request of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow writes a memo describing Iraq as being at a tipping point.

February 2005
Vacancy at the US Embassy

America's ambassador in Iraq, John Negroponte, is appointed director of national intelligence. Iraq will be without a U.S. ambassador until Zalmay Khalilzad's arrival four months later.

February 2005
Insurgents Step Up Attacks

Seeing the new Shi'a-dominated government is dividing the country and creating a virtual vacuum, Sunni insurgents ramp back up their attacks in an effort to undermine the government.

May 2005
Cheney's Predictions

Vice President Cheney says in an interview on Larry King Live May 30, "I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think that they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." He will defend his assessment for at least a year.

May 2005
The Tal Afar Way

In contrast to Rumseld's "light footprint" approach for U.S. troops, Col. H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Calvary Division implements a much different strategy in the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar. McMaster applies a "clear, hold and build" approach: clearing insurgents door-to-door, holding neighborhoods by stationing U.S. troops among the people and rebuilding by distributing to Iraqis reconstruction funds.

A new, promising strategy emerges in Tal Afar (Interview with Col. H.R. McMaster)

June 2005
Ambassador Khalilzad Takes Charge

New U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad arrives in the country after discussing the "oil spot" strategy, a strategy rooted in clear-hold-build counterinsurgency tactics. Khalilzad assembles a team to study how it can be implemented.

June 2005
"As the Iraqis Stand Up, We Will Stand Down"

In a June 28 national address, President Bush focuses on the strategy of training Iraqis to take charge of their country's security.

September 2005
Recommendation: More Troops Needed

Back from his latest trip to Iraq, State Dept. adviser Philip Zelikow writes a memo to Secretary Rice calling for a surge of additional troops to clear, hold and build. The plan is modeled on Col. McMaster's work in Tal Afar, one of the few successful efforts Zelikow encountered.

October 2005
Rice Champions "Clear-Hold-Build" Strategy

On Oct. 19, Secretary of State Rice testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stating that, "our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold, and build," together with Iraqi forces.

In a November press conference, Secretary Rumsfeld refutes Rice's position, asserting Iraqis must be the ones to hold and build.

October 2005
Petraeus Leaves Iraq

Petraeus, recalled from Iraq where he had been training Iraqi forces, is sent to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where he oversees training for troops heading to Iraq. There he also co-authors the Army's new counterinsurgency field manual.

2006 Simmering Civil War

February 2006
Bombing in Samarra

Bombs destroy the golden dome of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of Shi'a Islam's holiest shrines, igniting a wave of sectarian violence in which thousands of Iraqis will die over the months that follow. Many experts view it as an attempt by al Qaeda to stimulate a civil war, making the country ungovernable

Holy Shi'ite 'shrine is bombed, fueling sectarian violence

March 2006
Iraq Study Group Formed

Congress [note: not the White House] announces the creation of the Iraq Study Group.

March 2006
Revisiting Tal Afar

As part of a media blitz in response to the rise in sectarian killings. President Bush highlights Tal Afar as a success story in a speech in Cleveland.

But a Washington Post story notes that sectarian violence had returned to the city after Col. McMaster's division departed.

May 2006
"A Plan for Victory in Iraq"

Scholar Frederick Kagan publishes "A Plan for Victory in Iraq" in the Weekly Standard, in which he argues for major clear, hold and build operations. [Genesis of the idea behind the surge.]

Frederick Kagan
A Plan for Victory in Iraq

June 2006
Camp David Meeting

No longer able to ignore the seriousness of the sectarian conflict, the White House begins to crystallize its views. Staffers support the idea championed by Secretary Rice of a new policy - "clear, hold, build" - and organize a meeting to get the president on board.

Well-known military scholars are invited to Camp David to meet with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and generals. Staffers hope the meeting will be the start of a substantive review of war strategy.

Midway through, however, Bush decides to fly to Baghdad to meet the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

see this article about Maliki [listed below in the section entitled "Iraq since the withdrawal of US forces"]
"Letter from Iraq: What we left behind (Dexter Filkins)

After Bush's return from Iraq, there is no major shift in Iraq policy.

June 2006
A Drawdown Proposal from Casey

During a visit to Washington, Gen. Casey presents another version of his plan for drawing down U.S. troops, but it is quickly shelved as violence continues in Iraq.

June 2006
Zarqawi, Al Qaeda in Iraq Leader Killed

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is successfully targeted in a U.S. airstrike in Baquba on June 7.

Profile: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

How Zarqawi was found and killed

How Zarqawi went from "thug" to ISIS founder

July-August 2006
Abizaid: No Troop Reductions

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Aug. 3, CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid rules out any reductions in the number of U.S. troops because of the surge in sectarian violence. The previous month, Abizaid commented sectarian killings were now a more pressing problem than the insurgency.

July/August 2006
Summer of Bloodshed

Random violence plagues Baghdad. A New York Times article by Dexter Filkins shows violence actually increased in areas handed over to Iraqi forces.

Also in August, a Marine Corps intelligence memo concludes that the United States can no longer defeat the insurgency in western Iraq or counter the popularity of Al Qaeda in that area.

July/August 2006
Operation Together Forward II
[can't surge without sufficient troops]

U.S. and Iraqi forces commence the second phase of Operation Together Forward in Baghdad.

The plan calls for U.S. troops to clear neighborhoods of insurgents and for Iraqi forces to hold those areas. But there are too few U.S. troops, the Iraqi government fails to provide the requested forces, and the Iraqi police is infiltrated by sectarian fighters.

The operation, which lasts until Oct. 24, fails to quell the violence in the capital.

November 2006
Midterm Elections; Rumsfeld Out

Democrats retake the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections.

The day after, President Bush announces Robert Gates will replace Rumsfeld.

Two days before submitting his resignation, Rumsfeld writes a memo outlining 14 options for Iraq, including withdrawing U.S. troops and reducing the number of bases. He does not mention "clear, hold and build."

November 2006
A Blunt Memo on Maliki

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley authors a memo recounting his meetings in Iraq with Prime Minister Maliki and how much of the sectarian violence links back to his Shi'a-dominated government and Shi'a militia forces: "[T]he reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into actions.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
"Letter from Iraq: What we left behind (Dexter Filkins)

Hadley's secret memo on Malaki (2006)

December 2006
A Dramatic Admission

President Bush says--for the first time--that the U.S. is not winning the war in Iraq.

December 2006
Iraq Study Group Report

Bush unwillingness to admit problems
Iraq Study Group executive summary

The group releases its report calling the situation "grave and deteriorating" and recommending diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran and Syria -- and handing security over to Iraqi forces so the U.S. troops can withdraw by early 2008.

President Bush reacts coolly to the report, saying he will consider its recommendations alongside other advice.

December 2006
A Meeting in the Oval Office>>>genesis of "The Surge"

On Dec. 11, two civilian academics, Stephen Biddle and Eliot Cohen, and retired four-star generals Barry McCaffrey, Jack Keane and Wayne Downing meet with Bush and Cheney in the Oval Office.

Keane advocates a plan, crafted with military historian Frederick Kagan, to use a troop surge to clear and hold several neighborhoods in Baghdad.

The plan is a fundamental departure: tens of thousands of troops clearing Sunni insurgents and Shi'a militia door-to-door, and much higher casualites on all sides.


January 2007
New Plan, New Leadership

In an address to the nation, President Bush concedes current strategy is failing and announces a new plan: a surge of 20,000 troops to secure Baghdad, based on Frederick Kagan and Gen. Keane's thinking.

Bush Announces Iraq Troop Surge - 2007 | Today in History | 10 Jan

Interviews: Can the Surge work?

Frederick Kagan
A Plan for Victory in Iraq

To implement the new strategy, Gen. Casey is replaced by Gen. Petraeus; CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid is replaced by Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific; Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad is replaced by Ryan Cocker.

A new plan and a new general (Petraeus replaces Casey) for Iraq

February 2007
Security Situation "Daunting"

The National Intelligence Council issues a National Intelligence Estimate. It finds that "Iraqi society's growing polarization, the persistent weakness of the security forces and the state in general, and all sides' ready recourse to violence are collectively driving an increase in communal and insurgent violence and political extremism." If these trends cannot be reversed, the report warns, "[T]he overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006."

April 2007
Surge of Troops Continues -- As Does Violence

The surge will not be fully deployed until July '07. Gen. Petraeus says he will issue a report in September on the progress of the Baghdad security plan, which the administration will then review.

Meanwhile, despite an initial drop in sectarian killings, spectacular attacks continue to rock Baghdad. On April 12, a suicide bomber targets the Parliament cafeteria inside the Green Zone, injuring 22 and killing MP Muhammad Awad. On April 18, nearly 200 people are killed in a series of bombings in Baghdad. It is the deadliest day in the capital since the start of the U.S. troop surge.