Very interesting article, and the only one I’ve seen in which the writer apparently had access to sources who knew what sort of planning was occurring. Mistakes were definitely made – and I’ve been saying for a long time that one of the main mistakes was being too “nice” in the victory – in other words, we didn’t destroy the enemy army.
Anyway, I’m interested in what people think of this article and it’s various theses:
[Article not available online]
What Went Wrong?
The miscalculations and missteps that led to the current situation in Iraq
By now, anyone who can’t recite the standard critique of what has gone wrong in the Iraq war just hasn’t been paying attention.
It goes something like this: There was no post-war planning. What little planning took place was spearheaded by the State Department, and then maliciously ignored by the ideologues at the Pentagon, who didn’t want to hear a discouraging word about managing a liberated Iraq. Consumed by Rumsfeld’s fixation on light forces, the Pentagon skimped on troop levels and ignored the advice of its commanders. Anyone who said anything inconvenient about the war was systematically punished. In this narrative, “Pentagon civilian” becomes a dirty phrase.
Almost every particular of this indictment is wrong. It has been created by liberal journalists such as James Fallows and David Rieff (with the help of disgruntled State Department leakers), entered the slipstream of conventional wisdom, and been repeated endlessly by John Kerry in the presidential campaign. These critics start from the premise that if a sparrow falls somewhere in Iraq, it must be the Pentagon’s fault.
In fact, if one is playing a 20/20 second-guessing game over Iraq, the pure Defense Department pre-war vision that wasn’t implemented would have avoided one of the pitfalls of what transpired: an occupation that alienated Iraqis and gave the U.S. sole control and responsibility over events in Iraq. The Pentagon favored the creation of an Iraqi government even before the invasion. And it pushed from the very beginning for a serious effort to train indigenous Iraqi forces, which would have given us a head start on what is now the consensus solution to Iraq’s woes: that very training, so that Iraqis can carry on the fight for their country themselves.
Obviously, mistakes have been made in Iraq, including by the Pentagon. The story of the Iraq post-war is, in part, a tale of gross intelligence failures, debilitating intramural battles, miscommunications, unintended consequences, and counterproductive half-measures. Some of these missteps were the result of the inevitable uncertainties and surprises of warfare, others of incompetence, and many of something in between. What follows is drawn from interviews with current and former officials from across the U.S. government: from Defense, State, the National Security Council, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). (Because of the sensitivity of the matters discussed, most everyone insisted on anonymity.)
If the picture portrayed here of Iraq operations is distressing, it isn’t because these sources were, or are, doubters about the Iraq war. They all supported it, and continue to do so. Many conservative defenders of the Bush administration have taken to shrugging in reaction to the course of events in Iraq, “Things always go wrong in warfare.” They do, but failing to examine the specific ways they went wrong is a cop-out. A look at the record in Iraq means confronting this hard fact: The Bush administration didn’t know what it was getting into in Iraq, and then found itself stumbling into exactly the sort of heavy-handed occupation many American officials had wanted to avoid.
‘A QUICK COLLAPSE SAVES LIVES’
The level of troops in Iraq has been a constant source of contention, and a constant point of criticism of the Pentagon. Left and Right alike have argued that in invading with 150,000 troops, the administration didn’t have adequate numbers to do the job. But every strategic choice has its benefits and drawbacks. If more troops would have enhanced security in the aftermath of the war (a debatable proposition, as we will see), the lighter and more mobile force had significant advantages in the prosecution of it. “The decision was made to collapse the regime as quickly and violently as possible,” says a senior administration official. The most important advantage of this approach, he says, was simple: “A quick collapse saves American lives and Iraqi lives.”
It served other objectives as well. It made it possible to take the oilfields ? crucial to Iraq’s rebuilding ? mostly intact before Saddam had time to destroy them. And there was the political consideration. It was thought important to avoid a drawn-out war, and the destabilizing effect it might have on the region. “You don’t want an American army slogging its way to an Arab capital,” is how one official puts it. Another official familiar with the planning explains, “We identified a large number of risks, many of which quite obviously would have been made worse ? graver, more likely to happen ? if the war were prolonged, and if we could not achieve tactical surprise.”
Amazingly enough, the U.S. did achieve such surprise. “Tommy Franks had 200,000 troops on the border of a country and still achieved tactical surprise when he invaded,” a former defense official says. “When has that ever happened before?” We gained that advantage by suffering a significant diplomatic setback. We had wanted to send the 4th Infantry Division through Turkey to northern Iraq. Turkey refused ? so the war began with the 4th Infantry Division still sitting in the Mediterranean.
“Saddam knew we were coming,” says one official. “But he didn’t know when. It appears that Saddam thought that we weren’t going to start the war without the 4th Infantry Division. There were spools of wire and explosive material for bridges and for oil facilities that had been deployed to the area but were not yet hooked up. This showed the intention ? but also that they thought they had time. That’s pretty powerful evidence of surprise.”
The theory of the war itself was borne out close to exactly. “We thought the regime was fairly brittle,” an official explains. “If we got past the major Iraqi forces in the south and along [Saddam’s] lines of communication closer to Baghdad, we could fracture the regime and not meet head-on his heaviest forces. Saddam would not be able to command and control those formations. That’s what happened.”
‘PROBABLY TOO GRACIOUS IN OUR VICTORY’
And that’s when things began to go wrong. The brilliant and successful war plan had unintended consequences. “You collapse the regime so quickly that the army, the security apparatus, ends up reconstituting because you didn’t defeat it,” an official says. The inadvertent Turkey gambit had its cost, too. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard Myers has said publicly that coming through Turkey to drive into the Sunni Triangle in force “would have helped somewhat with the current situation.” Privately, officials are more categorical. One says, “I think we are paying for that to this day.”
Bush critics would never put it this way, but a failing of the invasion plan turned out to be its excess of humanitarianism. “We wanted this to be as humane as a combat operation ? as war ? can be,” General Myers told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June. “[The idea was] to let regular Iraqi divisions [go], while destroying equipment and some of their people. If they melted away, then let them melt away, because they were conscripts, after all. So if there is a blame here, it was making some assumptions on how the Iraqi people would react to that, and I would submit we were probably too gracious in our victory in hindsight.”
This is a recurring theme. Over and over again in Iraq, the administration would demonstrate a lack of the necessary toughness to succeed: in how it conducted the initial war, how it handled the post-war looting, and how it approached the problem of restive cities such as Fallujah. Even in the post-war planning, it was the soft side of the enterprise, the potential humanitarian crisis, that was given priority. In Iraq, the conciliatory gesture, the half-measure, took priority over the work of smashing the enemy and establishing order. In this sense, the number of troops mattered less than what they were told to do, or not do.
But the most widely circulated criticism of the war is still simply that the U.S. didn’t have enough troops. In the most stilted and politicized version of this critique, the administration is said to have ignored the express wishes of its commanders. This line of attack is dependent on the mythology surrounding Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. He told a congressional committee prior to the war that it would take “several hundred thousand” troops to pacify Iraq. Critics claim that he was forced out for making this inconvenient estimate. But Shinseki had already been on the outs with Rumsfeld for his resistance to the defense secretary’s transformation plans. He retired on schedule, which it had been clear he would do well before his statement about troop levels. Even if the U.S. did need more troops in Iraq, the Shinseki number of several hundred thousand ? is that 300,000? more? ? was clearly absurd.
Immediately after the war, widespread looting occurred. This is taken as a sign not just that there weren’t enough troops, but that there was inadequate post-war planning. “Not preventing the looting was a huge mistake,” says former CPA official Michael Rubin (an occasional contributor to NR and National Review Online), “but the problem wasn’t a lack of planning on the part of DoD civilians or the State Department.” CENTCOM divides a war, from pre-deployment to the post-war, into four phases. There was plenty of planning for Phase 3, the decisive operations of the war, and Phase 4, post-war stability operations. But the transition between the two was fumbled. “We can do all the planning we like,” says Rubin, “but someone needs to make the call as to when Phase 3 ends.”
CENTCOM basically said that the fall of Baghdad did not bring the end of Phase 3 because there wasn’t security yet. Jay Garner, who was charged with leading the post-war as head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), said there wasn’t security yet because Phase 4 operations that would reassure and win over the population hadn’t started. “This is a very hazy, fog-of-war transition to make,” says a senior administration official. “It was clearly a stumbling block.” It was an area that could have used Rumsfeld’s attention, and that of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whose job it is to impose coherence on U.S. national security policy.
At least some policy staff from State and Defense wanted commanders on the ground to guard buildings and shoot the looters, according to one official involved. But commanders were reluctant to put their men at risk for what they thought were just political objectives after they had already won the war. “People below Rumsfeld,” says the official, “were saying, ‘You have to shoot the looters,’ but he didn’t want to overrule his commanders.”
Tommy Franks and his team didn’t give the impression that they were eager to undertake stability operations. “Franks was supposed to plan for what CENTCOM called Phase 4, the period after major combat operations,” says an official. “He knows that he has a responsibility for safety and stability in the country. He obviously concluded ? I’m inferring ? that he would have the resources available to fulfill this mission as the military occupier after major combat operations.” But this official adds, “He was a Phase 3 kind of general.” Another official says, “One of the unanswered questions is, ‘What was Tommy Franks doing?’”
“Did we need more MPs [military police]?” Franks deputy Gen. Mike DeLong asks. “Yes. But we were funneling all our people through Kuwait and we couldn’t get the MPs through there fast enough.” Just prior to the war, Saddam had emptied the jails. “We were still fighting the war,” says DeLong, “with all those criminals loose. We can’t get our MPs in fast enough, but we don’t want to pull out our front-line troops to guard buildings because they’re still fighting Saddam’s forces in other parts of the country.” They guarded buildings they thought would be targeted, such as the key ministries, but other buildings were left defenseless.
The war ended on May 1. On May 22, the retirement of Tommy Franks was announced, a pretty stark statement of his lack of interest in Phase 4. “I was stunned by that, stunned,” says one senior administration official. DeLong explains, “We had been fighting since the [attack on the USS] Cole, three years without a day off. There was a time we had to go. We didn’t have any more blood to give.”
Even if the commanders had been enthusiastic about Phase 4, stopping the looting wouldn’t have been easy. “You couldn’t put a soldier on every street corner in a city the size of Los Angeles and expect to stop everything,” says an administration official. More important, it was hard psychologically for officials who believed they were liberating a country to turn around and crack down on civilians. “It’s like sending troops into Warsaw Square to arrest people for being too unruly in 1989,” says a former defense official. A former CPA official says, “There was a real sense of euphoria right after the fall of the statue. You would have stamped out any goodwill right at the start.” An administration official explains, “It’s very hard to say what would have been the right thing to do, when American forces were told in the lead-up to the war that we didn’t want to impose ourselves as occupiers, that they have a police force, that they understand the rule of law, and have a civic infrastructure that will provide for stability.”
‘OUR INTELLIGENCE WAS VERY LIMITED’
All that proved wrong. Even though everyone knew that the military had to provide for stability and that there was a risk of public disturbances, the breadth and ferocity of the looting came as a shock. “We had no idea people would run into the bathrooms of public buildings and run off with the toilets and the sinks,” says one official. “It’s not something we contemplated as a possibility. We could not believe that the population would, in a revenge-like manner, strip away all the vestiges of Saddam’s government and that government’s infrastructure.” He adds, “None of the estimates I saw anticipated that kind of looting.”
It was a blow to the Iraqis’ confidence in the U.S. It led to a conspiracy theory about how we wanted to punish the Iraqis through disorder, and it meant that people were sent home from work because their office equipment had been stolen. “It created a general atmosphere of lawlessness from which we didn’t recover,” says a former occupation official. Larry Diamond, another former official, argues, “That sent the signal of a lack of control that gave a lot of ideas to the jihadists and insurgents.”
Missing the possibility of such widespread looting was just one way in which the intelligence was flawed. “Our intelligence about Iraq was very limited,” says a senior administration official. “The intelligence community got a lot of things wrong, not simply the WMD. They did not understand the exact role of Iraqi police. They thought the police would be usable. We had no other basis for knowing that, to the contrary, police were viewed as political and an instrument of oppression.” And “that was the basis of ORHA, of the CPA,” says another official. “We based the plan on standing up the Iraqi police. It turned out that the corruption went so deep into the ranks that the police were useless. It meant a major recalibration of our plan that is going on to this day. It was an intelligence failure of the first magnitude.”
Then there was the state of the infrastructure. One official involved in post-war planning recalls seeing the state of the infrastructure, which the U.S. had gone out of its way to avoid bombing during the war, on his first post-war visit to Iraq: “We were shocked.” He explains, “Saddam had skimmed the money off the Oil for Food program and spent it on his palaces and basically nothing else. That was never picked up on. The infrastructure was so dilapidated. It added billions and billions to the reconstruction job.”
Combine the rottenness of the infrastructure with the looting, and we were left to start almost from scratch. “When that violence, that looting, petered out,” says an official, “we were left with an essential-services infrastructure [water, sewer, electricity] that was archaic to start with and now almost destroyed, and a governmental infrastructure [police, the ministries] that had abandoned its posts.” The food-distribution network was so backward and irrational, it was almost incomprehensible. As one official puts it, “It was a process which a First World person from, say, USAID, would look at and say, ‘I don’t even know how a person would work through these problems.’” This was how Iraqis did things, he notes, “despite being touted as one of the most educated populaces in the Middle East.”
That all this went wrong has created the idea that there was no post-war planning, or that all of it was based on a willfully rosy scenario. “We did a lot of thinking about what could go wrong in Iraq,” says one official. “The standard line in the fever swamps is, ‘We had one source of information in Iraq ? Ahmad Chalabi [founder and leader of the main exile group, the Iraqi National Congress]. He told us everything was going to be a cakewalk.’ As if we are complete idiots.”
‘DOZENS AND DOZENS OF BRIEFINGS’
Before the war, Rumsfeld had been willing to look at the worst case. He prepared a memo for the president that listed everything defense officials could think of that might go wrong. “Literally, for two or three pages,” says an official familiar with the memo, “with an item per line, he went through all the things that could go wrong with a war in Iraq: mass starvation, large numbers of international refugees, the blowing up of oil facilities, Scud-missile attacks on Israel, the overthrow of governments throughout the region, terrorist attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere, and on and on. He produced maybe 50, 60 of these hair-raising possibilities.”
In late summer 2002, the NSC created the Executive Steering Group (ESG), a high-level body tasked with preparing for the post-war. “There were dozens and dozens of briefings, for vetting and approval, regarding the post-war,” says an administration official. Interagency planning groups ? the Iraq Pol-Mil Planning Cell, the Coalition Working Group, the Humanitarian Reconstruction Group, and the Energy Infrastructure Working Group ? fed into the ESG. As did the work of other planners at State, Treasury, Commerce, CIA, OMB, and USAID. The ESG’s work, in turn, went up the chain from the deputies to the principals to the president. “It was the standard NSC flow,” says an official.
In January 2003, Bush signed NSPD-24, which led to the creation of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, charged with implementing the planning on the ground in Iraq and to be run by Garner. In addition, the military had its own planning group, the so-called JTF-4 that produced a 300-page op-order for Phase 4, the post-war operation.
Bush critics pretend that there was no planning besides that which took place through the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project. It is alleged that the Pentagon ignored all the important planning done under this project for ideological and turf reasons. But the sprawling project was uneven, sometimes had an academic air, and didn’t create an action plan, certainly not to deal with the dire problems that would face the coalition in Baghdad. The portions of its work that were considered relevant weren’t ignored. They were briefed up to the higher levels of the administration, and used.
“Because it was the State Department, the project had a lot to do with justice and human rights,” says an official, “not so much with looking at basic services.” Bush critics have portrayed it as a panacea, but “it was not the answer to Phase 4. If we had taken the Future of Iraq Project and given it to ORHA and said, ‘You can’t deviate from this,’ we still would have had a lot of the problems we encountered.”
Some of the post-war planning turned out just fine ? for instance, how to avoid a catastrophic collapse in the Iraqi currency, the dinar. “If we go in there and do it wrong,” says one official, “we could destroy the value of billions of dollars of currency.” But the planning overall was poorly coordinated. “Everyone thought they were doing all the planning,” says one official of the disparate efforts. And a lot of it turned out to be for the wrong thing. The administration was prepared for an epic humanitarian disaster. “We were ready to take in Iraqi displaced persons,” says one official, “because we thought that was the most likely scenario.” Instead, public disorder was the biggest challenge. “They were prepared for a worst-case scenario on the humanitarian front and not on the political front and the security front,” says Larry Diamond.
The level of the security challenge rendered a lot of the planning moot. According to one official, “The planning was so advanced that we were planning for the future bases of U.S. forces, where they would stay during Phase 4. We were laying out training ranges, making sure the soldiers would be able to continue their training while they would be in stability operations and humanitarian and civil-affairs work, helping the Iraqis stand back up their government. But we didn’t know we would have to provide as much security as we would have to provide.”
‘WHAT ARMITAGE DOES FOR A LIVING’
And so, Jay Garner, the retired three-star general heading ORHA, was thrown into an Iraq that had, against expectations, been looted bare, where the police had disappeared, and where infrastructure was decrepit or destroyed. There were still other surprises for Garner. “Another thing that the intelligence community told us was that there would be whole units of the Iraqi armed forces to come over to our side,” says an official. “Jay Garner went there with an expectation that we were going to be able to use the Iraqi military for reconstruction.”
Garner handled a bad situation badly. Rumsfeld had tapped him because of his work on Operation Provide Comfort, relieving the Kurds after the first Iraq war. But the humanitarian crisis he might have been suited to handle hadn’t materialized. Instead he had a huge political and security problem on his hands.
He talked, absurdly, of convening a constitutional convention, writing a constitution, and holding an election all by August. He had a political tin ear, and the U.S. military didn’t take him seriously. General DeLong says, “Initially we didn’t get a powerful person into Iraq. Garner didn’t have the muscle” to officiate between the military services and the State Department. “Here was a retired three-star general in there and not all the other generals thought he was that person” ? the powerful person necessary.
Garner had expected to stay for 90 days, but was ushered out more quickly. If he was a failure, he wasn’t a Pentagon failure. He surrounded himself with State Department and USAID officials. State not only waged turf battles (as did the Pentagon), but often won them. One official explains, “This is what [Colin Powell deputy Dick] Armitage does for a living: ‘I want my guys in Baghdad.’ That was out of control, and the DoD was just as guilty of that, but Armitage was winning these fights hand over fist.”
State Department official Ryan Crocker, head of the Near East bureau, led Garner’s political team. “That’s the bureau that produced the Future of Iraq Project,” says a different official. “There wasn’t even an OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense] person doing political advice with Garner. If the people who did the Future of Iraq project think that their stuff was not picked up as it should have been, then what they’re saying is that it wasn’t picked up by the head of their own bureau in the State Department.”
Garner was replaced by former ambassador Jerry Bremer, who was more a creature of the White House than the Pentagon, but ended up being something of an independent operator. With his arrival, the U.S. lurched into a full-fledged military occupation of a country in much worse shape than it had imagined. This represented a total defeat of the Pentagon’s vision, which had been to avoid, or minimize, a U.S. occupation, by creating an Iraqi provisional government before the invasion or immediately after it. This was one of the many clashes between the State Department and Defense. State had wanted a Baghdad conference six or seven weeks after the occupation of Baghdad. The Department of Defense had wanted to set up an immediate government.
“We wanted to build on the theme of liberation, rather than occupation, and hand over more authority sooner. We would not have had an occupation government. That idea did not prevail. There was a lot of opposition throughout the government,” says a defense official.
This would not necessarily have meant installing Ahmad Chalabi in power. The original conception was for a group of seven exiles, with a slot for a governor from each province as it became liberated. This approach was approved by consensus at a conference of the Iraqi opposition in February 2003 at Salahuddin in Iraqi Kurdistan. This meeting would have given the process ? had it not been tossed aside ? an Iraqi imprimatur. Such a government could have created the same situation as when sovereignty was handed over on June 28, 2004, only much sooner. Instead the compromise forged by the NSC had the U.S. picking a governing council after it was already occupying Iraq and running it according to the international law of occupation, thanks to the first post-war U.N. resolution (the British had insisted on the law-of-occupation language).
“The philosophy Rumsfeld had was that the goal should be from the very beginning to empower the Iraqis,” says a former defense official. “If there is a legitimate criticism, it’s the CPA being so heavy-handed for as long as it was. It was a violation of Rumsfeld’s own principle that Iraq was for the Iraqis.” Says another official: “That we would have a Jerry Bremer figure, that got people thinking of an occupation in Iraq. That was the fundamental error.”
Bremer planned on a U.S. occupation that would last 18-24 months, much too long in the minds of many Pentagon officials. “We wanted it as short as possible,” says one of them. “We eventually got it turned around.” In the fall of 2003, Bremer was called back to Washington and the plan that eventually turned sovereignty back over to the Iraqis was adopted.
‘THEY TOOK THE URINALS OUT OF THE BARRACKS’
The problem was that Bremer was taking ownership of a failed society, and the occupation would inevitably be tarred with its failures. As the spring of last year turned into the summer, the mood began to sour, with the security situation worsening, with reconstruction therefore slowing, and with the sheer reality of the situation sinking in. A senior administration official explains, “An Iraqi sees that the sewage isn’t any better, that there isn’t 24/7 electricity and gas isn’t available at a quarter a liter, and he says, ‘I thought this would turn out differently.’ He looks at raw sewage running down the middle of his street and says, ‘This hasn’t met my expectations.’”
This is by no means to say that Bremer per se was the problem. “The situation was nothing like we expected. There was much more resistance, much more violence, and much less control,” says Larry Diamond. “We just weren’t prepared.” Bremer inherited an impossible situation ? he was thrown into Iraq literally ten days after getting the assignment from the White House ? and his powerful persona was needed to fill the post-Garner vacuum. “The good thing was,” says an official, “you needed an assertion of authority. You needed somebody with a strong hand.”
Everyone credits Bremer with great personal bravery, an ability to make tough decisions, and extraordinary organizational skills. His vision of the country’s future was dogged and correct: a unified, democratic, and federal post-Saddam Iraq. Two of his biggest decisions have been widely panned, but were probably the right ones, even if they inevitably had drawbacks as well as benefits.
Bremer officially disbanded the Iraqi army, which the conventional wisdom says created disaffection that helped feed the insurgency. But the army had really disbanded itself. It was, in its essence, an instrument of repression. Shia conscripts weren’t going to serve another day under the lash of Sunni officers. “They took the urinals out of the barracks,” is how one official puts it, “and went home.” Michael Rubin breaks it down this way: “The Shia conscripts left; the officers with skills went out and started their own businesses; the corrupt and incompetent officers stayed.” The U.S. got a little taste of how trying to maintain Saddam’s army would have worked in its April 2004 deal with former Baathist officers in Fallujah, who promised to police the city and promptly faded away or joined the other side.
The other Bremer decision generally considered a mistake is his de-Baathification order. It deprived the country of experienced governing talent, and the order eventually would, probably rightly, be moderated in its implementation. But given the realities of Iraq, something along the lines of Bremer’s order was necessary. The future of the new Iraq could not be in the minority Sunnis attached to the benefits of Baathism, but had to be in the majority Shia and in the Kurds. These groups would have been justifiably alarmed at any attempt to reestablish the old order. “The decision was fundamentally correct,” says one official. “Eighty percent of the country is Shia and Kurd. If we had looked like we were reconstituting the regime, we would have had a massive explosion in the rest of the country.”
Former Bremer aide Dan Senor says of both decisions, on the army and de-Baathification, “The reason that the Shia let their guard down, the reason that the Kurds let their guard down, was that they saw we were taking serious steps to keep the Baathists from reemerging. If we hadn’t done that, there may have been severe retribution against the Sunnis. And the Shia and Kurds might not have cooperated with us. Those symbolic steps were very important early on.”
There would have been resistance in the Sunni heartland whatever Bremer did, since it appears that fading into the Sunni triangle was the strategy of the Saddamists from the beginning. Here was yet another unanticipated event that upset the administration’s plans and expectations. “If there was any mistake we made, we thought that they would surrender, and we were wrong,” says an administration official. The enemy had never been defeated, a rather large failing. This was one of the crucial differences between Japan and Germany on one hand and Iraq on the other ? Japan and Germany had been crushed by the U.S., and so were ready to be compliant with their occupiers. Iraq never had this psychology of defeat.
The Baathists lived to fight another day, in an insurgency that was yet another surprise. The New York Times recently reported on an intelligence document that allegedly warned of an insurgency. But that warning was in the final sentence of a 38-page report. It was not one of the report’s key findings. “As far as I know,” says an official familiar with the pre-war information, “I don’t recall anyone at State or the CIA talking about this kind of insurgency.”
The insurgency prompted yet more calls for more troops. But the insurgency was mainly an intelligence and political problem not susceptible to solution by sheer numbers. “You hear it all the time, but it’s true,” says a former CPA official. “The generals weren’t asking for more troops. I was in plenty of meetings with them, and they weren’t asking for more troops.”
Initially, the U.S. didn’t take the insurgency seriously enough. Then it tried to crush it on its own, failing to appreciate that it had begun to take on a nationalist character (partly fueled by the occupation) and that having Iraqi forces to deal with it was politically essential. The initial efforts to train Iraqi forces were proved inadequate by the Najaf and Fallujah revolts this April. Iraq wasn’t originally thought to need a proper army, so the emphasis was on training police to handle street crime. When the insurgency began to intensify, the police were incapable of handling it. Now there is much more intensive training, but the U.S. is behind the curve on a task everyone agrees is fundamental.
Given how long training has taken, it would have made sense to have a head-start prior to the war. Again, this was the Pentagon’s idea. It had plans to train up to 10,000 Iraqis out of the country, creating a major asset in the form of people who knew the language and knew the society ? who were Iraqis. “Rumsfeld from the very beginning was focused on training Iraqi forces,” says a former defense official. But military commanders considered them only a potential nuisance underfoot and resisted. The State Department worried that training Iraqi forces, as a harbinger of the coming conflict, would undermine diplomacy at the U.N., and questioned what would be done with them if there were no war. In the end, the U.S. trained a mere 71 Iraqis.
Iraqi forces were what was needed to deal with nettlesome problems like Fallujah. There had been some sort of major security incident in Fallujah almost every month from the end of 2003 until April 2004, when things came to a head with the murder and mutilation of four U.S. contractors. The story of how the Marines started to take Fallujah, and then stopped, is murky. Even senior administration officials are confused about how things came to pass. “Somebody panicked,” says one official, “and it was a mistake.”
The Marines were reluctant to go in, but did so on the basis of a plan they had told the civilian leadership wouldn’t create massive civilian casualties. When the Marines attacked, reports of such casualties began to filter back to the CPA. These reports created a political firestorm, with Sunnis threatening to withdraw from the political process, which was then focused on creating a new interim government. Bremer called off the assault, which may have been just days from achieving its objective.
The reason for stopping was understandable, but in retrospect it was disastrously shortsighted. It led to an increase in car bombings around the country as the insurgents worked from their safe haven. The terror attacks have eaten away at the credibility of the Iraqi government and the U.S., while radicals have worked to replicate the success of Fallujah elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle. The Fallujah Brigade, charged with policing Fallujah, proved a fiasco. The top U.S. commanders in Iraq, Generals Abizaid and Sanchez, hadn’t known the Marines were creating the brigade of former Baathists, and neither had Bremer.
Fallujah is one of Prime Minister Allawi’s major challenges to this day. But Allawi himself is a bright spot in the U.S. experience in Iraq. The fact that he was an exile demonstrates that one of the arguments wielded against the Pentagon ? “Exiles can never govern Iraq” ? was false. A lot of the dispute, of course, had to do with one exile in particular, Chalabi. “The folks that were deemed to be acceptable leaders by the Department of Defense were not deemed to be acceptable by the State Department, and when those folks were brought in [to Iraq] in the middle of April , we found out that they did not have the kind of support that might have been anticipated,” says a senior administration official.
Chalabi probably wasn’t the man to run Iraq, and if the Pentagon didn’t insist on anointing him ? as officials now maintain ? he was certainly high on their list. He didn’t have political support on the ground. “He had no street credibility,” says a former CPA official. “If you ask people about him, you would hear one of three things, or maybe all three: 1) He’s a crook; 2) he’s not one of us; 3) he’s a stooge of the U.S.” In any case, he lost all support from the U.S. government when he was quoted in the Daily Telegraph saying any erroneous information that members of his group might have given the U.S. about WMD prior to the war was fine, that they were “heroes in error.”
Ideally, State and Defense could have compromised around an initial Iraqi government headed by someone other than Chalabi. But the compromise forged by the National Security Council produced Garner, and then Bremer, who ended up running Iraq. Again, that wasn’t necessarily Bremer’s fault. He couldn’t give more authority to the Iraqi Governing Council that was formed after the war because its leadership proved so dysfunctional. It wasn’t until the process that selected Allawi to head the interim government that some legitimate and responsible Iraqi politics began to take hold. CPA officials felt it wouldn’t have been responsible to hand over the country to someone right after the war, because Iraqis weren’t ready. But the alternative ? the occupation ? was no bargain.
That captures the way the U.S. experience in Iraq has been, in part, a tragedy ? a series of choices that could never be entirely right. The initial invasion proved brilliant, confounding the critics who predicted months of heavy fighting and thousands of casualties? Well, at least some of the American lives it saved upfront may have been lost later on, confronting the Baathists who got away. Disbanding the army alienated the Sunnis? Well, keeping it would have likely alienated the Shias, who could have mounted a revolt that would have chased the U.S. from the country. Every decision had its tradeoffs.
But that is not to say that things couldn’t have been handled better. Intelligence will never be perfect, and making that the standard is a formula for inaction. But the doctrine of preemption is folly without a first-rate covert service and a CIA that is better and more aggressive than it is today. The U.S. military has to take a more lively interest in post-combat stability operations, if the problems of the first year and a half in Iraq are to be avoided elsewhere. And the U.S. government must cohere in a way Bush’s National Security Council has often failed to make it cohere in Iraq. “It has been a mess out of which no coherent policy has been made,” says a distressed official. “It has been a miasma that no one has been in charge of. You can either say that the president wasn’t in control, or you can say that the number-two person wasn’t in control, and that’s Condi.”
For all that, the administration still hasn’t lost Iraq, and, if it stays the course, it may well prevail. That it has not lost is testament to the skill and courage of the American soldier and to the Iraqis’ desire ? despite everything ? to create something better. In this way, President Bush’s vision for the country has been vindicated. Prime Minister Allawi has exercised responsible leadership, not only abiding, but working closely with the Americans. “The most powerful force getting us closer to a policy has been Allawi,” says a U.S. official. The major religious figure in the country, Ayatollah Sistani, has been determined in favor of a democratic Iraq, and the performance of properly trained Iraqi forces, in places like Najaf and Samarra, has provided encouraging signs that they may yet be ready to step up to the plate.
There is no taking away the accomplishment of toppling Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration has been resolute in the face of all the difficulties, including, yes, its own missteps. If Iraq yet proves a success ? creating a decent government in that strategically central country ? the mistakes of the war’s aftermath will be seen as speed bumps, inevitable mistakes and readjustments inherent in any grand enterprise.
Bush’s critics, meanwhile, have had the luxury of irresponsibility that comes with being out of office, and have taken full advantage of it. They have indulged paranoid fantasies about the administration’s “neocons,” failed to offer constructive criticism, waged demagogic attacks based on Halliburton and all manner of other nonsense, fudged their answer to the all-important question of whether they would have invaded, and pounced on every hint of realistic analysis out of the administration (e.g., Rumsfeld’s recent obvious statement that the Iraqi elections might not be perfect). Nothing in their performance during the Iraq episode marks them as deserving of power.
That Bush is the best thing going on national security makes it all the more imperative that he get better. “Every indication I have is that Bush is extremely unhappy with how this has gone for obvious reasons,” says one official. “I think there is going to be vigorous retooling in a second term.” He should get at it as soon as possible, assuming he has the opportunity. There’s a war to be won, after all.