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Iraq: What Went Wrong


The decisive phase of the American campaign to invade Iraq and seize Baghdad was remarkably successful. Basically, the operation succeeded because of the competence of the fighting units, especially the men and women handling weapons and equipment. Without the edge their abilities gave us, the air forces could not have hit the Iraqi forces effectively on the ground; nor could the ground forces have advanced through the Republican Guards so quickly and with such light casualties. The US commanders’ role was to shape that competence and apply it to the situation at hand. This they did brilliantly.

But there were also problems that should not be ignored. First, the military plan took unnecessary risks, because it skimped on the forces made available to the commanders. And while the level of forces proved adequate for defeating the Iraqi military, the central idea in military operations is effectiveness, not efficiency. Military operations should not be run like businesses, which have predictable requirements and aim to minimize the costs of meeting them. Combat, especially land combat, is one of the most unpredictable of human activities. It is inherently risky, with the risks usually resulting from factors that are improbable or cannot be foreseen. Therefore, sound logic dictates the need to minimize foreseeable dangers before beginning any military operations.

Additional forces were available—they were even under orders to prepare for combat in Iraq. One more combat division, an additional force for securing the supply lines, more trucks and supply units to provide the redundancy that the inherent inefficiency of military operations requires—each would have reduced the risks. Some of the planners knew this; whether these forces would be used was the issue at the heart of the continuing tensions during the planning process. But they weren’t deployed until it was too late.

In early March, by the time it became clear that Turkey wasn’t going to permit the passage of US troops, it was too late to position a fourth combat division in Kuwait. But at least the 2nd Cavalry Regiment or additional military police units could have been airlifted into Iraq. Instead their arrival was delayed until after the crisis along the supply lines five days after the war began. It is difficult to believe that additional forces along the supply route would not have helped to prevent the kind of mistake that cost some of the soldiers of 507th Maintenance Company their lives.

The war plan’s excessive risk became clear in the postcombat stage, and here the US forces and capabilities were unequal to the task. It was the planners’ job to have anticipated the various contingencies and to make adequate provision for them, including the possibility of postwar Iraqi resistance to US occupation. The “rolling start” philosophy of the top commanders, which seemed to emerge as much from continuing deployment problems as from any strategic calculus, made this impossible. The result, at the end of major combat, was a US force that was incapable of providing security, stopping the looting and sabotage, and establishing a credible presence throughout the country—even within Baghdad. The ensuing disorder vitiated some of the boost in US credibility that was won on the battlefield, and it opened the way for deeper and more organized resistance during the following weeks.

On March 20, when combat began, the US Marines had four regiments ready to fight. The US Army had only seven combat brigades present in Kuwait—the three brigades each of the 3rd Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division, and a brigade of the 82nd Airborne—and some of the 101st was not ready to go. By April 11, when Mosul and Tikrit fell, the number of Army brigades in Iraq had increased to nine with the arrival of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. On May 1 President Bush declared an end to major combat. By the end of May the number of soldiers in the theater of operations was up to seventeen Army brigades. By then, widespread disorder left the ultimate success of the mission at increased risk, despite the extra forces that had belatedly arrived.

Some may contend that such a “rolling start,” with units being added over a period of months, is inevitable in a modern war—that building a stronger force, or starting the buildup earlier, would have sabotaged attempts to find a diplomatic solution. But the administration’s own announcements belie this concern. The deployments of forces were habitually announced long before the forces actually began to move, and their size was exaggerated, giving an impression of substantially greater numbers than would actually be engaged in fighting.

Others have suggested that the relatively small ground force was accidental, that Secretary Rumsfeld’s continued questions about the plan and deployments simply disrupted the process to such an extent that the required forces could not be delivered—and that eventually the commanders were reconciled to this situation, not wanting to face the secretary’s wrath by raising objections. Still others have suggested that the ground force was relatively small because of Rumsfeld’s insistence on holding down financial costs. That is, additional forces would be held back until they were clearly needed. And some have suggested that, by limiting ground forces, Rumsfeld was proving his point about the relative merits of special forces and air power compared to the traditional army. As one officer remarked, “He just always wanted to go light on the Army ground forces—same as in Afghanistan.” Perhaps all these factors contributed to the inadequacy of the deployed forces.

The second major criticism of the war plan—a profound flaw—concerned the endgame: it shortchanged postwar planning. Those who plan military operations for a war must take into account the aftermath. Four steps have to be considered: deployment; buildup; decisive combat; and postconflict operations. The destruction of enemy forces on the battlefield creates a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory. It is not just the defeat of the opposing army but success in the operations that follow that accomplishes the aims and intentions of the overall plan. In this case, the purposes, as enunciated by Secretary Rumsfeld, included ending the regime of Saddam Hussein, driving out and disrupting terrorist networks, finding and eliminating weapons of mass destruction, eliminating further terrorist activities, and establishing conditions for Iraq’s rapid transition to a representative government “that is not a threat to its neighbors.”

Victory requires backward planning, beginning with a definition of postwar success and then determining both the nature of the operations required and the necessary forces. Here the administration’s focus and determination on winning the war in military terms undermined the prospects for success once the country was occupied.

The Bush administration has explained the situation in postwar Iraq as a matter of assumptions that hadn’t quite worked out, “that tended to underestimate the problem.” It apparently believed that removing Saddam would remove the Baath threat, that large numbers of military and police would rally to the Americans, and that Iraqi bureaucrats would stay on the job.

In fact, the lack of preparations was partly a consequence of the leadership and decision-making within the Bush administration and partly the result of deeper forces and tendencies at work within the US government and the US military. From the beginning, the “decisive operations” (how to defeat Iraqi forces) had priority over the postwar plan (how to achieve the real objectives of establishing a secure and peaceful Iraq). The Pentagon’s military organizations concentrated on using their basic expertise—the application of military power—rather than the broader requirements inherent in the situation. This was compounded by a continuing bureaucratic struggle between State and Defense, the first cautious and circumspect, the other determined to forge ahead seemingly regardless of the issues. This was a struggle that wasn’t decided until January 2003 by the decision by the White House to give full postwar responsibilities to the Department of Defense.

Not that there was any real structure or organization to back up the military planning within the US government. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), part of the Department of State, makes contracts with outside organizations—it is not a planning and executing organization. Any semblance of the structure that had pursued nation-building in Vietnam was long gone. The Army had established the Peacekeeping Institute at its War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, but the small group of dedicated instructors there had been cut back repeatedly and was fighting a budgetary decision that would, in effect, close down the institute. Congress had established the US Institute for Peace in a burst of 1970s antiwar idealism, and it served as an important center for discussion and scholarship—but it was not a real analogue to the Air Force’s RAND, or the Navy’s Center for Naval Analyses, or the Army’s RAND Arroyo Center, each federally funded to think through the tough issues associated with the armed forces’ missions. Nor was there a bureaucratic structure dedicated to investing billions every year to improve our capacities to carry out postcombat operations. And there were no analogues to the defense industries, with their armies of consultants and lobbyists concerned to get adequate appropriations.

Recognizing the problem, the Clinton administration had at least tried to create an interagency mechanism that would bring together the full resources of the federal government to work out a sophisticated and comprehensive approach to dealing with postconflict problems. Developed pragmatically from the extensive preparations to provide an exit strategy for the US military forces in Haiti in 1994, an administrative process was set up that held each agency responsible for providing some portion of US assistance; the same process also held agencies responsible for cooperating with one another at the deputies’ level. This approach was essentially an expansion of the procedures of military staff planning and command to other government agencies, with civilian and military departments under orders to organize and accomplish certain tasks. The process was formalized as the Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 56, published in 1997. But even PDD 56 was inadequate to the breadth and intensity of the challenges involved in dealing with the problem of failed states such as Haiti.

As I went through the Pentagon to check facts before my Senate testimony on the problem in Iraq in September 2002, I was disappointed to learn that only a few discussions of postwar planning for Iraq had taken place. “Not a popular subject on the third floor [where Defense Department policy is decided by civilian leaders],” I was informed. When planning finally began that autumn, it was based on the assumption that a US invasion would be welcomed as a liberation by most Iraqis. The strength of the Baath Party and of intrinsic Iraqi nationalism were underestimated, as was the degree of factionalism among the Shiites; so, too, were the risks of covert engagement by Syria and Iran, among others, along with the fundamental risk that a largely Christian US force would not be accepted by the Iraqi people, especially if it fought its way into their country.

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