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Mindless in Iraq

I arrived in Baghdad on April 14, 2003, as a news consultant to the ABC investigative team led by veteran correspondent Brian Ross. Before the war, Brian had broadcast a profile of Uday and one of his first stops in Baghdad was at Uday’s riverside residence. In the basement of the partially looted house, Bob Baer, another ABC news consultant, made an astounding discovery, the personnel files of the Saddam Fedayeen. We were amazed that the military had not inspected or secured such an obvious location and Ross made that point in his exclusive ABC news report. ABC had no further use for the files; but they had obvious value for the US military, containing as they did the names and addresses of the main resistance to the American occupation. I had thought Ross’s story would arouse some interest from the Pentagon but there was no reaction. I then called Paul Wolfowitz’s office to see if I could discreetly hand them over to the military. (I was still a professor at the National War College—and therefore an employee of the Defense Department—and wanted to help.) Although we were staying in the Ishtar Sheraton, a hotel guarded by US troops, the deputy secretary of defense could not arrange to pick up these documents before I had to leave the city.

In the three weeks that followed Baghdad’s fall, I was able to go unchallenged into sites of enormous intelligence value, including the Foreign Ministry, Uday’s house, and a wiretap center right across Firdos Square from the Sheraton. All three had many sensitive documents but even weeks after the takeover, the only people to take an interest in these document caches were looters, squatters (who burned wiretap transcripts for lighting), journalists, Baathists, Iraqi factions looking for dirt on political rivals, and (possibly) agents of countries hostile to the United States. Neither the Pentagon nor the CIA had a workable plan to safeguard and exploit the vast quantities of intelligence that were available for the taking in Iraq’s capital. That information might have provided insight into terrorism—the Foreign Ministry documents included names of jihadists who had come into Iraq before the war—and the incipient insurgency.

As we now know, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon had no plan to secure any part of Baghdad. It allowed looters to destroy Iraq’s governmental infrastructure and to steal thousands of tons of high explosives, weapons, and radioactive materials. And it had no coherent plan for Iraq’s postwar governance. Gordon and Trainor retell very clearly the now familiar story (at least to readers of The New York Review) of the Bush administration’s cavalier approach to postwar issues, but they also provide stunning insights into one key aspect of the postwar failure: the decision to invade Iraq with too few troops.

In late 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld convened a meeting in his Pentagon office to discuss the military campaign beyond Afghanistan. Lieutenant General Greg Newbold, the deputy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff responsible for operations, outlined OPLAN 1003-98, the contingency plan for invading Iraq. Gordon and Trainor describe what happened next:

As Newbold outlined the plan, which called for as many as 500,000 troops, it was clear that Rumsfeld was growing increasingly irritated. For Rumsfeld, the plan required too many troops and supplies and took far too long to execute. It was, Rumsfeld said, the product of old thinking and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the military.

[The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B.] Myers asked Rumsfeld how many troops he thought might be needed. The defense secretary said in exasperation that he did not see why more than 125,000 troops would be required and even that was probably too many. Rumsfeld’s reaction was dutifully passed to the United States Central Command.

Trainor and Gordon present a devastating picture of Rumsfeld as a bully. Convinced of his own brilliance, Rumsfeld freely substituted his often hastily formed opinions for the considered judgments of his military professionals. He placed in the most senior positions compliant yes-men, like Myers, and punished those who questioned his casually formed judgments. He enjoyed belittling his subordinates. The day before the September 11 attacks, Rumsfeld told a Pentagon meeting that the Defense Department bureaucracy “disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk.” His aides followed the same approach: Steve Cambone, Rumsfeld’s closest aide, “jested that Rumsfeld thought the Army’s problems could be solved by lining up fifty of its generals in the Pentagon and gunning them down.”

It was not an atmosphere that encouraged dissent. But to their everlasting discredit, America’s most senior generals did not stand up to Rumsfeld as he and his ideologues went forward with a plan they knew would not work—at least not until after they had retired and the consequences of Rumsfeld’s careless approach were blindingly obvious. Greg Newbold, who later joined the revolt of the generals, told Gordon and Trainor of his reaction to Rumsfeld’s 125,000-troop figure:

My only regret is that at the time I did not say “Mr. Secretary, if you try to put a number on a mission like this you may cause enormous mistakes…. Give the military what you would like to see them do, and then let them come up with it. I was the junior guy in the room, but I regret not saying it.”

Men who had put their lives on the line in combat were mostly unwilling to put their careers on the line to speak out against a plan based on numbers pulled out of the air by a cranky sixty-nine-year-old.

Fortunately for the US troops who had to invade Iraq, they were initially up against an adversary who was also convinced of his own military genius. Saddam Hussein knew it made no strategic sense for the US to invade Iraq and therefore he assumed it wouldn’t happen. He had maintained ambiguity about whether he had WMDs not because he had something to hide but to intimidate the two enemies about whom he really was worried, the Iranians and Iraq’s Shiite majority.

Even after the invasion began, according to Gordon and Trainor, Saddam could not quite believe the United States intended to go all the way to Baghdad. He did not want to destroy bridges that might have slowed the American advance (since they would be needed to move troops to put down an expected Shiite uprising) and he devised his own plan of concentric circles for the defense of the capital. Iraqi Lieutenant General Raad Majid al-Hamdani identified the Karbala Gap—an agricultural area between Milh Lake and the city of Karbala—as a critical bottleneck for the undermanned American invasion force and sought to redeploy two Republican Guard divisions to take on the enemy. Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s more sober son, explained that the plan for the defense of the capital had been decided and Hamdani’s job was to carry it out. Thus the two opposing armies had plans dictated by armchair strategists both of whom made the mistake of assuming the enemy would think as they would.

Saddam could not imagine that the United States would see an advantage in replacing him with a pro-Iranian, Shiite-dominated regime. Knowing very little about American politics, he could not grasp the ideological fervor of the Pentagon neoconservatives who believed Iraq’s democratic transformation would revolutionize the Middle East. Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives could not imagine that Iraqis would not embrace liberation and pro-Western democracy and they assumed that both the invasion and occupation to follow would be easy. For the American generals, to challenge the petty tyrant on the Potomac could have ended their careers; for their Iraqi counterparts, taking on the tyrant on the Tigris could have ended their lives.


In Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco, David L. Phillips puts forward the thesis, now widely accepted among the war’s critics, that the State Department had a plan for postwar Iraq which Rumsfeld’s Pentagon ignored. Phillips was a part-time special adviser to the State Department who worked on the Future of Iraq Project, a $5 million State Department effort, initiated in March 2002, to involve Iraqi exiles (and the Kurds) in deliberations about the country’s future. The project ultimately produced thirteen reports running to more than two thousand pages on a variety of postwar issues from oil to security. The most contentious, however, related to Iraq’s political future. Phillips provides a clearly written account of the contest between Ahmad Chalabi, who wanted an interim government to be selected from among the exiles before the invasion, and the State Department, which wanted Iraqis both to commit themselves to a unified state and also to accept that most of the detailed arrangements for postwar governance would be left for the future.

Phillips argues that the State Department project provided a coherent strategy for postwar Iraq that the Pentagon neoconservatives recklessly rejected without providing any alternative plan of their own. That is debatable. Many in the State Department saw the project as a make-work exercise intended to keep Iraqi exiles busy. The Kurds thought it irrelevant, and thus allowed the political project to go forward without reference to their core demand for continued de facto independence. And Ryan Crocker, the State Department official directly responsible for the project, later told Jerry Bremer, the US administrator for Iraq, that “it was never intended as a postwar plan.”

The Bush administration, however, used the Future of Iraq Project to deceive an anxious Congress into believing that it had a plan for the postwar period. At a February 11, 2003, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the future of Iraq, Under Secretary of State Marc Grossman told the committee that “last March the Bush administration announced and has stepped out on what we call a Future of Iraq Project…not to have an academic discussion but to consider thoughts and plans for what can be done immediately.” The project was, said Grossman, a roadmap for Iraq’s political future: “One of the reasons that we have spent so much time and so much effort on these Future of Iraq Projects, so that we have a way forward, we have an idea for a constitution, we have an idea for laws.” Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s number three and the administration’s point man for postwar planning in Iraq, seconded Grossman’s endorsement of the project.

Three months later, Jerry Bremer arrived in Baghdad to be Iraq’s postwar administrator. The Bush administration never told him the Future of Iraq Project existed; by his own account, he learned about it in the press much later. Fortunately for President Bush, members of Congress have short memories and no one has called his officials to task for grossly misrepresenting a project they themselves never took seriously.

Right-wing reviewers savaged Losing Iraq on the grounds that Phillips had not traveled to Iraq during the reconstruction period about which he writes and that much of the book is drawn from press accounts. In fact, the first 120 pages (out of 224 pages of text) are largely based on the author’s personal observations of a dysfunctional administration, which is why his book makes conservatives so angry. Phillips, a longtime human rights advocate for Iraq’s Kurds, made two trips to Iraqi Kurdistan before the war (in 1992 and 2002). The Pentagon-sponsored tours favored by so many experts—which Phillips is accused of avoiding—take place within a cocoon so removed from the realities of Iraq as to be worse than worthless.

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