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.

Thus all the preparations for postwar Iraq by the Office of Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance under the leadership of retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner focused on the less critical tasks. The primary problems, the restoration of order and a sense of legitimacy, had to be dealt with before reconstruction could begin. Moreover, Jay Garner was not only left without adequate communications, transportation, security, and staff resources to face these problems; instead of working directly for the President or secretary of defense, he was also subordinated to US military commanders in the region.

The effect was to leave Garner’s mission isolated, with only the merest trace of UN authority, and scrambling to persuade reluctant allies and friendly states to provide the police, troops, translators, and civilian reconstruction assistance that could lessen the risks to US forces and share the burdens of reconstruction and nation-building. No program legitimized by international authority existed to replace the obsolete laws of Saddam Hussein, or to deploy peacekeepers to the provinces. Nor was there any mechanism, beyond direct appeal, to draw other nations into the mission. The Bush administration failed to draw on the full range of resources and support that could have been made available.

The irony is that some members of Congress, having carped for years to the military about their engagement in nation-building, having complained about “mission-creep” and “burden-sharing,” now had to support the American military as it coped with this mission virtually alone. It was (and remains) a mission far more difficult, dangerous, and open-ended than any undertaken previously.

This brings us to the third major criticism of the government’s plan: in attempting to retain full control, the administration raised the costs and risks of the mission by preventing our use of the very allies and resources that should have been available to the US. The Bush administration, thus far, has been unwilling to make use of the international legitimacy and support it could have from international institutions like the United Nations and NATO. Rather than gain leverage by means of international legitimacy, the United States, even through the long summer of 2003, refused to cede political authority to the UN or grant meaningful authority to any other international institution. Yet such legitimacy was critical if governments in Europe were to provide forces and resources to assist postwar efforts in Iraq. With greater international legitimacy, especially in Europe, more leverage could have been brought to bear on governments elsewhere. In the court of international opinion, the UN’s authority carries substantial weight. All of this was potentially available to the United States—if only our government had seen that it was necessary and pursued it.

Operation Iraqi Freedom showed the need for greater multilateral planning and participation, especially during the postconflict phase. Here are some of the perennial questions that weren’t adequately considered. Who is going to provide the police and ensure public security? On the basis of what authority? Will there be a judicial system, with lawyers, judges, and jails? Whose laws will govern? How will the nexus of organized crime, corruption, and quasig-overnmental authority on the part of religious and other leaders be handled? Asking the right questions, and creating appropriate solutions, are not tasks for one power alone, not even a power as great as the United States. More than fifty years of post–World War II experience have pointed toward the advantages of working, wherever possible, within the framework of alliances and multinational institutions. In jettisoning these lessons for the convenience of a largely bilateral operation, the United States left itself at risk legally, financially, and militarily. And no matter what the military language would say about “decisive operations,” the events on the ground in Iraq, after the big military operation succeeded in defeating Saddam’s forces, would in the long run be truly decisive.


Secretary Rumsfeld’s vision for the transformation of American war strategy involved a greater reliance on precision strikes and special forces, with a concomitant reduced reliance on large ground forces. The operations in Iraq confirmed the wisdom of continuing to adapt our strategy in that direction—up to a point. But this was not a new vision by any means. The US Armed Forces had been continuously changing since they emerged from the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s. The forces that fought in 2003 were very much the product of five US presidents and a sustained development process that actually accelerated after the 1991 Gulf War.

In 1996, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared, with the assistance of the service branches, the first real conceptual blueprint for joint war-fighting: Joint Vision 2010. This unclassified document explained the concepts of military dominance using the full range of military resources, precision strikes, highly developed protection of forces, and precisely focused logistics, all of which were played out on the battlefield in Iraq. Insofar as there was a vision involving a basic transformation, it certainly predated the change of administrations in 2001, and had become a collective vision: it was taught in the services’ schools, discussed in training and exercises, and incorporated into doctrine, materiel requirements, R&D, and procurement.

The vision heavily emphasized dominance through control of information and precision strikes. As one senior officer explained it, “Imagine a box of enemy territory 200 kilometers wide and 200 kilometers deep; we should be able to detect every enemy target there, and to strike and kill any target we want.” It was a vision compelling in its simplicity and clarity. In one way or another, it was reflected in programs, budgets, congressional hearings, and even popular culture. The collective will behind the vision of transformation was overpowering.

The irony is that this vision of transformation—a high-tech battlefield, viewed through an array of sensors, with battles fought and won by precision strikes and a slimmer ground component—which the Bush administration and especially Donald Rumsfeld have trumpeted, had in large part already become a reality when they took office in 2001.

Of course, the broader transformation of defense must be continued and made more robust: among many other innovations, we should have better sensors, hardened communications, longer ranges, faster missiles, a smaller forward “footprint” of forces, better integration of service and special operations, and increasing reliance on communication networks for centering operations. But the essence of the mission—the technologically sophisticated detection and destruction of enemy forces on a battlefield with minimum risk to US forces—won’t have changed.

The experience in Iraq should warn us that both the plan and the transformation—or at least what we have heard of the Defense Department’s vision of it—were incomplete, focusing only on “decisive operations,” the “high-intensity” end of the range of possible conflicts. In the mid-1990s, when we first committed Joint Vision 2010 to paper, many were concerned about the need to balance the high-tempo, high-intensity vision of combat with the realities of what happens before and after. This wasn’t just Army parochialism: the Army would most likely have to deal with these realities and thus it was the service most empowered to express concerns. We had seen repeatedly that the destruction of enemy forces was not by itself sufficient to “win” in most of the situations in which US forces might find themselves. Defeating military forces was necessary to win the battle, but it was not sufficient to win the war.

We had witnessed the difficulties in fighting among the civilian population in Panama and in finding the elusive Panamian president, Manuel Noriega; the problems, following the first Gulf War, of coping with refugees, instability, and prisoners of war; the failure in Somalia, the difficulties in Haiti, the many challenges of operations in the Balkans. Most of these conflicts involved a short, intense military encounter and a longer-term, less intense, but perhaps no less critical subsequent mission; and the armed forces would have to be trained and equipped to handle these requirements.

There has been a very small constituency in and out of government advocating a broader kind of transformation to deal with such difficult situations. Instead of seizing upon such activities as essential tasks, the Army has long resisted investing and engaging in postconflict and peace operations. Some of this resistance is related to the existing United States Code (specifically Title 10), which prescribes the service roles and missions and mandates that the US Army train, organize, and equip its forces “for sustained land combat.”

Yet to be fair, much of the reluctance can be traced to the military-industrial complex and the politics of survival as an organization. Trapped for years within a powerful vision of military transformation that relegated postconflict and peacekeeping activities to a lower priority, the Army, like the other services, has made its existence dependent on high-tech innovation and the creation of impressive, far-sighted procurement programs designed for high-intensity combat in the Middle East or in Korea. In view of overall US defense priorities, these programs were seen as more likely to compete successfully for funding. And, once funded, they would get important backing from contractors and subcontractors in many congressional districts.

These tendencies were reinforced by the increasingly partisan atmosphere within Washington in the late 1990s, during which the Republican-controlled Congress could be expected to react strongly against anything that might be seen as “nation-building.” The truth was that the research and preparation for postconflict operations was a political orphan. As George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, stated during the 2000 presidential debates: “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think that our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow a dictator…when it’s in our best interests.”

Unfortunately, that is exactly how the mission was approached. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the successes and failures of both the war plan and military transformation were soon evident on the ground. In its “decisive operations” the military had performed superbly, but in the larger planning effort, and in the thinking about the true nature of modern war, the civilians had misunderstood what was needed. Perhaps it was all too easy to concentrate on the fighting, killing the enemy and destroying his forces. But every serious student of war recognizes that war is about attaining political objectives—that military force is just one among several means, including diplomacy, and that all must be mutually reinforcing.

The contrast with the controversial NATO campaign in Kosovo, in which I served as military commander, could not be more stark. There, international authority was invoked in a diplomatic effort to resolve the prospect of additional ethnic cleansing. For months the negotiations and planning continued apace. The UN was engaged early and continuously. NATO, rather than the US, took hold of the problem. First, there was discussion about issuing a threat; then the actual threats were used to exercise diplomatic leverage. There was no preconceived timeline for action; indeed, NATO went to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to act. Several countries’ leaders tried individually to broker a solution, and all this diplomacy complicated the military planning.

Force was used as a last resort, and then only after planning and commitments for the period following combat had been made. The application of force was measured at the outset. And after seventy-eight days of bombing, and the threat of a ground invasion, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic gave in to all of NATO’s conditions. Some 1.5 million of the brutally expelled Kosovar Albanians were allowed to return to their homes. Serb forces withdrew, and a NATO-led force entered (with the United States providing only about one fifth of that force). Today, Milosevic is standing trial for war crimes at The Hague, and Yugoslavia is an emerging democracy. No American soldiers, airmen, or Marines were killed in action during the campaign.

In Iraq by early June 2003, the signs of determined resistance on the ground were unmistakable. The United States was facing ambushes and sniping, especially north and west of Baghdad. These were areas through which the small US forces on the ground had never fought—they simply arrived on the scene in the midst of the postwar collapse of Saddam’s government. Inside Baghdad, despite a gradual return to civil order, there remained isolated sniping, shooting, and sabotage. A shadowy Baathist movement calling itself “The Return” seemed to have emerged. The United States halted some redeployments of forces and undertook major military actions to reinforce the threatened areas and attack. As the overall ground commander stated, “This war isn’t over yet.” By September 21, more than eighty Americans had been killed and more than five hundred wounded in the conflict since May 1.

The campaign in Iraq had indeed succeeded in overthrowing Saddam’s regime, but as of late September 2003, no weapons of mass destruction had been found. It was still likely that, before it collapsed, Saddam’s regime had at least some programs in place to redevelop or enhance such weapons, especially biological weapons; perhaps there were even some weapons stocks, and we just haven’t found them. But it was clear that, as our forces took over the country, new terrorist networks were being created, or imported, in resistance to the American effort. Any democratic transformation of Iraq was therefore going to have to contend with a new terrorist threat, in addition to a multiplicity of cultural, political, regional, and economic challenges.

No one could believe at this point that bringing about such a democratic transformation would be easy, quick, or cheap. It is true that if a primary but unspoken purpose of the military campaign was to demonstrate the skills and courage of the American armed forces, then it was surely a success. Thirty years of dedicated effort have built a US military without peer in its ability to defeat enemy forces on the battlefield. But power creates its own adversaries, and those who are determined to contest American strength will seek methods that minimize the military advantages we have accumulated. Much greater work remains to be done if the United States is to achieve success in promoting our values, our security, and our prosperity. All else being equal, the region and the Iraqi people are better off with Saddam gone. But the US actions against old adversaries like Saddam have costs and consequences that may still leave us far short of our goal of winning the new war on terror. Indeed, the effects of the war may actually impair our efforts to achieve that larger goal.

—September 25, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by General Wesley K. Clark

This Issue

October 23, 2003