Hindsight and Foresight in Iraq

Much has been written about the incompetence with which the Bush administration has pursued the war and post-war occupation in Iraq. I'd like to add to our understanding of that situation by looking, in hindsight, at what was predicted with foresight before the war. Many of the people who were deeply involved in the situation have been coming out lately and admitting that the administration was caught completely off guard by the strength of the guerilla insurgency that we're facing in Iraq. The latest to do so was Jay Garner, the man Bush picked to oversee the Iraqi occupation before Paul Bremer took over. In Michael Gordon's recent New York Times article, Garner is quoted:

"I think that there were Baathist Sunnis who planned to resist no matter what happened and at all cost, but we missed opportunities, and that drove more of them into the resistance," Jay Garner, the first civilian administrator of Iraq and a retired Army lieutenant general, said in an interview, referring to the Baath Party of Mr. Hussein and to his Sunni Muslim supporters. "Things were stirred up far more than they should have been. We did not seal the borders because we did not have enough troops to do that, and that brought in terrorists."

His successor, Paul Bremer, also complained recently that there were not enough troops to stop the looting and stabilize the security situation in Iraq after Saddam was toppled. And in fact it is becoming clear that the administration really did think that it was going to be a cakewalk and we'd be able to withdraw our troops quickly once Saddam was out of power, a complete miscalculation of what has obviously happened:

In mid-April, Lawrence Di Rita, one of Mr. Rumsfeld's closest aides, arrived in Kuwait to join the team assembled by General Garner, the civil administrator, which was to oversee post-Hussein Iraq. Mr. Bush had agreed in January that the Defense Department was to have authority for postwar Iraq. It was the first time since World War II that the State Department would not take charge of a post-conflict situation.

Speaking to Garner aides at their hotel headquarters in Kuwait, Mr. Di Rita outlined the Pentagon's vision, one that seemed to echo the themes in Mr. Rumsfeld's Feb. 14 address. According to Col. Paul Hughes of the Army, who was present at the session, Mr. Di Rita said the Pentagon was determined to avoid open-ended military commitments like those in Bosnia and Kosovo, and to withdraw the vast majority of the American forces in three to four months.

"The main theme was that D.O.D. would be in charge, and this would be totally different than in the past," said Tom Gross, a retired Army colonel and a Garner aide who was also at the session. "We would be out very quickly. We were very confused. We did not see it as a short-term process."..

Thomas E. White, then the secretary of the Army, said he had received similar guidance from Mr. Rumsfeld's office. "Our working budgetary assumption was that 90 days after completion of the operation, we would withdraw the first 50,000 and then every 30 days we'd take out another 50,000 until everybody was back," he recalled. "The view was that whatever was left in Iraq would be de minimis."..

The National Intelligence Council had cautioned in a January 2003 report that the Iraqis would resent their liberators unless the American-led occupation authority moved quickly to restore essential services and shift political controls to Iraqi leaders. But those efforts turned out to be frustratingly slow.

While much of the country was chaotic and lawless, the American generals there were still not sure that they were facing a determined insurgency. The limited number of United States troops, however, posed problems in policing the porous borders, establishing a significant presence in the resistant Sunni Triangle and imposing order in the capital.

"My position is that we lost momentum and that the insurgency was not inevitable," said James A. (Spider) Marks, a retired Army major general, who served as the chief intelligence officer for the land war command. "We had momentum going in and had Saddam's forces on the run.

"But we did not have enough troops," he continued. "First, we did not have enough troops to conduct combat patrols in sufficient numbers to gain solid intelligence and paint a good picture of the enemy on the ground. Secondly, we needed more troops to act on the intelligence we generated. They took advantage of our limited numbers."

In Baghdad, some neighborhoods were particularly restive, but American forces were hampered in carrying out patrols. The Third Infantry Division, the first big unit to venture into the city, had about 17,000 troops. But it was a mechanized division, and only a fraction could carry out patrols on foot. The tank crews had to wait for body armor.

North and west of Baghdad, in the volatile cities of the Sunni Triangle, resisters found refuge while they plotted new attacks.

In Falluja, which would become a hotbed of the insurgency, no troops arrived until April 24, two weeks after American forces entered Baghdad. Soldiers from the 82d Airborne were the first ones there. But because of constant troop rotations and the limited number of forces, responsibility for the city repeatedly shifted. The chronic turnover made it difficult for the Americans to form ties to residents and gather useful intelligence. Today, the city is a no-go zone surrounded by United States marines.

Lt. Col. Joseph Apodaca, a Marine intelligence officer who is now retired, said there were early signs in the Shiite Muslim-dominated south that the paramilitary forces American troops faced might be the precursor of a broader insurgency. But chasing after potential rebels was not the Marines' assigned mission, and they did not have sufficient troops for this, he said.

"The overall plan was to go get Saddam Hussein," Colonel Apodaca recalled. "The assumption seemed to be that when people realized that he was gone, that would get the population on our side and facilitate the transition to reconstruction. We were not going to chase these guys when they ran to the smaller cities. We did not really have the force levels at that point to keep the insurgency down."

President Bush's defense for this is to blame the generals. He says that he repeatedly asked them if they had what they needed and they kept telling him yes. But numerous reports from sources within the Pentagon say this simply is not true. They say that Rumsfeld was so intent on the notion that this was going to be a different kind of war, a rapid fire, quick-strike war of the kind he had been envisioning for two decades, that he just wore down the military leaders. As Gordon reported:

Mr. Rumsfeld had started to question whether the military still needed the Army's First Cavalry Division, a 17,500-member force that was slated to follow the lead invasion force into Iraq. He and General Franks discussed the issue repeatedly.

"Rumsfeld just ground Franks down," said Mr. White, the former Army secretary who was fired after policy disputes with Mr. Rumsfeld. "If you grind away at the military guys long enough, they will finally say, 'Screw it, I'll do the best I can with what I have.' The nature of Rumsfeld is that you just get tired of arguing with him."

Franks denies that, naturally. He's a loyal soldier. But the fact is that virtually everyone on the inside was telling the higher ups that they needed more troops and adequate equipment for those troops and no one was listening. Lots of internal memos have seen the light of day now and they all show that the military leaders and civilian administrators were all pleading for more troops and more civil affairs staff to get control of the situation and to begin a robust transition that included rebuilding the Iraqi system quickly. Gordon quotes one of those internal documents:

It was not long, though, before the optimistic talk of a speedy withdrawal of American forces was set aside. Neither NATO nor Persian Gulf nations wanted to put forces into Iraq. An American general was sent to New Delhi to talk to the Indians, but any hope of securing Indian troops quickly faded. Turkey later offered peacekeeping troops, but the Iraqis would not accept them. Only the Polish-led and British-led divisions became a reality.

Soon after arriving in May, Mr. Bremer, who replaced General Garner as the chief occupation official sooner than expected, became concerned that American forces were stretched too thin. In late June, John Sawers, the senior British official in Baghdad, sent a confidential report to his government, which chronicled Mr. Bremer's concerns.

"It has been a difficult week in Iraq," Mr. Sawers wrote. "The new threat is well-targeted sabotage of the infrastructure. An attack on the power grid last weekend had a series of knock-on effects which halved the power generation in Baghdad and many other parts of the country. "

"The oil and gas is another target, with five successful attacks this week on pipelines," he continued. "We are also seeing the first signs of intimidation of Iraqis working for the coalition."

"Bremer's main concern is that we must keep in-country sufficient military capability to ensure a security blanket across the country," Mr. Sawers reported. "He has twice said to President Bush that he is concerned that the drawdown of US/UK troops has gone too far and we cannot afford further reductions."

Mr. Bremer also questioned whether multinational forces "will be sufficiently robust when push comes to shove," Mr. Sawers reported.

According to United States officials, Mr. Bremer raised the troop issue in a June 18 video conference with Mr. Bush. Mr. Bremer said the United States needed to be careful not to go too far in taking out troops. The president said the plan was now to rotate forces, not withdraw them, and agreed that Washington needed to maintain adequate force levels.

Still the American forces shrank, from a high of about 150,000 in July 2003 to some 108,000 in February 2004, before going up again when violence sharply increased early this year.

In hindsight, it's stunning to contemplate that the administration could be that far off the mark, but it's clear that they really did think that this was going to be easy. That's why when General Shinseki told the Congress that the post-war occupation would require several hundred thousand troops and cost upwards of $200 billion, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz responded by invoking what in retrospect looks like an outright fantasy. He actually said, "I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." They really did believe that the Iraqi people were going to throw roses at our feet, there would be a swift handover to an Iraqi government, and they would immediately embrace democracy and freedom. But as many knowledgable people warned, after an initial euphoria the situation was bound to deteriorate unless we moved rapidly to rebuild the institutions of Iraqi society, the infrastructure, and the economy. This has been true in every other conflict, why on earth would Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld think it was going to be any different here? How unprepared were we for what was going to happen after we took over? Look at this report from Knight Ridder's investigation:

In March 2003, days before the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American war planners and intelligence officials met at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to review the Bush administration's plans to oust Saddam Hussein and implant democracy in Iraq.

Near the end of his presentation, an Army lieutenant colonel who was giving a briefing showed a slide describing the Pentagon's plans for rebuilding Iraq after the war, known in the planners' parlance as Phase 4-C. He was uncomfortable with his material - and for good reason.

The slide said: "To Be Provided."

A Knight Ridder review of the administration's Iraq policy and decisions has found that it invaded Iraq without a comprehensive plan in place to secure and rebuild the country. The administration also failed to provide some 100,000 additional U.S. troops that American military commanders originally wanted to help restore order and reconstruct a country shattered by war, a brutal dictatorship and economic sanctions.

In fact, some senior Pentagon officials had thought they could bring most American soldiers home from Iraq by September 2003. Instead, more than a year later, 138,000 U.S. troops are still fighting terrorists who slip easily across Iraq's long borders, diehards from the old regime and Iraqis angered by their country's widespread crime and unemployment and America's sometimes heavy boots.

"We didn't go in with a plan. We went in with a theory," said a veteran State Department officer who was directly involved in Iraq policy.

The case that I want to make here is that, contrary to those who dismiss this incompetence by saying "no war is perfect" and "they couldn't foresee everything", all of this was predicted in advance, and was predicted by people that the administration should have listened to - their own generals and military experts. Throughout late 2002 and early 2003, General Anthony Zinni tried mightily to get the Pentagon and the administration to listen to him but they would not. Zinni had been the head of Central Command in the middle east for most of the late 1990s, overseeing the no-fly zones and the embargo on Iraq. He was not only among the elite of the elite as a general, but also holds a master's degree in international relations, and after retiring from the Marine Corps in 2000, President Bush named him as his special envoy to the Middle East. One would think that, of all people, Zinni would have the influence and credibility to get the White House to listen to him when he spoke on this subject. Alas, they ignored him. "God help us," he said, "if we think this transition will occur easily."

At the time this was going on, there was a battle within the administration over military tactics. Colin Powell, during the first gulf war, had advocated the doctrine of overwhelming force - if you're going to go in, you go in with everything you've got and overwhelm the enemy. Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, had for 20 years been writing about his vision for a new and different military, one that would be light and fast, strike quickly and then get out, and he was adamant that this would be the test case for his vision. There were some internal reports that he initially wanted only 70,000 troops but was talked up by the generals who told him that was a pipe dream. In October of 2002, Zinni gave a speech at the Middle East Institute's annual conference and afterwards took questions from the audience. Here is some of what he had to say:

I'm a subscriber to Colin Powell's doctrine: Use overwhelming force. As a military man, I bristle against ideas of small forces and of surrogate forces that we trust that can draw us into things. We then become responsible for their actions and for their welfare; that can suck us into cities and places where units are still fighting that wouldn't normally fight us if we overwhelmed the situation.

Looks prophetic, doesn't it? It gets better. When asked if the Iraqi people would greet us as liberators, he said:

I think that, again depending on how this goes, if it's short with minimal destruction, there will be the initial euphoria of change. It's always what comes next that is tough...Expectations grow rapidly. The initial euphoria can wear off. People have the idea that Jeffersonian democracy, entrepreneurial economics and all these great things are going to come. If they are not delivered immediately, do not seem to be on the rise, and worse yet, if the situation begins to deteriorate -- if there is tribal revenge, factional splitting, still violent elements in the country making statements that make it more difficult, institutions that are difficult to reestablish, infrastructure damage, I think that initial euphoria could wane away. It's not whether you're greeted in the streets as a hero; it's whether you're still greeted as a hero when you come back a year from now.

And Zinni was not the only one giving such warnings. Knight Ridder reports on the findings of an Army War College study released before the war started that warned in the sternest possible language and in great detail what had to be done in a post-war Iraq:

"The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace in Iraq is real and serious," warned an Army War College report that was completed in February 2003, a month before the invasion. Without an "overwhelming" effort to prepare for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the report warned: "The United States may find itself in a radically different world over the next few years, a world in which the threat of Saddam Hussein seems like a pale shadow of new problems of America's own making."

A half-dozen intelligence reports also warned that American troops could face significant postwar resistance. This foot-high stack of material was distributed at White House meetings of Bush's top foreign policy advisers, but there's no evidence that anyone ever acted on it.

"It was disseminated. And ignored," said a former senior intelligence official.

The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency was particularly aggressive in its forecasts, officials said. One briefing occurred in January 2003. Another, in April 2003, weeks after the war began, discussed Saddam's plans for attacking U.S. forces after his troops had been defeated on the battlefield.

Similar warnings came from the Pentagon's Joint Staff, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the CIA's National Intelligence Council. The council produced reports in January 2003 titled "Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq" and "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq."

Unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which Iraqi troops were trying to maintain their grip on Kuwait, "they are now defending their country," said a senior defense official, summarizing the Joint Staff's warnings. "You are going to get serious resistance. This idea that everyone will join you is baloney. But it was dismissed."

In the first weeks of 2003, as war appeared inevitable, it began to dawn on many officials throughout the government that the United States was unprepared to stabilize and rebuild Iraq after Saddam was defeated.

You can find the full text of the Army War College study here. Were the recommendations followed? Not even close. How bad was it? The Knight Ridder report tells us:

The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, couldn't get Pentagon approval to pre-position in Kuwait all the relief supplies he thought would be necessary. The White House was slow to release funds for rebuilding Iraq.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner wasn't named to lead Iraq's reconstruction until January 2003 and didn't oversee the first major interagency conference on postwar Iraq until Feb. 21, less than a month before the invasion.

At the Pentagon, the director of the Joint Staff, Army Gen. George Casey, repeatedly pressed Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the Central Command, for a "Phase 4," or postwar, plan, the senior defense official said.

"Casey was screaming, 'Where is our Phase 4 plan?' " the official said. It never arrived. Casey is now the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.

Franks' Central Command did have an extensive plan to restore order and begin rebuilding the country, called Operation Desert Crossing, said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who drew up the plan and updated it continuously when he led Centcom until 2000. It was never utilized.

On March 17, 2003, two days before the war began, ground force commanders asked the Army War College for a copy of the handbook that had governed the U.S. occupation of postwar Germany, which began in 1945.

The same officials who saw no need for a plan to secure and rebuild a defeated Iraq also saw no need to position thousands of U.S. soldiers, including military police, engineers, ordnance disposal teams and civil affairs specialists, to begin taking control in Iraq even before the war against Saddam was over.

Longstanding Army doctrine calls for beginning reconstruction in freed areas of a country while fighting rages elsewhere. It also calls for a shift in military forces from combat troops to civil affairs, military police and the like.

"Unfortunately, this did not occur despite clear guidance to the contrary," Army Col. Paul F. Dicker wrote in an assessment. Bush, Rumsfeld and other top officials insist that their military commanders were given everything they requested, and Franks wrote in his book, "American Soldier," that Rumsfeld supported his war plan. Technically, that's accurate. However, three top officials who served with Franks at the time said the plan was the product of a lengthy and sometimes heated negotiation between the Central Command and the Pentagon, in which Rumsfeld constantly pressed Franks and other senior officers to commit fewer troops to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

So adamant was Rumsfeld, so stubborn was he to win this internal battle that has proven him completely wrong on every count, that he publicly undermined the military leaders who dared to tell the truth about this fantasy strategy he was preparing to engage in:

Rumsfeld and his aides made it clear what would happen to generals who bucked them. When, under persistent congressional questioning in February 2003, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, said he thought several hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed to secure Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz publicly called his estimate "wildly off the mark." Then Rumsfeld's office leaked word of Shinseki's replacement 15 months before Shinseki was due to retire, both embarrassing and neutralizing the Army's top officer. "Rumsfeld just beat up on the military," said the senior intelligence official. "And so they just shut up and did what they were told."

Central Command originally proposed a force of 380,000 to attack and occupy Iraq. Rumsfeld's opening bid was about 40,000, "a division-plus," said three senior military officials who participated in the discussions. Bush and his top advisers finally approved the 250,000 troops the commanders requested to launch the invasion. But the additional troops that the military wanted to secure Iraq after Saddam's regime fell were either delayed or never sent.

What all of this adds up to is gross incompetence on the part of the civilian Pentagon leadership, particularly Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. If you want to see just how bad it was, look at this interview on 60 minutes with General Zinni. It is an absolutely blistering indictment of the administration that he served:

In the book, Zinni writes: "In the lead up to the Iraq war and its later conduct, I saw at a minimum, true dereliction, negligence and irresponsibility, at worse, lying, incompetence and corruption."

“I think there was dereliction in insufficient forces being put on the ground and fully understanding the military dimensions of the plan. I think there was dereliction in lack of planning,” says Zinni. “The president is owed the finest strategic thinking. He is owed the finest operational planning. He is owed the finest tactical execution on the ground. … He got the latter. He didn’t get the first two.”

Most Americans are probably unaware of the existence of America's war colleges. I mentioned the Army War College report earlier. The job of the war colleges is to provide detailed analysis of every military action, to detail the mistakes made so they can be avoided the next time. That job requires absolute honesty about what went right and what went wrong. The post-mortem on the invasion and occupation of Iraq is already being written, and in order to accurately analyze the situation and make sure that any mistakes that were made don't happen in the next conflict, the analysts must take a brutally honest and clear look at every single decision. The politicians, in public, always want to sell a rosy picture. Bush and Rumsfeld insist, against all evidence, that they gave the generals everything they needed and requested. That is clearly a lie, and it's one that is to be expected because their job, at least in their minds, is to preserve their jobs. But the military leaders and analysts, behind closed doors, have to be absolutely honest in their assessments. And you can bet that they will view it a whole lot differently than the public relations job the public is hearing from the politicians. They will see it for what it was, a collosal series of stupid decisions that should have been, and were, anticipated and predicted by a wide range of people who should have been listened to. The conventional wisdom on the Vietnam War has always been that we "lost" because we let the politicians run the war instead of the generals. In the case of Vietnam, that conventional wisdom is mostly wrong. But in the case of this war in Iraq, it couldn't be more accurate. And the one excuse no one should accept is that they weren't warned long before it happened that it would end up this way.

More like this

Rumsfeld's viewpoint on a smaller mobile force was absolutely brilliant for achieving quick military victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, he did not develop these strategies, but he is one of the most senior level people to endorse them. It has been a success nearly every time it is used in war games and simulations. Lets compare a 'traditional' assault on Iraq with the Rumsfeld campaign:

In a traditional movement, we would have seen columns created which were really wedges (one battalion in front, 2 right behind it on either side, 2 more behind those on either side etc). Then, 1-3 of these columns would each have moved North in a very specifc way (up and to the right, up and to west etc) with a designated endpoint (Baghdad), where they would each be on a different side and then use a coordinated attack to take the objective. This takes a lot of time and a lot of personnel to perpetrate. Many of you probably remember the Gulf war and it's 90 day air war only campaign. A little known fact of this 'phase' of the war was that was all we were capable of in a short amount of time. It took over 3 months just to get the equipment out there to start the ground war and by that time the war was over. We spent millions getting the forces there, and in the end fought like 3 major ground battles, none of which lasted more than a day. This realization led directly to the development of our modern combat theory.

Using the modern theory, some of the major themes worked wonders in both conflicts.

1. Kill the leaders first. Attacking command and control units and targetting the people making decisions was probably the single biggest reason the US ran over enemy forces in just a few weeks. Combat reports from the field indicated that many Iraqi forces were in a state of total confusion and that very few were working in conjunction with each other. Captured Iraqui commanders said the same after the war.

2. Emphasis on Special forces. Relying on small 1-2 man teams to go into enemy territory and laser designate targets for air units minimised our casualties and maximised military projections. It also caught the enemy off guard. They didn't know it was coming and weren't hiding in caverns etc. Far better than having protracted ground battles where our technology advantage would have been thoroughly minimised (ie the soviet model on afghani warfare). And finally, it was severely demoralising because there was no safe zone in the theater(unlike a traditional campaign where a well designated 'front' would be the only truly dangerous area for enemy forces).

3. Swarm theory. The idea here (principally in Iraq) was a new way of moving forces North to Baghdad. By sending in units individually all heading towards the same general target, they could be deployed quickly and move even more so. If one came under attack, the nearby units would all deviate from their course to help out while quick response units (Apache helicopters primarily) would swoop in and take out targets.

This strategy was a complete success for prosecuting the 'war' part of the war and there is no question it will be the primary method for conducting future campaigns in the war on terror or any other conflict we are involved in.

However, it is pretty clear that it does not provide anywhere near the same level of success for post war occupations of countries with large populations and porous borders. In afghanistan, we got away with a super small force (less than 20 thousand) because the population was very low and relatively segmented. Plus, we were much more likely to get cooperation from Pakistan on protecting their border than either Syria or Iran.

So, without secure borders, and with large populations a new strategy needs to be developed for the post war democratization of a country which will work in concert with a modern limited force projection theory of combat. The strategy is definitely the future of warfare, it will be interesting to see what planners develop to accomodate situations that we are faced with in Iraq and elsewhere going forward.

If you read all of this, thanks!

The war strategy itself obviously worked very well, it was the post-war phase that was mishandled. I do wonder, though, how well the war plan would work against a country that has an air force, or even good anti-aircraft artillery. That at least would have made it more difficult for us, but of course they would have planned for it if that was the reality.

In hindsight, it's stunning to contemplate that the administration could be that far off the mark, but it's clear that they really did think that this was going to be easy.

I agree completely that it is stunning, in hindsight. But we need not even resort to hindsight. A lot of smart, knowledgeable people were telling the administration that the plan (or more accurately, the lack of a plan) for post-war rebuilding was flawed to the point of recklessness. We know what happened to most of those voices. Even more stunning is that it didn't require a Middle Eastern policy expert to predict this outcome: anyone with a reasonable high-school level education concerning Middle East politics, history, and conflict could have predicted this outcome with remarkable clarity. Indeed, many did. The whole thing can be summed up in a single word: shameful.

If iraq were an honest mistake I might be persuaded to give the Prez another shot. The problem as I see it isn't just Iraq, but that this administration has used the same ...philosophy I guess you would call it...in most everything else they've done. That facts and plausible inferences don't count. That's no way to run a rib stand, let alone a country.