Unless the Visigoths are knocking at your gate and darkness threatens to consume the civilized world, wars are generally a mistakea confession of a governments failure to find some other way of settling disputes short of sending out 19-year-olds with rifles to kill other 19-year-olds.
Even so, the current and ongoing war in Iraq may yet be written in history as the only war that was a total mistake from beginning to end, where virtually every decision taken both by the civilian leadership, which began it on false pretenses and an overdose of arrogance and ignorance, and the military leadership, which bungled and bumbled and knuckled under, was wrong, wrong, wrong.
When those future historians begin their search for how such a thing could happen, Washington Post veteran military correspondent Tom Rickss most aptly titled book Fiasco will be an invaluable starting point. Ricks pulls it all togetherhow the Bush administration, prodded by its neoconservative handmaidens, took us into an unnecessary war in a tinderbox country and region, and then screwed it up big time.
The dedication of Fiasco is simple: For the war dead. This is followed by a simple quotation from fourth-century B.C. military strategist Sun Tzu: Know your enemy, know yourself, one-hundred battles, one-hundred victories.
All of this combined to create a haunting, costly and deadly debacle whose ending has yet to be written three and a half years, 2,550 dead American soldiers, and $300 billion of taxpayer money later.
But what sets Fiasco apart from other histories of the Iraq war is Rickss account of the inadequacy of the military leadership. Ricks, who interviewed more than a hundred senior military officers and sifted through some 30,000 pages of official documents, is withering: While the Bush administrationand especially Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and L. Paul Bremer IIIbear much of the responsibility for the mishandling of the occupation in 2003 and early 2004, he writes, blame must also rest with the leadership of the U.S. military, who didnt prepare the U.S. Army for the challenge it faced, and then wasted a year by using counter-productive tactics that were employed in unprofessional ignorance of the basic tenets of counter-insurgency warfare. Ricks notes that in that long, desolate post-Vietnam period when the Army was rebuilding itself, it had deliberately thrown away all the lessons in counter-insurgency warfare learned at so high a price in that bitter decade-long war.
Formal Pentagon consideration of how to attack Iraq began in November of 2001 when, in the wake of 9/11, Under Secretary of Defense Wolfowitzs decade-long, wrong-headed obsession with overthrowing Saddam Hussein gained currency in the administration. Wolfowitz, whose extended family had perished under the Nazis, saw the Iraq conflict as he did most geopolitics, through the prism of the Holocaust. But it was a flawed analogy: as the former head of Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Anthony Zinni pointed out, Saddam was less Adolf Hitler than Tony Soprano. But to Wolfowitz containment smacked of appeasement. And so the push to persuade the higher-ups to go to war began.
From the outset, there was tension between the uniformed military leadership and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld over two issues: whether to invade Iraq at all and, if so, how many troops would be needed. Army leadership rightly wanted to maintain focus on finishing the job in Afghanistan where the Taliban regime had just fallen, and where al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were on the run.
U.S. Central Command, which had responsibility for 32 nations in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa including Iraq, was caught between Army caution and Rumsfelds impatience, according to Ricks. Zinnis replacement as CENTCOM commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, began shuttling between his headquarters in Tampa and Washington. Franksdescribed by Ricks as a cunning man, but not a deep thinkerwould become the fulcrum in planning for the war and eventually would buy into Rumsfelds vision of a technological revolution in warfare that would allow the U.S. military to do far more with less. Moreover, Franks was a disaster as a commander: He was tyrannical and routinely abusive to his subordinates. This not only contributed to low morale but tended to ensure that no bad news would travel up to him. You would find out you cant tell the truth, said one officer who worked for Franks.
The Iraq war plan Franks had inherited from Zinni called for any invasion force to number some 350,000 troops including three heavy-armor divisions. That plan was swiftly discarded by Rumsfeld in the spring of 2002. Instead he threw on the table as a bargaining chip one retired generals idea that Iraq could be invaded with a force no larger than 10,000 troops, and made the military planners fight for every increase over that.
That we were going to invade Iraq was no longer a question by the summer of 2002. The head of Britains MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, returned from conferences with the CIA and other American agencies, and on July 23 told top British officials [m]ilitary action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were now being fixed around the policyThere was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
The planning pushed ahead with very few inside the loop, Ricks writes, beyond Franks and Rumsfeld and occasionally Vice President Cheney and President Bush. The focus was almost totally on taking down Baghdad and Saddam Hussein, with little or no thinking on what the military calls Phase IV operations, or postwar stability and reconstruction.
By late that summer, several voices of reason were trying to be heardnot least of them former NSC director and Bush family friend Brent Scowcroft, who wrote an op-ed piece calling into question the reasons for attacking Iraq, and predicting that any military campaign very likely would have to be followed by a large-scale, long-term military occupation. In August, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired four-star general who had two combat tours in Vietnam, launched a final effort to slow the run-up to war, sitting down with Bush in his residence and quietly telling him: You are going to be the proud owner of twenty-five million people, Powell said. You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problemsThis will become the first term.
First Cheney, then Rumsfeld, choked off any possibility of debate over the wisdom of action against Iraq, both declaring flatly that there was no question that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, active programs including nuclear weapons research, that were a threat to us and our few friends in a bad neighborhood. The intelligence to support such assertions, hampered by a near-total lack of human intelligence, was massaged at every level up the chain to make it seem more solid than it was. People like Douglas Feith, who ran a freelance intelligence shop inside the office of the Secretary of Defense, provided Rumsfeld and the administration ever-harder evidence of the threat, much of it uncorroborated rumors or outright fabrications previously discarded by other intelligence agencies, and often coming from defectors provided by Ahmad Chalabi.
Later the official administration line would become that no one really foresaw the difficulties of postwar Iraq, Ricks writes, but that was hardly true. On Sept. 4, 2002, Rep. Ike Skelton and 17 other congressional leaders met with Bush to discuss Iraq. At the meetings end Skelton and Bush had a quick private exchange in which Skelton asked the president: What are you going to do once you get it? That afternoon, Skelton wrote Bush a letter again putting his questions about the costs and duration of a U.S. occupation of Iraq. He quoted Karl von Clausewitz about the requirement in war not to take the first step without considering the last, and followed that with another prescient quote from the old Chinese strategy wizard Sun Tzu: To win victory is easy; to preserve its fruits, difficult.
There was no White House response. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were going to take America to war in Iraq, no matter what. On the eve of the war, the Pentagon sent down a brief classified memo declaring that the invasion of Iraq was to be considered an integral part of the global war on terrorism. Ricks reports that when some senior officers questioned that rationale, Lt. Gen. George Casey, director of the Joint Staff, told them it was not open to debate. Indeed, the military intelligence community had gotten the message: The feeling was…this thing is going to happen, said one senior official. [I]t wasnt our place to raise a ruckus.
Rumsfeld would whittle down the force even as the invasion was beginning, cutting out one heavy Army division, the 1st Cavalry Division, and delaying the arrival of another, the 1st Armored Division. One of those divisions was earmarked to move into Anbar Province astride the routes to and from Syria. The most likely place for big trouble would, instead, be left to Special Forces teams and so-called economy of force missions. We were going to war in Iraq with about 100,000 fewer troops than the ground commanders believed were needed. We were going without a coherent plan for postwar security. Our political leadership ignored the warnings, choosing to believe the best-case scenario in every case. The rose-colored glasses were firmly affixed to their noses.
Paul Wolfowitz told senior Army officers he thought that within a few months of the invasion, by summer of 2003, American troop levels in Iraq would have been drawn down to only 34,000. This at a time when then-Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki told a Senate hearing, when pressed, that it would take several hundred thousand troops to successfully occupy Iraq. Wolfowitz followed Shinseki to Capitol Hill two days later and derided the generals estimate as outlandish, adding I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators and that will help keep our requirements down.
In Rickss judgment, and that of many other senior officers, there was a total failure of strategic vision in the war plana failure partly blamed on Centcoms Gen. Franks, but for the most part tied to Don Rumsfelds coattails. In war, strategy is the searchlight that illuminates the way ahead, Ricks concludes. In its absence, the U.S. military would fight hard and well but blindly, and the noble sacrifices of soldiers would be undercut by the lack of thoughtful leadership at the top.
In the three-week drive that culminated in the triumphant fall of Baghdad, the lack of sufficient forces was swiftly revealed, as Iraqi irregulars surfaced to harass the main force columns, making the bypassed cities and towns a death trap for support units like the maintenance unit ambushed in Nasiriyah. Those who had begged for an armored cavalry regiment and 20 companies of military police to safeguard the long supply lines had been batted down by civilian leaders who had never known combat. The price would be paid in American blood along that route and in the streets of Baghdad.
A week into the fight, Lt. Gen. William Wallace put his finger on another problem that would haunt the American Army forces long after Baghdad had fallen: The enemy were fighting is different from the one wed war-gamed against. Both civilian and military leaders were convinced that with the fall of Baghdad and the Saddam regime, the job was done. But the world was soon treated to scenes of Iraqis looting every government building, every army barracks, every police station and every hospital and power generation station. Secretary Rumsfeld dismissed the images with two words: Stuff happens!
In April of 2003 stuff was starting to happen elsewhere in the Sunni heartland, in cities like Fallujah and Saddams hometown Tikrit, as American occupying forces moved in. On May 1, President Bush flew out to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off California and, under that big Mission Accomplished banner, declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.
The opportunity to grasp the situation slipped through American fingers during April and May, and the initiative was lost. The Iraqi insurgency was taking shape, the Syrian border was wide open, munitions and arms dumps with over a million tons of weapons and ammunition were left unguarded and the American forces on the ground, far from beginning to adapt to the changes around them, were already thinking about going home. By April 24, the original U.S. civilian administrator, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, and his small staff, had already been ruled failures, undercut by Ahmad Chalabi and his dreams of taking over Iraq. That day, Rumsfeld called Garner to tell him he was being replaced by former ambassador L. Paul Bremer III.
Bremer would almost immediately make critical decisionssome say at the behest of Chalabithat would feed and fuel the insurgency and unrest. First, Bremer ordered the firings of as many as 85,000 Baath Party members in every government ministry, corporation, university, and hospital. The very people who knew how to run everything were gone. Then he ordered dissolution of the Iraqi Army and police, throwing another 400,000 armed and angry men out of work and disrupting plans by Garner to make use of many of the lower-ranking men for reconstruction work.
Ricks writes that the CIA station chief in Baghdad, as well as Garner and most other members of the U.S. civilian team, objected strongly to Bremers de-Baathification order, saying it would cripple efforts to rebuild the infrastructure and disenfranchise the only people who knew how to run the country. Bremer said his orders came from the highest levelssomething Ricks indicates was not true. Both Rumsfeld and Bush were puzzled by that order as well as the one dissolving the Iraqi army.
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz steadfastly denied, over and over, that there was a war still going on in Iraq, or that there was an insurgency. In their eyes the growing violence was just the work of remnants of the old regime. President Bush made his foolish declaration: Bring em on! Weve got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.
Some American division commanders would do very well that first year, especially Maj. Gen. David Petraeus and the 101st Airmobile Division he commanded in Mosul. Others, Ricks writes, would do less well, as they pursued heavy-handed raids, kicking in doors and rounding up and hauling away large numbers of military-aged males to Abu Ghraib prison. Those who were not sympathetic to the insurgency before that experience certainly were afterward. Ricks focuses much of that criticism on the Armys 4th Division and its commander, then-Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno.
Meanwhile, the thousands of Iraqi detainees swept up in raids were dumped on Abu Ghraib and into the care of poorly trained American Army Reservist guards and interrogators whose guidelines crossed the line of abuse. Ricks discloses that an email sent on Aug. 14, 2003 by Capt. William Ponce, an Army intelligence officer in Baghdad, stated that the gloves are coming off and asked colleagues for a wish list of interrogation techniques. Back-handed blows to the midsection from a distance of about 18 inches, suggested the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. The 4th Infantry Division was even harsher, calling for low-voltage electrocution. But an officer in the 1st Armored Division objected, reminding the others that they were American soldiers.
Leadership on the ground in Iraq was roiled and drifting as Rumsfeld ordered the large headquarters of Lt. Gen. Dave McKiernan, who had commanded the charge to Baghdad, to stand down and replaced it with the much smaller and less experienced V Corps staff from Germany, and a brand new corps commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. Ricks lays the strategic and tactical drift of that crucial first year in Iraq at the feet of Sanchez. The general was at odds with Ambassador Bremer and struggling to do his job with a staff that was less than a quarter of the number needed to run what was in essence a four-star headquarters in wartime. But he compounded a bad situation by never really understanding the nature of the insurgency faced by the United States. Counter-insurgency tactics call for less presence of the occupiers, less use of brute force and a deeper understanding of the culture and mores of the civilian population you wish to swing to your side. Every rule was ignored or broken that first year and, the American missteps strengthened the enemy.
The enemy was proving to be ever more adaptable and swift to change tactics to meet changed circumstances even as the Americans seemed to drift aimlessly and the casualty toll for our troops and innocent Iraqis climbed.
Is there no good news at all? Of course there is, and Ricks lays that out as well. At every step of the way there were bright American officers who recognized what was happening, what was going wrong, and wrote and spoke and pleaded passionately for doing the right thing. During 2005 and early 2006, one of the brightest warrior-scholars in the Army, Col. H.R. McMaster, would be sent to Iraq as commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry. After leaving the Syrian border open for two long years while foreign terrorists crossed into Iraq to become suicide bombers or to be trained in killing Americans, the 3rd ACR was ordered west to shut down the border and clean out towns that had long been under control of the enemy. Now the Americans, at least in this critical area, would begin clearing and holding the area and provide ongoing reliable security to Iraqi citizens. It took a lot of boots on the ground and clever tactics, but a small success was achieved before the Cavalrymen rotated home in March of 2006 and were replaced by another American brigade.
In an afterword titled Betting Against History, Ricks lays out the possible outcomes in a war now in its fourth year with no foreseeable end in sight. Even the rosiest possible result is hardly anything to cheer, and the worst-case scenarios are chilling, if improbable. An American withdrawal, a breakup of Iraq into three separate countries, the spread of war and instability to the entire region are not the worst possible outcomes in the authors view. He thinks that would be the emergence of a new Iraqi strongman, a Saladin who could lead the rise of a new pan-Arab caliphate, fueling the rise of a new generation of terrorists.
Whatever the outcome, Ricks says, Iraq will dominate American foreign policy, and our position in the world, for years to come. Going to war for faulty reasons undercuts everything that follows, especially when those who made the mistakes stubbornly refuse to acknowledge them.
Americas credibility has suffered greatly among our allies, as our decision-making ability appears almost fatally flawed under this administration. Worse yet, those who have refused to strengthen our military and locked it into unending deployments in Iraq are creating a sense of weakness that is emboldening our adversaries to act. Does anyone doubt that this was taken into account by Irans crackpot leaders before ordering their puppet Hezbollah to go on the offensive against Israel? Or by North Koreas Kim Jong Il before he ordered the testing of those middle and long-range missiles?
Its a brutal and foolish mess theyve gotten us into, Ollie.