War Stories

Blow-Back in Baghdad

Rumsfeld’s brilliant war plan has an ugly aftermath. Here’s how to fix it.

Our current trouble in Iraq is the logical result of a peculiar combination in U.S. policy—a daringly brilliant military plan followed by a daringly obtuse political one. In the brilliant part, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his military commanders decided that U.S. troops would dash straight to Baghdad, the main target of the offensive—bypassing, rather than slugging it out with, as many pockets of resistance as possible along the way. This decision surprised the Iraqi army, sowed confusion within their ranks, accelerated their defeat, and minimized casualties (certainly on the U.S. side, probably on the Iraqi side, too).

The flip side of such a plan, however, is that the bypassed bad guys have to be dealt with at some point. Rumsfeld assumed that a new and friendly regime would be quickly installed, that all but the most unsavory remnants of Saddam’s government would be co-opted, and that, faced with utter defeat, the surviving Iraqi fighters would surrender, assimilate, or, in the case of the undaunted few, be hunted down and killed.

Alas (and here’s where the obtuse part comes in), his anointed new leader, Ahmad Chalabi, turned out to be—as many other officials had warned—not much different from puppet leaders of the past; he’d oversold his political support and, even more, the competence of his militia, the “Free Iraqi Fighters.” And so, the U.S. occupation authorities found themselves out on a limb.

Rumsfeld turned out to be right that a relatively light force (not quite the equivalent of four divisions) could smash the Iraqi military and kick Saddam’s regime out of Baghdad. However, his critics within the Army have turned out to be right that this force would be too light to occupy, secure, and defend the country after the war.

True, Rumsfeld had no way of knowing (probably nobody seriously predicted) that Iraq’s entire security apparatus—army, police, firefighters, everything—would evaporate upon Saddam’s departure. Nonetheless, a cursory look at the annals of recent history should have convinced Rumsfeld that he was gravely underestimating the operation’s postwar requirements, even under optimistic scenarios.

When Gen. Eric Shinseki, the then-Army chief of staff, testified before Congress that “several hundred thousand” troops would be needed to rebuild Iraq, he wasn’t pulling numbers out of a hat. They were based on studies of recent postwar occupations. It is worth noting, for instance, that 50,000 troops are keeping the peace in Kosovo—one-third the number of troops in Iraq, for an area one-fortieth the size.

At a U.S. Joint Forces Command war game called “Unified Quest 03,” played at the Army War College last April and May, one retired Army general—who was playing a U.S. commander—told his colleagues ahead of time that, however well the game went, he would need 10 brigades (about 35,000 troops), following right behind his main combat forces, to take control of villages and provide security for the civil-affairs personnel in charge of postwar reconstruction.

The war game, which was attended by many high-ranking officials, including Paul Wolfowitz, didn’t reach that point. Like many war games, it ended too soon, at just the point when the U.S. side had won on the battlefield. Rumsfeld’s war plan seems to have made the same shortsighted mistake, as if, like in a chess game, the victor can proclaim, “Checkmate in three moves” and all opposing action ceases in recognition of the inevitable.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the real war’s endgame is that this gap in planning could have been filled in. When the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division took over the Baghdad airport on April 4, it seemed like another brilliant military move. The 4th Infantry Division—which had originally planned to invade from the north through Turkey (until the Turkish parliament refused permission) and which was now just steaming into Kuwait—could be quickly flown to the Iraqi capital. So could several companies of military police, civil-affairs officers, and any combat reinforcements that might be needed. But, for reasons that have still not been explained, nothing of the sort happened.

Since then, U.S. troop levels in Iraq have remained at about 140,000. Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of Central Command, has recently said (no doubt attentive to the growing impatience and demoralization) that no additional soldiers will be needed. The 3rd Infantry has just been scheduled to return to the United States over the next six weeks. A division equivalent of foreign troops will probably arrive in Iraq to help out by this fall, but they will serve, at most, as replacements, not supplements.

All this is prologue. What is to be done now?

Send more troops. Rumsfeld has no doubt learned what the traditional Army officers, like Shinseki, knew from the start—that postwar order requires “boots on the ground” and lots of them. The factors that enabled the U.S. military to win the war swiftly and relatively lightly—”smart bombs,” reconnaissance drones, computerized command control, and advances in maneuver-warfare doctrine—are useless when it comes to establishing a sheer presence of armed force wherever and whenever it is needed.

But no more American troops. Our welcome has long worn thin, to the point where we are getting blamed for everything that goes wrong, and we have no means even of rebuttal. A story in this week’s Time has Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, frustrated that Iraqis were blaming U.S. warplanes for an explosion that took place at a mosque in Fallujah, killing 10 people, including the imam. “I’d like to get a third party in there to take a look,” Bremer is quoted as saying. But then he realizes there are no third parties. “Have we got anyone in this country that’s not us?” he asks. Afraid not. This has to change. And this means Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the rest have to …

Swallow hard and make nice with the Germans, Russians, Canadians, even the French and the U.N. Unilateralism, however appealing, doesn’t work. On the most brusquely pragmatic level, we need a real coalition to rebuild Iraq—not the mythic “coalition forces” that smashed it in wartime—if just to share the risks, spread the costs, and offer a less monolithic face of authority to Iraqi citizens.

Get out of Iraqi politics as fast as possible—or at least pretend to. When the council of Iraqi political groups convened in Baghdad for the first time on Monday, Paul Bremer not only attended but made a speech, congratulating them for their “courage, perseverance and self-confidence,” and heralding the occasion as “the most important day for Baghdad since 9 April, when coalition forces liberated you.” NPR correspondent Deb Amos reported that several of the assembled appeared nervous at Bremer’s endorsement. After all, anti-American guerrillas have lately started to attack anyone seen as promoting the occupation. A bomb went off last week at graduation ceremonies of a U.S.-trained police academy. Ordinary Iraqi citizens working for the U.S. authorities—as translators, drivers, or whatever—refrain from telling friends and neighbors what they are doing, for fear of being killed as “collaborators.” If Bremer wants this council and others like it to succeed, he should stay in the background. He should at least make it appear that we’re assisting Iraq, not the other way around.

The Bush administration may be incorporating some of these lessons already. Bremer has started referring to the new Iraqi ruling body as a “governing council” instead of, as he had been doing, a “political council.” On a less purely symbolic level, he has agreed to expand the council’s powers. And back in Washington, Rumsfeld had planned to shut down the Army War College’s Peacekeeping Institute this coming Sept. 30, consistent with the Bush administration’s thinking that the military should no longer be interested in peacekeeping as a mission. On Monday, a Pentagon spokesman announced the institute will stay open after all.