War Stories

We Still Don’t Have a Plan

What has everybody been doing for three years?

It is becoming increasingly clear that President George W. Bush and his top advisers lack not only a strategy for fighting the war in Iraq but—more disturbing—any idea of how to devise one.

The latest, most jaw-dropping evidence comes from a front-page article by Greg Jaffe in the Nov. 15 Wall Street Journal. Jaffe tells the story of David (last name withheld for obvious reasons), a 37-year-old U.S. Army foreign-affairs officer stationed undercover in northwestern Iraq. David wears civilian clothes, packs only a pistol, and is so fluent in Arabic that the locals think he’s one of them. As a result, he’s been able to trace how jihadist fighters have moved into Iraq across the Syrian border—what routes they use, what markings they follow—and he’s passed on the information to American military commanders. He’s also advised these commanders and other officials on how to deal with their Iraqi counterparts, he’s fired incompetent interpreters who’d been hired by officials who didn’t know the language, and he’s staved off at least one big conflict with Turkey.

You read the first few paragraphs surprised and pleased that the Army has such officers. The chief of staff to Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez is quoted as saying, “We ought to have one of these guys assigned to every commander in Iraq.”

Then Jaffe drops the bombshell: The military is pulling David out of Iraq later this month, along with seven other officers who form his unit. The U.S. Embassy and military headquarters in Baghdad have apparently decided that they are duplicating the work of others.

Jaffe’s sources—on-the-ground officers and commanders, speaking on the record—sternly disagree. (Clearly, they let Jaffe talk with David as a way of rallying opposition to the move.) Col. John D’Agostino, who oversees the unit, is quoted as saying, “When David leaves, the U.S. Embassy’s regional office in Mosul won’t have a single Arabic speaker or Middle Eastern expert on its staff.”

This—all of this—is simply staggering. What has the military brass been doing the last three years—what has the diplomatic corps been doing the last three decades—to leave the United States in such a lurch that the regional office in Mosul, one of the most critical and turbulent cities in northern Iraq, has nobody versed in Arabic or even in Middle Eastern studies? (The office, Jaffe writes, is staffed with Asia and South America specialists.)

The Pentagon has issued high-level reports calling for more training in foreign languages and cultures. Officials acknowledge a particularly acute need in Iraq. Yet here’s David and his seven culturally astute colleagues doing invaluable, irreplaceable work on the battlefield, at the negotiating tables, in the embassy briefing rooms—and Baghdad headquarters is yanking them out of the country.

Whatever President Bush plans to do with Iraq next year—pull troops out, put more troops in, or just muddle through—this move is scandalously mindless.

Meanwhile, David Ignatius recently reported in the Washington Post that the “hot book” among top Iraq strategists this season is Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, which argues that we were on the verge of winning the Vietnam War just as political pressures forced Richard Nixon to pull out. The war started to go our way in 1972, Sorley contends, when Gen. William Westmoreland retired as U.S. commander, and his successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, abandoned the “search and destroy” strategy in favor of “clear and hold.” Westmoreland had focused on attrition and body counts; Abrams started clearing insurgents out of villages, one by one, then holding each area securely.

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, was seen reading the book in September. It’s on the bookshelves of many senior officers in Baghdad. It also caught the eye of State Department counselor Philip Zelikow. Most pertinent of all, Ignatius notes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice practically quoted from it in her Oct. 19 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “Our politico-military strategy has to be clear, hold and build—to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and to build durable, national Iraqi institutions.”

The idea—which is similar to the counterinsurgency strategy that Andrew Krepinevich Jr. recently laid out in Foreign Affairs—is appealing in theory. The problem—in Vietnam then and in Iraq now—is the “hold” part. American troops could, and can, “clear” an area of insurgents. But the South Vietnamese army couldn’t “hold” it securely—couldn’t keep the North Vietnamese army from coming back and retaking it. And neither the American nor the Iraqi army can keep the insurgents from coming back to cities like Fallujah. The Americans lack the numbers, and the Iraqis as yet lack the wherewithal or the training. Until that situation is changed, “clear and hold” is a daydream.

So, why are the country’s leaders conducting this war so cavalierly? William Kristol, one of the leading neocons who advocated this war, blames Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “I don’t think he ever really had his heart in it,” Kristol is quoted as saying in last Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine. At every stage of the war, Rumsfeld pushed for doing less—fewer troops, skimpier supplies, shorter training time, and so forth.

This theory doesn’t wash. By most accounts, Rumsfeld was bent on war with Iraq from the first moments after 9/11. His push for a small invasion force—which he demanded, and micromanaged, in the face of fierce resistance by the Army establishment—stemmed not from tepidity but from deep enthusiasm for “military transformation,” a theory that touts light, lithe, high-tech forces. It was a theory that seemed redeemed by the unconventional invasion of Afghanistan. And, as things turned out, it was further vindicated by the first month of the war in Iraq—the battlefield phase of the war.

Which leads us to the ultimate source of the problem: Rumsfeld and most of the others who planned the war thought the battlefield phase would be the only phase; contrary to advice from the CIA and the State Department’s regional specialists (whom the White House and Pentagon brusquely ignored), they truly believed that the aftermath wouldn’t be a problem. Saddam would be ousted, freedom would be rung, flowers and candies would be flung, Ahmad Chalabi and his militia would ascend to power, and our troops would be home by Christmas, if not by the Fourth of July.

The civilian hawks and neocons weren’t alone in this shortsightedness. Military leaders were culpable as well. In 2002, the Army and Air Force conducted war games that simulated an invasion of a country resembling Iraq. In both cases, victory was declared with the toppling of the enemy’s leader—not with the accomplishment of the larger strategic goals. As the real war began in the spring of 2003, there was no Army field manual on what used to be called “war termination”—i.e., how to end a war and what to do afterward.

By summer, it was clear to many that capturing Baghdad wasn’t synonymous with victory. But the mantra within Bush’s inner circle, on all matters of high policy, was firm: Never admit mistakes, never alter course. All hell broke loose in Iraq, and our leaders let it. By the time their attitude changed, and they realized the need for concessions to reality, it was in many ways too late. They never forged a coherent new policy, so even their adjustments were fitful and ad hoc.

Hence the bizarre attempt to seek a formula for victory from the grim playbooks of Vietnam. Hence the thoughtless order to shoo the genuinely productive David from the deadly deserts of northwestern Iraq.