War Stories

If Only …

The lessons of our Iraqi bungles.

A question worth mulling, on this third anniversary of the war that President Bush told us was over and won two years and 10 months ago, is this: Were the fiascos inevitable—built-in products of the nature of the war itself—or could they have been avoided, or at least might their impact have been minimized, if President Bush and his top advisers had made smarter decisions?

This isn’t the stuff of parlor games; it’s a vital question. If the disasters were inescapable, then we shouldn’t get involved ever again in this sort of war. If they were preventable, then maybe these broader issues of war and peace can’t be settled by this particular conflict, but we can draw the lesson that we should elect less dogmatic leaders; and the officers and advisers who counseled against those decisions, who turned out to be right all along, can draw the lesson that they should speak out more boldly, perhaps even resign in protest, if they find themselves mired in such catastrophes again.

So, let us review the key strategic bungles of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the pivotal moments in this anguishing chronicle—not the decisions that seem mistaken only in hindsight (a too-easy enterprise), but those that some senior officials saw and warned about as mistaken at the time.

The failure to understand Iraqi society. Many of the Bush administration’s top officials, not least the president himself, seemed to think that once Saddam Hussein was toppled and the Baathist regime deposed, freedom would gush forth like uncorked champagne. They didn’t realize that centuries-old tensions between Sunnis and Shiites—suppressed  like everything else during Saddam’s rule—would also reignite. If they had appreciated the depth of these tensions, they might have concluded that a new and democratic Iraq would not emerge automatically, that it would have to be carefully crafted; and they might therefore have understood the need to plan for postwar “stability operations.” Instead, the Pentagon went into a war without any such plans because Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command, didn’t think they would be necessary.

Some officials did know, but they seem not to have told the president. A story by George Packer in the New York Times Magazine of March 2, 2003 (a couple of weeks before the war began), recounted a January meeting in the Oval Office between President Bush and three Iraqi exiles. The exiles spent much of the meeting explaining to Bush the difference between Sunnis and Shiites; they were stunned that he seemed unaware of the two groups’ existence. A story by David Sanger in the following day’s Times quoted “an administration insider” saying, “Of course, in our internal discussions, we raise the Yugoslavia analogy”—the possibility that Iraq could fall apart in the wake of Saddam’s ouster—”but this isn’t the moment for the president to be talking about that risk.” This was, in fact (and it should have been obvious), the best conceivable moment for the president to be discussing just that.

The failure to deploy enough troops. Rumsfeld was right that with modern technology and maneuver tactics he could defeat Iraq’s army and topple Saddam’s regime with a force of fewer than 150,000 troops. But the generals were right that he would need a lot more than that to establish order afterward. James Dobbins of the RAND Corp. estimated that, based on historical precedents, at least 250,000 troops would be needed. In their new book, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor report that L. Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, sent a memo to Rumsfeld summarizing Dobbins’ study. Rumsfeld never replied. Rumsfeld had a doctrinal attachment to the theory of “military transformation,” which held that a smaller, swifter force could win wars. It could also be argued that he, Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted the victory in Iraq to be seen as a precedent, especially in the Middle East—a warning, if not a preview,that Syria and Iran could tumble next. If a quarter-million troops were needed for those dominos to fall, the message would be lost; the U.S. Army and Marines simply couldn’t mobilize or sustain so large a force for very long.

And so, after the 3rd Infantry Division captured Baghdad International Airport, Rumsfeld couldhave swiftly flown in the men of the 4th Infantry Division (who had planned to invade Iraq from the north until the Turkish government blocked them from doing so) and the 1st Cavalry Division * (who were ready to fly in from their base in Texas until Saddam fell more quickly than expected, at which point Rumsfeld rescinded the order); he could also have flown in more military police and civil-affairs units. But he didn’t. As a result, the U.S. military never really occupied Iraq; there weren’t enough troops to do so.

The failure to stop the looting. “Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld said when rioting, looting, and pilfering broke out in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s defeat. The Iraqis’ new freedom included the freedom to commit crimes, he insouciantly added. George Packer, in his bookThe Assassins’ Gate, describes a meeting in Baghdad, shortly after the liberation, between Jay Garner, who briefly headed the occupation, and a large group of prominent Iraqis. One of them asked Garner, “Who’s in charge?” Garner replied, “You are.” A shudder rippled through the room. This was a country crawling out from totalitarian rule, unpracticed in the democratic arts, its security forces ripped asunder. Authority was needed. The United States, as the occupation authority, didn’t provide it. A few high-profile instances of forceful action—shooting a few looters, guarding more facilities—could have created a very different dynamic.

Disbanding the Iraqi army. When Pentagon officials briefed President Bush on postwar Iraq in April 2003, they said it would be reckless to throw 300,000 Iraqi soldiers out of work; instead, the ranks of Saddam’s army would be carefully sifted to throw out the true loyalists and war criminals but to keep the good soldiers who had obeyed orders simply for survival. In his memoir of his year in Baghdad, Bremer argues that there was no Iraqi army to preserve; its soldiers fled the battlefield as the American troops advanced to Baghdad. Yet Gordon and Trainor report that several Iraqi officers approached U.S. commanders, offering to call back their men and to help with the sifting. Bremer quashed these efforts when he took over the occupation authority in May and, as one of his first steps, issued an order dissolving the Iraqi military. He did so with Rumsfeld’s approval—but without so much as consultation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Secretary of State (and former JCS Chairman) Colin Powell. This step is now widely seen as both the most baffling and most pivotal decision of the occupation. The edict put tens of thousands of armed, trained soldiers on the streets, without salary and ticked off not only at the Americans but at any Iraqi politician who cooperated with them.

Halting municipal elections. In the spring of 2003, municipal elections, organized with the help of U.S. soldiers, were set to take place in several Iraqi cities, including Najaf. Bremer, fearful that anti-Americans might win, canceled them and instead hand-picked the members of an interim central government. Had the interim government been composed of locally elected delegates, whether from cities or from Iraq’s 18 traditional provinces, more Iraqi people might have seen it as legitimate; the insurgency, which played on its perceived illegitimacy, might not have taken hold. Had some of these elections taken place in multi-ethnic districts—in other words, had some districts’ delegations been composed of Sunnis and Shiites—then Iraqi national politics, as it emerged, might have been less sectarian in nature; a national election, once one was finally held, might have been something other than a sectarian census.

The litany of woulda-coulda-shoulda could go on for pages and pages. If Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, had used her leverage with Bush to put the State Department in charge of the occupation instead of letting Cheney and Rumsfeld run the show … If Cheney and Rumsfeld had staffed Bremer’s office with some Middle East specialists instead of with Republican Party cronies and nephews … If more American soldiers had known how to speak Arabic when the first armed clash broke out in Fallujah (they killed 15 rioting Iraqis, not knowing the reasons for the riot; this led some Fallujans to string up four U.S. contractors on a bridge; that led to the first, and disastrous, operation in Fallujah; that greatly bolstered the insurgency) …

And let us not put all the blame on the politicians. If the U.S. Army had spent any time in the previous three decades studying how to fight insurgencies … If the service chiefs had done anything to lure top officers into the military police or into civil-affairs commands … If any of the many generals who opposed Rumsfeld’s decisions had spoken out … (Were they all so rattled into silence by Rumsfeld’s premature ousting of Gen. Eric Shinseki for his congressional testimony on the need for “a few hundred thousand” troops? What would have happened had just two more generals risked their careers for the sake of speaking truth to power?)

Had different decisions been made at any of these junctures, the war might have gone differently, Iraq might be a different place, and the third anniversary might be a less gloomy occasion.

Correction, March 21, 2006: This piece originally misidentified the division that could have been deployed from Texas; it was the 1st Cavalry Division, not the 2nd Armored Division. (Return to the corrected sentence.)