War Stories

Decoding the McCaffrey Memo

If this is the cost of victory in Iraq, is America willing to pay it?

Gen. McCaffrey’s memo. Click to view the document.

Good news and bad news on the war in Iraq: The good news is that victory is possible, our troops are the best ever, the Iraqi army is getting bigger and better, and most Iraqi people want a pluralistic government. The bad news is that it will take 10 more years to accomplish these successes—at least three years just to get the Iraqi military into shape.

This is the prognosis of a private seven-page memo that retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey wrote to the heads of the social science department at West Point, where he now teaches international relations. He wrote the memo—which has started to circulate on the Internet—after a weeklong fact-finding tour of Iraq and Kuwait, where he talked with more than a dozen top generals and received two dozen briefings at all levels, from ambassadors and commanders to grunts.

McCaffrey has criticized the way the Bush administration has waged this war (last fall, he decried the Pentagon’s “childish assumptions” of how many troops would be necessary), but he has not joined the ranks of retired generals calling for Rumsfeld’s scalp. He supports the war and thinks our troops need to stay till the job’s done, whatever the price.

The significance of this memo is that it reveals—from an optimistic but realistic insider’s perspective—the magnitude of the price, and it’s probably way higher than what the vast majority of Americans are willing to pay.

McCaffrey begins his memo with praise for how much progress has been made: “The morale, fighting effectiveness, and confidence of U.S. combat forces continue to be simply awe-inspiring. … They are the toughest soldiers we have ever fielded. … The Iraqi Army is real, growing, and willing to fight. … The Iraqi police are beginning to show marked improvement in capability.” A few “are on a par with the best U.S. SWAT units.”

Then comes the far more extensive downside.

The Iraqi army battalions, he writes, “are very badly equipped with only a few light vehicles [and] small arms. … They have almost no mortars, heavy machine guns, decent communications equipment, artillery, armor, or … air transport, helicopter, and strike support.”

The bottom line: “We need at least two-to-five more years of U.S. partnership and combat backup to get the Iraqi Army ready to stand on its own.” (Emphasis added.)

The political-administrative apparatus is in worse shape still: The “corruption and lack of capability of the ministries [of defense and interior] will require several years of patient coaching and officer education in values as well as the required competence.” (Emphasis added.)

And this is nothing compared with problems in the police force. “The crux of the war hangs on the ability to create urban and rural local police with the ability to survive on the streets of this increasingly dangerous and lethal environment,” McCaffrey writes. It is “a prerequisite to the Iraqis winning the counter-insurgency struggle they will face in the coming decade.” And yet:

The police are heavily infiltrated by both [foreign jihadists] and Shia militias. They are incapable of confronting local armed groups. They inherited a culture of inaction, passivity, human rights abuses, and deep corruption. This will be a 10-year project requiring patience, significant resources, and an international public face. (Emphasis added.)

We also, he says, need to pour in a lot more money. The Iraqi army is underfunded by “an order of magnitude or more.” As for civil reconstruction, “we will fail to achieve our politico-military objectives in the coming 24 months if we do not continue economic support on the order of $5-10 billion a year.” (Meanwhile, only $1.6 billion remains in the pipeline from the $18 billion allocated three years ago, and White House officials have said that no more will be sent until Iraq is physically secure.)

Finally, there are the broader political worries. The “incompetence and corruption” of the various interim Iraqi governments resulted in a “total lack of trust among the families, the tribes, and the sectarian factions.” The violence and chaos also produced a “brain drain” and, with it, “a loss of the potential leadership to solve the mess that is Iraq today.” If the new prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki, doesn’t form an inclusive government in his first 120 days in power, McCaffrey notes, “there will be a significant chance of the country breaking apart in warring factions,” regardless of our efforts.

He concludes his memo by urging perseverance but conceding some doubt. He asks, “Do we have the political will, do we have the military power, will we spend the resources required to achieve our aims?”

Whether or not McCaffrey meant to imply as much, the answer to all three questions is probably “No.” By his own formulation, after all, mustering the will, power, and resources will require 10 more years of occupation, $50 billion to $100 billion in economic aid alone, who knows how many more hundreds of billions of dollars in military spending, who knows how many more thousands of casualties—and even then great uncertainty would remain about the Iraqis’ ability to hold their nation together.

The light at the end of the tunnel seems to be a very dim bulb. Blithe talk of “staying the course” is beside the point. Here is the real choice that Gen. McCaffrey’s memo thrusts before President Bush and his top aides: If the goals are worth the costs, then state them clearly; if the goals can’t be met by the effort they’re willing to put out, then scale back and cut losses. Anything in between is not merely a fantasy but a horrible waste.