A decade later, what lessons haven't we learned from the war in Iraq that we should?
- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
On March 19, it will have been 10 years since the United States invaded Iraq. Foreign Policy and the RAND Corporation teamed up to bring together many of the key players who launched, fought, analyzed, and executed the war, including everyone from Bush national security advisor Stephen Hadley and Gen. John Allen to Doug Feith, the controversial Bush Pentagon aide who advocated for the war in 2003, and Paul Pillar, the CIA analyst who later went public with his doubts. It quickly became clear that, even a decade later, every aspect of the war — from its rationale through each phase of its execution — remains hotly contested. We hope this unique conversation adds to the record of how we understand that war — and in particular, what its consequences will be, and already are, for future American national security debates. We present here edited excerpts from the first part of discussion, on "Ends and Means," moderated by RAND’s James Dobbins, and you can find a full list of participants and their bios here. The second part of the transcript can be read here.
James Dobbins, RAND: There are some people who feel that we bit off more than we could chew in Iraq, that we had too ambitious objectives when we went into Iraq. And there are others, including myself, who feel that we didn’t resource it adequately in the early months, and as a result had a hard time clawing back from those early days. I’d like to ask Steve Hadley to say a few words about ends and means, goals, objectives, and early commitments.
Stephen Hadley, Bush national security advisor: Did we have a match between ends and means in terms of the invasion and the toppling of Saddam? I would say yes. We had one mistake: We did not pay attention to the rear area security problem. We knew in the planning it was a problem, and we failed to get it teed up in the interagency so it would really be addressed in the systematic way it needed to be addressed, and we paid for that.
Second, was there a mismatch between ends and means in terms of the objective? You know, the lore out there was we went to war to bring democracy to the Iraqi people. That was not the case. We went to war to achieve some hard national security objectives.
Before we went to war the president had, in the situation room, a conversation about, once we topple Saddam, what is our obligation to the Iraqi people? Is it simply to substitute an authoritarian who will not move against our interests by supporting terror, invading neighbors, pursuing WMD? Or do we have an obligation because we are the United States of America, and because they’ve suffered under 30 years of a brutal authoritarian. Do we have an obligation to give the Iraqi people a chance, an opportunity, to build a democratic future for themselves?
The president decided on the latter, and I actually think we achieved that objective. It wasn’t pretty, and Iraq today is not pretty, but it has an opportunity to build a democratic future despite the enormous pressure that Syria and other events are putting on Iraq.
Third, did we have a mismatch between objectives and resources in terms of the insurgency? And you know, Stan McChrystal’s book is very interesting, because it makes crystal clear that what Iraq became was a struggle against al Qaeda in Iraq. And I remember — and I’m not getting partisan here — I remember in the summer of 2008 when then-candidate Obama said al Qaeda was the ball. The Bush administration took their eye off the ball, and they went into Iraq, but al Qaeda isn’t in Iraq. Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan.
And I asked Mike McConnell at the time — [director of national intelligence] at the time — how many al Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan today? And how many are in Iraq? And he said, in Iraq there’s about 15,000 down from about 20, and in Afghanistan there’s 200.
So you can say we failed to foresee that Iraq would become the front line of al Qaeda’s struggle against the United States, and I think we did not have the right strategy or the right resourcing in the end of the day to deal with that problem. And it took us a long time. And part of it was relearning a lot of things about counterinsurgency we did not know. So I’m not sure it’s a mismatch of objectives and resources. It may be something we should have anticipated and planned for but we did not, and it took us a long time, too long, and too high a price, to finally get our arms around that problem, and defeat al Qaeda in Iraq, and that’s what we did.
Fourth, post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction: We knew we had a problem there, because we did it one way in Bosnia — I would say, the international approach. We tried another way in Afghanistan, which was the pie approach — give every one of our national allies a piece of the pie, at least initially. And we found that everybody had a small piece of pie, which meant it was a second- or third-order priority, and nothing got done.
So in Iraq we decided, since the military actually knows how to get things done, we’ll give it to the military with a lot of State Department and other agency help. And I think what we found is the military made a valiant effort but they didn’t have the full skill set to solve the problem either, which raises a broader problem. We’ve spent 60 years investing and learning how to recruit, train, exercise, fight, and improve our military, and we have an unbelievable military. We have not made a similar commitment to develop the kind of civilian capabilities you need to do post-conflict stabilization reconstruction, or to get in pre-conflict to help unstable and post revolutionary states from descending into conflict.
I don’t think that was a reason not to remove Saddam given the national security objectives, but I think one of the conclusions we should draw is we’ve got to make an investment in those capabilities, because I think, to assume that we’re never going to need them again post conflict, and don’t need them pre-conflict in — in failing, or post revolutionary states, I think is wrong..
Eliot Cohen, Bush State Department official: I guess I just have four thoughts of ends and means. I could never get a clear sense of what democratic governance meant for a country like Iraq, and how ragged an outcome we could comfortably live with.
Secondly, I think part of our problem is we forgot how to do military government. I think the military really didn’t want to have anything to do with anything associated with the sort of stuff that they had actually done quite a bit of in other places, particularly in Europe, after World War II. I think part of the problem here is the atrophy, or the disappearance of capabilities that maybe only mass mobilization military could have.
The third question I have about means is, how much development is really called for in all this, having seen how much of that got wasted, or was actually counterproductive? I really wonder whether we went overboard in how much we’ve spent, and that we ended up spending money in ways that created dependence, created resentment.
The fourth thing [is that] the large part of means is institutions and institutional culture. I think there were — and there probably remain — huge problems because I suspect that the half-life of our memory of these conflicts is going to be really short. And that the instinct of the military is not going to be to hold up a mirror to its own performance [to say], "How do we make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen again?" It will be to say, "God, we’re never going to do that again." And then we’ll find ourselves in a room like this — well, maybe my kids will — you know, 15 or 20 years from now.
Peter Feaver, Bush NSC staffer: I’ve gone back through a lot of the criticisms [of the war], and I’ve noticed several com
mon flaws that are worth keeping in mind. The first one is a failure to do serious counterfactual analysis. What would have been the situation if we had chosen a different course?
The second level is, what if things had gone slightly differently — those kinds of plausible what-ifs that could have happened but didn’t happen that might have changed [the outcome].
And the third grand level is the counterfactual from the point of view of al Qaeda. Iraq broke al Qaeda in a way that it did not break the United States. The U.S. paid a terrible price, but Iraq turned out to be a breaking point for al Qaeda.
Lt. Col. (ret.) John Nagl: I certainly agree with Steve Hadley that there are hard national security reasons why we invaded Iraq, and certainly one of them could not have been that there was al Qaeda in Iraq in 2003, because there was not. There were an awful lot of al Qaeda in Iraq. I fought them later, but they came after we got there. So if our strategy was to attract al Qaeda to Iraq, it worked. I don’t remember that being one of the arguments.
So the casus belli was the Iraqi WMD programs. The ends/means mismatch was that if we were moving to secure Iraqi WMD, we did not have sufficient forces to do so. And I know this personally. When I arrived in Iraq in September of 2003 at Taqqadum Air Base, one of the largest weapons bases in all of Iraq, it was completely unsecure. The fence around it had been dismantled by the Iraqi people who were selling the metal for scrap iron. There were literally weapons lying in the streets. They could have been anything, and many of them were.
This failure to provide sufficient troops to secure Iraqi weapon sites which was the justification for the war, had been foreseen by Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, and he’s written about his struggles inside the Pentagon to try to send sufficient troops to accomplish that mission.
I’ll make just one more point. We have not talked at all about some of the critical policy decisions that were made, decisions like the complete de-Ba’athification of Iraq which contributed to the events that followed. I’ll talk just briefly about what I consider to have been the most grievous of those errors, which was the disbanding of the Iraqi Army.
One of my buddies was a tank battalion commander, fought into Baghdad and was working with an Iraqi major general who had essentially demobilized his division but had his soldiers ready to secure Baghdad as a responsibility of the occupying power. My friend and he were having discussions; the order came down to disband the Iraqi Army completely. My friend had to tell his interlocutor, the Iraqi major general, "I’m sorry, we’re not going to be able to work with you."
The Iraqi looked him in the eye, straight in the eye, and said, "That means I will be fighting you tomorrow." My friend said, "I know." They stood up, saluted each other, and the next day the IEDs started.
So the decisions made in Washington not to provide sufficient troops to secure the WMD sites, later to de-Ba’athify, and to shut down the Iraqi Army, were huge contributors to everything that followed.
Col. Peter Mansoor (ret.), former aide to Gen. David Petraeus: We’ve talked about resources and whether, had we provided more resources or better resources, this war would have gone differently. And I don’t think in the first three years it would have.
General Petraeus used to say that it’s important for a senior leader to get the big issues right. And early on, we did not. And the de-Ba’athification of Iraqi society and disbanding the Iraqi Army did more than just create significant problems for us. In my view, those decisions created the insurgency. There would have been insurgency anyway but it would have been much smaller; it would have been, as Secretary Rumsfeld used to say, the dead-enders. But by de-Sunnifying Iraq, in the minds of the Iraqi Sunnis, we created our own problem.
I love President Bush’s memoir Decision Points, because in it, he talks about these decisions, and he goes, you know, we did not talk about these in the National Security Council, and we should have. And he takes responsibility for that. And he says, now, had we talked about these issues we might have come to the same decisions but at least we would have done it knowing the second and third order effects that would follow from them.
Walt Slocombe, senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority: Well, I think Mr. Mansoor has hit on a real difference of analysis here. It wasn’t de-Ba’athification, it was de-Sunnification. And it really followed what Steve Hadley has described as President Bush’s very serious and important question. Do we want to install another authoritarian? Which would have meant, in that context, Sunni regime in Iraq or not. You can argue that point, but that’s what it was about. [Nobody thought the Iraqi army] could be reconstituted as anything other than a Sunni militia.
I think a fundamental error was having a divided command, one — with a military command responsible for the military operations and a civilian structure under Ambassador Bremer responsible for the civilian side. The fact of the two of them, to put it mildly, General Sanchez and Ambassador Bremer, didn’t exactly get along particularly well didn’t help. But I think even with very good personal relationships, it was an unnecessary burden.
I think the biggest lack of committed resources was time and patience, that the assumption was, at the beginning, that it would be very easy, and then it was a period when the assumption was, well, this was going to be hard and we’re going to have to stay a long time.
I don’t think there was a sufficient analysis of how exactly we were going to create [a democracy], and it was certainly not a sufficient commitment of resources. I mean, I guess this is on the record so I probably shouldn’t say it: We didn’t let KBR waste enough money in the early days. We should have done things like tell KBR, we don’t care what it costs or how you have to do it, but get the goddamned electricity fixed. That’s one of the things which my sense was, was that there was an understandable sense of disappointment that things didn’t suddenly get a lot better for the ordinary Iraqi, whatever their sectarian affiliations, and things like electricity would have made a big difference. It wasn’t that we didn’t try; it’s that we didn’t succeed.
It’s all very well to say, well, we did very well in Germany and Japan, and for that matter Bosnia and Kosovo or Haiti, where we didn’t do so well. But in none of those situations was there an active, armed insurgency opposition trying to stop us.
Kenneth Pollack, Brookings Institution: I think one of the mistakes that we made at the time, and we continue to make, is to think of Iraq as an insurgency. Iraq was an insurgency. There was an insurgency there. But that was not the primary problem in Iraq. The primary problem of Iraq was a civil war. It’s a very quintessential inter-communal civil war. It was a civil war ultimately of our making because we created the security vacuum that gave rise to it.
The thing was that the insurgency was directed at us so that’s what we tend to focus on. But when you think about the dynamics of Iraq and what was important to that country, and ultimately, what allowed us to achieve what we achieved in 2008/2009, it was really because we were solving the problems of the civil war, even though we oftentimes didn’t refer to it that way explicitly.
Kalev Sepp, Naval Postgraduate School: I would like to go back to what Peter Feaver had raised before about counterfactuals. Related to the weapons of mass destruction, the counterfactual question would be, what if WMD had been discovered? Would that have changed the subsequent events at all?
The once-classified slide decks that talked about one of the proofs of WMD was the deception measures that the Iraqis were discove
red to be making. Both deception and denial measures. And they were all correct — all of the camouflage, the obstruction of UN weapons inspectors, signals deception that was clearly related to the WMD sites.
But there was a single presumption about what that meant. And at a very fundamental level deception is conducted for one of two purposes. You either hide strength, or you hide weakness. It does not seem anybody explored the idea that they were hiding the fact that they had no WMD at all. Of course, the target audience for that was the Iranians, and we were the unintended audience for the deception.
Philip Mudd, former CIA official: If you think of the civil unrest piece, we have a lot of experience in looking at the Sikhs, the Kashmiris, Sri Lankans, the tribal areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan. I looked at all these other insurgencies at the agency, and it’s not clear to me that provision of more assistance would have been helpful.
If you have a local population that supports the civil unrest, the ability to impose will is going to be extremely difficult, regardless of the investment. And again, looking at the Indians going against the Sikhs, the Kashmiris, the southern Sri Lankans and Sinhalese going against the Tamils — a history of this tells me that if the locals like the message of violence, you can’t stamp it out.
The second and final message is local power. If you want to stamp it out, you’ve got to have somebody locally — and that is the Sri Lankan Army, the Indians in Kashmir, the northern alliance in Afghanistan — who’s going to crush heads.
And this is where I think the de-Sunnification piece comes in. One of our big assumptions was, why wouldn’t these guys be with us? That was wrong. If we assume we’re not going to have local support, we’re going to have to crush them. And to crush them, my experience with all these other areas tells me, we need a local power who will do it, because we can’t.
Doug Feith, Bush Pentagon official: There was a lot of talk in the run-up to the war about basic strategic ideas, and one of the most basic was that we would have a strategy of liberation rather than occupation.
We actually had a plan for political transition in Iraq that would have been a?variation on what we did in Afghanistan, where we would not have set up a protracted U.S. occupation regime. In Afghanistan, as everybody knows, we overthrew the Taliban but didn’t set up a U.S.-led occupation government. But we wound up having an occupation government in Iraq despite the fact that there had been quite a substantial discussion and formal agreement at the NSC level that we were not going to have that.
When you have a problem with a regime, I mean, as we had in Afghanistan, as we had in Iraq, as we now have in Syria, North Korea, when you have a problem with a regime, and if you’re going to take action to move that regime aside, how do you define your goals? And what are the consequences of deciding to run the place for a substantial period of time? I mean, that’s quite important.
One of the consequences of what we did in Iraq by shifting, essentially, to an occupation approach, despite, as I said, the pretty widespread agreement before we went to war that that would be a problem, was that all of the problems of Iraq, which were very substantial (and more, in fact, than we knew as a government — you know, like the horrible state of their infrastructure, which was worse than we had known). But all of those problems, like the electricity problem, became an American problem.
Is there some way to deal with horrible regimes like that, that you want to move aside, and even taking some steps, as I think Steve Hadley rightly pointed out, are kind of required of the United States, you’re not going to want to put a dictator in place of another dictator. You’re going to want to try to give an opportunity for the people to build better, more democratic political institutions. But is there a way to [deal with horrible regimes] where you don’t wind up being the occupying power; where you don’t wind up owning every problem that that country has because of its decades of misrule?
But I think that a lot of bad things flowed from the fact that we took the kind of ownership of Iraq and its governance, after Saddam’s overthrow, that we did, and I don’t think it was inevitable.
Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst: The textbook scenario, for whenever a nation like ours undertakes something really major, and certainly a big offensive war of choice is major, is that we have a policy process in which all of the relevant parts of the bureaucracy, as well as external sources of expertise, are engaged that examines in detail, what are the objectives that we would be trying to achieve if we undertake this? What would be the cost? What are the other side effects? And you weigh the pros and cons, and that’s the way a policy process works. And as Rich Armitage once observed, we didn’t have that with going to war in Iraq. And there was no process to decide whether it was something this country ought to do in the first place, as opposed to discussions about getting public support for the decision, or for implementing the decision.
And in my view, that’s the most basic lesson to be learned, and to be applied in the future, is have a policy process. Of course, that gets right to the key question of doing the war or not doing the war. But it also subsumes so much else of what we’ve discussed already. You know, we didn’t anticipate this, or we didn’t apply enough resources to that. Those are exactly the sorts of questions that, in a thorough pre-war policy process, would be forced to fore.
Peter Feaver mentioned, for example, a paucity of counterfactual analysis, and I think that’s a correct observation in terms of what we’ve seen over the last 10 years. But, of course, the right time to do the counterfactual analysis is before you do the war, not the subsequent 10 years.
You know, we had, back in the Johnson administration decisions on Vietnam in the mid ’60s, a very thorough policy process, all documented in the Pentagon papers, and you can read about it in LBJ’s memoirs, but that didn’t guarantee success.
But I would estimate that not just 10 years from now but 50 years from now, when historians look back at this, the absence of that kind of process is going to be one of the most extraordinary things that historians will comment on.
Mansoor: I want to go back to the comment that Iraq was a civil war. Although I agree with that, I don’t think it shows the complexity of the conflict. Because it was an insurgency, there was terrorism there, there was organized crime there, and it wasn’t just one civil war, it was multiple civil wars. Shia on Shia, Sunni on Sunni, and Shia on Sunni. And the key, which we finally got around to in 2007, was to leverage the fault lines between them to find allies.
So I think the takeaway here for the future is, we need to understand better the local dynamics of these places if we’re going to go in there with an industrial strength armed force. And I don’t think we understood those dynamics in 2003 at all.
David Sanger, New York Times: Picking up on that same point, I had a chance recently to go back over notes from the interviews that we had done with members of the administration, including some in this room, in the weeks leading up to the war. And a couple of things jumped out at me. One was an assumption at the time, or at least a discussion of an assumption at the time, that it would be a war of liberation, as Doug said, rather than a war of occupation, because it would be able to cut off the very tops of the ministries, de-Ba’athify each of the ministries, and the following Monday morning everybody would come into work and the infrastructure would kind of pick up where it was, and Doug made the point, nobody understood the degree to which the infrastructure didn’t work, but they also didn’t understand the degree to
which that bureaucratic structure didn’t really exist.
When you go back and you look at the speeches that President Bush gave in the run-up to the war, there was one that he gave that dealt with the democratization issues, and there were six or seven that dealt with the WMD threat, including the big Cincinnati speech, which had the discussion of how attacks could actually strike the United States, and so forth. I suspect that, had that ratio been reversed, that it might have been a lot easier to set up the later conversation about the opportunities for democratization, and might have affected in some way the way we approached this.
But since it took, instead, five or six months to come to the determination that there wasn’t an active WMD program even if there had been one before, that meant that there was a lag in coming up with what became a new justification for the war. And I think that that, in the end, ended up costing pretty vital time.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post: The political transformation plan was, in a sense, quite aspirational before the war. And as we look forward to sort of enduring lessons from all of this, particularly in terms of resourcing, the lack of attention to political transition strikes me as at near the top of the list. And it ties directly into the issue of de-Sunnification. Its true cost, yes, was the insurgency, but also leaves us with a legacy of the politics we have now, which are far from inclusive. And that ties directly back to de-Sunnification decisions, and had there been a more robust and meaningful transition plan, we might not even have gotten there.
Look at Afghanistan today. It’s a problem of politics more than anything else. And you could argue all along, we’ve had counterinsurgency military strategies, we’ve had reconstruction strategies, but there’s never been a very good diplomatic political strategy there, as we failed to have early on in Iraq.
Cohen: Yes, you need political strategy; yes, it’s all about local dynamics and including personalities and so on. And my point would be, you never know that stuff until you’re really there on the ground. You don’t know that from the outside. My strong suspicion is, as I said, you don’t understand the local dynamics until you are physically on the ground, until General Allen is out there with the Anbari sheikhs, and talking to them, all the time, and figuring out who’s who and what’s what.
And the implication of that is if you do do this kind of thing, you are doing occupation. Don’t kid yourself. And I think we did kid ourselves, you know, just looking at those simple words, liberation and occupation, they can mean different things. Liberating Prague is one thing. Liberating Baghdad is very, very different.
Feaver: I had in mind many different counterfactuals, but the one that Paul and a couple other people had raised is, what if we had had no invasion?
Here’s what I think the reality would have been. One, a much stronger al Qaeda than we ended up with 10 years later. Secondly, a conviction that Hussein had a much larger WMD arsenal than he actually had, because, of course, our knowledge about his absence of WMD involved interrogations of Hussein, which we wouldn’t have had. And third, based on that same rationale, the collapse of the sanctions regime in the UN, which would have allowed him to actually start rebuilding in a way that he would have been able to.
Is that a better world than the world we’re in today? Maybe. I think people can still disagree. But it is not the idyllic world that the argument is usually made.
Last observation, Doug asked sort of the rhetorical question: Could we ever avoid responsibility? I think we’re running a natural experiment on that very question on Syria. President Obama right now appears to be running the experiment that, if we don’t intervene, we can avoid responsibility for the very predictable chaos that’s coming. Then, when and if Assad falls, and the chaos that everyone has predicted comes to pass, we will all say, we told you so. And apparently the Obama administration’s position is, but we’re not responsible for it, and therefore it’s not our problem. And I think when we’re looking for lessons to go forward on Iraq, one of the hard questions we should ask is, what are the areas in the world where our inactivity will absolve us from responsibility from cleanup?
Feith: The strategic question is, is there a middle ground between the kind of inactivity in Syria that we now see, and occupation? Eliot’s suggesting that there might not be, that occupation is inevitable in some ways. But it’s an interesting question, because if the only option for dealing with a problem regime is forcing it out of the way, and then owning the country for a substantial period of time, then I think your point that the American people are going to say, we’ll be damned for a very long time, is almost certainly the case. And maybe that is right.
Gen. John Allen: I was a deputy commander out in Anbar Province. We spent an extraordinary amount of time preparing ourselves intellectually for what we would face in the Anbar Province, which was, in many respects, a closed system compared to other areas within Iraq that folks had to deal with, which was, perhaps, multiethnic, multi-confessional. And the environment in which we operated in Anbar presented us with the challenge of dealing with virtually the complete absence of governance with the complete ascendancy of the tribes. And so understanding the human terrain, understanding the dynamics of the social fabric into which we were ultimately thrust gave us, I think, a number of opportunities.
One of the most important opportunities was not just our ability to deal with the tribes, to have entree to tribes at the level where we could deal with sheikhs as a matter of regular intercourse. But it also gave us the ability to recognize the potential value of the Awakening when it occurred. We really sensed that something was changing dramatically in the battle space, and we were very familiar with, and very aware of, the previous tribal attempts to organize, and how those had either failed or been stamped out by al Qaeda.
Leaving Iraq, I would become the Deputy Commander at CENTCOM where, to Dr. Hadley’s point, I was very concerned that many of the lessons that we had learned in terms of the capacity for civil military execution, but even more importantly, the capacity for civil military planning, I was very concerned about losing the edge, potentially, of that. And so, for us, as we undertook at CENTCOM contingency plans for other potential regional issues, we spent a great deal of time understanding the environment in Phase Zero, which is called the shaping phase, which is peacetime, if you will, but also spent a lot of time trying to understand, in areas where there could be potential contingency operations, understanding tribal, ethnic, confessional governmental dynamics, so that should a contingency begin, we had attempted within the context of our formal planning to understand that, as you shift from peacetime to the contingency, in a very real sense, you are beginning your execution for stability operations, and ultimately the shift to civilian government. You’re beginning that shift the moment that the contingency begins if you’ve done the planning correctly.
So an immediate lesson learned for me, a really key takeaway from my personal experience in Iraq was that, in the context of contingency planning, for contingencies which were really not even on scope at that particular moment for us, understanding what would be necessary to stabilize an environment following a contingency operation, and then shift that stability over to an indigenous civil governance was a very important takeaway for us.
And of course, the big takeaway, again, back to Dr. Hadley’s point, the big takeaway was, while the military is quite good at that, frankly — quite good at shaping in Phase Zero, what might be the ou
tcome in Phase 4, there is still a great deal of room for the development of capacity, so that it is in fact a civil military, and ultimately a civil lead in Phase 4 and Phase 5. And that was a direct outcome for me. It is a concern of mine today, as we continue to think about the future: Are we adequately resourcing ourselves intellectually so that future contingencies, as a direct result of what we learned in Iraq, are we going to be properly postured at a civil military level ultimately to move to Phase 4 and Phase 5?
Michael Gordon, New York Times: There was a contradiction at the heart of the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq, which was a very simple one: It wanted to do regime change, and it didn’t want to take on any of the burdens of nation-building. In fact, Don Rumsfeld gave a speech to that in the lead-up to the war.
And so everything I saw from the inside, in terms of the planning, the extensive planning on what they used to call Phase 3 was all about how to take apart the regime, how to defeat Saddam, how to get into Baghdad, how to destroy the Republican Guard. There was very little of what they call Phase 4, which was, what were you going to do after you arrived in Baghdad and inherited this situation? And the strategy was a hopeful strategy. It was Doug Feith’s liberation strategy, which is that it was — the war was intended to be kind of a turn-key operation, where we would rather quickly hand over to some sort of Iraqi entity — this was codified in CENTCOM’s own plans. This whole intensive, laborious, complex, difficult occupation that the United States presided over was backed into. It wasn’t the original design.
But the basic point I think in these operations is it’s not enough to simply destroy something. If you don’t have a plan to fill the vacuum that follows, you shouldn’t go in in the first place. And United States didn’t have such a plan, and it later evolved such a plan. What the United States should have done and what the military should have done is, instead of spending 18 months planning Phase 3 — how to get to Baghdad and take down the war, and sort of started — spent 18 months on Phase 4, and worked on things once we’re there when all these things happen, how are we going to handle this, what’s going to be the political mechanisms and military mechanisms. Because Phase 3 was the easy part. You could have attacked Baghdad from Turkey, we could have come from Kuwait; we could have come from Jordan. The result was preordained.
It was Phase 4, the part that was given short shrift, that, really, in the planning process, on the political side and on the military side, that should have been the very first planning task. And if you don’t have an answer for Phase 4, then don’t do Phase 1, 2 and 3.
Allen: Let me just say this again: A Phase Zero is where you do this, which is, you know, the peacetime part of this thing. When you begin the operation, or you contemplate the operation, Phase 4 begins immediately. It’s not at the end of Phase 3. You’re mobilizing for Phase 4 as the operation begins. So however long it takes you to get to Phase 4, Phase 4 has really started intellectually for you in terms of mobilization of resources from the beginning. And that ought to be driving our thinking on every contingency plan henceforth.
Hadley: You know, what you see depends on where you sit. So I speak from my particular vantage point of the White House, and I recognize that everything I say can be discounted because it’s so self-serving. One of the things Dr. Sepp, I think, said, which I think is exactly right in terms of failure of intelligence, it’s really a failure of imagination. It never occurred to me or anyone else I was working with, and no one from the intelligence community or anyplace else ever came in and said, what if Saddam is doing all this deception because he actually got rid of the WMD and he doesn’t want the Iranians to know? Now, somebody should have asked that question. I should have asked that question. Nobody did. It turns out that was the most important question in terms of the intelligence failure that never got asked.?
Secondly, Peter is right. We assumed we had about 150,000 Iraqi troops that we would vet, and then they would help us reconstruct and provide security. And they — we can talk about disbanding the Army — they melted away, was how it looked to us. They melted away. They were not there, including all their equipment. And I still wonder today where all that stuff went.
We did not have a plan B. We tried a plan B. Colin Powell went out and tried to get other countries — remember, Egyptians and others — [to] put in troops, and got to zero. And we never decided, we’ve got to put 100,000 more troops in there because we’re 150,000 short. That was less a problem of planning or a fallback. It was more we didn’t face up to the consequences of where we were.
Three, process. We had process. It certainly was not adequate, though in some sense pre-war no planning process ever is.
But I’ll give you three things to think about:
One, there are constraints. If you think it’s a war of choice, you have lots of time to do a planning process. I don’t think Iraq was a choice — a preemption or choice — I think it was a war of last resort. After 12 years we ran out of options. And maybe it was a failure of vision, maybe a failure of planning, but it’s either let Saddam off the hook or go to war.
One of the problems about doing this wonderful 18 months of post-war planning is when it leaks, everybody says, "See, the Bush administration doesn’t want to get a diplomatic solution, they just want to go in and change the regime. We told you." And suddenly, your coercive diplomacy goes out the window.
A decision I kept struggling with was, when do you start the post-war planning and how do you keep it small so people didn’t participate? It was not broadly within the government. So you don’t blow your possibility of solving the problem without going to war. It was a constrained planning process.
It had three problems in my view.
One, I don’t think what we did in the interagency planning process ever got translated into guidance to troops down at John Nagl’s level, so it may be planning with no consequence. Secondly, I’m not sure CENTCOM’s heart was really in Phase 4. And third, given 10 years of war and the experience that John Allen had, we would do a planning process a lot better this time than we did.
It’s only when we got a handle on al Qaeda, and then changed strategy in January 2007, that we did all the things Peter was talking about. I think as we think about this we underestimate the extent to which al Qaeda played. Al-Zarqawi was in Iraq, of course, when we went to war, but he, as [McChrystal’s] book makes clear, exploited the vacuum that was created to make it the central front in the war on terror. We’re responsible for that. But it changed the situation that we planned for in profound ways.