Who Killed Iraq?

After the invasion, America was supposed to help Iraq become a model democracy. Instead, the arrogance of L. Paul Bremer and his team of naïve neocons only helped Iraq become the world's most dangerous nation. This is how it all went wrong -- before it ever had a chance to go right.

Iraq was often a black-and-white place for the Bush administration loyalists who served in the American occupation government. Ensconced in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, they spent more time interacting with fellow Americans than Iraqis. Still, they were convinced that they knew what was best for Iraq. The old Iraqi Army, for instance, was bad. Exiled political leaders were good. Members of the Baath Party were, of course, in the bad column. Outside the Green Zone's 17-foot-high walls, America's military leaders saw a more sepia-toned landscape. It was not black and white, just hazy shades of brown.

Iraq was often a black-and-white place for the Bush administration loyalists who served in the American occupation government. Ensconced in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, they spent more time interacting with fellow Americans than Iraqis. Still, they were convinced that they knew what was best for Iraq. The old Iraqi Army, for instance, was bad. Exiled political leaders were good. Members of the Baath Party were, of course, in the bad column. Outside the Green Zone’s 17-foot-high walls, America’s military leaders saw a more sepia-toned landscape. It was not black and white, just hazy shades of brown.

The relationship between soldiers and the civilians in charge of reconstruction had faltered in the aftermath of previous U.S. military operations in Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia. Iraq, however, was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be a chance to get military-civilian cooperation right. But, from the start, policies concocted by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headquartered inside Saddam’s marble-walled Republican Palace, rarely played out on the ground as CPA leader Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III and his subordinates expected. Bremer’s first official act upon arriving in Baghdad was to fire tens of thousands of Baathists from their government jobs. But what about the 15,000 teachers that included? What about the top managers at the Ministry of Health? Or the hundreds of old soldiers who had been made honorary senior members of the party after spending years in Iranian prisoner-of-war camps?

Those working for the CPA — many of whom were young civilians politically loyal to the Bush administration — didn’t grasp these nuances, or the need for pragmatic exceptions to their neoconservative edicts. But many in the military did. In the northern city of Mosul, for instance, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, considered Bremer’s de-Baathification policy to be dangerously out of touch with realities on the ground. So, instead of telling former Baathists to fend for themselves, Petraeus created job programs to employ them, reasoning that keeping them at work would dissuade them from becoming insurgents. Instead of following Bremer’s rules, which required appeals of firings to be submitted to a review board run by the controversial former exile Ahmad Chalabi, Petraeus allowed local leaders to grant exemptions.

Petraeus knew he was breaking Bremer’s rules, but playing by them would have endangered U.S. troops. "We needed the latitude to make exceptions," he said. "The policy, as it was conceived, wasn’t flexible enough." In return, Bremer’s staff regarded Petraeus as a maverick veering off the reservation. "We make policy and it’s their job to implement it," one of Bremer’s aides said of the military. "We’re the ones in charge, not them."

The tension between the American military and American civilians during the 15-month occupation of Iraq is one of the principal reasons that the country remains unsafe today.


If the United States was inadequately prepared for nation building in Iraq, it was not for lack of experience. There were plenty of military officers in the Pentagon who had planned and carried out postwar missions. There were numerous "lessons learned" reports from previous conflicts about delivering postconflict aid. And there were scores of people — at the State Department, the United Nations, and various nongovernmental organizations — who stood ready to advise the Bush administration. But the politically appointed civilians inside the Pentagon sought to marginalize and, in some cases, exclude senior military officers from the planning for postwar Iraq.

A few months before the war, several Pentagon staffers saw Gen. John Abizaid, then the director of the Joint Staff, standing outside a closed door. Abizaid, the Pentagon’s highest-ranking officer apart from the four members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been told he couldn’t participate in the Iraq planning meeting taking place inside, according to a person familiar with the exchange. Other senior military officials were kept out of similar sessions convened by former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith during the run-up to the war. Feith headed a secretive Pentagon staff called the Office of Special Plans that was supposed to draw up blueprints for governing and reconstructing liberated Iraq. To Feith and his bosses, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the upper ranks of the officer corps were composed of old-school thinkers who supported an overwhelming ground force to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime but pooh-poohed the task of nation building.

At the forefront of the old guard was Gen. Eric Shinseki, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee three weeks before the war that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed to "maintain a safe and secure environment" in Iraq. Shinseki was the highest-ranking general to contradict the Pentagon’s civilian leadership in public, but several other officers voiced similar views in private. They also warned that dissolving the Iraqi Army would be a disaster and questioned the wisdom of de-Baathification. Their assessments, most of which eventually proved correct, put them at odds with Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith.

This animosity carried over, and worsened, when Bremer arrived in Baghdad. The CPA was supposed to be in charge of governing and reconstructing the country. But Bremer never had more than half the personnel he was promised, and for the first four months of the occupation he had just a few hundred people working for him. The CPA didn’t have enough bodies to set up satellite offices in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces. So the task of day-to-day local governance fell to the military. Infantry commanders and their civil-affairs teams set up town councils, reconstituted local police departments, and paid salaries to municipal employees. The soldiers doled out funds from the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP), a bottomless kitty that paid for small-scale reconstruction projects. In the first year of the occupation, the CERP was the only way to fund infrastructure projects and provide jobs to the unemployed in Iraq.

Although they were doing all the heavy lifting of nation building, the military continued to be shut out when it came to shaping the overall strategy for postwar reconstruction and governance. It wasn’t brought into the CPA’s decision-making process. As a result, military officers implemented stopgap solutions and assumed that civilian experts who spoke Arabic would soon follow. More than once in those early months, I heard soldiers outside Baghdad tell groups of Iraqis, "We’ll get this figured out when the CPA arrives."

It never did, at least not for months. Instead, all the military heard from the Green Zone were objections to their on-the-ground decisions, most of which were made out of desperation. One example occurred in the summer of 2003 in the city of Najaf. A Marine lieutenant colonel sought to hold elections to select a city council there. It was what the city’s elders wanted and, after all, the commander reasoned, the United States was supposed to be bringing democracy to Iraq. When Bremer got word of the proposed elections, he demanded the balloting be called off. His bureaucracy would determine when elections should be held. It didn’t matter what the people in Najaf wanted. Bremer’s playbook called for elections only after Iraqis had drafted a constitution and jumped through other hoops.

The CPA’s general approach to postwar governance and reconstruction was to delve into minutiae from hundreds of miles away. Bremer’s education advisors went through textbooks line by line to determine what should be expunged. His healthcare team studied every single prescription medicine used by Iraq’s Health Ministry. American attorneys drafted a new traffic code and revised Iraq’s laws governing everything from patents to industrial design. Military commanders, by and large, didn’t believe in micromanagement. They wanted to find capable Iraqi leaders, empower them, and then get out of the business of running the country. Decisions about textbooks, traffic laws, and patents were for Iraqis to make. The military’s approach wasn’t perfect. Iraq had a decrepit infrastructure. It was hard, if not impossible, to find local leaders who weren’t corrupt or perceived as illegitimate by the public. Even so, there was a logic behind the military’s desire to avoid meddling in issues Iraqis could have solved themselves. But when military officials made that point in the Republican Palace, CPA personnel often dismissed them as whiners who wanted to go home instead of build a model democracy.


Had military commanders on the ground been consulted and empowered by the CPA, instead of stymied by it, they would likely have played a far more effective role in Iraq’s reconstruction. Doing a better job with that almost certainly would have meant a reduction in the strength and scope of the insurgency. But the relationship between the military and the civilians was poisoned from the very top. Bremer and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, could barely stand each other. Sanchez, according to his associates, viewed Bremer as imperious. Bremer, according to his aides, deemed Sanchez incompetent. The two men spoke because they had to, but their interactions were frequently tense and unproductive.

Among other things, the two men couldn’t agree on how and when to deal with Moktada al-Sadr, the rebellious Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia was a constant source of trouble in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Bremer wanted the military to detain Sadr. Sanchez was loath to run the risk of creating another problem for his already stretched occupation force. If America didn’t act, Bremer argued, the Sadr threat would only become worse. Finally, in late March 2004, Bremer lost his patience. He ordered the closure of Sadr’s newspaper, without a comprehensive backup strategy for military action in case his militia fought back. It did. There was no advance warning provided to U.S. soldiers in Sadr’s strongholds, including in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum. There was no coordination between the CPA and senior Army commanders. Attempts by the U.S. military to regain control of areas seized by the Mahdi Army resulted in two months of ferocious ground combat that was more intense than anything U.S. troops had encountered during the year-long occupation or even the initial invasion of Iraq.

Of course, there were times when the military needed to be more engaged, not less. In the autumn of 2003, Sanchez assigned 24 military engineers to help increase Iraq’s electricity production. The engineers were sent to power stations across the country and told to work with the plant managers to conduct a detailed assessment of what repairs could be made to increase output. The military engineers helped add hundreds of additional megawatts to Iraq’s power grid. But, after two months, the troop- strapped Sanchez ordered the engineers to report back to their original units, depriving the CPA of an on-site taskmaster and a reliable way to communicate with each plant.

But, by and large, Bremer’s sentiments permeated the ranks of civilians working in the CPA. There were hundreds of soldiers in the Green Zone, some of whom were seconded to the CPA. Many of them were majors and colonels who had been in uniform for more than two decades and had been stationed in Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia. A few had even served in Vietnam. But to the CPA’s young turks, the soldiers were drivers, guards, and errand boys.


One of the most telling examples of this dismissive attitude was the way a 24-year-old CPA staffer interacted with an Army reservist in reopening the Baghdad Stock Exchange. That job initially fell to Thomas Wirges, an Army reservist who, in his civilian life, worked as a financial advisor. When Wirges asked the CPA for help in drawing up new regulations for the exchange, he wound up instead with a new boss: Jay Hallen. Hallen had been out of college for just a few years. He had worked briefly in real estate, but had no financial experience. He hadn’t followed American stock markets. In college, Hallen majored in political science, not economics.

On Hallen’s first day in Baghdad, Wirges invited him onto a second-floor balcony of the Republican Palace. Wirges told Hallen about himself. He was 39 years old. He had served in the U.S. Navy for six years, before becoming a private investigator, then a sheriff’s deputy, then an insurance agent, a mutual-fund broker, and finally a personal financial advisor. Hallen returned the favor, telling Wirges about the two jobs he had worked since graduating from Yale University. As Hallen spoke, Wirges thought to himself, he has no business being here. Still, Wirges and Hallen struck a deal. The Yale grad would interact with the higher-ups at the CPA, attend the meetings, and deliver the briefings to civilian officials in the palace. Wirges, meanwhile, would interact with the Iraqis. He’d travel outside the Green Zone and do the day-to-day building of the exchange. Wirges cautioned Hallen to be modest in his aspirations, but impressed upon him the need to restart the exchange as quickly as possible so Iraqi brokers and traders could get back to work.

Two weeks later, Hallen called Wirges in for a meeting. There was a change of plans. "Jay [Hallen] told me that this was no longer my personal project," Wirges recalled. "I was no longer involved. It’s no longer an issue for the Army. Have a nice day."

Hallen had decided that he didn’t just want to reopen the exchange, he wanted to make it the best, most modern stock market in the Arab world, complete with a computerized trading system. That kind of innovation would take months, but Hallen maintained it was the right thing to do. Iraqi brokers scoffed. They wanted the exchange to operate as it did before the war.

But Hallen was insistent. When the exchange eventually opened in June 2004, five months after Hallen promised it would, there was no computerized trading system. "The Americans should have listened to Mister Tom [Wirges]," Talib Tabatabai, the exchange’s chairman said later. "He understood what we needed."

If only it were just the stock exchange. Plenty more projects suffered from the frayed relationship between the U.S. military and American civilians. Dozens of war-damaged government factories never reopened because Bremer’s first economic advisor, Peter McPherson, rejected a request from soldiers to unfreeze the factories’ bank accounts. Hundreds of trips outside the Green Zone by CPA reconstruction specialists had to be scrapped because there were not enough military-police escorts. But perhaps Iraq’s hospitals paid the heaviest price.

In the lead-up to the invasion, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) put Frederick M. Burkle Jr. in charge of organizing America’s response to the expected public-health crisis in Iraq. Burkle is a physician with a master’s degree in public health, as well as postgraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and the University of California, Berkeley. A Navy Reserve officer with two Bronze Stars, he served as a deputy assistant administrator at USAID and taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, where he specialized in disaster-response issues. During the first Gulf War, Burkle provided medical aid to Kurds in northern Iraq. He had worked in Kosovo and Somalia. One USAID colleague called him the "single most talented and experienced postconflict health specialist working for the United States government."

But a week after Baghdad’s liberation, Burkle was let go. A senior official at usaid told him that the White House wanted a "loyalist" working for the CPA. Burkle had a wall of degrees, but he didn’t have a picture with the president. The man who replaced him was James K. Haveman Jr., a 60-year-old social worker largely unknown among international health experts. Haveman did not have a medical degree, but he did have political connections. He had advised former Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, on health issues, and his old boss recommended him to Wolfowitz. Haveman was well traveled, but most of his overseas trips were in his capacity as a director of International Aid, a Christian relief organization that provided healthcare while evangelizing in the developing world. Prior to his stint in Michigan’s state government, Haveman ran a large, Christian-oriented adoption agency that urged pregnant women not to have abortions.

As the CPA’s senior advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Health, Haveman decided — against the advice of military public-health specialists — to allocate nearly all of the Health Ministry’s $793 million share of U.S. reconstruction funds to renovating maternity hospitals and building 150 new community medical clinics. His intention, he told me, was "to shift the mind-set of the Iraqis that you don’t get healthcare unless you go to a hospital." That was a noble goal. But the decision meant no money was set aside to rehabilitate Iraq’s decrepit emergency rooms and surgical suites, even though injuries from insurgent attacks were the country’s single greatest public-health challenge. Haveman "viewed Iraq as Michigan after a huge attack," said U.S. Army Capt. George Gusczca, who worked on the CPA’s health team. "Somehow, if you went into the ghettos and projects of Michigan and just extended it out … that’s what he was coming to save."


Because military personnel in Iraq weren’t supposed to drink alcohol, they didn’t hang out in the Green Zone bars frequented by CPA staff. They kept to themselves, smoking in the rear portico, exercising in the gym, and playing cards in their trailers. The military maintained that Iraq would be a whole lot better if they were in charge. The CPA, they joked, stood for "Can’t Produce Anything." "Nobody has any idea what they do back in that palace," a senior Marine commander in Fallujah told me 12 months into the occupation. "We certainly don’t see any results."

In early 2004, a contingent of Marines was assigned to guard the CPA’s headquarters. They erected concrete barriers to limit traffic around the compound and strung coils of razor wire atop blast walls. They erected new observation posts and set up a sign-in table, where visitors had to hand over a piece of identification in exchange for a pass that had to be displayed at all times while on palace grounds. Behind the desk was a white dry-erase board, upon which the Marines drew cartoons. One day a cartoon on the board depicted a grave and headstone inscribed with the words "Common Sense." Underneath was a caption, "Killed by the CPA."

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post and author of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. For more information about the book, go to www.rajivc.com

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