August 1, 2006  

Now for the hard part

Looking stabilization square in the face

Old vaudevillians say dying is easy but comedy is hard. For American armed forces, conventional warfare is relatively easy, but stabilization and reconstruction operations are hard.

George Packer’s “The Assassins’ Gate” and Bernard Trainor’s and Mike Gordon’s “Cobra II” describe the difficulties America is having in Iraq, and although neither book is perfect, these two volumes have been the first to cover the tragedy in Iraq in anything like a comprehensive, professionally accomplished, well-written manner. These books are the very best sort of journalism, truly the first take on history.

Packer, Trainor and Gordon resist simplification and look the difficulties square in the face: All three authors argue that the Bush administration, Defense Department and U.S. Central Command used fallacious assumptions, which were based either on poor intelligence or the tendentious selection of information regarding the international political position of potential coalition partners or the political status of the various Iraqi peoples, to map their post-conflict strategy.

Finally, and most important, from the outset, all the players above shunned a major U.S. effort in nation building. There was no political will, Packer, Trainor and Gordon contend, to remain in Iraq for any appreciable length of time. There was an exit strategy based on U.S. military forces remaining in Iraq for only months after the expected military victory.

Conventional wisdom dictates that success in stabilization and reconstruction of a war-torn society takes five to seven years, but even this traditional understanding can be overly optimistic. The U.S. occupied the former Confederacy for 12 years and did not succeed; Reconstruction in the South lasted from 1865 to 1877, and after the U.S. Army left, the Old Confederacy was ruled by a single party, freedom of the press was often circumscribed (especially on racial matters) and blacks lived in terrorized peonage for almost a century. The U.S. government also occupied and ran Haiti for 19 years from 1915 to 1934 and failed utterly to reform that society. Disappointment in such endeavors is the norm.

The postwar planning done for Iraq by CentCom and others (excluding the State Department) allotted weeks and months to the task. We need to examine carefully all of the generalizations one reads about stabilization and reconstruction and all of us — readers of this journal, war college faculty and students, legislators, bureaucrats in the executive branch — would profit enormously from reading Packer’s and Trainor and Gordon’s essential reports on Iraq.

Packer is a deeply experienced journalist who led Iraq coverage for The New Yorker magazine. He has traveled all over Iraq, has interviewed most of the decision-makers and is a long-term acquaintance of some of the leading characters in this drama. His sobering account rings with verisimilitude.

Packer believed in Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. He considered the war a necessary enterprise because he knew Saddam Hussein was an international menace and a despot dangerous to Iraqis of any religion or ethnic group and whose son and likely successor Uday was a monster. Packer has less trouble, therefore, with the decision to eliminate Saddam (although he believes the case made by the administration was deceptive) than with the planning for the war, its execution and especially with the strategy for the occupation after the fall of Baghdad.

Packer argues: “The campaign of persuasion [of the Congress and American people before combat began] proceeded by rhetorical hyperbole, by the deliberate slanting of ambiguous facts in one direction, and by a wink-and-nod suggestion that the administration knew more than it could reveal. Conflicting and inconclusive intelligence about Saddam’s weapons programs was selected and highlighted for the worst-case analysis favored by the White House.”

The deception by key decision-makers, as Packer sees it, was born essentially from the notion that the war would be over quickly and the occupation would be measured in short months — 90 days, according to Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first reconstructor sent to Iraq by the Pentagon. The problem with the planning was the slant the decision-makers put on the tendentious intelligence they emphasized. Missing the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction was of much less significance than the notion that American forces would be welcomed as liberators.

Packer asserts the administration relied much too heavily for intelligence from Iraqi exiles described by the author as: “hundreds of mullahs, monarchists, ex-officers, party bosses, businessmen, intellectuals, and schemers.” One of these exiles, a man very close to Packer, was Kanan Makiya, whose story is woven through the narrative from beginning to end. Makiya, author of “Republic of Fear,” had not been in Iraq for 35 years, yet the White House relied upon him for its post-invasion picture of Iraq.

Packer writes that Makiya told President Bush and Vice President Cheney that the invasion “would transform the image of America in the Arab world, that war could be a force for progress, for democracy. ‘People will greet the troops with sweets and flowers.’”

Packer cites the numerous organizations that disagreed with the administration’s idea of how Iraqis would greet the American military — the Council of Foreign Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Rand Corp., Army War College, United States Institute of Peace, National Defense University — but “none of the forecasts penetrated the Pentagon or the Oval Office.”

Gullibility, according to Packer, caused the administration to send a small force into Iraq to conquer it and then to stabilize it. All pundits writing on this subject argue that security is the first prerequisite for reconstruction and the fewer than 150,000 troops sent to remove Saddam would be enough to provide security only if America were greeted with “sweets and flowers,” but not if the reception was rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices.

To secure the country and then build an economy, the occupiers must have an intimate knowledge of the society one is planning to reconstruct and neither Jay Garner nor his replacement, L. Paul Bremer — nor the generals commanding the nation-building forces — were qualified in that regard, according to Packer.

Packer’s final assessment is severe: “I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence,” he writes. “Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq war was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.”

In “Cobra II,” Gordon and Trainor tackle similar issues, but from a different point of view. The authors — the longtime military correspondent for The New York Times and a retired Marine lieutenant general — previously collaborated on “The Generals’ War,” the best book on the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and are authentic experts on military planning and operations. They focus on the operational aspects of the conflict, both planning and execution. They conclude their work with a concise and cogent 10-page “lessons learned” chapter that serves as an effective “executive summary” for the 507-page volume.

Gordon and Trainor’s work, exhaustively researched and thorough, is much more a traditional campaign history than Packer’s work. It includes exceptionally useful maps and a 40-page appendix containing a constructive chronology and key documents. “Cobra II” focuses in on operations, and Trainor and Gordon brilliantly describe the fighting. Gordon was embedded with several combat units, and the narrative is helped by his experiences. The book, however, pays less attention to the contributions of air power in Operation Iraqi Freedom than it deserves, much less than in “The Generals’ War,” and practically no attention to the British campaign; the U.S. had seven times the British number of combat troops in Iraq, and the British suffered one-quarter of the battle deaths.

There are practically no civilian heroes in “Cobra II,” although Trainor and Gordon cite President Bush favorably for asking the right questions, and repeatedly. But the authors insist the president did not get the right answers from his civilian advisers or from Gen. Tommy Franks, the CentCom commander. Nobody escapes criticism, including Secretary of State Colin Powell for not fighting the Defense Department and its bureaucracy for control of the nation-building part of the operation, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, for not ensuring the president got all sides of the story and not balancing battling bureaucracies. The authors are most critical of the Defense Department leadership and Franks for their lackadaisical approach to the stabilization and reconstruction part of the operation.

Trainor and Gordon argue that the administration made five fundamental errors in ts approach to the war, beginning with the most grievous of all, misreading of the foe. “Rumsfeld and his generals,” assert Trainor and Gordon, “misread their foe by viewing the invasion of Iraq largely as a continuation of the Persian Gulf War.” During the 1991 war, Saddam’s Republican Guard was his best-equipped and most loyal force, and Franks and “his generals continued to regard the Republican Guard as their principal adversary.” Allied ground forces “expected to run roughshod over the [Republican] Guard units ? and drive directly to Baghdad. Bypassed Iraqi units would be left to die on the vine. As it turned out [however] ? the paramilitary Fedayeen ? represented the principal challenge ? [and it] fought tenaciously.” Misunderstanding the foe “reflected a failure of intelligence. The CIA in particular was not only wrong on WMD, but failed to identify the importance of the Fedayeen or to uncover the tons of arms that had been cached in the cities and towns of southern Iraq.” The defense secretary and CentCom commander, moreover, believed “their victory would be sealed with the seizure of Baghdad ? identified as Iraq’s ‘center of gravity.’” But the attacks by the Fedayeen “demonstrated that the American-led coalition was contending with a decentralized enemy that was fanatical, not dependent on rigid command and control, and whose base of operations was dispersed throughout the towns and cities of Iraq.”

Second, the Pentagon leadership relied too much on technology. During the march to Baghdad, high technology combined with a lean and fast force was effective in reaching the city in exceptionally rapid time and with relatively few casualties. “But after the fall of Baghdad ? mass, not speed, was requisite for sealing the victory. Military technology was less decisive against an opponent that faded away into Iraqi cities to fight another day.”

Third, CentCom failed to adapt to developments on the battlefield. “There were numerous indications in the first days of the war that the United States was involved in a different war than it had anticipated. ? The first Marine to be killed in action died at the hands of an Iraqi dressed in civilian clothes who fired from a pickup truck, not a tank. Moreover, the Americans encountered primitive roadside bombs, suicide car bombs, foreign jihadists, and guerrilla-style ambushes, hallmarks of the insurgency to come. ? But the American war plan was never adjusted on high.”

Fourth, the American military structure was dysfunctional. In the Iraq war, Rumsfeld and Franks dominated the planning; the Joint Chiefs of Staff were pushed to the margins, and largely accepted their roles.

Fifth, the administration had a disdain for nation building. “Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tommy Franks spent most of their time and energy on the least demanding task — defeating Saddam’s weakened conventional forces, and the least amount on the most demanding rehabilitation of and security for the new Iraq.”

There are, and there will be, myriad reasons to study both the triumphs and failures of the American military experience in Iraq. The first rough drafts of history produced by Packer, Gordon and Trainor will not only serve the needs of staff and war college students, but today’s soldiers and strategists. The story of Iraq, thus far, is that our initial successes are inseparable from our current trials.

ALAN GROPMAN is the distinguished professor of national security at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.