"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Where we are, and how we got there

A significant geopolitical milestone was passed at the beginning of this month. You'd be forgiven for not noticing it, since it went by with a whisper and was only briefly commented on by major news organs. It was this: Iraq had its first post-surge elections, and by all accounts they went smoothly, peacefully, and enthusiastically. Turnout went from 2% of registered voters in the tumultuous elections of 2004, to over 50%, with only a couple of reported instances of violence. It's true we may still have a long way to go before we can slap the table and say "Done", but I think the road it took us to get here was longer. As Churchill said, we're not at the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but at the end of the beginning. Congratulations to the Iraqis for taking their destiny into their own hands, to all of our soldiers for the blood and sweat they shed to make this day possible; and oh yes, thanks to the U.N. for showing up once all the hard work was done. Great to have you on our team, guys.

In talking about where we are, it's always worth reviewing where we came from, and this is actually something I've been doing as I get ready to return to Iraq. I had a slew of books on the invasion and the dark days afterward sitting on my shelf, and figured that since I'd only be there at the end, it'd be humbling and educational to meditate on the beginning. So, I attacked the first two volumes in line: Cobra II, by Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor (NYT writing team), and Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks, the WaPo's chief military correspondent. Cobra II focuses on pre-war planning and takes us through Saddam's capture. It's written as military history, not polemic, but even with minimal editorializing, it's hard not to get frustrated when reading about some of the decisions made before and during the war. (CAVEAT: before I get too far, and people start saying, "Oh, I could have told you that YEARS ago", I'll beg one indulgence and make some pre-emptive retorts. Indulgence: the invasion itself took place at the end of my senior year of college, and as we transitioned from invader to occupier, I went from the tranquility of civilian life to almost three straight years of intensive military training. I may not have had the luxury of studying current events as much as I'd have liked to, because I was learning about infantry tactics and aircraft systems. So if some of my thoughts seem a little old, it's because much of this hard history I'm reading for the first time with the benefit of a less hectic schedule. Pre-emptive retort: a lot of information being bandied about during that time-frame was inaccurate, wrong, or tainted with spin. I knew less about the war at the time than I'd have liked. So did you. So did virtually everyone who nonetheless claimed to have an informed opinion about it. So reading this relatively old book with the benefit of hindsight has, I think, been a far more instructive exercise since the interval of a few years has shown who's right and who's wrong.)

Moving on. One point right off the bat: when it came to pre-war planning, everyone involved was working on the assumption that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and would use them. We all know now that that intelligence was badly flawed; but at the time, it was taken as gospel at the highest level, and plans were crafted accordingly. Indeed, so strong was the belief in Saddam's WMD arsenal, that operations to secure it were given higher priority than trying to secure his more conventional (and much, much larger) weapons stocks. This prioritizing would come back to bite post-invasion plans, when empty WMD bunkers were being guarded and searched while ammunition dumps were pillaged for future use by the insurgency.

Speaking of post-invasion plans, the book makes it pretty clear that there weren't any to speak of. This was partly due to a lack of HUMINT inside Iraq (after Desert Fox, the intelligence community lost many of its sources on the ground), partly due to overoptimistic assumptions on how the American military would be welcomed (fueled by Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi), and partly because it appears that Gen. Tommy Franks, head of CENTCOM at the time, just didn't care that much about "Phase IV" since he wouldn't be around to execute it. Franks himself comes off pretty badly in this and Ricks' book; he seems to have disregarded sound advice that told him winning in Iraq couldn't be done with the same light footprint used in Afghanistan, and was unwilling to push back against Donald Rumsfeld who repeatedly tried to trim the invasion force down to the smallest size possible. In fairness to both, however, it seems that they did not expect the Defense Department to be in charge of post-war reconstruction operations. Nevertheless, when it came to the invasion itself, Rumsfeld pushed adamantly for a small invasion force, and Franks bought into it. This flew in the face of many antebellum studies that suggested a force of hundreds of thousands would be required to fully secure the country. In tailoring this force, Rumsfeld then took the unprecedented step of superceding the Army's established deployment table with his own. The result of this was units getting thrown together in a hodgepodge with others units whom they'd never trained with, instead of deploying with a painstakingly established supply and support train. Franks also apparently ran a very shoddily organized and demoralized headquarters over in CENTCOM, with many different players who did not work well together, were understaffed, and got poor guidance from above.

Once the invasion started, Gen. McKiernan, commander of the ground combat forces, did his best to execute the plan as it was. As the campaign commenced and the coalition got closer to Baghdad, however, the dearth of intelligence reared its head again when it became clear that the war was taking unforeseen turns. On the bright side, opposition from Iraq's conventional army was far weaker than expected; most units dissolved after first contact with American forces, and those that stood and fought were pulverized by American firepower. On the other hand, the dissolution of Iraqi forces meant that, down the road, the United States Army would face a large pool of trained military men defying their occupation unless dealt with properly. As we'll see, they were not dealt with well. Also, both American intelligence and that from Iraqi exiles overlooked Saddam's paramilitary force, the Fedayeen. This was a group of fighters originally trained to be the 'first responders' to potential revolts in the Shiite south; they were supposed to use weapons caches that were placed in every town to hold off rebels until the Iraqi army could arrive on the scene. These Fedayeen, their ranks swelled with foreign jihadists, would prove to be the coalition's toughest opposition. They stood and fought tenaciously, and frequently made America's job tougher by flaunting rules of conventional warfare. They dressed as civilians, took shelter behind civilian crowds and in hospitals and mosques, and - in a taste of things to come - used suicide tactics more and more against an American military unprepared for such attacks. Fedayeen units were often bypassed in order to maintain the momentum towards Baghdad; but without enough troops to fully secure the coalition's supply lines, bypassed towns were 'secure' in name only, and no true front line existed (as exemplified by Jessica Lynch's wrong turns in a village that was supposedly behind the front).

Despite the tenacity of the Fedayeen, however, Saddam's battle plan did little so slow the American advance. Because he was so paranoid about rebellion in the regular army, he kept conventional forces far from the capital, and they could only move on his orders. As a result, many Iraqi forces remained static in the north and east. The Republican Guard, supposedly more loyal, was raked over by American air power, and were not deployed in any effective manner. A Special Operations feint in the Anbar province also helped keep some of the Guard pinned down away from the coalition's main thrust. Though unable to open a large northern front due to Turkish intransigence, airborne forces, coupled with Kurdish peshmerga, expelled Iraqi forces from most Kurdish cities (and destroyed the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group to boot). Indeed, the greatest slowdown came not from Iraqi opposition but a combination of weather and tenuous supply lines; a days-long sandstorm grounded air support, and McKiernan wanted better security along the miles of highway running south before advancing to Baghdad. Once the coalition reached Baghdad, the intent was to establish several forward operating bases from which to conduct numerous "Thunder Runs" through the city in order to degrade Iraqi resistance while avoiding the bloody entrapment of urban warfare. The first of these in-and-out raids was a violent affair, with many casualties and most the vehicles involved taking heavy damage. The commander of the next Thunder Run didn't relish the idea of giving up ground that his men fought for, and so, on his own initiative, decided to push the center of the city and stay. This saw the end of most organized resistance in Baghdad (and also led to the ridiculous sight of "Baghdad Bob", Saddam's minister of information, insisting that Americans were dying by the thousands in the desert and were nowhere near the city, when embedded journalists on the other side of town were sending broadcasts from the heart of Baghdad).

Once inside Baghdad, Gen. Mattis' Marines were ordered further north to Tikrit, Saddam's birthplace, in order to find the fugitive leader and clamp down on possible Sunni resistance. The Marines didn't find Saddam, but established a working relationship with locals to keep the ordinary business of town running.

With the strictly military operation concluded, McKiernan's ground force found itself wondering what to do next, and it was here that the absence of a post-invasion plan started working its evil. Looting throughout Baghdad was rampant, but the Army had no instructions on how to deal with it. The Anbar province - Saddam's base of support - was considered an exercise in 'economy of force', meaning that a minimal number of soldiers were sent to guard it. As weeks passed and reconstruction supposedly began, the lack of a clear plan - along with any idea of who, State or Defense, was responsible for executing it - resulted in two political decisions that would severely hamper future efforts to secure the country. Both came from Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer, and both were apparently completely on his own intiative. The first was the decision to disband the Iraqi army, without pay; the second, an extensive de-Baathification program that kicked the top layers of the Iraqi military and bureaucracy out into the streets. Disbanding the army released a flood of angry, unpaid young men - trained in the arts of war - into the population, creating a huge pool of recruits for the insurgency that was already gathering momentum. De-Baathification, while a step most agreed was necessary, was taken to a degree that denied the reconstruction team the skills of the men who'd previously run Iraq. Again, this turned a large number of unemployed Iraqis, who had no reason to love the Americans in the first place, actively against the occupation forces.

One of the last catalysts to the fledgling insurgency was a lack of guidance on how to deal with the population as a whole. Some units, like Petraeus' 82nd Airborne or the Marine Regimental Combat Team in Tikrit, took a decidedly conciliatory posture and did their best to work with local leaders and bring some sense of normalcy to their area of operations. Others, however, like the 4th Infantry Division that took over from the Marines, were much more aggressive, and less interested in reconciliation than letting everyone know who was in charge. The result, through a swath of country already antagonistic towards invaders who had just toppled their gravy train, were massive 'cordon and sweep' operations that netted thousands of generally innocent people and saw soldiers busting down doors in the middle of the night, without providing the security and services that might have lessened the impact of these tactics.

Cobra II ends with the deaths of Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay in a firefight, one small victory in a nation slowly slipping from America's control. As a work of history, the book is impressive in its depth; it is well foot-noted and the authors had access to many key players, from the squad level to the halls of D.C. More recent books have delved into greater detail on the decisions-making before the war (like Douglas Feith's War and Decision), and I'm looking forward to seeing what new information is presented in them and how it gels with earlier publications.

Fiasco picks up more or less where Cobra II leaves off. Ricks spends a couple of chapers getting us from Kuwait to Baghdad, but his focus is what happened after the regime fell. Released in 2006, he documents the descent into the darkest days of the war, and makes a compelling argument that it didn't have to be this way. He takes us through 'cordon and search' operations in more detail, showing how it dumped thousands of Iraqis on a military police system ill-trained in dealing with them. One side-effect of this was the infamous Abu Ghraib scandal, which saw a handful of poorly-trained and unsupervised reservist MPs trying to guard a swelling population of prisoners. The lack of boots on the ground also played into this situation; with not enough manpower to secure the population, the Army turned to lightning raids that netted a large number of suspects but antagonized the populace and didn't provide true security. In Anbar, the 'economy of force' strategy meant that whole cities like Fallujah turned into insurgent strongholds. When Fallujah exploded with the death of four American contractors, President Bush ordered the Marines to assault the city immediately. Gen. Mattis wanted more time to prepare for an attack, but followed his orders and, along with a supposedly loyal Iraqi army division, intiated an assault on Fallujah that was later called off after the Iraqis refused to fight or, worse, switched sides. The Marines left Fallujah to a local militia group that simply became another arm of the insurgency. Months later, the Marines attacked Fallujah again, but this time with the preparation they wanted. The resulting battle was bloody, but in the end wrestled the town from the grip of the insurgency.

Much of the book dwells on misguided tactics and weak policy guidance, though battles like Fallujah and Tal Afar in the north show the American fighting man at his best. As time went on, American military commanders slowly adapted to insurgents' tactics, but were still hampered by a lack of forces and a parallel civilian effort in rebuilding the country. Fiasco, in many ways, is less 'hard' history and more an extended op-ed column. It is not nearly as well-referenced as Cobra II, and many of the people Ricks cites are simply identified as "someone who was part of the decision-making process", "someone who attended many meetings on the subject", etc. He has a habit of using ex-generals as a Greek chorus, presciently saying "I told you so" whenever the Bush administration or ground commanders made decisions they didn't agree with. Former Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni plays the role of Cassandra, foretelling doom in Iraq before it happened. To be fair, he brings a good deal of experience to the table; he was a former commander of CENTCOM and oversaw Operation Provide Comfort after Desert Storm. At CENTCOM, he developed an invasion plan that called for many more troops than were used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Other generals Ricks cites, like Janis Karpinski (in charge of the prison system when Abu Ghraib was made public), simply sound like they're covering their asses for their own lack of leadership and responsibility. Ricks also devotes a lot of ink to the role of the press, at first lamenting their 'cheerleading' and lack of critical coverage before the way, and then wringing his hands at the many tribulations reporters suffered while spending time in Iraq. I frankly think he inflates these roles out of a journalistic sense of self-importance, and they're probably the weakest parts of the book.

Nevertheless, Ricks does a solid job of taking us from Phase III - combat ops - to Phase IV, and detailing the many difficulties - much of it self-inflicted - American forces experienced as they tried to bring order to Iraq. He ends, as I said, in the middle of 2006, just as things were taking a turn for the worse. He presents three possible outcomes in Iraq, one good, one middling, and one violent and frightening; when he wrote this book, it was far from clear which outcome might prevail.

Both of these were an instructive read, though I think a full, accurate narrative of the war and its aftermath can't be written for a long time. Next on my list is No True Glory, a detailed account of the battle for Fallujah by Bing West, and his subsequent book The Strongest Tribe, which takes us from the darkest days to the turnaround provided by the Awakening and the surge. That will be followed by Michael Yon's Moment of Truth in Iraq, written after the surge with a first-hand knowledge of the war that few can match. And I look forward to the day when I can read the book about how, after many trials and tribulations, we left Iraq with pride, having given its people a chance for a future that its neighbors can only dream about.

1 comment:

Winefred said...

A couple of foot-notes:

(1)It was the press, not the military, who left us a record of the FACT that Americans WERE welcomed as liberators (as hoped for by those in charge)-- unfortunately due to the planning vacuum, that welcome lasted only a couple of weeks, was subsumed by a crisis in confidence, and then replaced by outright hostility (though violent insurgency was always the hobby of a select minority, well-armed from various sources).
(2)The whole story of WMD is not yet told -- I heard an interview with Douglas Feith this week indicating that this may still be an open-ended question. It may take many years, new developments in relations with, for instance, Syria, but I'll go out on a limb and make my itsy bitsy prediction that eventually we'll find out that he had 'em, and they went somewhere.

And while you're over there, Cincinnatus, do congratulate the Iraqis on genuine hope and change, all achieved without fraudulent online fundraising.