American Military Performance in Iraq
It has become commonplace to blame the neoconservatives
in the Bush administration for the confusion and continued bloodshed
in Iraq. But as we enter the fourth year of the Iraq war, it is
not too early to stand back and review our military performance
in order to maintain some perspective. Below are several observations.
1. The insurgency in Iraq was based on
the Sunni rejection of democracy.
Saddam did not rule alone. His enforcers-and
those who shared in the plunder-were predominantly Sunni. American
and British troops liberated the Kurds and Shiites from their Sunni
oppressors. The essential confusion about Iraq stems from a lack
of candor by leaders in acknowledging that democracy stripped the
Sunnis of their power. Were it not for the occupation of the areas
north and west of Iraq, the fragile Shiite-based democracy stood
no chance of taking root. Most viewed as illegitimate the presence
of the American troops, whom they call "occupiers," which
by definition they are.
Accustomed to dominating and oppressing the
Kurds and Shiites, the Sunni population sympathized with, and were
intimidated by, the insurgents who freely mixed with them in the
marketplaces. Yet instead of being forthright about the Sunni bedrock
of the insurgency, American officials too often suggested that most
Sunnis also supported democracy, but were intimidated by shadowy
True, the insurgents are deadly intimidators.
Beyond that, however, deeply held religious beliefs and tribal patterns
of social behavior take decades to change. Efforts to include Sunnis
in the Iraqi army are laudable. In addition, for years there have
been negotiations to coax the insurgent Sunni "rejectionist"
leaders to stop fighting, much as the British encouraged the Irish
Republican army to cease attacks in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately,
these political talks have not yet yielded results.
2. The major intelligence failure was deeming
culture an illegitimate subject of analysis.
Virtually all Western intelligence agencies
believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; the reasons
for being misled were understandable. The real failure was not seeing
that Iraq had fallen apart as a cohesive society. Evidence was widespread.
British engineers and marines who seized the "crown Jewel"
in march of 2003-the pumping station north of Basra that facilitated
a multibillion dollar flow of oil-were appalled to see scrubby grass,
broken windows, open cesspools, and vital equipment deteriorating
Common eyesores in Iraqi cities are the heaps
of garbage outside the walls of the houses. Inside the courtyards,
tiny patches of grass are as well tended as the putting greens on
golf courses. A generation of oppression had taught the society
to take care only of its own, to enrich the family, and to avoid
any communal activity that attracted attention and charges of deviant
political behavior. The society fell apart, with each family and
subtribe caring only for itself.
The civilian neoconservatives in the Bush administration
were convinced that Iraq's educated middle class, so in evidence
a half-century ago, would reemerge as the enlightened, moderate
leadership. The intelligence community, trained to report only on
technical, quantitative "hard data" and to regard cultural
and societal variables as the province of novelists, ignored the
critical deficiency in Iraq: the dearth of leadership caused by
decades of tyrannical greed. No enlightened middle class was waiting
to emerge and to bring together the best and brightest Sunnis, Shiites,
and Kurds. Responsible Iraqi leadership was the commodity in least
supply in post-Saddam Iraq.
3. The critical military error was abolishing
unity of command in 2003.
During the march to Baghdad, General Tommy
Franks, commanding U. S. Central Command (CENTCOM), fiercely warded
off "suggestions" from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS)
prior to the war, insisting that unity of command was essential
in war. Prior to his retirement, however, Franks in May of 2003
supported the White house in removing lieutenant General Jay Garner
as the deputy in CENTCOM responsible for reconstruction. Franks
fully endorsed the creation of an entirely new organization under
Ambassador L. Paul Bremer.
Bremer's appointment replaced unity of command
with two chains of command. He was given the authority to decide
the policies and the budget for all Iraqi security forces; CENTCOM
retained responsibility for ensuring security until the Iraqis were
capable of taking over. This stripped army General John P. Abizaid,
who became CENTCOM commander in late June, of command authority
over the Iraqi security forces. Authority was divided from responsibility,
a breach of organizational commonsense compounded by the antagonism
between the two separate staffs.
The United States foundered for the first critical
year after seizing Baghdad. We were in the midst of a war, but a
civilian ambassador, not Abizaid, had the power-and the ear of the
president. Unity of command was shattered. The U.S. military had
scant influence on the mission, composition, and leadership of the
Iraqi security forces. Ambassador Bremer and a handful of staff
thrown together in a few months were making decisions about the
missions, budgets, size, and training of the Iraqi security forces.
This organizational decision made no sense.
4. The disbanding of the Iraqi Army in
May 2003 changed the mission of the American soldiers from liberators
The Iraqi army melted away in April of 2003,
but it was eager to regroup in order to gain pay, jobs, and prestige.
Indeed, the American battalion commanders paying the Iraqi officers
and soldiers a pittance for their years of service reported that
they could easily reconstitute trained battalions. Central Command
and the JCS, however, did not object to Bremer's swift decision
to abolish the army. With no Iraqi security force, the U.S. Military
forces moved alone into the Sunni cities.
The imams promptly proclaimed it was the duty
of true Muslims to oppose the infidel occupiers. The imams seized
the power vacuum left when the army melted away. Sunni officers
and Baathist officials went to ground, unsure what fate awaited
them. The mosques emerged as the center of information, rumor, and
5. The salutary effect of more boots on
the ground in 2003 has been exaggerated.
Had the 4th Infantry Division attacked in march
2003 through Turkey as planned and then to the north of Baghdad,
there would have been more U.S. Units in the Sunni area. Alternatively,
the 1st Infantry Division could have landed in Kuwait.
The net effect of another division immediately
after fell, though, is unclear because CENTCOM was not issuing firm
orders to the divisions. When Baghdad fell, the population was joyous
and in awe of the Americans. When CENTCOM did not order forces to
stop the looting, forces lost the respect of the Iraqis. More troops
in the Sunni area immediately after the fall of would have substantially
dampened the insurgency-if Iraqi security forces joined the Americans.
But the decision to disband the Iraqi army foreclosed this. Dispatching
more American Soldiers to fight alone in the triangle would not
have prevented the emergence of the insurgency.
6. The insurgency began gradually, and
picked up steam.
Recently it has become conventional wisdom
to argue that the fedayeen encountered on the march to Baghdad in
2003 constituted the vanguard of an insurgency that had been planned
in advance. This myth persists, despite exhaustive interviews of
captured generals who laughed at the notion that delinquent teenagers
recruited by Saddam's pathological son constituted the essence of
The insurgency began gradually in the summer
of 2003, as diverse gangs of disaffected Sunni youths and former
soldiers heeded the urgings from imams and Baathists. Their tactics
were trial and error, and the attacks increased as awe of the Americans
and their armor dissipated.
7. 2004 was a year of military setbacks
due to imprudent political-military decisionmaking.
Although facing an insurgency, American operations
remained decentralized, with most division commanders focused on
unilateral offensive operations. This was the wrong focus because
American sweeps and raids could not attrit the insurgent manpower
pool of a million disaffected Sunni youths. The U.S. divisions lacked
a field commander who would curb their natural instinct for decisive
battle and lay out a thoughtful counterinsurgency plan. Anbar province,
the heart of the Sunni insurgency, degenerated in 2004. April was
a month of disasters. Calls for jihad swept across the province,
and Baghdad was reduced to a few days of fuel and fresh food. Fallujah
erupted when four American contractors were murdered and their bodies
dismembered on the main street. Washington and ordered the reluctant
marines to attack the city of 300,000 in early April.
Simultaneously, Bremer decided to move against
the dangerous Shiite demagogue, Moqtada al-Sadr. American troops
were thus engaged on two fronts-against Sunnis in Anbar and Fallujah
and against Shiites in Najaf. At Fallujah in late April, the White
house and Bremer, taking counsel of their fears that Iraq would
fall apart because of adverse publicity about the assault, ordered
the astonished marines to pull back just as Major General James
Mattis was squeezing the insurgents into a corner.
Former Sunni generals came forward, claiming
they could bring order to Fallujah. The marines, to the chagrin
of the civilians in Baghdad and Washington, turned the city over
to the generals and a "Fallujah brigade" that included
the insurgents. In Najaf, al-Sadr was cornered, but the American
officials in decided not to press home the attack. Within a month
in Fallujah, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and foreign fighters took control,
driving out the former Iraqi generals. By the summer of 2004, Iraq
was a military mess.
8. Turnaround in 2005.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Abizaid
agreed that army General George W. Casey should take command in
the summer 2004. Promptly put down a second uprising by Sadr, then
insisted that the interim Iraqi government support a full assault
against Fallujah. In november of 2004, 70 Americans died in bitter
house-to-house fighting that destroyed half the city.
Casey then undertook a systematic campaign
to seal the Syrian border and flush the insurgents out of Mosul
and Talafar in the north. Most important, lieutenant General David
Petraeus took over the training of the Iraqi army and deployed a
10-man advisory team with each battalion. Casey insisted that every
Iraqi battalion partner with an American battalion.
The result in one year was a remarkable turnaround.
The insurgents had learned not to challenge the Americans to a stand-up
fight. The Iraqi soldiers, perhaps 70 percent Shiite and 15 percent
Kurd, would stick in battle as long as they were provided adequate
leadership. General Casey designated nine cities as pivotal and
established satisfactory control in seven. And Ramadi remained in
crisis at the end of 2005.
9. The challenges in 2006.
The main threat in the Sunni areas became not
the disaffected Baathists, but instead the al-Qaeda jihadists. Fallujah
was the turning point; thereafter the Baathist leaders, many operating
from Syria, lost control of the field generalship of the insurgency.
Baathists bankrolled the insurgency, while impoverished Sunni youths-dedicated
to throwing out the American infidel occupiers and apostate Shiite
soldiers-supplied ample manpower. Baathist insurgent leaders clung
to the belief that they could manipulate the jihadists and, when
the time was right, throw them aside.
But they were mistaken. Their time had passed.
Backbone of the insurgency was the al-Qaeda jihadists. Some were
foreigners and some Iraqis. What the jihadists had in common was
their determination to rule Taliban-style in accord with the primal
dictates of extreme fundamentalism, imagining the reemergence of
a 10th-century caliphate. To argue that Iraq constituted a diversion
from the war on terror was a reasonable position to hold two years
ago. But wars change course and leaders. Sheik Abdullah al-Janabi
and other Iraqi fundamentalists gradually came to the fore as the
field generals of the insurgency.
By 2006, the jihadists had increased their
campaign of terror bombing against Shiite civilians, and the militias
had responded by dispatching death squads to kill Sunnis. Baghdad
erupted in sectarian strife, illustrating that the police were untrustworthy.
Casey then moved to place police training under his command. While
a necessary step, training alone was not the answer. Too many police
were corrupt and controlled by Shiite militias, and senior Iraqi
leaders were doing little to punish disloyalty.
The Iraqi army had emerged as loyal to the
central government. The soldiers, or jundi, were relatively reliable
as long as they were moderately well-led. American attention had
shifted from improving the individual battalions to ensuring that
the institutional links from battalion to Baghdad functioned.
10. Battlefield trends to watch.
The insurgents have demonstrated more effective
small-unit leadership than have the Iraqi government forces, perhaps
because the Sunnis are accustomed to dominating the Shiites. That
advantage, however, can gradually be offset by superiority in numbers
The insurgents do not have a reliable sanctuary.
Syria is the conduit for the passage of suicide bombers. But it
is a sanctuary only for those Baathists who can afford bribes. Will
not risk the confrontation that would ensue should it harbor large
numbers of insurgents.
Inside Iraq, the insurgency relies upon civilian
vehicles. As entry points to cities are controlled, the movement
of the insurgents is restricted. The rank-and-file insurgents must
rely on their tribes not to betray them in their home villages and
Therein lies the heart of the matter. The insurgency's
roots lie below the level of the military effort. The Iraqi army
provides a security umbrella only as long as squad-sized patrols
are present in an area. In Sunni cities, the insurgents can mingle
with the people and walk by army patrols with impunity, safe as
long as they are not betrayed. In these parallel universes, the
insurgents can coexist with the Iraqi military for years.
It is supposed to be the duty of the police,
not the army, to provide order and to apprehend the insurgents in
the markets. But any policeman who makes an arrest risks assassination.
The policeman who is recruited locally in a Sunni city survives
on the streets by accommodation. Only the military can stand up
to the intimidation that has paralyzed the police in cities such
as Fallujah. Police, however, fall under the Iraqi minister of interior,
while the army is under the minister of defense. The army has partnered
with units; the police are languishing.
On a balance sheet, the insurgents enjoy the
support of the Sunni population and control the pace of the engagements.
There are few firefights, and almost no one is apprehended emplacing
an improvised explosive device (IED). The campaign of IEDs and murderous
bombings of civilians will continue until the perpetrators are betrayed
by the dozens of neighbors who know who they are.
The Council on Foreign Relations recently published
a piece about Iraq that accused the American military of not adapting.
That was true in 2003 and midway through 2004. But no reasonable
person can walk the Iraqi streets with soldiers today and argue
that the U.S. Military is hidebound. The American military today
is not trying to subdue the insurgency by force of arms. Iraq is
being handed over to the Iraqis. And in a bemused but real sense,
the Americans have become the ombudsman for the Sunnis. In his direct
way, Colonel Larry Nicholson, commanding a marine regiment, said
it best when addressing the Fallujah city council in may 2006. "Sooner
or later, the American military is leaving," he said. "Work
with us now to insure your own security and living conditions. Or
risk returning to 2004, when al-Zarqawi and imams with whips took
over your city."
At this stage, no one can predict how Iraq
will turn out. American leadership is not the determining factor.
Three critical tasks demand Iraqi rather than leadership. First,
the government in Baghdad must drive a wedge between Shiite extremists
and the militias, and similarly split al-Qaeda and the religious
extremists from the "mainstream" insurgents. Second, the
ministries in must support their police and army forces in the field.
As matters stand, American advisers and commanders time and again
have to apply pressure before Baghdad responds. At all levels in
the Iraqi system, there is an instinct to hoard-and too often to
steal and skim-that deprives the fighting units of basic commodities.
Third, the police must be reformed. How Sunni police can be effective
and not be assassinated in their own cities has yet to be shown.
Conversely, the Shiite police in Baghdad have lost all trust among
On the positive side of the ledger, three major
hurdles were cleared during the past 12 months. First, elections
were held and a government was chosen. Second, an Iraqi Army at
the battalion fighting level emerged. Third, Iraq weathered the
sectarian strife in February without a political collapse.
With a bisectarian government in Baghdad, the
mainstream Sunni rejectionists have lost their rationale. In private
conversations, Iraqi officials are asking the insurgents, why are
you fighting when your own politicians are in the legislature and
who is in charge of the army? The insurgent leaders, however, avoid
risk in battle by paying impoverished youths $40 to emplace IEDs.
Although it spent over $300 billion in Iraq, America never created
a jobs program to compete with $40 IEDs. If captured, those leaders
face a porous and corrupt judicial system that too frequently sets
them free. Before they stop, they will ask what reward they will
receive and how they can remain alive to enjoy it. In addition,
the insurgency enjoys the support of hundreds of Sunni imams who
preach sedition, knowing the judicial system will do nothing.
Three cities are the bellwethers in Iraq and
bear watching over the next six months:
_ In Baghdad, the police do not deserve credibility.
Watch Baghdad to see if the Maliki government has the courage to
declare de facto martial law and place everyone carrying a weapon
on the street under the command of an Iraqi army that does have
_ In Ramadi, Al-Qaeda must be destroyed as
an antecedent to any local settlement. Watch Ramadi to see if the
Iraqi Army and police will fight together.
_ In Fallujah, Al-Qaeda does not control the
local insurgents. Watch Fallujah to see if a political settlement
can be reached between a predominantly Shiite national government
and the Sunni local insurgent leaders. By American standards, the
violence in that city is horrific. But the mayor, the city council,
the police-and the local insurgents-are bargaining politically with
Baghdad about their future.
If you compare the city with its own past,
diplomat Kael Weston said, "today Fallujah is a cauldron of
politics, not military battle." Weston, with 2 years' experience
on the front lines, had won the respect of the marines. He was saying
roughly what Casey, the multi-national Force commander, told me.
"Iraq is a political-military problem," Casey said, "with
the political component written in big block letters. It's not about
us; it's about the Iraqis who have to work it out."
11. A drumbeat of negative tone has unintended
While there is no unity of military judgment
about the civilian management of the war, the Bush administration
has been injudicious in its consultations with the military. The
trust senior officers repose in senior civilian officials has eroded.
Inside the senior levels of the military and among those who follow
foreign policy, anger is directed at elected and appointed civilian
officials seen as too blithe in initiating the war and too obtuse
in leading once the going got tough.
The Iraqi war is being played out against a
backdrop of bitter partisan politics in the United States. Of those
on the front lines, 70 percent get out after four years of service,
with no long-term benefits. All they want is praise for their valor
and service. They want to be able to say, "I served at Fallujah,
Najaf, or Mosul"-and be respected for their dedication.
Their valor is absent from this war because
it is not reported. In Fallujah, for instance, 100 Marine squads
engaged in 200 firefights inside cement rooms, using rifles, pistols,
grenades, and knives. By any historical comparison, this was extraordinary.
In Hue, Vietnam, in 1968, there was one fight inside a house. In
the entire history of the SWAT teams in the United States, there
have not been 200 fights with automatic weapons inside rooms. Yet
the courage of our soldiers and marines in battles in Fallujah,
Najaf, etc., received little press notice. Now we face the test
of whether the press will place the tragedy of Haditha in perspective,
or whether will unfairly become a false symbol.
More broadly, there has been a breakdown in
our shared polity. Since World War II, no war has united our country;
undeclared wars are fought for limited objectives and circumscribed
causes. The next war is likely to be as politically divisive as
this one. What happens if the youth of America adopt the same fractious
attitudes as their political leaders? Who then will serve? In the
tone of our criticisms while we are at war, we as a nation should
be very careful that we do not undercut our own martial resolve.
If we as a nation lose heart, who will fight for us?
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