Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
To nudge CENTCOM into seeing things his way, Rumsfeld employed a Socratic approach. Possessing truth, he wanted Franks and his staff to join him in discovering that truth as if it were their own. So rather than issuing diktats, Rumsfeld’s preferred method was to “poke, prod, and question” and then question some more, until his generals came bearing PowerPoint slides displaying the approved solution.
On all matters related to Iraq, he directed his questions to Franks, effectively excluding the Joint Chiefs of Staff from playing any meaningful advisory role. With sufficient tutoring, the CENTCOM commander would come around to seeing the wisdom of Rumsfeld’s views.
The asymmetrical collaboration between Rumsfeld and Franks embodied the relationship between the suits and the brass during the post-Vietnam era. As measured by prerogatives and authority, civilian leaders labored to keep senior military officers on a tight leash. Yet for public consumption, they indulged the fiction that in waging war the generals exercised a free hand with the president and secretary of defense acceding to their requirements.
The on-the-shelf version of OPLAN 1003, which predated 9/11, called for an invasion force of a half-million, equivalent in size to the force that had expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. To Rumsfeld, one-fourth of that number sounded better. Franks counter-offered first with 385,000, then 300,000, then 275,000. Rumsfeld was still not satisfied.
They settled on 170,000.
They also agreed to a “running start”—once in position, air and available ground forces would attack at the same time. The operative idea was not to pulverize but to shatter, not to defeat in detail but to overwhelm. In contrast to Operation Desert Storm, which had relied on massed combat power, Operation Iraqi Freedom was going to emphasize nimbleness and speed. By the time Saddam and his generals figured out what had hit them, their forces—blinded, bypassed, cut off, isolated—were going to be out of business.
In his memoirs, General Franks goes to great lengths to claim personal authorship of the final Iraq invasion plan, which, he insists, heralded “a true revolution in warfare.”
In fact, to employ a term attributed to Lenin, Franks was functioning as a “useful idiot.” The CENTCOM commander had allowed himself to become captive of the twin obsessions gripping the Bush administration: first, that a military campaign conducted consistent with RMA tenets held the key to validating the Bush Doctrine of preventive war; second, that engineering regime change in Iraq was going to position the United States, acting directly or indirectly, to engineer change elsewhere in the Islamic world.
By indulging these obsessions, Franks misconstrued the challenges awaiting his troops when they entered Iraq. In reality, toppling Saddam did not hold the key to victory. What came next was likely to be the hard part, as at least some senior military officers and more than a few seasoned diplomats warned.
After all, persuading Iraqis to accept a new, Washington-mandated political order thereby “changing the way they live,” defined the true measure of success. This misapprehension of the war’s overarching purpose produced a campaign plan centered on simply getting to Baghdad while giving short shrift to what needed to occur thereafter.
As a serving officer, Franks had an obligation to do the bidding of his superiors. In that regard, he more than fulfilled Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s expectations. Yet as a military professional, Franks also had an obligation to help those superiors think realistically about war and formulate sound policies. In that regard, Franks failed abysmally. That failure provides the truest measure of his shortcomings as a commander.
Through the winter of 2002–2003, preparations for the Third Gulf War continued. By a comfortable majority in both chambers, Congress had authorized invasion—although political calculation had exercised greater influence on the vote than had careful consideration of the national interest.
In effect, the Bush Doctrine thereby received congressional sanction. At the United Nations on February 5, the Bush administration went through the motions of securing Security Council authorization for military action. Finding little support there, the administration surprised no one by deeming such authorization unnecessary.
Popular opposition to the war generated widespread protest that culminated in massive demonstrations around the world on February 15. In New York, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and literally dozens of other cities, millions took to the streets. Assessing these protests,
The New York Times
concluded that there were actually “two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
The Bush administration begged to differ. Unmoved, it simply ignored all the ruckus, the president himself remarking that he was no more inclined to attend to the wishes of demonstrators than he was “to decide policy based upon a focus group.”
People were entitled to express their opinions, but those opinions didn’t matter. The United States government was going to do what it wished to do.
With certain honorable exceptions such as the recently founded
and the venerable
magazine, the editorial position of major newspapers and opinion magazines deferred to the White House and accepted the necessity of war.
Some actually welcomed the prospect with enthusiasm. Contemplating the coming war, Max Boot, writing in
The Weekly Standard,
detected “one of those hinge moments in history—events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall—after which everything is different.” Historians, Boot predicted, would recall the invasion of Iraq as “the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better.” Victory in Iraq would position the United States “to provide the Middle East with effective imperial oversight.” Boot thought it likely that “U.S. victory in Iraq will intimidate” other unenlightened regimes in the neighborhood into biding by Washington’s wishes. Should they fail to grasp that opportunity, he wrote, “the United States will have to take more vigorous steps to align our relationships with these countries with our interests and principles.”
With the invasion force now assembled and political preparations complete, Bush issued a final ultimatum directing Saddam to leave Iraq. When the Iraqi dictator refused to comply, the president ordered the operation to commence, which it did on March 19.
Franks had envisioned a two-front ground offensive oriented on Baghdad, with the main attack coming from the south, using Kuwait as a base of operations, and a supporting attack in the north out of Turkey. Much to Washington’s consternation, Turkish legislators refused to allow the U.S. Army’s 4th Division to transit their country to open the northern front. This miscalculation—the Pentagon had spent decades (and billions) courting the Turkish officer corps—offered further evidence that even normally pliant allies were going to think twice before signing on to Bush’s crusade.
In the event, Turkey’s recalcitrance had little immediate effect on the war’s course. The push from the south, employing the U.S. Army’s V Corps with two divisions, the 3rd and the 101st, in tandem with the I Marine Expeditionary Force, and the British 1st Armoured Division—supplemented by the now-standard display of American dominance in the air—more than sufficed to overpower the defenders.
Barely three days into the operation, Franks described Operation Iraqi Freedom for some 1,100 journalists gathered at his forward headquarters in Qatar. Matching the bombast of Schwarzkopf’s “mother of all briefings” from a dozen years prior, Franks all but proclaimed victory. “A campaign unlike any other in history” was now well underway, he announced, “a campaign characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility, by the employment of precise munitions on a scale never before seen, and by the application of overwhelming force.” The balance of his presentation emphasized an absolute mastery of events on the battlefield, gained by employing “forces across the breadth and depth of Iraq, in some cases simultaneously and in some cases sequentially.” The plan that was unfolding “provides flexibility so that we can attack the enemy on our terms, and we are doing so,” he told reporters. There had been no surprises. The troops were terrific. Saddam was as good as gone. Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were sure to turn up. Success was assured.
Enterprising reporters responded to the general’s claims of perfection by highlighting trivial faults, while leaving the campaign’s underlying premises unexamined. The ambush of a supply convoy near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, with eleven Americans killed and seven captured, became a major story. So too did an offhand comment by a U.S. field commander regarding unanticipated resistance by Iraqi irregulars known as Fedayeen. “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against,” V Corps commander Lieutenant General William S. Wallace remarked. His admission made headlines, garnered a rebuke from Rumsfeld, and provoked Franks to threaten relief. Neither the defense secretary nor the CENTCOM commander was in the mood to tolerate departures from the official script depicting an impeccably choreographed war.
For those doing the actual fighting, the usual fog and friction of battle made their unwelcome appearance. Bad weather and supply shortages hampered the coalition advance. More seriously still, the enemy refused to cooperate. A large-scale attack by AH-64 Apache attack helicopters targeting the Republican Guard’s Medina Division near Karbala went badly awry. Two Apaches were lost, and virtually every other helicopter returned from the mission “riddled with holes.”
If Iraqi Freedom had been a Broadway musical, critics would rightly have panned such blown lines and missteps. Yet as a military operation rather than a theatrical production, the drive on Baghdad was actually about as good as it gets. As usual, U.S. troops did all that was asked of them, overcoming uneven but occasionally fierce resistance as they pushed on toward their final objective. As the weather cleared, the attack regained momentum. By April 4, U.S. forces had occupied Saddam International Airport outside of the Iraqi capital. A day later, Abrams tanks were rolling through the streets of Baghdad itself. Saddam disappeared, along with his sons and members of his inner circle. On April 9, the last vestiges of organized resistance collapsed and the transition to “peace operations” commenced.
With American soldiers and Marines now entering Baghdad in growing numbers, the press duly recorded a carefully staged performance of jubilant Iraqis toppling Saddam’s statue in Al Firdos Square. After advancing over 350 miles in a mere three weeks, while sustaining even fewer casualties than had occurred during Desert Storm, the Bush administration’s war of choice—a war intended to jump-start a reordering of the Greater Middle East—appeared to have ended in a definitive victory. Franks certainly thought so, informing Rumsfeld in no uncertain terms that there had “never been a combat operation as successful as Iraqi Freedom.”
In fact, rather than ending in just three weeks, the Third Gulf War was destined to continue for another 450. To compare its ultimate duration to the length of the previous paragraph, the fall of Baghdad occurs in the first line between the two letters of “If.” And even when U.S. forces finally withdrew, the war itself continued.
As was so often the case during America’s War for the Greater Middle East, the outcome of a fight thought to be definitive turned out to be anything but. Like Desert Storm in 1991 or Enduring Freedom in 2001, armed intervention meant to solve a particular problem served chiefly to create new problems of a different order. CENTCOM planners had envisioned the march on Baghdad as marking Operation Iraqi Freedom’s “decisive” phase.
Yet when U.S. forces thought that they had finished fighting, the decisive phase was just beginning.
Franks himself was oblivious to that prospect. On April 16, he flew into Baghdad for a brief visit. While there, he released a fatuous “Freedom Message to the Iraqi People.”
Along with his fellow generals, he posed for pictures in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces as if it were the Reich Chancellery in 1945. Soon thereafter, he announced his intention to retire. Post-Saddam Iraq was going to be someone else’s headache.
Meanwhile, even before Bush’s political team had coordinated the president’s “Mission Accomplished” victory lap in early May, things were coming unglued. With Saddam’s overthrow, political authority in Iraq collapsed. So too did order, as ordinary Iraqis engaged in an orgy of looting, walking off with “bundles of stolen goods ranging from ceiling fans to mattresses, computers, light bulbs and soccer balls.”
In Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk, “Looters made off with everything that could be moved.”
What they could not remove, they ransacked and smashed. The
Los Angeles Times
reported that “plunderers have swept in like a plague of locusts, brazenly breaking into government offices, diplomatic residences, banks, even hospitals, and carting off whatever they can.” Within a day of its liberation, the capital of Iraq, a city of nearly five million, had become “a lawless frontier.”