Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Back in Washington, Rumsfeld entertained a different view. The defense secretary mocked journalistic reports coming out of Iraq as exaggerated and misleading. “I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn’t believe it,” he told attendees at a Pentagon press conference on April 11. “I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny—‘The sky is falling.’ I’ve never seen anything like it!” The sky was not falling, Rumsfeld insisted. Although things might appear momentarily “untidy,” the coalition plan for Iraq was unfolding as intended.
Rumsfeld’s reading of the situation was dead wrong. With exhausted U.S. troops lacking the numbers, skills, and necessary direction to provide effective policing, the decisive outcome that was so critical to the Bush administration’s goal of transforming the Greater Middle East was slipping away. Validating that strategy required that Saddam’s removal elicit either gratitude or at least submission from those freed from his oppressive rule. Unfortunately, neither quality was much in evidence among the Iraqi people. Soon enough, they began turning on their “liberators.”
An incident that occurred at the end of April, in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, offered a glimpse of the trials awaiting American troops. Here was an ironic counterpart to the Second Gulf War’s legendary action at 73 Easting. In 1991, the small victory won by Captain H. R. McMaster’s E Troop had fostered illusions of American military supremacy. Now a comparably small incident laid bare U.S. military shortcomings that soon proved anything but illusory.
The encounter between U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens at a schoolhouse known as Al Qaad saw many shots fired but did not really qualify as a firefight. If it resembled any prior episode in American military history, that episode was the Boston Massacre of 1770. As in Boston, so too in Fallujah, heavily armed soldiers killed civilians protesting against military occupation. Depending on your point of view, the soldiers fired in self-defense or callously gunned down innocents without cause or justification. The difference in viewpoint was irreconcilable and probably irrelevant. What mattered were the consequences stemming from the violence that occurred.
Agreement on certain facts did exist. As part of an American occupation force, soldiers from the newly arrived 82nd Airborne Division had established a presence in Fallujah, a middle-sized Iraqi city with a mostly Sunni population located some forty miles from Baghdad. C Company of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Regiment had commandeered the Al Qaad schoolhouse as their base camp. At least some residents of Fallujah found their presence unwelcome.
After nightfall on April 28—Saddam Hussein’s birthday—a crowd of some two hundred angry Iraqis, disregarding the curfew imposed by foreign military authorities, gathered at the schoolhouse. There they noisily demanded that the Americans depart so that classes, suspended for more than a month, could resume.
The demonstrators shouted anti-American slogans, threw rocks, and ignored orders to disperse. They may have fired weapons, either in the air or directly at the U.S. troops, albeit without effect. In either case, the paratroops let loose a fusillade of automatic weapons fire that killed thirteen Iraqis outright and wounded dozens. Although mostly adult males, the dead included at least one woman and one young boy. The Americans suffered no casualties whatsoever.
This was not the first time U.S. troops had killed Iraqi civilians after hostilities had ostensibly ended.
Yet the incident at Fallujah differed, becoming the equivalent of a match thrown on dry tinder. Here, observers subsequently concluded, was the event that “breathed life” into the Iraq insurgency.
Other violent encounters followed, in Fallujah and elsewhere. In short order, U.S. forces were facing a full-fledged campaign of armed resistance, as complex as it was confusing. “We” were the Redcoats; “they” were the rabble determined to eject the hated occupiers.
To make matters worse, the insurgency erupted precisely at that moment when CENTCOM was executing what in hockey parlance is known as a line change. The major formations that had taken part in the invasion began to depart, their place taken by other units new to the theater of operations. Leaders also rotated. Back at Tampa, General John Abizaid succeeded Franks at CENTCOM commander. When the shuffling of tactical commanders and staffs had finished, responsibility for day-to-day operations in Iraq had devolved upon Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the most junior and least seasoned three-star general in the U.S. Army. Like the vast majority of his peers, Sanchez had received his commission after the Vietnam War. As a consequence, he had received little schooling and had acquired no firsthand experience dealing with insurgencies. Indeed, he had spent the previous thirty years honing a set of skills only marginally relevant to the task at hand—orchestrating a campaign to pacify a country slightly larger than California with exceedingly porous borders and a fractious population of twenty-five million. It was the equivalent of putting a demolitions expert in charge of restoring a bomb-damaged cathedral.
Complicating that task further was the absence of effective civilian support. To facilitate Iraq’s transition to a post-Saddam political order (and to prevent other agencies from horning in on Defense Department turf), Rumsfeld had stood up what he called the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Heading this small, hastily devised, and inadequately resourced entity was a retired U.S. Army general named Jay Garner. Back in 1991, at the end of the Second Gulf War, Garner had done an estimable job of organizing aid for displaced Kurds. Now charged with organizing a new government for all of Iraq, he saw his role as akin to that of a midwife: Garner and his team would encourage and coach, but Iraqis themselves would do the hard work of birthing. It was, after all, their country.
Within weeks, the defects of this approach became apparent—chiefly, the prospect of progress made only slowly and incrementally when Washington expected prompt results. Intent on tidying up Iraq sooner rather than later, Rumsfeld shoved Garner aside and appointed in his place L. Paul Bremer. A well-connected former diplomat and Washington operator, Bremer lacked substantive experience in the Arab world but possessed generous stores of self-confidence. He did not fancy playing the role of midwife. As head of what was now called the Coalition Provisional Authority, Bremer intended to govern. In every respect apart from formal title, he saw himself as a viceroy, answering not to Rumsfeld but directly to President Bush himself.
The contrast between Garner and Bremer reflected a division within the administration, which was of two minds about how best to bring the “new” Iraq into existence. In one camp were those favoring an approach akin to the Allied liberation of France in 1944: Vanquish the occupiers, hand over authority to an Iraqi version of General de Gaulle, and have done with it. (Some within the administration saw the urbane Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as Iraq’s de Gaulle and Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress as equivalent to the Free French—both absurd propositions.)
In the other camp were those who saw the problem as analogous to liberating Nazi Germany after 1945: Only after those implicated in the crimes of the previous regime had been identified and punished could the creation of a new order go forward.
Bremer leaned toward the second approach. Almost immediately after arriving in Baghdad in early May, as if to announce that there was a new boss in town, he issued two directives. The first disbanded Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and prohibited most members from playing any further role in Iraqi public life. The second dissolved the entire Iraqi national security apparatus, which included the army.
To some degree, the effect of Bremer’s orders was symbolic: They merely affirmed that the old order had passed away. Yet by implication, they also signaled Bremer’s intention to replace that old order with something quite different. By grafting onto Iraq Western-style liberalism, democracy, and market economics—principles not hitherto common in that part of the world—he was going to demonstrate their broader applicability to the Greater Middle East. Indeed, the success of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 strategy hinged on his ability to do so.
Unfortunately, Bremer proved no better equipped to address the challenges inherent in this undertaking than was General Sanchez as he grappled with a brewing insurgency. For an enterprise that would have tested demigods of empire like Douglas MacArthur or Kitchener of Khartoum, the United States found itself saddled with mere mortals. To make matters worse still, it soon developed that Sanchez and Bremer despised one another.
Civil-military tensions undercut unity of effort.
The unhappy union of General Sanchez and Ambassador Bremer lasted barely a year. During that brief interval, the insurgency kicked into high gear. By the time the year ended in the summer of 2004, the administration’s strategy of “changing the way they live” had failed irredeemably, even if it took President Bush a bit longer to understand and accept the implications.
The factors contributing to that failure are legion. Yet ranking high among them was the length of time it took senior U.S. commanders to decipher the nature of the conflict and of the opposition. Persuaded that Saddam’s overthrow had (or should have) ended the war, explaining why war persisted long after Saddam was gone posed a daunting intellectual challenge.
Who exactly was the enemy? For a full year after the fall of Baghdad, senior U.S. military leaders routinely attributed resistance to thugs and Ba’athist dead-enders. The best way to deal with such a contemptibly shabby threat was to crush it.
In May 2003, Major General Buford Blount, commanding the 3rd Division, told reporters that 90 percent of the opposition in his AOR consisted of “common criminals” responsible for “car thefts, attempted bank robberies, et cetera” with the balance remnants of the ousted regime—individuals who “don’t realize that the fight is over” and that they needed to “get on with the new Iraq.”
A month later, Major General Raymond Odierno, commanding the 4th Division, offered a similar assessment. On a daily basis, his troops were encountering what he called “noncompliant forces” consisting of “former regime members and common criminals.” But Odierno disparaged such groups as insignificant: “They are very small, they are very random, they are very ineffective.” Mortar and rocket attacks, ambushes, and remotely detonated improvised mines might inflict some casualties, but they did not pose a serious problem. “This is not guerrilla warfare,” Odierno insisted. “It is not close to guerrilla warfare because it’s not coordinated, it’s not organized, and it’s not led.”
In August—with U.S. combat fatalities since President Bush declared an end to major combat now outnumbering those sustained during the invasion—General Abizaid modified that assessment. “Ba’athist remnants,” the recently appointed CENTCOM commander had concluded, were indeed offering organized resistance. They were conducting “a classical guerrilla-type campaign against us.” This was a crucial admission. The war had not ended after all. “It’s low-intensity conflict,” Abizaid concluded, “but it’s war.”
Winning that war meant finishing the job begun during the invasion. Obliterating what remained of the Ba’ath through unrelenting offensive action would make it clear to all that the old order was gone for good. To flush out insurgent fighters, U.S. forces mounted hundreds of cordon-and-search operations. To kill or capture Ba’athist leaders still on the loose, they launched innumerable raids. By July, Odierno reported, his troops were “conducting search and attack missions, presence patrols and a series of aggressive operations to disarm, defeat and destroy hostile forces, as well as to capture former regime members.” The results had been “highly successful, producing a stabilizing effect” throughout his division’s AOR.
On July 22, in Mosul, U.S. troops scored a major success: They cornered and then killed Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay. Here, General Sanchez believed, was “a turning point for the resistance and the subversive elements that we’re encountering.” Although Saddam himself was still at large, “this will prove to the Iraqi people that at least these two members of the regime will not be coming back into power, which is what we stated over and over again.”
Yet even as driving a stake through the ousted regime remained the principal military objective, a more complex picture of what coalition forces were up against was beginning to evolve. Just days after taking Saddam’s sons off the board, Sanchez himself was explaining on CNN that “we have a multiple-faceted conflict going on here in Iraq. We’ve got terrorist activity, we’ve got former regime leadership, we have criminals, and we have some hired assassins that are attacking our soldiers on a daily basis.”
Sanchez detected an additional dynamic now coming into play. “This is what I would call a terrorist magnet,” he said, “where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity.” In effect, rather than producing stability, the U.S. military presence was inciting and attracting anti-American jihadists. That was fine with Sanchez. “This is exactly where we want to fight them,” he said. “The key that we must not lose sight of is that we must win this battle here in Iraq. Otherwise America will find itself taking on these terrorists at home.”