Sunday :: Nov 2, 2003

Should Democrats Make An Issue of Bush's Iraq Occupation Incompetence?

by Steve

David Rieff in this morning's New York Times magazine rolls out a very long and exhaustive critique of the Bush Administration's ideology-driven incompetence over the Iraqi occupation. Some of the information has been reported before, but reported in its totality, the material makes for a damning indictment of the White House and Rummy, and lays the blame for our problems today in Iraq at their feet. The material if looked at strategically from a political perspective, can point to a winning argument for Democrats next year.

Some of the major arguments made by Rieff address familiar issues, such as the blind faith the Administration had in Ahmad Chalabi. His introductory paragraphs lay out the case against the Administration.

It is becoming painfully clear that the American plan (if it can even be dignified with the name) for dealing with postwar Iraq was flawed in its conception and ineptly carried out. At the very least, the bulk of the evidence suggests that what was probably bound to be a difficult aftermath to the war was made far more difficult by blinkered vision and overoptimistic assumptions on the part of the war's greatest partisans within the Bush administration. The lack of security and order on the ground in Iraq today is in large measure a result of decisions made and not made in Washington before the war started, and of the specific approaches toward coping with postwar Iraq undertaken by American civilian officials and military commanders in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Despite administration claims, it is simply not true that no one could have predicted the chaos that ensued after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In fact, many officials in the United States, both military and civilian, as well as many Iraqi exiles, predicted quite accurately the perilous state of things that exists in Iraq today. There was ample warning, both on the basis of the specifics of Iraq and the precedent of other postwar deployments -- in Panama, Kosovo and elsewhere -- that the situation in postwar Iraq was going to be difficult and might become unmanageable. What went wrong was not that no one could know or that no one spoke out. What went wrong is that the voices of Iraq experts, of the State Department almost in its entirety and, indeed, of important segments of the uniformed military were ignored. As much as the invasion of Iraq and the rout of Saddam Hussein and his army was a triumph of planning and implementation, the mess that is postwar Iraq is a failure of planning and implementation.

Rieff covers several issues in some detail. These include:

The Pentagon's Shut-out of State

Rieff repeats what we heard several weeks ago about how the State Department prepared for a post-war Iraq, only to be ignored by the Pentagon when the occupation effort was being assembled. Why was the NSA allowing this to happen?

Although Istrabadi is an admirer of Wolfowitz, he says that the rivalry between State and Defense was so intense that the Future of Iraq Project became anathema to the Pentagon simply because it was a State Department project. ''At the Defense Department,'' he recalls, ''we were seen as part of 'them.''' Istrabadi was so disturbed by the fight between Defense and State that on June 1, 2002, he says, he took the matter up personally with Douglas Feith. ''I sat with Feith,'' he recalls, ''and said, 'You've got to decide what your policy is.'''

The Future of Iraq Project did draw up detailed reports, which were eventually released to Congress last month and made available to reporters for The New York Times. The 13 volumes, according to The Times, warned that ''the period immediately after regime change might offer . . . criminals the opportunity to engage in acts of killing, plunder and looting.''

But the Defense Department, which came to oversee postwar planning, would pay little heed to the work of the Future of Iraq Project. Gen. Jay Garner, the retired Army officer who was later given the job of leading the reconstruction of Iraq, says he was instructed by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to ignore the Future of Iraq Project.

Garner has said that he asked for Warrick to be added to his staff and that he was turned down by his superiors. Judith Yaphe, a former C.I.A. analyst and a leading expert on Iraqi history, says that Warrick was ''blacklisted'' by the Pentagon. ''He did not support their vision,'' she told me.

And what was this vision?

Yaphe's answer is unhesitant: ''Ahmad Chalabi.'' But it went further than that: ''The Pentagon didn't want to touch anything connected to the Department of State.''

None of the senior American officials involved in the Future of Iraq Project were taken on board by the Pentagon's planners. And this loss was considerable. ''The Office of Special Plans discarded all of the Future of Iraq Project's planning,'' David Phillips says. ''I don't know why.''

A Near-total Lack of Pre-invasion Post-war Planning

Given that the Iraq war was in political planning by Rove since August 2002, and had been talked about within the PNAC cabal since 1996, it is a sign of incompetence that the Administration wasn't ready with realistic post-war plans at the time of the invasion in March 2003. Coordinating such activities would normally be the job of the National Security Advisor. Yet despite the lack of a NSA who did her job, the Administration still lied to Congress about how far along they were in planning for a post-war Iraq:

The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) was established in the Defense Department, under General Garner's supervision, on Jan. 20, 2003, just eight weeks before the invasion of Iraq. Because the Pentagon had insisted on essentially throwing out the work and the personnel of the Future of Iraq Project, Garner and his planners had to start more or less from scratch. Timothy Carney, who served in ORHA under Garner, explains that ORHA lacked critical personnel once it arrived in Baghdad. ''There were scarcely any Arabists in ORHA in the beginning'' at a senior level, Carney says. ''Some of us had served in the Arab world, but we were not experts, or fluent Arabic speakers.'' According to Carney, Defense officials ''said that Arabists weren't welcome because they didn't think Iraq could be democratic.''

Because of the battle between Defense and State, ORHA, which Douglas Feith called the ''U.S. government nerve center'' for postwar planning, lacked not only information and personnel but also time. ORHA had only two months to figure out what to plan for, plan for it and find the people to implement it. A senior Defense official later admitted that in late January ''we only had three or four people''; in mid-February, the office conducted a two-day ''rehearsal'' of the postwar period at the National Defense University in Washington.

Although ORHA simply didn't have the time, resources or expertise in early 2003 to formulate a coherent postwar plan, Feith and others in the Defense Department were telling a different story to Congress. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 11, shortly before the beginning of the war, Feith reassured the assembled senators that ORHA was ''staffed by officials detailed from departments and agencies throughout the government.'' Given the freeze-out of the State Department officials from the Future of Iraq Project, this description hardly encompassed the reality of what was actually taking place bureaucratically.

Worse yet, the only thing the occupation forces were prepared to protect was the Oil Ministry.

Or rather, (occupation forces) did only one thing -- station troops to protect the Iraqi Oil Ministry. This decision to protect only the Oil Ministry -- not the National Museum, not the National Library, not the Health Ministry -- probably did more than anything else to convince Iraqis uneasy with the occupation that the United States was in Iraq only for the oil. ''It is not that they could not protect everything, as they say,'' a leader in the Hawza, the Shiite religious authority, told me. ''It's that they protected nothing else. The Oil Ministry is not off by itself. It's surrounded by other ministries, all of which the Americans allowed to be looted. So what else do you want us to think except that you want our oil?''

The military didn't receive direction or guidance from their Pentagon bosses on how to prepare for post-war occupation. So a force so good at rolling over a sanction-crippled demoralized Iraqi Army was left unprepared by their bosses for what was to follow.

(N)o such intensive training was undertaken for postwar operations. As the report's authors note: ''Higher headquarters did not provide the Third Infantry Division (Mechanized) with a plan for Phase IV. As a result, Third Infantry Division transitioned into Phase IV in the absence of guidance.''

The report concludes that ''division planners should have drafted detailed plans on Phase IV operations that would have allowed it'' -- the Third Infantry Division -- ''to operate independently outside of guidance from higher headquarters. Critical requirements should have been identified prior to'' the beginning of the war, the report states. The division also should have had ''a plan to execute'' a stability-and-support operation ''for at least 30 days.''

The report says that such an operation should have included ''protecting infrastructure, historic sites, administrative buildings, cultural sites, financial institutions, judicial/legal sites and religious sites.'' It notes, with hindsight, that ''protecting these sites must be planned for early in the planning process.'' But as the report makes clear, no such planning took place.

Without a plan, without meticulous rehearsal and without orders or, at the very least, guidance from higher up the chain of command, the military is all but paralyzed. And in those crucial first postwar days in Baghdad, American forces (and not only those in the Third Infantry Division) behaved that way, as all around them Baghdad was ransacked and most of the categories of infrastructure named in the report were destroyed or seriously damaged.

The Decision to Disband the Iraqi Army and Demonize the Baath

Bremer was totally unequipped for the job he was given, and despite the media stories scripted by the White House that Bremer was a good administrator, he had no experience in occupation management. Plus, a political decision made by the White House sealed Iraqi antipathy towards the occupation forces at a time when we could have simply bought off a lot of good will.

Claiming that it had been a change that had been foreseen all along (though it had not been publicly announced and was news to Garner's staff), President Bush replaced Garner in May with L. Paul Bremer. Glossing over the fact that Bremer had no experience in postwar reconstruction or nation-building, the Pentagon presented Bremer as a good administrator -- something, or so Defense Department officials implied on background, Garner was not.

Bremer's first major act was not auspicious. Garner had resisted the kind of complete de-Baathification of Iraqi society that Ahmad Chalabi and some of his allies in Washington had favored. In particular, he had resisted calls to completely disband the Iraqi Army. Instead, he had tried only to fire Baathists and senior military officers against whom real charges of complicity in the regime's crimes could be demonstrated and to use most members of the Iraqi Army as labor battalions for reconstruction projects.

Bremer, however, took the opposite approach. On May 15, he announced the complete disbanding of the Iraqi Army, some 400,000 strong, and the lustration of 50,000 members of the Baath Party. As one U.S. official remarked to me privately, ''That was the week we made 450,000 enemies on the ground in Iraq.''

The decision -- which many sources say was made not by Bremer but in the White House -- was disastrous. In a country like Iraq, where the average family size is 6, firing 450,000 people amounts to leaving 2,700,000 people without incomes; in other words, more than 10 percent of Iraq's 23 million people. The order produced such bad feeling on the streets of Baghdad that salaries are being reinstated for all soldiers. It is a slow and complicated process, however, and there have been demonstrations by fired military officers in Iraq over the course of the summer and into the fall.

In closing, Rieff makes the case that our bad situation in Iraq didn't have to be this way. The picture he paints is one of incompetence driven by ideological blindness. And it is an issue that the Democratic candidates should be pounding into the brains of the voters right now. It is very credible to make the argument that our soldiers are dying because of Bush Administration incompetence and ideological blindness.

Steve :: 12:22 PM :: Comments (17) :: Digg It!