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U.S. Lacked Clear Plan for Postwar Iraq, Army Report Says

June 30, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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The U.S. Army released a report Monday outlining the problems that kept it from being able to stabilize Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Military experts discuss the report's findings.
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RAY SUAREZ: What did the Army do right and wrong in the first 18 months after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq in May 2008?

Today, the Army released its official history of that period. The 700-page analysis says, in part, that “few commanders foresaw that full-spectrum operations in Iraq would entail the simultaneous employment of offense, defense, stability and support operations by units at all echelons to defeat new, vicious and effective enemies.”

For more on what’s in the new Army study and its significance, we turn to Donald Wright, the lead author of the study; retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey had a 32-year career in the Army, he’s been to Iraq numerous times since the U.S. invasion; and retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor writes frequently about military issues and is the author of “Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights.”

History of Army transition in Iraq

Donald Wright
Army historian
[W]e make the point that, at the tactical level, units are doing offense, as well as detainee operations, governance operations, conducting reconstruction projects, and training the Iraqi security forces.

RAY SUAREZ: Donald Wright, let's start with you. Could you summarize for us what your report finds the Army did wrong after major combat operations were declared ceased?

DONALD WRIGHT, Author, Army Report: Well, first let me say, Ray, thank you for having me here.

It's important that we introduce the Army study as a history. It's the second volume in a larger series of historical monographs on Operation Iraqi Freedom.

And it's the result of two-and-a-half years of work, a team of people at Fort Leavenworth working with Army historians and Army officers in many units and in many commands.

And we do emphasize, as you mentioned, this transition to full-spectrum operations beginning in May of '03 and continuing through January '05 in what we say is that the army re-invented itself during these 18 months from a force that could fight conventional operations, was the paragon of conventional operations, into a force that could do something like full-spectrum operations and, as you said, offense, defense, stability operations.

And we make the point that, at the tactical level, units are doing offense, as well as detainee operations, governance operations, conducting reconstruction projects, and training the Iraqi security forces, just to name a handful, doing all these simultaneously, which was an unprecedented thing for the U.S. Army.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in your story, all 700 pages of it, there are several junctures at which generals say we failed to insist on better post-invasion planning, or the right questions weren't asked, or the right assumptions weren't used. Does the study make a conclusion about why that was able to happen? Or does it just note that it did happen?

DONALD WRIGHT: Well, as most military historians will tell you, no plan survives first contact. No plan can take into account all the things that a force will face.

And we do quote several major commanders, such as General William Wallace, who says that the assumptions were wrong.

We also make note that the plans that were made -- and there were plans that were laid down by the combined forces land component commander and CENTCOM that those plans were a little late in forthcoming, because the commands were focused on Phase III. That was the decisive phase of the operation, and understandably concerned about defeating Saddam's forces first.

While there was planning going on at the same time that the major forces were preparing to cross the berm in Kuwait and defeat Saddam's army, the emphasis wasn't on what came after the toppling of the Saddam regime. And many units did not fully understand their tasks that were to follow that event.

What is missing from this history?

Col. Douglas MacGregor (Ret.)
U.S. Army
Why didn't someone stand up, like Abizaid, who understood that this was a disaster in the making, who understood Arabs, and point out that no Christian army is going to be welcome as an occupation force anywhere in the Islamic world?

RAY SUAREZ: Colonel Macgregor, in the five-plus years since the announced end of major combat operations, many books and articles have come out that cover a lot of this same territory. But is it significant that this time it's coming from the Army itself?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.), U.S. Army: Well, the United States Army has a long history of publishing things like this by official historians reaching all the way back to World War II.

The problem with most of them is that we normally print histories that are designed to conceal real disasters, don't go into much detail, especially about general officers commanding forces in the field where serious mistakes were made.

If you go back and read something about Kasserine Pass, it gets one sentence in the official history. You see the same thing, you know, about Anzio.

I'm not sure. I haven't read Dr. Wright's study. It's 720 pages, and I just got started. But from what I've seen thus far, I'm more concerned about what is not discussed than what is in the book.

RAY SUAREZ: And what do you mean by that?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: Well, there's no discussion in there about, why didn't someone stand up who is a senior officer in the Army, whether it's General McKiernan or General Wallace, or anyone else, and say, "The United States Army and the United States Marine Corps are not structured or equipped in any way to conduct long-term occupations, simply aren't," tell the administration, "We're not structured for that."

Why didn't someone stand up, like Abizaid, who understood that this was a disaster in the making, who understood Arabs, and point out that no Christian army is going to be welcome as an occupation force anywhere in the Islamic world, least of all among Arabs? Why didn't someone bother to pay attention to history?

We fought a hollow army in 1991. There was nothing in 2003 that should have held us up for any length of time. The most significant enemy we faced on the way to Baghdad were men in pickup trucks.

Yet McKiernan and his brother generals seem to have obsessed for months over a fight that wasn't going to happen, to the point where people that tried to get in to General McKiernan -- by the way, he was the land component commander, and he was most responsible for this planning -- people that tried to get in to him weren't even allowed in to talk about it, because they had to plan for this great war.

Usefulness of study?

Gen. Barry McCaffrey (Ret.)
U.S. Army
When the first invasion went in, it was clearly a miscast force. It was not prepared to do follow-on mobilization of Iraqi society. It was not prepared to train the Iraqi security forces.

RAY SUAREZ: General McCaffrey, do you find studies like this to be useful and a necessary part of figuring out how to go forward from here?

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (Ret.), U.S. Army: Oh, yes. No, I think I'm very proud that the Army produced this study. I would also suggest it's probably common behavior, the after-action review at platoon-level or battalion, you know, training test.

Normally we go back, try and sort out what went wrong, Socratic method. You bring it out of the people that participated. So this was long past due for the Army to go do exactly what's happened.

And I think that the challenge was, why was there a sense of denial of the evidence in front of our eyes? When the first invasion went in, it was clearly a miscast force. It was not prepared to do follow-on mobilization of Iraqi society. It was not prepared to train the Iraqi security forces. It wasn't prepared to conduct area security or counterinsurgency.

When there was the rush to go home and they put in Rick Sanchez with a tiny headquarters and took a lot of his operating forces, at that point, when we saw the thing going sour, why didn't we recognize that we had a disaster unfolding?

That's really the more important thing to me. I buy into the fact that no plans, you know, survive contact with the enemy. But at some point, you've got to say, "Look, this thing doesn't look right. What are we going to do to change the dynamic?"

We had to wait years until Petraeus got there and Secretary Bob Gates to suddenly get a new way of looking at this.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mr. Wright, how do you respond to General McCaffrey's comments? Did the Army adjust?

DONALD WRIGHT: Well, sir, I would respond to your comment about the time it took for a transition to point out that one thing we document is the standing up of Multi-National Forces-Iraq and Multi-National Corps-Iraq in the summer of 2004, which we argue was a recognition of the shortcomings of CJTF-7 in 2003, and putting in General Casey...

RAY SUAREZ: And what's CJTF-7?

DONALD WRIGHT: Combined Joint Task Force 7, which was General Ricardo Sanchez's command. And so what we say is that this is recognition -- perhaps belated -- of the problems with CJTF-7, the shortcomings there, and an attempt to try to remedy the situation.

And when General Petraeus does come over, he does become the MNF-I commander with a command that was established about two-and-a-half years before his arrival.

Institutionalizing the lessons

Col. Douglas MacGregor
U.S. Army
There is this myth that Petraeus invented something entirely new and changed everything. The truth is that our forces adapted fairly early at the lowest levels to new circumstances.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what happens to a study like this one, Mr. Wright? Is it now taught at West Point or at the Army War College in Pennsylvania?

DONALD WRIGHT: Well, 1,500 copies will go to the commanding general staff college at Fort Leavenworth, where majors are educated. There will be another 500, I believe, going off to the Army War College, more to West Point, and so it will go out to the educational institutions.

It will most likely be integrated into the curriculum to some degree and will also be read by these field-grade officers, these mid-grade level officers, and hopefully some younger ones, too. And we offer insights, hopefully, that they can use in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you optimistic about it soaking into the Army culture?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: It's hard to tell, you know. Frankly speaking, I'm not sure we want it to soak in.

I mean, a couple of things that Dr. Wright said that I think are very important and, in his book, at least the parts that I've read, he makes this clear.

There is this myth that Petraeus invented something entirely new and changed everything. The truth is that our forces adapted fairly early at the lowest levels to new circumstances. This book makes that very clear, and I think that's a good thing, because our forces at lower levels are adaptive, much more than they get credit for being.

The thing, though, that disturbs me is this business of Sanchez. It seems as though Sanchez is being selected along with Franks and the administration for blame for everything.

We need to look at that 30-day period after Baghdad falls when General McKiernan is in command. And what does he do? The answer is not much.

He meets with former Iraqi generals that give him lists of colonels that can be new officers in a new army. He's got thousands of Iraqi troops and officers standing around waiting to be called back to help. Nothing is done; there are no decisions.

Then, Bremer arrives and announces a dismantlement of the state and the army and sets the stage for the ensuing disaster, which is why we still have hundreds of thousands of people on the ground over there.

RAY SUAREZ: So what happens now? The Army has taken measure of these five years. And ideally what happens?

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY: Well, I don't think we know. You know, what I think was going to happen, you're going to see a continued drawdown in Iraq. We're now down to around 15 brigades.

I'll bet by next summer we're down to 10 brigades or less. That's a sustainable force level, so the next political administration is going to have to decide -- you got no support out of the American people to continue this war. It was $12 billion a month. It was a thousand killed and wounded a month. Now, thankfully, it's down to probably a hundred a month.

What are we going to do? And the answer is going to be: Stand up the Iraqi security forces and leave. So will they hold it together, yes or no? My instinct is they probably will.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you very much.