Bottom Line, What Went wrong?

A range of opinions on root causes for America's failures in Iraq, offered by authorities interviewed for this FRONTLINE report.

Stephen Biddle
Council on Foreign Relations

photo of biddle

… How much of what's gone wrong connects to the initial poor planning for Phase IV after Saddam Hussein is toppled -- not having boots on the ground?

… There was Phase IV planning done. An office was set up late in the game by a small operation not considered central by the theater command and by CENTCOM command, and it ended up focusing on issues that turned out not to be important and ignoring the ones that turned out to be central.

Within the U.S. military command in CENTCOM there was also a cell set up to do post-conflict, Phase IV planning. But again, it was not considered by the senior leadership as central to success and failure in the undertaking.

And the civilian operation and CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] under [Gen. Jay] Garner [Ret.] and the military operation ... didn't interact with each other particularly, either. Nor did either of these operations interact very effectively with the parts of the State Department that had been worrying about this. It was a very poorly coordinated effort.

Why was it so poorly coordinated?

… The issue turned on an enormous turf war between the State Department and the CIA, and the Defense Department and the vice president's office, over who would control the future of Iraq, which in turn turned on very different conceptions of what they wanted the future of Iraq to look like.

The Defense Department wanted a reliable post-Saddam government led by Ahmed Chalabi. The State Department and CIA didn't trust Chalabi and wanted a rather different kind of post-Saddam Iraqi government. That meant that they were going to fight hard for who got control of that turf. So you had a very bitter battle between very, very skilled bureaucratic infighters. …

The National Security Council, which you would normally expect to play the job of forcing these people to deal with each other and create some sort of reasonably coherent coordinated interagency solution, was much weaker than the two players they were trying to referee. And the result of this turf war was in the end Rumsfeld won and part of winning was to systematically exclude the parts of the government that wanted a different outcome. That ends up excluding a lot of expertise. ...

Just imagine if the State Department had gotten control of this turf. The post-war reconstruction of Iraq probably would have looked a lot less like a military response to a hurricane -- because that's the kind of humanitarian work that the military understands -- and a lot more like nation building…

The outcome of this turf war at the highest level had all sorts of downstream implications.

In the summer of '03, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld is saying, "Freedom is untidy." ... And we discover ourselves in August with the bombings and killings at the Jordanian embassy, the U.N. embassy, Najaf, the police station -- and suddenly we have an insurgency. And you have the particular set of people, principles, ideas -- what is that system likely to yield in terms of solutions to the problems at hand?

I think it is likely to yield a couple of things. One is, Rumsfeld and the Defense Department have been criticized from the beginning, including by some at the Army War College, who are saying, "Look out for the danger of civil war. Look out for the danger of internal unrest." And his response to that, in order to gain control of the turf was, "Not to worry, we're going to get a democracy. There is not going to be a civil war. There is not going to be an insurgency."

Well, when you respond to pre-war criticism by setting up this dichotomy between insurgency/civil war -- which means failure and that is not going to happen -- and democracy, which means success, it then becomes very, very difficult for the institution that you have given control of this operation to own up to the beginnings of an insurgency or of a civil war, because we have set that up as a definition of failure.

So what you get is an institution that is systematically going to postpone any recognition of that and do everything in its power to avoid characterizing the situation that way because they have defined that as failure from the beginning.

Thomas Ricks
The Washington Post

photo of ricks Read his full interview

… Number one and foremost is recognizing the reality on the ground in Iraq -- that the rather rosy and optimistic official assessments that have been coming back to Washington from the military simply aren't right; that these guys on the ground who preceded [Gen. George] Casey didn't recognize the basic realities of what was happening in Iraq, and that our position in Iraq in summer 2004 is quite negative to where we were in spring 2003; that they've wasted a year, dug themselves a pretty deep hole. The question Casey has to address is, can we dig ourselves out of this hole?

The second problem Casey has to look at is his own institution. Why is my institution responding inappropriately here? What is the Army doing that works? What is the Army doing that doesn't work? And why are so many things we're doing in the second category not working?

This is best summarized by the study that [Kalev] Sepp [professor, Naval Postgraduate School] does for him in I think the fall of '04. He does a list of best practices in counterinsurgency and worst practices in counterinsurgency. I think of the 12 worst practices, the major mistakes that militaries have made in trying to put down an insurgency, the United States is committing nine of the 12. It has failed to close the borders. It still is following peacetime processes in its military operations and how it handles personnel, and so on. It isn't treating its prisoners well. It focuses on big, battalion- or brigade-size operations against the insurgents, not recognizing that the job is not to kill the insurgents; it's to make them irrelevant. And fundamentally, it's not making the most important recognition, that the people are not the playing field; the people are the prize. Now, it's one thing to recognize those. It's another thing to turn around this huge ship called the U.S. military. …

I think the reason that a lot of people think Casey essentially failed is when we didn't protect Iraqis, Iraqis, seeking to survive, looked to see who could protect them. And the story of 2006 was, "The militias will protect us."

Baghdad, a city of 5 or 6 million people devolved into a series of small armed camps, where neighborhoods threw up barriers. So there's only one entrance to the barrier. There's armed men, not in uniforms, standing at the front of that gate, and they're looking at everybody who comes in and out. It's essentially a chaotic Hobbesian state now of thousands of tiny, armed camps allied with each other, and the U.S. is irrelevant to the situation. When people want protection, they look to the Shi'ite militias or to the Sunni militias, which is the Sunni insurgency.

We don't have enough guys to be out there.

Yes, absolutely. What Casey discovers is, OK, the successful guys -- [Gen. David] Petraeus [in Mosul], [Col. H.R.] McMaster [in Tal Afar] -- these are the guys who go out, and they clear, and then they hold, and then they build. The problem is you couldn't do that in the key problem in Iraq, which is Baghdad. We simply didn't have enough troops. We were talking to planners up in Tal Afar, and I said, "How many troops would it take to replicate in Baghdad what you've done up here very successfully?" And they said, "About 30 divisions."

How many men is that?

Thirty divisions is, oh, maybe 450,000 men. It's three times the size of the active-duty U.S. Army, which is 10 divisions.

So the U.S. answer becomes: "OK, we can clear. Then the Iraqi troops will hold." And we'll achieve that when we get up to the number of trained Iraqi forces, soldiers and police that we're supposed to have, which is about 320,000. The problem is in '06 they achieved that number of 320,000 trained Iraqi security forces, yet the violence still increases.

So the basic quandary they find themselves in is the Iraqi troops don't seem to be capable, for whatever reason, of holding. … The worst thing you can do, we realize, is clear and not hold, because it's destructive. The population turns against you. And we find ourselves in that situation repeatedly, especially in Baghdad.

Maj. Thomas Mowle
Gen. Casey strategy adviser

photo of mowle

… In the summer of 2004, we had written a campaign plan for Iraq for the next couple of years or so. It was a strategy, if you define strategy as being a very big, comprehensive plan. But it was missing two things that are important to have in a strategy. It didn't account very well for, what if things didn't go quite the way we expected them to happen?

The other item that is part of having a strategy is a real understanding of the motivations of the Iraqi people, of understanding, what are our opponents goals? What are their interests? What do they really want? That meant we couldn't anticipate how they would react to things we did. Fallujah would be an example of this. I certainly believe that if we had anticipated the Sunni Arab reaction to going into Fallujah, we may well not have done it. But we didn't, because we were treating it as, "This is what we need to do, and the people of Iraq will accept it. They will see this as necessary." ...

Our perception was that the American strategy from the beginning truly relied on assumptions that everything would work out exactly as we hoped it would.

We expected, hoped, in a sense, to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we did not. We hoped that the Iraqi army would stay in place and assist with pacifying Iraq. It did not. We hoped that the Iraqi people would welcome us as liberators and accept our presence, and there'd be very little need for an occupation. And that didn't happen.

We hoped, essentially, that the people of Iraq would behave in exactly the ways that we thought would be best for the success of our plan. ... You have to have fallback -- some provision, some robustness in your strategy -- that if things don't go as you hope, you nevertheless can recover from that. You have the manpower necessary or you have the political space to recover from a setback, to recover from things not going quite the way you expected.

Philip Zelikow
Counselor, State Department

photo of zelikow Read his full interview

… This point's critical: You have to have a strategy countrywide that tells your battalion and company commanders what their jobs are. They then have to have a lot of autonomy for … the execution of that strategy adapted to local circumstances. But they have to be trained in an approach to the problem.

What's remarkable about Tal Afar is, why isn't that being done in different forms all over the country? Well, because it wasn't a countrywide strategy, … people are just improvising and inventing almost ad hoc from unit to unit, from brigade to brigade or division to division. There isn't really a strong countrywide template.

Tell me why such a strategy didn't exist.

No, actually there's a campaign plan. And then if you look in the campaign plan for the strategy, there are annexes to the campaign plan. And then if you read the annex in the campaign plan, there are other things that they'll refer you to. You can chase this pretty far down the paper trail.

But fundamentally what a strategy needs to do is to prioritize your operational objectives. It needs to say: "Here's concretely how you will achieve your operational objectives. … Here are the force requirements that are needed in order to achieve your objectives in this prescribed way."

If you look to find that kind of laid out, and then saying, "Therefore, here are our force requirements, and if we don't have the force requirements to do this countrywide, here's how we're prioritizing locally given what's available," ... that's what is missing. [It's] what we would classically recognize as a strategy document.

Why don't we have it?

Because the commanding generals did not prepare one.

Why?

I don't know. I can speculate, but this is something that I believe that the Army needs to examine as it reviews this experience. It's really quite striking. I don't think many policymakers in Washington really appreciated the degree to which this was missing, or perhaps in many respects didn't fully grasp the scale of this void until late in 2006. There were a few of us who began to become more aware of it as time had gone on, but the full scale of the problem dawned on me only slowly.

And what about Rumsfeld?

Secretary Rumsfeld may have been part of the problem, but I think not in the way it's commonly perceived. The caricature is Rumsfeld riding roughshod over his generals, which may or may not be the case for various decisions in the Pentagon and certainly some things that happened before the invasion in 2003.

After the invasion, the pattern that seems more apparent to me, at least from what I could see, is not that Rumsfeld is running roughshod over his generals; it's that the secretary is actually relatively passive. … The dominating role is held by the generals; indeed the Multi-National Force [MNF] command in CENTCOM, even the Joint staff back in Washington, is playing only a very modest role in developing overall strategy for Iraq. So the job has been delegated almost completely to the field, and they're looking to Baghdad to not just execute the strategy, but to write the strategy and to form the policy and then to tell Washington what the strategy is and what its requirements are.

And so the basic dynamic between Baghdad and Washington, in scores and scores of meetings, is Baghdad briefs; Washington listens.

Astonishing, yes?

This was the pattern. This pattern was already set by the time I came into the government. It took me a while to fully realize the significance of this pattern, but it was remarkable. And I didn't really see that basic pattern reversed until late in 2006. …

[The real responsibility for developing the strategy was primarily with Gen. Casey's headquarters and [MNF-I Commander, 2003-2004] Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez's headquarters before then. And that's where the void is found. Now, they might say: "Well, it wasn't our job. It should have been done in CENTCOM or the Joint staff or someplace in Washington." But you can look around; the net is that it's missing.

Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies

photo of Cordesman

… The problem really often was a combination of very poor political leadership, particularly on the part of the vice president and the secretary of defense, and a horrifying lack of effective leadership within the U.S. Army and within the Joint Staff. It was compounded, quite frankly, by an intimidated intelligence community, which had been beaten up for effectively going along with political pressure to create estimates that justified the invasion of Iraq, and [it was] a community in turmoil which was constantly being reorganized.

Frederick Kagan
Military historian

photo of kagan Read his full interview

… It's very ironic to me, the criticism that the Bush administration has taken for preferring the use of force and being very heavy-handed and liking the military instrument.

The thing is, the military instrument, as the Bush administration has applied it in Iraq, has constantly tried to solve its problems through political means. I think they frankly put too much weight on the political process, because I think there was an oversimplification of the problem and a belief that it's true to say that any insurgency ultimately has a political solution. …

What was missing in the CENTCOM strategy was an understanding of the synergy that has to exist between a military kinetic strategy to defeat the insurgency as a prerequisite for convincing the insurgents that they have to play in the political process, because what you had going on was Sunni Arabs were unwilling to accept the fact that they would not control the new Iraq, and a lot of them supported the few of them who turned to violence as a way of gaining leverage in the political process. ...

If you don't take that tool away from them, if you don't make it clear to them that violence is not an option and is not going to provide them with leverage, then you're encouraging them to continue to be violent. And this was the problem that I saw all along with the CENTCOM strategy as it was playing out.

Michael Gordon
The New York Times

photo of gordon Read his full interview

… Did we ever have a strategy for victory?

… I don't think we were really trying to achieve victory. In fact, my sense was that the generals looked at the insurgency, saw it was resilient, concluded that it couldn't be defeated in the near term, put the emphasis on building up the Iraqis and handing over to them, and that the actual strategy was premised on the assumption that there would not be a near-term victory. There would be a continued war that we would support.

So my sense is we never were going all out to win. We weren't fighting the war. We were managing the war within available resources.

Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.)
Army Vice Chief of Staff, 1999-'04

photo of keane Read his full interview

… I think it's a little bit of an overstatement about there being no strategy. ... The way I look at it, in '03, from the time we took the regime down to about the time Gen. Sanchez left in the summer of '04, our strategy, by and large, military strategy, was wrapped around killing and capturing the insurgents, the thugs, the killers who were attacking us and beginning to think about transitioning to and the growth of the Iraqi military. … But there was no unified campaign plan. …

The nature of our operations would have been very different if we were securing the population. We would have been protecting that population and then also bringing in economic packages. And [that would begin] to isolate the insurgents. It takes time, but it's a proven counterinsurgency practice. … It's usually the centerpiece strategy. We had never adopted that as a military strategy, protecting the population. Even in those operations, in Fallujah or Samarra or Ramadi, we would go in there and clear the insurgents out, though we would never come back in and secure the population. …

When we did not secure the population, the enemy realized that the population was fair game; we were not securing them, the Iraqis couldn't do it yet. So what did they do? All through '05 they exploited it. They … began to kill more and more of the Iraqis. … The real vulnerability that they exploited was this soft spot that we had, because we had made the decision not to secure that population.

Lawrence Kaplan
The New Republic

photo of kaplan

… One of the reasons that the proper lessons aren't derived and strategy is not adjusted quarterly [is] simple incompetence. For whatever reason in Iraq, you have incredibly skilled young captains, terrific majors on different staffs, battalion commanders, brigade commanders, but then you get to the level of general, and the war has really featured a parade of fairly mediocre performances by general officers.

Then you get to the strategic level at Washington, and there you are dealing with the peculiarities of the Bush administration, where no one seems to know what's going on in Iraq. Where the chief Iraq person at the National Security Council, the director of Iraq policy, was until recently a research assistant at the Brookings Institution.

Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)
Defense Department consultant

photo of krepinevich Read his full interview

… There's an enormous gap between what we feel and what we say about this war and what we're actually doing about this war, how much we're willing to disrupt our lives, how much we're willing to divert resources, how much we're willing to upset traditional patterns in the way our bureaucracy operates to actually win this war.

You see it in terms of the unwillingness to put a single person in charge in Baghdad or back here in Washington, because that would affect the proprieties between the various departments and agencies of the U.S. government.

You see it in terms of personnel policies. We find an exceptional general like Petraeus or [Marine Gen. James] Mattis, and then after a year we say, "Well, your command is going home, so you're going home." Can you imagine us pulling Gen. Patton out of France in the middle of World War II, or Gen. MacArthur out of the Pacific, or President Lincoln telling Gen. Grant, "Well, I finally found the general who knows how to win this war, but gee, Ulysses, you've been in the field now for a year; I guess you should come back to Washington and sit around and twiddle your thumbs"?

Leon Panetta
Iraq Study Group; White House chief of staff 1994-97

… I have to say as someone who's a former chief of staff, I'm really astounded at the lack of coordination of policy that took place with regards to the war. Almost every area we looked at … lacked any kind of strong coordination. It was dispersed. People were doing their own thing. I mean, we talked to military commanders who basically said, "We've got to basically run the show ourselves, because we're not getting a hell of a lot of help from others."

And again, in the White House, any time a major event took place, one of the things that I always thought was essential is to gather the main players in the White House to make sure that they're all talking to each other, to make sure that they are coordinating their effort, to make sure that we all are walking in the same direction, and to make sure that we all have the same mission in line with what the president wants to do. And I just never got the sense that that kind of session took place where everybody said, "There has to be a center of control here." If you asked people, "What is the center of control?" the answer was never the same.

Col. William Hix
Chief strategist to Gen. Casey

photo of hix Read his full interview

… When somebody like [State Department Counselor Philip] Zelikow shows up in the country [early 2005], talks to everybody and then reports to Condoleezza Rice, "There's no strategy here,"what's your reaction?

There was a strategy laid out in writing in 2004. It recognized an insurgency; it articulated security, governance and economic action to deal with the insurgency, to move Iraq forward to this election. ... It was endorsed by Ambassador [to Iraq John] Negroponte.

The problem was, it was only partially resourced at the end of the day, and there were two people in charge of running it. In most businesses you don't usually have a committee that runs the business and makes the decision; there's one guy. When you looked at how we conducted operations in the Philippines, a successful counterinsurgency, and when you look at generally how some of the activities were conducted even in Vietnam, most of them were organized under the military. … So there's one guy in charge, which is not the case in Iraq.

So how would it have been different if Casey had been the top dog?

That's a speculative question. I guess what I would say is having one guy in charge forces a coherence to your action across all of these different activities that you don't necessarily get. From my observations, Gen. Casey and Ambassador Negroponte get along fine. … But neither one of them was fully in charge of what was going on in Iraq. …

And how were they doing while you were there?

… I can't speak for the State Department, but by and large, the [U.S.] Embassy was focused on operating more as an embassy than as an arm of the counterinsurgency strategy. There was a sense, at least at my level with my counterparts and foreign service officers at my level, that if it was done by CPA, it was not something that they were going to do.

Now, that evolved over time. Clearly we now have provincial reconstruction teams and that sort of thing. I won't say they've come full circle, but they've evolved back toward some of the things that CPA was doing that were good, even though at the end of the day CPA had some challenges, in part because a lot of things they were trying to do didn't get resourced until late in their tenure.

But as I say, there was a resistance there. There was a lack of capacity, and I don't say that to indict them, but I mean, it's the largest embassy in the world, but there's not enough there to get the job done. And this goes back to the question about should the Army be leading this?

home . introduction . watch online . interviews . timeline . themes . join the discussion
producer's chat . readings & links . site map . dvd & transcript . press reaction
credits . privacy policy . journalistic guidelines . FRONTLINE series home . wgbh . pbs

posted june 19, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation