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john hamre

How did you find out that Iraq was going to end up on your plate?

When I first went to CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies], we started a project on post-conflict reconstruction, and it grew out of the experiences I had at DOD [the Department of Defense] about Kosovo and Bosnia. It was clear we can shoot our way into any place and win, but we can't get out. We tend to get stuck because we don't think it's our job to rebuild civil society after the war is over. But the other parts of the government that do have that job don't do it well. ... And then in September, before the war with Iraq, it became clear that we were probably going to have this war, so we started [another] project to say, "What should we anticipate, now, are going to be the challenges of Iraq after the war?"

...What we have now is a very competent  insurgency It's going to take us a while to work through that, it's going to take something different from a Powell Doctrine - or a Rumsfeld Doctrine.

We published a report called A Wiser Peace in January of 2003, and it laid out all of the challenges that we were going to confront in Iraq. To the best of my knowledge, I think it was fairly uniformly ignored. They had their hands full; I'm not being critical.

One of our commissioners who was involved with our project is Congressman Frank Wolf. And Congressman Wolf, in May of 2003, went to Iraq ... and came back and contacted Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld and said: "It's really a mess over there. Things aren't going well at all. You've got a big problem on your hands, and I think you ought to send CSIS over there to give you a second opinion." And I got a copy of a letter from Congressman Wolf. He sent a letter to every member of Congress about his experiences, saying that he wanted CSIS to go over and give a second opinion on the reconstruction after the war.

I'll be honest: That scared me, because the Bush administration doesn't take second opinions real good, and so I thought I was potentially going to have a political problem on my hands of an angry administration pointing the finger at us. But to my surprise, Secretary Rumsfeld read our report and he said, "I think it would be good if they did go over." So on very short notice, he asked if I would pull a little group together to go to Iraq, and literally we had 10 days to get ready.

When you arrived, how did the reality compare with what you'd been worried about?

photo of hamre

As deputy secretary of defense in the mid-to-late 1990s, John Hamre was involved in reconstruction planning for Kosovo and Bosnia. He now is president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an organization that has studied every post-war reconstruction task since World War II. In May 2003 the Pentagon asked him and a CSIS team to go to Iraq and evaluate what the U.S. was facing in the aftermath of the war. In this interview, Hamre describes the range of challenges they saw and talks about whether the transformational concepts being pursued by the military today can handle them. "I think we're really having to struggle with a new and much more complicated problem. The security dimension is more diffuse and more complex. It doesn't neatly fit the way we've structured this brilliant military of ours." This interview was conducted on July 23, 2004.

We knew security was going to be a problem, and we had forecasted [that] security was a problem. We have been studying every post-conflict reconstruction task since World War II. There have been 54 of them, and we studied each one in a great deal of detail. And there's one constant dimension, and that is the need to establish security early, a secure environment in the country. If you don't have that, nothing else works. ... The security problem was largely being defined by the military, who were responding to the continuing guerrilla activities of the former regime loyalists. And that was a problem; that was a security problem.

But it was only one of three security problems. Just as important was the basic criminality in the country. Saddam Hussein, before the war, opened up the prisons and released 100,000 criminals into Iraqi society, and they were just traveling openly and plundering and preying on society. That was a security problem that every Iraqi citizen felt deeply. They felt very vulnerable, but it wasn't registering on our screen as a security problem that we thought we had to worry about. ...

The third security problem, which we really didn't address, was to deal with the large black-market gangs that were operating and plundering the country. During the years of embargo, the Iraqi regime created large, sophisticated networks of black marketeers. That's how they generated cash. ... I remember being at the palace, and one morning for the staff meeting, a guy reported that someone had broken into the largest factory in Iraq during the day before and stolen all the generators and all the motors. And I thought to myself, well, that isn't two guys hauling off a refrigerator; this is organized. ... And of course, this is systematically dismantling the economy of Iraq. So we'd already had a huge unemployment problem, and it was getting worse every day because we weren't really focusing on this economic destruction that was going on.

Two of those three things are not counterinsurgency. This isn't a war; it's something else.

Right, exactly. And this is why the full composite of a federal government needs to be involved in reconstruction. I love DOD; they're my people. But when we go into a place, we think security is the guy that's shooting at us, for good reasons, but we don't tend to think about basic policing in the streets.

I remember a moment where Secretary Rumsfeld says to the president, "I take 100 percent of accountability if I get 100 percent authority."

I admire him for doing that, for taking that position. And it's typical that Don Rumsfeld's a stand-up guy -- you know, "Give me the tools, and I'll take complete responsibility." But first of all, it does mean that you have to have good working relations inside Washington, across departments, because you're going to need the skill in other agencies if you're going to do that. And unfortunately, the cooperative structure between DOD and other departments broke down badly over the last several years ... frankly, [with] a lot of places, but State especially.

Okay, that's security. What were the other issues?

I think our soldiers were doing a terrific job at this part of it, this trying to rebuild civil society, but we didn't give them very many tools. We didn't support them well, and that's, I think, a challenge, a problem.

I was surprised at how poorly we communicated to both the Iraqi people and to ourselves. We haven't done a good job with public communication, and I'll give you an example. ... Saddam used to punish people by cutting off electricity for two or three days just to let them know he was mad at them. Well, when the electricity went out when we were there, usually produced by this economic sabotage more than anything else, the public interpreted it that we were punishing them ... because something bad had happened, and it reinforced their anger that they felt about Saddam, directed toward us. We never explained to them: "It isn't our fault that the electricity went out. Some jackass blew up a high-power wire in our tower and pulled it down. That's why you don't have electricity. And here's what we're doing to fix it."

How big of a mistake was it that we disbanded the army?

I think that my friends at DOD would say, "We didn't have an army to disband; they disappeared." I think that's partly right. But we gave them very explicit instructions in the lead-up to the war, through our propaganda, on how to surrender. For example, we'd drop leaflets on a brigade and say, "Park all your vehicles in a square pointing into the center, the guns into the center, and put white flags on antennas," leaflets saying this in Arabic. And they did that. Many of them did that. And yet then we were very dismissive. Their professional military [thought] that if they took steps like that, they'd be treated with honor, and they felt they weren't treated with honor. When we came in and sweepingly did away with the army, in a rhetorical sense, it was really offensive to many of them. I think we were a bit naive that it would not have negative implications, and it was a good symbol of cutting off the past so it didn't carry over to the future of Iraq. ...

It was a well-organized part of Iraqi society, a command-and-control system. You could have used that disciplined structure in a very thoughtful way to get parts of the economy working again. But we didn't trust it, and we did away with it in what they perceived to be an offensive way, and it was probably a mistake. ... The disarmament of combatants is one of the hardest and biggest problems that you confront in any post-conflict situation. It's what we're still living with in Afghanistan. We have not really disarmed the warlords, and that is the de facto power structure in the country. With Iraq, they disappeared with their guns and ammunition, and of course, that's a lot of what's now fueling the insurgency.

You're not the only person who thought in advance that there were going to be some reconstruction issues and didn't feel anybody was paying attention. There was a State Department group that worked on it. Do you know anything about that?

The State Department did organize a series of working groups. ... I think because the interagency process wasn't working well, a lot of that wasn't used. And I think, again, they started with a very idealistic image of the war and what the after-war environment would be like. I think the dominant perspective was [that] these were smart people, oppressed people -- for 30 years they lived under the tyranny of a clique of ruthless men -- [and] that all you have to do is to remove that and the natural environment that will emerge is going to be a flowering, sophisticated, relatively liberal, open-progress environment. I think they were just quite convinced of that. And I think they did not understand how badly distorted the economy had become from 30 years of socialist mismanagement, how fragile the infrastructure had become after 20 years of underinvestment and 10 years of sanctions, how frightened and paranoid the society had become. ... They, for example, thought that they wouldn't have to spend much money on reconstruction because Iraq had the second largest potential oil reserves in the world. They were forecasting before the year was out that they'd be at prewar production levels on oil, and that within a year, there would be over five million barrels a day for export. Completely wrong, but again, it was in the idealism of their thinking that these are oppressed people just waiting to be freed and it's going to work out. That was the dominant view. And so with that perspective, when somebody walks in and talks about detailed planning for problems, they say, "Well, we're not going to have those problems, and we don't need to do that."

They did plan for problems that didn't occur. We planned for serious malnutrition issues during the war, and we stockpiled food. They planned for guerrilla skirmishing right away, and it didn't happen. ... But we didn't make preparations for the other part of the problems that did emerge, and we could have anticipated them.

When you got there, how bad was it personally for you guys living there? And when did you get there?

We got there about the 22nd or 23rd of June.... We were treated exceptionally well. We stayed in the Al Rashid Hotel, which was the old Saddam guest hotel. It was the best they had in the Green Zone for security reasons. We had electricity only 18 hours of the six days I was there, and that's because we were really at the height of both the economic plunder that was on going on as well as the Saddam loyalists' disruption. I was staying on the 11th floor of the hotel, and so you climb up 11 floors in darkened stairs to go into a dark room with no air conditioning to take a bath in bottled water. But that was better than most of the troops, so I have no complaints, absolutely no complaints.

So we were treated very well, but it was tough. I was very worried about the troops. This was at a time when it was starting to turn very hot and where the environment was very tough. We had these guys sitting out in checkpoints wearing full body armor, and they'd be on for like a three-day period -- on for a couple of hours, off for an hour, on for a couple of hours, off for an hour. And I was, quite frankly, very worried about them. It was very tough, and they were very vulnerable. The environment was hostile. Somebody could walk up and hand them a Coke, or they could hand them a hand grenade. So very tense. They were very tense. I'd never seen the troops quite so worn.

Your report said CPA [the Coalition Provisional Authority] had a window of three to six months, and now here we are a year later or more.

Our primary recommendation was, you have to dramatically indigenize the security strategy for Iraq. ... We're spending $4 billion a month to occupy a country that has a gross domestic product of $2.6 billion a month. This isn't working. You don't spend $4 billion to occupy a $2.5 billion economy. I mean, we could hire lots and lots of locals to do security at much less cost than just bringing in more foreign soldiers. There are challenges that come with indigenization, and frankly, we've experienced them, because when you recruit new cops, you're going to get some old Saddam loyalists in the mix. And we've had security issues as a result of that. ... Nonetheless, it still is an essential strategy for the future.

The original plan was to wait a couple years before we were really going to let them create a government. And I think if we had one great problem, it was [that] we really too much tried to organize a government around people we thought would be credible, but who turned out not to be credible to Iraqis.

There was a lot of talk about needing a couple hundred thousands extra guys for the back end, and famously, [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz said, "That's ridiculous." Looking back on it, were a couple hundred thousand extra foot soldiers on the ground in Iraq the solution to the problem?

We really only dealt with the Saddam-loyalist problem well, and we had enough troops for that. If that's the only problem you really think you're going to have, we had enough troops. But to tackle the two other security problems, we needed more.

So when, in transformational terms, the secretary and other advocates of fast, lean and lethal, efficient warfare say, "We could have gone in with 50,000 guys; we went in with enough guys," the answer is, "Probably not, if we're going to take a country and hold it."

If you view the act of combat as just one phase of a campaign, maybe 50,000 would have [been enough]. I would have been quite nervous about numbers that low. But that's only one phase of the campaign. You haven't secured the strategic victory by simply tactically defeating the enemy. And yet we tended to view our job as finished when we tactically defeated the enemy, not strategically secured the victory.

Frankly, that's the problem we still have in Afghanistan. We adopted a war-fighting strategy that was brilliant, where we used very small numbers of American military personnel, reaching out to bring in other assets -- airplanes, those sort of things. But the bulk of the combat force were local indigenous warlords. The problem is, the strategy to win the tactical victory is not adequate to secure the strategic victory because we now have warlords who are dictating the shape of the environment on the ground, rather than us and the government we are trying to create. So you can't just slice it into a very narrow piece that goes with the traditional tactics of military victory. We now have to look at this in a much larger sense as a strategic campaign.

Do you sense that somebody over there is listening to people like you guys now? Are they finally aware of this?

They may not be listening to us, but these are very thoughtful people. The military does a very good job of continually assessing the challenges they face in their performance. I hear this all the time, that they now know they have to secure the strategic victory, and the strategic victory goes well beyond the tactical success of the battlefield. So yes, I think they are seriously internalizing these issues.

The Bush administration inherited a certain kind of military, a certain kind of aspiration and expectation by the military of the Defense Department. Now here we are. A new president, or a continuation of this administration in a different form, will inherit whatever is there. What is there? What is the snapshot of the military now?

I think, first, it's a military of unprecedented competence in the tactical art of warfare. There's no military that has been as seasoned, as experienced, as skilled as this one is for the tactical art of war. This is probably the most experienced military we've ever had. Senior officers have now been through three wars together. It's unbelievable, remarkable.

There's a depth of capacity to integrate technology and tactics, doctrine and people, that's never been matched. It was very good when I was there, and it's gotten better since I left.

I think it is a military that's traumatized by the larger problems of security. They're in a very difficult environment now that really goes beyond the training base and the doctrinal base of operations. We've now had eight years of being in Bosnia. We are approaching our 18th month of being in Iraq in a very difficult insurgency for which we're not dramatically better today than we were 10 months ago, 12 months ago, and I think that's had a disquieting effect on them. Many of them now realize that this full dimension -- not just the tactics of fighting wars, but the imperative of securing the ultimate strategic victory -- is a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult. ...

The administration really had planned on doing away with and dismantling the schoolhouses that train the military [in] how to deal with civilians after wars. When they first came to office, they just did away with it. They said, "We're not going to do any of that stuff." We're now in the very midst of having to build all of that, and much more robust.

They did? When?

We had a schoolhouse down in Louisiana -- Fort Polk, I think it was -- that was training on civil interaction, and they basically said: "We don't do nation-building. We're not going to do that." And they were doing away with it. Now we realize that's exactly what this phase four is all about. We weren't particularly good at it when I was there, although we had developed some capability. But this is much bigger, much more complicated, and I think the military, frankly, is a bit adrift in dealing with this.

I have a feeling the Powell Doctrine went into slight eclipse in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now it's back with a vengeance. Is that fair?

The Powell Doctrine really made sense in rather structured traditional forms of state-to-state warfare. I don't think the Powell Doctrine was well-designed for insurgency operations. But frankly, the transformational concepts aren't well designed for insurgency, either. I think we're really having to struggle with a new and much more complicated problem. The security dimension is more diffuse and more complex. It doesn't neatly fit the way we've structured this brilliant military of ours. ... What we have now is a very competent insurgency, but it's not in the mold of the opponent that we thought we were engineering against. It's going to take us a while to work through that, and I would guess it's going to take something different from a Powell Doctrine -- or a Rumsfeld Doctrine.

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posted oct. 26, 2004

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