Colin Powell: U.N. Speech “Was a Great Intelligence Failure”


May 17, 2016

Colin Powell has called his 2003 speech to the United Nations, laying out the Bush administration’s rationale for war in Iraq, a “blot” on his record. The speech set out to detail Iraq’s weapons program, but as the intelligence would later confirm, that program was nonexistent.

More than 13 years later, the speech continues to haunt the administration — not just for what it got wrong, but for the unintended consequences it may have set in motion.

In one section, for example, Powell mentioned the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi 21 times. The aim was to establish Zarqawi as the link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The problem, according to former members of the intelligence community, is that although Zarqawi once travelled to Afghanistan hoping to meet Osama bin Laden, he was considered a poor recruit for Al Qaeda.

Powell’s U.N. speech helped elevate Zarqawi’s status, and within months, he was rapidly gaining followers in Iraq, fomenting sectarian warfare and laying the groundwork for the organization that would become ISIS.

Today, Powell says his speech was approved by former CIA chief George Tenet, but says he doesn’t remember the details about Zarqawi.

“Zarqawi was not anything uppermost in my mind,” he told FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore in an interview for the documentary The Secret History of ISIS. “It was not a significant part of the speech for me. It was almost a passing reference.”

In the below transcript of that conversation, conducted Feb. 5, 2016, Powell talks about the speech, what he remembers about Zarqawi, and why he warned President Bush on Iraq, “If you break it, you own it.”

Let’s start out in 2002. You were concerned about the consequences of what would happen after an invasion of Iraq. You were telling the president that famous phrase, “If you break it, you own it.” What were your concerns, and why were they not listened to?

The second part of your thing may not be accurate, and I’ll come to that. In the summer of 2002, when I returned from an overseas trip, I could see that the president had been receiving a lot of military briefings about how one would go into Iraq, but they didn’t take him all the way through what might happen once you go into Iraq, so I asked to see him. I went up to his private quarters in the White House on the evening of Aug. 5, 2002, for dinner.

I just laid it out for him. I said: “Mr. President, it isn’t just a simple matter of going to Baghdad. I know how to do that. What happens after? You need to understand, if you take out a government, take out a regime, guess who becomes the government and regime and is responsible for the country? You are. So if you break it, you own it. You need to understand that 28 million Iraqis will be standing there looking at us, and I haven’t heard enough of the planning for that eventuality.”

He took it very seriously, and he said, “What do you think I should do?” I said: “One, I think we should try to avoid a war, and the way to do that is to go to the offended party, which is the United Nations. Take this case to the United Nations and see if we cannot resolve the issue of weapons of mass destruction diplomatically.”

He said, “Good idea,” and he discussed it in conferences, meetings, television conferences with some of the other members of his team over the next several days. He asked me to brief the chief of staff, and I did. And he said, “I think this is the right thing to do,” and with some reluctance they all agreed to take it to the U.N. …

From that point on, I had to go get the resolution. It took seven to eight weeks to finally get it — unanimous, but with a mixed reaction. Some people said: “OK, Iraqis now have been given a get-out-of-jail card if they’ll turn in all the information we need to satisfy ourselves that they don’t have them. But this is not necessarily a license to go to war.” But we thought it was, and the French thought it wasn’t. So we knew we were going to have another round about this.

Saddam Hussein simply didn’t — he did not give us persuasive evidence that he did not have them or that he was not developing them. … Early in January, the president decided, “Sorry, I cannot take the chance in this post-9/11 environment that somebody who might have or does have or is working on these weapons is allowed to continue in violation of U.N. resolutions.” And he made the decision in the middle of January that it was going to require military action. And he asked me to take the case up to the United Nations.

So that speech, why you?

I’m secretary of state. Who else would you send? You can’t send the secretary of defense to the U.N. The U.N. ambassador — this is a little above that pay grade. So he selected me, and I think he thought I had credibility to deliver a speech, and it would be believable.

The speech supposedly had been prepared in the White House in the NSC [National Security Council]. But when we were given what had been prepared, it was totally inadequate, and we couldn’t track anything in it. When I asked Condi Rice, the national security advisor, where did this come from, it turns out the vice president’s office had written it.

“I said: ‘Mr. President, it isn’t just a simple matter of going to Baghdad. I know how to do that. What happens after? You need to understand, if you take out a government, take out a regime, guess who becomes the government and regime and is responsible for the country? You are. So if you break it, you own it.'”

So I asked, well, can we delay this a little bit? And the answer was no, because the president has already announced that you’re doing it next Tuesday, I think it was. So I had about four days. I was disturbed but not panicked because it all came out of the National Intelligence Estimate, NIE. The National Intelligence Estimate had been given the previous fall to the Congress; they’re the ones who asked for it, and they’re the ones who got it. And all the information about weapons of mass destruction as the intelligence community analyzed it was in that NIE.

So I said, no problem; let’s go out to the CIA and draw the best items out of that NIE and make the speech out of that. That’s what we did.

What’s the first time the name [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi first shows up on a piece of paper on your desk?

I don’t know. I don’t have the slightest idea.

Why was that speech so important? And what was it like walking into that hall?

You have to remember that at the time I gave the speech on Feb. 5, the president had already made this decision for military action. The dice had been tossed. That’s what we were going to do. The Congress had passed a resolution three months before that speech that essentially gave the president the authorization to do it. Overwhelmingly they voted for it, and it was on the basis of that National Intelligence Estimate. The president had been using these very significant points about biological vans and chemical weapons in his speeches and in the State of the Union address. There was really nothing in my speech that hadn’t already been covered in the State of the Union or other speeches.

The reason I went to the U.N. is because we needed now to put the case before the entire international community in a powerful way, and that’s what I did that day.

Of course walking into that room is always a daunting experience, but I had been there before. And we had projectors and all sorts of technology to help us make the case. And that’s what I did. I made the case with the director of central intelligence sitting behind me. He and his team had vouched for everything in it. We didn’t make up anything. We threw out a lot of stuff that was not double- and triple-sourced, because I knew the importance of this.

When I was through, I felt pretty good about it. I thought we had made the case, and there was pretty good reaction to it for a few weeks. And then suddenly, the CIA started to let us know that the case was falling apart — parts of the case were falling apart. It was deeply disturbing to me and to the president, to all of us, and to the Congress, because they had voted on the basis of that information. And 16 intelligence agencies had agreed to it, with footnotes. None of the footnotes took away their agreement.

So it was deeply troubling, and I think that it was a great intelligence failure on our part, because the problems that existed in that NIE should have been recognized and caught earlier by the intelligence community.

… What do you say about Zarqawi? Why does he make it into the speech?

I don’t remember. Zarqawi was not anything uppermost in my mind. What specific language did I use in that one?

He was the tie to Saddam. He was the tie to Al Qaeda. So in some ways, he was the tie between Saddam and Al Qaeda. He was in Iraq; he had been down to Baghdad to a hospital; he was in northern Kurdistan on the border in a terrorist camp; he was based there. But what falls through later is some of the evidence about that. Do you remember the importance of that story?

No, I don’t remember the importance of it. It was for the purpose of showing some kind of connection between Saddam Hussein and these kinds of gentlemen and ladies, and whatever they are. But it was not a significant part of the speech for me. It was almost a passing reference, because it was not clear to me what the connection really was from the NIE and the intelligence. But it was in there.

That’s surprising to me, because the way it’s been sold is that was the one piece of evidence that sort of tied —

You say “the way it’s been sold.” I didn’t sell it, so go talk to the person who was selling it. I didn’t make a big deal of that. I don’t think I ever talked about it again. It was in the speech because it was part of the NIE, and it was more than weapons of mass destruction. It was a way to connect these bad people, these bad organizations, to perhaps Saddam Hussein, and it was in the intelligence product, so I made a reference to it. But I don’t think it was a very significant reference, even though it may have been sold as such later.

Did that intelligence hold up?

I don’t remember. I didn’t follow that. I went about my business, back to being a diplomat.

… We know what happens to him afterward; he really does become a huge part of the insurgency. Was he somebody that was on your radar screen as things developed?

You keep asking me about Zarqawi, and I keep telling you, I really did not follow him that closely. You need to ask the intelligence community. That was not my job. I was a salesman that day to present a product, but the product was something that came out of the intelligence community. …

I keep asking because he’s one of our main characters.

I know, but it’s not mine.

Some of the reporting afterward claims that Zarqawi was sort of an unknown at that point, and yet the speech in some ways made him famous, infamous.

My speech did not make him famous or infamous. It may have been sold by others, but it was in the National Intelligence Estimate. It was a view held by the intelligence community. So if you really want to know why it was there and how important it was, those are the people who can give you the answer, if you can get anybody to talk to you.

In the summer of ’02 and early ’03, an attack on this camp, the one that Zarqawi was based in, was talked about. The CIA had people on the ground that were watching over it, miles from it. They were interviewing people about whether we should bomb this thing before the invasion. But there were worries that it would complicate the invasion. Do you remember any of that part?

I remember there were discussions about attacking various camps that we thought bad guys were hanging out in or weapons of mass destruction might be being developed inside. I think the one you’re referring to, we made a judgment that, let’s not start the war before we’re ready, and it is not clear that we are so confident of who’s there or what’s there that this will be worth a strike. There was a difference of opinion within the administration, and the president decided not to make the strike and start the war while we were still doing diplomacy, trying to avoid a war.

My goal in this period was to make sure that the president was taking into account all the consequences of military action, and I even said to him one day: “You do understand, Mr. President, if you do what I’m suggesting you do, try to find a diplomatic solution, and Saddam Hussein meets the test, he might stay in power; he might still be there. Can you live with that? If you can’t live with that, then let’s not waste our time at the U.N. But are you prepared to live with an Iraqi regime, a Saddam Hussein who has no weapons of mass destruction, no programs for weapons of mass destruction, but he’s still there? Do you really care?”

He says, “I care, but I would have to accept that outcome.” I couldn’t have done what I did if he said, “I will not accept a diplomatic solution.”

One last thing on Zarqawi. … In Peter Baker’s book, which has gotten a lot of renown, in Days of Fire, [he] talked about specifically the attack on the camp where Zarqawi was based out of, and you were reluctant to allow it or advise it because you were afraid it might undermine the upcoming U.N. speech, which was the main pillar of the terrorist network —

The upcoming U.N. speech?


When was this done?

This was ’03.

What date? There was no U.N. speech until Jan. 30, and the president told me to do it.

Exactly. That’s the speech he’s talking about. He’s saying that one of the reasons that you didn’t want the attack to happen beforehand, or you had advised against the attack, was because it would undercut one of the main pillars of your speech. Do you have the belief that that’s true?

Well, of course it’s true. If I’m getting ready to go to the U.N. and present our case, and suddenly before doing that we start a war, it will be a start of a war. I didn’t think that was a terribly good idea, and it wasn’t clear to me that there was something at that camp that was of such enormous importance. I don’t even remember whether it was Zarqawi’s presence or some products that are being made. It didn’t seem to me, and it didn’t seem to Dr. Rice, that this was worth doing at the time that we were trying to persuade the world that we are seeking a diplomatic solution. …

How do you hear first about CPA-1 and CPA-2 [the Coalition Provisional Authority 1 and 2 orders which governed de-Baathification and dissolving the Iraqi army] when [L. Paul] Bremer is sent over to Iraq? When is the first time you hear about them, and what are your thoughts on them?

When I read it in the newspaper. I got up in the morning, and I opened the paper, and I saw that an order had been issued that was eliminating or deactivating or getting rid of the Iraqi army. I was stunned, because this was not the plan. The Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld’s officials, had briefed us in National Security Council meetings with the president present, three times in the previous couple of months, that said our plan is to drop leaflets on the Iraqi army telling them, “Don’t fight; just go to your house and wait for us”; that our plan was to get rid of the bad leadership of the Iraqi army and fill it with good leaders, and then reconstitute it from the soldiers that had been there or were there.

Ambassador Bremer had a different point of view. He thought it was so contaminated that the politicians in Iraq wouldn’t like it, and he thought, and some thought, well, they already disbanded themselves; the army’s gone. Well, an army doesn’t go just because some people have left. The structure’s still there, and it could have been filled. This wasn’t my recommendation. It was the recommendation of the Pentagon. Three times they made this recommendation.

So when suddenly in May 2003 a change is made within the Pentagon, and they are authorized to issue these instructions — first the army and then the Baath Party — it was not anything that was considered at NSC level. Some have said in their memoirs, well, the NSC was told about it. But I can tell you, I wasn’t told about it. Condi wasn’t told about it. The president wasn’t told about it. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wasn’t told about it. The CIA was stunned, and the commanders in the field out there were stunned, because this was the solution to the security problem. We were going to reconstitute the Iraqi army so that they could secure their country, and instead we dismissed them, and we turned loose all of these trained military people who might have weapons with them and knew where weapons were. And a couple of weeks later, we were paying them as they demonstrated against what had happened to them. And Mr. Bremer had to pay them to get them calmed down.

Same thing with the Baath Party. When we had made a judgment that we have to sort of decimate the top of the Baath leadership, none of us understood that this was going … to go down to every last schoolteacher. Every one of them had to be a member of the Baath Party just to get a job. Doesn’t mean they were bad. If you’re going to take out the top, “decimation” is a good word. We were going to decimate the top, the people who were closest to Saddam Hussein, and reconstitute the rest of the society.

We didn’t do that with the military; we didn’t do that with the Baath Party, and [we] created a massive vacuum with respect to security and stability and bureaucracy. And that vacuum was filled by the insurgency. I think it was a major, massive strategic error.

Did you have a conversation with Condi Rice about this?

I called Dr. Rice as soon as I saw it, and I said: “Condi, do you know about this? Does the president know about this?” She said no. I said: “What’s going to be our action? What is he going to do about it?” The answer was, the decision has been made by the people on the ground, Bremer, and so we will not overturn his decision; that would be very awkward. So we lived with it.

Hard to live with.

Yes, it turned out to be very hard to live with. Then there was sort of great excitement and joy that Baghdad had been taken, and people wondered, well, why aren’t they parading up and down the streets in support of what we did? Why are we still having this sort of tension, difficulty? Why are they burning down the ministries? Why are the art galleries and museums being ripped apart? Why are the schools closed? What’s going on? …

Let’s talk about the insurgency. July 2003, early on, Rumsfeld is talking about dead-enders. … CIA, of course, was warning that there is an insurgency. There were military folks on the ground saying, “Hey, guys, I think you’re getting this wrong.” What was going on? What was the conversation in Washington? Why was the vice president, why was Rumsfeld talking about this as dead-enders?

Well, you might have to ask them, but my own view, looking in and being part of that, is they thought that the fall of Baghdad and the elimination, at least out of the capital for the moment, of Saddam Hussein was a great victory. And it was.

But it was a tactical victory. It didn’t reflect the overall situation, which the State Department, I have to say, cautioned them about. What happens after, it isn’t just going to be the fall of Baghdad. They were so pleased with the tactical success, which was noteworthy, that they thought we won; it’s over.

You may recall Mr. Rumsfeld giving almost daily press conferences that were enormously popular. I just sat in the State Department watching, saying, “Fellas, it ain’t over.”

“[We] created a massive vacuum with respect to security and stability and bureaucracy. And that vacuum was filled by the insurgency. I think it was a major, massive strategic error.”

And then Sergio [Vieira] de Mello, our U.N. fellow, [the U.N. high commissioner for human rights and special representative of the secretary-general in Iraq], great guy, he was assassinated with this bomb. Then we started to get reports that an insurgency was growing, and then we started to get casualties. By the early fall of 2003, it was clear that it was time for the joy to be over. We were in trouble.

So by the early fall of 2003, we were in an insurgency, a serious insurgency that was growing, and I don’t think we reacted to it adequately. You have to remember that once Baghdad fell, the Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld, cut off the flow of additional troops, and then we started ordering those that were there to go home. The two corps commanders were sent back home with their corps staffs, and a very junior two-star was put in charge of the theater, the most important theater we were in. He didn’t have a staff for it; he wasn’t given a staff for it, and there weren’t good relations between he and Mr. Bremer. We simply were not responding to the facts on the ground.

General, this is so antithetical, opposite of the Powell doctrine.

Well, it wasn’t the Powell doctrine.

So what were you thinking, and what were you telling them?

… Even before the war started, I asked [CENTCOM Commander in Chief] Gen. Franks: “Tommy, do you think you have enough troops for what you might be facing, not just in the war, but what you might have to do?” And the reaction was, you know, “That’s old thinking. We’re now agile; we’re now swift,” because they were only thinking — and the only mission Tommy had, CENTCOM had, was to take Baghdad.

We tried to insert into the process the kinds of problems you would face afterward. You, I’m sure, are well familiar with the study we had done. The study wasn’t a plan. It’s been dismissed by some of my old colleagues in the Pentagon: Well, this wasn’t a plan that would work. It wasn’t a plan. It was a study that said, fellas, when you take a regime, these are the issues you’re going to face — water, sanitation, education, military — all of the things that you had to take into consideration.

My staff, working with everybody involved, had prepared these plans. [Lt. Gen.] Jay Garner [Ret.], who was going to have initial responsibility as head of ORHA [Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance], as it was called, he was enjoying getting this information from somebody. But then the Pentagon got wind of it all, and it didn’t fit into their thinking that this was going to be a joyous celebration of newfound democracy, and we needed to put people in who we thought were politically reliable from the United States. So they essentially dismissed the plan.

Did you just see disaster looming?

No, I didn’t see disaster. I didn’t know what was happening. But I just knew that something was going on, [and] we’d better get on top of. Everybody says, “Well, why didn’t you see this disaster?” Because it wasn’t a disaster at the time. Disasters sort of grow on you over time. And the disaster in this case grew until the president ordered the surge in 2006, 2007.

But to summarize all of this, we should have had the surge in the beginning of 2003. But that was not the game plan, and when I recommended it, Gen. Franks called Mr. Rumsfeld — as he should have, because I was sort of out of my channel at that point, general to general, not secretary of state to general — and Don’s reaction, according to Tommy Franks in his memoir, is, “Well, I’m glad Gen. Powell has raised this, Secretary Powell has raised this, and let’s discuss it with the president at the next meeting.” And at the next meeting, it was discussed. I don’t have firm memories of that meeting, but it was discussed, according to Gen. Franks. …

They had no obligation to listen to me. But you’re being a little devious with this. The president had a lot of advisers — his military advisers, four-star generals and admirals, a secretary of defense, a whole defense staff, the CIA, others within the Cabinet — and they said to him: “Look, we’re going to get to Baghdad. It’s not going to be a problem. And we don’t expect to happen the kinds of things that maybe Gen. Powell, Secretary Powell is worrying about.”

And the president, taking all that into account, listened to those advisers who were his principal military advisers. He was under no obligation to listen to a former chairman who had some experience in this, but who was in somewhat of a disagreement with the guys who had the responsibility.

It wasn’t the first time in my life that somebody has chosen another course of action that was not quite my course of action.

When the U.N. bombing and the Jordanian embassy were bombed in August 2003, … and Sergio [Vieira de Mello] is killed, did we understand that the insurgents were choosing their targets carefully? Because what we now know from intelligence, of getting their documents and stuff, they were trying to complicate the international partnership that we were so intent on growing. Did we know that? What was the effect of those bombings?

I knew that clearly they killed a distinguished individual, who was a well-known diplomat and was not carrying the United States’ water on this. In fact, he was sent in by [Secretary-General] Kofi [Annan] to kind of give it an international patina. And he was the right guy for it. The insurgents clearly said, “We’re not looking for this, so let’s get rid of this guy.” So they blew him up. And they pulled the entire U.N. contingent out for a while. The secretary-general had to do that.

My own experience with these kinds of insurgents over time is that they just don’t bomb for the sake of bombing; it’s part of a greater strategy. Even if it’s just a car bomb in the street, it’s intended to terrorize; it’s intended to kill a particular person.

I knew by then that we were in a sophisticated counterinsurgency operation. But some of the administration still believed that these were nothing but dead-enders, and it was sort of the last twilight of the Saddam Hussein regime. It took them another couple of years, with mounting U.S. casualties, with the coalition that was not the kind of coalition we had for Desert Storm, to realize that we were kind of isolated with some friends of ours — the British and a few others.

But the president didn’t realize the significance of it all, I don’t think — but you’ll have to ask the president about that — until he realized something was wrong and he brought in some outside advisers, outside the folks he’s been listening to, who said, “This is falling apart,” and with Steve Hadley, then his national security advisor, who did really the legwork on this, and said: “You’ve got to do something. And we have to do something. This is failing.” That’s when the president decided that the surge was appropriate. I was gone by this time.

Did we understand at that point Zarqawi’s role?

You’ll have to — I wasn’t there.

I’m talking about at the point of the Jordanian bombing.

No, no. Look, I understand you have a single focus on this one guy. I had 192 countries to worry about; I was not worried about this guy. He wasn’t causing me any sleepless nights. I had a lot of other things causing me sleepless nights. So you’ll have to go to others to get what you’re really looking for in this.

The violence continues. And there’s always another, more horrific thing that happens. [American contractor] Nick Berg is slaughtered; his head is cut off by Zarqawi. … Did that change the debate in Washington?

It changed the debate. I think the president knew that he was playing a weak hand at that point. But it had not changed the debate totally within the administration to the point that he thought something different had to be done. There was still the hope that if we now do rebuild the Iraqi forces from zero, as opposed to using the structure that was there, eventually they’d be able to manage it. But they were not able to manage it, nor were their police forces able to manage it.

The real crisis that has bedeviled us almost ever since is weak leadership in Baghdad. You know, when the surge finally came under the leadership of a great officer, Dave Petraeus, and he was able not only to get the additional American forces in there, but he was able to get the Anbar Awakening, where the Sunnis joined the battle — once that happened and we stabilized the situation, and everybody declared, “See? We won. We won,” no, we didn’t. Even Dave said it, you know: “This isn’t over.” And sooner or later, this is going to bite us again, because the Anbar Awakening went back to sleep because the leadership in Baghdad wasn’t interested in doing anything that would accommodate Sunni interests.

So we came in, I think, with a very weak prime minister, Mr. [Nouri al-]Maliki. He wasn’t weak personally, but he was weak in terms of the political choices and the compromises he had to make to bring this country together. And that all blew up in our face later when the Iraqi army wouldn’t fight.

Was there anything else we could have done with Maliki?

No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have picked him. I wouldn’t have anointed him. As I said to the president — this was after I was out of office, but at a meeting when we were being introduced to this decision — I said: “The only thing I know is nobody in this room really knows him. But the one thing I do know about him, he spent the last 25, 30 years in Damascus and in Tehran, not down at George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.”

I had my doubts that this Shia with enormous support and contact with Tehran and Damascus would necessarily be the kind of democrat we were looking for — small d. …

The removal of the troops in 2011, this is just sort of, if you can put on your —

Speculative hat.

Your expertise. Long-term effect? Did we miss the boat again? What did it cost?

President Bush is the one who said we will come out a certain time, and then President Obama inherited it, and he was implementing it in accordance with his estimate of the situation. People will argue that if we had left 10,000 or 15,000 — some people wanted 20,000 there — this would have made it all better. We would have been able to keep stability and security in the country, and none of what happened would have happened subsequently.

I don’t know how to test that. First of all, what would our troops be doing there? Would they be fighting somebody? If the Sunnis rose up, would we fight the Sunnis? If the Shia militia rose up, would we fight them? Or were we just there to train and provide logistics support and some air control support for the Iraqis?

I didn’t have a clear understanding and never heard a clear understanding of exactly what our forces would be doing. A lot of people say this was a horrible mistake not to leave more American troops there. I don’t know if it’s provable or not, because I don’t know if it would have made any difference. But the reality is that Maliki would not go along and give the president the status of forces agreement [SOFA] that we had to have. He’s the one who really took the risk at this. People say the president didn’t push him hard enough. I don’t know how hard you can push the guy when he didn’t want U.S. forces there. It was really his political activities that I think blew up that ability to leave troops in place. …

And now we’re sneaking back in, or slowly slipping back in. …

When ISIS comes back and takes Mosul, what are you feeling?

I’m feeling that we are in a very difficult situation. … This is so different from, say, Desert Storm, where the Iraqi army conveniently put itself out there in the desert and didn’t move and allowed me to do anything I wanted to against them, and did. Overwhelmingly decisive force. …

These guys are not sitting there waiting to be beaten. They’re moving all over. And they’re holding ground, not cities. So the fact that they’re occupying Mosul or occupying Ramadi or some other town, … it’s that they hold the ground around it, so they will fight for these places for a while.

Once they think they, you know, “Well, let’s not take any more casualties,” they’ll just leave — don’t think you’ve beaten them. I’m watching now a film coming out of Ramadi where Iraqi soldiers are looking through holes in the wall to snipe back at the ISIS people that are 100, 200 yards away, but we claim that Ramadi is now under our control.

“My own experience with these kinds of insurgents over time is that they just don’t bomb for the sake of bombing; it’s part of a greater strategy. Even if it’s just a car bomb in the street, it’s intended to terrorize; it’s intended to kill a particular person.”

So we have a conflict now in which we’re fighting two different wars. We’re fighting a war of: Let’s bomb things, and let’s send in Special Forces. Let’s try to kill individual bad guys, and let’s use airplanes to destroy their so-called installations. But what I see is every bad guy shot is immediately replaced by another bad guy. And most of the destruction I see taking place may be hurting ISIS, but I know for sure it’s destroying cities. It’s creating a flow of refugees that is overwhelming Europe.

Between what ISIS has done to these cities, and then kind of move back into the countryside, and what our ground forces have done to these cities, and what airpower has done to these cities, it’s creating a terrible situation. Homes are being destroyed. Schools are being destroyed. I know it’s for the purpose of going after ISIS, but I’m concerned that it is also creating a flood of refugees that makes you wonder, are we fighting the right battle?

The right battle is one where the indigenous forces on the ground, the Iraqi army, has to be the one to defeat ISIS by occupying the ground and holding it. Even after they did that in Ramadi, they weren’t getting the right kind of support out of the national government with respect to payroll and salaries and food and ammunition, so they’re, you know, a little disheartening.

How did we get to this point 13 years after the invasion? Why didn’t we understand more, this chess game that we’re playing with these insurgents, with these terrorists? Did we not play as well as they did in this area?

We have to remember, we went in for a singular purpose, and that was to take out Saddam Hussein and his government, and to make sure we had dealt with the weapons-of-mass-destruction problem. That’s what we went in for. Once we were there, it was clear from “If you break it, you own it” that you’re going to have to do more than that, because you had a population now that is without leadership. The institutions have been destroyed. They’re expecting us to help rebuild those institutions. …

You need to understand, when you have a dictatorial regime like these, and suddenly you take the top off, it’s like a pressure cooker that just had the top taken off. Inside is all this boiling stew that suddenly starts spilling out in all directions. Oh, my goodness, where did this come from? It’s always been there. And it was the dictatorial leadership that was keeping the top on.

And be careful when you find yourself in a situation like that, where you demand that the top go away. [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak must go. [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad must go. [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi must go. You’d better think through what’s inside that pot waiting to come out.

Can you connect the dots between the disbanding of the army and the lack of American troops and what becomes the insurgency? …

Disbanding of the military was done at a time when there were a lot of American troops. And there could have been more, but they cut off the flow, thinking things were going to be nice now that everybody sees what a great thing democracy is.

So there was a vacuum in security. The Iraqi army wasn’t up to it because it had been disbanded. And the Baath Party leadership and the bureaucrats and the schoolteachers and the civil servants and the police officers, that had been shattered, so you had chaos.

It remained that way until the different segments of Iraq started to exercise opinions, exercise authority in different places. The Sunnis went about their business. The Shias went about their business. The Kurds went about their business. And insurgency grew from that. There were outsiders willing to come in, as we see, and feed that insurgency.

The administration, in my judgment, didn’t respond quickly enough. They didn’t respond until the president realized, based on what he was hearing from his national security advisor and some outside experts that he had brought in, that if you don’t do something now, you’re not going to want to see the results of inaction.

And he acted. And that’s when Gen. Petraeus went in with the surge. I take nothing away from that effort. It was terrific. Great soldiers were participating in that. But when it was over, it was almost like 2003, when we thought it was over, but it really wasn’t over.

… When you hear that there’s a thing called Al Qaeda in Iraq, and after we had gone back to Afghanistan, fighting Al Qaeda, and now there’s this Islamic extremist movement building in Iraq as part of the insurgency, what was your reaction to that?

We hadn’t cut the head off. It still existed, and now it was franchising. It would never go back to Afghanistan, in my judgment, because why would they go there and put themselves at risk again? So they moved to the western provinces of Pakistan, and now they’re franchising themselves in other parts of the world. And Iraq seemed to them to be a very fertile place to do that.

But it was not the Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden. It wasn’t that kind of organized, “We understand, and we’re going to go get New York” kind of operation. It still isn’t, in my judgment, even with ISIS. Everyone thinks ISIS is on their way to New York. They’ve got a lot to worry about right now, and they’ve got a lot of other places they can go right now — which they are going to, to Libya and other places. And they’re rounding up others who are in like mind: Boko Haram [in Nigeria], Libya. It’s a spreading thing. Al Qaeda and ISIS are in competition with each other in various places, and then we have the whole Syrian mess.

So I no longer worry about Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The problem in Afghanistan is the Taliban. … I don’t think the Taliban would tolerate Al Qaeda again, if they were able to take over the country again, like they did after the Russians left.

But frankly, at the time, all I saw was Al Qaeda as no longer a threat of a 9/11 kind, and Osama bin Laden is dead. But we didn’t wipe them out. It grew back, and it’s franchising itself.

As a warrior, how do you judge the decisions that were being made by these insurgents? I mean, the idea of creating a civil war between the Sunni and the Shia, for instance, specifically to accomplish the goals to destroy the situation in Iraq in the way they had intended it.

Good. They’re very good, and they think strategically. So while we are using airpower and Special Forces guys and Forward Air Controllers [FACs], and only putting in a few at a time, incrementally, not a decisive action, they are thinking strategically. They are controlling land; they are running courts; they are creating economies.

It is an insurgency of people who believe in what they are doing and have a passion for it, and are prepared to pay heavily in terms of life for what it is they’re trying to create, this caliphate, if it ever gets to that; I’m not sure it will. But they’re prepared to put a lot more on the table than we are, the international community is.

The only one with the ability to match them with putting stuff on the table are the Iraqis themselves. And they’d better get going. But you can’t outfit a bunch of divisions and give them all the weapons they need and the training they need, and they go into battle and walk away. Because why? Because they don’t trust the government that they’re fighting for. They don’t believe in their government. They don’t think that government is taking care of their people. Until you fix that, you’re not on the same game plan as the insurgents are. …

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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