the invasion of iraq
photo of fallows

James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, has written two major articles on the Pentagon's planning for the invasion of Iraq and the postwar realities: "Blind Into Baghdad" (January 2004) and "The Fifty-First State" (November 2002), for which he won a National Magazine Award. In this interview he discusses the bitter prewar struggle between the Pentagon and the Army over troop levels for the war, and the Bush administation's failure to heed warnings from a range of experts in the U.S. government about postwar problems. "As a military operation, the ousting of Saddam Hussein's regime will be studied for years as a success, " he says. "As a strategic decision about how to deploy U.S. force, in the largest sense, I think the campaign as a whole will be studied for its failures." This interview was conducted on Jan. 28, 2004

interview: james fallows

Before the war started, what basically was the argument between Rumsfeld and the uniformed military over the size of the force to fight the war?

Between the Army, in particular, and the civilian leadership in the Pentagon -- Donald Rumsfeld especially, but also Paul Wolfowitz -- there was a basic philosophical difference about how you sized the force to go into Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld, through his career in the Pentagon, had been pushing very much for lean, mean, agile forces. By that logic, he said the U.S. should not over-prepare, overstaff, overload for the job of beating Saddam Hussein's regime.

One of the most appealing aspects of Donald Rumsfeld's approach to policy and to life, in my view, is his embrace of the unpredictable  that l ife is not really within anybody's control. But there is a time when he crossed the line from embracing unpredictability to irresponsible evasion of actual  duties.

The Army, by contrast, was saying that beating Saddam Hussein was only part of the job. You needed then to think about what would happen afterwards, and towards that end, you needed more people than you would in the smallest possible expeditionary force.

Therefore, there was a kind of bidding game that went on between the civilian leadership and the Army, where the Army and its allies in the other forces were saying, "We'd like about 400,000 troops to go in." Rumsfeld's idea was more like 75,000. Through a process of negotiation, the U.S. finally went to war with the low 200,000s of troops in Iraq.

So the bottom line was--?

The bottom line of the tensions between Rumsfeld and the military was that the force went in at a much smaller level than the uniformed military had been recommending, and a larger level than Rumsfeld would have ideally preferred.

What was the basic reasoning behind Rumsfeld's philosophy?

Number one, this had worked in Afghanistan. A very different kind of battlefield, but [that] kind of innovative special forces-intensive approach had won with low U.S. [troop] levels in Afghanistan. Second, it was part of his overall philosophy for a streamlined Pentagon. Third, it was a sense that the Army was just too much like the Gen. George McClellan army in the Civil War -- too cautious, too ponderous, too unwilling to take risks.

Specific to prewar, what was the main reason the Army wanted so many troops -- why they thought the numbers that they were talking about were necessary?

The Army had both a specific and a larger metaphysical reason for wanting to have a lot of troops going in. The specific reason was their very precise argument that it would be harder to occupy Iraq than to conquer it. You would need a relatively small number of troops actually to beat Saddam Hussein's military, but then occupying this quite large and quite fractured country would be quite hard, and would take a lot of troops.

The metaphysical reason was the Army's sense that, once the sort of glory of the short war was over, the people that would actually be there would be the U.S. Army, not some international force, not the Air Force. The U.S. Army would be taking the heat for whatever went wrong. We wouldn't have enough of them there.

Explain the reasoning of the head of the U.S. Army, Gen. Shinseki, on how important the first days after the fall of Baghdad would be.

Shinseki of the Army drew not only on his experience in the Balkans, trying to administer a fractious region postwar. [He also drew from] all the corpus of evidence that had been produced by the Army War College, by every other group that looked into this, to say that there was a crucial moment just after the fall of a regime when the potential for disorder was enormous. So there would be ripple effects for years to come, depending on what happened in those first days or weeks when the regime went [down] ….

The Army War College study had worked out a very detailed checklist for how the military, and the Army in particular, should start thinking about the postwar, well before it actually went to war. One of their conclusions was that it was best to go in heavier than you actually needed to be, so that at the beginning of the postwar period your presence would be so intimidating that nobody would dare challenge you. You'd set a tone that would allow you then to draw down the forces very rapidly. So it was better to go in heavy and then draw down, than the reverse.

Shinseki based the need for more troops in part on his experience in Kosovo and Bosnia. Explain how he extrapolated.

Shinseki had been in charge of occupation logistics in Kosovo in particular. He said when in the Pentagon, "Well, let's assume the world is linear. If we required a certain amount of troops per 25,000 population in the Balkans, [and] if the world is not radically different, something of the same extent is going to be needed in Iraq." When he used that kind of extrapolation logic, he got to a number much, much larger than Donald Rumsfeld was thinking of for the troop presence.

In the tensions existing between the Pentagon and the military, Shinseki seemed a particular target. Explain.

Shinseki's last, say, year and a half in office was a series of apparently calculated and intentional insults from the civilian leadership, especially Donald Rumsfeld. The episode that got the most public attention was when Rumsfeld announced Shinseki's successor as chief of staff, about a year and a half before his term was up. Usually this announcement is made right at the last minute to avoid turning the incumbent into a lame duck.

Three weeks before the war, Shinseki testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Describe what happened.

Shinseki has been, through his career, a real by-the-book guy. So he would not go out of his way to make public disagreements that were clearly going on inside the Pentagon. But in the hearing where Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan was sort of drawing him out on what he expected the troop levels to be, Shinseki finally said, based on his own past experience, that he thought it would be several hundred thousand troops. This became a real arcane term about, what did several hundred thousand mean? But let's say 300,000 and up. His real level, internally, had been in the 400,000 range.

Several days later, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, appeared before a different committee. [He] went out of his way essentially to slap Shinseki in the face, to say there had been some recent estimates that had been wildly off the mark -- using the term, "wildly off the mark." Then he went on to say that it was almost impossible to imagine that it would be harder, and take more troops, to occupy Iraq than it had taken to conquer them; whereas that point, that it would be harder to occupy than conquer, was in fact the central theme the Army had been advancing before the war.

Was this public rebuke surprising?

The public rebuke of Shinseki by Wolfowitz was probably the most direct public dressing-down of a military officer, a four-star general, by a civilian superior since Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur, 50 years ago. This public confrontation between Wolfowitz and Shinseki must have reflected the really deep disagreements going on within the Pentagon then, and a sign of the civilian leadership's impatience with what they viewed as the lack of cooperation from the uniformed military.

A couple of days later, Paul Wolfowitz was testifying before another congressional committee. He went out of his way, in a gesture that everyone involved recognized as being directly addressed to Shinseki, to say, "Let me address some of the ideas that have been floating around recently." He went on to say there had been suggestions of the levels of troops that might be required that were, quote, "wildly off the mark."

This was not the way that generals and Pentagon superiors talked to each other.

What is his theory behind this, why he says this?

When Paul Wolfowitz was asked why he thought Shinseki's estimates were so wildly off the mark, first he used the sort of standard Pentagon line, especially under Donald Rumsfeld, which was really, "The future was unknowable." Of course the future is unknowable, although that line was used to excuse a failure to give any financial estimates, which was more irresponsible than it was unknowable.

Then he went on to say, first, he thought many things would go fairly easily. Countries like France were likely to help us in the reconstruction, that this was likely to go more easily than most people thought. Then he went on to make the crucial point that raised the main philosophical difference between the Army and the civilian leadership. Wolfowitz said he found it hard to conceive that it would be harder to occupy Iraq than it had been to conquer it. This was a thing that was difficult to imagine, he said.

Far from being an imaginary concept, this idea that the occupation was the hard part was the heart of the Army's prewar argument.

Can you summarize the successes of the U.S. military campaign?

Many things went better in Iraq than some people feared they might. Number one on this list, in everybody's estimation, is the fact that you didn't have millions of Iraqis on the run, fleeing into Syria, fleeing wherever. One reason that this humanitarian crisis was avoided was that all scenarios for triggering it involved some kind of use of weapons of mass destruction. There would be a gas attack, there would be a chemical attack. There were no such attacks, as we know, and so the humanitarian flows didn't begin.

There were lots of sort of other successes. The oil wells weren't on fire. The United States, relatively soon after the war, was getting the economic system on better footing than was expected. You didn't have everything go wrong that might have gone wrong.

Some people, especially in the administration, who look at the tragedies that didn't happen, say, "How can you really criticize us? Some things went better than expected, some things went worse." The answer to that is that the real problems the United States has had are not only precisely the ones that all the expert bodies of the U.S. government were concerned about, but also they were largely preventable.

What I mean by that is, number one, the worst postwar problem in its time scale, and also its long-term effects was the looting and disorder two or three weeks after the war. Every single body that had tried to lay out plans for what happened after the occupation said, "This is the thing to worry about. There's going to be a power vacuum. The U.S. must fill it, because if it does not, there's going to be disorder and chaos that will be very hard to reverse." So that was one problem.

But going back to the success of this invasion-- Wasn't the victory basically vindication for Rumsfeld's theories of troop levels?

In military parlance, phase 3 of a struggle is what we'd call the actual war, and phase 4 is the aftermath. The phase 3 of the Iraq campaign was a brilliant success. Really, its only problems were when the U.S. military got so far ahead that its supply lines were extended. You can say that it might have been better, in retrospect, to formally conquer the Iraqi military and insist on a formal surrender, where it was just melting away. But certainly, Donald Rumsfeld's vision of a quick, agile, unconventional phase 3 battle -- that was vindicated.

As the looting breaks out, U.S. troops don't do anything. Explain what happened.

One of the many elements of the Iraqi conundrum that will take a long time fully to explain, I think, is why there were no orders to prevent the looting. It was harder than it might have been, simply because the U.S. troop levels were lower than they might otherwise have been, and the northern frontier was not secured. But clearly, even the troops that were on hand could have had different orders. … So why exactly there were no orders to prevent looting is still not known.

One background factor, however, is that in the month or two before the war, there was a view of the administration that occupying powers have certain responsibilities to impose order, but we were not going to be an occupying power. This was a liberating army, so this sort of thing was not our responsibility.

Is one of the main problems of all this that one of the expectations of the Pentagon or Rumsfeld was that the Iraqi military units would surrender, and then we would use them for security in such situations?

An assumption of almost all the postwar planning scenarios is that the Iraqi military, once its evil top layer had been peeled off, would be there for use as a security force, as happens in most nations after they're occupied. The army first melted away, and then was sort of decommissioned by Ambassador Bremer. So all that manpower wasn't available to the U.S. and was at large with weapons.

What were the long-term consequences of the looting, the chaos?

The immediate tangible consequences were to make a mockery of the precision bombing campaign the U.S. had actually carried out. I forget the actual statistic, but something like 10 times as much of the power grid was destroyed in the couple of weeks after the war as was destroyed by U.S. bombing during the war. The bombing had been very careful; the looting was very indiscriminate. So all the things that were going wrong then, in terms of hospitals being stripped bare, schools not being able to run, no electric power -- that was from the looting, not from the war.

The intangible effect was that, instead of having this postwar sense that, "A new cop is in town, things are in order now, don't dare challenge the U.S.," there was instead what one person described as a magic moment where people realized that nobody was in control and there was disorder. And it has spilled over to the security situation since then.

Can you give some examples of the destruction caused by the looting?

One consequence of the unchecked looting -- apart from the damage to the electric system, which was profound -- was that the government ministries were all wrecked. So they're trying to reconstitute a bureaucracy [and] there was no place for them to go. The offices were all destroyed. They had no chairs. They had no desks. It was hard to get a police force going. It was hard to get the hospitals going again. So that stage of reconstituting Iraq as a working bureaucracy was slow.

As the U.S. tried to cope with the looting in Baghdad itself, it was even more shorthanded for things like patrolling the borders. From the borders, the terrorists were starting to be sucked in from other countries. So there was this ripple effect. There was a vicious cycle as opposed to a virtuous cycle. The U.S. had been hoping for a virtuous cycle: order, decency, lack of torture. After the war, we'd build civil society. Instead, disorder, chaos, fear, [and] bad fiscal circumstances led to a vicious cycle of things getting worse for quite a while.

On April 11, in his briefing, Rumsfeld makes a statement dealing with looting, where he begins the answer with, "Democracy is untidy." Define that, and what it meant.

One of the most appealing aspects of Donald Rumsfeld's approach to policy and to life, in my view, is his embrace of the unpredictable, and his recognition that, really, life is not really within anybody's control. But there is a time when he crossed the line from embracing unpredictability to irresponsible evasion of actual duties. In my view, considering this looting as a kind of trivial, "Kids will be kids, this is what democracy looks like, isn't it great," -- that was irresponsible, because the U.S. had duties as the occupying power in Iraq to keep people safe. By not stopping the looting as it could have done, it was just waving its hands about these profound duties to try to reestablish order.

Does it define something about his basic philosophy about the war to begin with?

One of Secretary Rumsfeld's close associates was telling me, quite passionately, that Rumsfeld axiomatically is against predictions and expectations. Life is uncertain and that's fine. But when he comes to drawing up plans for running a country, it's hard to have quite this existentialist view. Existentialism is fine as a personal philosophy. But if you're running a nation's occupation, it can lead to problems.

What were the miscalculations on contingencies that they thought would take place and that would have been beneficial -- the Shia uprising and such. What were they?

I think there was a hope, although not a reliant plan, that in general, the reception in Iraq would be very positive. It would be, like, say, East Germany, or the former Czechoslovakia, where once you got rid of the bad guys, all your problems were gone. Second[ly], the Shia majority of Iraq would rise up in support, as parts of it had done a dozen years earlier in the Gulf War. Neither of things really turned out.

How do all these miscalculations help create the chaos that followed?

Because the U.S. wasn't ready to guarantee security in the month after the war, Iraq started off on a path that got worse for a number of months, as opposed to a path that got better. The United States is still coping with the consequences of that first couple of months of disorder after our victory.

So does it seem in some ways that we had a plan A, but no plan B all along? Does it seem that it was just lack of planning?

I think it is grossly unfair to criticize the government collectively for a lack of planning in Iraq, because history will admire the U.S. government for how thorough and how accurate, how prescient were its efforts to say what was going to happen in Iraq after the war. To say that the administration in particular didn't plan adequately for things that happened -- that is a fair criticism.

Both the size of the invasion force, the preparations for an occupation presence, the absence of orders to stop looting, the disbanding of the Iraqi army-- This string of things that have contributed to disorder in postwar Iraq were all specifically prepared for, allowed for, warned about by most of the apparatus of the U.S. government, though somehow not finally connected with the actual plans to go to war. Why?

The answer to what went wrong should occupy scholars for a long time. I think it involves partly the personality of the secretary of defense, with his sort of "live for the moment" existentialism, partly an attitude prevailing in the administration that over the decades. These particular people had grown accustomed to thinking that they were likely to be right, and their critics were likely to be wrong.

[Also], probably the personality of this president-- The evidence seems to be that he was never really exposed to the first level, top-level arguments about what the troop level should be and what the real risks might be. So his personality, and the people supporting him did not really expose him to the decisions he should have had a chance to make.

There were civilian deaths in certain situations during the war and postwar, involving Americans. How does that affect the way the population views the American occupying forces?

The situation the U.S. Army, in particular, has been in for the months after the war is precisely the one the Army was fearful of before the war, because of the dynamics of the civilian population. The U.S. Army, relatively understaffed for the occupation presence, has found itself simultaneously in a role of target and enforcer. It's the target of all the terrorists who want to knock off an American soldier. And because it's the target, it's the enforcer against those civilians, going on these house-to-house raids. This is guaranteed to get the ill will of the civilian population, even if in the big picture, they can understand why it's necessary.

When the president lands on the USS Abraham Lincoln to deliver a speech declaring the end of the war, can you describe that event and your view of it?

Setting aside the political hay to be made from all sides about the campaign, about the visuals of the president going on the aircraft carrier in his flight suit, conceptually I think reveals something important about the administration. That landing was in early May, just a matter of weeks after the fall of Baghdad. By having the banner, "Mission Accomplished," whether or not the White House put it up, still that was the tone. So the idea was, by conquering Baghdad and getting rid of Saddam Hussein's regime, the United States had done the job.

The argument within the Pentagon all along had been, when is the job done? Is it done when the regime falls, or is it done in the months and years after that, when the U.S. military has to occupy that country? So by agreeing to having that celebration on the aircraft carrier, I think the administration revealed that it thought the job was done.

How would you sum up the overall successes and failures of the invasion of Iraq?

As a military operation, the ousting of Saddam Hussein's regime will be studied for years as a success, as a brilliant combination of movement, firepower, deception, speed, unconventional tactics. This was a brilliant moment for the U.S. military.

As a strategic decision about how to deploy U.S. force, in the largest sense, I think the campaign as a whole will be studied for its failures. The U.S. incurred foreseeable preventable errors and mistakes in the weeks and months after that brilliant military campaign. So it was a brilliant tactical success that was part of a strategic failure. The United States can still -- and must still -- see its way through to some kind of successful outcome in Iraq. But the task is much, much harder for the United States and for the Iraqis, because of the preventable errors the United States made after the war.

Explain to me how that is possible. We went into this war not simply to fight the war, but we were going in there to change the Middle East to some extent, to set up a second democracy after Israel. Wouldn't it have been normal to have understood that what happened postwar was just as important as what happened during the war?

I would have thought that the people who, number one, cared most about removing Saddam Hussein and his threat, and number two, cared most about making Iraq an example of democracy to the Arab Islamic world, would have been the most insistent on taking the long view -- on making sure the whole campaign was a success, not just the military campaign to take over Baghdad.

So it is a mystery to me, even now, and something that I think will take years for scholars to really explain -- how those same people could have been so indifferent about the postwar consequences in Iraq.


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posted february 26, 2004

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