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walter slocombe

How did you find yourself on the way to Baghdad?

I'd been in the Pentagon at various other times in my career, most recently when I was undersecretary. And after 9/11, I called my successor and said, "If there's anything I can do to help, let me know." And in due course, with various things that happened in between, they asked me if I'd be interested in going out and doing this job with the Iraqi military or former military. My formal title was senior adviser for national security and defense, and in effect, I had responsibility for, so to speak, the past, present and future of the Iraqi military, the Iraqi military's property and the factories that they ran, and to a limited degree, the intelligence system. ...

The expectation that the occupation would be difficult was pretty widespread. The original plan was that the occupation would end sometime in, I don't know, 2005, the formal occupation.

I believe, and continue to believe, that for all the things that have turned out different and in many ways more difficult than we expected, that dealing with Saddam, because of his weapons of mass destruction programs, was something we were going to have to do sooner rather than later, and that broadly it was right to do it given that he was not cooperating with the inspectors and that it was important to do it. And given that that was my view, if there was a job I could do to help, I would be happy to try to do it.

After we'd taken Saddam down, decapitated the regime, were you concerned in advance about what you saw about to take place?

I think we all knew it was going to be a tough job. We didn't understand all of the details. Some of the things that we thought would be problems turned out not to be problems. Other things that we did not anticipate necessarily would be problems turned out to be bigger problems. The mix of problems was probably different from what we expected.

photo of slocombe

Walter Slocombe is former director of national security and defense in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. organization charged with overseeing Iraq's reconstruction and transition to democratic rule. He also served in the Pentagon as under-secretary of defense for policy,1994 to 2001. In this interview, he talks about what wasn't planned for in the aftermath of the war and describes the challenges in training Iraqi security forces following the almost total disappearance of the Iraqi Army. "I wasn't completely surprised," he says. "I think the central issue why the army disappeared is that it was a conscript army. … The officers lost most of the control of their troops, and sometimes the will to try to control them." This interview was conducted on Aug. 17, 2004.

What worried you the most?

Well, I think from the very beginning, realizing that building an Iraqi capacity to keep security in their own country was going to be critical. And that was central to my job, and it has been and continues to be the critical task, because whether we fully anticipated exactly where the troubles had come from, we certainly anticipated that there would be people who would resist the occupation, as indeed there turned out to be, and that we would have to have a substantial period when the coalition forces -- mostly the Americans, but not exclusively -- would have to take primary responsibility for security, but that you had to find ways to bring the Iraqis up to capacity to deal with it.

I think one of the things which I felt all along was that's a process which can't be hurried too fast, or you create problems. Just getting people competent to do the security job is not just a matter of giving uniforms and arms and a little bit of training. It is inevitably going to be a long-term process.

What had already occurred when you joined?

Well, the United States government had expected that there would be substantial Iraqi military units which were intact, which were sitting in barracks with their commanders, with their weapons, with their physical facilities intact, in effect waiting for orders. That just didn't happen. The entire Iraqi army vaporized. They simply all went home as the fighting went forward. And that meant that a lot of the initial things we would have to do, both good and bad, didn't have to be done because there was no army to deal with.

I wasn't completely surprised. If you think about it, I think the central issue why the army disappeared is that it was a conscript army. And as soon as it was clear that the organized military resisting us was collapsing, the officers lost most of the control of their troops, and sometimes the will to try to control them.

It's a relatively small country. By hitching rides, you can get from one end of it to another in a day. And they mostly went home to be with their families and try to take care of their families in all the turbulence following the war. And then a lot of the stuff that was in the facilities was stolen; almost all the nontactical vehicles, trucks, jeeps, cars, that kind of stuff were almost stolen. And then almost every government-related facility in Iraq was ransacked and looted by the local population. So the military bases practically, without exception, were in ruins. The walls and the roofs were often intact, but everything else was ripped out or burned, and that was also true of government offices, courthouses, police stations all around the country.

Did it feel like an organized thing? I've talked to some people who have said, "I have a feeling this was all a plan."

Parts of it were certainly spontaneous. ... In spite of all that has happened in the last year and a half, it's important to remember that the Iraqi population came to hate Saddam, hate the system. And when they had the opportunity to get revenge on it and also get their piece of whatever was valuable left over from it, they took it. I don't mean that there were no exceptions, but you almost never saw stores looted or even, for the most part, fancy houses looted. I'm sure there were exceptions, but in general, as I said, it was the government facilities that were looted, and people went in and took them down.

I think there is some reason to believe Saddam and the Baath Party leadership made a conscious decision that they would try to organize a post -- they were not going to beat the American Army in a set-piece battle. And a lot of things followed from that. But one of the things which they were going to try to do was to leave behind the structure to carry on a terrorist resistance to the occupation and to try to maintain their political base, their power structure within the community. ... In some cases, for example, in the famous case of the museum, it's pretty clear that most of the "looting" was, in fact, very carefully planned theft of just the right things by people who knew exactly what they were doing, most of which has actually been recovered.

There are two central moments that everybody talks about and everybody writes about and everybody reads about: disbanding the army and de-Baathification. Let's start with disbanding the army. Tell me about the theory behind that.

We didn't disband the army. The army disbanded itself. ... There was no army to disband. We were not sending people home who were doing useful work or failing to put them to work cleaning streets or whatever. ... What we did do was to formally dissolve all of the institutions of Saddam's security system. The intelligence, his military, his party structure, his information and propaganda structure were formally disbanded and the property turned over to the Coalition Provisional Authority. And in addition, former and formal military ranks were abolished. But we also said at the time that we would make payments to former officers or to former military personnel, and we actually set up that system within about six weeks and have, in fact, continued to pay the former officers. And we even made a one-time payment to the conscripts. That's the story on the so-called disbanding.

So the issue was not whether you were going to send them home or keep them; it was were you going to try to pull them back. And I think and continue to believe that there would have been very serious problems even if it had been a good idea. And if you want, I'll explain why it might not have been a good idea. But even if it had been a good idea, there were very, very serious practical problems.

First of all, remember it was a conscript army with overwhelmingly Shia conscripts and overwhelmingly Sunni officers. So the troops were not going to come rushing back with colors because the officers who'd been beating them and shaking them down two weeks ago had asked them to come. I'm not sure who would have shown up for this enterprise. You certainly could have got a lot of officers. The Iraqi army had 11,000 general officers. The American Army, which is approximately the size of the Iraqi army -- not all American armed forces, but the American Army, approximately the same size, has 300 general officers. You could have gotten a lot of officers. It would have been very hard to get any privates or sergeants.

Furthermore, even if they had come back, as I said, all the facilities were trashed. And you can't run an army without places for the troops to sleep and eat and take care of bodily functions, much less without equipment so you can move them and train them and communicate with them, all those sorts of things. ... In order to have an army that can do anything, you've got to have a structure; you've got to have facilities for them; you've got to have arms; you've got to have a leadership that they will follow.

And then there is the problem that using a badly trained, ethnically unacceptable army with very dubious, politically loyal leadership to do a critical security job is a formula for disaster. ...

When we began to train the Iraqi army, we used old, reconditioned Iraqi bases. But it cost a substantial amount of money and took a substantial amount of time using Iraqi contractors to reconstitute the facilities. ... We began the training in August, but I'm not sure that we could have done it any faster. ... You know, we've been a year at this, and we're just beginning to get competent units. One of the real traps was you get guys, you'd recruit them locally, you'd put them in uniforms, and kind of give them a pep talk. And they looked cool; their uniforms were quite sharp. Give them a new AK-47 and they look like soldiers, but they weren't soldiers. I mean, you could take this guy, cut his hair, put him in a uniform, make him learn, and he would have already learned how to drill and shoot because everybody in Iraq knows how to do that. And he would look sharp, but he wouldn't be a soldier for six weeks or eight weeks.

Those are the practical problems. So I think it's a practical matter that it was never an option of calling back the Iraqi army. I think also there would have been very serious political problems, because in practice, what you would have gotten would have been Sunni units. ... I think it would have been a political disaster in terms of how it would have been responded to by the population.

Take me into the meetings at the Pentagon before you went over about this. Was this a controversial topic at all?

Not particularly. The issue was, we have a situation where the army has disappeared as an institution you can do anything useful with. One of the things which is hard to remember now is that there was real fear in Iraq at the beginning that Saddam was coming back. The Iraqis had very strong memories of 1991, when the Americans had been there, pulled back, [and] there had been an uprising. ... It was very important to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that whatever else was going to happen, Saddam and his cronies were not coming back, and so taking formal action to dissolve this whole infrastructure and make clear that whereas we were going to take, say, the old Ministry of Health, the old Ministry of Education, the old Ministry of Finance, the old Ministry of Irrigation and try to reconstruct them, build them back using basically the same people except at the very top levels, we were not going to do that with the army, and we were certainly not going to do it with the Republican Guard.

And de-Baathification?

The Baath Party, like any totalitarian party, had a rank structure distinct from other ranks, distinct from your military rank or your bureaucratic rank. And they were things like division leader and cell leader and front leader, and they corresponded to military ranks. The only people who were disqualified because of having been in the Baath Party were people who were in the Baath Party at the top four ranks. Out of a Baath Party membership of well over a million, maybe more, only about 40,000 people were in this category.

Now, people say, "Well, you had to be in the Baath Party in order to have a professional job," which is probably true. But you didn't have to be at the top levels. Remember, there were 11,000 generals. Of the 11,000 generals, only about 10 percent of the brigadier generals were in these top four ranks. It means you could get to be a general in the Iraqi army without having to be that active in the Party.

So those people were excluded from public life. And in addition, anybody who was at the top three levels in the Ministry -- the minister, the deputy minister or the director general -- [anyone] who was in the Baath Party at all, [was] removed. And I've got to say that for the most part, that was also a decision which was greeted with enthusiasm by the people lower down, because as you can imagine, even in relatively technical areas, most of the people who Saddam put in charge were not necessarily the best engineers or the best teachers or the best doctors. They were the ones who were the most politically loyal.

There was a lot of controversy about all these high school teachers who were fired because they'd been in the Baath Party. I like to say that it seems like there were 40,000 people at the top four ranks in the Baath Party, 50,000 of whom are high school teachers. I mean, that doesn't compute. It may well be that at the local level people wanted to get rid of them for good reasons, maybe wanted to get rid of them for bad reasons and use their Baath Party affiliation as an excuse, but that was not part of the policy. And relatively, in general, the sentiment from the Iraqi population was that the Coalition Provisional Authority was too generous to former Baathists, not that we were too hard on them. Obviously the former Baathists didn't agree with this. But that's a different issue.

So why is it that a lot of people we talked to, including your friend John Hamre, say that disbanding the army, de-Baathification, was the single biggest problem?

I hate to sound like a broken record: [W]e didn't disband the army. The de-Baathification was, if anything, regarded by the population as too mild, not too severe. These are people whom I respect. I think on this one they just are trying to find a simple silverbullet-type problem that just doesn't correspond to the facts.

So what was [Coalition Provisional Authority] No. 2? What was the point?

Well, I think the principal purpose was to underscore the proposition that in contrast to most of the rest of the civil government, we were not going to reconstruct those institutions and that Saddam and his cronies were not coming back, that things were going to be different, and that that was the change.

There was the great statement of the secretary, "I'll take 100 percent responsibility for Iraq."

If you're going to take 100 percent responsibility, you need to have 100 percent authority.

Should he have had 100 percent authority?

It was important within Iraq for there to be, at least on the civilian side, a single figure who had authority. And that was [L. Paul] Bremer. He of course had to work with military command. They didn't command him, and he didn't command them. But I think that was a pretty good working relationship. And I think it's also essential in a situation like that, where you've got a field operation, that there be only one person in Washington who actually has the authority to issue orders.

What happens in Washington in terms of how the [decisions are made] -- "Go ahead and do this, do that; don't do that, do this, even though you don't want to do it"--that's an internal Washington coordination problem about which I know little. One of the interesting things about the job from my point of view -- all my other government experience basically had been in the Washington end, with the interagencies process and setting the priorities -- at the other end we got output. And how the process worked in Washington I actually know very little about, because the channel was from the president to [Donald] Rumsfeld to Bremer.

Before you came, there presumably had been months of planning. Did it feel like it?

I only came into the process and into the building as the fighting had already started. Moreover, even at that point, my focus was pretty much on the military and so on. Whatever planning had been done -- and there was quite a bit, I think, in the military area; that is, how you deal with the Iraqi military institution -- had largely been premised on the idea that there would be these substantial units. And the problem, or the opportunity, would be you had this large body of armed, organized men who might or might not be loyal. And there were ambitious plans for what's called DDR: disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. And all of that, of course, was rendered irrelevant by the swift victory and the collapse of the military as an institution. ... We would train and equip an Iraqi army. At the same time, we would train and equip an Iraqi police force which was much more based on the regular police, not the secret police.

So that planning process got started even before I went out. We knew when I went out that job one was to begin to train up units for the new Iraqi army. ... From the very beginning we knew that we were going to have the problem of training up Iraqis to perform the military function, and kind of in parallel, though I wasn't directly involved in it, we realized that we were going to have the problem of getting an Iraqi police force that was able to be able to keep basic local order. ... In general, the Iraqi regular police were not particularly politicized, because again, as is often the case in totalitarian countries, they didn't trust the regular police with anything very sensitive. Their job was to direct traffic and arrest people and keep order at a low level. But they weren't very good. They were not in any sense competent, modern policemen.

Why was the fighting under way by the time they got around to picking you? Everybody knew we were going to war.

One of the things that, if you had it to do all over again it seems to me might well have made sense, would've been to be much more candid right at the beginning that this was an occupation. We jumped through hoops to avoid the term occupation. Gen. [Jay] Garner was criticized for taking over and setting up headquarters in the palace. I think that's one of the smartest things he did. It established that the coalition is in charge; Saddam is gone. ... Sure, it would've been better if you'd had a system all ready to go with the proper support and the proper logistics and of course the people to move in more quickly, but why that wasn't done I don't know. Partly I think it may be an expectation that the war would take longer, that the fighting would take longer.

And why didn't we know that the Iraqi military was going to evaporate?

Probably because we thought we had an understanding that it wouldn't. My understanding -- and again, I can't vouch for this, but I strongly hinted that there were various units where there had been contact with the senior officers. It was: "You stay out of the fighting, and you'll be available, and keep your unit intact, and we'll use it. It will be part of a plan for the postwar." The expectation, which was largely confirmed ... was that they would be quite happy to stand aside and let us kind of roll around them and then be there afterward.

Do you think we had enough people for the aftermath?

I'm a little bit of a contrarian on this issue. I don't think the problem has ever been the lack of absolute numbers of soldiers. More is always better; there's no question about that. But I think if you'd had another combat division -- if you had the 4th Infantry or the 1st Armored fully engaged from day one, I don't think it would've made much difference for the result.

I think the question is -- and it's something that goes back to your more general topic -- how do you structure the American military and indeed the American government for this kind of post-conflict situation? ... I think one of the things that will probably come out of this, in the military, and in many ways even more important on the civilian side, is this capacity to have people who regard that as their mission, sort of like the civil affairs people in the military.

Why didn't we anticipate and think about this -- about the insurgency, about the mess?

I don't think we anticipated the complete collapse of the governmental system. Remember, that had not happened in Germany or Japan, even with much more larger-scale fighting and a much more total defeat and so on. Indeed, in some sense it hadn't even happened in places like Kosovo. The problem in Bosnia was not that there were too few governments, but there were too many. So I think that sense that there would be an almost total vacuum of capacity to manage the country and to provide security and to provide basic services and all those other things, whether we should have expected it or not I don't know. But that, I think, was the fundamental problem.

On the other hand, there was a great deal of preparation for a series of events which in some ways would have been much worse and much harder to deal with than anything that actually did happen. There was an expectation of massive famine; of major epidemics; of huge refugee movements; of not this occasional bomb going off someplace, but of thousands of people getting killed and interethnic massacres like in India and Pakistan at the time of partition; of complete collapse of the transportation system, water supplies and that kind of stuff.

But in general, people with food was never a serious problem. Electricity is a problem, but if somebody had said that the biggest problem four months after the end of the large unit fighting was gas lines, electricity on only half the day, and a crime rate high by Middle Eastern standards, people would go, "Uh, all right." And an occasional bomb going off, it ain't so bad.

I think some of the problem may be that there was more concentration than proved to be necessary on some of these very big, but also in some ways more apolitical, if you will, problems -- massive famines, massive epidemics. We expected the possibility of the residue of large-scale use of chemicals, biological weapons, which would have contaminated large areas. There was a lot of focus on that, and those things all didn't happen.

And yet there were people prophesying even what did happen with the insurgency. Were you hearing that?

I've never seen the famous State Department 1,000-page analysis of what to do except insofar as it related to the military. I hadn't seen that. But as reported to me, it essentially was how should you deal with the intact military units, a problem which is irrelevant.

I don't know to what degree there was a prediction of a Baathist-led, stay-behind, very narrowly based but quite professional terrorist resistance. People kind of blandly say that that was what they expected, and there may well be people who did. I don't know who they are.

The expectation that the occupation would be difficult, I think, was pretty widespread. There were a lot of people who believed that, including me, that it would take a long time. I remember we were talking about an occupation that would go on for years. The original plan was that the occupation would end sometime in, I don't know, 2005, the formal occupation.

I was relatively high-ranking in the Clinton administration, and in Baghdad I was relatively high-ranking. But in Washington I was just one of the people who are out in the field. So what Paul Wolfowitz or Doug Feith or Colin Powell or Rumsfeld or [Condoleezza] Rice or Bob Blackwill, who was the ambassador to India, people like that, expected in their heart of hearts, I don't know.

If they expected that [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi would kind of come in and be, I don't know, Nelson Mandela, that clearly was wrong. On the other hand, I know for a fact that from the very beginning, Rumsfeld, who was supposedly the villain of the peace and all of this, Rumsfeld was saying, and Garner understood, "We've got to make sure that we're not relying too much on the exile; we've got to make sure that we reach out and get people who have been in country, who have credibility in country," because I would be surprised if even on the best of days Rumsfeld ... thought we can just turn it all over to Ahmad Chalabi and he can handle it for us.

I think there was a good deal of thinking about how do you deal with the very top-level construction of some kind of a national consultative council. Where I think the problem lay was not at the high level but at the working level, at the village, town, community level, where there was this implosion of authority.

Part of the problem also is what your expected time frame was. If you expected that this was all going to be over by September, then obviously that was wrong. And I know that there was a plan originally that we'd have the military levels down to very much lower levels by the end of last year. That plan hardly survived the fall of Tikrit.

So, in my view, this was going to be a long-term proposition -- not 50 years, but it was going to measure in years, a few years, rather than a few months. Partly, frankly, that was the result of my experience with Bosnia and Kosovo. I've always been fond of President Clinton's line. He said, "If people will forgive me for having thought it would be faster than it turned out to be, well, I will forgive them for having been wrong about all the other problems that didn't happen." This kind of transformation of a society, and the creation of the security system and getting the infrastructure going, and the political system, takes time. And if you expect that it was going to be very fast, then you were obviously disappointed. And if people really expected it was going to be very fast, they were unrealistic.

So, as a sort of summary, how do you feel about the state of the Pentagon now?

First of all, I think it's important to understand what an amazing job the American military has done at essentially a job very different than what they thought they were going to have to do. They did an obviously terrific job with the large unit fighting. But most of the administration out in the field, not just on the security front, but in the dealing with the Iraqis, trying to build up local authority, has been largely in the hands of military people, civil affairs people operating under local commanders. And in general they've done an excellent job. Now, again it takes time, and there are problems, and you make bets on the wrong people and so on. And there are always problems of getting the resources allocated. But the American military has done a remarkable job with that, requiring very different skills from most of what their training was in, and at the same time having to fight an extremely difficult counterterrorist, counter-guerrilla type of operation.

So the idea that somehow the American military was totally hopeless at this, I think, is just wrong. And I think also there's been a real recognition that massive firepower, while it might really feel good and accomplish things in the short run, can't be the answer. And it was a very smart decision not to level Fallujah or not to level Najaf. There's got to be an element of restraint. In our own self-interest and in pursuant of objectives, it's important.

I think that one of the lessons the military will take away from this -- which is a traditional military lesson, but that doesn't make it wrong -- is you can't do things on the cheap. ... People who want things good, quick and cheap are not going to get them.

What was your response to what happened at Abu Ghraib?

I was appalled. It's unforgivable.

Why did it happen?

I think it was not just the fault of these individual soldiers who committed the abuses. Anything like that that happens is a failure of command. And the question is how far up the chain does the failure of command extend, and in what sense as you go from kind of active failure to lead and discipline to "Well, it happened on their watch; therefore they're responsible for it, even though they knew nothing about it." Those are issues that I think the investigations that are under way will expose. But it's appalling, unforgivable.

When did you know there was an insurgency?

Well, I have frankly never liked the word insurgency, but I can't come up with a better word. Particularly during most of the time I was there, I believe that most of the fighting, most of the bombs and so on, were organized by former Baathists, by the inner core of Saddam's clique of thugs. And you wouldn't call them -- it's much like dealing with the mafia or dealing with a very powerful drug cartel. There's an insurgency in Colombia, but you wouldn't call the part of it that's run by the Cali cartel an insurgency, which to me implies some degree of popular movement, popular resistance. Things to some degree have deteriorated, particularly in the Sunni areas now. I don't like the term insurgency because it implies a level of popular support that was certainly not there at the beginning and I think is even now real thin, except maybe in the most hard-line Sunni areas.

Guerrilla war?

I don't dispute that it's a guerrilla war, that they use terrorist tactics, although I think that we tend to exaggerate the degree to which it's connected to Al Qaeda and so on. And it is an insurgency in some areas, in the sense that Islamic Sunni radicalism is a major part of the support now for the fighting.

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posted oct. 26, 2004

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