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interviews: robert m. perito
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A special advisor to the Rule of Law program at the Unites States Institute of Peace, Perito helped organize peacekeeping and post-conflict operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. In February 2003, Perito, a career Foreign Service officer who served on President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council staff, gave a talk to the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon's top brass. His warnings that the U.S. should prepare for postwar lawlessness in Iraq went unheeded. "There was no thought given to the possibility that, as soon as U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad, people would go on a systematic campaign to loot the city," he tells FRONTLINE. "This is just ignoring the lessons of history." This interview was conducted on Sept. 5, 2003.

Let's start out by talking about how one gets invited to the Defense Policy Board. How did it come about?

It came about through an invitation from the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle, who knew about the work we were doing here at USIP on post-conflict reconstruction, and particularly on establishing the rule of law in post-conflict environments. So the invitation came through the chairman via his aides at the Pentagon.

There was no assumption made that there would be widespread civil disorder.... This is just ignoring the lessons of history.

As you know, the Defense Policy Board meets periodically. It's made up of about 30 or 35 advisers, people with a lot of experience in foreign policy and national security affairs. It meets for two days. It hears from a variety of different people with different ideas.

I was fortunate because I kicked off the session early on a Friday morning, and we had a very good discussion of the ideas I presented, which were basically those that are included in this report that USIP published about the same time.

In brief, what were they?

The thrust of it was that it was very likely that in a post-conflict situation in Iraq, there was going to be a lot of violence. That prediction was based on the history of Iraq, the kind of things that happened after the Gulf War and happened after an operation called Desert Fox, which was a bombing campaign that the U.S. carried out in, I believe, 1998.

It was very likely, we thought, that there was going to be widespread civil disturbance. It was also going to be necessary for the U.S. to be prepared going in to deal with that. So my presentation was largely about the kinds of forces that we would need in order to deal with that kind of violence. The recommendations were to create a constabulary and a police force and rule of law teams that would be able to go in and deal with civil disturbance. ...

In fact, there was so much interest in this idea that the discussion ensued and went on for about an hour. At the end of the discussion -- there were, of course, mixed views on both sides -- but at the end of the discussion, it seemed like this was something that the board might want to take a further look at.

There were people on the board who disagreed with the need for such a force?

There were people on the board who had different experiences. There were military officers who'd been in other operations. There were people who thought that perhaps this could be done by the military. My recommendations are that this be done by civilians, that what's missing here is that the United States military needs an effective civilian partner. It needs to be able to hand off to civilian constabulary and law enforcement personnel, who can then deal with civilians.

What do you mean by civilians? Are we talking cops on the ground? Policemen?

Right, that there's a major difference between military and police. Soldiers are trained to deal with soldiers. They're trained to deal with opposition armies. They're not trained to deal with civilians. There's a different ethos here. Police are trained to deal with civilians. They're trained to interact on a whole different basis. So while soldiers are trained to, as one officer said, "shoot people and break things," police are trained to preserve and protect.

The ethos is evident to the people on the other side. Civilians looking at U.S. military forces in full battle rattle with tanks and armored personnel carriers have one kind of reaction. Civilians looking at police who are not armored, who generally wear civilian-style uniforms, carry sidearms, and whose whole ethos is, "Let's see if I can help you" -- it creates a whole different kind of environment. We know this because of the experiences we've had in Haiti and Somalia, in Bosnia and in Kosovo.

You talked to the Defense Policy Board about the previous experiences?

Part of my presentation was to describe the difference between military and civilian police. I think that's a very important point to understand. Just to give you an example, if you remember the sniper incidents here in Montgomery County earlier in the year, in some of those cases there were police officers nearby when the person was shot. In every case, the police officer's reaction was to go to the victim and to shield the victim. A soldier, based on his training, would have gone after the assailant. Both of these people are trained to protect society, but their training leads them to respond in different ways.

Civilians and people instinctively feel this. We wouldn't have the kind of incidents that we've had in Iraq -- where you've had troops firing wildly when they're attacked, or where you have troops roughing people up -- if you were using police, because police are trained not to do that.

And you wouldn't have the kind of alienation between the U.S. forces and the population?

Well, that's the other part. If you had police there training police officers, then you would have the sort of professional feeling that emerges when you have people in the same line of work talking to one another. There's a bond between police officers, internationally. I've seen it in countries all over the world.

But when you have military forces coming in and interacting with police, there's a cultural divide there that's very difficult to get across. Even if those police or even if those soldiers may have happened to be, at some point in their lives, police officers, and may be a police officer in civilian life, it's a very different thing when you're talking to somebody who's wearing full armored gear, carrying an M-16, as opposed to when you're dealing with a civilian officer in civilian dress, in a uniform like your uniform and you're talking about common problems.

It's a very different dynamic, and it's a dynamic we're missing in Iraq. But it's a dynamic we've had in every one of the previous peace operations, which is the question for me: Why did we think, in this case, we could skip that step?

You say there was a lot of interest at the Defense Policy Board when you made your presentation.

Yes. Well, we have to keep in mind the Defense Policy Board is an advisory group; it's not a policy-making body.

But they're very powerful.

They are very powerful, and the interesting thing here is that my presentation was I think important, because it was talking to a very influential group. But there are other people in Washington who are equally influential, who are making the same kinds of recommendations. The fact that these recommendations never translated into policy is a sort of unanswered question. Why that happened is an unanswered question.

You can't explain it?

It seems to have something to do with the way the war was fought and the way the planning was done. The war was fought to prove that you could win that conflict with a very small, highly mobile, highly technical force, and that proved to be true.

In terms of the war phase.

In terms of the war phase. In terms of the post-conflict phase, the planning was done at the Pentagon. It was started late. General Garner and his team were created in late January. They had 60 days to put the post-conflict war plan together. That was not enough time.

Their planning was based on assumptions which turned out not to be true. In retrospect, we can question those assumptions. But they seem to be, in my view, somewhat remarkable. For one thing, they assumed that when they arrived in Baghdad, they were going to find the city roughly intact. They were going to find the ministries in good order, they were going to be able to walk in and take over institutions that were operating, that the Iraqis would be at their desks.

The proof of this is that they organized ministry teams. The ministry teams were supposed to go in -- these were small numbers of Americans that were supposed to go in and sort of take over the executive suite of the ministry of agriculture or the ministry of the interior, and then help the Iraqi technocrats run their ministries.

In fact, as General Garner said publicly and in the press, when they got there, they found that 17 of the 21 ministries that they were going to take over were wrecked. They had been systematically looted, systematically destroyed, and then the buildings were burned.

There were a number of assumptions, too, about how we would be received generally in terms of coming in, presenting them with democracy.

[Yes]. I think the assumption was that we would be welcomed as liberators. But, you know--

Well, it's not exactly -- I mean, we were welcomed as liberators, in some sense, were we not?

We were welcomed as liberators, but the welcome was different than the welcome we expected. There was no assumption made that there would be widespread civil disorder.

But you had said so.

Right. There was no thought given in the planning, obviously, to the possibility that as soon as U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad, that the people in Baghdad would go on a systematic campaign to loot the city. This is just ignoring the lessons of history.

The same thing happened in Panama during Operation Just Cause. As soon as the fighting ended, mobs went into the streets of Panama City and destroyed Panama City, looted the city, did more damage to the Panamanian economy than the conflict did.

It happened in other places as well?

It happened in Sarajevo. After the conflict, there was an agreement which was part of the Dayton Accords that the suburbs of Sarajevo would be handed over from the Serbs which controlled them to the Bosnians, in order to take the military pressure off the city. What happened there was widespread civil disorder in which the Serbs, as they were departing, systematically burned, looted and destroyed what were basically a series of towns surrounding Sarajevo.

It happened in other places as well. In all of these cases, U.S. military forces that were there, on scene, stood by and watched. Why? Because they had no instructions to intervene, and because there is this feeling -- and has been on the part of the U.S. military, consistently -- that the U.S. military doesn't do police. It doesn't do policing functions.

So the same thing happened in Haiti. On the third day of the U.S. intervention in Haiti, U.S. soldiers in full battle gear stood by and watched as Haitian police beat to death demonstrators that were demonstrating, welcoming the American presence in Haiti.

You can just go time after time after time. It's the same situation that's occurred over and over again. That lesson was there, that lesson is in the writing that we did, the things that we said and other people said in Washington, that knew the history of these kinds of operations; and those lessons were ignored.

It's remarkable. You take these recommendations, you take this history, you lay it before the Defense Policy Board. They take an interest in this, but yet--

I think there's a disconnect between the people who were listening and the people who actually had the responsibilities for planning.

Richard Perle is a very influential architect of the war plan.

He's a very influential adviser. But we have really no idea -- or at least I don't have any idea -- what kind of influence he had on the policy process. But we do know that there was a disconnect between the people who were listening and talking to people who were giving advice from outside, the people who were on Garner's staff, who were making very similar kinds of recommendations based on their professional experience. I mean, there are people on Garner's team who have the same kind of background in peace operations that I do, and they were making very similar kinds of recommendations based on--

To the National Security Council?

To General Garner.

But Garner was then making these recommendations around to the--

Presumably Garner was passing on these recommendations as he got the opportunity to brief people. Then it would seem that these recommendations were, at some point in the policy process, simply set aside.

In their place came this assumption that we were going to be faced with a whole lot of situations that never manifested. For example, there were plans for a humanitarian crisis, for a refugee crisis, for the release of weapons of mass destruction, for mass starvation. None of that happened.

One of the reasons it didn't happen was because the military planners planned the war in such a way that it didn't create refugee outflows, that it didn't impact the food supply, et cetera. The fact that we planned a military campaign which was rapid, that skirted the cities, that went right to Baghdad and took over the capital, meant that it was highly unlikely we were going to have any of those kinds of eventualities.

What we didn't plan for was what happened -- which was this total breakdown of law and order throughout the country, particularly in the city of Baghdad.

In your discussions with people, in your presentation to the Defense Policy Board, in your discussions around Washington with other people at the State Department or at the Pentagon, did you get a sense as to why the assumptions were made that we would not need a police force on the ground?

No, and it was not clear throughout, at least to me, and maybe to other people on the outside, what actually was going on. The planners kept saying that they were waiting to see what the circumstances would be on the ground, which struck me, at the time, as being a very risky kind of approach. We had meetings with people on Garner's staff and people in the administration. Their basic approach was that they couldn't really foresee exactly what was needed, so they're were going to wait until they got there, and then they were going to make recommendations.

That's very risky, because if you wait until you're there to start your planning, then there's a huge delay before you can actually implement programs. It struck me at the time that we had such a long experience in these kinds of operations that we could have predicted in advance -- we could have foreseen that you're going to need these kinds of security forces, because you're going to have that kind of a security problem. You're going to have a period of general lawlessness. You're going to need to establish the rule of law. You're going to have to deal with prisoners, for example.

One of the first things that happened in Iraq was that the U.S. military began to arrest literally hundreds, and then thousands of Iraqis who were engaged in looting and violence and, in some cases, murder, rape, and other kinds of mayhem. This is exactly what happened in Kosovo.

But they had no place to put them.

That's right. ... They had no place to put them, and so--

They let many of the looters go.

That's right. That happened in Kosovo as well. In the beginning, the U.S. military held people for a while and then because they couldn't do anything else, they let them go. The same thing happened in Iraq. First, it was hold people for four days, then it was hold people for 21 days, et cetera. But because there was no provision made for a judicial authority, there was no way to hold hearings to decide whether people should be remanded to custody or whether they should be turned loose, whether we got the right guy or we got somebody who happened just to be a innocent bystander. Then, in the end, everybody was grouped together and then everybody was turned loose.

These were things that were sort of talked about in the reports that we wrote. At least they were certainly things that were in the experience of people that were in these earlier missions. They were things that were in the knowledge of the military, people in the JAG Corps who wrote papers after Kosovo, talking about the experiences that they had there. Somehow, these things didn't translate into policy.

What translated was the belief that the U.S. military could go in, seize Baghdad with a small number of forces -- which they did -- and then somehow control the situation -- which they couldn't. Mission impossible.

And still can't.

And still can't. Now that's the other part of it, which is really striking, and that is that it's one thing to say OK, we were not prepared going in. OK, but now we're several months into the process, and we still haven't done the things that are necessary to deal with the problem.

Well, we are talking about training a police force. Some of the training is underway.

Right, and we're talking about it. But we have not made the kind a commitment that would be necessary to actually train the police force. What we have is we have U.S. military forces, some of whom happen to be police in private life, who are carrying out training programs.

In Kosovo, for example as soon as the international community, as soon as the United States and the U.N. had access to Kosovo, the first thing that was done was that a police training academy was established with professional police trainers. These were professional law enforcement instructors from, in this case, OSCE member states, and within months the police academy began to turn out trained police officers.

The United States' initial commitment to that was, I think, somewhere between $12 million and $15 million. The commitment of the international community to that training facility in Kosovo has been probably in the order of $100 million or $200 million. That training facility within a year was a state-of-the-art facility. It was as good as any facility in the world. It's trained a 6,000-member police force in Kosovo that's an excellent police force. It's gotten rave reviews from everybody. ...

That kind of a commitment hasn't been made.

I thought Kerik was putting together a pretty big effort to train police.

Kerik has, I think, 12 advisers from the Department of Justice who are assisting him, and that's it.

They're talking about a force of 60,000 police.

They're talking about a force of 60,000 police. They've been able to rehabilitate 35,000 police, which is half the previous force. So in a country of 22.5 million people, you have a police force of 35,000. That's smaller than the NYPD, by some measure. The police force is about at half strength.

Now what kind of a police force is this? One of the revelations of the Department of Justice assessment mission was that the Iraqi police, while they were the only institution to survive intact after the conflict, had been sort of underutilized and misutilized during the previous 30 years.

And corrupt.

And corrupt. But more than that, it was a police force with very little training. One of the things they realized right away was that the Iraqi police didn't patrol; they didn't know how to patrol. During the Saddam period ... in a police state, you simply sit in the station and wait for something to happen and then you go out and you grill people -- whatever.

They didn't know how to conduct foot patrols. They had to be taught how to conduct foot patrols. They didn't know how to interview witnesses, or all the other sort of basic things that police recruits learn here in their first four months in the police academy. All that training is brand new. So we're starting, in some respect, from ground zero.

In previous missions, the United States went in with very large, well-financed civilian-led police training programs. We haven't done that.

I just don't get it. If in fact in previous situations we've gone into these situations with some kind of understanding of the need for a police force, why did we not understand the need in this situation?

I'm going to write a book in the future called "Blind Spot: or Why The U.S. Lost The Peace in Iraq," and I think this is the problem. On the part of the people that had control of the policy process, there was simply a blind spot here. There's simply, I think, a lack of understanding about what was required in a post-conflict situation.

When you were in that meeting in the Defense Policy Board, who was it that took an interest in this?

A number of people took an interest in it. I don't want to name names. That wouldn't really be fair. But there was a sort of broad cross-section of people. The people that didn't think it would work were people that thought it was too large an effort to make.

Too large? We're not talking about a lot of money, are we?

In retrospect, had we started in February, and tried to create the kind of forces that I recommended, and those forces would have come on line some time in June or July, they would have been very welcome.

The recommendations that the Department of Justice team made, that went out and did its assessment, those recommendations reached Washington in May. If the administration had acted on those recommendations in May -- we're now in September -- those forces were beginning to come on line. It's sort of, when are the people who have the policy decision-making authority in this situation going to sort of accept these recommendations, and start to provide the kind of forces that are necessary?

But did they say, "Look, I understand that these problems existed in other situations in the past, but Iraq is going to be different?" Did you hear that?

Not from the people at the Defense Policy Board, but we heard that from a number of people, including a lot of Iraqi exiles. We had an interesting meeting in which a group of Iraqi exiles who were part of Future of Iraq Project, which was the State Department's program for preparation for post-conflict Iraq, a bunch of the Iraqi exiles that were involved in that came to Washington. We had a meeting under the auspices of the State Department, where some of us from USIP were given the opportunity to go over and talk to these people about experiences in previous peace operations.

We weren't sort of making recommendations. We were just talking about, like, "This is what happened in the past, just so you'll have this information." They sort of sat through and listened, and fidgeted, and then at the end of it they said, "Yes, but we're Iraqis, and this won't happen here," as if--

What? "We don't loot?"

As if somehow there would be a difference in the way that people in the Middle East would react as opposed to the way people in Western Europe reacted. What we told them was in Yugoslavia, which is a modern Western European country, these kind of situations manifested. In Central America, in some of the most sophisticated parts of Central America, where you had well-educated populations, these situations occurred.

There's been a lot of looting in American cities.

Let's look at the United States. We've had the same kind of situations in the past, and we've had huge riots. 1993, in Los Angeles, for example. But people sat there in this meeting and said, "It won't happen here, because we're different."

You watched the secretary of defense react to the looting that was going on. What was going through your mind at that point?

If you remember, Secretary Rumsfeld made these now-famous remarks about people should be free to do stupid things, or these remarks about, "This is what happens when you allow people the freedom to act on their instincts."

"Stuff happens," I think he said.

Stuff happens. There were all these remarks that he made, and that struck me as -- "irresponsible" is a pretty harsh word -- but basically irresponsible; that we could not have stopped the Iraqis from demonstrating in the way that they did. The Iraqis would have come out into the streets in any case. But what we had control over was our own preparation. We could have been ready. We could have been ready to deal with the situation, and the proof of that is what happened at the petroleum industry in Baghdad.

The oil ministry.

The oil ministry in Baghdad was protected by U.S. Marines. The oil ministry in Baghdad was the only institution that survived intact. ...

I think the lesson that the Iraqis drew from that is, what was the United States' real goal here? Was it to get our oil? It wasn't to protect the National Museum, which was destroyed and looted. It wasn't to protect the National Library, where priceless manuscripts were lost. It wasn't to protect the hospitals which were looted, et cetera, et cetera. It was to protect the petroleum ministry. So given the directive to do it, we demonstrated in that case that we could.

One point that I think doesn't get made enough is how the looting affected the entire postwar effort.

The looting was disastrous. There's no other word for it. Here you had a situation in which you had an economy which was sort of right on the edge, because Saddam and his regime had run the infrastructure of Iraq down to where it was barely operating. So the infrastructure was very fragile, and we knew this.

We also knew that we had to utilize that infrastructure in the reconstruction process. That's why the bombing campaign was carried out in the way it was, so that the essential elements of the infrastructure were spared. We didn't knock down the bridges. We didn't destroy the civilian ministries. The bombing campaign was conducted in a very intelligent way, so that the institutions that were required for reconstruction were spared.

When the looting took place, the looting was not just one day. It went on for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. It was a very systematic process in which the first couple of days, it was people getting in to get what they could grab.

But after that, there was a very systematic program carried out, I believe by the former Iraqi security forces, to do several things. One, to make the mechanisms of government inoperable, so they wouldn't be available to the United States. Two, to destroy the records. There was a lot of systematic burning of files, particularly those files that would have been incriminating. Three, there was a systematic effort to destroy sites where weapons of mass destruction could have been produced.

The role of the security services in the Saddam regime was to protect the weapons of mass destruction program. Those security services were never defeated. They were never destroyed. Presumably, when the coast was clear, those guys came back out and took care to clean up the mess. We had no way of protecting those sites. There was no plan to protect them, and those sites were looted for weeks before anybody got to them. The same with the nuclear sites. There was no plan to protect those sites. Those sites were open to anybody who wanted to walk in them for days, if not weeks.

By the time the United States got there, there was no hope of determining whether those sites were operative or not.

How do you explain that we didn't protect a site like Tuweitha, for instance?

I don't know. I have no explanation for that. I really don't. So it would seem to me that logic would indicate that those sites would be protected, that somehow the plan would include having the forces necessary to move quickly to protect those areas. But that wasn't done. ...

[There is no agency in the U.S. government] that has responsibility for post-conflict reconstruction or post-conflict security. There is no U.S. policy in that regard. There is no source of funding in that regard. There is nobody with responsibility. So what happens is that this becomes a gap, and every time we go into one of these situations we perform very poorly.

The creation of General Garner's staff at the Pentagon was a sort of last-minute effort to plug that hole. But what the United States needs is a standing capacity to do post-conflict reconstruction, and particularly a standing capacity to create security and impose the rule of law. We don't have that.

How did you understand that it was February when you're being called before the Defense Policy Board, when the war is right at our doorstep?

I think the timing of that briefing had to do with the schedule for meetings of that particular institution. I don't think it had anything to do with the coming of the conflict. That was just happenstance, in a way. ...

But my briefing is not all that important, but the fact that the president acted on Jan. 20 through the issuance of a national security presidential directive to create the Office of Humanitarian Assistance and Reconstruction [ORHA], to formally start the postwar planning in the Pentagon. That's the thing that we need to look at, as to why it took until two months -- 60 days before the conflict was launched -- for the administration to take that step.

The military planning started, I don't know when, years before, but particularly during the previous summer. The State Department's Future of Iraq Project started earlier than that. But in the end, from what we can understand, the findings of that project were simply set aside.

So it's very difficult to understand why the military planning was done so meticulously and the planning for the post-conflict period was done basically in a rush at the last moment.

Do you have any answers?

I think it has to do with the basic approach that this administration took to the problem of post-conflict reconstruction. If you go back to the beginning, during the [election] campaign, the president campaigned against United States involvement in nation-building, and so this was a basic tenet of the administration's policy.

Unfortunately, as events unfolded after 9/11, the administration found itself in a circumstance where it had to engage in post-conflict nation-building. You only need to look at Afghanistan as example one and Iraq as example two.

I'm interested -- perhaps you can't name names on the Defense Policy Board -- but if I can get a keener sense, anecdotally, of the questions and answers that took place that day. What did you sense?

I sensed that those people who had responsibilities in the past for these operations understood the need for these kinds of forces and were very supportive of that idea. I understood that there were those people who had a sense of history, in terms of the role the U.S. military played in Germany and in other places, where the U.S. military actually took on post-conflict planning and was responsible for post-conflict security. Those people were very supportive.

The people that were not supportive were people that I think maybe had never thought of this before, thought that it was just too hard, felt that somehow or other it was not in our tradition to do these things--

It doesn't sound that hard.

In retrospect, considering what we're up against now, it wouldn't be hard. ... What's been missing in this area is the lack of political will. It wasn't there in the previous administration, and it doesn't seem to be here in this administration.

They believed, it seems, rosy scenarios.

That would seem to be the case, yes.

That we would be welcomed, the place would remain intact, and sort of a "plug and play" situation.

That's right, and that's why, if you remember, back at the time that the leadership in the Defense Department, in fact leadership in the administration, was saying that we would be out of Iraq in 90 days, or faster. That assumption was based on this belief that somehow or other we would walk in, we'd be greeted as liberators, the place would be intact, and we could simply hand off to a group of Iraqi technocrats and nonpolitical military leaders who would be there waiting for us, and would simply take over, and the place would sort of run itself.

Then we could rely on the commercial contractors that the administration had lined up to sort of work with our Iraqi counterparts and put the place, modernize the oil industry, modernize the infrastructure, and get the place running.

It sounds like a corporate takeover to me.

That's an interesting model. It does sound like a sort of businessman's approach to the situation. You carry out a sort of surgical military campaign and then you bring in the technocrats, the engineers, the business managers, et cetera, and you sort of hand off to them. Then you take the military and you go off to fight somewhere else.

It's very unrealistic. It hasn't happened, it didn't happen in any of the other previous situations. In each one of the previous situations, there was a period of chaos, and that was overlooked.


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posted october 9, 2003

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