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doomed from the start?

In the end, could Jay Garner or Paul Bremer have done anything? Those on the ground during that first, critical year in Iraq, and others, offer their thoughts on the flawed assumptions and unrealistic planning going into the war. These comments are drawn from FRONTLINE's extended interviews.


Center for Strategic and International Studies

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Anthony Cordesman

[Tell me about prewar planning. How did it start?]

… [W]hat you had was an interagency group that began to meet early in 2002. … It was designed to create a kind of interagency plan to both predict what was going to happen with the U.S. invasion in Iraq and deal with the aftermath. The problem, however, was that very quickly it became apparent that America had experts who could, in broad terms, provide political diagnostics; it didn't have anyone who could actually plan. …

So what you had was a group that produced all kinds of lists of problems and issues, but frankly could not provide advice on what to do. That was one of the reasons that much of this went to the Department of Defense. It was simply a matter [of], if you are going to invade, you have to be able to operate, and the interagency process simply lacked a core competence in the ability to plan and in the ability to anticipate the full range of things that were going to happen in Iraq.

Now, out of that decision came perhaps the most serious problem that emerged: Neither at the political level in the Department of Defense nor at the military [level] did anybody want to be involved in stability operations. This was not the mission, and indeed, at that point in time, the Department of Defense was trying its best to avoid nation-building and this kind of political involvement. …

At a higher level, people simply believed what exiles and others were telling them: that once you got rid of Saddam, everything would be all right. Iraq was an oil-rich country, had large reserves of oil-for-food [program] money. It was really very well-educated, and the problem was simply Saddam. They ignored the Iran-Iraq War; they ignored Iraq's political history; they ignored the economic impact of war and sanctions. They wanted to believe, and that created a climate where nobody was prepared to take any kind of mission seriously. …

There also was a kind of shock-and-awe mentality: the idea that we would advance very quickly; that there would be no real disruption of the police or local governments. The institutions would remain intact. When we got to Baghdad, there would be large numbers of troops dealing with the siege. As we advanced, while there might be problems with government, continuity of government, there would be plenty of time to secure the city. Every one of those assumptions turned out to be wrong. …

We learned very quickly that as we advanced, we basically unleashed sectarian and ethnic divisions almost immediately. These were not simply Shiite versus Sunni, or Kurdish versus Turkmen and Arab in the north. Longstanding tensions and struggles within the Shiite community were immediately exposed in the various holy cities. The police essentially deserted. The army that we thought would be passive, deserted, went back, looted, went back again, essentially destroying installation after installation. …

We went into Baghdad, … but all of a sudden, less than two U.S. brigades were in isolated positions in a city of more than 5 million people, having no idea of what might come next. And in the midst of all of this, the Iraqi people started looting, attacked the ministries, basically created a series of events which didn't stop with that. ... We were totally unprepared to secure the city, to secure the surroundings. We neither anticipated the mission nor had the troops. …

If you're Jay Garner, and you arrive in early April, what are you faced with?

Well, you're faced with mission impossible, and you have no experience, individually, in carrying out the mission. Your only background is in a relief operation in the Kurdish areas. You have virtually no staff, and that staff has no experience. You have no aid money. You have no resources. You have no defined relationship with the military. There's no clear civil/military structure planned, in any case. …

You really have no capability, and I think this is the key to sort of parse out the history: What happened to ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] and Gen. Garner is simply unfair. They never had a chance, and they were never relevant.


Director, Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA)

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Lt. Gen. Jay Garner (Ret.)

What's your planning focused on?

This is a bad answer, but it was focused on an awful lot of things. But the three things that worried us the most was the setting of the oil fields on fire, because [Saddam Hussein] had done that in Kuwait during the first Gulf War; large number of displaced people, refugees as a result of the war itself; or him using chemical weapons against the Shi'a or the Kurds, which he had done before several times. [Another] thing was a breakout of an epidemic, because there's a pretty high incidence of cholera in that part of the world, especially in Iraq, and we knew that after the bombing started, we'd have sewage problems. …

We also knew that no one would have been paid in the last two or three months. We knew we had to pay the civil servants to get them back to work, to run the ministries. We had to pay the army, had to pay the police force. We wanted to bring them back. Then you have pensioners, an awful lot of pensioners; we had to pay those. We had plans to rapidly begin the back pay and then get everybody back to work. We had plans to rapidly start the ministries' function in Baghdad, because everything focuses on Baghdad, just like in this country it's focused on D.C. …

How big a concern is security?

Huge, huge, huge concern. We realized … that we wouldn't have enough security. CENTCOM at that point said, "We're going to really be strapped for forces." …

Tommy Franks meets with his commanders April 16, a few days before you go in. He's telling his commanders … within 60 days, there will be an Iraqi government set up. What was you guys' opinion of that Washington and military expectation?

… [Franks] was always promised a large constabulary force from allies. He was promised by DoD or by the administration -- I'm not sure [which]. He was relying on me to bring back the Iraqi army, and we're talking about 250,000 soldiers.

I think in his mind, in his planning process, he probably had 250,000 to 300,000 troops that he had been told he was going to have; when he was issuing those orders, those were the back of his mind. I never talked to Tommy about this, but I know him well enough that I know he wouldn't have said, "Pull immediately out of Iraq." I think he was counting on that. I know [CENTCOM Commander Gen.] John Abizaid was counting on that, and I know Dave McKiernan was counting on it. And I was counting on it. So the constabulary forces never materialized, and the decision was made not to bring back the Iraqi army. So those two things evaporated. …

At some point, your aide, [Ron] Adams, goes back to Washington, ... back to the DoD, and is surprised to find out there's some plans for the postwar out of Feith's offices that you guys didn't know about.

Yeah, he called me, and he said, "There's a lot of stuff, plans going on here that you and I have never seen, none of our team has ever seen." And I said: "Well, can you get them and send them to us? Or can you read them and tell us about it?" He said, "I don't know; I'll try." He never was able to do that.

But you guys were in charge of the postwar.

We were. Supposed to be.

Why did DoD not want to give you the plan?

I have no idea. … At that point, I had so many problems that that was something going on back there, and I had an immediate problem right there in Iraq, specifically in Baghdad, and I was trying to deal with those things.

Did they miss the window of opportunity in a lot of ways because that focus was there too late?

That's a yes-and-no answer. The answer is yes, we missed an opportunity because we should have started the process earlier; we should have had a longer time to plan; and we should have had agreed-upon objectives that we were going to do in postwar.

The answer is no if those objectives weren't ones that we could accomplish, and I think one of them is taking democracy and forcing it through the top down. I don't think you can do that to people that have never had democracy, that type of thing.


Author, Imperial Life in the Emerald City

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran

What did it feel like in those days right after the fall of Saddam Hussein and before the ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] people got there [in mid-April]?

... There was this power vacuum. Nobody quite knew what was the plan. The soldiers thought they were all going home. They were expecting the Iraqis in exile to show up, the Gen. de Gaulle to roll on in and take control of Baghdad. The Iraqis didn't know what to expect.

I spent the three weeks of the war at the same hotel that Garner and his staff inhabited. It was a bunch of well-meaning but totally clueless Americans, people there with no communications, no training. Had very little information about the jobs that they would have. The guy that would be told to be in charge of the Ministry of Industry and Minerals literally had no information about that. He spent his days surfing the Web trying to find things and eventually took to sort of reading poetry and ordering books online.

But this was supposed to be our reconstruction and administration corps. Most of them had never been in that part of the world, didn't speak Arabic. These people were going to go into a war zone with limited services. They didn't have sleeping bags or mosquito nets or anything.

So these guys then show up in Baghdad a couple of weeks later. … They move into the Republican Palace. They don't have power, water. There was no political transition plan. Nobody told Garner: "All right, this is what we're going to do. We're going to either appoint these exiles as a provisional council; we're going to hold a loya jirga; we're going to do this or that." It was left completely undecided. …

And when Garner and his team get there, what do they begin to try to do?

It's chewing gum and Scotch tape. They're trying to do whatever it takes to get things working: try to get some of these power plants running again; figure out who works for these various ministries and get people back to work; trying to organize some Iraqis to protect buildings from looting. They have no plan, but these are seasoned, smart people. They're trying to figure out what they have to do to kind of patch things up.

They, like the Iraqis, figure more help is on the way. They are led to believe there's going to be a lot more military and civilian resources coming behind them to do things like turn on the lights. The Iraqis, of course, have this expectation as well, and in their interactions, they're feeding those expectations. They're also just trying to say to the Iraqis, "Hang tight; help is on the way." But they don't really know what help, and when, how, in what form it's going to come. They're just trying to make the best of a bad situation.


Administrator, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)

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L. Paul Bremer III

[Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, when you talked to him before you go, does he have a road map, a plan? What does he articulate to you as the mission?

Well, they had done thinking about this in the Pentagon, obviously. They had papers which described, … for example, what should we do about senior Baath Party officials. They had papers and prepared documents on these kinds of things.

I was briefed as well by the military side, as I mentioned, on their plans and what they hoped to accomplish in terms of the American force levels in Iraq. I don't remember all the details, but there were certainly a lot of papers around; that's for sure. …

Much has been made, of course, of the fact that before the war, there was very little postwar planning -- or, it was an optimistic postwar planning.

The answer is somewhat complicated when one thinks about the prewar planning. The prewar planning was based on assumptions about the kinds of problems that the U.S. government expected to find in Iraq after liberation. The planning, as it turns out, was based on the wrong assumptions. …

In some ways, even more importantly, the information that we had about the state of the Iraqi economy was not good. The economy was in much worse shape than I had been led to believe. … Saddam had taken one of the richest countries in the Middle East and driven it into the ground over a period of 25 years. … I'm not even sure, if the assumptions on the planning had been better, [if] we would have still had a plan that would have helped us, because the fundamental situation of the economy was so much worse than we thought.

How would you characterize what Rumsfeld was telling you to do? …

The direction that all of us followed was from the president, and his direction was quite clear: that we were going to try to set the Iraqis on a path to democratic government and help them rebuild their country.

Now, none of us at that time [knew] -- certainly I didn't know -- what that would entail. The general guidance I had from the president and others was, "Get over there and give us your recommendation."


Author, Cobra II

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Michael Gordon

The Bush administration policy, as I see it in the very start, what they really wanted was a kind of an in-and-out war. Their concept was that they were going to knock off this regime in a matter of weeks, that American forces would be present in Iraq for a period of time, but there'd be a very rapid withdrawal of American troops from the region, that international forces would come in and [with them] international investment, and that the Iraqis would be able to sustain much of the postwar phase by selling their oil and their own resources. …

Their vision -- you can trace this all the way back to when President Bush was a candidate in his Citadel speech, which he gave about two years before he assumed office. They looked at what the Clinton administration did in the Balkans, and they saw that not as a success, but as a snare.

I talked to [then-National Security Adviser] Condi Rice and others about this at the time. They said: "American forces are still in the Balkans. We're still stuck there. The people in those societies have become dependent on us and on NATO for everything. This is an unhealthy sort of a relationship. The purpose of the American military is not peacekeeping or stability operations. ... We don't want to be stuck in these places for years and years to come. This is not really our responsibility."

Prior to the Iraq war, this is sort of the guiding philosophy of the Bush administration. [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld gave a speech where he pretty much outlined all of this a month before the war, on the deck of the Intrepid Museum in New York City. It was called "Beyond Nation-Building", and his argument was that unhealthy dependencies had been created in the Balkans and other places. …

This whole venture was supposed to be one that would be carried out with relatively modest costs in terms of American lives and American treasure. I've heard a former American diplomat refer to this as the ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead school of regime change: We go in, we kill the wicked witch, the munchkins jump up, they're grateful, and then we get in the hot-air balloon and we're out of there.

So what was the postwar plan? Franks made that announcement when he's first in country: "We're going to have elections for an Iraqi government in 30, 60 days. We're going to be able to get out of here in 90 days. By September, we're gone." This came as a real surprise to McKiernan and [CENTCOM Commander Gen. John] Abizaid even at that time, right?

Well, it certainly wasn't what the military thought was likely to happen, … but it was in tune with what the White House wanted. In fact, it followed a meeting at the White House the previous day where they had a notion that they were going to elicit the deployment of the NATO division, an Arab division of some kind. There were plans afoot to maybe entice the Indians to deploy a division in Iraq. … [Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz said the Iraq occupation would be self-financing. He said that other countries would want to be a part of it.

The idea is you could act unilaterally. We would win big, and then other nations would see our success and would want to join in. You didn't need to have them at the lodge; you needed to have them at the landing. But it turned out to be a bad calculation. For this sort of thing, you needed these people going in. It has been very hard to attract the coalition. In fact, the coalition's largely fiction.

So there was a postwar plan?

… I think there was a plan. There was a vision. It just was an unrealistic plan and a bad plan, one that was dependent entirely on a set of optimistic assumptions, and in fact, it didn't last very long before it was overtaken by reality. But it wasn't because they didn't think about it; they just thought about it badly. …


Director, RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center

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James Dobbins

I assumed that the administration and the U.S. military would have incorporated lessons from the '90s and taken the kind of preparatory steps that would have at least ameliorated many of the difficulties that eventually arose. I assumed, for instance, that there would be substantial numbers of military police and the forces that were available to move into the major cities immediately after the collapse of the regime. I assumed that they would anticipate that the regime's security apparatus would disintegrate … [and] that maintaining security would fall heavily on U.S. and coalition forces. I assumed that they would have prepared commanders to assume that responsibility, to take that responsibility early on.

These assumptions were incorrect. We didn't pre-position significant numbers of military police; we hadn't prepared commanders to assume responsibility for public security rapidly; and we didn't anticipate that the regime's security apparatus would disintegrate and become largely useless. I think we should have, because this is, broadly speaking, what had happened in each of the previous episodes over the last decade. But I think that the administration had chosen to look to a different set of models and a different set of experiences for inspiration, and I think that that misled them as to the difficulties they were likely to encounter.

They chose to look to the American occupations of Germany and Japan for inspiration. They talked about modeling their efforts on those quite successful experiences of nation-building. One could see why these were attractive. They were attractive, first of all, because they were unqualified successes, whereas the experiences of the '90s -- Bosnia and Kosovo, for instance -- were at best qualified successes. But they were also successes that had absolutely nothing to do with Bill Clinton, and therefore they were politically safe. You could embrace them without embarrassment. …

The problem, of course, was that while Germany and Japan were unqualified successes, Iraq in 2003 really looked a lot more like Yugoslavia in 1995 than Germany and Japan in 1945. Germany and Japan were very homogenous nations. They weren't ribboned by ethnic or cultural or religious or linguistic conflicts. They were first-world economies. You didn't have to tell them how to run a highly successful capitalist economy. And, of course, they had been defeated in years of devastating warfare, which had left their populations thoroughly demoralized, unlikely to resist. And they formally surrendered.

None of this was true of Iraq or Yugoslavia, both of which were highly mixed, interethnic societies with a lot of cultural, religious and ethnic differences. They brought together a number of different communities that really didn't want to live in the same state if they could avoid it; they had been carved out of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires at the end of the First World War. They weren't first-world economies, and they hadn't surrendered. …

[Who's responsible?]

I think responsibility ultimately has to lie with the president. He made two critical decisions as we understand it, both of which tended to short-circuit a more structured, formal and intense debate. One was the basic decision to prepare for a military intervention and set and train the deployments and the diplomacy, which would make an intervention virtually irreversible. …

The second decision was a decision made somewhat closer to the intervention, I think about three months before it, when the president decided to take … all of the nonmilitary responsibilities for the reconstruction phase -- that is, a responsibility for holding elections, creating a central bank, rebuilding the economy, creating political parties, building a civil society -- to take all of those responsibilities away from the agencies of government that had been doing them, perhaps never well, but increasingly better for the last 50 years, and give them to the Department of Defense, a department that had no expertise, no experience in these complex and difficult areas. …

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posted oct. 17, 2006

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