The Strategy to Secure Iraq Did Not Foresee a 2nd War

By MICHAEL R. GORDON

New York Times

October 19, 2004

Gen. Tommy R. Franks climbed out of a C-130 plane at the Baghdad airport on April 16, 2003, and pumped his fist into the air. American troops had pushed into the capital of liberated Iraq little more than a week before, and it was the war commander's first visit to the city.

Much of the Sunni Triangle was only sparsely patrolled, and Baghdad was still reeling from a spasm of looting. Apache attack helicopters prowled the skies as General Franks headed to the Abu Ghraib North Palace, a retreat for Saddam Hussein that now served as the military's headquarters.

Huddling in a drawing room with his top commanders, General Franks told them it was time to make plans to leave. Combat forces should be prepared to start pulling out within 60 days if all went as expected, he said. By September, the more than 140,000 troops in Iraq could be down to little more than a division, about 30,000 troops.

To help bring stability and allow the Americans to exit, President Bush had reviewed a plan the day before seeking four foreign divisions - including Arab and NATO troops - to take on peacekeeping duties.

As the Baghdad meeting drew to a close, the president in a teleconference congratulated the commanders on a job well done. Afterward, they posed for photos and puffed on victory cigars.

Within a few months, though, the Bush administration's optimistic assumptions had been upended. Many of the foreign troops never came. The Iraqi institutions expected to help run the country collapsed. The adversary that was supposed to have been shocked and awed into submission was reorganizing beyond the reach of overstretched American troops.

In the debate over the war and its aftermath, the Bush administration has portrayed the insurgency that is still roiling Iraq today as an unfortunate, and unavoidable, accident of history, an enemy that emerged only after melting away during the rapid American advance toward Baghdad. The sole mistake President Bush has acknowledged in the war is in not foreseeing what he termed that "catastrophic success."

But many military officers and civilian officials who served in Iraq in the spring and summer of 2003 say the administration's miscalculations cost the United States valuable momentum - and enabled an insurgency that was in its early phases to intensify and spread.

"I think that there were Baathist Sunnis who planned to resist no matter what happened and at all cost, but we missed opportunities, and that drove more of them into the resistance," Jay Garner, the first civilian administrator of Iraq and a retired Army lieutenant general, said in an interview, referring to the Baath Party of Mr. Hussein and to his Sunni Muslim supporters. "Things were stirred up far more than they should have been. We did not seal the borders because we did not have enough troops to do that, and that brought in terrorists."

A senior officer who served in Iraq but did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of his position said: "The real question is, did there have to be an insurgency? Did we help create the insurgency by missing the window of opportunity in the period right after Saddam was removed from power?"

Looking back at that crucial time, those officers, administration officials and others provided an intimate and detailed account of how the postwar situation went awry. Civilian administrators of the Iraqi occupation raised concerns about plans to reduce American forces; intelligence agencies left American forces unprepared for the furious battles they encountered in Iraq's southern cities and did not emphasize the risks of a postwar insurgency. And senior American generals and civilians were at odds over plans to build a new Iraqi army, which was needed to impose order.

The First Principles

In August 2002, leading administration officials circulated a top-secret document blandly titled, "Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy." Months of wrangling at the United Nations were still ahead, but senior officials were drafting the principles that would guide the invasion if the president gave the order to strike.

The goals for Iraq were far-reaching. The aim was not just to topple a dictator, but also to build a democratic system. The United States would preserve, but reform, the bureaucracies that did the day-to-day work of running the country. There were some unstated objectives as well. Policy makers hoped that installing a pro-American government would put pressure on Syria to stop supporting terrorist groups and Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program.

But grand goals did not mean huge forces. From the start, the Pentagon's plan to invade Iraq was a striking contrast to the doctrine for using military power that was developed by Colin L. Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead of assembling a giant invasion force over six months, as he did in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the administration intended to attack with a much smaller force as reinforcements were still streaming to the Middle East.

The strategy was consistent with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's push to transform the military so it would rely less on heavy ground troops and more on technology, intelligence and special operations forces. He had long been impatient with what he thought was a plodding, risk-averse and overly costly way of waging war. At General Franks' Central Command, planners thought that the new approach was necessary for another reason: to catch the Iraqis by surprise and prevent any efforts to sabotage the oil fields or stiffen their Baghdad defenses.

"Almost everybody worried about what would happen if the war were prolonged," Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense, said in an interview. "This highlighted the importance of speed and surprise. It argued for this unusual and creative way of starting the war, with fewer forces than Saddam expected us to have and to have the flow continue after the war started."

If the Iraqi Army mounted a tougher fight than anticipated, Mr. Feith said, the Pentagon could continue to send forces. If the resistance was light, as many civilian aides expected, Washington could stop the troop flow. There would be "off ramps," in the vernacular of the Pentagon.

Achieving the administration's ambitions meant dealing with any turmoil that followed the collapse of Mr. Hussein's government and his iron-fisted security services. Administration officials assumed that American and multinational troops would help stabilize Iraq, but they also believed that the newly liberated Iraqis would share the burden.

"The concept was that we would defeat the army, but the institutions would hold, everything from ministries to police forces," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, said in an interview. "You would be able to bring new leadership but that we were going to keep the body in place."

Early Warnings

Some military men, though, were worried that the administration would be caught short. Gen. Hugh Shelton, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first nine months of the Bush administration, was one of them.

General Shelton had contacts in the Middle East who had warned that Iraq could devolve into chaos after Mr. Hussein was deposed. At a Pentagon meeting early in 2003 with former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former vice chairmen and their successors, he voiced concerns that the United States would not have sufficient troops immediately after the dictator was ousted. He cautioned that it was important to have enough troops to deal with the unexpected.

At the White House, officials also were thinking about how many troops would be needed. Military aides on the National Security Council prepared a confidential briefing for Ms. Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, that examined what previous nation-building efforts had required.

The review, called "Force Security in Seven Recent Stability Operations," noted that no single rule of thumb applied in every case. But it underscored a basic principle well known to military planners: However many forces might be required to defeat the foe, maintaining security afterward was determined by an entirely different set of calculations, including the population, the scope of the terrain and the necessary tasks.

If the United States and its allies wanted to maintain the same ratio of peacekeepers to population as it had in Kosovo, the briefing said, they would have to station 480,000 troops in Iraq. If Bosnia was used as benchmark, 364,000 troops would be needed. If Afghanistan served as the model, only 13,900 would be needed in Iraq. The higher numbers were consistent with projections later provided to Congress by Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in Iraq. But Mr. Rumsfeld dismissed that estimate as "way off the mark."

More forces generally are required to control countries with large urban populations. The briefing pointed out that three-quarters of Iraq's population lived in urban areas. In Bosnia and Kosovo, city dwellers made up half of the population. In Afghanistan, it was only 18 percent.

Neither the Defense Department nor the White House, however, saw the Balkans as a model to be emulated. In a Feb. 14, 2003, speech titled "Beyond Nation Building," which Mr. Rumsfeld delivered in New York, he said the large number of foreign peacekeepers in Kosovo had led to a "culture of dependence" that discouraged local inhabitants from taking responsibility for themselves.

The defense secretary said he thought that there was much to be learned from Afghanistan, where the United States did not install a nationwide security force but relied instead on a new Afghan Army and troops from other countries to help keep the peace.

James F. Dobbins, who was the administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and had also served as the ambassador at large for Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, thought that the administration was focusing on the wrong model. The former Yugoslavia - with its ethnic divisions, hobbled economy and history of totalitarian rule - had more parallels with Iraq than administration officials appeared willing to accept, Mr. Dobbins believed. It was Afghanistan that was the anomaly.

"They preferred to find a model for successful nation building that was not associated with the previous administration," Mr. Dobbins said in an interview. "And Afghanistan offered a much more congenial answer in terms of what would be required in terms of inputs, including troops."

As the Iraq war approached, Mr. Dobbins was overseeing a RAND Corporation study on nation building. The larger the number of security forces, the fewer the casualties suffered by alliance troops, the study asserted. When L. Paul Bremer III was appointed the chief administrator for Iraq in May 2003, Mr. Dobbins slipped him a copy.

Regulating the Flow

By the end of 2002, the military was scrambling to get ready. The troop deployment plan had been devised so that the Pentagon could regulate the flow and send only as much as was needed. Throughout the process, Mr. Rumsfeld was scrutinizing the troop requests. Defense officials said he had wanted to ensure that the deployments did not outrun the United Nations diplomacy and added that requests for Iraq had to be examined because the United States faced other potential crises.

But some military officers were concerned about what they perceived as second-guessing at the Pentagon, and complained of delays. One major troop request submitted in late November was not approved until a month later, for example.

The issue came to the attention of Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Congressional leader and a member of the Defense Policy Board that advises Mr. Rumsfeld, during an early February 2003 meeting with American officers in Kuwait. He said he would go back and press the secretary to stop messing around with tactical-level decisions, according to an account of the session by participants. "The worst they can do is take my designated parking space away," he said.

As the war drew near, Mr. Bush asked his senior commanders if they had sufficient forces, including enough to protect vulnerable supply lines. "I can't tell you how many times he asked, 'Do you have everything that you need?' " Ms. Rice said. "The answer was, these are the force levels that we need."

Senior military officers acknowledge that they did not press the president for more troops. But some said they would have been more comfortable with a larger reserve. And some officers say the concept of beginning the invasion while reinforcements were still being sent did not work so smoothly in practice.

In Washington, the mood was confident.

Expecting a Quick Solution

On March 18, the day before the conflict began, the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met to discuss plans for removing American forces once they had triumphed. Aides to General Franks argued that the meeting was premature.

As the American forces drove toward Baghdad in the early days of the war, the fighting was different than had been expected. Instead of a clash of armies, however mismatched, the American forces had to contend with paramilitary forces and even suicide bombers. Thousands of Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary troops had infested Iraq's southern cities and were using them as bases to attack American supply lines.

But after several days of hard battle, the Americans resumed their march north and began moving in for what they thought would be a climactic confrontation with the Republican Guard. With seemingly little doubt that the Americans would win, talk of withdrawal soon resurfaced.

In mid-April, Larry Di Rita, one of Mr. Rumsfeld's closest aides, arrived in Kuwait to join the team assembled by General Garner, the civil administrator, which was to oversee post-Hussein Iraq. Mr. Bush had agreed in January that the Defense Department was to have authority for postwar Iraq. It was the first time since World War II that the State Department would not take charge of a post-conflict situation.

Speaking to Garner aides at their hotel headquarters in Kuwait, Mr. Di Rita outlined the Pentagon's vision, one that seemed to echo the themes in Mr. Rumsfeld's Feb. 14 address. According to Col. Paul Hughes of the Army, who was present at the session, Mr. Di Rita said the Pentagon was determined to avoid open-ended military commitments like those in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"The main theme was that D. O.D. would be in charge, and this would be totally different than in the past," said Tom Gross, a retired Army colonel and a Garner aide who was also at the session. "We would be out very quickly. We were very confused. We did not see it as a short-term process."

Mr. Di Rita said in an interview that he had no responsibility for force levels, but added that military commanders wanted the postwar troop numbers to be as low as necessary.

Thomas E. White, then the secretary of the Army, said he had received similar guidance from Mr. Rumsfeld's office. "Our working budgetary assumption was that 90 days after completion of the operation, we would withdraw the first 50,000 and then every 30 days we'd take out another 50,000 until everybody was back," he recalled. "The view was that whatever was left in Iraq would be de minimis."

Not Enough Troops

Even as Mr. Hussein's government was losing its struggle to hold onto power, some preliminary reports suggested that Iraq could remain a battleground.

The National Intelligence Council had cautioned in a January 2003 report that the Iraqis would resent their liberators unless the American-led occupation authority moved quickly to restore essential services and shift political controls to Iraqi leaders. But those efforts turned out to be frustratingly slow.

While much of the country was chaotic and lawless, the American generals there were still not sure that they were facing a determined insurgency. The limited number of United States troops, however, posed problems in policing the porous borders, establishing a significant presence in the resistant Sunni Triangle and imposing order in the capital.

"My position is that we lost momentum and that the insurgency was not inevitable," said James A. (Spider) Marks, a retired Army major general, who served as the chief intelligence officer for the land war command. "We had momentum going in and had Saddam's forces on the run.

"But we did not have enough troops," he continued. "First, we did not have enough troops to conduct combat patrols in sufficient numbers to gain solid intelligence and paint a good picture of the enemy on the ground. Secondly, we needed more troops to act on the intelligence we generated. They took advantage of our limited numbers."

In Baghdad, some neighborhoods were particularly restive, but American forces were hampered in carrying out patrols. The Third Infantry Division, the first big unit to venture into the city, had about 17,000 troops. But it was a mechanized division, and only a fraction could carry out patrols on foot. The tank crews had to wait for body armor.

North and west of Baghdad, in the volatile cities of the Sunni Triangle, resisters found refuge while they plotted new attacks.

In Falluja, which would become a hotbed of the insurgency, no troops arrived until April 24, two weeks after American forces entered Baghdad. Soldiers from the 82d Airborne were the first ones there. But because of constant troop rotations and the limited number of forces, responsibility for the city repeatedly shifted. The chronic turnover made it difficult for the Americans to form ties to residents and gather useful intelligence. Today, the city is a no-go zone surrounded by United States marines.

Lt. Col. Joseph Apodaca, a Marine intelligence officer who is now retired, said there were early signs in the Shiite Muslim-dominated south that the paramilitary forces American troops faced might be the precursor of a broader insurgency. But chasing after potential rebels was not the Marines' assigned mission, and they did not have sufficient troops for this, he said.

"The overall plan was to go get Saddam Hussein," Colonel Apodaca recalled. "The assumption seemed to be that when people realized that he was gone, that would get the population on our side and facilitate the transition to reconstruction. We were not going to chase these guys when they ran to the smaller cities. We did not really have the force levels at that point to keep the insurgency down."

Hoping Multinationally

In Washington, however, White House and Pentagon officials thought that the most dangerous part was over. The goal of quickly enlisting Iraqi support appeared to be frustrated when the police abandoned their posts and Iraqi military units did not surrender en masse. But the administration thought that more of the burden could be shifted to multinational forces.

On April 15, 2003, Mr. Bush convened his National Security Council and discussed soliciting peacekeeping forces from other countries so the United States could begin to pull out troops. Even though there had been widespread opposition to the invasion, administration officials thought that some governments would put aside their objections once victory was at hand and the Iraqis began to form a new government.

Pentagon officials briefed the president on a plan to enlist four divisions: one made up of NATO troops; another from the Gulf Cooperative Council, an association of Persian Gulf states; one led by Poland; and another by Britain. The thinking was that the United States would leave no more than a division or two in Iraq.

The next day, General Franks flew to Baghdad and instructed his commanders to draw up plans to begin pulling out. At that palace meeting with his commanders, he noted that it was possible for the United States to wear out its welcome and keep too many troops in Iraq too long. A functioning interim Iraqi government was expected within 30 to 60 days, he said. He told his commanders to be prepared to take as much risk going out as they did coming in.

After that discussion, the general and his officers took part in a satellite video conference with Mr. Bush. The president asked about integrating foreign troops into the security force. Noting that Secretary of State Powell and Mr. Rumsfeld would be asking other nations for troops, the general said he planned to talk to officials in the United Arab Emirates about an Arab division.

General Franks's talk of about being prepared to take risks alarmed General Garner, the civil administrator. Fearing that an early troop reduction threatened the mission of building a new Iraq, General Garner took his concerns to Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the chief allied land commander.

"There was no doubt we would win the war," General Garner recalled telling General McKiernan, "but there can be doubt we will win the peace."

Tightening the Spigot

Soon after, the Pentagon began turning off the spigot of troops flowing to Iraq.

Mr. Rumsfeld had started to question whether the military still needed the Army's First Cavalry Division, a 17,500-member force that was slated to follow the lead invasion force into Iraq. He and General Franks discussed the issue repeatedly.

"Rumsfeld just ground Franks down," said Mr. White, the former Army secretary who was fired after policy disputes with Mr. Rumsfeld. "If you grind away at the military guys long enough, they will finally say, 'Screw it, I'll do the best I can with what I have.' The nature of Rumsfeld is that you just get tired of arguing with him."

General Franks insisted that he had not faced pressure on the First Cavalry issue. "It was Rumsfeld's idea," he said, referring to the cancellation of the deployment. "Rumsfeld did not beat me into submission. Initially, I did not want to truncate the force flow, but as it looked like we were likely to get greater international participation, I concluded that it was O.K. to stop the flow."

General Franks also said he accepted the suggestion only after his field commanders agreed that the division was not needed. But a former staff officer to General McKiernan said the land war commander had wanted the unit to be deployed and was disappointed that he had to do without the additional division. The deployment of the division was canceled on April 21.

It was not long, though, before the optimistic talk of a speedy withdrawal of American forces was set aside. Neither NATO nor Persian Gulf nations wanted to put forces into Iraq. An American general was sent to New Delhi to talk to the Indians, but any hope of securing Indian troops quickly faded. Turkey later offered peacekeeping troops, but the Iraqis would not accept them. Only the Polish-led and British-led divisions became a reality.

Stretching Thin

Soon after arriving in May, Mr. Bremer, who replaced General Garner as the chief occupation official sooner than expected, became concerned that American forces were stretched too thin. In late June, John Sawers, the senior British official in Baghdad, sent a confidential report to the British government, which chronicled Mr. Bremer's concerns.

"It has been a difficult week in Iraq," Mr. Sawers wrote. "The new threat is well-targeted sabotage of the infrastructure. An attack on the power grid last weekend had a series of knock-on effects which halved the power generation in Baghdad and many other parts of the country. "

"The oil and gas is another target, with five successful attacks this week on pipelines," he continued. "We are also seeing the first signs of intimidation of Iraqis working for the coalition."

"Bremer's main concern is that we must keep in-country sufficient military capability to ensure a security blanket across the country," Mr. Sawers reported. "He has twice said to President Bush that he is concerned that the drawdown of US/UK troops has gone too far and we cannot afford further reductions."

Mr. Bremer also questioned whether multinational forces "will be sufficiently robust when push comes to shove," Mr. Sawers reported.

According to United States officials, Mr. Bremer raised the troop issue in a June 18 video conference with Mr. Bush. Mr. Bremer said the United States needed to be careful not to go too far in taking out troops. The president said the plan was now to rotate forces, not withdraw them, and agreed that Washington needed to maintain adequate force levels.

Still the American forces shrank, from a high of about 150,000 in July 2003 to some 108,000 in February 2004, before going up again when violence sharply increased early this year. Some of the troop declines were offset by the arrival of the Polish-led division in August 2003.

General Franks said he had sought to assure Mr. Bremer that he would have enough troops in late May. While Mr. Bremer argued that he could not get Iraq's economy going until the American military made the country safer, General Franks asserted that the slow pace of reconstruction was undermining security.

"Some people say there can be no economic building in a country until there is security," General Franks recalled, referring to Mr. Bremer and others in the Civilian Provisional Authority. "When I would talk to Jerry Bremer, I would say, 'Listen Jerry, you want to talk to me about security in terms of forces. I want to talk to you about the C.P.A. and how many civilians - wing tips, I call them - you guys have out in these 18 provinces in order to take large sums of money, move them around in civil works projects, and get the angry young men off the streets so that fewer troops will be necessary."

This debate between Mr. Bremer, who declined to comment for this article, and the senior military officers in Iraq would become a continuing refrain.

What Went Wrong?

For some who served in Iraq, the summer of 2003 was a time of lost opportunities. Now there is a passionate debate about what went wrong.

"Combat is a series of transitions, and the most critical part of an operation is the transition from combat to stability and support operations," one general said. "When you don't have enough combat power, you end up giving the enemy an opportunity to go after your vulnerabilities."

General Franks, for his part, said the United States had sufficient combat forces in Iraq but did not initially have enough civil affairs, military police and other units that are intended to establish order after major combat is over. The issue, he said, was not the level of forces, but their composition.

While saying he was not criticizing Mr. Rumsfeld, General Franks suggested that this was partly a result of difficulties in getting all of the Central Command's force requests approved quickly at the Pentagon. He also said delays in obtaining funds from Congress for reconstruction efforts and the decision of many foreign governments not to send troops had contributed to the continuing turmoil in Iraq.

Ms. Rice puts the blame for the insurgency primarily on the fact that many Iraqi forces fled during the American push to Baghdad, only to fight another day. She also said the minority Sunni population, which had been in power under Mr. Hussein, felt unsettled, contributing to a "permissive environment."

"Any big historical change is going to be turbulent," she said. "There was a lot of planning based on the assumptions, based on the intelligence. It is also the case that when the plan meets reality, it's what it didn't think of that really becomes the problem. So the real question is, can you adjust and make the changes necessary?"

General Garner said administration's mistakes had made it easier for the insurgency to take hold.

"John Abizaid was the only one who really had his head in the postwar game," General Garner said, referring to the general who served as General Franks's deputy and eventually his successor. "The Bush administration did not. Condi Rice did not. Doug Feith didn't. You could go brief them, but you never saw any initiative come of them. You just kind of got a north and south nod. And so it ends with so many tragic things."