CIA Warned Administration of Postwar Guerrilla Peril
Published on Sunday, August 10, 2003 by the Boston Globe
CIA Warned Administration of Postwar Guerrilla Peril
by Bryan Bender
 

WASHINGTON - In February, the CIA gave a formal briefing to the National Security Council, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and President Bush himself: ''A quick military victory in Iraq will likely be followed by armed resistance from remnants of the Ba'ath Party and Fedayeen Saddam irregulars.''

The administration seemed unmoved. In the weeks leading up to the Iraq war, top Bush administration officials made glowing predictions that Iraqis would welcome US troops with open arms, while behind the scenes they did little to prepare for a guerrilla war.

''My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,'' Cheney said on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' on March 16. ''I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House.''

''I imagine they will be welcomed,'' Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a key architect of the White House's Iraq strategy, said in an interview April 3, two weeks into the war, with CBS's ''60 Minutes II.''

''I think there's every reason to think that huge numbers of the Iraqi population are going to welcome these people ... provided we don't overstay our welcome, provided we mean what we say about handing things back over to the Iraqis,'' Wolfowitz said.

The February report was not the only warning Bush received that a guerrilla war was in the offing. According to US intelligence officials who compiled or contributed to the reports, and provided excerpts to the Globe, on multiple occasions in the months before the war the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency warned that fighting would probably continue after the formal war. The assessments went so far as to suggest that guerrilla tactics could frustrate reconstruction efforts.

But intelligence officials, former military officers, and national security specialists say the administration instead clung to the optimistic predictions of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group headed by Ahmed Chalabi, who left Iraq in 1958. Chalabi, who is now a member of Iraq's US-backed Governing Council, is a close Rumsfeld and Cheney ally who had the ears of top administration officials in the months before the war.

''I think there was a general sense of how the postconflict phase would go, and it didn't work out that way,'' said a former deputy defense secretary, John J. Hamre, who recently returned from a Pentagon fact-finding mission to Iraq. ''That general sense probably caused them to pass over intelligence assessments that differed from expectations.''

''The obvious critique is that they ignored this beforehand because it didn't fit their expectations,'' Hamre said. But he cautioned against definitive conclusions about the warnings. ''The great problem I see these days is a tendency to take a single report or document and use it as proof to make a point,'' he said. ''When it comes to the world of intelligence, you have to take a much wider sampling of many inputs and make a reasoned judgment.''

The National Security Council did not respond to a request for a comment.

Last month, Wolfowitz defended the administration's planning for the aftermath of the war. ''There's been a lot of talk that there was no plan,'' he said. ''There was a plan, but as any military officer can tell you, no plan survives first contact with reality. Inevitably, some of our assumptions turned out to be wrong.''

Wolfowitz acknowledged that the administration had expected Iraqi military units to defect. ''No army units, at least none of any significant size, came over to our side so that we could use them as Iraqi forces with us today,'' he said. ''Second, the police turned out to require a massive overhaul. Third, and worst of all, it was difficult to imagine before the war that the criminal gang of sadists and gangsters who have run Iraq for 35 years would continue fighting.''

Yet the CIA in particular forewarned policymakers of some of the problems likely to arise, according to one intelligence official who asked not to be identified. The reports, for example, predicted that armed insurgents would attack coalition forces. One prewar report, he said, forecast that after the war ''things would get worse before they get better'' and that there would be a high likelihood of ''backsliding'' - progress followed by setbacks.

In the early days of the war, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's internal spy agency, warned that Ba'ath Party loyalists - many of whom escaped the major invasion - were showing signs of regrouping, said an intelligence official who asked not to be identified. ''We wrote in early April that we were picking up hints of guerrilla forces gearing up,'' the official said.

Since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1, at least 118 US soldiers have been killed, nearly half of them in ambushes, sniper and rocket attacks, and by improvised explosives. Nearly half of the 256 US soldiers who have died since the war began on March 20 have been killed since major hostilities ended.

Still, many Iraqis have expressed relief to see the brutal dictatorship of Hussein recede into history. News dispatches from Iraq focus on US troop casualties, and therefore do not always reflect the progress and milestones reached, according to a government consultant who returned recently from Iraq. The consultant pointed to the local city councils that are up and running in many parts of the country and the relative stability in the Shi'ite Muslim regions of southern Iraq.

But the precarious security situation in the so-called Sunni Triangle - which has been a drag on efforts to restore water, electricity, and other basic services - raises questions about whether the Bush administration could have been better prepared to address what its own spies said American forces might have to contend with, according to specialists.

''I think that what you might have done differently would have been to put more civil affairs units, more military police, and the training of the Iraqi police forces in place much faster,'' said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank based in Alexandria, Va. He said US officials had a model: the NATO war against Serbia in 1999, which placed early emphasis on deploying civil affairs and police units into the province of Kosovo to fill the void.

''I would have thought that they would have had every military police unit in the Guard and Reserve just sitting and waiting to go in'' to Iraq, Pike said.

Hamre, who as president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month completed a report for the Pentagon on postwar challenges, said that his assessment was that the troops in Iraq feel they were not sufficiently prepared to tackle the postwar problems. ''The reaction over there from folks closer to the ground was that they were not given very good preparation for what they encountered,'' he said.

A senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified, bristled at the suggestion that Bush administration leaders had ignored the intelligence about postwar challenges, noting that they had bigger things on their minds. ''We worried about the catastrophic stuff,'' he said, including the fear of massive oil fires, the use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraqi forces, and a widespread humanitarian disaster. ''None of those things happened.''

Four months after the US invaded Iraq, the guerrilla attacks, amid growing concerns that terrorists are going on the offensive, have tempered the views of administration officials, who are now describing the US commitment to Iraq as requiring many years of work.

The national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, on Thursday likened the rebuilding of Iraq and the Middle East region to the postwar efforts in Europe after World War II.

''The historical analogy is important,'' she said in a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists in Dallas. ''We must have the patience and perseverance to see it through.''

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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