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Preparing for War, Stumbling to Peace - U.S. is Paying the Price for Missteps Made on Iraq
Published on Friday, July 18, 2003 by the Los Angeles Times
Preparing for War, Stumbling to Peace - U.S. is Paying the Price for Missteps Made on Iraq
by Mark Fineman, Robin Wright and Doyle McManus
 

Secretly, they gathered in an auditorium in the nation's snowbound capital uniformed generals, assistant Cabinet secretaries, war college professors with top security clearance, and senior planners from the Pentagon, the U.S. Central Command and dozens of other federal agencies.

The date was Feb. 21. More than 100,000 U.S. and British troops were already poised at Iraq's doorstep. Their battle plan was rehearsed and ready. In fewer than 30 days, the first American tanks would cross the sand berm into Iraq from Kuwait, launching the tip of the spear of what would be a swift and brilliant battlefield victory.

Yet this two-day gathering at the Pentagon's National Defense University was the first time all of these planners had gathered under one roof to address an equally vital matter: how to win the peace in Iraq once the war was over.

"The messiah could not have organized a sufficient relief and reconstruction or humanitarian effort in that short a time," recalled Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who attended the session.

"The military's war planning was light-years ahead of its planning for everything else," added a senior defense official who was present.

Jay Garner, the retired Army lieutenant general who led the meeting and would soon attempt to lead the peace, called it a rock drill: "It's a military term you know, you turn over all the rocks."

When they did, Garner acknowledged in a recent interview, the group uncovered "tons of problems," including gaps in planning, coordination and anticipation of such mission-threatening problems as looting and civil unrest.

Nearly five months later, the price for those gaps is still being paid.

Since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, U.S. and British troops have struggled to bring order from chaos. Water, electricity and security are in short supply, fueling resentment among many Iraqis. A guerrilla-like resistance has taken shape against the occupation; U.S. casualties mount almost daily in an op-eration that is costing nearly $4 billion a month and stalling the withdrawal of American forces.

The Bush administration planned well and won the war with minimal allied casualties. Now, according to interviews with dozens of administration officials, military leaders and independent analysts, missteps in the planning for the subsequent peace could threaten the lives of soldiers and drain U.S. resources indefinitely and cloud the victory itself.

Rivalry and Misreadings

The tale of what went wrong is one of agency infighting, ignored warnings and faulty assumptions.

An ambitious, yearlong State Department planning effort predicted many of the postwar troubles and advised how to resolve them. But the man who oversaw that effort was kept out of Iraq by the Pentagon, and most of his plans were shelved. Meanwhile, Douglas J. Feith, the No. 3 official at the Pentagon, also began postwar planning, in September. But he didn't seek out an overseer to run the country until January.

The man he picked, Garner, had run the U.S. operation to protect ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Based on that experience, Garner acknowledged, he badly underestimated the looting and lawlessness that would follow once Saddam Hussein's army was defeated. By the time he got to Baghdad, Garner said, 17 of 21 Iraqi ministries had "evaporated."

"Being a Monday morning quarterback," Garner says now, the underestimation was a mistake. "But if I had known that then, what would I have done about it?"

The postwar planning by the State and Defense departments, along with that of other agencies, was done in what bureaucrats call "vertical stovepipes." Each agency worked independently for months, with little coordination.

Even within the Pentagon there were barriers: The Joint Chiefs of Staff on the second floor worked closely with the State Department planners, while Feith's Special Plans Office on the third floor went its own way, working with a team from the Central Command under Army Gen. Tommy Franks.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's civilian aides decided that they didn't need or want much help, officials in both departments say.

Central Command officials confirmed that their postwar planning group dubbed Task Force Four, for the fourth phase of the war plan took a back seat to the combat planners. What postwar planning did occur at the Central Command and the Pentagon was on disasters that never occurred: oil fires, masses of refugees, chemical and biological warfare, lethal epidemics, starvation.

The Pentagon planners also made two key assumptions that proved faulty. One was that American and British authorities would inherit a fully functioning modern state, with government ministries, police forces and public utilities in working order a "plug and play" occupation. The second was that the resistance would end quickly.

Some top Pentagon officials acknowledged that they have been surprised at how difficult it has been to establish order.

"The so-called forces of law and order [in Baghdad] just kind of collapsed," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said in an interview. "There's not a single plan that would have dealt with that This is a country that was ruled by a gang of terrorist criminals, and they're still around. They're threatening Iraqis and killing Americans."

The military's sprint to Baghdad initially vindicated Rumsfeld's prime directive to transform the U.S. armed forces into a lighter, more mobile force. It shortened the war, probably prevented many of the disasters the Pentagon had been planning for and saved lives during the takeover of Iraq. One senior Central Command official said the still-classified battle plan called for as many as 125 days of combat. Baghdad fell in just 20.

But the quick victory also created what Franks called "catastrophic success." It left large areas of the country and millions of Iraqis under no more than nominal allied control, with a force considerably smaller than some experts inside and outside the military had warned would be needed to stabilize and occupy the country.

"I would not for a minute in hindsight go back and say, 'Gee, we should have gone slower so we could have had more forces built up behind us to control areas that we went past,' " Wolfowitz said.

One result, he acknowledged, is "it leaves you with some holes you fill in behind."

But could those unfilled holes have been foreseen? Many outside the Pentagon say yes.

The Beginnings

The seeds for planning a postwar Iraq were sown on April 9, 2002, when Afghanistan was still on center stage and an invasion of Iraq was just talk. That was the first meeting of the Future of Iraq project, the brainchild of Thomas S. Warrick, a veteran civil servant in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Warrick, who declined to comment for this report, quietly recruited about 240 Iraqi exiles, in Europe and the U.S., with professional experience in such fields as criminal justice, health, economics and oil. They drafted blueprints for everything from securing the streets to reforming the Iraqi currency.

"We emphasized the security issue from the beginning," said Ali Al-Attar, an Iraqi American physician from northern Virginia. "That was one of the major concerns. We were expecting that the Baathists were going to sabotage our work."

Reforming and restructuring Hussein's armed forces was another top priority of the Future of Iraq project. Iraq's army and other military commands employed nearly 500,000 people, most of them men with large families to feed. Only a handful were closely tied to Hussein's Baath Party.

Mohammed Faour, a former major in Iraq's special forces, chaired the project's defense working group, which produced a volume of studies laying out a quick reformation of the army. They concluded that the soldiers could be retrained to protect and repair government buildings, airports, bridges, dams and other key infrastructure.

Yet instead of putting the soldiers to work, U.S. occupation authorities abruptly disbanded the armed forces as part of a de-Baathification campaign, sending hundreds of thousands of former soldiers into the streets in angry protest.

"Nobody listened to us," Faour recalled sadly. "We were just put aside."

It didn't help that the State Department project was something of a backdoor operation from the start.

"We started it just as an academic exercise, knowing that getting any kind of pre-Iraq planning approved through the interagency process would probably be impossible," one senior State Department official said.

"After it was up and running, we briefed and invited others to attend," the official said. At first no one did, but as the prospect of war grew stronger, representatives from Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the National Security Council and even the Pentagon attended some of the meetings.

As early as last July, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formed a team to plug into the State Department's planning process, working with Warrick. And late last summer, the National Security Council staff sought to coordinate all the postwar planning efforts in an effort that came to be known simply as ''the interagency.''

Not that it mattered. Military officials "had their own list of people they wanted involved and didn't want to take recommendations from us," the State Department official said.

In October, while Warrick's group worked on its blueprints and the administration pushed its diplomatic efforts at the United Nations, a new Pentagon office headed by Feith was created partly to oversee postwar planning. It operated in secret even its name, the Special Plans Office, was intended to obscure its purpose, officials said.

"The Special Plans Office was called Special Plans because, at the time, calling it Iraqi Planning Office might have undercut our diplomatic efforts," Feith told reporters last month.

But that veil of secrecy also insulated the Defense secretary's postwar planners from other agencies' assessments on Iraq that didn't easily mesh with their fast-moving, light-force battle plans.

Looking back, senior officials from State and other departments charge bitterly that Feith and other Pentagon aides based most of their assessments on information provided by exiled Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi, who predicted that the regime would suddenly collapse by "decapitation," leaving the government's institutions in place, and who expected that postwar Iraq would be a country of U.S.-flag-waving citizens.

Feith vehemently denies that Pentagon planners fell victim to over-optimistic Chalabi predictions. Such charges, he said, are based on "the notion that we're a bunch of simple-minded saps and unsophisticated jerks."

U.S. intelligence officials, long skeptical of Chalabi, say they warned repeatedly that the postwar period would be tough.

"The U.S. intelligence community warned early and often about myriad threats it anticipated at the outset of the war and the challenges likely to erupt in the postwar environment," CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said in a statement to The Times.

Intelligence officials, he added, were "utterly consistent in arguing that reconstruction rather than war would be the most problematic segment of overthrowing Saddam's regime. Specifically, the [intelligence community] warned prior to the conflict that Iraqis would probably resort to obstruction, resistance and armed opposition if they perceived attempts to keep them dependent on the United States and the West."

As fall turned to winter and U.S. troops began arriving in the Persian Gulf by the tens of thousands, a veritable library of warnings and proposed remedies was piling up within the administration, focusing on the very items that would ultimately paralyze much of the postwar effort: a lack of security, electricity, water and other basic needs.

Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel and longtime professor at military war colleges, prepared an elaborate document spotlighting the fragility of Iraq's electricity and water systems after decades of neglect. In private meetings arranged by former Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon, he warned such senior administration officials as Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's national security point man on Iraq, that both systems would collapse even if they weren't targeted in the war.

"This is a catastrophe waiting to happen," several senior Defense Department officials said Gardiner told them at the time.

At the State Department, Future of Iraq participants also predicted widespread power outages that would almost surely short-circuit reconstruction. They recommended shipping in "mini-power stations" to supplement Iraq's antiquated, overloaded and damaged electrical grid.

The group also foresaw the collapse of telecommunications. It proposed rolling out cellular "networks in a box" capable of linking several thousand users in metropolitan areas within the first weeks of occupation.

For months, the Central Command separately had sent progress reports on the war planning to the Pentagon, and for months a list of postwar issues showed up at the bottom of the memo as unresolved "open items," officials said. But Feith and his aides assured Rumsfeld that they had the planning process under control.

Bush gave Rumsfeld overall authority for the postwar plan, to maintain what he called "a unity of concept and a unity of leadership," Feith said. Despite some misgivings, State Department officials said, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell agreed.

"Since so many of the responsibilities were military security responsibilities, the only person who could really do that was the secretary of defense," Feith said.

A Man With Experience

If the Pentagon was to run postwar operations in Iraq, Feith needed both a mechanism and a man.

The mechanism would be the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or ORHA, which Bush would create Jan. 20 by presidential decree. The man would be Jay Garner.

In the aftermath of the 1991 war, then-Maj. Gen. Garner had distinguished himself pacifying northern Iraq. He had opened the way for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds to peacefully return home.

Garner had also caught the eye of Rumsfeld, who later picked him to serve along with Wolfowitz on a high-profile commission that examined the feasibility of a ballistic missile defense system.

On Jan. 9, Feith placed a call to Garner in Manhattan. Garner was in a business suit delivering the year-end earnings report for his company, SYColeman, a subsidiary of defense contractor L-3 Communications Corp.

"I'm calling you as a request from Secretary Rumsfeld. We have to put together a team for postwar Iraq, if there is a war," the retired general remembers Feith saying. "We'd like for you to come in and do the planning, put the team together and get it organized."

Garner balked. At 64, he had been out of the Army almost six years and was deep into a lucrative second career with L-3, which had bought out his Santa Barbara-based SY Technology for about $48 million two years earlier.

"Well, I don't know if I can do that," Garner said he told Feith. "I've got a company here I'm running that's got about 2,000 people, and I've got a wife I've been married to for over 40 years, so I've got to get permission from both."

In the end, after securing his wife's blessing and a four-month leave from L-3, Garner moved back to the Pentagon on Jan. 17 just 62 days before the military launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Garner recalled the "vertical stovepipe" he inherited:

"Defense had done a lot of planning. State had done a lot of planning. USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] had done an awful lot of planning. Agriculture had done planning. Treasury had done an awful lot of planning. Justice Department had done an awful lot of planning.

"Each one of them did their own planning, and they did it this isn't a criticism of them, it's just the way you start things they did it with the perspective of their agency."

For example, the Central Command had drawn up detailed lists of targets the military should avoid in order to facilitate reconstruction. But it did so initially with no input from other agencies that had a more precise understanding of the vulnerabilities of Iraq's obsolescent infrastructure.

It wasn't until shortly before the first missiles and bombs were launched at Iraq that Garner's group added a long list of additional targets to be avoided, which he conceded was not entirely respected.

"What needed to happen was the horizontal integration of these plans. And there had been no mechanism to horizontally integrate them until Secretary Rumsfeld thought of putting ORHA together," Garner said.

By all accounts, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith closely managed ORHA from the start, and were directly involved in choosing many of its top civilian officials.

The Defense Department blocked Warrick, creator of the Future of Iraq project, from joining ORHA. Senior State Department officials said he was packing files to move to the Pentagon when he was told to stay put. One reason, State Department officials said, was that he wanted a wide range of Iraqis to be included in a new government. Pentagon leaders were pushing exile leader Chalabi.

Asked whether he, Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld had blocked Warrick, Feith said: "I never the met the guy. I wouldn't know him if he walked in the room." He added, however, that Garner's team and its successor, the Coalition Provisional Authority, "are mostly State Department people."

After a month spent recruiting a team that included five former generals and eight current or retired ambassadors, Garner convened his first interagency meeting, the so-called rock drill, in February.

In attendance were assistant secretaries from Defense, State and other departments. U.S. and British generals from Task Force Four flew in from Kuwait. There were so many warriors and extras in the Eisenhower Hall at National Defense University, one attendee recalled, "it was like a cast call for the remaking of 'Ben-Hur.' "

A diplomat who was there suggested another Hollywood analogy: the Clint Eastwood movie about aging astronauts brought in to save the day.

"There was a feeling that these were like the Space Cowboys," he said. "They had been brought together at speed, brought in from retirement and running companies or their farms at the twilight of their careers. They were all impressive and able and had great camaraderie and knew how each other worked. But they had to take on a huge task in a very short time with too many unknowns To do it right, that rock drill needed to have begun 18 months earlier."

U.N. diplomacy dominated the headlines that weekend. At Garner's meeting, the painful truth about postwar Iraq was uncoiling.

Said a senior Defense Department official: "Rebuilding local governance, immediate replacement of the security apparatus these things were never adequately discussed." The attitude was, "We'll go with what we've got and take care of the rest when we get there."

On the crucial issue of security, a senior official on Garner's team said, "The civilians and the military never got on the same page."

When the rock drill broke up on Saturday, Feb. 22, war was just 26 days away. But two intervening events would add greatly to the postwar burden a result of costly miscalculations on how long-standing U.S. allies would respond.

On March 1, Turkey upended Washington's battle plan by denying the use of Turkish land as a staging area for a northern front. That allowed an escape route for Hussein sympathizers to their traditional strongholds north of Baghdad, where the resistance since the war has been the worst.

And on March 5, France, Russia and Germany pledged to oppose a U.N. resolution supporting the war, thwarting the administration's diplomatic plans.

Until then, U.S. strategy was still based on winning U.N. endorsement to act against Iraq so the international community would play a larger role both during and after the war.

Only days before the assault began, the United States realized it would have only a handful of allies to help it run postwar Iraq.

Waiting to Go In

Garner would have to call audibles, as Wolfowitz described it later.

One week after the rock drill, Garner deployed an advance party of about 30 staffers to Kuwait. He followed on March 16 with about 165 people in tow, setting up interim headquarters in seaside villas at a resort south of the capital, Kuwait City.

Four days later, U.S. and British troops poured into Iraq. Garner's group planned while the war raged. Baghdad fell on April 9. But for nearly two weeks more, Garner's team remained stuck in Kuwait.

Garner said Gen. Franks would not let him in sooner because the situation on the ground was too dangerous. Garner thought his absence was dangerous.

"If you are absent too long, while expectations are created for our government a vacuum occurs," Garner told a Times reporter while he was cooling his heels at Kuwait's seaside Hilton. "And if you are not there, the vacuum gets filled in ways you don't want."

Finally, on April 17, Garner flew to Central Command operations headquarters in Qatar to meet with Franks.

"You got to get me into Baghdad," he recalled telling Franks. "And he said: 'It's not secure enough yet. I can't get you in there right now.' I've known Franks for 25 years. So we talked back and forth. That night, he called me back and he said, 'OK, you're released to go.' "

Garner and a small staff arrived in Baghdad on the 21st, followed in the next few days by 300 more in a convoy of Chevy Suburbans.

Garner said he was shocked by what they found.

In the days following the Army's capture of the palatial icons of Saddam's rule, and while Garner and his team were idling in Kuwait, the only crowds in Baghdad were the swarms of Iraqis who dissected almost every government ministry building desk by desk, wire by wire and pipe by pipe.

So massive was the looting that, just three days after the U.S. secured the capital, computers were selling for as little as $35 in the thieves market.

"Our planning process was that we needed to immediately [restore] the ministries, because that's the only way that you get government services back and get the country functioning again," Garner said.

"But what happens is when we get there, they're not there anymore."

One reason planners underestimated the looting, Garner said, was his own history with the Kurds in northern Iraq. There, he said, the looting was comparatively modest, and he expected the same in Baghdad.

The Kurds "looted, but the buildings were left intact They didn't pull out the wiring. They didn't pull out the plumbing and they didn't put it on fire," Garner said.

If Garner was unprepared for what he found, so were the soldiers who captured Baghdad.

Buckets of Staplers

On April 9, Task Force 4-64 of the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division the brigade that took central Baghdad began the day on a war footing.

That morning, its infantrymen had surrounded the Justice Ministry, a nine-story building in the center of the capital. They had heard noises inside during the night and feared that Iraqi snipers were holed up there.

But when they broke through the gates and cautiously entered the lobby, weapons raised, the soldiers were greeted by two grinning boys hauling plastic buckets filled with stolen desk blotters, staplers, pens and paper clips.

Mirror images across Baghdad and much of Iraq formed a klepto-kaleidoscope: Mobs of men and boys ran up and down the stairwells of ministries, hauling off desks, chairs, copiers, fax machines, telephones and carpets. GIs stood next to their tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles and watched them strip the buildings clean.

Troop commanders said they had never been told by their superiors that safeguarding the ministries was a top priority.

To the south, 2,200 troops from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton were posted to Nasiriyah. While looters rampaged, the Marines fought off snipers, delivered a baby, rebuilt an orphanage and tried to put the power and water systems back in place.

"We were trying to clear out the bad guys, provide security and restart the government. Nobody ever taught us how to do that," said Col. Thomas Waldhauser, the commanding officer.

Few would expect forces to fight with one hand while stopping looters with the other. But critics say that wouldn't have been necessary if there were more troops to begin with.

Applying the same peacekeepers-to-population ratio that was used successfully in Kosovo, 500,000 troops would be needed in Iraq, said James Dobbins, the Bush administration special envoy to Afghanistan and the Clinton administration special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

There are currently about 148,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq.

"While the U.S. could take Iraq with three divisions, it couldn't hold it with three divisions," said Dobbins, now director of international security and defense policy at Rand Corp.

Feith said his planners did anticipate disorder and looting but decided that other risks, such as oil field fires, refugee flows or famine, were more dangerous.

"When you plan you [assess] various risks and you say, 'You can't do everything,' he said. "That's life

"There were certain risks that we decided to invest more resources in, and there were other risks that we understood that we couldn't address to the same extent

"Nobody expected this to be immaculate. Everybody expected that this was going to be a war and that there was going to be an aftermath, and the aftermath was going to be untidy."

Garner has many defenders in the administration who say his mission was almost impossible, given the planning process that preceded him.

With restoration of Iraq's basic services seemingly stalled, and deadly attacks on U.S. forces rising, something had to give. It turned out to be Garner. He insists he was not pushed out; his term was fixed at four months from the start. But the announcement of his departure was abrupt.

Though his replacement didn't come much earlier than Feith initially told him it would, the expectation was that Garner would have the Iraqi ministries up and running by that time.

At 8 p.m. on April 24, just three days after he got to Baghdad and with the city sliding into chaos, Garner remembers, "I got a call from Rumsfeld, who says, 'Jay, the president selected Jerry [L. Paul] Bremer to be the presidential envoy [to Iraq].' And he says: 'You're going to like him. He's a good guy.'

"And I said, 'Well, I'll bring him in here, and I'll go home.'

"And he said: 'No, I don't want you to do that. I want you to transition.'

"And I said, 'How long do you want me to stay?'

"And he said, 'You and Jerry work it out.' "

Garner left Baghdad on June 1, three weeks after Bremer arrived. On June 16, Wolfowitz formally dissolved the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq.

Looking to the Future

As Bremer now struggles to normalize Iraq amid rising violence and the destabilizing likelihood that Saddam Hussein is still alive, Rumsfeld and other administration officials have taken to pointing out the chaos that has followed similar events in other countries, including the American Revolution.

Critics say that is all the more reason to be ready for the worst.

"It's not true there wasn't adequate planning. There was a volume of planning. More than the Clinton administration did for any of its interventions," said Rand's Dobbins.

"They planned on an unrealistic set of assumptions," he said. "Clearly, in retrospect, they should have anticipated that when the old regime collapsed, there would be a period of disorder, a vacuum of power They should have anticipated extremist elements would seek to fill this vacuum of power. All of these in one form or another have been replicated in previous such experiences, and it was reasonable to plan for them."

Looking back from the third floor of the Pentagon, Feith dismissed such criticism as "simplistic." Despite initial problems, he said, progress is being made, with order returning to most of the country and a new Iraqi governing council in place.

Still, he and other Pentagon officials said, they are studying the lessons of Iraq closely to ensure that the next U.S. takeover of a foreign country goes more smoothly.

"We're going to get better over time," promised Lawrence Di Rita, a special assistant to Rumsfeld. "We've always thought of post-hostilities as a phase" distinct from combat, he said. "The future of war is that these things are going to be much more of a continuum.

"This is the future for the world we're in at the moment," he said. "We'll get better as we do it more often."

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

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