How the War Was Lost

Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (Pantheon Books, 603 pages, $27.95)

This vivid book wraps a political bombshell inside a riveting tale. Its central chapters deliver a blow-by-blow account of the unstoppable American dash toward Baghdad, blinding sandstorms and all, in March and April 2003. The co-authors -- Michael Gordon is the senior war correspondent for The New York Times; Bernard Trainor, a former Marine Corps lieutenant general -- tell stories of skilled leadership, combat heroics, and the campaign's ultimate success at driving Saddam Hussein from power, without neglecting the inevitable battlefield snafus, poor coordination among combatant units, wildly misleading intelligence, and scenes of gruesome carnage.

For the American invaders, the greatest surprise turned out to have been the unconventional tactics of the enemy. On the drive to Baghdad, U.S. forces did not initially confront, as they had been led to expect, either the demoralized regular army or Saddam's Republican Guard but rather the highly motivated Fedayeen Saddam: “The enemy faced by U.S. forces” was “largely amorphous, not in uniform, and rarely part of an organized military force.” It leveled the battlefield, to some extent, “by ignoring the rules of conventional warfare.” It fought “using guile, deception and ambush.” At one point, the Pentagon's original war plans looked to be in shambles thanks to “the work of an enemy who was not supposed to exist.” The decision to seize Baghdad at lightning speed and therefore to dart past pockets of unexpected guerrilla-style resistance in the south, rather than lingering to mop them up, remains one of the most controversial choices of the war.

Cobra II, however, would not be such an important book if it were merely a fascinating and unflinching work of military history. It is much more than that. Gordon and Trainor may have tossed the stone that loosed an avalanche in the ongoing generals' mutiny against the leadership of Donald Rumsfeld. Gordon and Trainor freely acknowledge that extensive interviews with military officers from all services shaped their perspective on the war. By publicly documenting the depth and breadth of military disenchantment with Rumsfeld, their book may have emboldened the half-dozen dissenting generals to speak bluntly about what they consider the wretchedly incompetent performance of the defense secretary. This public dissent suggests intense conviction on their part, or at least white-hot anger, considering that it may jeopardize lucrative future employment in the defense industry.

Rumsfeld's military critics regularly lambaste him not only for the many catastrophic decisions he has made, but also for his overbearing decision-making style and even for a pathologically autistic personality. In one of the most hilarious passages of the book, Trainor and Gordon reproduce Rumsfeld's answer, in December 2005, to the question of what he had learned from the war in Iraq: “I think if I had to pull out one lesson that we've learned over the past four or five years, it would be that in the 21st century we're going to have to stop thinking about things, numbers of things, and mass, and think also and maybe even first about speed and agility and precision.” In other words, what Rumsfeld “learned” from the war in Iraq is nothing other than the military doctrine that he had been preaching for many years.

Rumsfeld's commitment to a streamlined invasion force scandalously contradicted the casus belli that the administration alleged for the war. Bush rallied political support for the invasion by presenting it as an act of pre-emptive self-defense on the grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and had cooperative relations with transnational terrorist groups. If Rumsfeld had taken such allegations seriously, however, he would have had to double the size of the invading force: “Securing the WMD required sealing the country's borders and quickly seizing control of the many suspected sites before they were raided by profiteers, terrorists and regime officials determined to carry on the fight.” The force that Rumsfeld eventually assembled, by contrast, “was too small to do any of this.” In other words, Rumsfeld's fixation on slimming down the invasion force trumped Bush's wish to prevent WMDs from falling into the hands of terrorists. A doctrinaire commitment to a peculiar method of war fighting contradicted and subverted the primary declared purpose of the war.

This inconsistency between methods and aims remains just as striking if we turn to the long-term war objective of creating a stable, pro-American regime in Iraq so as to transform the politics of the region and make the Middle East more hospitable to American national-security interests. Whenever the aim of war is to stabilize a country politically, mass becomes more important than speed. Rumsfeld's failure to grasp this imperative or indeed to take any noticeable interest in the prerequisites of political stability explains, according to the authors, how he managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The “messy aftermath of a seemingly decisive war” was due mostly to “military and political blunders in Washington.” The insurgency flared from a small spark into a raging conflagration -- so the authors contend -- because Rumsfeld did not commit enough soldiers to the Iraqi theater to damp it down.

Long before the invasion, Rumsfeld was granted full control of the postwar situation in Iraq. But it interested him so little that he did almost nothing to prepare for it. “After the Pentagon established its primacy in postwar Iraq, the Phase IV [i.e., postwar] planning effort slowed to a crawl.” Rumsfeld is renowned as a chronically impatient micromanager. In this particular case, however, he “did not seem anxious about the lack of momentum.” Why not? Absurd as it may sound, “Rumsfeld and his aides viewed the building of a new Iraq as a relatively undemanding pursuit.” Alternatively, the defense secretary vaguely imagined that yet-unidentified subservient allies would miraculously appear in the wake of a spectacular American victory to perform the unglamorous chores of peacekeeping and nation building. These expectations seem to explain why, shockingly, “No military headquarters or staff was selected in advance to secure postwar Iraq.”

Neglect of postwar stability was a conscious choice, Trainor and Gordon insist, made in defiance of plentiful advice to the contrary. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, who was publicly derided by Paul Wolfowitz after telling a congressional committee that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed in Iraq, is only the best-known example. Others inside and outside the Pentagon were arguing for a constabulary force at the ready to control the criminal anarchy likely to break out when the ghastly dictatorship collapsed. But Rumsfeld and his cadre of yes-men did not listen.

Speaking of yes-men, Rumsfeld's haughty impatience with dissent and disagreement apparently explains his choice of the self-effacing Richard Myers as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “After hearing Rumsfeld testify on troop levels around the world,” Trainor and Gordon recount, “Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said cuttingly there was no need to hear from Myers as well since he knew the chairman was incapable of expressing an independent view.” The Gulf War in contrast, according to the authors, saw a robust and productive back-and-forth between Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and a strong chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell. Rumsfeld preferred a deferential military leader, ensuring that his own ideas, however half-baked, invariably prevailed.

Like Myers, General Tommy Franks has recently sallied forth from retirement to defend the defense secretary against his critics. But the portrait of Franks sketched in Cobra II is no more flattering than the portrayal of Myers. For one thing, “Tommy Franks never acknowledged the enemy he faced nor did he comprehend the nature of the war he was directing.” He is also described as vainglorious, taking credit for a war plan developed by subordinates and “airbrushing” history when regaling journalists such as Bob Woodward with stories of the war. Even though he at first proposed dispatching more than 300,000 troops to Iraq, he allowed himself to be browbeaten by Rumsfeld into sending the streamlined force that proved unable to control the postwar anarchy.

Rumsfeld also seems to have had similar reasons for appointing L. Paul Bremer III as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Having no familiarity with the Middle East and no experience at all with nation building, Bremer could not talk back to his boss with the confidence reserved for the knowledgeable. The original plan was to team Bremer with Zalmay Khalilzad, now ambassador to Iraq, who at the time was the only high-level member of the administration personally acquainted with all of the important players in the Iraqi diaspora. But at this point Bremer (to the astonishment of Powell and others) pulled a Rumsfeld: “Determined to solidify his authority, Bremer squeezed out Khalilzad, the one official who knew the Iraqi politicians well.”

The defining moment of Bremer's Iraqi tour occurred on May 23, 2003, when he issued the order to disband the Iraqi army, oblivious to the role of the military as an employment agency providing subsistence to hundreds of thousands of armed Iraqis and their families. The folly of this decision can be debated. What is crucial to note is that, while Rumsfeld was calling the shots, the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of State Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice all learned about this weighty decision after it was made. Decision making by a small handful of men, behind closed doors and without consultation even inside the executive branch, may suit the authoritarian personality of the defense secretary. But can anyone argue that it promotes an intelligent approach to national security?

During the invasion, Gordon was “embedded” with the Coalition Forces Land Component Command. It is not surprising, therefore, that Iraqi voices and perspectives are largely absent from Cobra II's account of the fighting. The one marvelous exception is the authors' retelling of the invasion from the vantage point of Saddam Hussein and his inner circle. Their account is based on postwar debriefings of high-ranking Iraqi officers, who were induced to talk not by harsh and humiliating treatment, it should be mentioned, but, on the contrary, by lavish banquets and buttering up.

The key revelation here is that Saddam was long convinced that the United States would never launch an all-out assault. He knew that he had no stockpiles of WMD and no working ties with Islamic terrorists targeting America. He was therefore perfectly confident that Bush had no casus belli. As a result, “He saw no reason why the Americans would want to invade Iraq.”

So fearful was Saddam of his own countrymen, by contrast, that he hesitated to arm Iraqi tribes to defend the country: “There was always a chance that he himself could end up as the target of the people's war.” By discouraging fraternization among his officers he made a coup less likely, but he also weakened the military's capacity for coordinated defense. One Republican Guard commander explained exactly how autocracy breeds obtuseness, remarking that, in Saddam's Iraq, “the clever men learned not to involve themselves in any decision-making.” Saddam appointed one of his close cousins as commander of the Special Republican Guard forces responsible for the defense of Baghdad, even though the man was a militarily inexperienced drunkard, precisely because “he was not clever enough to put a coup together.” His subordinates dared not contradict Saddam for fear of death and worse. The regime operated with virtually no sanity checks. Saddam sometimes made even important decisions on the basis of his dreams.

But the self-weakening nature of Saddam's autocracy was displayed most visibly in his elevation of loyalty over capacity: “Republican Guard and other senior officers were often chosen on the basis of family ties and loyalty, not competence.” Gordon and Trainor dwell on this theme, presumably to evoke an ironic comparison with the Bush administration. Of course, Rumsfeld merely fired the people who dared contradict him, while Saddam murdered them along with their families. So the comparison is loose, at best. To underscore both the sharp differences and remote similarities, the authors report an encounter that took place soon after Bush assumed the presidency between an Army colonel and Steve Cambone, Rumsfeld's chief aid. “Cambone jested that Rumsfeld thought the Army's problems could be solved by lining up fifty of its generals in the Pentagon and gunning them down.” That joke was presumably funnier in Washington than it would have been in Baghdad.

Some commentators have alleged that Saddam planned an insurrection against the American conquerors, to be unleashed after he was toppled from power. Zero evidence supports such speculations, Trainor and Gordon tell us. “Saddam was no more farsighted than the Americans in preparing for the aftermath,” they mischievously comment. The real story is more complicated and more interesting. First, Saddam did not anticipate being ousted by force. But he did believe that the Americans might successfully ground the Iraqi air force, including its helicopter gunships, and then proceed to foment a Shiite rebellion in the south. To prepare in advance for such a dangerous development, Saddam distributed caches of small arms, guarded by Baathists, along with Fedayeen units, throughout southern Iraq. Although unit commanders were forbidden to communicate with each other lest they conspire against Saddam, the Fedayeen would presumably have been able to fight off local insurrections long enough to allow the Republican Guard to arrive by land. Once the American invaders had plowed through the south and on to Baghdad, driving Hussein from power, the potential dual use of both the pre-stashed arms and the Fedayeen's cell-like command structure came into view: “[T]he very force designed to counter an insurgency” ultimately became “the core of the insurgency against the Americans.”

Having absorbed the biases as well as the insights of their principal informants, Trainor and Gordon tend to exonerate the uniformed military from serious responsibility for the Iraqi debacle. “The violent chaos that followed Saddam's defeat,” they argue, “was not a matter of not having a plan but of adhering too rigidly to the wrong one.” If a better plan had been contrived, presumably incorporating higher troop levels and well-trained constabulary forces, violent chaos would not have erupted or, if it had erupted, it would have been contained.

That the uniformed military should not be granted blanket exoneration, however, is strongly suggested by the parade of officers who have now rallied in support of their besieged defense secretary. Cobra II itself acknowledges that Franks knew no more than the civilian Rumsfeld about “the actual structure of political power in Iraq.” Both are described as refusing to listen to experts and professionals who knew what needed to be known. But who exactly within the U.S. government knew better?

The CIA and U.S. Special Forces had many contacts in Afghanistan, dating back at least to the 1980s. Iraq, by contrast, had been a denied area, meaning the war was inevitably planned by amateurs with measly knowledge of the country the United States was about to invade. Civilians in the administration were no more knowledgeable or thoughtful. After the American military had thoroughly destroyed the Tikriti clan that had ruled Iraq for decades, Rice explained, “the institutions” of the country (the ministries, the courts, the provincial governments, and the police) would go on working normally. Here are her own words: “The concept was that we would defeat the army, but the institutions would hold, everything from ministries to police forces.” And she added, “You would be able to bring new leadership, but we were going to keep the body in place.” Such statements betray an appalling ignorance of the dependence of formal institutions on informal social networks.

Gordon and Trainor sometimes seem to suggest that the Iraq War could have ended successfully if only Rumsfeld had not been in charge. But does this make sense? Admittedly, a powerful argument can be made that a large peacekeeping force is more effective than a small one. Not only do small peacekeeping forces “encourage adversaries to think they could challenge the peacekeepers” but, even more important, they lead the peacekeepers “to rely more on firepower to make up for their limited numbers.” But while this is plausible, it is not a decisive argument. An equally persuasive case can be made that a “bigger footprint” will prove politically destabilizing. Larger numbers of rowdy and culturally ignorant American soldiers blasting heavy-metal music outside mosques on Friday afternoons will not necessarily calm down the population of an occupied country. In other words, a bigger footprint may be either stabilizing or destabilizing. It can cut either way. Because we cannot be certain ahead of time which of the two contrary effects will predominate, we cannot be sure that higher force levels would have prevented a disastrous outcome of the Iraq War.

A related unknown, touching directly on American war aims in Iraq, concerns the armed wing of the Iraqi state bureaucracy. The question is this: Was it ever realistic to expect Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites to be melded together within fully integrated Iraqi police, military, and state security units -- that is, within the core institutions of the state? If not, and there are good reasons to doubt it, the very project of turning power over to “the Iraqis” was unfeasible from the start. In any society deeply divided along tribal, sectarian, and ethnic lines, it is difficult to create a government that is both representative and coherent. (Saddam's government was to some extent coherent because it was in no degree representative.) When a society's basic subgroups not only fear and distrust each other but also are weakly organized and fragmented internally, they are unlikely to be able to negotiate stable bargains and share power.

The authors are on firm, not to mention well-trodden, ground when they claim that the occupation of Iraq has been disastrously mismanaged. But they sometimes intimate that it was realistic for Bush to try to reform the Middle East to America's advantage though a military attack. The problem here lies deeper than strategy or tactics. The administration knew so little about the country it decided to invade that its expectations were basically indistinguishable from wild guesses. Its entire approach to the challenge also reflected an unwarranted confidence in the politically transformative power of superior force. That something even more dishonorable may have been going on is implied by a six-page article, “How and Where to Apply Shock and Awe,” penned by Air Force General Charles Horner and forwarded to Franks by Rumsfeld in December 2001. Trainor and Gordon quote Horner's extraordinary concluding sentences: “In the end, if we are going to lead, then we must be considered the madmen of the world, capable of any action, willing to risk anything to achieve our national interests. ... If we are to achieve noble purposes we must be prepared to act in the most ignoble manner.” This is how tyrants and terrorists think. That such ideas may have influenced the administration's decision to invade Iraq suggests that it has much more to answer for than its incompetence.

Stephen Holmes is a professor at the New York University School of Law.

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