Fearful Symmetries

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26 July, 2010

Fiasco by Thomas Ricks





Reading Thomas Ricks' Fiasco is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know it's a disaster and how it will end, but the camera catches everything in painstaking detail nonetheless.

Ricks is a journalist whose expertise is on military matters and he has a very low opinion of our invasion of Iraq. The book's subtitle is "The American Military Adventure in Iraq" and it is explained early on: "this book's subtitle terms the U.S. effort in Iraq an adventure in the critical sense of adventurism—that is, with the view that the U.S.-led invasion was launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation."

The first 30 pages or so describe Iraq in the aftermath of Gulf War I and President Clinton's policy of containment which entailed blockades, no-fly zones, etc. One major issue was that, after Kuwait was liberated, the U.S. government encouraged Shiites and Kurds to rebel and finally rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein but, when they did, they found no support from Washington. Indeed, we allowed Hussein's forces to fly helicopters sent to suppress the rebellions. The result was thousands of people killed.

At the time, Paul Wolfowitz was the under secretary of defense for policy and he urged that more be done to support the uprisings. And so it was no surprise that he helped lead the charge after 9/11 for the invasion of Iraq as Deputy Secretary of Defense. Ricks documents the lead-up to the war showing how the Bush administration ignored or downplayed intelligence which undercut their assertions about Hussein's possessions of WMD, his ties to al-Qaeda, etc. Colin Powell's shameful case for war at the UN and the tensions between his State Department and Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense are also elaborated upon.

Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the other hawks promoted the invasion by saying that it would be short and inexpensive. They attacked Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki who gave estimates of required troops well above what they were saying. Also, Iraqi oil money would supposedly be used to pay for it. President Bush and others in his administration drummed up support with a constant refrain of the image of a mushroom cloud being the result of not invading.

When the war begins, allied forces score a quick victory. But they fail to plan for it and this takes up the bulk of Fiasco. Rumsfeld and the military did virtually no work on what is called "Phase IV", the post-war activities.

Retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner was selected to lead the Coalition Provisional Authority but he didn't last long. He ran afoul of the State vs. DoD hostilities and found that Rumsfeld was vetoing his choices for staff members and instead being told to take on kids in their 20s who had no relevant experience but were Republican supporters. In addition, his less than sanguine views of exiled Iraqi leader Ahmed Chalabi, a friend of the Pentagon's, further pushed Garner out of favor. He was replaced by Paul Bremer who would essentially do a 180 on all of Garner's plans. Ricks lays out the case that Bremer and his staff worked in isolation and had little contact with the military in trying to coordinate plans for post-war Iraq. And so little was done to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people who found themselves unemployed because of Bremer's policies, many of whom became insurgents.

But the problems weren't only with civilian operations. The book goes into great detail on how the military was fragmented with various commanders essentially dictating their own strategy. Ricks' main point was that the Army as an institution did not learn anything from the Vietnam War about fighting counterinsurgencies. Some commanders did take the time to learn and implement those lessons while others just had their troops going around kicking down doors. The upshot is that it took a long time for the Army to adjust to the circumstances and to realize that terrorizing the civilian population was creating more problems. In addition, it took equally as long for Rumsfeld and other civilian authorities to understand that occupying Iraq would require more troops – just as Shinseki had said. As Ricks said, the American adventure in Iraq had good tactics overall but no strategy, no overarching plan with a goal to which the tactics would advance the endeavor.

The book has goes into some detail about a handful of actual battles such as the battles for Fallujah but it is more concerned with the policy-making end of things. Ricks looked at the public record and interviewed scores of people to draw a picture from high above the battlefield. Generals and politicians often talk past one another here so, instead of a united front advancing a plan, the Iraq occupation comes off almost as a Keystone Cops episode. Some generals have their troops live amongst the Iraqi civilians in order to win them over while other generals have their troops instill fear into the population and have them quartered on nice air-conditioned bases. These commanders didn't understand that, as Ricks put it, the people are the prize in counterinsurgency.

Fiasco goes up through 2005 and Ricks brings the story up through 2008 in his follow-up The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. I've not read it but I have listened to some interviews with him and he thinks that Bush may well go down as the worst president we've ever had. It's sad that the people whose cheerleading and planning (or lack thereof) that created the fiasco seem to have suffered no repercussions. And to add Pelion upon Ossa, Ricks and many others in the defense establishment are of the opinion that we are going to be in Iraq for a very long time to come.
|| Palmer, 4:05 PM

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