Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How Ambassador Khalilzad Walked Into A Turf War Between The State And Defense Departments As He Tried to Find A New Path For The United States In Iraq In 2005

In June 2005, Zalmay Khalilzad returned to Iraq as the new U.S. Ambassador replacing John Negroponte. Khalilzad originally worked on Iraq in 2003 as the special presidential envoy to the Iraqi opposition. When he came back to the country things were not going well. The opposition to the United States had turned into a full-blown insurgency, and America’s policy seemed adrift. The reconstruction effort was focused upon large infrastructure projects, which had not improved the lives of average Iraqis, while the military strategy was to get out as quickly as possible. The political rhetoric was about victory, but there was no actual ideas on how to achieve it, and was contradicted by the withdrawal plans. Khalilzad, like his predecessor ordered an immediate review of the situation, and came up with a new strategy. Unfortunately, because of in fighting back in Washington the ambassador’s ideas were not fully implemented until two years later. This pointed to the dysfunction and disconnect between the White House and those in the field in Iraq, which undermined what the U.S. was hoping to accomplish.

Ambassador Khalilzad entered Iraq during a time of transition for American policy. Both the State and Defense Departments were carrying out their own separate reviews. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent retired General Gary Luck to Iraq to go over the training program for the Iraqi security forces. He said the program needed to be greatly expanded. As a result, the Iraq Security Forces Fund was given $5.7 billion. New Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dispatched Ambassador Richard Jones, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to Baghdad as well. He characterized Iraq as a failed state. The U.S. was not helping, because its staff had little interaction with Iraqis. After the CPA closed shop it shut down its regional offices, and withdrew its advisers from Iraq’s ministries. By 2005, most of the American civilian staff was holed up in the Green Zone with smaller contingents in four regional bases. Jones recommended that the reconstruction effort be shifted from the CPA’s emphasis upon large capital projects like power plants to capacity building within the Iraqi government. Those projects were not having an affect upon the daily lives of Iraqis either in terms of services, security or employment. Not only that, but also many facilities the U.S. was building were too large and advanced for the Iraqis to maintain. As a result, many were failing apart, because the locals did not have the skills, management, spare parts or supplies to run them. Jones also noted that the American embassy staff had to get out into the field, and work hand in hand with their Iraqi counterparts. These reviews pointed to the two separate policies that the United States was simultaneously following in Iraq. The Pentagon wanted to build up Iraqi forces, so that it could withdraw as soon as possible. The State Department on the other hand, was trying to finish the rebuilding job that the CPA had started; while at the same time was attempting to transform the American presence to a regular diplomatic one despite the on-going insurgency. The two agencies were also rivals dating back to the beginning of the Bush Administration, partially based upon the personal dislike between Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Defense Secretary had even less respect for Rice, making him even more unwilling to cooperate with the diplomatic wing of the American government when she took over. Khalilzad walked into the middle of this bureaucratic turf war, and tried to find a middle ground that would help stabilize Iraq.

Khalilzad ordered his own review upon his return to Iraq in the summer of 2005. His major concern was defeating the insurgency. He thought that the Sunni community had been shut out of the new Iraq, because they were associated with the old regime. Instead of being excluded, he thought they needed to be involved in the political process as a way to reconcile with them, and help end the fighting. All of the political, economic, and reconstruction policies needed to be focused upon this sole priority. Khalilzad created the Civil Military Strategic Planning group to go over what was already in place in Iraq. It found that Gen. Casey’s plans to turn over security to the Iraqis and withdraw would fail. It also criticized the lack of cooperation between the American civilians and military, and the exclusion of Iraqis from much of their work. It advocated for a coordinated counterinsurgency strategy that would use all of the U.S. resources in the country, along with the Iraqi government. This became known as the oil spot approach, which was extrapolated upon by Andrew Krepinevich in a winter 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs. Krepinevich was a former Army officer who went on to become a defense analyst and Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and professor at George Mason University. One of his specialties was the Vietnam War. Based upon that history, he advocated a counterinsurgency plan for Iraq that would focus upon securing and rebuilding specific strategic locations in Iraq such as Baghdad to defeat local militants, and win over the support of the population. Once one area was secured, the oil spot would spread to the next, until eventually the whole country could be covered. Unfortunately for Khalilzad, he didn’t have the authority to remake Iraq policy, especially on the military side, but he could change the reconstruction plans. As a result of his new ideas, the ambassador ordered a freeze on all rebuilding work, and another review of each project to make sure that it would support his counterinsurgency plan. Parts of these ideas would be later taken up by the Surge in 2007. The problem as ever was the lack of coordination between the various U.S. agencies, and the inter-office rivalries, which made that so difficult to accomplish. 

Khalilzad moved ahead with his ideas anyway, and created two new organizations in Iraq to try to put them in action. The first was the Provincial Reconstruction Development Councils. These were started in the spring of 2005 and were Iraq-American working groups to build capacity in the country’s provincial governments. They were set up in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, excluding the three in Kurdistan. They came up with lists of projects, which were meant to empower Iraqis, improve their living standards, and help turn local support to the government. The other group was the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). This was a concept that Khalilzad had helped implement when he was ambassador in Afghanistan from 2003-2005. These were joint American civilian-military organizations meant to help implement and support the plans created by the Councils. Immediately the PRTs ran into problems, because of the disputes between the State and Defense Departments. There were arguments over who would fund them, who would lead them, and how security would be provided. As a result, the first PRTs were put out in the field before they had the necessary budget, transportation, protection, and staff. The PRT in Ninewa for example, had no protection, housing or way to get around the province. It had to move into Forward Operating Base Marez, and rely upon the U.S. military unit there for almost everything. It took one year for lawyers from the Pentagon and State Department to work out an agreement about how the two departments would cooperate in Iraq. In the meantime, the PRTs would have to trudge ahead despite their limitations. Here was the first specific example of the difficulties Khalilzad would find trying to transform Iraq policy. He and his staff had come up with some good ideas, but implementing them would be another issue all together. Washington was divided, and the ambassador all the way in Baghdad would be a victim of their disagreements.
The differences between Sec of Def Rumsfeld (left) and Sec of State Rice (right) helped retard changing Iraq policy (AP)
Those differences over Iraq strategy within the White House immediately became apparent. Rumsfeld and General Casey were opposed to Khalilzad’s new ideas. Their top priority remained to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. Secretary Rice on the other hand, became an advocate for her ambassador’s approach. On October 19, 2005, she testified to a Senate committee advocating for a Clear Hold Build plan, which was another name for the oil spot approach. Rumsfeld immediately contradicted and criticized her statements. He said, “Anyone who takes those three words and thinks it means the United States should clear and the United Sates should hold and the United should build doesn’t understand the situation. It is the Iraqis country. They’ve got 28 million people there. They are clearing, they are holding, they are building. They’re going to be the ones doing the reconstruction in that country.” Despite those objections, President Bush backed his Secretary of State as Clear Hold Build was included in the White House’s National Strategy for Victory in Iraq in November. That didn’t stop the bickering however, as Rice and Rumsfeld still battled over planning, and refused to cooperate in Iraq. It wouldn’t be until the Pentagon chief was pushed out at the end of 2006 that things would begin to change. Khalilzad’s new ideas would suffer as a result.

On the ground in Iraq there were small movements in a new direction. First, reconstruction funds began to be shifted away from the large capital projects once pushed by the CPA to smaller ones that would be more visible to Iraqis, and hopefully have an immediate impact upon their lives. This was to be accomplished by pushing for the employment of Iraqis, using Iraqi contractors wherever possible, and including local Iraqi officials and government in the planning and implementation. There were still major hurdles to overcome. Iraqis for example did not understand American contracting procedures, and much of the bidding was supposed to be done on line, which was difficult for many Iraqi businesses. There were still disputes in Washington over the PRTs as well, so they had to trudge ahead often lacking the right personnel and funding to carry out their tasks.

From 2003-2007 the United States followed an ad hoc and dysfunctional policy in Iraq. There was a lack of planning and innovative ideas in Washington, and a disconnect between what was said publicly by the Bush Administration, and what was actually happening on the ground. The President’s constant statements about victory in Iraq were not supported by the strategy being implemented on the ground. Rather then defeating the insurgency, the Pentagon was set on withdrawing, and the State Department was trying to pull back to the embassy in Baghdad. Ambassador Khalilzad immediately noted how things were failing in Iraq, and tried to right the ship. Unfortunately for him, his ideas were only supported by his superior Secretary Rice, who was unable to convince Secretary Rumsfeld to change course. The results were small changes on the ground like in the types of projects started, and the creation of two new organizations to work with the Iraqis more closely, but there was still not the full support, funding, nor coordination necessary from Washington to make it a success. Iraq would descend into further chaos and become a failed state for another year and a half before the Americans course would change.


Kakutani, Michiko, “Rumsfeld’s Defense of Known Decisions,” New York Times, 2/3/11

Krepinevich, Andrew, “How to Win in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2005

PBS Frontline, “INTERVIEWS Elisabeth Bumiller,” Bush’s War, 3/24/08

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Hard Lessons, 1/22/09

Weisman, Steven, “The Struggle For Iraq: Diplomacy; Rice, Testy Hearing, Cites Progress in Iraq,” New York Times, 10/20/05


Anonymous said...

Great photo.

My impression is that the Iraq war was from the start primarily a war between Defense and State, Saddam being almost incidental.

Steve Donnelly, AICP said...


Beautiful work. 100% on the mark. Khalilizad is the one who fought (and caught the arrows) for proposing Sunni engagement (the military always takes credit for this), eliminating the big wasteful projects, and pushing Iraqification by broader engagement, demilitarization, PRT's, etc... the only way our departure could work.

I have his card if you want to do an interview?

Former Senior Adviser, PRT