It took the United States four years to get its military strategy in Iraq right. Before that the U.S. was in a state of disarray dealing with the insurgency. First it didn’t want to acknowledge that one existed in Iraq. Many military leaders believed that the American presence was the cause of the rebellion. That led them to advocate for a U.S. withdrawal, which was supported by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. On the ground each U.S. unit basically developed its own tactics in its area of operation with little coordination with others, and then they would be replaced and the process would start all over again. To help explain this period of the U.S. occupation is former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter, author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq and The Gamble, General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure In Iraq, and current member of the Center for A New American Security. Ricks also runs the Best Defense blog on national security at Foreign Policy and can be followed on Twitter
1. One of the overriding goals for the U.S. in Iraq was to withdraw. That started with the original war plan and continued for the following years. How did that view shape overall military policy for the Americans?
I think we got off on the wrong foot. There was no serious plan for what to do there. Combine that with an invasion based on false premises, and you’re off to a bad start. Add in that the planning was forced to be short-sighted, looking only for a quick exit, and you’re screwed.
2. By the summer of 2003 there was a growing group of people that began talking about an insurgency in Iraq. U.S. officials rejected this idea at first. Why were they reluctant to acknowledge that there was resistance to the American presence in the country?
I don’t know. I suspect it was because the existence of an insurgency challenged some of the premises on which the invasion and occupation was based.
3. Throughout the U.S. years occupying Iraq military commanders were given leeway in how to secure their areas of operation. That led to many different approaches being adopted. Some of those were positive such as foot patrols to interact with Iraqis and others were not such as mass arrests. There were also individual commanders that were acknowledged for their accomplishments such as Gen. Petraeus in Mosul in 2003 and Col. H.R. McMaster in Tal Afar in 2005. Why did it take so long for the U.S. to come up with a set of best practices in Iraq?
There was a lack of seriousness about the approach. No one was really in charge. The civilian and military efforts were not coordinated, and in fact were sometimes at odds with each other. The Bush Administration’s people were in revolutionary mode, while the military wanted stability. All this was complicated even more by the fact that everyone was rotating, the civilians coming and going constantly.
4. Starting in early 2004 and accelerating into the next year there was a move to pull U.S. forces out of cities and put them into large bases. That was based upon the idea that the Americans were a root cause of violence, and that would be reduced by their withdrawal. The Americans also wanted to push the Iraqis into the lead on security. What affect did that policy have?
This was a theory. We now can see that it was incorrect. It accelerated the ethnic cleansing of much of western Baghdad. But it may have had the unintended side effect of demonstrating to Iraqi’s Sunnis that there were not as strong as they thought, and this may have made them more receptive to General Petraeus’ ceasefire offers early in 2007.
5. The U.S. withdrawal policy was also based upon building up the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), yet it took years for adequate resources to be deployed for this effort. What institutional problems did the military face in training the Iraqis?
I was struck by the low quality of some of the American advisors I came across. I got the sense that at the start this effort was not taken very seriously by the people in charge of American security policy.
6. Two other institutional issues seemed to be the Americans reliance upon technology to run its forces, collect intelligence, etc., and its preferences for kinetic operations. How did those practices impair the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq?
I am not sure I agree with the premise of this action. Good COIN operations will be very violent at times. But yes, they are premised on the belief that you should have more than one tool in the toolbox.
7. The rotation schedule for the Americans meant that about every year or so new units were deployed to Iraq replacing old ones. What did that turnover mean for tactics and security in the country?
Rotation is one of those things that I think the Army especially needs to study. Was it really the best way to run a war? Or did it give commanders short-term orientations in their operations? And did it impede the establishment of trusting relationships with Iraqis?
8. The United States has fought several insurgencies throughout its history such as in the Philippines and Vietnam. The military seemed to forget about those wars afterward and returned to whatever was its doctrine at that time. Already as the U.S. was drawing down in Iraq there was a big debate over whether counterinsurgency (COIN) should be permanently integrated into the armed forces or not. Do you think that the U.S. will internalize any lessons learned from its experience in Iraq or will it just move on as in previous wars, and what could be the consequences if it doesn’t?
This is really the other shoe of the previous answer. I hope the U.S. military engages in sober reflection of the errors it made in Iraq. So far, I don’t think it has. I am worried by the number of soldiers I encounter who seem to be blaming the entire mess on civilian leadership. Sure, civilians made a lot of mistakes. But so did military leaders. Our military in Iraq was like a Ferrari without a steering wheel. It had power, and could go fast—but it kept winding up in the ditch.