Saturday, March 14, 2009

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s “Hard Lessons” – Part I: Planning for Postwar Iraq September 2001 to May 2003

The first chapter of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s “Hard Lessons” review of the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq focuses upon the pre-war planning. That began in the fall of 2001 and went up right through the U.S. invasion. This period was characterized by three main trends. First, the Defense and State Departments had diametrically opposed views of what Iraq would be like after the war. Second, there was little to no coordination between the different groups working on post-war planning, even within the same agency. Finally, a best-case scenario was adopted as the operative model by the White House, which shaped all the subsequent planning.

Planning for the Iraq war began towards the end of 2001. On November 21, 2001 President Bush ordered Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to review the Pentagon’s strategy for invading Iraq. Even before that in September, Rumsfeld had already begun working on the Iraq war plan. This led to the Defense and State Departments as well as the National Security Council to eventually begin thinking about post-war Iraq.

At that time Iraq was in a state of disrepair due to Saddam’s rule, the Gulf War, and international sanctions. After the Gulf War Saddam had tried to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure but it wasn’t successful. The non-oil sector was hit especially hard. By the mid-1990s unemployment and underemployment were over 50%. Gross Domestic Product, which peaked at $74.9 billion in 1990, dropped to below $20 billion for the rest of the decade. Iraq, which was a middle class Arab country before the Gulf War, became a poor underdeveloped one afterwards. 60% of the population depended upon the government food rations system, which wasn’t able to stop malnutrition from occurring. This led to the United Nations’ Oil For Food Program in 1995. That was manipulated both by the government, the U.N., and criminal gangs, and led to massive corruption. One thing the program did provide was an intimate look into the Iraqi economy and its needs. Unfortunately, none of that was looked at by the United States before the invasion.

On September 29, 2001 Secretary Rumsfeld ordered an internal review of the invasion plans for Iraq. Almost all of the planning focused solely upon the military side of the operation, because the Pentagon believed that the State Department would deal with the post-war situation. On December 28 Rumsfeld briefed President Bush. The Secretary stressed three themes that he would stay with until he left office. He said that the invasion would be over fast and quick. Afterwards the U.S. would turn power over to Iraqis, and the American troops would be out quickly. One of Rumsfeld’s deputies Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith continually stressed that the U.S. was going to act as liberators not occupiers. That meant Iraqi sovereignty as soon as possible after the war. Rumsfeld and Feith both thought this would make the Iraqis deal with their own problems, and not get the U.S. caught up in nation building. To support their argument the Pentagon pointed to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Following this model also meant that the U.S. would not be responsible for rebuilding Iraq.

The State Department developed a completely different point of view. They considered the sectarian divisions within Iraq, and believed that it would take years for the country to be rebuilt and stabilized. They also didn’t think that Iraq would be like Afghanistan or that Iraqi leaders would emerge after the invasion that could take over the country. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously told President Bush that if the U.S. invaded they would be the ones that would be left to pick up the pieces. Powell warned that there would be no government and no law and order, meaning that the Iraqis would be looking to the U.S. for leadership. This conflict between Defense and State shaped the pre-war planning on Iraq with the dispute never being resolved.

In early 2002 the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs created the Future of Iraq Project. It included 200 Iraqi exiles and experts, and was the largest study done within the government on Iraq. Its major drawbacks were that it was not an operational plan, but rather background information for the administration of Iraq, and was never presented to Secretary Powell as a counter to the Pentagon’s vision. The project was broken up into various working groups, some of which provided high quality material, while others never finished. The basic premise was that the U.S. was going to have to run Iraq after the war, and that this should be a civilian job with the goal of building up democratic institutions before Iraqis could take over. The Coalition Provisional Authority later took up this position.

In the spring of 2003 the White House became involved in Iraq planning when the National Security Council started holding meetings on the topic. In early 2003 the National Security Council’s Deputies bean holding twice-weekly conferences on Iraq. They came up with three alternatives for post-invasion Iraq. One was Iraqis quickly taking over, the second was military rule through the Central Command, and the third was a civilian government, perhaps under the United Nations. They also addressed three major concerns: security, reconstruction, and creating a pro-U.S. stable Iraq.

Which approach the United States would follow was not decided until August 2002. On August 29 the White House issued “Iraq: Goals, Objectives, Strategy.” It said that the U.S. was committed to overthrowing Saddam, and that it would work with Iraqi exiles to liberate Iraq, not occupy it. Those were wins for the Pentagon. However it did say that the U.S. would be involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, something the State Department stressed.

After the paper was released the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the National Security Council, and the Pentagon increased their efforts. The JCS ordered the Central Command (CENTCOM) to begin planning for post-war Iraq. Two Army majors that worked in Bosnia were given the task. That went against the preferences of Rumsfeld who wanted the U.S. out as quickly as possible. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also had a steering group on Iraq created. Over at the Defense Department Undersecretary Feith created the Office of Special Plans. The major problem was that while work on Iraq was accelerating in the fall of 2002 none of it was coordinated, and there was little sharing of ideas and information. The compartmentalization of these different groups led to a highly disjointed set of ideas.

One example was the National Security Council’s (NSC) humanitarian group. Elliot Abrams and Robin Cleveland of the Office of Management and Budget led it. It was created in September 2002 with members from the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Joint Chiefs, the Defense, State, Treasure, Justice, and Commerce departments. They considered the effects of Iraq using chemical weapons, a possible refugee crisis, the U.N.’s Oil for Food program, and what targets not to hit during the war. It also wanted to get Iraq up and running as quickly as possible after the war ended. A major problem was that it had very little information about what Iraq was like. They knew that sanctions had hurt the country, but decided that its oil wealth would pay for any reconstruction. Just as important it had no interaction with the other NSC groups working on military, political, and democratization affairs.

Over at the Pentagon, planning was often vague and based upon best-case scenarios. Different officials were often told that there were plans for post-war security, but there were no actual meetings about it. The Defense Department also followed Rumsfeld’s belief that the war would be short, there would be little damage to Iraq in the process, the country’s oil would pay for everything, an Iraqi leader would emerge, and that would allow the U.S. a quick exit.

On October 15, 2001 Undersecretary Feith briefed the National Security Council on CENTCOM’s planning. They came up with three phases for postwar Iraq. First there would be military control. Second a U.S. civilian authority would take over, and then finally, Iraqi leaders would emerge and the U.S. would turn power over to them and then leave. The military had no timeline for how long this process would take. Feith also said that Rumsfeld should be in charge during this time, allowing for unity of command after the war. This idea led to interagency arguments that lasted for two months.

At the same time, the administration wanted to keep all their work secret. On October 18 for example, Rumsfeld asked Feith to create an official postwar planning office, but then rescinded that order shortly afterwards. That was because the White House had decided that the government could not openly plan for postwar Iraq when it had not declared war yet, and publicly said it was trying to avoid it.

Work continued with some of the most informative coming from the worst-case scenario papers. In October Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Feith, and the Joint Chiefs came up with a memo on 29 things that could go wrong in Iraq. Some of them were not finding weapons of mass destruction, sectarian fighting, not being able to find Saddam, Iraq breaking apart, the U.S. being there for 10 years, occupation costs skyrocketing, and world opinion turning against the war. Rumsfeld briefed the NSC and the president on this paper at a NSC meeting. In December Powell received a similar paper partially written by Ryan Crocker, the future U.S. ambassador to Iraq. It warned of a possible sectarian war for power that could lead to the dissolution of the country.

Outside and inside the government there were also warnings about what could happen in post-war Iraq. A review of the U.S.’s efforts at nation-building showed that of the sixteen countries the U.S. intervened in only four West Germany, Japan, Panama, and Grenada stayed democratic ten years after the U.S. left. Three, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua got worse. Academics also noted that Iraq was not like Germany and Japan after World War II. Both were rich, developed, homogenous countries with bureaucracies. That was largely lacking in Iraq. The planning for the occupation of those two countries also started shortly after Pearl Harbor and took years to develop. The U.S. was trying to plan for Iraq on the fly. The National Intelligence Council released a paper in January 2003 that said setting up a democracy in Iraq would be a long and arduous process. In February the Army War College put out a report that said Iraq could fall into civil war because of the ethnic and sectarian divisions in the country, that the armed forces would have to be completely rebuilt, and that rebuilding the country would be a huge effort after the economy had been devastated by sanctions. It also warned that the longer the U.S. stayed, the more resistance would grow to their presence. These reports had little affect on planning however.

Overall the administration’s effort to deal with post-war Iraq was uncoordinated and fragmented. The National Security Council and Condoleezza Rice were supposed to manage policy, but State and Defense largely worked on their own. The various NSC planning groups acted separately as well. The NSC also did not consult with many key agencies until very late in the game. That meant there was no coherent strategy in the White House on what to do about Iraq after the war was over. Many including Secretary Powell, Undersecretary Feith, and a biography have blamed Rice for her weak leadership at the time, and said the administration was dysfunctional during this period. “Hard Lessons” believes part of that was due to the workings of the bureaucracy, but it also reflected the divisive views of the main decision makers. Rumsfeld for example, thought that the U.S. should be in and out of Iraq as quickly as possible, so the U.S. didn’t need to address any of the country’s big problems, while Powell predicted a long occupation. In the fall of 2002 the White House picked a mix of both views, but did not have a single, unified plan of how it was to work.


Collins, Joseph, “Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, April 2008

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

Ricks, Thomas, Fiasco, The American Military Adventure In Iraq, 2006

Ricks, Thomas and DeYoung, Karen, “Ex-Defense Official Assails Colleagues Over Run-Up to War,” Washington Post, 3/9/08

Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09

Woodward, Bob, State of Denial, Bush At War, Part III, 2006

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