Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How The U.S. Failed To Recognize The Insurgency In Iraq

In the months following the 2003 invasion of Iraq most of the top American leadership refused to admit that there was any resistance to its presence in the country. When the Bush administration did talk about any violence it tended to dismiss it as the acts of dead enders trying to bring back the old regime or foreign fighters, which supported the White House’s claim that Iraq was part of the global war on terror. It took until the end of 2003 for the U.S. to openly accept that an insurgency had begun. That showed how little the Americans understood what the invasion had wrought, which would set a pattern of failure in the nation for the next several years.

As soon as Saddam Hussein was overthrown opponents of the U.S. occupation began organizing and carrying out attacks. In May, icasualties counted 37 American deaths. By the end of 2003 408 U.S. servicemen had died. For example, one May 8 a sniper killed a U.S. soldier in Baghdad. (1) On May 13 a soldier was killed in an ambush in Diwaniya, Qadisiya. On May 26, another soldier died in an ambush in Haditha, Anbar. The next day two soldiers were killed in a firefight in Fallujah. General David McKiernan, the ground forces commander in Iraq gave a press conference in June warning that the war had not ended and that these assaults were becoming more organized. These operations would increase in sophistication and deadliness as the year progressed. On October 27 for instance, the start of Ramadan began with a suicide bomber driving a police car into a police station in south Baghdad at 8:30 am. Five minutes later a suicide bomber in an ambulance attacked the Red Cross building in Baghdad. At 8:55 am a suicide car bomber blew up his device in another police station in north Baghdad. At 9:15 am another suicide car bomber blew himself up at another station in southern Iraq. Finally, at 10:15 am the police stopped a fifth car bomber in the eastern section of the capital. That was the work of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid wal Jihad. It seemed impossible to ignore the fact that an insurgency had quickly formed in Iraq. It was opposed to not only the U.S. occupation, but wanted to see the new Iraq suffer a crib death in its infancy. Dismissing these attacks and exploiting them for another narrative was what the Americans ended up doing in the six months following the fall of the Baathist regime rather instead of formulating a counter strategy.

Denying the insurgency came not only from civilian officials in the administration, but commanding officers in the military as well. The first one to push this line was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference he held in the middle of June at the Pentagon. He started off by saying that if Washington D.C. was the size of Baghdad it would have more murders than the number of U.S. troops killed up to that date. He claimed that big cities were violent, so what was going on in Iraq was somehow normal. As for the groups carrying out attacks, he said they were small with no central control, and called them “dead enders” because they were from the ancien regime and had no chance of regaining power. A similar stance was taken by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who told the House Armed Service Committee that “these people [the insurgents] are the last remnants of a dying cause.” The next month, General Ricardo Sanchez, the commanding officer in Iraq, stated that there was no organized resistance. That same month, the Pentagon said that there was no insurgency, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers told the press that Iraq was mostly stable, (2) and retiring Central Command (CENTCOM) head General Tommy Franks refused to use the world “guerrilla” to describe what was going on in Iraq. By October, the U.S. was still refusing to say there was any “resistance” to its presence in the country, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice dismissed the violence as being acts of desperation. Finally, as late as December an aide to Rumsfeld predicted that the attacks would eventually die off. This was obviously the official line that the White House was pushing at the time. It did not want to admit that anything was going wrong in Iraq, especially the fact that some people were opposed to the regime change that Washington had brought. When this continued all the way to December with the increasing violence and body counts it seemed like either the Bush administration was in denial of facts on the ground in Iraq, or were completely stubborn and would not give up on its propaganda campaign about everything being okay. This also played into the ultimate goal of the Americans, which was to exit Iraq as quickly as possible. By acknowledging the growing instability that would make an exit all the harder to accomplish.

There was a second argument made by the White House as well, which was to blame the violence on foreign terrorists. In September, President Bush brought up foreign fighters in Iraq and accused Syria and Iran of supporting them. (3) That played into the administration’s theme that Iraq was the central front in the war on terrorism as Cheney mentioned to Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet The Press. That month the U.S. reported that it held around 300 foreigners from 20 countries that had come to Iraq to fight. (4) The Bush administration claimed that it went into Iraq as part of the war against terror, so trying to put the onus of violence upon foreign actors played into that narrative. These elements did exist with not only Zarqawi’s group, but also foreigners that came to Iraq before 2003 to oppose the invasion. Still, the vast majority of the insurgency was made up of Iraqis angry with the Americans, something that the administration was not willing to admit yet.

There were plenty of voices brewing up from the bottom with one exception that were trying to tell the truth about what was happening in Iraq in 2003. In July Time reported that some in the Pentagon were worried that an organized resistance was forming. That same month a Marine Lieutenant Colonel told the Washington Post that things could be escalating into an insurgency. The leading public voice however came from the new CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid who in his first press conference said that the U.S. was in fact facing an insurgency in Iraq. Behind the scenes the CIA was warning of the same thing in a report that was leaked in November. By December officials were willing to lay out the broad outline of the insurgency naming groups and individuals such as Zarqawi, Saddam’s former deputy Izzat al-Duri, and Ansar al-Sunna. The end of 2003 was a transition period when the situation in Iraq could no longer be ignored, and the administration finally began giving up its argument that the country was safe and secure.

The American government’s stance towards the insurgency in 2003 foreshadowed the problems it would encounter in the following years. The U.S. went into Iraq with a best-case scenario in mind that it would be greeted as a liberator and be able to leave in a few weeks after the fall of Saddam. That made Washington reluctant to admit there was any resistance to its presence. When it did address violence it either dismissed the insurgency as “dead enders” or tried to frame it as part of its existing narrative about the war on terror. Neither acknowledged what was really going on. By not admitting to the emerging problem the Americans were not able to come up with a strategic and unified response. Instead, the U.S. made the situation worse by not establishing law and order, not protecting the borders, disbanding the military, ordering deBaathification, carrying out mass arrests, firing into civilians, etc. Iraq did not have to turn out so bad, but the Americans did enough in 2003 alone to make sure that it would not work out well.


1. Elliott, Michael, “Occupation Hazards,” Time, 6/9/03

2. Ricks, Thomas and Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, “Attacks raise fears of guerrilla war in Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/7/03

3. Collier, Robert, “Analysis: War may have turned Iraq into a hub for terrorists,” San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/03

4. Fang, Bay, “IRAQ: A magnet for angry, fervent men,” U.S. News & World Reports, 9/29/03


Bennett, Brian, “Who Are The Insurgents?” Time, 11/24/03

Bennett, Brian and Ware, Michael, “Life Behind Enemy Lines,” Time, 12/15/03

Bonner, Raymond and Brinkley, Joel, “U.S. intelligence not consistent in analyzing attacks,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/28/03

Collier, Robert, “Analysis: War may have turned Iraq into a hub for terrorists,” San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/03

Collier, Robert and Coile, Zachary, “Will Insurgency Wane? In short term, maybe, but long-term effect more difficult to predict,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12/15/03

Cordesman, Anthony, “The Current Military Situation in Iraq,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11/14/03

Danner, Mark, “Delusions in Baghdad,” New York Review of Books, 12/18/03

Donnelly, Thomas, “Iraq Is the Central Front,” American Enterprise Institute, October 2003

Elliott, Michael, “Occupation Hazards,” Time, 6/9/03
- “The War That Never Ends,” Time, 7/7/03

Epstein, Edward, “U.S. says increased Iraqi resistance shows desperation,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/28/03

Fang, Bay, “IRAQ: A magnet for angry, fervent men,” U.S. News & World Reports, 9/29/03

icasualties, “Iraq Coalition Casualties: Fatalities by Year and Month”

Jehl, Douglas, “White House changes stance on U.N. in Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8/28/03

Johnson, Scott and Thomas, Evan, “Still Fighting Saddam,” Newsweek, 7/21/03

Kelley, Matt, “Rumsfeld Downplays resistance in Iraq,” Associated Press, 6/19/03

Kher, Unmesh, “3 Flawed Assumptions About Postwar Iraq,” Time, 9/22/03

Landay, Jonathan, “More Iraqis supporting resistance, CIA report says,” McClatchy Newspapers, 11/11/03

McGeary, Johanna, “Danger Around Every Corner,” Time, 10/27/03

NBC News, “Sunday, September 14, 2003 GUEST: Dick Cheney, vice president Tim Russert, moderator,” 9/14/03

PBS Frontline, “Interview L. Paul Bremer,” Truth, War and Consequences, 10/9/03

Ricks, Thomas and Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, “Attacks raise fears of guerrilla war in Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/7/03

Sanger, David and Schmitt, Eric, “U.S. to put Iraqis in frontline fight,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/30/03

Schlesinger, Robert, “General in Iraq says U.S. faces a guerrilla war,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/17/03

Walt, Vivienne, “Hellish start to holy month in Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/28/03

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