The Magazine

Battle for Baghdad

Lessons learned from the war in Iraq.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By MAX BOOT
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The most damning comment on the lack of American manpower comes from Col. Teddy Spain, commander of a military police brigade that was stripped of 17 of 20 companies before being deployed to Baghdad in the spring of 2003.

"I think we could have taken control of the streets much better," he is quoted as saying. "I think Baghdad would have been different. I just didn't have the assets."

As we now know, that problem was exacerbated by the decision made by newly appointed viceroy L. Paul Bremer III to dissolve the Iraqi army and security services, setting loose thousands of armed malcontents. Bremer has justified his decision by arguing that the Iraqi military had, in effect, dissolved itself. But, as Ricks writes, "that's not the way many others remember what happened. 'We were working with the army when we were told to disband them,' recalled Marine Maj. Gen. [James] Mattis."

The most bizarre aspect of the dissolution decree was that it ran counter to decisions ratified by President Bush before the invasion and never reversed in Washington. Ricks writes that "Rumsfeld was surprised by Bremer's move," and he quotes Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on Bremer: "He ignored my suggestions. He ignored Rumsfeld's instructions." (Cobra II offers a slightly different account: "While Rumsfeld had been consulted in advance, other key players were blindsided by the edict.")

Unfortunately, this was all too typical of the confusion and outright chaos that characterized American policymaking for at least a year after the collapse of Saddam's regime. Administration apologists like to claim that many of the problems encountered in Iraq weren't foreseeable, but Ricks shows that most them were, in fact, foreseen by far-sighted analysts such as retired officers Gary Anderson and Conrad Crane, who were, alas, ignored by most decision-makers.

As a veteran observer of the military, Ricks is not willing, like so many other critics, to lay all the blame on Bush, Rumsfeld, Bremer, and assorted civilian "neocons." He lashes them for their errors, but he is also scathing in his portrayal of an American military that, in the years since the Vietnam war, managed to forget everything it had ever learned about how to fight an insurgency.

His indictment begins with General Franks, who came up with a plan to win a battle but had no comprehension of how to win the war. (One of Fiasco's typically blunt subheads: "Franks flunks strategy.") During the critical period after Baghdad's fall, Franks shook up the U.S. command structure, placing in charge of the whole country a junior lieutenant general named Ricardo Sanchez who, Ricks writes, "often appeared overwhelmed by the situation, with little grasp of the strategic problems he faced." Moreover, Sanchez was not given enough staff support, and he was forced to work with a "jerry-rigged command structure, in which there was no one American official, civilian or military, on the ground in Iraq in charge of the overall American effort."

This left U.S. division commanders essentially on their own. Some rose to the challenge. One of the most successful was Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, a Princeton Ph.D. who, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in 2003-04, worked on winning "hearts and minds" while using force in carefully calibrated increments. The success of the 101st in an area of northern Iraq with lots of ethnic tensions--or the similar success of Col. H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the Sunni city of Tal Afar in 2005-06--contradicts the argument, popular in conservative circles, that more troops could not have helped defeat the insurgency because U.S. forces inevitably create more problems than they solve.

This was certainly true of some U.S. units, but not of others. It was all a matter of leadership. The problem is that, in too many cases, there was a leadership vacuum that extended from Washington to Iraq.

Ricks suggests that the worst offender was the 4th Infantry Division under Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno (now a three-star assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs). "Odierno's brigades and battalions earned a reputation for being overly aggressive," Ricks writes. He quotes one "senior officer": "They are going through neighborhoods, knocking on doors at two in the morning without actionable intelligence. That's how you create new insurgents."

Fiasco argues that one of the worst consequences of the 4th Infantry's misplaced aggression was that it swamped the military justice system with thousands of detainees, "the majority of them bystanders caught up in the sweeps." This created the conditions--with a small number of MPs and interrogators overwhelmed by vast numbers of prisoners--that led to the Abu Ghraib scandal.