Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Tom Ricks, Fiasco: The American Adventure in Iraq.  New York: Penguin, 2006.

Reviewed by John Bedell

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to fight an insurgency. One way is with violent repression: if the insurgents kill one government soldier, you shoot a hundred randomly chosen villagers. Anyone who speaks out is permanently silenced. Enemies of the regime simply disappear, and everyone lives in fear. This approach can work. It is, after all, how Saddam crushed the Shi'ite uprising in southern Iraq in the 1990s. For Americans, however, there are certain problems with this approach. Many oppressive methods are illegal under US and international law, and although this kind of nicety has never bothered Bush and company much, there is the problem that we keep saying we came to Iraq to liberate the Iraqis, and this is hard to take seriously if we are violently oppressing them.

The other way to fight insurgents is to use a minimum of force and try, through political action, bribery, and a commitment to justice, to separate the rebels from the people they are counting on to support them. The rules of this kind of combat were worked out in the early twentieth century by British and French colonial soldiers and the US Marines, who in the 1920s issued a Small Wars Manual that urged caution and restraint in such situations.

In Fiasco Tom Ricks, longtime military reporter for the Washington Post, recounts the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. As Ricks tells the tale, the striking thing about the American counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq is that it used neither of these approaches. In fact, it used no consistent approach at all, because the US leadership had never decided what they were going to do after they took Baghdad. In the days after Baghdad fell, US soldiers in Iraq had, literally, no orders. None. Nobody in the chain of command from Bush to Rumsfeld to the generals to the greenest private had a plan, a strategy, or even a notion of what was supposed to be happening. This is astonishing, but it seems to be true.

There was planning for the period after the war. Lots of planning, in fact -- in the State Department, at Central Command, in the Pentagon -- but in the end nobody put it together into anything resembling a plan. As a result the American military charged into Baghdad and fell into a void of its own making. Without orders, they sat and did nothing while civilization collapsed around them. This period, the summer and fall of 2003, is much on the minds of people who think that if only we had performed better in those crucial months things in Iraq might have gone very differently. Fiasco is Tom Ricks' analysis of what went wrong and why. While I am not in the end persuaded, this is a fascinating book, and reading it gave me the chance to think over the events of 2003 and do my own wondering.

The Bush administration's "rush to war" has become a cliché, but it is important to remember that they really did charge into the war without working out some crucial details. It is now clear that Rumsfeld and his allies (Feith, Wolfowitz) had very different ideas about what should happen after we reached Baghdad than the White House. Rumsfeld wanted to overthrow Saddam, put his old friend Ahmed Chalabi in charge and go home. Bush decided we would stay and "revolutionize" the contry by installing a democracy, but nobody in Washington had a clear idea how we would do this. It seems that as the tanks rolled into Iraq Rumsfeld and Feith still hoped that Chalabi would be their postwar solution, and they flew him and his small militia into the country. The decision that he would not have a major role was made, not by anyone high up in Washington, but by Jake Garner, the rather ineffectual general we sent to Baghdad to manage humanitarian relief operations. The eventual democracy plan was dreamed up by Paul Bremer, the diplomat we sent out to run the "Coalition Provisional Authority", and announced to both Iraqis and the rest of the US government in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post.

The unplanned, ad-hoc, ill-considered occupation of Iraq would seem a lot stranger if it weren't all too typical of our government's foreign ventures. I first encountered our penchant for embarking on military actions without thinking through the consequences while reading about the Bay of Pigs. That operation was also begun without the major players in the White House and the Pentagon sitting down to talk through what they were going to do after they landed the volunteers in Cuba, and it turned out that Kennedy and the Pentagon had very different ideas about what actions we might take. I am struck by this pattern. It seems that in Washington powerful people don't have time to think through complicated policy questions, and that when there are differences it is easier to ignore them than to work out some kind of agreement. We want our leaders to be men of action, not ditherers, and they come into office thinking that they have to make things happen quickly.  There is no time for discussion, reflection, or second-guessing. Bush's personal shortcomings magnified this tendency. Unable, it seems, to pay attention to the details of anything, he rushed our nation headlong into catastrophe in Iraq.

Let's get back to the summer of 2003. The insurgency that still rages in Iraq began immediately after the fall of Baghdad, if not before. One problem with the blitzkrieg assault on Baghdad planned by Rumsfeld and his generals is that it left large elements of the Iraqi army and the Baathist militia unfought. Most of them just left their units and wandered home after Saddam disappeared, but those who were loyal to the regime, or just hated Americans, almost immediately began to launch guerilla attacks on American soldiers. They did not feel like they had been defeated, so they continued to fight. Another in the recent spate of books on what went wrong Iraq, Michael Gordon's Cobra II, traces the subsequent troubles in Iraq exactly to this issue. If only, Gordon writes, we had sent a larger force that engaged and defeated Iraqi forces throughout the country, our victory would have been more complete and our future problems much less.

Ricks points instead to the divergent approaches adopted by American officers without orders from above. Some of them, using their knowledge of classic counter-insurgency doctrine, tried to minimize violence and develop working relationships with town councils, tribal sheiks, and other local leaders. Most prominent of these officers was Michael Petraeus, then the commander of the 101st Airborne, who kept things fairly calm in northern Iraq throughout his tour. But other American commanders focused on finding and capturing or killing insurgents, carrying out "sweeps" through towns and neighborhoods where there had been attacks. Doors were kicked in, occupants ordered to the floor, guns pointed at women and children. (One of the admonitions of the Small Wars Manual is "never point a gun at a man unless you intend to shoot him," because just by pointing the gun you may have turned him into an enemy.) In many of these missions every man of fighting age was rounded up, and thousands of them were sent to Abu Ghraib prison. When they met resistance, American troops used artillery, tank fire, and aerial bombardment to destroy insurgent positions, which inevitably led to civilian casualties. Prisoners were routinely roughed up. Women were taken into custody on several occasions and used as hostages to force their male relatives to turn themselves in. Soldiers on convoy duty routinely shot at any Iraqi vehicle that got too close. Some of Ricks' sources spoke darkly of units that "went crazy," and we can only guess how some of those soldiers acted.

All of this, Ricks points out, violates the rules for counter-insurgency warfare. As the Marine Small Wars Manual puts it, in a counter-insurgency situation killing one wrong person can undo the good done by killing a hundred of the right ones. American troops acted in ways guaranteed to make thousands of Iraqis hate them, and since weapons were everywhere in Iraq, their hatred was very quickly translated into deadly attacks. Many American commanders dismissed such concerns, saying that they were capturing and killing the "bad guys," not seeming to care that their actions were creating two or three insurgents for every one they eliminated. The way Americans treated Iraqi prisoners was no secret in Iraq, even before the revolutions from Abu Ghraib focused American attention on it, and this only made the situation worse. Counter-insurgency warfare, according to the experts, should not be focused on killing insurgents, but on winning the population over to your side. The US command structure violated another of the basic counter-insurgency rules. All the theorists insist that there has to be unity of political and military control, and that political leaders have to be in charge, because defeating an insurgency is essentially a political matter. In Iraq in 2003-2004 there was next to no coordination between the military commanders and the Coalition Provisional Authority, and, as we already saw, the military leaders did little to get their field commanders to work together, either.

In the winter of 2004 the troops that had been in Iraq rotated out and new units came in, and the problem of every unit taking its own approach was only compounded.  One of the best lines in Ricks' book is from an Iraqi sheikh, who, complaining about the different approaches taken by every American unit, says, "You are experimenting on us, and that is not right." In places where the approach had been violent, new commanders tried to use gentler tactics, only to discover that the trust needed for political solutions had already been destroyed. Events in the city of Fallujah, in Anbar Province, give a good example of the American confusion and the chaos it created. Fallujah had always been a Baathist stronghold, and when tough-minded units of the 82nd Airborne occupied the city, trouble flared within weeks. On April 30, 2003, US soldiers opened fire on a mostly peaceful demonstration and killed a dozen civilians. The soldiers said they had been shot at by snipers hiding in the crowd, and a US investigations concluded that they probably had been -- but this is, of course, a common guerilla tactic, and the Small Wars Manual warns against shooting civilians in exactly this situation. Fallujah boiled over.  Another of the basic counterinsurgency rules is that you must secure the borders, and since the undermanned Americans failed to do this, jihadists bent on killing Americans or dying in the effort easily slipped in from Syria, and old Baathists were able to set up a financial network that moved millions of dollars into and out of the country. As a result Anbar Province became the deadliest place in Iraq.

In the winter of 2004 US Marines replaced the 82nd, and they were so determined to act differently that they even considered wearing their olive green uniforms instead of desert camouflage, so nobody would mistake them for the Army. Marine commanders felt they were making progress with their gentler approach when hotheads in Fallujah killed four security contractors from Blackwater, Inc., mutiliated their bodies and hung them from a bridge. The Marine commanders wanted to respond carefully, finding out through their intelligence sources exactly who carried out the attack and nabbing them with a quick raid. But the White House demanded an immediate and overwhelming "response," so the Marines launched a major assault on the city. Fighting was intense, many civilians were killed, and Arab television carried non-stop coverage of their suffering. In the face of Arab anger and unease among our Iraqi friends, Bush called off the attack. Marines who had never wanted to make the attack in the first place were incensed to have it halted halfway through. Now Fallujah was enemy territory, under the control of the most hardened anti-American fighters, and they turned the city into a base for car bombings and other attacks throughout the country. In the end the Marines had to go back and clear the city block by block in bloody urban fighting, losing 54 killed and hundreds of wounded and leaving the city in ruins.

I have to agree with Ricks that the way we handled the conquest and occupation of Iraq has been a "fiasco." I am not sure, though, that a more organized approach would in the end have made much difference. The underlying situation in Iraq is that the Kurds don't want to be part of the country, and the Shi'ites and Sunnis both think they have the right to rule the whole thing. I do not believe that the Sunnis would ever have accepted a Shi'ite dominated government without a fight. I do not think that Kirkuk, historically a Kurdish city but now home to many Arabs settled there by Saddam, will be added the the Kurdish region without violence. I suspect that even if the US military had done all the things that Ricks (and probably Petraeus) wanted it to do, violence might have taken longer to develop but it would still have come in the end. Iraq has been in a state of Civil War since Saddam fell, and Civil Wars end only in two ways: either one side is decisively defeated, or both sides are fought to exhaustion and decide that they can do better through negotiation.

Consider what has been happening in Basra. Basra is a mostly Shi'ite city where almost everyone hated the Baathists, and the British forces who occupied it used the politically-based, minimally violent tactics of the counterinsurgency theorists. Nonetheless, the British have still suffered 156 men killed, and Basra is in the hands of violent Shi'ite militias that regularly fight each other over control of neighborhoods and the distribution of oil money. The Baghdad government has next to no authority there, and it is not likely ever to get that authority without fighting for it. So far Basra has been a calmer and less violent place than Baghdad, but I am not sure that its future is any brighter.

I think Iraq was doomed to civil war. My heart rose at the sight of all those Iraqis holding up their purple-stained fingers, but there is more to democracy than voting. Democracy means accepting when your party has lost, and it means that the winners can't ignore or punish the losers. I don't think Iraqis were ready for that in 2003, and I don't think they are ready now. I predict years of violent turmoil ahead, no matter what the US does.

July 1, 2007

From the 
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