The Path to ‘Victory’?

There’s been a lot of buzz around the more progressive blogs today from Andrew Sullivan, Yglesias, and Matt Duss about more remarks made by Republican NY Times and Weekly Standard columnist William Kristol. Apparently during a panel discussion in NYC last night, where the topic was whether Bush is leaving a terrible presidential legacy or not, according to Matt Duss, Kristol is quoted to have said, “We’ve won the war”, in reference to Iraq.

As is the intelligent thing to do, these guys are lambasting this concept with sharp criticisms. They are discussing the strategic disasters of the past and overall shakiness of the present reality. And while reading I was struck to think that we’ve sort of forgotten the timeline of mistakes and failures, and how they really played out. Rhetoric has hijacked our detailed memories, whether it is rhetoric from the Right or the Left on who had the moral high ground during the policy debates.

So, I figured I’d revisit some of the issues in this timeline, because they are big and messy, and I hope it helps to remind people that while we have opportunity to succeed with our present policies, incredible strategic errors were brushed over by rhetoric from the key players. We have not yet “won”, and it certainly was NOT a case of ‘we’, as Kristol is taken to mean the Bush Administration and the Republicans. I obviously won’t hit all of them, and if you wanna’ add more in the comment thread do so, but I’m gonna’ hit the most major errors in my mind leading up to Summer ’07 especially. Embedded throughout the post will be quotes from many of the policy experts, key players, and journalists who were closest to this throughout the mess.


Error #1) We invade a country of 30+ million people with no strategy and an assumption based on talk, not history or expert opinion. The plan was that we didn’t have a plan:

“The idea was we’d go in, get rid of Saddam; the government could function with new direction coming from the top; the economy would be revitalized by oil revenue. There would not be major ethnic or sectarian struggles; there wouldn’t be any resistance or resurgence of pro-Saddam movements. So our plan, essentially, was we didn’t have a plan.”
-Anthony CordesmanCenter for Strategic and International Studies

Error #2) When Gen. Franks (then CENTCOM commander) arrived just shortly after the regime fell, he announced that 30,000 of 110,000 troops would be coming home by Sept. ’03 and he brought his top generals home leaving the inexperienced Lt. General Sanchez in command in June. The consideration of an insurgency was never seriously explored:

“[Emphasis of a quick and painless war was] driven, in part, by my own failures when I was there as a senior military leader contributing to Gen. Franks’ plan — we never even considered an insurgency as a reasonable option. We took down the regime and thought all we had to do was occupy the country, stabilize it, and in a matter of a few months, we could reduce the force. And then in a matter of a few years, we should be able to be out of there.”
-General Jack KeaneArmy vice chief of staff, 1999-’04

Error #3) L. Paul Bremmer, head of the occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), declares a ban on Ba’ath Party members achieving senior-level positions in the new government, and orders the “dissolution” of the Iraqi Army:

“We’ve disbanded their armed forces. We’ve disbanded their police. We’ve taken a lot of the people who managed the government and said, “You can’t be in the government.” And of course, we’ve also drawn down our troop strength and stopped the flow of troops into Iraq. So there’s this power vacuum that exists.”
-Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)DoD consultant

Error #4) Thus began the state of denial. The commanders on the ground were too inexperienced to handle these things successfully, Rumsfeld was pushing back against the media during his press conferences, and there was literally no strategy whatsoever for how to deal with the insurgency still:

“We were looking on these as sort of a small group of isolated die-hards that we could largely ignore. And we had the conventional war fighting machine with no real intelligence capability to gather data on what was happening. We had a whole group of people recruited into the CPA, none of whom had been in Iraq before.”
-Anthony CordesmanCenter for Strategic and International Studies

“…[F]rom the time we took the regime down, we never made a commitment to secure the population and we never had enough resources to do it. “
-General Jack Keane (Ret.)Army vice chief of staff, 1999-’04

Error #5) Finally the disastrous scenario was beginning to be recognized by the Administration at the end of the year, even by Rumsfeld, but there was still no clear strategy emerging from above:

“Rumsfeld, even back in the fall of ’03.…begins to see there are going to be problems. Now, the question is, what’s the strategy to deal with it?”
-Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)DoD Consultant

“It’s remarkable how much variation there is in the tactics and methods employed by U.S. combat units in Iraq in that period [’03 and ’04]. You had these methods kind of bubbling up from below rather than being directed from above as the result of some strategy plan of how we are going to deal with this phase of the conflict. You had all sorts of variation locally in the absence of strong guidance from above.”
-Stephen BiddleCouncil on Foreign Relations

Error #6)
In Washington, with the election year beginning, the orders were given to take down the snake nest of Fallujah, then after a disastrous PR scenario, troops were ordered out just as quickly as they went in. After hours of fighting, and hundreds of casualties, the US forces were left with a ‘black eye’. Meanwhile Muqtada al-Sadr gained strength in Baghdad:

“Fallujah becomes a kind of Iraqi Alamo, only in this case the defenders survive. The world’s greatest military power would appear to be capable of taking Fallujah. For some reason they don’t. Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera…show photos of wounded children and women. The impression is that the Americans are going in and wantonly killing civilians along with insurgents. So, in just about every respect, this is a black eye for the U.S.”
-Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)DoD Consultant

“I remember talking to a Marine colonel…he was absolutely furious. He said, ‘We didn’t want to go in there and then when we got halfway in…they told us to stop.’ He said it was the 7,000-mile screwdriver–you know, it came from Washington.”
-Dexter FilkinsThe New York Times

“…He [Muqtada al-Sadr] learned quickly that the best way to deal with the United States was not to confront it directly, but simply create a political, security and economic structure that gave [his faction] more and more power while the U.S. essentially was fighting a Sunni insurgency.”
-Anthony CordesmanCenter for Strategic and International Studies

Error #7) Rumsfeld ignores a request on the ground from Bremmer for more troops, and instead creates, with his new commander Gen. George Casey (who had never before been in Iraq), a new policy of maintaining a ‘light footprint’ while training Iraqi security forces quickly so they can take the responsibility over and the US can pull back:

“…[T]he objective is to get Iraq under control at a basic level, train up Iraqi security forces, turn over responsibility to the government and leave.…When [Gen. Casey] got there, he found himself in the midst of this incredibly chaotic situation.”-Fred Kagan-Military Historian, American Enterprise Institute

Error #8) The Pentagon switches its emphasis from a military solution to a political solution. The discussion is now worded politically as the elections were coming up the following January, which may have been pushed too soon. Gen Casey recruits the best minds in military tactics, and his expert on counterinsurgency, Kalev Sepp, provides 12 of the best tactics, where the US was only engaged in 1:

“So the Bush administration redefined ‘standing up’–[the US] standing down as they stand up–to standing up an Iraqi government. That had never been the original definition.”
-Thomas RicksThe Washington Post

“One of the central mistakes made was to believe that the way to success in the conflict lay in early democratization and early hand-off of sovereignty to a democratic country…. By giving political candidates a huge incentive to campaign by demonizing the sectarian and the ethnic other…what we tended to do with that early push towards democratization is to rapidly accelerate the descent of the country into what is now civil war.”
-Stephen BiddleCouncil on Foreign Relations

Error #9) Bush sees his reelection as the “accountability moment” yet doesn’t hold himself accountable, only, at first, feels emboldened to continue in the same mode. Once the election is over he orders Falluja Part II to prepare a secure scenario for the elections to go smoothly, then leaves it for slow recovery:

…[W]e had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I’m grateful. Listen, in times of war, things don’t go exactly as planned.”-George W. Bush, President of the United States, 2000-present

“Fallujah was very positive in the short term…. [But] by not speeding the reconstruction of Fallujah–it took well over a year before that happened–and in the meantime you lose the psychological effect of a decisive victory over a group of insurgents.”
Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.)Strategy Adviser to Gen. Casey


Error #10) Cheney rides the media circuit with overly optimistic tones and statements, practicing his tried and true method of Orwellian doublethink that convinced the nation to go into Iraq in the first place:

“And, of course, [Cheney’s assessment] also proves to be overly optimistic. So, there is this sense that … we’re about to turn the corner. Unfortunately, when we turn the corner, we find that there’s another corner that has to be turned, and the fighting goes on, and things begin to slide.”-Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)DoD consultant

Error #11) Philip Zelikow, Sec. Rice’s deputy, returns from Iraq with the news of the successful Clear-Hold-Build strategy that was implemented independently by a junior commander, Col. H.R. McMasters, in Tal Afar (in contrast to the broken ‘light footprint’ strategy). Secretary of State Rice begins to speak publicly about this strategy, even testifying it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, undermining Rumsfeld, and generally pissing him off, pushing him to angrily deny this possibility during a press conference. The mistake here is that instead of investigating the issue, the Pentagon just eliminates the option and sticks with a failing strategy, but the White House eventually listens:

“At the State Department we felt increasingly restless that the strategy wasn’t being articulated at home or in the field as effectively as we thought it should be… And so the secretary of state really had to make the decision to step up and accept responsibility for helping to articulate a strategy for Iraq.”
-Philip ZelikowCounselor, State Department


Error #12) After Bush invites all of his principles and national security academics from the policy world to Camp David to debate a real change in strategy, but in the middle of it all he disappears out of the back door and flies to Iraq to get Prime Minister al-Maliki’s assurance that things were coming together there. When he returns nothing changes. In fact, Gen. Casey comes back talking about a ‘draw down’ while violence continus to increase:

“I went there eager to have the opportunity to lay a plan before the president… I knew that Zarqawi had been killed; I thought it was an opportunity to have a major turning point if it was seized upon.”
-Frederick KaganMilitary Historian, American Enterprise Institute

“The Camp David meetings did not end up realizing the hopes of some of those at the deputy level and below who’d been involved in the planning. That kind of thoroughgoing review didn’t really materialize. Maybe our hopes had been unreasonable.”
-Philip ZelikowCounselor, State Department

Error #13) Based on probable political pressure Gen. Casey orders Operation Together Forward II, a joint security operation intended for US troops to work seamlessly alongside Iraqi forces, which fails terribly, proving the unpreparedness of Iraqi forces, and the continued confusion in the Pentagon. The ‘stay the course’ rhetoric starts dying down and things are falling apart right before the midterm elections. In December Bush finally admits what we all knew, “We’re not winning…” while the Iraq Study Group submits its report and calls the situation “grave and deteriorating”:

“As soon as I saw that we didn’t have the resources, I knew that [Operation Together Forward II] would fail.… Our chances to succeed in Iraq were just slipping past, we needed to change the strategy or else this thing was going to go off the cliff”
-General Jack Keane-(Ret.) Army vice chief of staff, 1999-’04

“I think Gen. Casey was pressured to do something and so he did something. … And it failed miserably. Things actually got worse.”
-Col. Douglas MacGregor (Ret.)-Military Strategist

Finally the Administration wakes up. New leadership is seated after Bush cleans the Pentagon house, giving charge to Gen. Patraeus in Iraq. The decision for a ‘surge’ is made, implemented over the summer, and Patraeus reports to legislatures in September that things are shaky, but have potential. He is careful with his words even while being grilled by Senators.

Today are we seeing the affects of the ‘surge’, or other sociological factors, we don’t know yet? Things are uncertain even still, and with the SOFA passing the Iraqi parliament last week, we’ll see how it goes in referendum this coming summer. Violence has picked up some, as Sadr’s faction is unnerved and, politically speaking, everything is held together with scotch tape, not concrete.

So…(deep breath), I know we all remember these things. But I think it’s easy to forget the details and how delusional certain people really were. My point is only to bring these details up closely again to remember how bad it really was. To remember, so that when you have people like Kristol (or whoever) going around saying, “We’ve won the war”, we can really understand what the hell we’re talking about here, and how absurd that actually sounds.

Note: For a ‘trip down memory lane’, if you have an hour, watch Frontline’s End Game from 2007. I pulled a lot of my quotes from this great episode.


~ by The Common Man on December 3, 2008.

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