Monday, January 10, 2005

# Posted 1:28 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JUST HOW BAD WAS OUR PLANNING FOR THE OCCUPATION? Michael O'Hanlon tries to answer that question (among others) in a well-written essay in the latest edition of Policy Review. O'Hanlon makes a lot of strong arguments, but I think his criticism of the administration should be tempered by an awareness of how little we still know about what went wrong in Iraq and why.

In this situation, there are two proverbial "dogs that didn't bark". First, and rarely noticed, is the fact that the Bush administration has failed to come up with any sort of evidence to show that it actually had a reasonable pre-war plan for the occupation and that something resembling this plan was implemented. Instead of arguing that that the Democrats of the media have ignored their plans, Bush & Co. simply try to argue that things aren't as bad as they seem. I agree, but that's no excuse for not having a plan.

Second, and also rarely noticed, is that precious little was said before the war began about what was expected from the occupation. Quite often, critics of the administraiton mock Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz's delusional expectation that the people of Iraq would greet us by throwing flowers. While the Pentagon clearly underestimated the number of troops necessary to sustain the occupation, I can't recall Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz expressing the kind of naive hopes often attributed to them.

At the same time, I suspect that if any of the high-level memo traffic from the Pentagon or the White House was ever made public, there would be more than enough embarrassing statements to go around. Yet that is just a suspicion. It is also possible that there would be no embarrassing statements because no one at Cabinet level or higher spent enough time thinking about the occupation to think such potentially embarrassing thoughts. By the same token, opponents of the war never concerned themselves much with how to handle the occupation.

As I discovered while trying to organize a forum on the coming occupation at Oxford in February 2003, i.e. before the invasion, I discovered that anti-war folks resisted thinking seriously about the occupation because preparing for the occupation, in their mind, meant abandoning the struggle to prevent the war. Ultimately, in order to persuade anti-war groups to participate in our forum on democracy in the Middle East, we had to agree to debate the merits of the yet-to-happen invasion.

But let's get back to O'Hanlon. He writes that
What is now commonly called Phase IV [i.e. the occupation] was handled so badly that its downsides have now largely outweighed the virtues of the earlier parts of the operation...

The problem was simply this: The war plan was seriously flawed and incomplete. Invading another country with the intention of destroying its existing government yet without a serious strategy for providing security thereafter defies logic and falls short of proper professional military standards of competence. It was in fact unconscionable.

Lest there be any doubt about the absence of a plan, one need only consult the Third Infantry Division’s after-action report, which reads: “Higher headquarters did not provide the Third Infantry Division (Mechanized) with a plan for Phase IV. As a result, Third Infantry Division transitioned into Phase IV in the absence of guidance.”
That's an interesting bit of evidence, but in this instance, I think silence speaks much louder than words. We don't need the Third Infantry Division to tell us there was no plan because the administration never pretended to have one.

Now, in contrast to the incompetence of those in charge of the invasion,
Many people outside the Pentagon did recognize and emphasize the centrality of the post-Saddam security mission. Some were at the State Department, though State’s Future of Iraq Project produced an extremely long and somewhat unfocused set of papers. Other analysts were also prescient, and much more cogent, in their emphasis on the need to prepare for peacekeeping and policing tasks. One of the more notable was a study published in February 2003 by the Army War College. It underscored the importance not only of providing security but also of taking full advantage of the first few months of the post-Saddam period when Iraqi goodwill would be at its greatest.
The administration deserves no quarter for failing to make better use of the State Departement and War College papers. Moreover, it should have commissioned such studies far earlier. Yet it is also interesting to note that it was other government agencies and not external critics who were paying most attention to the challenges of the upcoming occupation.

One person not thinking about the occupation realistically was Douglas Feith. According to O'Hanlon, who cites George Packer's reporting from the New Yorker,
Such planning as there was, conducted largely out of the office of Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, was reportedly unfocused, shallow, and too dependent on optimistic scenarios that saw Ahmed Chalabi (or perhaps some of Saddam’s more moderate generals) taking charge without the need for a strong U.S. role in the stabilization mission.
Packer, writing in November 2003, presented the situation as somewhat more complicated, although I'm sure O'Hanlon had space limitations to consider. First of all, there were extensive plans for the humanitarian crisis that might follow an invasion of Iraq. The UN had predicted as many as one million civilian casualties among children alone as a result of disease and starvation. Although such estimates were ridiculous even at the time, the US deserves credit for taking such humanitarian concerns serioulsy.

But there was no seriousness about the political crisis that might come after the humanitarian one. Packer reported that
“There was a desire by some in the Vice-President’s office and the Pentagon to cut and run from Iraq and leave it up to Chalabi to run it,” a senior Administration official told me. “The idea was to put our guy in there and he was going to be so compliant that he’d recognize Israel and all the problems in the Middle East would be solved. He would be our man in Baghdad. Everything would be hunky-dory.” The planning was so wishful that it bordered on self-deception. “It isn’t pragmatism, it isn’t Realpolitik, it isn’t conservatism, it isn’t liberalism,” the official said. “It’s theology.”
As usual, the words of anonymous officials need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White did go on the record with Packer to say that Feith's team
Had the mind-set that this would be a relatively straightforward, manageable task, because this would be a war of liberation and therefore the reconstruction would be short-lived.
Although White has his own axe to grind, the total weight of such evidence is suggestive. Even so it is an unsure foundation on which to describe the pre-war mentality of the administration.

Where am I going with all of this? In some ways, nowhere. With Bush re-elected, the apportionment of blame has become an academic exercise. Yet I still suspect/hope that there is something practical to be gained -- now, on the ground, in Iraq -- by developing a better understanding of what went wrong in the first place.

It is still an open question how wrong things went. An impressive turnout in the Jan. 30 elections may change the nature of hindsight to a certain extent. But I will still believe, regardless of what happens on the 30th, that we could've done a lot better from April 2003 until then. But the problem with the Bush administration was not an ideology of democracy promotion that I defend but many consider to be delusional. The problem was lack of attention to detail, which will be just as necessary after Jan. 30 as it is now.
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