Iraq: Planning for war, ignoring the professionals
After the atrocities of 9/11, President Bush saw himself as a war leader, and the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was successful in the short term. Likewise, he achieved a short-term victory when U.S. troops captured Baghdad in 2003. But that temporary victory was vitiated by the inability of U.S. forces to provide basic security for the people of Iraq or sufficient stability to establish a new government.
This failure to establish security stemmed from the president’s and Secretary Rumsfeld’s success in overcoming the arguments of many in the Army Officer Corps that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in Iraq. In addition, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, without consultation with professional military leaders, severely hampered the ability of U.S. forces to provide security during the occupation. Planning for the war in Iraq was heavily influenced by Secretary Rumsfeld and his approach to military transformation, which called for smaller, more mobile, and more lethal military units and tactics to replace what he saw as the cumbersome approach to war that was a legacy of the Cold War.
The professional Army Officer Corps understood the need for some sort of military transformation and new tactics to deal with a new type of enemy, but they were skeptical of the administration’s plans for war in Iraq. During the spring and summer of 2002, as rumors of war with Iraq mounted, some of their reservations about the wisdom of war with Iraq were leaked to the Washington Post and articulated by retired officers.
The more immediate professional concern of the Army Officer Corps was the number of troops that would be necessary to ensure victory in Iraq. Previous planning for a U.S. invasion of Iraq had been conducted by General Anthony Zinni, who had overseen the development of plans for a U.S. war with Iraq that called for 380,000 troops and an occupation of up to 10 years (Gordon and Trainor 2006, 26). General Tommy Franks had been involved in preparing the troop levels for the plans and told Rumsfeld in December 2001 that 385,000 troops would be necessary for a successful war in Iraq (Gordon and Trainor 2006, 28). Rumsfeld, however, wanted to change the paradigm for waging war and accomplish more with fewer troops by maximizing mobility, intelligence, and the use of new technology. Franks ultimately agreed with Rumsfeld that a much smaller invasion force would be needed. Powell made the argument for more troops directly to the president: “I made the case to General Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld before the President that I was not sure we had enough troops” (Berkowitz 2006, 132). Rumsfeld and Bush also ignored the pleas of Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, for more troops throughout the crucial first months of the occupation of Iraq (O’Hanlon 2005, 4).
The failure to establish control after the military victory stemmed not from the failure to plan but from the administration’s failure to listen to the concerns of the planners who were working on the challenges of an occupation. The difference in perspective between the political leadership of the Bush administration and the professional military was the result of different ideas about the consequences of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The civilian leadership was convinced that the invasion would succeed quickly, that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators, and that U.S. forces could soon be withdrawn from the country. When General Eric Shinseki, army chief of staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2002, he estimated that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required to “maintain [a] safe and secure environment to ensure that the people are fed, that water is distributed—all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this” (Fallows 2004, 72; see also Berkowitz 2006, 130).
The administration, however, wanted to minimize the projected cost of the war, and Shinseki was publicly reprimanded by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who said that his estimates were “quite outlandish” and that “the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, [is] wildly off the mark” (Fallows 2004, 73). Wolfowitz also speculated, “It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself… hard to imagine” (Fallows 2004, 73). In a calculated insult, Rumsfeld announced Shinseki’s replacement 14 months before his term as army chief of staff Army ended and refused to attend his retirement ceremony. The administration’s position was articulated by the vice president: “I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators” (Fallows 2004, 65).
The failure of the administration to realize the importance of an adequate occupation force has cost the United States dearly in lives, money, and the historical evaluation of the Bush administration. But it was not for lack of planning; much prewar planning was conducted by career professionals in the government. The problem is that the political levels of the administration did not listen to those professionals. Even though these plans did not specify the exact number of troops needed, they did argue that a serious occupation force would be necessary to ensure stability after military victory (Berkowitz 2006).
The State Department conducted an elaborate “Future of Iraq” project in March 2002. However, President Bush decided that the Defense Department, not the State Department, would have responsibility for postwar Iraq, and the elaborate planning was ignored (Fallows 2004, 72; Packer 2005, 124; Ricks 2006, 102–4). The CIA also held war-gaming exercises that predicted widespread civil unrest after a military victory, but the leadership in the Office of the Secretary of Defense forbade Defense Department representatives from participating in the planning exercises (Fallows 2004, 58). Brigadier General Mark E. Scheid, who had worked at U.S. Central Command (which dealt with Iraq), reported that Secretary Rumsfeld discouraged planning for Phase IV, that is, postinvasion operations. “I remember the secretary of defense saying that he would fire the next person that said that [planning was necessary]” (Washington Post 2006).
In October 2002, the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania undertook a postwar planning project that foresaw the need for 400,000 troops in Iraq (Fallows 2004, 63). In its report of February 2003, it predicted that if the United States went to war in Iraq, it would “have to be prepared to dedicate considerable time, manpower, and money to the effort to reconstruct Iraq after the fighting is over. Otherwise, the success of military operations will be ephemeral, and the problems they were designed to eliminate could return or be replaced by new and more virulent difficulties” (Crane and Terrill 2003, iv).
One reason the administration ignored the professional planning that was being done was that it did not want the upcoming war to appear too costly or too lengthy. The implications of each of the studies was that there needed to be a significant occupation that would last a number of years and involve a large contingent of American forces. The administration, however, argued that the war would be relatively cheap, that not many troops would be necessary, and that it would be over quickly.
On the projected costs of the war, Wolfowitz told Congress, “There’s a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon” (Fallows 2004, 66). President Bush’s economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, estimated in September 2002 that the war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. His estimates were disavowed by other administration officials, and he was forced to resign before the end of the year (Fallows 2004, 62; see also Berkowitz 2006, 130). The eventual costs of the war (through fiscal year 2006) were estimated at $319 billion for Operation Iraqi Freedom and $437 billion for the global war on terror (Belasco 2006; Marron 2006).
The shortage of U.S. troops was compounded by key decisions made by Bremer, President Bush’s appointee as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. It is inconceivable that he made these decisions without President Bush’s approval; they were presidential-level decisions. The occupation began with two fundamental errors.
First, in his de-Baathification order, Bremer ordered that all senior party members be banned from serving in the government, and the top three layers of all government ministries were automatically removed, even if they were not senior members of the Baath Party—up to 85,000 people (Ricks 2006, 160). In disbanding most of the Iraqi bureaucracy, Bremer ignored Max Weber’s insight of a century ago: “A rationally ordered system of officials [the bureaucracy] continues to function smoothly after the enemy has occupied the area; he merely needs to change the top officials. This body of officials continues to operate because it is to the vital interest of everyone concerned, including above all the enemy” (1946, 229). Bremer also ignored the advice of a CIA station chief in Baghdad who warned that the people Bremer was going to fire were the key technicians who operated the electric, water, and transportation infrastructure of the country. He told Bremer, “By nightfall, you’ll have driven 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground. And in six months, you’ll really regret this” (Ricks 2006, 159).
In a second important blunder, Bremer dissolved the Iraqi security forces, including the army (350,000), the Interior Ministry (285,000), and Saddam Hussein’s security forces (50,000) (Ricks 2006, 192). Although the senior officers of the defeated enemy had to be purged for obvious reasons, the rank and file of the army constituted a source of stability and order. This move threw hundreds of thousands out of work and immediately created a large pool of armed men who felt humiliated by and hostile toward the U.S. occupiers. According to one U.S. officer in Baghdad, “When they disbanded the military, and announced we were occupiers—that was it. Every moderate, every person that had leaned toward us, was furious” (Ricks 2006, 164). The prewar plans of the State Department, the Army War College, and the Center for International and Strategic Studies all recommended against disbanding the army (Fallows 2004, 74). The judgment of some of the Army Officer Corps on the political leadership of the Bush administration was reflected in Marine General Greg Newbold’s statement that “the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions—or bury the results” (2006, 42).
Thus, President Bush succeeded in his goal of going to war with Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, but his success was undercut by his unwillingness to take seriously the advice of career professionals in public administration. This failure has had profound consequences for the United States.
Torture and the war on terror
The international disgrace of the United States stemming from detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and Afghanistan began with President Bush’s success at reframing the basic American approach to war. President Bush argued that the atrocities of 9/11 had ushered in a new paradigm in the history of warfare in which a superpower could be directly attacked by shadowy cells of nonstate actors. In fighting this type of asymmetrical warfare, the Bush administration decided to fundamentally revise the tactics it was willing to use (Bush 2002; Owens 2006, 270).
From the beginning of the U.S. response to 9/11, the Bush administration began to send signals that the rules by which the United States had traditionally operated were changing. The U.S. ban on the assassination of foreign leaders issued by President Gerald Ford in 1976 was rescinded (Owens 2006, 271). Vice President Cheney said on television that the United States was dealing with “barbarians.” He continued, “We also have to work, through, sort of the dark side, if you will…. It’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective” (White House 2001). When Secretary Rumsfeld mentioned possible constraints in international law shortly after 9/11, President Bush said, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass” (Clarke 2004, 24). The president and vice president were sending powerful signals that the gloves were going to come off.
These premises led to a fundamental change in the U.S. approach to dealing with enemy detainees. Over centuries of warfare, broad boundaries of what constituted legitimate means of war were developed by “civilized” nations to contain the destructiveness of war. Two of the important limits were prohibitions against attacking civilians and torturing captured members of enemy forces. These principles of restraint were codified after World War II in the Geneva Conventions, which were ratified by the United States in 1955. As treaties signed by the president and ratified by the Senate, they became the “supreme law of the land” (Article VI of the Constitution). In addition to the prohibitions against torture in the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention against Torture and the U.S. War Crimes Act prohibit torture by U.S. personnel (Pfiffner 2005a).
In the wake of the atrocities of 9/11, President Bush concluded that because our enemies were ruthless, the United States had to get tough. In order to give U.S. forces the flexibility they needed to fight against this new type of enemy, President Bush decided that the Geneva Conventions governing the conduct of U.S. personnel had to be set aside for the war on terror. On January 25, 2002, Alberto Gonzales, counsel to the president, wrote a memo recommending that the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War should not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban prisoners.2 He reasoned that the war on terrorism was “a new kind of war” and that the “new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners” (Gonzales 2002).
Secretary of State Colin Powell objected to the reasoning behind the Gonzales memo. In his own memo of January 26, 2002, he argued that the drawbacks of deciding not to apply the Geneva Conventions outweighed the advantages because “[i]t will reverse over a century of policy… and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops, both in this specific conflict and in general; It has a high cost in terms of negative international reaction… It will undermine public support among critical allies.”
Despite Powell’s memo—and in accord with the Gonzales recommendations—President Bush signed a memorandum on February 7, 2002, that stated, “Pursuant to my authority as Commander in Chief…. I… determine that none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world because, among other reasons, al Qaeda is not a High Contracting Party to Geneva.” This key decision by President Bush to suspend the Geneva Conventions for the war on terror set in motion a series of policy and operational changes that encouraged the use of “aggressive interrogation techniques.”
In deciding to issue the executive order exempting U.S. personnel from the constraints of the Geneva Conventions, President Bush was rejecting the professional advice of the only member of his war cabinet who had combat experience, as well as the professional judgment of many career JAG officers in the Department of Defense. In 2003, a group of JAG officers went to visit the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on International Human Rights. They were concerned about “a real risk of disaster,” a concern that proved to be prescient (Barry et al. 2004; Hersh 2004, 28–34; Schlesinger 2004, 29).
As a legal matter, President Bush’s February 7, 2002, memorandum was dubious, and as a policy decision, it had the drawbacks specified by Secretary Powell. The president’s decision led to the expansion of methods of interrogation that were used at Guantánamo through Secretary Rumsfeld’s decisions about allowable techniques and to the migration of those techniques to Iraq, which, unlike Guantánamo, the United States admitted was covered by the Geneva Conventions (Schlesinger 2004, 33–34). Thus, President Bush’s decision to suspend the Geneva Conventions in the war on terror had profound implications that, combined with other policy decisions and interrogation practices, led to the torture of detainees in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Some of the techniques approved for use at Guantánamo violated the Geneva Conventions, such as the use of stress positions, the imposition of up to 30 days of isolation, and the removal of clothing. Most of the techniques did not amount to torture, though some of them were harsh and might be considered torture depending on the intensity and application (e.g., 30 days of isolation, sensory deprivation, 20-hour interrogations, and noninjurious physical contact). The techniques that were used included deprivation of food, deprivation of sleep (for up to 96 hours), deprivation of clothes, and shackling in stress positions (Bravin 2004). The problem, of course, is that in the actual practice of interrogation, guards and interrogators can easily get carried away and move beyond the bounds specified in the legal memoranda—a fact that was evident at Abu Ghraib. Ensuring that this does not happen is the obligation of leadership.
In May 2004, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials in Iraq sent e-mail messages to Washington to request guidance regarding what they should report as abuse (FBI 2004). They said that “an Executive Order signed by President Bush authorized the following interrogation techniques among others, sleep ‘management,’ use of MWDs [military working dogs], ‘stress positions’ such as half squats, ‘environmental manipulation,’ such as the use of loud music, sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc.” (FBI 2004). In August 2004, an FBI official at Guantánamo sent an e-mail reporting on “what I observed at GTMO.” The official said that on several occasions, he had observed detainees “chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated or defacated [sic] on themselves, and had been left there for 18 [to] 24 hours or more.” The temperature in the rooms was at times made extremely cold or “well over 100 degrees” (FBI 2002).
Although the abuses were intended to humiliate prisoners, many caused serious injury. In addition, the treatment of prisoners caused death in a number of instances. Although some of these deaths were the result of escape attempts or justifiable homicides, some were the result of physical mistreatment by U.S. personnel. Fifteen of those who died between December 2002 and May 2004 were “shot, strangled or beaten” before they died. The circumstances surrounding a number of the deaths included “blunt force trauma,”“strangulation,” and “asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression,” among other things (Graham 2004; Squitieri and Moniz 2004; Myers 2004). That is, they were tortured to death.
Although many of the abuses at Abu Ghraib were caused partly by the intense pressure placed on untrained troops in an understaffed prison, the techniques employed were first used at Guantánamo and then migrated to Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib (Schlesinger 2004, 33–36). Pressure to produce actionable intelligence was perceived as coming from high-level officials in the White House. For example, the visit of a “senior member of the National Security Council staff to Abu Ghraib in November 2003 sent a strong signal that intelligence in Iraq was valued at the highest levels of the United States government” (Schlesinger 2004, 69).3 Army Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, head of the Joint Interrogation and Detention Center at Abu Ghraib, said that he felt pressure to produce more actionable intelligence from senior officials, who said the reports were read by Secretary Rumsfeld, and particularly from Frances Townsend, deputy assistant to President Bush and one of the top aides to Condoleezza Rice on the National Security Council staff (Smith 2004).
President Bush may not have intended that the specific acts of torture be carried out, but as the leader at the top of the chain of command, he was responsible for the likely consequences of his actions (accurately predicted by his secretary of state and JAG lawyers). Without that decision, professional army troops, all of whom were trained in the Geneva Conventions, would have hesitated to undertake the levels of torture that occurred.
No major war goes without some abuse of prisoners, but the chain of command and leadership are crucial to discipline. Without signals from the top of the chain of command, the abuses and torture at Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib would not have been so systematic in the interrogation of enemy prisoners. Thus, President Bush’s decision to suspend the Geneva Conventions, combined with the leadership of his top deputies in the war on terror, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, enabled the abuses and torture to occur.
Even though President Bush may not have foreseen that his initial decision to suspend the Geneva Conventions would lead to the widespread abuse and systematic torture of detainees, the combination of his lifting of the Geneva constraints and high-level pressure for actionable intelligence led to the abuses that have been documented in reports of international and U.S. government agencies. Despite President Bush’s distaste for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and his assertions that “we do not torture,” the excesses that were uncovered stemmed from a leadership failure from the president down through the chain of command. Leaders are responsible for the consequences of their actions. President Bush made his initial decision about the Geneva Conventions against the considered advice of career JAG officers and Secretary of State Powell, who predicted the likely consequences of his action.
Secretary Powell’s chief of staff, retired career army officer Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, said that Powell told him to monitor the International Committee of the Red Cross reports on U.S. detention centers. After gathering a dossier of documents, Wilkerson concluded that the signals were not ambiguous: “I saw a chain of information and orders going out to the field that were codified in memoranda…. they essentially said, ‘This is a new war. These people are different, Geneva doesn’t apply, and we need intelligence. So smack these guys, stack ’em up. Use whatever means you need’” (Follman 2006). Wilkerson concluded that the inhuman treatment of detainees was not an aberration: “As former soldiers, we knew that you don’t have this kind of pervasive attitude out there unless you’ve condoned it…. And whether you did it explicitly or not is irrelevant” (Wilkerson 2005).
The consequences of the many instances of abuse and torture by U.S. personnel have been profound and lasting. The United States was once seen as a nation that, despite some aberrations, respected the civilized norms of warfare. The horrible images from Abu Ghraib—seared in the memories of the international community and used as propaganda by enemies of the United States—have severely damaged the reputation of the nation. It will take decades, if not generations, to overcome the damage.