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No end of a lesson

10 May 2006

6:30 PM

10 May 2006

6:30 PM

Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor

Atlantic Books, pp.603, 25

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‘We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.’ Kipling’s re- proof, in ‘The Lesson’, on the conduct of the Boer war would serve well as the subtitle of this impressive review of the mess that is the Iraq intervention. The authors are the chief military correspondent of the New York Times and a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general and sometime military correspondent for the same newspaper. Their access to officials and classified documents is remarkable. They are certainly no apologists, unsurprisingly, coming from the NYT. Their intention is ‘to provide a comprehensive account and rationale of the foreign policy strategy, generalship and fighting … in all its complexity’. They are by no means unsympathetic, however: they do not impute corrupt motives, although their criticism of Donald Rumsfeld echoes that of retired US generals recently. What the account reveals above all is the sheer complexity of, in Churchill’s phrase, ‘the correct application of overwhelming force’. The war and subsequent occupation are ‘a story of hubris and heroism, of high- technology wizardry and cultural ignorance’. The authors’ conclusion, even though its premise is controversial, is utterly damning for its implicit and explicit charges of incompetence: ‘The bitter insurgency American and British forces confront today was not preordained. There were lost opportunities, military and political, along the way.’

But why Iraq, and why then? It was not mere pride, Bush family ‘unfinished business’, say the authors, nor oil, nor any of the other trite claims. Iraq did not figure high on the President’s agenda until after 9/11, after which the threat of a ‘nexus of terrorism and WMD’ changed the degree of strategic risk, where the consequences of inaction may have been unpredictable but certainly identifiable. But even then the President was not convinced that removing Saddam forcefully was the priority: it was Rumsfeld who argued for a response beyond just Afghanistan, a signal that the US was engaging in a global war on terrorists and the renegade states that helped them, ‘a powerful demonstration of American power and an object lesson — for Iran, Syria, and other would-be foes — of the potential consequences of supporting terrorist groups and pursuing nuclear, biological and chemical arms’. And left to itself, the US military could almost certainly have delivered that object lesson. It would have done so perhaps rather ponderously, after the fashion of the first Gulf War, but ponderous or not, the strategic aim could have been achieved.

There was a problem, however: Bush had put Rumsfeld in the Pentagon to re-shape the military. Rumsfeld was fervently committed to slimming down what he saw as relicts of the Cold War, switching the effort to high technology: ‘We’re going to have to stop thinking about things, numbers of things, and mass, and think also and maybe even first about speed and agility and precision.’ It was called Transformation. But speed and surprise, though potentially winning cards, was an inherently riskier strategy because with less mass the deployed force would not have the capacity to adjust to failure of the plan, or to changed circumstances. It is in the nature of things that the military is more troubled by risk than are politicians, for the consequences of failure fall disproportionately on the men in uniform; and when a plan fails the thing that usually retrieves the situation is large numbers of men. Here lies the real root of the discord between the Defense Secretary and some of his former generals, for Rumsfeld was determined to reduce personnel costs — cut manpower — to fund the new requirements.

Yet, narrowly defined, Rumsfeld’s demands for an invasion plan requiring fewer men and faster deployment were right. Saddam was taken by surprise, albeit probably more tactical surprise than strategic, when US coalition forces attacked before all the troops had arrived in theatre and without a long preliminary air campaign. This accounts in part for the poor performance of the Iraqi high command and the army, even the Republican Guard. The authors describe the drive on Baghdad in gripping detail (they interviewed every general and all the brigade and regimental commanders), and it is, indeed, a superb picture of the old game played by new men with high- and low-tech means alike. No matter what, the fighting power of the US Army and Marine Corps should never be doubted: the drive and courage, the sheer patriotism, are remarkable. To paraphrase Sir William Napier, with what determination the US Army fights!


The mortal danger lay, as with any force that takes its objective exhausted, in the counter-attack. It came in the form of an expanding torrent of an insurgency, which the low troop numbers (tired men after the gruelling advance on Baghdad) were incapable, and in large part unwilling, to deal with in its early manifestation of civil disorder. Why was the problem not anticipated? The answer may be surprising: it was not a matter of not having a plan but of adhering too rigidly to the wrong one. This, indeed, is the most serious of the charges against Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, Centcom’s (Central Command) commander-in-chief.

The President and his team, say the authors, ‘committed five grievous errors’. First (is it not painfully familiar?) they underestimated their opponent, failing to understand ‘the welter of ethnic groups and tribes that is Iraq’. Rumsfeld and his generals viewed the invasion largely as a continuation of the first Gulf war. In 1991 the Republican Guard was the key to victory: defeat them and Kuwait would be liberated. The war planning for the Iraq invasion therefore focussed on running ‘roughshod over the Guard units with a combination of manoeuvre and firepower’ in a drive on Baghdad, by-passing non-Guard units and ‘leaving them to wither on the vine’. But Saddam achieved operational, and potentially strategic, surprise with the paramilitary Fedayeen: in Nasiriyah, Samawah, Najaf, Kifl and Dowaniyah they inflicted significant delay and losses, as well as fighting tenaciously in Baghdad itself, and generating the insurgency. The CIA were not only wrong about WMD, they failed to identify the importance of the Fedayeen or to uncover the tons of arms cached in the cities and towns of southern Iraq. The agency’s assurances that the Iraqi military would capitulate and that the Army and Marines would be welcome in the south were both misleading and dangerous: the ‘centre of gravity’ was not the Republican Guard or even Baghdad; it was ‘the entire Sunni triangle and more broadly the Iraqi people themselves’.

The US therefore failed to bring the right tools to the fight, putting too much confidence in technology — the second grievous error. For while hi-tech served Centcom brilliantly during the drive on Baghdad, once the city fell the requirements for success were reversed: mass, not speed, was needed for sealing the victory. Allied to this second error was a third: failing to adapt to developments on the ground. The US war plan was never adjusted at the top: ‘Tommy Franks never acknowledged the enemy he faced, nor did he comprehend the nature of the war he was directing’, denigrating the Fedayeen as ‘little more than a speed bump on the way to Baghdad’. But Rumsfeld himself failed to heed his own advice on defence planning, ‘to be prepared for the unexpected’: a week after Baghdad was seized, ‘the administration was focussed on withdrawing troops and replacing them with less capable foreign troops instead of deploying the assets that would be needed to hedge new threats’. The President famously declared ‘mission accomplished’ from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

A fo
urth grievous error exacerbated this: the ‘dysfunction of American military structures’. In the US command system the four service chiefs of staff (army, navy, air force, marines) are only as influential as the Secretary of Defense or the President permits: the individual C-in-Cs of the various geographical or functional commands answer directly to the President as the commander-in-chief, though in practice the Defense Secretary has operational control delegated to him. In the first Gulf war, say the authors, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney listened to Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, as did Norman Schwarzkopf, C-in-C Centcom. Air Force General Richard Myers, Rumsfeld’s chairman, was merely ‘pliable’, however, while Franks’s attitude to both Myers and Shinseki, the army chief of staff, was openly contemptuous. Nor did the State Department have the lead, as would be expected, in post-war planning (or, apparently, even much influence) because Rumsfeld persuaded the President that post-war planning was not an issue, simply the equivalent of reorganisation and consolidation after a successful attack. Thus differing political and military perspectives were stifled before and during the campaign. It is perhaps instructive that in the British military lexicon one of the principles of war is ‘Co-operation’; in the US manuals it is not.

The final ‘grievous error’ was the President’s disdain of peace-keeping. It was at the root of much of Rumsfeld’s desire for Transformation, and therefore of much of the whole sorry mess. Peace-keeping was not what US forces did; they did war-fighting. Bush and Rumsfeld would have heard many a supportive voice within the military, for no self-respecting soldier wants to do peace-keeping. The trouble is, peace-keeping, in all its untidy ambiguity, is an inescapable necessity, and as Dag Hamerskold said, peace-keeping isn’t a job for soldiers but only soldiers can do it.

Peace-keeping was also what President Clinton had done, in the Balkans. Peace-keeping was a messy, unfocussed piece of Democrat evasion (doubtless made messier by European ‘allies’ who were prepared to throw men at a problem but not spend on technology and modernisation). In Kosovo the ratio of troops to population had been 1:50; on that calculation Iraq would need almost half a million troops after the fighting (even the more benign Bosnia model indicated a similarly large figure). But Kosovo was the Democrat, Clintonian way: the new, Republican way was the recent Afghanistan model. Following the Afghan template, only 14,000 troops would be required. It is striking, say the authors (as well as surprising to many an outsider) ‘how much of the United States post-war strategy was the product of careful deliberation’. But the ‘careful deliberation’ was also late in conception and severely out of balance: ‘Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks spent most of their time and energy on the least demanding task — defeating Saddam’s weakened conventional forces — and the least amount in the most demanding — rehabilitation of and security for the new Iraq.’

Did Whitehall have any influence in planning the campaign or occupation? It was, after all, to influence US planning that the Prime Minister moved immediately to Bush’s side when the President declared his intention to face down Saddam. The 600 pages of this book reveal no evidence of any significant influence, although there is implicit military influence at the operational level in the capture of Basra and the southern oilfields. But the British contribution was hardly of great moment to the Rumsfeld-Franks concept, for Baghdad was the centre of gravity. Before the invasion, when there was a suggestion that we might not be able to contribute, Rumsfeld famously described British troops as ‘work-arounds’. There is but a single reference to the Foreign Secretary:

While British officers were worried about the state of US planning, the civilians in Blair’s cabinet were more assured … Surely, argued Jack Straw, the United States would not take the momentous step of invading and occupying Iraq unless it was persuaded that it had a winning plan.

This faith-based assumption was repeated at every subordinate level, indeed.

The failure of post-war planning surely remains the unaddressed question for this country: the failure of intelligence and the botched assessments have been dealt with by official inquiries, fudged as they may have been. But the failure to anticipate the insurgency stands as the worst charge against Whitehall, not least the MoD, as well as of the Pentagon. Even though victory was eventually ours in the Boer war, Kipling was trenchant in ‘The Lesson’. After the war there were brutally honest inquiries into the whole paraphernalia of defence. Without them and the consequent reforms, the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 would not have existed, let alone performed so crucially well. There are serious lessons to be drawn from the Iraq intervention, not least in the problems of asymmetric coalition warfare; and there are old ones to be relearned on the importance of mass. Yet the nation’s armed forces, the army in particular, just get smaller and smaller. What is going on?


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