What I saw in Iraq after ‘Mission Accomplished’

March 25, 2013

A sandstorm sweeps through Fallujah in October 2005. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tweet the other day, marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, stirred such a social media frenzy that it was hard to resist diving in. My own reaction was to write, on Facebook, “History doesn't exist.” Rumsfeld’s reference to the “long, difficult work of liberating 25 mil Iraqis” glossed over the considerable difficulties the U.S. war of choice had inflicted on Iraq.

I didn’t spend much time in Iraq, but I was there at what turned out to be a hinge of history, in the early weeks after the Saddam statue fell and it seemed things could go either way. Because the United States never quite implemented a competent postwar plan, we all know how things ultimately went.

An air of American hubris and impending catastrophe was palpable very early, as I discovered soon after arriving in Baghdad on April 30, 2003, after an all-day cab ride from Basra, in the south. The next day marked the end of so-called “major combat operations,” but the actual war was only about to begin.

Many journalists wiser and abler than I have chronicled this period – notably Tom Ricks and Rajiv Chandrasekaran – but I am proud to have contributed to the historical narrative in my own small, strange way.

Thus begins my tale, originally posted on Salon in November 2004:

When people ask me what went so wrong in Iraq, as they frequently do after learning that I reported from there early in the war, I offer a glib reply: “Let me tell you about the day I almost led the Iraqi army.”

It was an incident that showed, as I wrote at the time, that "Because U.S. postwar planning was so meager, Iraqis who wanted to help the Americans often found nowhere to turn."

I left the country a year and a half ago, yet security is far worse now, and even electrical service remains spotty. Sewage still contaminates the drinking water in Baghdad. According to the reports of humanitarian organizations, chronic malnutrition affects some three out of 10 children in Iraq, particularly in the central and southern regions.

This cascade of failures was well hashed over in the presidential race. But few Americans realize how hungry, at one time, Iraqi military men were for direction of any kind. When I showed up in their midst a month after the Saddam statue fell, they started asking me — the only American most had probably ever seen except in combat — how they could get their message of cooperation to Garner.

During the Republican National Convention, I asked Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot whether postwar operations could have been better handled by our best and brightest — specifically whether disbanding the Iraqi army was a mistake. “No,” he said, staring at me with some annoyance, “I think they did an exceptionally good job.” Predictably, he gave the president “excellent marks” for all phases of the war. Racicot did concede, however, that “there are always going to be unexpected consequences in any war.”

At the time, the story was meant as a lesson in why "Mission Accomplished" had been anything but. Today, perhaps, it can serve to illustrate the post-invasion failures that so contributed to the Iraq War as we know and understand it.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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Max Fisher | March 25, 2013