FIGHTING THE INSURGENCY Getting the Strategy Right

In Iraq, Military Forgot Lessons of Vietnam

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

The real war in Iraq -- the one to determine the future of the country -- began on Aug. 7, 2003, when a car bomb exploded outside the Jordanian Embassy, killing 11 and wounding more than 50.

That bombing came almost exactly four months after the U.S. military thought it had prevailed in Iraq, and it launched the insurgency, the bloody and protracted struggle with guerrilla fighters that has tied the United States down to this day.

There is some evidence that Saddam Hussein's government knew it couldn't win a conventional war, and some captured documents indicate that it may have intended some sort of rear-guard campaign of subversion against occupation. The stockpiling of weapons, distribution of arms caches, the revolutionary roots of the Baathist Party, and the movement of money and people to Syria either before or during the war all indicate some planning for an insurgency.

But there is also strong evidence, based on a review of thousands of military documents and hundreds of interviews with military personnel, that the U.S. approach to pacifying Iraq in the months after the collapse of Hussein helped spur the insurgency and made it bigger and stronger than it might have been.

The very setup of the U.S. presence in Iraq undercut the mission. The chain of command was hazy, with no one individual in charge of the overall American effort in Iraq, a structure that led to frequent clashes between military and civilian officials.

On May 16, 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-run occupation agency, had issued his first order, "De-Baathification of Iraq Society." The CIA station chief in Baghdad had argued vehemently against the radical move, contending: "By nightfall, you'll have driven 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground. And in six months, you'll really regret this."

He was proved correct, as Bremer's order, along with a second that dissolved the Iraqi military and national police, created a new class of disenfranchised, threatened leaders.

Exacerbating the effect of this decision were the U.S. Army's interactions with the civilian population. Based on its experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Army thought it could prevail through "presence" -- that is, soldiers demonstrating to Iraqis that they are in the area, mainly by patrolling.

"We've got that habit that carries over from the Balkans," one Army general said. Back then, patrols were conducted so frequently that some officers called the mission there "DAB"-ing, for "driving around Bosnia."

The U.S. military jargon for this was "boots on the ground," or, more officially, the presence mission. There was no formal doctrinal basis for this in the Army manuals and training that prepare the military for its operations, but the notion crept into the vocabularies of senior officers.

For example, a briefing by the 1st Armored Division's engineering brigade stated that one of its major missions would be "presence patrols." And then-Maj. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then the commander of that division, ordered one of his brigade commanders to "flood your zone, get out there, and figure it out." Sitting in a dusty command tent outside a palace in the Green Zone in May 2003, he added: "Your business is to ensure that the presence of the American soldier is felt, and it's not just Americans zipping by."

The flaw in this approach, Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek, a civil affairs officer, later noted, was that after Iraqi public opinion began to turn against the Americans and see them as occupiers, "then the presence of troops . . . becomes counterproductive."


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