Douglas J. Feith, a top Pentagon official who was deeply involved in planning the Iraq war, said that there were significant missteps in the administration's strategy, including the delayed transfer of power to a new Iraqi government, and that he did not know whether the invading U.S. force was the right size.
In an interview as he concludes his tenure as undersecretary of defense for policy, Feith acknowledged that there were "trade-offs" and "pros and cons" to the Pentagon's plan to use a relatively small invasion force in Iraq, voicing uncertainty about whether that decision was correct. The war's "rolling start" with a streamlined ground force achieved some tactical surprise, he said, potentially averting a longer war and other catastrophes such as the destruction of Iraqi oil fields. But he acknowledged that a small force had drawbacks, and others have criticized the plan for failing to stop widespread looting and insecurity after Saddam Hussein's government fell in April 2003.
"I am not asserting to you that I know that the answer is, we did it right. What I am saying is it's an extremely complex judgment to know whether the course that we chose with its pros and cons was more sensible," Feith said in a 90-minute interview Monday at his Bethesda home.
Feith's resignation was announced in January. His comments are a rare public sign of doubt about Iraq policy by a Pentagon official.
He said mistaken actions and policies in Iraq resulted in frequent "course corrections," pointing to two that he considered significant -- both resulting from an early failure to put Iraqis in charge.
First, the United States missed the opportunity before the war to train enough Kurds and other Iraqi exiles to assist the U.S. military, he said. "That didn't happen in the numbers we had hoped," he said.
A plan to train an estimated 5,000 Iraqi exiles in Hungary produced instead only a few hundred, in part because U.S. military leaders at the Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, were uncomfortable with it. Training Iraqi forces has since emerged as the central thrust of the U.S. exit strategy for Iraq.
Even more important, Feith said, was the reluctance among some U.S. officials to transfer power early on to an Iraqi government and dismantle the U.S. occupation authority, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer.
"How would Iraq have been different if we had terminated the CPA in May or June of '03?" and created an Iraqi government, he asked. "Some people said if you do that and it fails, you'll set the country back irretrievably and . . . the only way you could set up a government early on would be to rely unduly on the 'externals,' " he said, referring to Iraqi exiles.
"My views were generally in favor of transferring responsibility to the Iraqis earlier. I thought there were ways of getting the 'internals' involved earlier," he said, speaking of prospective Iraqi leaders inside the country who were not well known to the United States before the invasion.
On troop levels in Iraq, Feith said U.S. military commanders -- not the Pentagon -- determined the flow of and number of forces into the country. "I don't believe there was a single case where the commander asked for forces and didn't get them . . . the commander controlled the forces in the theater," he said.
Senior U.S. Army officers dispute this view, saying the Pentagon cut off the planned influx of nine division-equivalents into Iraq in the war's initial phase.
Feith acknowledged it is difficult to strike a balance between having too few troops to provide security and an overly large occupation force, which he said risked "increasing antagonism, increasing friction, increasing the number of soldiers we had sitting around waiting for intelligence that we didn't have."
"Ultimately, people are going to be able to go back and make judgments week by week" about whether troop levels were adequate, he said. He declined to comment on a possible timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.