Our failure in Iraq
Courtesy of Intelligence Squad
The secret history of U.S. mistakes, misjudgments and intelligence failures that let the Iraqi dictator and his allies launch an insurgency now ripping Iraq apart
By JOE KLEIN
More than a dozen current and former intelligence officers knowledgeable about Iraq spoke with TIME in recent weeks to share details about the conflict. They voiced their growing frustration with a war that they feel was not properly anticipated by the Bush Administration, a war fought with insufficient resources, a war that almost all of them now believe is not winnable militarily. "We're good at fighting armies, but we don't know how to do this," says a recently retired four-star general with Middle East experience. "We don't have enough intelligence analysts working on this problem. The Defense Intelligence Agency [dia] puts most of its emphasis and its assets on Iran, North Korea and China. The Iraqi insurgency is simply not top priority, and that's a damn shame."
The intelligence officers stressed these points:
They believe that Saddam's inner circle—especially those from the Military Bureau—initially organized the insurgency's support structure and that networks led by former Saddam associates like al-Ahmed and al-Duri still provide money and logistical help.
The Bush Administration's fixation on finding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2003 diverted precious intelligence resources that could have helped thwart the fledgling insurgency.
From the beginning of the insurgency, U.S. military officers have tried to contact and negotiate with rebel leaders, including, as a senior Iraq expert puts it, "some of the people with blood on their hands."
The frequent replacement of U.S. military and administrative teams in Baghdad has made it difficult to develop a counterinsurgency strategy.
The accumulation of blunders has led a Pentagon guerrilla-warfare expert to conclude, "We are repeating every mistake we made in Vietnam."
The Wrong Focus
it is no secret that General Tommy Franks didn't want to hang around Iraq very long. As Franks led the U.S. assault on Baghdad in April 2003, his goal—and that of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—was to get to the capital as quickly as possible with a minimal number of troops. Franks succeeded brilliantly at that task. But military-intelligence officers contend that he did not seem interested in what would come next. "He never once asked us for a briefing about what happened once we got to Baghdad," says a former Army intelligence officer attached to the invasion force. "He said, 'It's not my job.' We figured all he wanted to do was get in, get out and write his book." (Franks, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.)
The rush to Baghdad, critics say, laid the groundwork for trouble to come. In one prewar briefing, for example, Lieut. General David McKiernan—who commanded the land component of the coalition forces—asked Franks what should be done if his troops found Iraqi arms caches on the way to Baghdad. "Just put a lock on 'em and go, Dave," Franks replied, according to a former U.S. Central Command (Centcom) officer. Of course, you couldn't simply put a lock on ammunition dumps that stretched for several square miles—dumps that would soon be stripped and provide a steady source of weaponry for the insurgency.
Thousands moved directly into the insurgency—not just soldiers but also civil servants who took with them useful knowledge of Iraq's electrical grid and water and sewage systems. Bremer says he doesn't regret that decision, according to his spokesman Dan Senor. "The Kurds and Shi'ites didn't want Saddam's army in business," says Senor, "and the army had gone home. We had bombed their barracks. How were we supposed to bring them back and separate out the bad guys? We didn't even have enough troops to stop the looting in Baghdad."
A third decision in the spring of 2003—to make the search for WMD the highest intelligence priority—also hampered the U.S. ability to fight the insurgents. In June, former weapons inspector David Kay arrived in Baghdad to lead the Iraq Survey Group (isg), which had 1,200 intelligence officers and support staff members assigned to search for WMD. They had exclusive access to literally tons of documents collected from Saddam's office, intelligence services and ministries after the regime fell. Kay clashed repeatedly with U.S. military leaders who wanted access not only to the documents but also to some of the resources—analysts, translators, field agents—at his disposal. "I was in meetings where [General John] Abizaid was pounding on the table trying to get some help," says a senior military officer. "But Kay wouldn't budge."
Misjudging The Enemy
As early as June 2003, the CIA told bush in a briefing that he faced a "classic insurgency" in Iraq. But the White House didn't fully trust the CIA, and on June 30, Rumsfeld told reporters, "I guess the reason I don't use the term guerrilla war is that it isn't ... anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance." The opposition, he claimed, was composed of "looters, criminals, remnants of the Baathist regime" and a few foreign fighters. Indeed, Rumsfeld could claim progress in finding and capturing most of the 55 top members of Saddam's regime—the famous Iraqi deck of cards. (To date, 44 of the 55 have been captured or killed.) Two weeks after Rumsfeld's comment, the Secretary of Defense was publicly contradicted by Centcom commander Abizaid, who said the U.S. indeed faced "a classical guerrilla-type campaign" in Iraq.
In a sense, both Rumsfeld and Abizaid were right. The backbone of the insurgency was thousands of Baathist remnants organizing a guerrilla war against the Americans. According to documents later seized by the U.S. military, Saddam—who had been changing locations frequently until his capture in December 2003—tried to stay in charge of the rebellion. He fired off frequent letters filled with instructions for his subordinates. Some were pathetic. In one, he explained guerrilla tradecraft to his inner circle—how to keep in touch with one another, how to establish new contacts, how to remain clandestine. Of course, the people doing the actual fighting needed no such advice, and decisions about whom to attack when and where were made by the cells. Saddam's minions, including al-Duri and al-Ahmed, were away from the front lines, providing money, arms and logistical support for the cells.
But Saddam did make one strategic decision that helped alter the course of the insurgency. In early autumn he sent a letter to associates ordering them to change the target focus from coalition forces to Iraqi "collaborators"—that is, to attack Iraqi police stations. The insurgency had already announced its seriousness and lethal intent with a summer bombing campaign. On Aug. 7, a bomb went off outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing 19 people. Far more ominous was the Aug. 19 blast that destroyed the U.N.'s headquarters in Baghdad, killing U.N. representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others. Although al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attack, U.S. intelligence officials believe that remnants of Saddam's Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) carried it out. "It was a pure Baathist operation," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "The Iraqis who served as U.N. security guards simply didn't show up for work that day. It wasn't a suicide bomb. The truck driver left the scene. Our [explosives] team found that the bomb had the distinctive forensics of Saddam's IIS."
On Oct. 27, 2003, the assaults on "collaborators" that Saddam had requested began with attacks on four Iraqi police stations—and on International Red Cross headquarters—in Baghdad, killing 40 people.
The assaults revealed a deadly new alliance between the Baathists and the jihadi insurgents. U.S. intelligence agents later concluded, after interviewing one of the suicide bombers, a Sudanese who failed in his attempt, that the operation had been a collaboration between former Baathists and al-Zarqawi. The Baathists had helped move the suicide bombers into the country, according to the U.S. sources, and then provided shelter, support (including automobiles) and coordination for the attacks.
Mishandling The Tribes
The Baathists, on the other hand, were more active in courting the tribes. Starting in November 2003, tribal sheiks and Baathist expatriates held a series of monthly meetings at the Cham Palace hotel in Damascus. They were public events, supposedly meetings to express solidarity with the Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation.
(The January 2004 gathering was attended by Syrian President Bashar Assad.) Behind the scenes, however, the meetings provided a convenient cover for leaders of the insurgency, including Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, the former Military Bureau director, to meet, plan and distribute money. A senior military officer told TIME that U.S. intelligence had an informant—a mid-level Baathist official who belonged to the Dulaimi tribe—attending the meetings and keeping the Americans informed about the insurgents' growing cohesion. But the increased flow of information did not produce a coherent strategy for fighting the growing rebellion.
By April 2004, U.S. military-intelligence officers were also holding face-to-face talks with Abdullah al-Janabi, a rebel leader from Fallujah. The meetings ended after al-Zarqawi—who had taken up residence in Fallujah—threatened to kill al-Janabi if the talks continued, according to U.S. and Iraqi sources. But attempts to negotiate with other insurgents are continuing, including with Saddam's former religious adviser. So far, the effort has been futile. "We keep hoping they'll come up with a Gerry Adams," says a U.S. intelligence official, referring to the leader of the Irish Republican Army's political wing. "But it just hasn't happened."
The leadership in Baghdad changed yet again this year. Negroponte left Baghdad in March to become director of national intelligence. He was replaced by Zalmay Khalilzad. But the turnover in the Iraqi government was far more important: religious Shi'ites, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, took charge, a severe irritant to many Sunnis. "The insurgents see al-Jaafari as a traitor, a man who spent the Iran-Iraq war in Iran," says a senior military officer. "And many of the best officers we have trained in the new Iraqi army—Sunnis and secular Shi'ites who served in Saddam's army—feel the same way."
Another hot debate in the intelligence community is whether to make a major change in the counterinsurgency strategy—to stop the aggressive sweeps through insurgent-riddled areas, like the recent offensive in Tall 'Afar, and try to concentrate troops and resources with the aim of improving security and living conditions in population centers like Baghdad. "We've taken Samarra four times, and we've lost it four times," says an intelligence officer. "We need a new strategy."
But the Pentagon leadership is unlikely to support a strategy that concedes broad swaths of territory to the enemy. In fact, none of the intelligence officers who spoke with TIME or their ranking superiors could provide a plausible road map toward stability in Iraq. It is quite possible that the occupation of Iraq was an unwise proposition from the start, as many U.S. allies in the region warned before the invasion. Yet, despite their gloom, every one of the officers favors continuing—indeed, augmenting—the war effort. If the U.S. leaves, they say, the chaos in central Iraq could threaten the stability of the entire Middle East. And al-Qaeda operatives like al-Zarqawi could have a relatively safe base of operations in the Sunni triangle. "We have never taken this operation seriously enough," says a retired senior military official with experience in Iraq. "We have never provided enough troops. We have never provided enough equipment, or the right kind of equipment. We have never worked the intelligence part of the war in a serious, sustained fashion. We have failed the Iraqi people, and we have failed our troops."
posted by Steve @ 9:08:00 AM