"Catastrophic success"

Published October 24, 2004 3:36PM (EDT)

With the Iraq war and national security at the heart of this presidential election, Michael Gordon's three-part series in the New York Times this past week, "Catastrophic Success," is an essential read. From a series of interviews with high level military, intelligence and administration officials, Gordon offers a sweeping look at the juggernaut that the Bush administration unleashed when it launched the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

If taking the nation to war is "the hardest decision a president has to make," as George W. Bush has said, it is also a series of complicated and critical decisions once set in motion. Gordon surveys those that are the responsibility of the Bush administration in Iraq.

  • From part 1, on the failure to forsee a "second war" and commit enough U.S. troops:

    "In the debate over the war and its aftermath, the Bush administration has portrayed the insurgency that is still roiling Iraq today as an unfortunate, and unavoidable, accident of history, an enemy that emerged only after melting away during the rapid American advance toward Baghdad. The sole mistake Mr. Bush has acknowledged in the war is in not foreseeing what he termed that 'catastrophic success.'

    "But many military officers and civilian officials who served in Iraq in the spring and summer of 2003 say the administration's miscalculations cost the United States valuable momentum -- and enabled an insurgency that was in its early phases to intensify and spread. ...

    "As the Iraq war approached ... a RAND Corporation study on nation building [concluded that] the larger the number of security forces, the fewer the casualties suffered by alliance troops ...

    "'My position is that we lost momentum and that the insurgency was not inevitable,' said James A. (Spider) Marks, a retired Army major general, who served as the chief intelligence officer for the land war command. 'We had momentum going in and had Saddam's forces on the run.'

    "'But we did not have enough troops,' he continued. 'First, we did not have enough troops to conduct combat patrols in sufficient numbers to gain solid intelligence and paint a good picture of the enemy on the ground. Secondly, we needed more troops to act on the intelligence we generated. They took advantage of our limited numbers.'"

  • From part 2, on failures with U.S. intelligence:

    "Despite more than a decade of antagonism between Saddam Hussein's government and the United States, the Bush administration was operating with limited information when it began to consider the invasion of Iraq. ...

    "[Shortly before the war] the United States gained a detailed understanding of Iraq's oil infrastructure and obtained a secret map of Iraq's Baghdad defense plan. The C.I.A. also helped debunk one threat that the military had worried about: the possibility that Mr. Hussein's government would flood the country to thwart an allied advance.

    "The agency, though, turned out to have a less clear understanding of what the United States would face once it invaded Iraq, or of Mr. Hussein's military strategy. In January 2003, the National Intelligence Council issued its assessment of what might happen after the dictator was ousted. The report cautioned that building democracy in Iraq would be difficult because of its authoritarian history. And it warned of the risk that the American forces would be seen as occupiers.

    "'Attitudes toward a foreign military force would depend largely on the progress made in transferring power, as well as on the degree to which that force were perceived as providing necessary security and fostering reconstruction and a return to prosperity,' it said. The report also noted that quick restoration of services would be important to maintain the support of the Iraqi public."

  • From part 3, on the decision to dissolve the entire Iraqi military:

    "When Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus flew to Baghdad on June 14, 2003, he had a blunt message for the American-led occupation authority. As the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, General Petraeus had been working tirelessly to win the support of Iraqis in Mosul and the neighboring provinces in northern Iraq.

    "But the authority's decree to abolish the Iraqi Army and to forgo paying 350,000 soldiers had jolted much of Iraq. Riots had broken out in cities. Just the day before, 16 of General Petraeus's soldiers had been wounded trying to put down a violent demonstration.

    "Arriving at the huge Abu Ghraib North Palace for a ceremony, General Petraeus spied Walter B. Slocombe, an adviser to L. Paul Bremer III, who headed the authority. Sidling up to him, General Petraeus said that the decision to leave the soldiers without a livelihood had put American lives at risk.

    "More than a year later, Bremer's disbanding of the Iraqi Army still casts a shadow over the occupation of Iraq. ...

    "'It was absolutely the wrong decision,' said Col. Paul Hughes of the Army, who served as an aide to Jay Garner, a retired three-star general and the first civilian administrator of Iraq. 'We changed from being a liberator to an occupier with that single decision,' he said. 'By abolishing the army, we destroyed in the Iraqi mind the last symbol of sovereignty they could recognize and as a result created a significant part of the resistance.'"

  • By Mark Follman

    Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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