How we lost Iraq

If you want further confirmation that the U.S. bungled the Iraq invasion, Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor have written the book for you.

Published May 9, 2006 12:04PM (EDT)

Just past the three-year mark of the invasion of Iraq, an already considerable literature has sprung up around the war. We've seen big, ambitious books like "The Assassins' Gate," George Packer's history of the war's complex genesis, the hawks' failure to do any postwar planning and the critical missteps and squandered opportunities that plagued the Coalition Provisional Authority during the first year of the occupation. Packer wrestled with the historical implications of the war, and charted the sometimes tortured paths some of its initial supporters, including himself, have traveled in owning up to (or not) their mistakes.

There are also a bevy of less overtly political works, like Anthony Shadid's tragic portrait of a people under siege, "Night Draws Near," that examine the toll the war took on individual Iraqis. Perhaps the most personal, heartbreaking (and sadly overlooked) of these books is Michael Goldfarb's "Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace," an American reporter's tender eulogy to his Iraqi translator and friend, Ahmad Shawkat, a frustrated intellectual and dissident who was tortured by Saddam's henchmen for refusing to bend to the strictures of the state. Ahmad's tragedy is endemic of the occupation as a whole: Once freed from the repression of the state, he starts a pro-democracy newspaper, only to be killed by Islamic fanatics for his liberal views, leaving behind a wife and several children.

Over the next several weeks we'll see more: "In the Belly of the Green Bird," by journalist Nir Rosen, who infiltrated the insurgency in Iraq, is set to be released, along with freelancer David Axe's "War Fix," a graphic novel exploring his experiences as an embedded reporter in Iraq. These books join those by a host of retired generals, former government officials, reporters and soldiers who have added their voices to the chorus surrounding what was at one time billed as our generation's grand adventure, and which has instead devolved into a festering sore, tearing the nation apart.

Entering the mix is "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq," by the New York Times' Michael Gordon and retired Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor. It has none of the fleshy humanity that Shadid and Goldfarb -- and to a certain extent Packer -- brought to the story of Iraq. Nor should it. Gordon and Trainor, well situated with a bevy of sources inside the decision-making process at the Pentagon, never avert their gaze from the often politically inspired recklessness of the Pentagon brass leading up to the invasion; nor do they neglect to notice how the grunts on the ground carried out their orders with courage and professionalism. A good portion of the book is taken up with relating the smug, detached war plans hatched at the Pentagon by civilian commanders -- led, of course, by Donald Rumsfeld -- convinced the war could be fought cheaply and quickly. While the outcome of the conflict was never in doubt, in Gordon and Trainor's account, Rumsfeld, Gen. Tommy Franks and the ideological yes men they surrounded themselves with at the Pentagon often come off as almost fictional in their self-delusion.

If you thought you knew everything about the planning mistakes that allowed the American military -- through no fault of its own -- to charge into Iraq uncertain of the fight they would face, "Cobra II" will deepen your knowledge, and validate all of your worst fears, about what went wrong. At the very least, the book acts as a collection point for three years' worth of stories of incompetence, hubris and delusion on a grand scale. All the things we've taken as conventional wisdom about what went wrong in Iraq are here proved true, with firsthand evidence to back it up: The lack of men and materiel, the aversion to "nation building," the ignorance of local culture and customs, the underestimation of Iraqi paramilitary units and the desire to pull out quickly are here writ large. Indeed, the Pentagon, through Rumsfeld's insistence on going into the war fast and light -- ignoring the recommendation of Gen. Shinseki and other top officers that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to pacify the country after initial combat operations -- caused the military on the ground more problems than it solved. In the end, the fighting men and women and their creative and dogged officer corps, sloshing through the mud and the sand and the grime of combat, rose above their leadership and succeeded the best they could. "Cobra II" tells their story like no other book has, honoring their courage even as it savages the arrogance of the top brass.

One of the key points made by Gordon and Trainor is that Franks and Rumsfeld ignored early evidence that the real battle for Iraq would take place after Saddam's regular army was defeated. Just days after the invasion began, Iraqi Fedayeen forces and paramilitary fighters were harassing American convoys, staging hit-and-run assaults from pickup trucks, melting into the civilian population and engaging in other classic forms of irregular warfare. On March 27, 2003, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, serving under CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks and tasked with running the ground war, called for a temporary halt to the push north in order to shore up the rear. With the lead units outrunning their supply lines and facing a series of unexpectedly brutal fights with an enemy often wearing civilian clothes, it was quickly becoming clear to ground commanders that the "enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against," as Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, head of the Army's V Corps, told reporters at the time.

The halt, and the fact that Wallace broke from message discipline, so infuriated Franks that McKiernan was forced to fly to CENTCOM headquarters and "eat a shit sandwich" in order to set things straight and to convince Franks not to relieve Wallace of his command. Gordon and Trainor report that Wallace's comments "shook the Pentagon," and led Rumsfeld to publicly disavow responsibility for the war plan, essentially shuffling any blame for missteps onto Franks and Gen. Anthony Zinni, who had been excommunicated by the Pentagon for refusing to support Rumsfeld's fast and light approach to waging war. More important, neither Rumsfeld nor Franks concluded that the guerrilla-style attacks were a sign of things to come.

With the holdup at the front riling the Pentagon, and Rumsfeld enraged, Newt Gingrich stepped in to calm the defense boss. Gingrich asked Army Col. -- and Rumsfeld favorite -- Doug Macgregor to write a memo fantasizing about how the war should be going. Macgregor had earlier proposed a ridiculous plan that called for an invasion force of about 16,500 soldiers, buttressed by another 15,000 to be flown in to maintain order once the fighting was done. Rumsfeld found the memo inspired and forwarded it to Franks during the planning phase of the operation, "as an example of the creative thinking the CENTCOM commander should consider."

Macgregor's new memo showed much of the same bluster, and again, Rumsfeld -- who was still convinced that the invasion force was too big and should be moving faster -- gushed over it. Safely ensconced in Washington, Macgregor and Rumsfeld seemed to be in the dark about the fierce fighting, stretched supply lines and paramilitary action hitting the American advance from all sides. Displaying the nerve of a true armchair general, Macgregor wrote that "The advance must continue without pause. There is no reason to stop ... Holding one's nerve is fundamental ... Stopping will be a betrayal." Most important, perhaps, Macgregor finished with a nod to the political realities of the invasion: "Stopping will open the door to destructive partisan politics. Public support could well evaporate."

"Cobra II" -- which draws almost entirely on the recollections of those in Pentagon and CENTCOM meetings -- savages Rumsfeld's legacy. Many of Rumsfeld's ideas about how to fight in Iraq were fortunately ignored. For those aspects of his plan that did make it into the final draft of the war, and for his constant meddling and micromanaging, Gordon and Trainor -- and the military men they spoke to and the classified after-action reports they read -- have little admiration. But Rumsfeld's insistence that the U.S. go in fast and light, with the assumption that the military would quickly overwhelm the enemy and then withdraw, did of course prevail -- with disastrous results.

One of Rumsfeld's most destructive contributions came when he decided to dismantle the time-phased force and deployment list (TPFDL) system, the military's computerized system for deploying and supplying forces overseas, which he regarded as an outdated way of doing things that "took decision-making out of his hands." Instead, Rumsfeld wanted to retain the power to cut off the flow of troops as soon as the combat portion of the war was over, so as to draw the American presence in the country down to a division or two (in other words, well under 40,000 troops) by the fall of 2003. The August 2004 Schlesinger Report, which investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, found that aside from keeping vital supplies and reinforcements floating in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf -- where they did the invading troops no good -- Rumsfeld's decision to do away with the TPFDL also fed into the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib, since units arrived out of order, without the proper training, and often without their equipment.

But the full extent to which Rumsfeld and his team of civilians in the Pentagon were out of touch with the realities on the ground is thrown into high relief in an anecdote Gordon and Trainor relay about Rumfeld's long-standing plan to have troops from neighboring Muslim countries come in to guard religious sites in Iraq. This plan was greenlighted until just before the invasion, when an Army colonel pointed out that the countries bordering Iraq were predominantly Sunni, and having their soldiers guard Shiite religious sites "would be like having Fitzgerald [one of Frank's chief war planners] ... go to Belfast to guard the Orange Day parade."

Some of the most striking passages in the book come not from any backroom, fly-on-the-wall investigative reporting (though those details alone are worth the price of admission), but instead are found in the blow-by-blow accounts of the fighting during the march toward Baghdad. While these fights, and the quick action by the officer corps in the midst of the brawl, will no doubt be studied at military colleges and institutions for generations to come, they have, for whatever reason, failed to grab the attention of the American people in any meaningful way.

Who, after all, can tell you anything about the battle of Samawah, or the bloody wrestling matches at Najaf or Nasiriyah, or the critical engagement at Al Kifl, where the fighting was so fierce with Iraqi irregulars that a colonel who took part said it might have been a turning point in the war?

From the opening engagements of the war, the Army and Marines -- who were advancing in parallel columns with little communication between them -- noted that a disproportionate number of the enemy wore civilian clothes, and from the very first, U.S. forces were capturing groups of fighters with Syrian passports. The commanders on the ground also noted from the first salvos that, given the orders to push north as fast as possible, there were no American troops left in the south of the country to try to restore order and mop up the Fedayeen forces that had blended in with the civilian populace. This, as many of them made clear at the time, and which has been recorded in the book, was a tactical mistake that could have been corrected with more troops, or more attention from Franks at CENTCOM, who looked at the irregular and foreign fighters as little more than a distraction to his carefully choreographed war plan.

For example, at the fight for the Tallil Airfield in the opening days of the war, Maj. Jim Desjardin said in an interview that it was "The first day [he had] seen the enemy and realized we were fighting a different force. They weren't in uniform. They were civilian individuals that were running around with weapons." Similarly, as the fight for Nasiriyah showed, Gordon and Trainor write, it was obvious to the officers on the ground that "The enemy faced by U.S. forces would be largely amorphous, not in uniform, and rarely part of an organized military force ... if the Fedayeen had disappeared into small villages and towns to regroup and fight another day and were to be hunted down, did the United States have the right strategy for that, as well as sufficient forces?"

There was never any real doubt that the overwhelming firepower, strict training and professionalism of the American forces would carry the day in Iraq, but as Gordon and Trainor bring to life in heretofore unseen detail, the commanders slugging it out on the ground had moments of genuine concern over the success of the operation, given the unexpected resistance they were facing. They write that just in the first few days of the engagement, the "3-7 Calvary had engaged in an unexpected firefight in Samawah; Rams had been infiltrated by small groups of Fedayeen; and the battle in Nasiriyah had become a bloody brawl."

Despite all this, Franks still didn't think the fighting in the south was bad enough to slow the advance, and refused to allocate additional troops to fill in the gaps left behind as troops rushed toward Baghdad -- the Bush administration's symbolic crown jewel. Instead of listening to his ground commanders about the fierce fighting, Franks instead blamed the Army's lack of aggressiveness, while complaining that McKiernan was too concerned with the unfinished business in the rear. This insistence on getting to Baghdad at the expense of wiping out the resistance in the south may have allowed the insurgency that has plagued the U.S. to take deeper root.

How much are Rumsfeld and Franks to blame for the mess in Iraq? That's something many of the books on the war have grappled with, and will continue to wrestle with for years to come. War is a complicated business, and it's a fact of war that once the shooting starts, the original battle essentially gets thrown out. There are no guarantees that even with more troops and better planning, things would have turned out differently in Iraq. As Rumsfeld might say, it's a "known unknown." But the initial planning and policy failures are easier to tally, and as "Cobra II" shows in precise detail, they can be placed directly at the feet of Rumsfeld and Franks.

By Paul McLeary

Paul McLeary is a staff writer for, and reported from Iraq earlier this year.

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