Hindsight is Good — Foresight is Better

Stephen DeAngelis

July 23, 2008

It is no secret that the U.S. military and its political masters had little clue what to do in Iraq once it brought down Saddam Hussein’s regime. There have been numerous books, blogs and articles written on the subject. Now the Army has published its own assessment of what went wrong [“An Army That Learns,” by David Ignatius, Washington Post, 13 July 2008].

“The U.S. Army has done something remarkable in its new history of the disastrous first 18 months of the American occupation of Iraq: It has conducted a rigorous self-critique of how bad decisions were made, so that the Army won’t make them again.”

It may be remarkable that the Army published a critical report about its performance, but I’m not as sanguine that “the Army won’t make [the same bad decisions] again,” because not all decisions are the Army’s to make. Preceding the war in Iraq there were numerous studies and war games conducted that could have better prepared the Army for occupying Iraq, but all of that material was ignored. While much of the blame for that ignorance falls on the civilian leadership who reportedly ordered military planners not to use it — purportedly because those materials indicated that the force needed to keep the peace needed to be considerably larger than force needed to win the war — the fact remains that the lessons weren’t applied. There is nothing to prevent future civilian leadership from acting in a similarly foolish way. Nevertheless, Ignatius is impressed that the Army went to trouble of critiquing itself, even if he does admit that the civilians in charge continue to justify their decisions or point fingers elsewhere. He writes:

“Civilian leaders are still mostly engaged in a blame game about Iraq, pointing fingers to explain what went wrong and to justify their own actions. That’s certainly the tone of recent memoirs by Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense, and L. Paul Bremer, the onetime head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. These were the people making policy, yet they treat the key mistakes as other people’s fault. Feith criticizes Bremer and the CIA, while Bremer chides former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the military for ignoring his advice that the United States didn’t have enough troops. The Army can’t afford this sort of retroactive self-justification. Its commanders and soldiers are the ones who got stuck with the situation in Iraq and had to make it work as best they could. And this internal history, published last month under the title ‘On Point II,’ testifies to the Army’s strength as a learning organization. (This study covers May 2003 to January 2005. An earlier volume, ‘On Point,’ chronicled the initial assault on Baghdad.)”

I won’t quibble with Ignatius’ description of the Army as a “learning organization.” Like most military services, it works hard to ensure that its strategies, doctrines, and tactics provide its people with the best chance for success. But because the Army is doctrinally driven, there is a built-in tension between those who are trying to lock doctrine down (so that it can be published, promulgated, and practiced) and those who are trying to change it and make it better. Although this is a creative tension, it nevertheless means that parts of the Army will always be odds. What is refreshing about the Army report is the admission that the Army had spent too little time thinking about what comes after the war is won.

“The study is blunt about how unprepared the Army was for the postwar challenges: “The DOD and the Army lacked a coherent plan to translate the rapid, narrow-front attack [on Baghdad] . . . into strategic success. Soldiers and commanders at nearly every level did not know what was expected of them once Saddam Hussein was deposed and his military forces destroyed.’ The situation in spring 2003 ‘evoked the aphorism, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”‘ Why was the Army so unready for the insurgency and chaos that followed the toppling of Hussein? The study rejects the easy (if largely correct) answer that it was the fault of poor civilian leadership and focuses instead on the Army’s own shortcomings. The overall commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, ‘did not see postwar Iraq as his long-term responsibility,’ the study says. ‘Franks’ message to the DOD and the Joint Chiefs was, “You pay attention to the day after, and I’ll pay attention to the day of.”‘ But it turned out that nobody was preparing for the day after. The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, argued that more troops would be needed, but the Joint Chiefs supported Franks’s under-resourced war plan. The chiefs assumed that a reconstituted Iraqi army would help secure the country after the war, little realizing that Bremer would disband it in May 2003. At that time, the military still was assuming that most American troops would be gone by that September.”

Franks philosophical take — “You pay attention to the day after, and I’ll pay attention to the day of” — is clever (and undoubtedly he had plenty to keep him and his planners busy), but he had to know that there was no force in training that was prepared to rush in and implement the occupation. Even if there were, he would have been in charge of it. Both the military and its civilian leadership deserve to take the hit for not having such a force in training. At the time the Iraq War started, my colleague, Tom Barnett, had already been pushing for a “System Administrator (SysAdmin) Force” whose primary purpose is to secure the peace. Although the report doesn’t use that term, it laments the fact that such a force didn’t exist.

“The United States had a force for ‘regime removal’ but not ‘regime change,’ write the authors, Donald P. Wright and Col. Timothy R. Reese. When the Army began to understand that it faced a well-organized insurgency, ‘the transition to a new campaign was not well thought out.’ The Army wasn’t ready to train Iraqi security forces or to handle the thousands of Iraqi prisoners detained in places such as Abu Ghraib.”

I don’t believe that Ignatius is praising the Army simply for conducting and publishing a report. His real praise is for the men and women on the ground in Iraq who had to learn on the job and made the necessary adjustments in real time to achieve success (even if the learning curve was slower than necessary to prevent the chaos that ensued).

“The Army learned from its mistakes. Rather than sulking about the Iraq mess, commanders made necessary changes. The Army developed a new doctrine for fighting a counterinsurgency; it learned how to work with Iraqi tribal leaders; it pursued al-Qaeda into every village of Iraq; it experimented with soft power, by working closely with Provincial Reconstruction Teams. ‘One could easily state that the U.S. Army essentially reinvented itself during this 18-month period,’ the historians write. This study illustrates what’s most admirable about the Army. It has maintained a tradition of intellectual rigor and self-criticism. That’s nurtured in the Army’s unique program of midcareer education. It’s not an accident but part of that Army tradition that the current commander in Iraq, Gen. David Patraeus, took a doctorate in international relations at Princeton, or that the former Centcom commander, Gen. John Abizaid, had a stint as commandant of West Point. This tradition is exemplified, too, in the decision of Gen. George Casey, the current chief of staff, to publish this sometimes searing critique of his own service.”

Throughout the period that the military personnel on the ground were transforming themselves, Tom was receiving emails from them indicating that they were doing exactly the things that he said SysAdmin forces had to do. They were grateful for his foresight and his insight. Ignatius, who has also praised Tom as strategist, concludes:

“Politicians repeat, ad nauseam, the maxim that ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ The U.S. Army is that rare institution in American life that is actually putting this precept into practice.”

As the title of this post declares, hindsight is good, but foresight is better. There were a lot of people, both in the military and out, who predicted that the kind of activities required to secure the peace were being ignored in military doctrine. They were not surprised by the chaos that following the toppling of Ba’athist regime. That said, I’m glad the Army had the courage to transform. I just wish it would have listened to those who had the foresight to call for it to change before thousands had to die because it was unprepared to win the peace.