With little notice, a military insider critiques what went wrong in Iraq

U.S. soldiers sit on top of their tanks near the southern Iraqi city of Karbala in 2003. A new report by a military insider says the war in Iraq "has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle."
REUTERS/Peter Andrews
U.S. soldiers sit on top of their tanks near the southern Iraqi city of Karbala in 2003. A new report by a military insider says the war in Iraq “has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle.”

For decades Joseph J. Collins was the model military insider — but no longer.

He served in the U.S. Army for almost 28 years, retiring as a colonel in 1998. Along the way he earned a bachelor’s degree, two masters and, from Columbia, a doctorate in political science. When he failed to make general he quietly went off to do research as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of Washington’s most highly regarded, somewhat right-of-center think tanks. After 9/11 he was recalled to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, this time as the deputy assistant secretary for stability operations.

Assignment: the invasion of Iraq. He did that job until 2004, winning the department’s Medal for Distinguished Public Service, its highest civilian award.

Obviously good at his work, he now teaches future generals and senior civilian officials as a professor at the Pentagon’s War College.

Collins is quiet no more, however. Now that Rumsfeld is gone as his boss, Collins has gone public with an extensively researched and footnoted paper — titled “Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath” (PDF) — that is the strongest and most thorough critique yet of the invasion and its aftermath from a senior Bush administration official.

He pulls no punches. In the opening sentence he says, “Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle.”

You get the picture. Not something you would expect from a veteran who sees himself as one of those analysts for whom Iraq remains a “must win” in contrast to others who, he says, view the war as a “can’t win.” But there it is.

Collins never lets up, flaying the administration for faulty assumptions in deciding to invade, flawed planning and continuing failure despite progress during the surge to create satisfactory conditions for stabilizing, reconstructing and governing the society under Iraqi control.

“It is arguable whether the Iraqis will develop the wherewithal to create ethnic reconciliation and build a coherent national government. It is clear, however, the United States and its partners have not done enough to create conditions in which such a development could take place,” he says.

“With the best of intentions, the United States toppled a vile, dangerous regime but has been unable to replace it with a stable entity. Mistakes in the Iraq operation cry out for improvements in U.S. decision-making and policy execution systems. These improvements will require major changes in the legislative and executive branches, as well as in interagency processes.”

Despite these criticisms, Collins favors no abrupt pullout from Iraq. “…[T]he only thing worse than an Iraq with an American army may be an Iraq after the rapid withdrawal of that army.”

Collins describes in great detail U.S. shortcomings and follows with a series of recommendations on how to do it better next time.

Unfortunately, his study attracted little mainstream media attention when it was released in April. But if it came to the attention of the candidates running for president this year it could provide a blueprint for that next time, which many believe is a certainty in this day of rogue states, failed nations and so-called terrorist organizations. 

Joseph J. Collins
Defense Department photo by Helene C. Stikkel
Then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations Joseph J. Collins shows reporters a new vinyl wrapper for humanitarian daily rations at a Pentagon news briefing Feb. 25, 2003.

Meanwhile, just days after Collins’ paper surfaced with little notice, national media were giving front-page coverage to the latest Bush administration effort to rev the “military option” against Iran. Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s top military officer, was saying that the Pentagon is planning for “potential military courses of action.” He told a press conference that while it would be “extremely stressing” to start another war, “it would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability.”

As if to underscore those comments, the Pentagon almost immediately sent a second aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, offshore from Iran.

The decision to invade Iraq

Collins, the insider who watched it happen, confirms many of the claims by outside critics.

After 9/11, when the new President Bush embraced his pre-emptive war doctrine and described Iraq, along with North Korea and Iran, as the “axis of evil,” the stage was being set. “The doorway to war was wide open,” Collins says. Planning for regime change had been underway at the Pentagon since November 200l by the president’s direct order to Rumsfeld. Collins was there, drafted to help make it happen.

By then, everyone who mattered in the decision-making, especially Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld believed that Saddam Hussein had arsenals and stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and an active nuclear weapons program and that the tyrant had to go, in Collins’ view.

Rumsfeld took tight hands-on control of invasion planning, unique for a defense secretary. He wanted “a quick, lightning-like operation in Iraq, followed by a swift handover of power to the Iraqis” and a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces. He wanted a small force that could get the job done quickly and get out.

As a result, he placed little emphasis on what would happen after Saddam was toppled, in effect ignoring Collins’ specialty as an after-shooting planner. “Long, costly, manpower-intensive postcombat operations were anathema to Rumsfeld.”

To pressure his military commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, to do it his way, Rumsfeld required frequent face-to-face briefings at which he constantly reinforced his demands and, between briefings, sent a constant storm of memos, known in the Pentagon as Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes.”

The secretary regularly pushed aside those, including Franks, who felt more troops would be needed to take charge of Iraq after its military was defeated and Saddam was no more. The final plan, for 140,000 troops, was one-third the size of the force on the military’s normal contingency-planning shelf when Bush came to power.

Bush and the Joint Chiefs readily bought into Rumsfeld’s cut-rate plan. “None of them brought up any misgivings.”

Two wars, not one

Toppling Saddam was easy, as we all know. It took just a few weeks, starting in March 2003. Some in the Pentagon were saying that by August the invasion force could be down to 25,000 or so, according to Collins. But then …

“In May 2003, war A was ending, but war B was about to begin. We had a complex, flexible plan for war A but no such plan for war B.” The military “had not prepared for insurgency and took more than a year to adjust well in the field.” Collins goes on. “Political development and progress continue to lag behind military efforts.” From 2003 to 2007 “reconstruction and stabilization activities made even slower progress than military operations.”

To this day, Collins says, “there remains … a very limited capacity to execute meaningful reconstruction. Many projects never left the drawing board because of lack of security or capacity. Corruption and inefficiency also complicate everything. Billions have been spent with little return.

“Iraqi capacity to even accept and operate and maintain completed projects has been pathetic.”  He cites a recent U.S. government report showing that after the U.S. spent nearly $6 billion and completed nearly 3,000 projects, the new government of Iraq took possession of “just 435 of them worth only half a billion dollars.” The rest remain idle or have been turned over to weak local governments.

Why it went wrong

In hindsight, Collins says, the bad decisions and bad execution included:

• The problems of occupying a fractious Muslim country the size of California were underestimated.

• U.S. civilian and military plans for stabilizing the country and reconstructing it were ineffective.

• U.S. military forces on the scene were too small and reacted poorly to the rioting and looting in the “immediate postconflict environment,” encouraging lawlessness and insurgency.

• Occupation forces were inadequate to secure Iraq, further encouraging insurgency.

• Civil and military response to the insurgency was too slow.

• U.S. funding for reconstruction was too problematic and too slow.

• Disbanding of the Iraqi military and outlawing of the Baath political party alienated the Sunni minority.

• Development of new Iraqi security forces was too slow and often ineffective.

• The inability to provide enough trained U.S. diplomats, civilian officials and aid workers to conduct effective reconstruction and stabilization activities.

Underlying all these mistakes, according to Collins, was a series of flawed assumptions — “one of the most significant factors in our postwar policy.” They were based on wishful thinking, stress, predispositions and bad intelligence, among other factors.

“The core assumption held by many leaders in the national security establishment was that the war would be difficult, the peace relatively easy and the occupation short and inexpensive.” Given that assumption, “the amount of time and effort spent on the major combat operation war plan was impressive; the amount of time and effort placed on postwar planning was relatively slight in comparison.”

It was assumed there would be huge numbers of refugees and displaced persons, dispersing the population and making organized civilian resistance difficult. Didn’t happen.

It was assumed the invaders would be seen short-and-long-term as liberators, not occupiers. Didn’t happen.

It was assumed the Iraqi people were so hungry for human rights and democracy that they would uniformly put aside the urge to settle old scores or divide along ethnic or sectarian terms. Not so.

It was widely believed that without Saddam Iraq could come together and with its vast oil reserves fund its own reconstruction. Not so.

It was assumed that the Iraqi army, police and ministries would be professional, capable, malleable and able to assist in the birth of a new Iraq. “None of these things turned out to be true.”

“Sadly,” Collins says, “much of the postinvasion state of affairs had been predicted. Many government and civilian experts had spoken well and loudly about the dangers of postwar Iraq, but their warnings were not heeded.” His among them? The good soldier does not say.

Collins puts much of the blame for the continuing problems in Iraq on the failure to provide enough troops on the ground — U.S., allied or Iraqi — to control the country and create the security needed for governance and reconstruction.

The United States, he says, “still does not have the ground troops in its base force to support the kind of troop rotations and in-country force levels necessary to create an appropriate level of security that, in turn, could help to move us in the direction of political success in the insurgency.”

Despite the military progress shown by the addition of the 30,000 surge troops, Collins says, “We still await political progress — the ultimate goal and one that is entirely in Iraqi hands.”

Collins is also highly critical of the Bush administration’s failure to attract partners for the Iraq adventure, except for Britain. “This can be laid at the feet of the president and the people who dominated the national security apparatus,” meaning Cheney and Rumsfeld, according to Collins.

In relations with Congress and allies, “senior U.S. national security officials exhibited in many instances an imperious attitude, exerting power and pressure where diplomacy and bargaining might have had a better effect. The U.S. executive branch “was often seen as trying to be lord and master, instead of primus inter pares (first among equals).

“In the end, the failure to partner successfully increased friction among Defense, State and CIA, increased partisan bickering with an already fractious Congress, complicated the detainee policy, lowered allied participation in Iraq and hurt U.S. standing abroad.”

Recommendations for next time

Collins proposes numerous changes, some of them costing a lot of money:

• Develop a new national charter broadly outlining how contingency plans for possible future complex military confrontations are to be put together and by whom. The United States does not have one. Early in Bush’s administration the National Security Council staff drafted a proposal, only to have it blocked by the Pentagon in the interests of preserving cabinet officer’s (read that Rumsfeld) freedom of action and retaining military control.

• Improve planning between agencies. Too little is shared these days.

• Improve execution of plans for postwar reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, including creation of a new corps of civilian specialists that would largely replace the military in this task. This would require making postwar planning as important as war planning and make the State Department and its Agency for International Development more important in implementing postwar projects.

• Turn allies into full partners. Meaning we no longer can do Iraqs all on our own. “In Iraq the United States continues to pay a stiff price for its decisive, nearly unilateral action in 2003. …in the future bringing the allies in before the takeoff may make for a more complicated flight but a smoother landing.”

Collins councils caution about future wars of choice. The U.S. record in such wars — Vietnam and Iraq — “contains more than a few defeats or Pyrrhic victories. In the greater war on terror, the United States cannot forswear wars of choice or disregard conflicts….”

However, he urges, we should listen first to Winston Churchill, who said: “Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

In other words, beware of the war you wish for. You may not get it.

Frank Wright, former managing editor and foreign correspondent for the Star Tribune, writes about foreign and national affairs.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dan Smith on 05/08/2008 - 09:47 am.

    Maybe the mainstream media have ignored the story because it doesn’t contain any criticism that hasn’t already been voiced. In addition, he gives credence to the belief that Saddam gave aid an comfort to terrorists–al Qaeda and others–when it suited his purposes. That’s a point of view that sticks in the throats of the MSM. For people who want to live 24/7 in an Oliver Stone universe the answers seem obvious: oil, oil, oil. The rest of the Republic is concerned about how to correct the errors that were made and avoid the kind of bloodbath that accompanied the American exit from Southeast Asia. For all you trolls, check out Pol Pot, the Killing Fields and Boat People on Wikipedia.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/06/2008 - 12:12 pm.

    Iraq could serve as “a blueprint for the next time”?

    “With the best of intentions, the United States toppled a vile, dangerous regime but has been unable to replace it with a stable entity.” The best of intentions???

    Obviously, Mr. Collins has learned from Iraq everything except the MOST IMPORTANT LESSON: Pre-emptive war is a reckless, violent, illegal and immoral act of death-dealing and destruction that, in Iraq’s case, has led to the US becoming a country that tortures those who resist its occupation of its oil-rich land and imprisons without charge or trial all who might be “terrorists” (that is, resisters).

    Oil was the motive, Mr. Collins. WMD and Iraq’s status as “evil” was the pretext under which we sought (and still seek) to steal it. Iran is next, then Syria, then ?

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 05/06/2008 - 11:24 am.

    A really good — and important — article. The only disagreement I would have with Collins is that chaos will reign on a pullout of our troops.

    Chaos exists there NOW with our troops in place, and it WILL continue if and when we leave (as he notes). But using that logic, we cannot leave — at least not for years to come, and that is unacceptable and untenable. In the end, we will have to leave, and let the Iraqis manage on their own. Ultimately, it is the only possible solution, for better or worse. And oddly, it actually make be “better”.

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 05/06/2008 - 01:53 pm.

    myles, when we leave Iraq, the price of oil will skyrocket no matter what. It will not matter if we pull out of there in six weeks or six decades, the markets will speak. And, yes, chaos will reign. And no, none of the three major candidates or the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for that matter will have a clue as to how to deal with all of it.

    The price of crude is rising to record levels now as the markets get all a-twitter about possible supply disruptions on a daily basis in Nigeria, Iran, and so on. Don’t forget whats-his-name in Venezuela either. He likes attention too and knows how to tweak those pesky traders at the NY Mercantile Exchange.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/07/2008 - 08:57 am.

    If there’s someone I can slap on the top of the head here, please let me know who it is. This “top military expert” is telling us nothing we don’t already know. Why does the news media persist with this delusion that we need military experts to point out the bloody obvious? One would think that the recent disclosures regarding these “analysts” in the NYTs would give pause to this barrage of so called analysis by “military experts” but I guess not. This guy is saying nothing that has not already been said, and nothing that is not obvious to any casual observer. He misses the biggest point entirely, which is that this war was a bad idea, not just poorly executed. This war was not fought for noble intentions, unless you think oil is noble intention. Yes Saddam was a bad guy. By what moral or legal calculation does Collin’s conclude that he had the right to decided that millions of Iraqi’s are better off dead, displaced, and deformed rather than living under Saddam? By what authority does Collin’s claim that he and President Bush get to make that call for the people of Iraq? When guys like Collin’s admit that they have participated in a war crime rather than prattle on about tactical menutiae, then he’ll be saying something interesting, but he still won’t be telling us anything we don’t already know. As for his proscriptions for the future, i.e. whether or not to pull out of Iraq, I wouldn’t take any advice from anyone who still hasn’t figured out why went to war in the first place, especially if that person is an “insider”.

  6. Submitted by Jon Larson on 05/11/2008 - 09:12 pm.

    This article pretty much explains why our hyper-expensive military keeps messing up with such regularity–they keep ignoring the obvious.

    In this case, the obvious is that the invasion of Iraq was a crime. The Kellogg-Briand Pact is the law of the land. The Constitution says so. In fact, the USA used it as the basis for trying the German war crimes at Nuremberg. And what does Kellogg-Briand say? It says that the ultimate war crime is starting a war of aggression. Starting an aggressive war is what we convicted Hitler’s thugs of–NOT for being mean to Europe’s Jews.

    Virtually every sentient being on planet earth opposed our criminal behavior. And because we invaded Iraq, we have become the most hated nation on earth. People in justice ministries around the world concerned with enforcing the law are just itching to get their hands on the USA monsters responsible.

    So of course, we should be listening to some clown who thinks our big problem is that we should have better “planning between agencies.” (sheesh)

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