The Bush administration was almost giddy after the brilliant 2001 two-month removal of the Taliban and the later easy installation of the pro-American Hamid Karzai — all in the supposed “graveyard of empires.” We had apparently done in two months what the Soviets had not in ten years. Given that Afghanistan was supposedly more challenging than Iraq (no ports, literacy, oil, flat terrain, or clear weather), and given that we already defeated Saddam once, it was assumed that if two months were necessary to remove the Taliban, only one would be required to oust Saddam (quite true). And if six months had seen a stable government in Afghanistan, then three would see one in Iraq (false). Just as prior success of a sort in Korea suggested that we could likewise save South Vietnam, or as heroic defense had saved France in 1914 and so it would again in 1940, so too the past never quite reappears in all its contortions in the present.
II. Conduct of the War
Kurdistan was quickly liberated, protected, and allowed to form a consensual government, the result of which is one of the most successful and most pro-American regions in the Middle East. In unanticipated fashion, al Qaeda declared Iraq the central theater in its war against America, flocked to Anbar Province, and saw its operatives killed en masse and for three years its organization nearly annihilated and discredited. Given that Afghanistan in 2003-6 was relatively quiet, Iraq soon became the only battlefield between the U.S. and al Qaeda, and offered a theater to decimate the terrorists. We forget now that al Qaeda between 2007 and 2008 was all but wiped out in Iraq.
The surge and /or its accompanying developments (the Anbar Awakening, the cumulative toll on al Qaeda, the message that the U.S. was not leaving, the rise of oil revenues, etc.) saved Iraq, so much so that when Barack Obama assumed office there were essentially no Americans dying in Iraq, and the country was more stable than Arab countries on the Mediterranean.
Abu Ghraib — enough said.
The questionable moves of disbanding the Iraqi army (if it did indeed disband, rather than just dissipate on its own) and de-Baathification were proven unquestionably wrong, when there was no alternative offered in their places: few jobless soldiers were immediately put to work in civilian projects or re-recruited into the army; few Baathists were rehired into the bureaucracy.
Arms dumps were left unguarded — allowing scavengers to collect ordinance that would fuel the IEDs that would come to kill and maim thousands of Americans.
When you set out to take Vienna, to paraphrase Napoleon, then take Vienna. The April 2004 sorta, kinda assault on Fallujah, followed by withdrawal (and insurgent boasting of a victory), sent two terrible messages beyond the needless waste of American lives: the U.S. feared that it could not defeat the insurgency in a head-to-head confrontation (it actually could and did, as the subsequent November victory in Fallujah proved), and it made the conduct of the war appear entirely political (pre-election avoidance of controversial fighting, post-election resumption of same fighting).
If the Obama administration saw too many generals in Afghanistan (McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen), Bush did not remove enough of them. That the clueless Gen. Ricardo Sanchez was put in charge of the war on the ground in Iraq is simply inexplicable. Gen. Casey did not understand the insurgency, at least until it was fully developed. And while it is true that Gen. Petraeus benefited from the Arab Awakening, the aggregate four-year attrition of enemy forces, and the spike in Iraqi oil revenues, his appointment, surge, and change in tactics need not have waited until 2007. Why had we sent a comparatively small force to begin with? Because (a) the critiques of the 1991 war had argued that we had overdone it with needlessly massive deployments; (b) Saddam was far weaker than in 1991, and opposition to him far greater; and (b) small forces had routed the Taliban in 2001 in a far more difficult Afghanistan.