Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has released an 800-page memoir titled Known and Unknown. As usual, punditry commented on it prior to reading it; in keeping with that tradition, I feel obliged to do the same. Rumsfeld’s memoir should reignite several debates of the past decade. The debate most worthy of revisiting is not whether the war in Iraq was justified, but rather how, in retrospect, the United States should have executed the war.
Here is the caricature: Rumsfeld wanted a rapid and “light” war. This would have vindicated his view that the U.S. military ought to transform into a faster, leaner, quicker, more flexible, agile, and technological force able to do more with less — more like the Special Forces. He would walk around the Pentagon saying “speed kills.” Therefore, Rumsfeld sent enough troops to capture Baghdad in three weeks, but not enough troops to secure the rest of the theater.
We “won the war” in April 2003, but “lost the peace” by that summer. The subsequent chaos inspired an insurgency which continued for nearly four years, due to Rumsfeld’s doctrinaire arrogance. Then in 2007, after Rumsfeld’s resignation and the retirement of his generals, General Petraeus took over and implemented the “surge” strategy of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. The Petraeus-led counterinsurgency pacified the war-torn country.
That’s the caricature. Though there is some truth to this, it evades the overriding question of the war: having overthrown Saddam Hussein in April 2003, should the United States have occupied Iraq in the first place?
One of the great ironies of the war, often overlooked by contemporary historians, is the fact that the invasion’s biggest proponents in the United States — the so-called “neocons” in the Defense Department: Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, even Bolton at the State Department, etc. — all opposed militarily occupying Iraq after ousting Saddam. Rumsfeld was in line with this thinking. This group saw the distinction between liberation and occupation, between supporting Iraqi democrats and the mission-creep of nation-building.
There are those who say this view of military intervention is naïve, even reckless. Colin Powell and the Pottery Barn rule come to mind: “You break it, you own it.” Senator John McCain frequently derides Rumsfeld and prides himself on championing the “more-troops” strategy long before President Bush executed it in 2007-08.
But that’s not necessarily what the neocon-types had in mind. They felt the Iraqis were better equipped to run their country than Paul Bremer and the Coalitional Provisional Authority. Sovereignty and political authority ought to have been transferred to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) the moment Saddam’s statue fell in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Yes, that INC — led by the infamous Ahmed Chalabi. I do not know what is in Chalabi’s heart (though I am Facebook friends with him). It doesn’t matter what’s in his heart. He’s become something of a scapegoat.
The point: Contrary to conventional wisdom, the INC was not comprised of U.S. puppets — nothing could be further from the truth. The INC comprised nearly all of Iraq’s political opposition: Sunnis once associated with Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, Sunnis not associated with the Ba’ath Party; secular Shi’ites, Islamist Shi’ites; monarchists, constitutionalists, democrats, liberals; both rival Kurdish parties; those friendly with the Saudis, with the Americans, with the Iranians, and with the Israelis. (Interesting fact: the great Mithal al-Alusi was expelled from the INC for visiting Israel.)
The INC comprised most of Iraq’s exiled dissidents. Saddam killed off the internal dissidents. It was not a CIA-stooge organization. It was no secret the CIA hated the INC, specifically because it was a genuine democratic movement. Unsurprisingly, the CIA preferred something more subservient; “Saddam without the mustache.” But in fact, even with the disintegration of the INC in 2003, many of today’s elected Iraqi parliamentarians were once under the INC umbrella. Chalabi merely had the guts and wherewithal in the 1990s to unify the Iraqis together against Saddam better than anyone else. The INC should have been Iraq’s interim government-in-waiting in 2003, not the U.S. State Department. Rumsfeld no doubt would have preferred this.
In bypassing the INC, four things happened. First, the American diplomats haphazardly disbanded the Iraqi military, leaving a security vacuum. Second, newly unemployed Iraqi soldiers — and the specter of American bureaucrats governing Iraq — created enemies out of allies. Third, because of this security vacuum, the Iraqi people turned to those sectarian parties with militias. The pro-U.S. parties that believed in secular democracy were disorganized and could not offer security. This led to the incompetent Ibrahim al-Jaafari administration in 2005-06 and much of the sectarian violence. And fourth, this security vacuum put U.S. forces into an uncomfortable middle ground of having the presence of occupiers but not sufficient resources to provide security as only efficient occupiers could.
Do we doubt that the Iraqis could have handled these situations better? Would they not have dealt with de-Ba’athification more delicately? Would they not have known which Iraqi soldiers were reconcilable and which were not? Would they not have taken up the opportunity at a much earlier time to defend their towns and cities from militias? After all, U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces were never in short supply. For years, Iraqis lined up at the police stations and military recruitment centers despite insurgent attacks on these sites. The entire U.S. strategy hinged on handing security responsibilities to indigenous forces. Couldn’t we have expedited this process earlier? I think so.
Before the invasion of Iraq, there were a few conceptual war plans that emphasized not occupying the country following Saddam’s fall. The Downing Plan, named after the late General Wayne Downing (Ret.), was one. It would have entailed Iraqi units themselves overthrowing Saddam, with a light U.S. Special Forces footprint assisting the Iraqi uprising with logistics and air strikes. Remember, two-thirds of the country was already outside of Saddam’s control.
Rumsfeld was also fascinated by the ideas of Colonel Douglas Macgregor (Ret.), a truly original military thinker. In an era with less rigid bureaucratic hierarchy, Macgregor would have long ago been coaxed out of retirement and promoted. He was invited to the Pentagon in late 2001 to discuss his concepts. “The Chief of Staff of the Army says it will take at least 560,000 troops,” Macgregor was told. He laughed. “Fifty thousand troops,” he replied: “The real emphasis has to be on getting rapidly to Baghdad … we remove the government, but we don’t want to fight with the army, because ultimately the Iraqi army’s going to have a key role in the postwar environment. They’re going to have to maintain security.”
The case could be made that once we committed the original error of occupying Iraq, we were too slow in putting enough troops on the ground; too slow to implement counterinsurgency operations. But we have not had a national discussion on that original error, the error to militarily and politically occupy Iraq after toppling the Ba’athists. If we had done a number of things before and during the intervention, Iraq could have been Grenada-on-steroids. Instead, it was the Philippine Insurrection, lasting years and costing thousands of lives.
Rumsfeld’s vision of the U.S. military, and how it ought to be used in future wars, will prevail for several reasons. Let’s take a hypothetical conflict with a Hezbollah government in Lebanon. We would seek to get to Beirut and overthrow the regime as quickly as possible. We would then attempt to prevent the rise of an insurgency by empowering indigenous forces politically and militarily. Should an insurgency arise, we would likely not replicate the Petraeus surge-counterinsurgency strategy, for it requires too much commitment in time, resources, and lives. That’s a last resort. The Pentagon has already begun thinking about how to do “counterinsurgency-light.”
And finally, we would hopefully be quicker to acknowledge that insurgencies are almost always sponsored by neighboring states. In the case of Lebanon, a Hezbollah insurgency would most likely be supported by neighboring Syria. We were too slow to realize that the Iraq insurgency was the vortex of a regional war managed by the Iranians. Rather than occupy Iraq and view it as an intrastate conflict, we should have given Iraq to the Iraqis quicker and viewed the remaining problems as interstate issues.
Rumsfeld knew that democratic republics loathe fighting wars of attrition. The future belongs to expeditionary interventions, where the United States military acts as the SWAT team kicking down the door, not the policemen walking the beat. That’s the job of the locals. They’ll always accept that responsibility if they’re given it.