In his four years here, General Odierno was often at the center of shifting American military strategy in Iraq. He said the military learned lessons “the hard way.”
“We all came in very naïve about Iraq,” he said.
“We came in naïve about what the problems were in Iraq; I don’t think we understood what I call the societal devastation that occurred,” he said, citing the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf war and the international sanctions from 1990 to 2003 that wiped out the middle class. “And then we attacked to overthrow the government,” he said.
The same went for the country’s ethnic and sectarian divisions, he said: “We just didn’t understand it.”
To advocates of the counterinsurgency strategy that General Odierno has, in part, come to symbolize, the learning curve might highlight the military’s adaptiveness. Critics of a conflict that killed an estimated 100,000 Iraqis, perhaps far more, and more than 4,400 American soldiers might see the acknowledgment as evidence of the war’s folly.
Asked if the United States had made the country’s divisions worse, General Odierno said, “I don’t know.”
“There’s all these issues that we didn’t understand and that we had to work our way through,” he said. “And did maybe that cause it to get worse? Maybe.”
General Odierno shouldn't beat himself up so much. In all fairness to him, there was no center of expertise anywhere in the entire U.S. government that had a good understanding of Iraq's political, economic, and social problems way back then.
Oh, wait. I forgot. There was. There were people like Ambassador Ryan Crocker, whose entire professional life had prepared him for informing U.S. national policy toward Iraq at that moment.
Valuable expertise existed in the State Department, and yet Odierno says the military went into Iraq unprepared, learning the hard way through seven years of trial and error which might only have made matters worse. That's outrageous. Why didn't the Secretary of State warn the Pentagon about what it was getting into in 2003?
Oh, wait. I forgot. He did. From the Wikipedia entry on Ryan Crocker:
According to the book, Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell by Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung, as the Bush administration was preparing for war with Iraq in late 2002, then Secretary of State, Colin Powell ordered Crocker and then Special Assistant to the Secretary of State, William Burns to prepare a secret memo examining the risks associated with a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The six-page memo, titled "The Perfect Storm", stated that toppling Saddam Hussein could unleash long-repressed sectarian and ethnic tensions, that the Sunni minority would not easily relinquish power, and that powerful neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would try to move in to influence events. It also cautioned that the United States would have to start from scratch building a political and economic system because Iraq's infrastructure was in tatters.
But, General Odierno is saying today that the military was clueless about Iraq when it invaded the place. Something doesn't add up, because surely the Pentagon would have taken a memo like Crocker's seriously.
Oh, wait. I forgot. It didn't. As Crocker recounted last year, his memo "had no operational traction."
Washington turf battles had direct implications on the battlefield. In Baghdad in April 2003, after Saddam fell, few U.S. commanders had a clear picture of the political landscape and its importance to the overall mission. I remember meeting one in particular who had zero interest in anything except getting the kinetics right—deploy, defend, point and shoot. I tried to give him a sense of what the country would look like now for the Iraqis and, indeed, for his forces, if we didn't find a way to address all sorts of economic, social, and political issues. His response (and he was not alone): "This isn't our mission here. The things you are telling me are interesting, but they have nothing to do with me."
Well, if the State Department had really done its job it wouldn't have sent the Pentagon a measly six-page memo, it would have made a major planning effort. Like, assembling hundreds of experts and having them study all the many facets of the complicated Iraq problem. Really get down into the weeds and strategize about things like public health and humanitarian needs, transparency and anti-corruption, oil and energy, defense policy and institutions, transitional justice, democratic principles and procedures, local government, civil society capacity building, education, media, water, agriculture and environment and economy and infrastructure. It would have taken maybe a whole year to do it right. And then it would have produced extensive written reports to make sure that the Defense Department fully understood the problems it faced.
Oh, wait. I forgot. It did. That effort was called the "Future of Iraq" project, and you can read the reports for yourself:
The National Security Archive is today posting State Department documents from 2002 tracing the inception of the "Future of Iraq Project," alongside the final, mammoth 13-volume study, previously obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. "The Future of Iraq Project" was one of the most comprehensive U.S. government planning efforts for raising that country out of the ashes of combat and establishing a functioning democracy. The new materials complement previous postings on the Archive's site relating to the United States' complex relationship with Iraq during the years leading up to the 2003 invasion.
I guess General Odierno didn't get the memo about the Future of Iraq project. Too bad. That huge report would have filled him in on those issues he says he didn't understand. The Defense Department is a big place, after all, and he's only one man. It isn't like the Pentagon deliberately rejected those 13 volumes of exhaustive planning advise.
Oh, wait. I forgot. It did. In fact, the New York Times reported exactly that back on October 19, 2003.
A yearlong State Department study predicted many of the problems that have plagued the American-led occupation of Iraq, according to internal State Department documents and interviews with administration and Congressional officials.
Beginning in April 2002, the State Department project assembled more than 200 Iraqi lawyers, engineers, business people and other experts into 17 working groups to study topics ranging from creating a new justice system to reorganizing the military to revamping the economy.
Their findings included a much more dire assessment of Iraq's dilapidated electrical and water systems than many Pentagon officials assumed. They warned of a society so brutalized by Saddam Hussein's rule that many Iraqis might react coolly to Americans' notion of quickly rebuilding civil society.
Several officials said that many of the findings in the $5 million study were ignored by Pentagon officials until recently, although the Pentagon said they took the findings into account. The work is now being relied on heavily as occupation forces struggle to impose stability in Iraq.
The working group studying transitional justice was eerily prescient in forecasting the widespread looting in the aftermath of the fall of Mr. Hussein's government, caused in part by thousands of criminals set free from prison, and it recommended force to prevent the chaos.
"The period immediately after regime change might offer these criminals the opportunity to engage in acts of killing, plunder and looting," the report warned, urging American officials to "organize military patrols by coalition forces in all major cities to prevent lawlessness, especially against vital utilities and key government facilities."
Despite the scope of the project, the military office initially charged with rebuilding Iraq did not learn of it until a major government drill for the postwar mission was held in Washington in late February, less than a month before the conflict began, said Ron Adams, the office's deputy director.
The man overseeing the planning, Tom Warrick, a State Department official, so impressed aides to Jay Garner, a retired Army lieutenant general heading the military's reconstruction office, that they recruited Mr. Warrick to join their team.
George Ward, an aide to General Garner, said the reconstruction office wanted to use Mr. Warrick's knowledge because "we had few experts on Iraq on the staff."
But top Pentagon officials blocked Mr. Warrick's appointment, and much of the project's work was shelved, State Department officials said. Mr. Warrick declined to be interviewed for this article.
-- snip --
In the end, the American military and civilian officials who first entered Iraq prepared for several possible problems: numerous fires in the oil fields, a massive humanitarian crisis, widespread revenge attacks against former leaders of Mr. Hussein's government and threats from Iraq's neighbors. In fact, none of those problems occurred to any great degree.
Officials acknowledge that the United States was not well prepared for what did occur: chiefly widespread looting and related security threats, even though the State Department study predicted them.
So, I guess the bottom line is that General Odierno, while he may be highly forgetful, didn't really have to learn about Iraq's societal problems and sectarian divides the hard way, after all.