February 1, 2008  

After-action review

THERE IS GENERAL AGREEMENT THAT WHILE THE INITIAL BLITZKRIEG WAS SATISFACTORY, in its post-hostilities phase Iraq was the worst-planned U.S. military operation in American history. Although we are now climbing back from disaster, for four years our nation and its forces have suffered from the grievous mistakes in post-hostilities planning that were made in 2002 and 2003.

In “Bridging the civil-military gap” [December], Frank Hoffman wrote: “The responsibility for [the failures in Iraq] will eventually be shared by the president, his national security advisers and his principal military advisers …. [W]e will find that it was a thoroughly mutual dereliction of duty.”

As it seeks to understand what went wrong, the American professional military may well explore the shortcomings of others. But first it should examine its own dismal performance in the planning for actions to be taken after the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, notwithstanding any shortcomings of others.

For the U.S. military’s own good, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should convene a panel of retired senior officers to examine whether the U.S. four-stars comprehended the nature of the war the U.S. was about to enter and the grave deficiencies in the guidance they received for its post-hostilities phase. If it finds that any of them understood all that, it should determine whether they forcefully made known their objections to the defense secretary and, if necessary, to the president. True, the dominant civilian leaders saw no need for a comprehensive post-hostilities plan for Iraq. But it was the senior military professionals’ obligation to see the situation clearly and, seeing it, to speak their minds. Warnings were there.

But troops were not told what to do when the Iraqi Army was defeated. Post-hostilities operational concepts were not developed and made known. Plans for constituting key ministries of a post-Saddam Iraqi national government and for putting in place provincial governments were unformed. Provisions ensuring that there would be an Iraqi army and police force were lacking. Information warfare capabilities with plans reconciling the well-known Shiite-Sunni split did not exist. These historic military-led post-victory tasks, with civil input, were simply not done. So, when after three weeks of war the Iraqi armed forces and government collapsed, chaos ensued. L. Paul Bremer then removed all Baath party members from office and dissolved the Iraqi army; an uncoordinated insurgency metastasized, augmented by many of the disaffected.

At the highest level, the U.S. professional military has two obligations to civilian authority: judgment that reflects profound military insight and steadfastness in holding to that judgment.

A proper after-action review of Iraq may well find that the U.S. military leadership at both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Central Command failed, that it acquiesced in Iraq war planning that did not provide for a comprehensive and suitable post-hostilities effort, when ample evidence was available that such would be required.

If that should be the finding, our current military leaders should honestly face up to it. They should determine why it happened, and should take measures so that it does not reoccur, in another dereliction of duty. They owe it to their own institutions and to their country.

Lt. Gen. John H. Cushman, Army (ret.)

Washington, D.C.