Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

In going to war, military professionals warn that while one may hope for the best, it is prudent to plan for the worst. In invading Iraq on March 19, 2003, to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein, the civilian leadership of the Bush administration reversed this maxim.

The administration failed to heed warnings about the difficulties it would encounter in post-war Iraq, failed to plan adequately for that period, and continues to address insufficiently how it will secure the country in the future. As a consequence, the administration has not only created a more dangerous situation on the ground for U.S. forces, but has gone a long way to undermining the effectiveness of our military.

Poor Planning Despite Warnings

The administration failed to plan for the worst in a post-war Iraq despite warnings from experienced military officials. The administration not only reduced the number of troops that Gen. Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, said were necessary to defeat Saddam's military force, but disparaged the advice of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, about the number of troops that would be necessary to provide security in a post-Saddam Iraq.

Civilian officials in the Pentagon also excluded military and career diplomats from planning for the occupation and ignored a State Department study that predicted how difficult the occupation would be. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz even went so far as to tell Congress that securing post-war Iraq would be easier than Bosnia or Afghanistan.

Both Franks and Shinseki had argued that at least 200,000 American troops were necessary. But the Bush administration invaded Iraq with about 125,000 troops and planned to reduce the number of the American troops on the ground to 30,000 by August 2003. This optimistic scenario assumed that the military, police forces and government agencies of Iraq would remain intact; that the U.S. forces would be greeted not as occupiers but as liberators; and that major countries like France, Germany and India, which did not support the war, would still be willing to commit significant numbers of ground troops to the occupation.

Because the Iraqi military, including its elite Republican Guards, chose not to contest the invading U.S. ground forces supported by massive air power, the 125,000 Americans and 20,000 coalition forces proved more than adequate to topple Saddam's regime in less than three weeks with a minimum number of casualties. In fact, the main resistance to the invading Americans came from the guerrilla forces, the so-called Saddam Fedayeen, which mainly attacked U.S. supply lines.

Repercussions on the Ground

But the post-war phase was markedly different than the period after President Bush announced "mission accomplished." Without enough "boots on the ground" when the Saddam regime collapsed, the Pentagon's "rosy scenario" for Phase IV proved to be just that. In the weeks following Saddam's demise, the U.S. military was not able to prevent widespread looting and sabotage, nor to provide effective security for the Iraqi citizenry. The Liberation of Iraq turned into the Looting of Baghdad.

The administration compounded the problem by not providing the troops with any guidance about how to handle the reconstruction and stabilization, and not having peacekeeping forces (like civil affairs, military police and engineers) available to move into Iraq after the regime was overthrown.

The U.S. military, Iraqi people, and American taxpayer have paid and will continue to pay a heavy price for the Bush administration's failure to plan for the worst.

Because the United States was not able to provide security quickly or to close Iraq's borders with Syria and Iran, it allowed a homegrown insurgency to develop and make common cause with foreign fighters, who came across the unguarded borders. Since the fall of Baghdad in mid-April 2003, more than 400 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives in combating the insurgency, three times as many that fell in the march to Baghdad. Another 3,000 servicemen and women have been wounded. Furthermore, some 10,000 military have been evacuated for medical reasons.

While the number of U.S. casualties declined in February of 2004, the number of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded has risen dramatically. In February, on the Muslim feast day of Al-Adha, more than 100 Kurds were killed, and on Ashura, the holiest day in the Shiite Muslim calendar, suicide bombers killed 181 Shiites and wounded approximately 600 more.

At the same time, in order to compensate for the lack of American and Coalition troops, the Bush administration has been forced to accelerate the "Iraqization" of the security forces. Over the past six months the United States has placed 150,000 Iraqis in newly reconstituted army, police, civil defense, and border forces. But in their rush to establish these forces, the United States has provided only minimal training. The insurgents have killed more than 600 Iraqi police and other security forces since the beginning of the U.S. occupation.

More importantly, the United States has not had adequate time to do the necessary background checks on the candidates. This has enabled the insurgents to infiltrate these organizations. On March 9, 2004, four members of the newly trained Iraqi police killed two American civilians who were working for the coalition authority. Because of the lack of confidence in the American-trained security forces, the Kurds and three Shiite factions have continued to rely on their own militias and refused to blend them into the American-established Iraqi forces. This could lay the groundwork for a civil war between these militias when sovereignty is turned over to the Iraqis.

Undermining the Army

The Bush administration's bungling of the post-war phase of the war in Iraq has undermined the readiness of the Army and placed the future of the all-volunteer force in serious jeopardy. On the one-year anniversary of the start of the invasion, eight of the Army's ten active divisions are either coming into or leaving Iraq, the largest and riskiest troop movement since World War II. Furthermore, 70 percent of the Army's combat brigades are in either Iraq or Afghanistan, which leaves us vulnerable in other parts of the world, including the Korean peninsula.

To make matters worse, during the past year, several National Guard and reserve units have been mobilized without reasonable notice, kept on active duty longer than anticipated, and sent to Iraq or Afghanistan without adequate training. Several thousand soldiers had to be shipped out to Iraq though they had been home from Afghanistan for only a short time. Finally, the Army has issued a stop loss order that has prevented 40,000 soldiers from leaving the service even though their enlistment contracts have expired.

As a result of this poor planning, the morale of the troops has plummeted and reenlistment will no doubt suffer. A survey of the troops in Iraq, conducted by the Pentagon's own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, found that half the soldiers did not intend to re-enlist when their tours ended and the stop loss order was lifted. As evidence of this sentiment, for the first time in its history, the Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division did not meet its retention goal.

Moreover, the rotation of so many troops en masse is bound to undermine the effectiveness of the military in dealing with the insurgency. It will take time for the newly arrived troops to acquire situational awareness and develop relationships with the Iraqi civilians upon whom they must depend for the intelligence necessary to pre-empt attacks of the insurgents. This was demonstrated on March 13 and 14, when six newly arrived soldiers were killed by the insurgents, literally on their first day on duty.

As the United States begins its second year of occupying Iraq, the Bush administration has made three changes. First, the number of forces on the ground has been reduced by 20,000. Second, in order to further reduce the strain on the active Army the number of reserves in the occupation forces has been doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent, and a Marine Expeditionary Force has replaced one Army Division. Third, in order to reduce its casualties, the military is moving its forces from the cities into walled off garrisons, and transferring the burden of providing security in the cities to the Iraqis.

While this new strategy may reduce U.S. casualties, it raises three troubling questions about the future of the occupation. First, are the Iraqi security forces up to the job of providing security in the cities? Second, is the Army Reserve component capable of taking on such increased responsibilities? Third, are the Marines, who are an expeditionary force, capable becoming an effective occupying force?

This makes one wonder if the Bush administration is again hoping for the best instead of planning for the worst.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, was Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow