Friday, March 17, 2006

Early Mistakes Scuttled Chance For Iraq Victory

By Joseph L. Galloway
Senior military correspondent
Knight Ridder Newspapers.
March 17, 2006

The war in Iraq goes on and on as we enter the fourth year, and still the Bush administration cannot define an exit strategy that should have been made plain before the first American soldier crossed the border.

President Bush, in the first of a new round of speeches this week aimed at convincing an increasingly skeptical public, did little to bolster his sagging poll numbers in a midterm election year that has Republican officeholders running scared.

He talked of having the nerve to carry on. He talked of how we would be handing over control of large chunks of Iraq to the newly formed Iraqi army and police. He said that the Pentagon would be devoting billions to finding a high-tech silver bullet to counter the improvised explosive devices that are, along with low-tech suicide bombers, the weapon of choice of the enemy.

And in words that rang true, he warned that even as we build on successes, there would be brutal and bloody attacks. Recently those attacks have focused far more heavily on innocent Iraqi citizens in the streets and markets of their country.

The president's speech came soon after the Pentagon released more damning photographs of the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison; a new book provided more details of Pentagon micromanaging of military commanders and U.S. troop strength in the middle of the 2003 invasion; and authorities continued to find piles of bodies of people slain in the outburst of religious and ethnic violence in recent weeks in Iraq.

The evidence grows that his administration and the defense secretary essentially hamstrung our military commanders and made it impossible for them to control the rioting and looting that broke out when those forces captured Baghdad in April three years ago. Against the advice of ground commanders they canceled deployment of one Army division and delayed deployment of another.

When the ground commander, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, recommended that the drive on Baghdad be halted for a few days while they cleaned up pockets of Saddam's irregular militias who were being bypassed, he was not only overruled but came close to being fired for opening his mouth.

These revelations, contained in a previously classified after-action report, plainly gave the lie to assertions by administration leaders that the operation was planned by the commanders and they were given all the troops they requested both before and since the invasion.

This willful, uninformed and arrogant interference by civilians in purely military matters only set the tone for a string of serious mistakes that together guaranteed that our efforts in Iraq in the first two years would be a costly failure.

A full share of the blame for creating and feeding the homegrown Iraqi insurgency that blossomed and fed off these mistakes must be shared by the Pentagon-appointed U.S. civilian boss in Iraq during a critical period, former Ambassador Paul Bremer. It was Bremer who demobilized the Iraqi army and sent them home, armed, unemployed and angry. It was Bremer who cleansed the Iraqi civil service, firing any and all who had belonged to Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party, thus creating another large pool of angry Sunni citizens who had been told they had no future.

Remember that this was a war urgently ordered because of the threat that Saddam would build a nuclear weapon within a couple of years, and at any minute might slime Israel and his neighbors with chemical and biological weapons. That the war would be short and sweet. That it would be paid for out of the oil earnings of Iraq. That it would implant Jeffersonian democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

In truth, Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time against the wrong people. The administration turned valuable resources away from controlling and rebuilding Afghanistan and pursuing al-Qaida to the death.

So far it has cost us 2,300-plus American dead; 17,000-plus American wounded; tens of thousands of Iraqis killed by both sides; a bill to our children and grandchildren that will reach more than $400 billion this year; and a U.S. military struggling to find and keep the manpower needed for present and future combat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We will be dealing with the consequences and fallout for a long time to come. They are the gang that couldn't shoot straight, and now they are the ones dealing with a much more dangerous situation in Iran. God help us.

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