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Blame the Top Brass
By John Barry and Evan Thomas Newsweek
January 22, 2007 issue

Jan. 22, 2007 issue - Given all the recriminations over the mess in Iraq, it is remarkable how little criticism has fallen on the U.S. military. Americans want to honor the sacrifice of the troops in the field and they may feel guilty about the cold reception given many veterans returning from the Vietnam War. But in the public blame game that's erupted on Capitol Hill and on the cable news talk shows, the armed services are largely given a free pass.

Some top soldiers, however, aren't so sure they should be let off the hook. Is there, NEWSWEEK asked retired Gen. William Nash, who commanded U.S. forces in Bosnia in the 1990s and remains plugged in, a sense within the Army of mistakes made in Iraq? "It's pervasive," he answered. Gen. Jack Keane, the Army vice chief of staff at the time of the Iraq invasion in March 2003, told NEWSWEEK: "Everyone recognizes that we made mistakes. The harder part is what to learn from them."

No one understands the Army's march of folly in Iraq better than the commander who has just been chosen to find a better way: Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. For the past 14 months, Petraeus has supervised the writing of the Army's new field manual on counterinsurgency warfare, FM 3-24. Mistake No. 1, the manual instructs, is to "overemphasize killing and capturing the enemy rather than securing and engaging the populace." That pretty well describes what the Army has done in Iraq since the first improvised explosive devices began detonating.

Petraeus was an exception. While other generals were trying by force to crush the insurgents, Petraeus was working to isolate them by winning the population's hearts and minds. The commander of the 101st Airborne, he labored to pacify Mosul, the area of northern Iraq under his control in the first year after the invasion, by satisfying the people's needs: security, jobs, the repair of local utilities and the rebirth of local democracy. His success there led the press and military establishment to regard him as a "water walker"; the praise heaped on him—NEWSWEEK ran a cover story in July 2004 asking, "Can This Man Save Iraq?"—is qualified only by jealousy.

Yet a question remains about the 54-year-old, wiry, intense, brilliant three-star general President George W. Bush appointed to lead Coalition forces in Iraq. Will Petraeus, like so many generals in all wars before him, be honor- and duty-bound by the Army's chief virtue, which is also its main vice: the tendency to smartly salute civilian superiors, no matter how wrongheaded they are?

The military values obedience for an essential reason. "The Army is in the business of training 18-year-olds to expose themselves to machine-gun fire," says Stephen Biddle, a former professor of national-security studies at the Army War College. The top brass must defer to civilians in a democracy. The American public would not be well served by generals who thumb their noses at the commander in chief in the style of Douglas A. MacArthur, whom President Harry S. Truman had to relieve for disloyalty during the Korean War. But surely the model is not former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who bullied the top brass into submission for most of the Iraq war.

With Rumsfeld gone, Petraeus should have more room to maneuver. (The new secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, is much more low-key and signaled last week that he will back the military's pent-up demand for more troops—an additional 92,000 soldiers and Marines.) But some of Petraeus's Army colleagues fear he has just signed himself up—and by extension committed the Army—to Mission: Impossible. Bush's plan to "surge" just over 20,000 troops to Iraq is seen by many within the military as a foolish political compromise—too few troops to make a long-term difference, but enough to get more U.S. troops killed. Bush is no longer saying that he listens to his generals, and indeed he appears to have shrugged off the advice of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, who wanted to limit the troop increase to just a few thousand men. So why did Petraeus go along? In private conversations with members of Congress, Petraeus has been careful. He has warned that insurgencies are protracted, and that no one man can be expected to find a winning formula overnight. He is a realist about his Iraqi allies, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. (Petraeus was once asked why Iraq had no George Washingtons. "Because," he replied, "Saddam would have had them taken out and shot.") It may be that Petraeus, for all his circumspection, is trying to pull off something like a miracle. He has, says Andrew Krepinevich, an old friend since their days on the West Point faculty, "a sense of destiny."

Petraeus is starting in a deep hole that was dug not just by the Army's civilian bosses, but by its uniformed leaders. It is worth examining just how flawed the Army's leadership has been in Iraq to understand the pressures on Petraeus and the immense challenge faced by the soldiers and Marines bound for Iraq.

The problems began almost immediately. On the eve of the invasion, Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, predicted that an occupation would require "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers." The proposal was quickly ridiculed as "outlandish" by neoconservative Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. A myth has grown around Shinseki's comments, which were made in response to a senator's question at a hearing. At two meetings of top commanders with the president in the weeks before the war—the real time for truth telling—Shinseki did not raise this concern, say two participants who did not want to be identified discussing presidential meetings. Asked nine months ago by NEWSWEEK if he should have pressed harder with the president, Shinseki answered, "Probably that's fair."

Army Gen. John Abizaid, who ran Central Command from mid-2003 until his recent replacement by Adm. William Fallon, is a particularly poignant case of duty's trumping wisdom. An Arab-American, he was more sensitive than most to the problems of a Western nation's occupying an Islamic one. He warned that the occupiers urgently needed at least 40,000 Iraqi troops to handle security. And yet, with little apparent protest, he signed on to the Bush administration's misguided decision to disband the Iraqi Army after the war. (Abizaid did not respond to a request for comment.)

It seems incredible, in retrospect, that the Army had no strategy for battling insurgents after the invasion. When Petraeus's predecessor, Gen. George Casey, arrived at Baghdad headquarters as the commander of Coalition forces, he asked his staff to set up a meeting with the HQ's counterinsurgency team. "His request was met with silence," reports retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, a gulf-war veteran and author of an admired study of combat organization. (There was no such staff or counterinsurgency plan.) In his Princeton University Ph.D. thesis on the lessons of the Vietnam War, Petraeus wrote that the Army should prepare for the inevitability of future "low-intensity wars," nonconventional combat that involves civilians and guerrilla fighters. But most generals learned a different lesson from failure in Vietnam. Public revulsion at the war nearly destroyed what the Army cherished most—the support of the citizenry. The solution? Leave guerrilla fighting to a few highly trained Special Forces. The main Army would concentrate on Big Wars, to be fought with speed, mobility and lethal high-tech weaponry.

Army planners were not oblivious to the risks of a long occupation after a successful, lightning invasion. The pre-war chief of Central Command, Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, says, "The thing that kept getting us was: if you go into Iraq you are going to inherit a broken society." But his successor, Gen. Tommy Franks, concentrated almost entirely on the invasion—and essentially ignored postwar planning. Sens. John Warner and Carl Levin, the ranking Republican and Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, asked Franks why. "He said he was told to stay the hell out of it" by his civilian boss, Rumsfeld, Levin recalled. (Franks denies this.)

Gen. Jack Keane, at the time the Army's vice chief of staff, told NEWSWEEK that Franks believed that the postwar planning, known as Phase Four, was the responsibility of a different general, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, head of the tiny, understaffed Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (who in turn was soon replaced by a civilian, Ambassador Paul Bremer). "Franks was dead wrong, and I don't believe he did this thing right, but he literally washed his hands of this Phase Four stuff," says Keane, speaking with unusual bluntness about a fellow officer. (Franks disagrees, pointing out that Garner served under him.)

Keane himself was stepping down just as the insurgency started in late spring 2003. "I went to Iraq in June, looked at it and I knew we were in deep s--t," Keane told NEWSWEEK. "I was going out the door. I felt frustrated. Frustrated with the situation, frustrated with myself and everything else. And somewhat guilty because I knew how ill prepared the Army was to deal with it." But Keane gave no public warnings.

In and around Baghdad, the Army's approach was "kinetic"; it would use firepower and brute force. Untrained in counterinsurgency, the commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, ordered his men to kick in doors and arrest any man who looked like an insurgent. Overflowing their cells at Abu Ghraib, the prisoners became targets of poorly trained, overwhelmed guards. The consequences to America's image in Iraq—and in the Arab and Muslim worlds—were disastrous. (Odierno, who has recently gone back to Baghdad, where he will be working under Petraeus, insisted in an earlier interview with NEWSWEEK that he had not been heavy-handed.)

In Mosul, in the first months after the invasion, Petraeus—sensitive to the lessons of Vietnam—was restraining the men of the 101st Airborne, urging them to interact peaceably with the locals. When troops went on cordon-and-search operations, they were instructed to tell each homeowner, "Thank you for allowing us to search your home." The velvet-hammer approach worked—at least for a while. Eventually, jihadists infiltrated from Anbar province in the west into Mosul and began bombing and killing.

Petraeus was philosophical about Mosul's descent into chaos, which occurred mostly after he left to become head of training for the Iraqi Army in 2004. "Any army of liberation has a certain half-life before it becomes an army of occupation," he told a NEWSWEEK reporter at the time. There's an evolution to the way any army of liberation is seen—and there's nothing that can be done to stop changing perceptions.

Petraeus is a resourceful, imaginative commander who has shown an ability to adapt to rude surprises. It may be that he is confident he can adjust to whatever the Iraq war throws at him—probably, intensified street fighting. But he will need to be creative, and he may need to do what generals do not like to do: tell the president that he's wrong, that Iraq cannot be won by more force, that the time has come to pull back. Even Petraeus's own strategy may have been overrun by events. "It's ironic," says one of the drafters of Petraeus's new counterinsurgency manual, who declined to be identified because he did not wish to irk his superiors. "We've finished the counterinsurgency manual just as Iraq looks like it's heading for civil war. We don't have a doctrine for that."

With Michael Hirsh
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

Original Text