U.S. Military Admits Major Mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan

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A draft military report on a "Decade of War" reveals U.S. armed forces haphazardly entered misunderstood conflict zones and mismanaged manpower.

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Afghan boys look at a U.S. Army soldier of 5-20 Infantry Regiment attached to the 82nd Airborne Division. (Reuters)

When President Obama announced in August 2010 the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, he complimented the soldiers who had served there for completing "every mission they were given." But some of military's most senior officers, in a little-noticed report this spring, rendered a harsher account of their work that highlights repeated missteps and failures over the past decade, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was a "failure to recognize, acknowledge and accurately define" the environment in which the conflicts occurred, leading to a "mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals," says the assessment from the Pentagon's Joint Staff. The efforts were marked by a "failure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational" shifts from one phase of the conflicts to the next.

From the outset, U.S. forces were poorly prepared for peacekeeping and had not adequately planned for the unexpected. In the first half of the decade, "strategic leadership repeatedly failed," and as a result, U.S. military training, policies, doctrine and equipment were ill-suited to the tasks that troops actually faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These self-critical conclusions appear in the first volume of a draft report titled "Decade of War" -- part of a multi-volume survey of "enduring lessons" from the past ten years of conflict. When completed, "it will be used by senior leaders" to develop U.S. military forces for the future, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Fields, a Joint Staff spokeswoman.

Fields said the 36-page May 2012 report remains an internal document and is not available to the public, but a copy was posted last Thursday on the website of a trade publication, Inside the Pentagon (accessible only to regular or trial subscribers).

Its criticisms are largely familiar to anyone who closely followed the two wars' fitful progress or who read author Thomas Ricks' seminal, bestselling 2006 account of the U.S. military's early failings in Iraq, bluntly titled "Fiasco." An internal Army War College assessment in 2005 cited in Ricks' book reaches similar conclusions.

But this new retrospective may be more significant because it was prepared by the Pentagon directorate responsible for developing military educational curricula, war-fighting doctrine, and training regimes for all the services. What the report makes clear is that senior officers have fully accepted the judgment by so many others that their prosecution of the wars -- at a direct cost to the federal budget of more than a trillion dollars -- was in some ways inept.

While it does not name those responsible, the assessment points fingers in unmistakable directions. It says that the early dismantling of Iraq's security forces and firing of mid-level government officials - decisions , made by Ambassador Paul Bremer with broad support in the Bush administration - crippled Iraq's ability to govern itself and fueled the insurgency, creating social chaos that lasted for years. The task of creating a new police and military force was a "severe burden" that neither U.S. troops nor civilian agencies were prepared to undertake.

The early signs of the insurgency, the report says, were ignored. Intelligence failures were rife, with early shortages of key analysts and interpreters, remotely-piloted aircraft, and electronic eavesdroppers. What intelligence was gathered was sometimes over-classified, with the result that it failed to reach those who needed it. And units were not taught in advance what local populations were really like; instead, they depended on what the military calls "discovery learning" - otherwise known as flying by the seat of one's pants - with lessons not systematically passed along to units rotated in as replacements.

By 2005, two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the military side of the U.S. effort and the civilian aid side were pursuing different missions with different goals, leading to wasted expenditures and missed opportunities, the report states. And "the image of the U.S. was frequently tarnished by tactical actions that contradicted U.S. values or strategy," ranging from the scandal at Abu Ghraib to paying inadequate heed at the outset to harmful images of civilian casualties.

The report's toughest criticism is leveled at the mishandling and under-manning by military commanders and political officials of key "transition" moments in the two wars - such as the end of major combat operations in 2003, the renewal of Iraqi self-governance in 2004-2005, and NATO's takeover in 2006 of military operations in Afghanistan.

"Failure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational transitions endangered accomplishment of the overall mission" in the first half of the decade, the account says, although the military did better later. "Non-combat skills, to include civil affairs, had not been adequately rehearsed." In Afghanistan, "the planning assumed that the chief duty" of international troops after 2006 would be reconstruction and humanitarian aid - an assumption that turned out to be grotesquely wrong.

The reason, the report says, was that military planning was based on "U.S. expectations instead of those consistent with the host nation and mission," a nice way of describing wishful thinking rather than realism. "For example," the report notes, " the planned end-state for Afghanistan was envisioned to be a strong central government despite no record of such a government in its history and lack of broad popular support for that system of governance."

Without using his name, the report says that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who directed the V Corps that assumed control in Iraq after major combat ceased, was deployed without training in reconstruction and stabilization. "His staff was not manned, equipped, nor resourced to accept these responsibilities," the chronicle explains.

U.S. military forces were also not equipped "to combat adaptive insurgencies" in both countries, the report says. While Special Forces units had some of the proper skills, they poorly coordinated their operations with regular forces. They did not share routinely share intelligence, at least at the outset, and regular troops in Afghanistan complained until 2008 that the Special Forces' actions often caused social disruptions that others had to contain.

The civilian side of the effort, which Bremer ran, "often lacked the necessary expertise and resources," operated independently, and lacked an overarching strategy - a problem the report says was not really fixed until 2007.

The report credits U.S. forces with eventually overcoming "the challenge of inadequate planning and preparation...by widespread and successful adaptation at all levels" -- partly at the urging of commanders such as Gen. David Petraeus. But the assessment notes that efforts to rush newly-developed equipment to the wars impeded proper training, and caused late discovery of vulnerabilities and reliability or maintenance problems.

The report summarizes all of these problems in eleven "overarching lessons" to be drawn from the decade of war. But it warns that even though the U.S. military has developed what the report calls "an increasingly expeditionary mindset," a better coordination of U.S. military and civilian efforts has yet to be mandated by "U.S. law or policy."

This article was published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity.

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R. Jeffrey Smith is managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom.

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