Letters to the editor

Blind Into Baghdad

As one of the Department of Defense officials involved in the initial planning for relief and reconstruction in Iraq, I would like to comment on James Fallows's article "Blind Into Baghdad" (January/February Atlantic). At every turn in his description of planning for Iraq, the author overemphasized bureaucratic conflict in the executive branch and distorted the nature of contingency planning.

As the Pentagon's "point man" (his term) for postwar plans, I worked continuously and harmoniously with my colleagues at State, USAID, the CIA, and the NSC. I also participated in numerous interagency meetings and conferences, including the January 2003 National Intelligence Council exercise that Fallows says Pentagon personnel were "forbidden by OSD to attend."

The author states that rather than holding a meeting with the Secretary of Defense or the deputy secretary, the nongovernmental organizations were given an audience only with me. In fact I had been meeting with the NGOs frequently on many topics since the start of operations in Afghanistan. I was not a consolation prize for the NGOs but a frequent interlocutor, and I remain so to this day. Our conversations are substantive and have often resulted in policy changes, even though we forgo the photo ops and the press releases that often encumber one-time meetings with the most senior officials.

Missing from Fallows's narrative was any mention of the official interagency planning effort that went on from early fall of 2002 to March of 2003. The planning group met weekly in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Chaired by NSC and OMB officials, this group included senior representatives from State, USAID, the CIA, Treasury, and many other agencies. Tom Warrick, the head of State's Future of Iraq Project, was a back-bencher at some of the sessions. The senior interagency planners were all familiar with the interesting work of his eclectic group.

The interagency group formulated first a strategy and then a detailed plan for relief and reconstruction. Representatives from the group coordinated these plans with international organizations and with General Tommy Franks, the combat commander. Secretaries Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld were briefed on the final plan, as was the President. The group even briefed the press on its work on February 24.

Although none of this planning was as juicy as the bureaucratic infighting that Fallows dwells on, it is an essential part of the story. Jay Garner—appointed in late January of 2003 to lead the field effort in Iraq—did face a daunting task, but not a blank sheet of paper. Indeed, the basic reconstruction plans discussed at the two-day conference that Garner held in February at the National Defense University were in the main developed—and harmoniously so—by the very interagency group that Fallows overlooked.

Finally, Fallows's judgment that when the past eighteen months are assessed "the Administration will be found wanting for its carelessness" does not pass muster. The four conflicts that I have helped to plan in the Pentagon suggest clearly that war, as Clausewitz told us, remains the province of chance. Military campaigns and their aftermath defy prediction. Intelligence accepted for a decade can be wrong. The same experts who incorrectly predict huge refugee flows may accurately predict civil disturbances. Staffs will fixate on things that do not come to pass and assume away the importance of things that do. No plan—political or military—survives contact with reality. Planners will always make more mistakes than journalists who have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

We have not "squandered American prestige, fortune, and lives" in Iraq. Despite high costs and many casualties, the United States and its thirty-four coalition partners have destroyed one of the most heinous and dangerous regimes in the world, captured 80 percent of its criminal senior leadership, liberated the Iraqi people, and started the political and economic reconstruction of a nation that may well bring democracy to that part of the Middle East. Mr. Fallows should resist the temptation to call the game in the third inning.

Joseph J. Collins
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
Alexandria, Va.

James Fallows's lengthy list of expert warnings on Iraq that were ignored by the Bush Administration would have benefited from some reference to the strikingly parallel "splendid little war" that provided the other bookend to the twentieth century. (And both of those conflicts boasted a British troubadour, although Tony Blair's flack Alistair Campbell never quite matched the eloquence that Rudyard Kipling showed in his paean to American benevolence, "The White Man's Burden.") In the Philippines a century ago a walkover victory in the capital was followed by prolonged hostilities in the countryside. A foray by General Frederick Funston and his special forces into hostile territory led to the capture of the enemy leader, General Emilio Aguinaldo. (The two Napoleonic figures—both about five feet four—actually got along quite well after that episode.) Mark Twain suggested a redesign of Old Glory, with "the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones," thereby inspiring legions of antigovernment demonstrators for generations to come. General Elwell Otis flaunted the "Mission Accomplished" sign in May of 1900, and President Theodore Roosevelt did it again on July 4, 1902; but General John J. Pershing was still fighting Muslim forces on Mindanao a decade later. More ominous in today's context, the Philippines action involved three fourths of the entire U.S. Army, and led to 4,200 American battle deaths (and several thousand more from wounds and tropical diseases)—not to mention the deaths of about 20,000 Filipino soldiers and as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians. And today this outpost of empire remains just as dysfunctional as it was under Spanish rule centuries ago.

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