The officer went on to say that of course neither option was acceptable, which is why he thought it so urgent to change course. By "destroy our army" he meant that it would take years for the U.S. military to recover from the strain on manpower, equipment, and—most of all—morale that staying in Iraq would put on it. (Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey had this danger in mind when he told Time magazine last winter that "the Army's wheels are going to come off in the next twenty-four months" if it remained in Iraq.) "Losing" in Iraq would mean failing to overcome the violent insurgency. A continuing insurgency would, in the view of the officer I spoke with, sooner or later mean the country's fracture in a bloody civil war. That, in turn, would mean the emergence of a central "Sunni-stan" more actively hostile to the United States than Saddam Hussein's Iraq ever was, which could in the next decade be what the Taliban of Afghanistan was in the 1990s: a haven for al-Qaeda and related terrorists. "In Vietnam we just lost," the officer said. "This would be losing with consequences."
How the Iraq story turns out will not be known for years, but based on what is now knowable, the bleak prospect today is the culmination of a drama's first three acts. The first act involves neglect and delusion. Americans—and Iraqis—will spend years recovering from decisions made or avoided during the days before and after combat began, and through the first year of the occupation. The second act involves a tentative approach to a rapidly worsening challenge during the occupation's second year. We are now in the third act, in which Americans and Iraqis are correcting earlier mistakes but too slowly and too late.
As for the fourth act, it must resolve the tensions created in the previous three.
"It was clear what might happen in a highly militarized society once the regime fell," Anthony Cordesman wrote recently. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, has produced an authoritative series of reports of the new Iraqi military, available at the CSIS Web site. "The U.S. chose to largely ignore these indicators."
In explaining the early failures that plagued the occupation, Cordesman cited factors that have become familiar: an unrealistic expectation of how long Iraqis would welcome a foreign force; a deliberate decision to hold down the size of the invading army; too little preparation for postwar complications; and so on. Before the invasion Saddam Hussein had employed at least half a million soldiers and policemen to keep the lid on Iraq. The United States went in with less than a third that many troops, and because virtually none of them spoke Arabic, they could rarely detect changes in the Iraqi mood or exert influence except by force.
But the explanation of early training problems also leads in some less familiar directions.
One view about why things went so wrong so fast is espoused by Ahmed Chalabi, onetime leader of the Iraqi National Congress, and American supporters of the war such as James Woolsey, a former CIA director, and Richard Perle, a former chairman of the Defense Policy Board. "My view is pretty straightforward," Woolsey told me. "We lost five years, thanks to the State Department and the CIA." The years in question were from 1998, when Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, advocating regime change in Iraq, to 2003, when U.S. troops moved on Baghdad. The act provided $97 million for arms and for training expatriate Iraqi forces. "All we had to do was use some of that money to train mainly Kurdish and Shia units to fight with us, like the Free French in 1944," Woolsey said. The main counterargument is that a Kurdish-Shiite invading army would have made it even harder to deal with Sunnis after Saddam fell.
A different view is strongly held by others among the war's early advocates within the Bush administration. In discussions with former members of the administration I was told they felt truly bad about only one intelligence failure. It did not concern WMD stockpiles in Iraq; the world's other intelligence agencies all made the same mistake, my informants said, and Saddam Hussein would have kept trying to build them anyway. What bothered them was that they did not grasp that he was planning all along to have his army melt away and re-emerge as a guerrilla force once the Americans took over. In this view the war against Saddam's "bitter enders" is still going on, and the new Iraqi forces are developing as fast or as slowly as anyone could expect.
But here is the view generally accepted in the military: the war's planners, military and civilian, took the postwar transition too much for granted; then they made a grievous error in suddenly dismissing all members of the Iraqi army; and then they were too busy with other emergencies and routines to think seriously about the new Iraqi army.
"Should we have had training teams ready to go the day we crossed the border?" asks Lieutenant General Jim Mattis, who commanded the 1st Marine Division during the assault on Iraq (and whom Harrison Ford is scheduled to play in a film about the battle of Fallujah). "Of course! The military has one duty in a situation like this, and that is to provide security for the indigenous people. It's the windbreak behind which everything else can happen." Mattis argued before the war that teams of civic advisers should have been ready to flood in: mayors from North America and Europe to work with Iraqi mayors, police chiefs with police chiefs, all with the goal of preparing the locals to provide public order. "But we didn't do it, and the bottom line was the loss of security."
Many other people suggest many other sins of omission in preparations for the war. But at least one aspect of the transition was apparently given careful thought: how to handle the Iraqi military once it had surrendered or been defeated. Unfortunately, that careful thought was ignored or overruled.
After years of misuse under Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi military had severe problems, including bad morale, corrupt leadership, shoddy equipment, and a reputation for brutality. But the regular army numbered some 400,000 members, and if any of them could be put to use, there would be less work for Americans.
By late 2002, after Congress voted to authorize war if necessary, Jay Garner, a retired three-star Army general, was thinking about how he might use some of these soldiers if the war took place and he became the first viceroy of Iraq. Garner, who had supervised Kurdish areas after the Gulf War, argued for incorporating much of the military rank-and-file into America's occupation force. Stripping off the top leadership would be more complicated than with, say, the Japanese or German army after World War II, because Iraq's army had more than 10,000 generals. (The U.S. Army, with about the same number of troops, has around 300 generals.) But, I was told by a former senior official who was closely involved in making the plans, "the idea was that on balance it was much better to keep them in place and try to put them to work, public works—style, on reconstruction, than not to." He continued, "The advantages of using them were: They had organization. They had equipment, especially organic transport [jeeps, trucks], which let them get themselves from place to place. They had a structure. But it was a narrow call, because of all the disadvantages." Garner intended to put this plan into action when he arrived in Baghdad, in April of 2003. He told me recently that there were few signs of the previous army when he first arrived. "But we sent out feelers, and by the first week in May we were getting a lot of responses back. We had a couple of Iraqi officers come to me and say, 'We could bring this division back, that division.' We began to have dialogues and negotiations."
Then, on May 23, came a decision that is likely to be debated for years: Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2, to disband the Iraqi military and simply send its members home without pay.
"I always begin with the proposition that this argument is entirely irrelevant," Walter Slocombe, the man usually given credit or blame for initiating the decision, told me in the summer. During the Clinton administration Slocombe was undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, the job later made famous by Douglas Feith. A month after the fall of Baghdad, Slocombe went to the Green Zone as a security adviser to Paul Bremer, who had just replaced Garner as the ranking American civilian.
On arrival Slocombe advocated that the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, should face the reality that the previous Iraqi army had disappeared. "There was no intact Iraqi force to 'disband,'" Slocombe said. "There was no practical way to reconstitute an Iraqi force based on the old army any more rapidly than has happened. The facilities were just destroyed, and the conscripts were gone and not coming back." The Bush administration officials who had previously instructed Garner to reconstitute the military endorsed Slocombe's view: the negative aspects of consorting with a corrupt, brutal force were still there, and the positives seemed to be gone. "All the advantages they had ran away with the soldiers," the senior official involved in the plans said. "The organization, the discipline, the organic transport. The facts had changed."
The arguments about the decision are bitter, and they turn on two points: whether the Iraqi army had in fact irreversibly "disbanded itself," as Slocombe contends, and whether the American authorities could have found some way to avoid turning the hundreds of thousands of discharged soldiers into an armed and resentful opposition group. "I don't buy the argument that there was no army to cashier," says Barak Salmoni, of the Marine Corps Training and Education Command. "It may have not been showing up to work, but I can assure you that they would have if there had been dollars on the table. And even if the Iraqi army did disband, we didn't have to alienate them"—mainly by stopping their pay. Several weeks later the Americans announced that they would resume some army stipends, but by then the damage had been done.
Garner was taken by surprise by the decision, and has made it clear that he considers it a mistake. I asked him about the frequently voiced argument that there was no place to house the army because the barracks had been wrecked. "We could have put people in hangars," he said. "That is where our troops were."
The most damaging criticism of the way the decision was made comes from Paul Hughes, who was then an Army colonel on Garner's staff. "Neither Jay Garner nor I had been asked about the wisdom of this decree," Hughes recalls. He was the only person from Garner's administration then talking with Iraqi military representatives about the terms of their re-engagement. On the eve of the order to disband, he says, more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers had submitted forms to receive a one-time $20 emergency payment, from funds seized from Saddam's personal accounts, which they would show up to collect.