General Failure

Looking back on the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers are content to lay blame on the Bush administration. But inept leadership by American generals was also responsible for the failure of those wars. A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank—if it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two.

Franks and his staff devoted almost all of their energies to the mission of removing a weak regime and almost none to the more difficult task of replacing it. This omission became disastrous, because no one in the Bush administration was focusing on the problem either. In 2004, an official Pentagon review led by two former defense secretaries, James Schlesinger and Harold Brown, unambiguously concluded, “The October 2002 Centcom war plan presupposed that relatively benign stability and security operations would precede a handover to Iraq’s authorities.” The following year, the head of the Rand Corporation sent a memorandum to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stating that after extensive review of internal documents, his researchers had found that “post conflict stabilization and reconstruction were addressed only very generally, largely because of the prevailing view that the task would not be difficult.”

Despite the large strategic costs of his leadership in two separate wars, Franks retired, not long after the fall of Baghdad, to enjoy the American version of a Roman triumph, going on the road to make speeches for large sums and issuing his preening memoir. He passed command of the Iraq War to Ricardo Sanchez, a fellow Texan and the Army’s newest lieutenant general, who understood the conflict perhaps even less than Franks did. “I came away from my first meeting with [Sanchez] saying ‘This guy doesn’t get it,’ ” recalled Richard Armitage, who was the deputy secretary of state at the time.

Sanchez was a tragic figure, a mediocre officer placed in an impossible situation. Iraq was boiling over, the Pentagon and the Bush administration were in denial, and he was operating within a confused command structure.

An inveterate micromanager, Sanchez sank into the details of his job, constantly correcting subordinates but failing to provide overarching guidance. Like many micromanagers, Sanchez also tended to criticize harshly in public. “He would rip generals apart on the tacsat”—the military’s tactical satellite-based communications network—“with everybody in the country listening,” an officer who served on his staff told me in 2005.

Sanchez inherited no real war strategy from Franks or the Bush administration, and he did nothing to remedy that deficit. This lack of any coherent strategy manifested itself in the radically different approaches taken by different Army divisions in the war. Observers moving from one part of Iraq to another were often struck by the extent to which each division was fighting its own war, with its own assessment of the threat, its own solutions, and its own rules of engagement.

In western Iraq’s Anbar province, the 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment got tough fast, violently confronting local opposition. The 4th Infantry Division, based in Tikrit, in north-central Iraq, operated even more harshly, rounding up thousands of “military-age males” and probably turning many of them into insurgents in the process. Baghdad was its own separate situation, exceedingly complex and changing from block to block. Meanwhile, in far-northern Iraq, Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division made a separate peace, ignoring many of the anti-Baathist rules promulgated by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and conducting negotiations with the government of Syria to provide electricity to Mosul.

One reason for such distinctly diverse approaches was that conditions were very different in each of these areas. But another reason was that each division commander received little strategic guidance from Sanchez. Jeffrey White, a veteran analyst of Middle Eastern affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote early in 2004, “Some observers feel that the various U.S. divisions in Iraq have thus far waged more or less independent campaigns.”

Sanchez did not seem willing to learn from and adapt to the conflict. Some commanders at the tactical level took effective approaches, but these were ignored or even discouraged by Sanchez. For example, a Florida National Guard battalion stationed in Ramadi in 2003 was more adept at police work than most military units, because its ranks included many members of the Miami-Dade police force. It emphasized local policing, setting up an academy and an Iraqi force, and also helped cooperative sheikhs win contracts for reconstruction projects, as an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq recalled to me in 2010. But, the officer noted, “the efforts of [the Guard unit] were consistently undermined at the theater level by military leadership that lacked a campaign plan,” as well as by the failings of the Coalition Provisional Authority. When General John Abizaid, who had replaced Franks as the chief of Central Command, visited Ramadi, he was so impressed with operations that he told Sanchez to go there and get the same briefing. Sanchez did so, apparently rather unhappily. “Sanchez came in pissed off that he’d been ordered to get a clue from [colonels and other field-grade officers] in the hinterland, and was in full attack mode,” the officer recalled. “He lit up the staff, told us we didn’t know what we were doing, and went back to Baghdad having learned nothing.”

Sanchez’s biggest failure was that on his watch, some units acted in ways that were not only counterproductive but also illegal. Not knowing how else to put down an insurgency, some divisions indiscriminately detained thousands of Iraqis and shipped them off to Abu Ghraib prison and other detention centers, where the Army lacked sufficient guards and interrogators to hold and sort them. Short-term thinking guided many of these decisions. “In the summer of ’03, we all thought we were going home by Christmas, so there was no consideration for the long-term consequences of locking up the wrong guys,” recalled Lieutenant Colonel Russell Godsil, the senior intelligence officer for the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division. “Commanders just wanted all the ‘possible’ bad guys out of their neighborhoods until they left.” Where those Iraqis wound up was someone else’s problem.

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Thomas E. Ricks writes the Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy magazine and is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Generals, out this month.

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