Looking back at how our folly and ignorance fanned the flames in Iraq
Summary: A vital aspect of high performance is the “lessons learned” exercise after every operation, however painful. Watching the game films to see what we did right and wrong, so that we can do better. Unfortunately America’s broken observation-orientation-decision action loops makes this impossible. We prefer to tell ourselves lies, hiding in myth. It’s a driver of national decline. The truth is out there; we need only look for it. Today we review a book about our expedition to Iraq, now clearly a failure by the objectives set forth at the start.
- Review from the Marine Corps Gazette
- About the authors of the book
- About the reviewer
- Excerpts from the book
- Other insightful reviews
- For more information about the War in Iraq
(1) Review from the Marine Corps Gazette
COBRA II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Cordon and Bernard E. Trainor (2006)
Reviewed by Harry W Jenkins. Originally published as “Underestimating the Enemy” in the Marine Corps Gazette, July 2006. Republished here with their generous permission.
Cobra II is clearly the best contemporary account to date regarding the planning and execution of the American invasion of Iraq. The authors have done a superb job in researching material for the book that includes documentation and extensive interviews with sources high in the Bush administration down through the military chain of command to the troops who faced combat in the air and on the ground. Based upon the report, “Iraqi Perspectives,” by Joint Forces Command, Gordon and Trainor have been able to reconstruct some of the decisions by Saddam and his war council, to include Saddam’s perceptions of the American war plan as well as the Iraqi dictator’s deception regarding his weapons of mass destruction.
The accounts are fascinating and illustrate the gross misperceptions on the part of the senior American civilian and military leaders concerning Iraqi intentions and culture during the planning and actual invasion. The book is balanced and unemotional. The facts as displayed in the text will speak for themselves.
A substantial portion of Cobra II concentrates on the planning process within the Department of Defense (DoD) for the actual invasion of Iraq. It starts with secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s arrival at the Pentagon and his determination to remake the U.S. military into a leaner and more lethal force. Following 11 September 2001, and a subsequent, relatively easy success in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld, supported by the administration, was determined to go after the Iraqis with a relatively small but high-tech force structure. After directing that the original war plan, Gen Anthony C. Zinni’s 1003-98 plan, be dropped, GEN Tommy Franks was ordered to start planning all over again.
The authors document the next 18 months where Central Command was bombarded with questions from Rumsfeld on why the command could not deploy more quickly and fight with fewer troops. Gordon and Trainor provide ample evidence of the arrogance and overwhelming ignorance regarding the Iraqi culture and infrastructure that prevailed among the civilian leaders in DoD about what could be realistically accomplished with the new war plan.
It is clear that the intelligence from the beginning regarding Iraq and its systems had been less than satisfactory. Nowhere is this more evident than in the telling of Saddam’s concerns and how he and his generals planned for civil unrest as well as how they would wage the war. Access to the “Iraqi Perspectives” report has enabled the authors to dissect much of the available information on some of the key fears that drove Saddam, much of which seems to have been missed by our intelligence community.
With the preservation of the regime as Saddam’s top priority, it was the Shi’ites in the south who were seen as the most direct threat. Next came the Iranians and then the United States. To guard against the direct threat, the Iraqi leadership created the Ba’ath Emergency Plan to deal with uprisings, such as the one that occurred after Operation DESERT STORM. This plan led to the formulation and placement of the fedayeen and other militia in the towns and villages all over Iraq that would contain any uprising until the Republican Guard could arrive and put it down. It was the fedayeen, who we did not know was there, that provided most of the resistance to Army and Marine units in Nasiriyah, Samawah, Najaf, Kifl, and Baghdad. This oversight is a classic example of our overreliance on satellite and other forms of technical reconnaissance and the distinct lack of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) human intelligence capability to ferret out guerrilla infrastructures within the population.
Gordon and Trainor provide excellent descriptions of the tactical plans to be executed by Army and Marine units in the invasion of Iraq. The key commanders in both the Army’s V Corps and the I Marine Expeditionary Force are vividly portrayed as they prepare their plans for the attack. Descriptions of special operations forces and their employment plans for western Iraq and later in the north are excellent. The authors give considerable coverage to the planned deployment of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division (4th ID) in the north on the so-called “second front.” When the Turks refused to allow the 4th ID to go through their country and into Iraq, the consequences for the attack plan, along with the frustrations for both Franks and his Combined Force Land Component Commander, GEN David McKiernan, are described in detail.
The initial assault into Iraq is described in vivid detail and supported by accurate maps. While there was not much doubt about the eventual outcome of the invasion, the surprises for the troops came when they were not greeted as liberators — as they had been assured by the CIA they would be — and when they were attacked by armed feyadeen in lieu of the Republican Guard or regular Iraqi Army units. Aggressive commanders of both the 3d ID and the 1st Marine Division maneuvered their units north against resistance that had not been wargamed, but the generals adjusted to the circumstances on the ground and continued the attack to Baghdad.
The authors point out that while the tactical units adjusted to the threat they were fighting, both Franks and Rumsfeld remained wedded to the prewar analysis regarding Iraq even after the enemy was showing his ability for guerrilla tactics in urban settings. While failing to understand the enemy, they also did not understand the actual structure of political power in Iraq that would grow to haunt them later.
The authors zero in on the Bush administration’s aversion to nation building and the impact of that philosophy on the planning for Iraq after the invasion. In a classic statement in the book, the authors declare that “there is a direct link between the way the Iraq War was planned and the bitter insurgency the American-led coalition subsequently confronted.” Gordon and Trainor contend that both Rumsfeld and Franks believed that victory would be sealed with the seizure of Baghdad, which had been identified as Iraq’s center of gravity.
In reality, the authors state that the center of gravity was the entire Sunni Triangle, as well as the Iraqi people themselves. While the war planning went on for 18 months, the postwar planning began only a couple of months before the invasion. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Franks spent most of their time planning for the defeat of the already weakened Iraqi forces, and they spent the least amount of time on security and rehabilitation of infrastructure for postwar Iraq.
Through interviews conducted with commanders after the war, the authors indicate that there was general agreement that there had been a window of opportunity for some stabilization in the country in the weeks that followed the fall of Baghdad. However, the lack of “boots on the ground” to provide the necessary security against the wholesale destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure by Iraqis, our ignorance of the dilapidated state of Iraqi services, and the collapse of the political system all contributed to the demise of any opportunity for any set of normal stabilization.
This situation, combined with the arrival of L. Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad, only exacerbated the problem. Bremer, in a move to demonstrate his authority and control, disbanded the Iraqi Army and in effect put close to 300,000 armed men on the streets with no jobs. In addition, Bremer canceled some local Iraqi elections because he had concerns about the candidates. Finally, a new U.S. military headquarters was established in Baghdad with inexperienced leadership that quickly became at odds with the CPA. The perceived window of opportunity was now gone.
The authors complete the book with an excellent analysis of what they call the President’s team and its five grievous errors. In short, the errors are misreading the foe, overreliance on technological advancement, failure to adapt to the battlefield, dysfunction of American military structures, and the administration’s disdain for nation building. It will be some time before the history will be written on what will finally come to fruition in Iraq. In the meantime, Cobra II is the best account of what occurred in the plan to bring a democracy of sorts to Iraq to include some of the rationale for where we are now.
For any thinking person who desires to know how we arrived at where we are in Iraq today this book is a must-read. For the current generation of military officers who will be the senior leaders in the future, Cobra II should be studied carefully for the lessons learned. In fact it should be required reading in most of the Service schools.
(2) About the authors of the book
Michael R. Gordon is chief military correspondent for The New York Times. He was the only newspaper reporter embedded with the Coalition land command during the first phase of the Iraq war, that “granted him unique access to cover the invasion strategy and its enactment” (source).
Bernard E. Trainor is a Lieutenant General (USMC, retired).
(3) About the reviewer
Harry W. Jenkins (Major General, USMC, retired) runs his own consulting firm, Soaring Eagle Consulting, LLC. He lives in Gainesville, VA.
(4) Material from the book
(b) New York Times articles based on the book:
- Even as U.S. Invaded, Hussein Saw Iraqi Unrest as Top Threat, 12 March 2006
- Dash to Baghdad Left Top U.S. Generals Divided, 13 March 2006
(5) Other insightful reviews of Cobra II
- “Why read Clausewitz when Shock and Awe can make a clean sweep of things?“, Andrew Bacevich, London Review of Books, 8 June 2006
- “Mindless in Iraq“, by Peter W. Galbraith, New York Review of Books, 10 August 2006
(6) For more information about the War in Iraq
For all post ee the FM Reference Page listing all posts about our war in Iraq.
(a) Most important post about Iraq, describing why it need not have ended list this:
(b) The reasons we fought in Iraq:
- Stratfor’s analysis of US reasons for invading and occupying Iraq, 4 March 2008
- Why we fight. Causes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan., 5 August 2009 — A look at one of Ralph Peters most brilliant and insightful essays.
(b) About our victory in Iraq:
- The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
- Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007:
- Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008
- Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008
- If we won in Iraq, what did we win? Was it worth the cost?, 15 July 2009
- We collect our winnings in Iraq, 12 December 2009
- One criterion of victory in Iraq: when will the oil flow?, 3 February 2010
- The end of our Expedition to Iraq: war-boosters cheer despite its long-predicted failure., 24 October 2011