The Long War: The Failures of the U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Iraq


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Mar 15, 2022
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The planning, lead-up, and execution to the 2003 Iraq invasion (and eventual occupation) was, by all accounts, a magnificent disaster. However, it was not an unforeseen one.

The Planning Process

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was born in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld discussing the military’s war plan for a war with Iraq in the still smoldering Pentagon, according to files declassified in 2013. The United States Central Command (CENTCOM), the unified combatant command (UCC) designated with planning a new and improved battle plan for combat in Iraq, was burdened by aides and policymakers from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Furthermore, Rumsfeld was known to be a micromanager and strongly desired a modernized, “more streamlined, technological force”.

In the end, two plans were made available. One was titled the “Generated Start” (prior penetration of Iraq by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Special Operations Forces (SOF) teams to build goodwill and collate intelligence then have conventional forces invade while aided by aerial superiority; 275,000 troops total); while the other was titled, “Running Start” (CIA and SOF team infiltration and rapport building before having twenty-five days of aerial bombardments provide covering fire for a ground invasion; 18,000 troops total). Rumsfeld’s people at the DoD desired the Running Start plan, which fell more in line with the idea of smaller forces engaging the enemy, while the military broadly (some disagreed with who should lead the invasion, if it should be an air or ground campaign start) desired the Generated Start plan.

In the end, the government settled on a combination of both plans, calling it the “Hybrid Plan”, which “with an air campaign, and launching the ground war while other ground forces still flowed into theater. Specifically, the plan called for: Presidential notification 5 days in advance; 11 days to flow forces; 16 days for the air campaign; the start of the ground campaign as ground forces continued to flow into theater; and a total campaign that would last up to 125 days”.

In my view, the reason why the Running Start plan was desired over the Generated Start and why a Hybrid plan was eventually created lies solely at Franks’ feet.

In Tom Rick’s masterful analysis of the beginning of the Iraq War, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005, he discusses how Franks ran CENTCOM. Ricks writes, “Franks was a cunning man, but not a deep thinker. He ran an extremely unhappy headquarters. He tended to berate subordinates, frequently shouting and cursing at them. Morale was poor, and people were tired, having worked nonstop since 9/11…The extreme fatigue and low morale at his headquarters may explain in part why Franks and his staff would spend over a year figuring out how to take down a reeling, hollow regime, and give almost no serious thought to how to replace it”. One officer who worked closely with Franks at CENTCOM and was interviewed by Ricks noted, “Central Command is two thousand indentured servants whose life is consumed by the whims of Tommy Franks…I am convinced that much of the information that came out of Central Command is unreliable because he demands it instantly, so people pull it out of their hats…Also, everything has to be good news study”. Running a combatant command headquarters like this is a recipe for disaster, not just in a military operation, but in the effectiveness of a combatant command and in the American defense from threats that occur in that region.

As well, it is apparent that Franks was not utilizing the staff provided in the best way by being demanding of information and working his staff around the clock. His demanding of information that only he agrees with too also makes it apparent that he does not desire a dissenting viewpoint and desires his intelligence people to function more like “yes men”, not at all how an intelligence officer should operate. This administration of a command was detrimental to the planning process and made providing a solid defense for a Generated Start unattainable. As Ricks also mentions, Franks eventually sided with Rumsfeld’s thinking on an invasion force, which effectively meant that any desires for a Generated Start were removed.

It is imperative prior to any military operation (especially the opening salvo of a conflict) that all aspects of the operation be considered. Not only how many troops will be utilized, where to invade first, where to invade from, and which units will lead first, but including the aftermath and the reconstruction process and how that will look. With Iraq and the planning process, the senior commanders of CENTCOM were very unprepared in speaking truth to power when it came to raising the number of troop levels in Iraq and gaining the necessary troops needed to bring back order to the country and the city of Baghdad. Had the necessary units been provided and seen as being essential (having a stable force of military police on standby instead of utilizing purely Special Forces, Infantry, and Armor units), then it is possible that the extensive looting and rioting seen in the immediate aftermath could have been avoided.

Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, a national security correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times and a retired Lieutenant General (LTG) with the U.S. Marine Corps respectively, expertly summarize the usage and effects of using a smaller force in the conclusion of their first book on the Iraq War, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.

They write, while the initial invasion was a success militarily, “after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the requirements were reversed: mass, not speed, was requisite for sealing the victory…To gain control of the Sunni Triangle and pursue the Fedayeen, Baath Party militia, and enemy formations before they had a chance to catch their breath, rearm, and regroup, the United States needed more boots on the ground…There were not sufficient troops to seal the borders, guard the copious weapons caches, and dominate the terrain, all of which allowed the province to become a sanctuary for insurgents. The Bush administration’s assumptions that it could solicit substantial coalition troops for the postwar and quickly reorganize and use defeated Iraqi military manpower were either proved wrong or derailed by ill-informed decision making like Bremer’s edict to abolish the Iraqi army. Without sufficient key forces, there was a constant turnover of U.S. troops in Fallujah, a key city just a short drive from Baghdad, which impaired the U.S. military’s ability to develop a good working relationship with the locals…The United States also lacked the right sort of troops for the postwar phase: it needed to have more civil affairs units, military police, and interpreters”.

The result of this was a country that is no better (an argument could be made that Iraq is worse off) than when they were under Saddam’s thumb and a long, protracted war within the Middle East that resulted in over 4,000 American KIAs and almost 32,000 Americans WIA.

It is the first and primary goal of every commanding officer to ensure that the mission gets accomplished. Within this, it is necessary for the officers to ensure that the fighting force is capable of accomplishing that mission, based on multiple assessments and conducted by impartial and unbiased sources. With some of the military commanders at CENTCOM, and in particular Tommy Franks, it is clear that they were purely thinking about accomplishing the mission. Throughout the planning process, there was no consideration for what to do after troops were in place in country, after troops had taken Baghdad and removed most of the Ba’athist Party from their centers of power. The focus was purely on taking the country militarily, with no consideration on how to rebuild the country or effectively create a new form of government.

In Jim Lacey’s history of the bloody battle to take the Iraqi capital Baghdad, Takedown: The 3rd Infantry Division’s Twenty-One Day Assault on Baghdad, he writes in the final chapter, “For the 3rd ID, conducting stability operations in a post-Saddam Iraq was not even a consideration as they planned for war. As far as they knew, they would topple the regime and go home”. While a divisional command, this type of thought indicates that such views and sentiments originated from a lack of planning at a much higher level, at the general staff and broad policymaking level of CENTCOM and DoD.

The Justification

It is even more apparent in the justification of the war to the public and the globe that the intelligence utilized was extremely faulty and was known to be faulty before U.S. troops were in place in Kuwait and Iraq. Certain individuals within the Bush Administration, the Department of Defense, U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), and State Department all engaged within the creation of intelligence that justified an invasion of Iraq while neglecting evidence that was contrary to the desired, preconceived view they had formed.

Concurrently, the administration tried finding evidence linking Saddam Hussein to aiding al-Qaeda (Dick Cheney had made claims of this on a 2001 episode of Meet The Press, while the CIA knew there was no conclusive relationship in addition to a 2008 Pentagon commissioned report showing that no such evidence existed) and that Hussein had Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The administration heavily pushed the theory that Saddam was a threat to U.S. national security and was a global threat on the level of Hitler with the potential to wage war on a mass destruction level as well as, in many cases, alleging without proof that Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda.

For example, the administration heavily desired conclusive proof that Saddam had purchased the materials to make nuclear weapons. They potentially found a link in 2002 with reports from Italian intelligence that the African country of Niger had made an agreement with Iraq to provide 500 tons of yellow cake uranium a year; the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) found the Italian reports interesting, but overall lacking in conclusive proof. Both the CIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) were tasked with backing up the evidence the Italian reports gave, which eventually led to them confirming that the reports lacked credibility.

Despite this, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush utilized the Niger yellow cake information to justify the invasion. Even at the time, notable international legal and policy agencies and national governments were certain that the idea that Saddam purchased uranium from Niger was a fabrication.

Even more damning was the U.S. government’s utilization of the source known as Curveball to justify invasion. Curveball was an Iraqi defector to Germany who testified to Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), that Iraq was capable of creating biological weapons. This was forwarded onto the DIA, which could not substantiate Curveball’s claims, siding with what MI6 and BND had believed about the source; the CIA later agreed with this assertion in a classified report.

Despite this, Curveball was used in a speech made by Secretary of State Colin Powell (who interestingly did not want to give the speech as he himself doubted the veracity, but did so regardless) to the UN Security Council as evidence that Saddam had nuclear and biological weapons. This was seemingly conclusive proof to the American public and was a big enough motivation to mount an invasion and go to war.

The Failures of the War

Obviously, the failures in planning and justification are clear. It is clear that the biggest failure in terms of planning was having civilian foreign policy experts (many of whom had never served in the military or been involved in planning such operations and were very young) be involved so heavily and allowing them to take over the process, obscuring the amount of influence that the Joint Chiefs and their staff would have upon the planning process. As well, fault must be laid at the feet of key CENTCOM figures like Tommy Franks for believing that war against the Iraqi military would be easy in addition to focusing purely on the military invasion, giving little thought to the aftermath and reconstruction of the country as well as the possibility of an insurgency developing. The lack of forethought or prudence in considering what would or could occur within the country once U.S. military forces were on the ground is a giant flaw.

Because no solid plan was developed or at least partly known to individual divisional commands, the aftermath was chaotic. Civilians and soldiers looted Iraq’s precious museums, taking hundreds of precious artifacts and destroying ancient texts and statues, there was no centralized government nor process to form one, and there were no military police units in Baghdad which resulted in riots and disorder occurring. Furthermore, having individual officers within divisions come up with reconstruction plans, despite being told for months that one would be provided upon entering Baghdad, and giving them only twenty-four hours to work on such plans was an obvious recipe for disaster.

Finally, the decision by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the transitional government of Iraq, to remove some 50-100,000 senior Iraqis and Baathists from various ministries, the Armed Forces, and intelligence services too resulted in a sense of resentment towards the Americans and Western nations and significantly aided in the creation of an insurgency, given that these persons who had experience in government and administration of important domestic affairs (or had joined the Baathist Party in order to better gain a position as a teacher or engineer) now had no place for them in the new regime or could not be able to find a suitable living. This policy singlehandedly turned the small insurgent force into one that was comprised of former military officers with training in guerilla warfare, intelligence collection, and explosives and had easy access to stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, and other vital items needed for an insurrection. Not only this, but many have shown how the CPA’s de-baathification policy aided the creation and rise of ISIS, which has caused many new problems in the Middle East since the official end to the War in Iraq in 2011.


The lack of having knowledgeable intelligence and foreign affairs professionals involved in the tactical planning and execution process and discouraging those at the higher levels of intelligence work to speak their mind and tell truth to power is a significant failure in personnel. However, in my view, the largest failure of Iraq was in a lack of competent intelligence professionals at the highest levels of government and military planning. Despite the fact that many of these commanding officers had served in Vietnam and had seen the policy and military errors of hubris, the lack of forethought in civilian and military circles, and a desire to ignore vital intelligence or succumb to intelligence biases, similar mistakes were made that created an insurgency, prolonged the war in the state of Iraq, and significantly contributed to the overall destabilization of the Middle East.

Furthermore, it is well documented that the civilian decision-makers were more motivated by desires to settle old scores and assist in political gains while military decision-makers and planners were often blinded by their own hubris. War in the Middle East, simply, could absolutely have been avoided.

Perhaps one of the best lessons learned by the U.S. government from that conflict was to have a solid exit strategy and have clear, enumerated goals before conducting an invasion or occupation. While an invasion like what has been witnessed in Iraq has not happened since 2003 (and most probably never will due to the increased desire to fight conflicts utilizing special operations forces for low-intensity conflicts), the lessons of past failures are clear. As far as what were the largest mistakes, the fact that faulty intelligence was utilized to push a foreign policy is by far the most important and consequential.

In spite of these immense lessons, many seem to wholesale forget the Iraq War. Many Millennials and Gen Z “Zoomers” frequently remain uninvolved in foreign policy or military developments that occur the world over. While many Americans are paying attention to the Ukraine crisis, this came after the media began reporting on the issue daily and after the invasion had begun; while many also fancied themselves foreign policy experts, many were unfamiliar with the centuries long historical context or the nearly decade long increase in Russian-Ukrainian tensions that led to this current invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Very few persons in their twenties or younger fail to understand the context of the Iraq War or remember the names of some of the conflict’s most key events: the Abu Ghraib scandal, the 2007 Nisour square massacre, the Surge, and much more.

Having a strong understanding of one’s military history helps prevent past mistakes, abuses, or failures. Having a public (and therefore a constituency), the policymakers, and the officer corps all understand their military history, especially the Iraq War, the first modern war of the 21st century, will only serve the best interests of all and help correct the military intelligence failures, the biased thinking, and the overall hubristic thinking that dominated the government and military leadership in the early 2000s.

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