Army Historian Cites Lack of Postwar Plan
Major Calls Effort in Iraq 'Mediocre'
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2004; Page A01
The U.S. military invaded Iraq without a formal plan for occupying and stabilizing the country and this high-level failure continues to undercut what has been a "mediocre" Army effort there, an Army historian and strategist has concluded.
"There was no Phase IV plan" for occupying Iraq after the combat phase, writes Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, who served as an official historian of the campaign and later as a war planner in Iraq. While a variety of government offices had considered the possible situations that would follow a U.S. victory, Wilson writes, no one produced an actual document laying out a strategy to consolidate the victory after major combat operations ended.
"While there may have been 'plans' at the national level, and even within various agencies within the war zone, none of these 'plans' operationalized the problem beyond regime collapse" -- that is, laid out how U.S. forces would be moved and structured, Wilson writes in an essay that has been delivered at several academic conferences but not published. "There was no adequate operational plan for stability operations and support operations."
Similar criticisms have been made before, but until now they have not been stated so authoritatively and publicly by a military insider positioned to be familiar with top-secret planning. During the period in question, from April to June 2003, Wilson was a researcher for the Army's Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group. Then, from July 2003 to March 2004, he was the chief war planner for the 101st Airborne Division, which was stationed in northern Iraq.
A copy of Wilson's study as presented at Cornell University in October was obtained by The Washington Post.
As a result of the failure to produce a plan, Wilson asserts, the U.S. military lost the dominant position in Iraq in the summer of 2003 and has been scrambling to recover ever since. "In the two to three months of ambiguous transition, U.S. forces slowly lost the momentum and the initiative . . . gained over an off-balanced enemy," he writes. "The United States, its Army and its coalition of the willing have been playing catch-up ever since."
It was only in November 2003, seven months after the fall of Baghdad, that U.S. occupation authorities produced a formal "Phase IV" plan for stability operations, Wilson reports. Phase I covers preparation for combat, followed by initial operations, Phase II, and combat, Phase III. Post-combat operations are called Phase IV.
Many in the Army have blamed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon civilians for the unexpectedly difficult occupation of Iraq, but Wilson reserves his toughest criticism for Army commanders who, he concludes, failed to grasp the strategic situation in Iraq and so not did not plan properly for victory. He concludes that those who planned the war suffered from "stunted learning and a reluctance to adapt."
Army commanders still misunderstand the strategic problem they face and therefore are still pursuing a flawed approach, writes Wilson, who is scheduled to teach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point next year. "Plainly stated, the 'western coalition' failed, and continues to fail, to see Operation Iraqi Freedom in its fullness," he asserts.
"Reluctance in even defining the situation . . . is perhaps the most telling indicator of a collective cognitive dissidence on part of the U.S. Army to recognize a war of rebellion, a people's war, even when they were fighting it," he comments.
Because of this failure, Wilson concludes, the U.S. military remains "perhaps in peril of losing the 'war,' even after supposedly winning it."
Overall, he grades the U.S. military performance in Iraq as "mediocre."
Wilson's essay amounts to an indictment of the education and performance of senior U.S. officials involved in the war. "U.S. war planners, practitioners and the civilian leadership conceived of the war far too narrowly" and tended to think of operations after the invasion "as someone else's mission," he says. In fact, Wilson says, those later operations were critical because they were needed to win the war rather than just decapitate Saddam Hussein's government.
Air Force Capt. Chris Karns, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which as the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East oversaw planning for the war in Iraq, said, "A formal Phase IV plan did exist." He said he could not explain how Wilson came to a different conclusion.
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who as chief of the Central Command led the war planning in 2002 and 2003, states in his recent memoir, "American Soldier," that throughout the planning for the invasion of Iraq, Phase IV stability operations were discussed. Occupation problems "commanded hours and days of discussion and debate among CENTCOM planners and Washington officials," he adds. At another point, he states, "I was confident in the Phase IV plan."
Asked about other officers' reaction to his essay, Wilson said in an e-mail Monday, "What active-duty feedback I have received (from military officers attending the conferences) has been relatively positive," with "general agreement with the premises I offer in the work."
He said he has no plans to publish the essay, in part because he would expect difficulty in getting the Army's approval, but said he did not object to having it written about. "I think this is something that has to get out, so it can be considered," he said in a telephone interview. "There actually is something we can fix here, in terms of operational planning."
In his analysis of U.S. military operations in 2003 in northern Iraq, Wilson also touches on another continuing criticism of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq -- the number of troops there. "The scarcity of available 'combat power' . . . greatly complicated the situation," he states.
Wilson contends that a lack of sufficient troops was a consequence of the earlier, larger problem of failing to understand that prevailing in Iraq involved more than just removing Hussein. "This overly simplistic conception of the 'war' led to a cascading undercutting of the war effort: too few troops, too little coordination with civilian and governmental/non-governmental agencies . . . and too little allotted time to achieve 'success,' " he writes.